A deep dive on the internet and a good conversation with like-minded friends and you might end up here: WitchTok—the spiritual side of TikTok that will turn even sceptics into semi-believers. The TikTok algorithm is made up of several different categories and genres that are as specific as they can get. The longer you engage with a video that has certain characteristics, has certain hashtags, portrays certain people or characters that look similar, the more similar content will show up on your For You Page (henceforth FYP) on TikTok. What seems to be popping up on my FYP is spirituality and tarot reading, as much as I try to avoid engaging with related content. What I wonder is: do these tarot readings risk giving in to determinism? Can we benefit from them because in one way we can be prepared for the future, accepting that some things are just not meant for us, or are we looking for answers or encouragement somewhere where we think it’s reasonable enough to believe? Perhaps you’ve once even caught yourself saying: “it’s weird how freakishly accurate this reading is, even though I am one-hundred-per cent sure it’s nonsense.”
Some decades ago, and even until recently, many of us would probably never admit to going to see a tarot reader in real life. Practices such as these and those who believe in them have been ridiculed for a long time; in series and movies, readers are often seen adapting their readings to the response of their clients, etc. If we look at the beginnings of tarot reading the evidence suggests that it became popularised in Europe around the fifteenth century, and at first tarot decks weren’t used for games of divination, but its origins are disputed. Regardless of its origins, tarot reading and spirituality in general have garnered some real attention and popularity on TikTok in the past couple of years. The image it once had has changed as it has become more easily accessible to all without the possibility of being shamed for going to see a tarot reader.
By now I’m sure most people are aware of why TikTok is so addicting and why it’s so hard to get off the app once you’re on it. The algorithm is so insanely specific, simply because it will look for characteristics that you engage with in similar content. Hence why tarot readings are so addictive. Awareness of the specificity of the algorithm is what makes tarot readings easily believable, even if you know they are directed at a collective. Usually, the tarot reader will put in a disclaimer of ‘take only what resonates’, so that you won’t be too disappointed if the reading seems unrelatable. On top of that, I’d argue that what keeps these readings believable and why you’ll more easily engage with them instead of going to an actual tarot reader in real life is the fact that TikTok videos have a time limit of 3 minutes. It’s easy to scroll away if it’s not in accordance with the situation you happen to find yourself in at that moment in time but short enough to stick around to see if there is anything that does resonate. They are concise enough to quickly squeeze in and grab your attention but their ambiguity is what’ll keep you from becoming disappointed. As opposed to visiting a tarot reader in real life and the reading doesn’t seem accurate enough; it will be harder to walk away since you’ve already paid and it could be considered rude. However, the idea of these TikTok readings is that it’s your choice whether you stay to watch it or not. You can choose to believe a reading entirely or ignore it. This non-committal aspect of TikTok is what keeps you engaging with its several genres and why you’ll keep coming back.
Sidenote: There’s also a genre called ShiftTok. Apparently, some people (claim to) have the ability to cross universes and find themselves in an alternate dimension while their body is asleep. No judgement here, if you say it works then I’m sure it works for you. However, I have yet to find myself in a universe where I’m a popstar, have three cats, and climate change has been solved. But give it a shot tonight when you go to sleep.
Regardless, the way that previously unpopular things go mainstream on TikTok is utterly remarkable. The algorithm’s specificity is what’ll make you believe a message was supposed to find you. Into cooking? FoodTok will serve you the best recipes. Like reading books? Welcome to BookTok! Do you like seeing other people deep clean someone’s filthy bathroom? CleanTok’s got your back and will deliver relatable content. The app can open up entirely new worlds for you, hobbies and useful skills you name it; creators will be able to teach you anything that you want to know. A lot of used-to-be-taboos become normalised on TikTok because you can find a sense of community in what feels like a personalised playground. The audience and creators are in tight contact with each other; it’s a safe space.
But how safe is this space actually? Just how terrifying should it be that such a seemingly simple app rules our lives so much? By having it there as a safety net to garner new skills or to look up some information it becomes part of a lifestyle that comes dangerously close to determinism. If everything is predestined then that takes away your free will. The specificity of the algorithm is what keeps you engaged and why it feels so helpful but it takes away your agency as much as it enables it. Something can feel relatable to you, but what if it only is because it’s constantly presented on your FYP and that’s why you feel like you can identify with it? Recent studies have shown that anxiety levels may increase when not engaging with the app if the app is where you’d typically go to release stress. If you destress on the app then your serotonin levels will rise. As soon as you put the app away it’ll be hard to reach those same serotonin levels again and anxiety may increase, among other things. If your FYP is filled with content that deals with mental health issues but not in an uplifting way, chances are you’re not going to feel any better after spending your entire day engaging with it. This leads you down a path that is already determined, making the content feel like more of a confirmation of your perceived reality rather than a singular observation of reality.
Hence, TikTok tarot readings should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s great that the app creates a space for previously frowned upon practices, but it shouldn’t interfere with your free will regarding your daily life. And no I’m not going to argue whether interacting with the app in the first place can be considered free will or not. TikTok tarot readings can be fun and can even give you that extra push to pursue something if you feel they relate well enough to the situation that you’re in. There are definitely benefits, but you should be conscious of the fact that the readings end up on many people’s FYP’s and make sure you don’t fall into a pattern and believe in them so much that you start thinking everything in your life is planned out already. I.e. If a reading tells you to stay inside because bad luck is coming your way, don’t immediately believe it.
Here’s the thing: Even after having written this entire article… I’m probably going to continue watching these not-personalised-but-entirely-too-specific-for-it-to-be-coincidental readings when they pop up on my FYP anyway. Not because I necessarily believe in them, because rationally I know that this message was not meant to find just me, but because I like the possibility of it being just accurate enough for me to relate to. The slight spark of exhilaration that emerges when you can relate to at least 3 out of 5 conditions that the specific tarot reader has named is in my opinion what keeps drawing you in. But please, don’t take my word for it. Have a look for yourself, who knows what side of TikTok you’ll end up on (trust me it’s going to be ‘WitchTok’ regardless of if you want to or not). But by all means, fight the power if you can! Manifest the contrary!
Written by Marijne Ottenheym
As someone who spends a considerable time on TikTok (probably too long), I couldn’t agree more with you. Because while I love spending time on TikTok, and I have come across many different fashion tastes styles, learned some interesting stuff and I enjoy watching those videos which I find relatable, I can see how it can be really addicting and potentially dangerous, especially for younger users who are not necessarily able to distinguish between what content is good and legit, and what isn’t.