TikTok’s algorithm shows you videos based on other videos you’ve interacted with. So this week, after I watched a video or two about the fires sweeping through Maui, my For You Page was nearly all content from creators in Hawaii.
One central topic kept coming up: Should tourists stay away from the island of Maui after last week’s deadly fires? Was it OK to travel to places on Maui that were not hit directly? What about the whole archipelago of Hawaii? Would traveling put added strain on limited resources during the crisis?
Kate Ducheneau, a TikTok creator from Lahaina whose family evacuated during the fires, told me it had been hard seeing tourists around the area. Her house is still standing, she said, but it suffered extensive damage.
The day after the fire, she went to Target to buy clothing for her family. “I was in line, just trying to get a Starbucks coffee,” she said, when she spotted a couple who appeared to be tourists. “They were wearing puka shell necklaces. They had their key to their rental car. They were joking about how they’re going to load up all their supplies and ‘go have a staycation.’” She burst into tears in line, she said.
On TikTok, where she’s gained thousands of followers after she started posting about the fire, she urged would-be visitors to go elsewhere.
“Do not come to Maui,” she said in a video that has been viewed more than two million times since it was posted on Sunday. “Cancel your trip. Now.”
She told me she wanted to be very clear she’s not anti-tourist, but rather she hoped that tourists would respect that Lahaina needs time to heal and rebuild before they come visit.
“People are preying on trauma,” Kailee Soong, a spiritual mentor who lives on Maui in Waikapu, wrote on TikTok, where she has over 100,000 followers. Tourists, she added, “are in the way right now as people mourn the loss of their loved ones, of the places that burned down, of the history that was completely erased.”
“The grief is overwhelming — and then for the tourists to just be snorkeling in the same waters that our people are in, it’s not right,” Soong told me in an interview.
My colleague Christine Chung and I wrote a longer piece this week for the Travel desk. A lot of conflicting messages are swirling around. The right thing to do depends on whom you ask.
“No matter what, the rest of Maui has to keep going on,” Daniel Kalahiki, who operates a food truck in Wailuku on Maui, east of Lahaina, told Christine. “The island has already been shot in the chest. Are you going to stab us in the heart also?”
One of the things TikTok does well is allow regular people living through major events to become newscasters. During Hurricane Ian in Florida last year, I talked to a number of people who livestreamed the storm for audiences of thousands online.
This is important as TikTok increasingly becomes the preferred search engine of younger generations. Clearly, you can’t believe everything you see online. But if I’m a potential tourist considering a trip to Maui right now, the people I really want to be hearing from are the regular folks whose lives would be affected by my trip. And those people are on TikTok.
Here’s what else is happening online this week.
TikTok without the algorithm
Somewhere in the first two sentences of many stories about TikTok — including this newsletter! — there’s a mention of the app’s potent algorithm.
That’s why it’s going to be really interesting when TikTok users in the European Union gain the ability to shut that algorithm off. That’s a result of the E.U.’s Digital Services Act, which requires social media companies to let users turn off recommendation algorithms.
There are many reasons to be concerned about the effects of TikTok’s algorithm. That said, a big part of TikTok’s draw is that it is extremely good at showing you exactly what you want to see. If you’re a Swiftie, it will serve you an unending feed of Swiftie videos. If you’re flirty and into pottery, you’ll get ceramicist thirst traps.
Many of us say we want the social media giants to have less visibility into our lives and desires. We’re also hooked on videos that reflect those desires right back at us. Without the algorithm, users will see an undifferentiated feed, amalgamated from the interests of other TikTok users.
I’m certain some people will try opting out; I’m less sure that they’ll like what they see.