This paper adopts a digital ethnographic approach to interrogate how the social media platform TikTok has become a voice of authority in the diagnosis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I carry out content, visual and discourse analyses of ADHD TikTok videos, as well as an analysis of the haptic, sensory and affective experiences that are produced by engaging with these videos, to delineate how authority about the body is created on TikTok.
Using Bruce Lincoln’s theory of authority (1994), in conjunction with Clay Shirky’s theory of algorithmic authority (2012), I argue that although the internet is typically understood as a mostly inclusive and authoritarian-free commons of knowledge, social media is not devoid of authority. Rather, TikTok is creating an online space in which authority on ADHD is transformed from an effect that has historically been created by medical professionals, to an effect that is widely sought after by TikTok content creators – an effect that is co-produced through the development of visual and discursive content standards.
As such, the increasing reliance on the digital mediascape as a source of information on the body is challenging traditional understanding of medical authority figures. Authority is thus gradually becoming a more widely dispersed effect, that can be curated by laypeople through their collaborative sharing on social media platforms of everyday lived experiences. This new kind of digital authority disrupts traditional conventions of Western medical expertise and authority, and is indicative of the increasing skepticism towards medical experts that we are witnessing in American society.