Featured in Capital #76 Subscribe to get the real thing here
TikTok, Gen Z’s preferred social media app, is named after the sound of an analogue clock that some Zoomers can’t even tell the time on.
Kirsty Frame explains Tik Tok to the unititated, and the role of the platform in culture today.
Whether we like it or not, the video-sharing app has solidified itself in pop culture, having taken residency in 2.6 billion devices since 2016. Due to a certain global pandemic, TikTok has seen an astronomical spike in the last year a consequence of millions retreating indoors. It’s keeping (mostly) teenagers connected with their peers next door and around the world in what feels like one virtual sleepover, and its influence can trickle outside of the black mirror.
The concept is very simple. A looped feed of 15-60 second clips with a smorgasbord of video effects to play with, and easy functions to interact with another. What’s most “viral”, as they say, is the dance challenges paired with a particular song. Kiwi artist BENEE found her track Glitter chosen early last year, which subsequently climbed international music charts.
But there’s plenty else TikTok provides that makes it so entertaining and addictive. Though a connoisseur myself, I enlisted the help of younger Gen Z’ers to ensure an accurate representation. Lucy, 16, and Ben, 14, say it’s more like the lovechild of Twitter, Tumblr, and Youtube – I used to compare it to Vine, but they’re less familiar. The space in internet exploration between 23 and 16 years olds is larger than I thought.
Dancing aside, TikTok’s are frequently comedic skits that revolve around the highs and lows of adolescence. It’s unfiltered, unscripted, the camera angle is unflattering and the acne is untouched, unlike Instagram, they say. Lucy talks of a video of a teen expressing disdain for how “awkward busses are”, much like the one she takes to school. The DIY fashion hacks, astrology, and even mental health awareness “Toks” are consistently popular, and influence trends in the physical teenage world.
Their mother, Anna, didn’t know that the strips of coloured LED lights along the top of Ben’s walls are inspired by thousands of videos on this app. Currently too, reports that supermarkets around the world are selling out of feta cheese are because of the viral TikTok hashtag #fetapasta. Hashtags play a larger role than most apps for navigation. #wellington has over 170 million views, with videos of Welly teens dancing on high school fields and vlogging outings in the CBD. Even local clothing stores have begun jumping in, with staff partaking in dance challenges in full store wear.
It’s the ease of connectivity that makes the app so popular and the video trends so easy to come by. The algorithm behind the screen takes incredible note of the videos you “heart” and hashtags or music connected to them, creating what’s called a “For You Page”. In a short time, the user will have an endless supply of videos that feel hand-picked to their ever-niche interests.
Young people have access like never before to the world through a plethora of internet vehicles, and TikTok is a snowball for finding them. Understandably, this is what can make some parents anxious. With the surge of popularity in this demographic, the company has put in safety nets I never experienced as a teen. A video with swear words, alcohol, or a bikini on someone underage will be swiftly removed for breaking community guidelines. Ben’s account is private by app-default because he is under 16, so only approved followers can see his posts or send him messages. His TikTok circle is exclusively made of his school friends, who send each other their favourite Toks of the day. These are two of many functions that keep Ben and Lucy from stumbling across much of the bad things I saw during my days on Tumblr.
In years to come perhaps Gen Z will be searching Youtube for 2020 TikTok compilations, transporting us back to a time of connection and community, and satire amid chaos. Until then, we’ll continue sharing, recording, exploring from the comfort of our rooms. Though our digital clocks don’t tick, TikTok is how we’re passing time.