My quarantine with TikTok

Tuesday, May 12, 2020 - 4:41pm

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Maggie Wiebe

Being home for the past seven weeks during the COVID-19 crisis and living in my childhood bedroom when I was meant to be graduating college and moving to New York City has taught me a few things. The first — how to smile with eyes at essential workers or strangers in the grocery store under the guise of a homemade mask. I’ve learned how to make peanut butter cookies without a recipe, and how much music and art has an innate capacity to heal. And I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve also learned two TikTok dances. 

Being nearly 22 years old, I thought I might be too old for TikTok— a social networking application that boasts the sharing of (up to) sixty second videos. It is something I wouldn’t have had the time to download had I not been in quarantine— being that I would be prone to distraction at school where I was overcome by incredibly busy days. 

Based on a survey from GlobalWebIndex, 41% of TikTok users are between 16 and 24. However, having younger cousins and family friends, I held the preconceived notion that the app had become immensely popular among the younger generation, full of tweens in training bras dancing to remixed versions of Ariana Grande singles. Based on TikTok’s data collection driven algorithm— one that’s almost frightening in accuracy to say the least — not many of these 13 year-old wannabe influencers appear on my feed or “for you page”. In May of 2019, TikTok also deleted all of its users under the age of 13, strongly urging users to be over 15 years old due to privacy issues and mature content. It is easy to recognize why they made this change with a day spent scrolling through the app, where topics like hookup culture, binge drinking, eating disorders and sex reign. 

TikTok’s website has a mission statement: TikTok is the leading destination for short-form mobile video. Our mission is to inspire creativity and bring joy. Not only have they succeeded in their mission — they’ve superseded it. TikTok was released by a Chinese owned company ByteDance, and is unlike any social media application American viewers have ever used before. It is less “friend and follower” centric than other American social media applications like Instagram or Twitter. It’s easier to become famous, the instant gratification is quicker, bolder and intoxicating. The algorithm is incredibly well curated. The “for you page” is quite literally made for you, with the sequence of content based upon the videos a user has interacted with in the past. 

Despite my initial hesitation, my enduring curiosity got the best of me when quarantine offered me open ended days. I bit the bullet and downloaded the unknown TikTok thinking that it sought to fill a void left by my generation’s Vine. But, in a matter of minutes, I realized I was wrong to wish TikTok would be anything like Vine. Unlike Vine, TikTok gives users the ability to curate creative video content and render video masterpieces, in addition to memes and comedic blips. Not only that— the topics being covered go far beyond quick, biting humor. Instead of Vine’s silly, relatable 10 second videos, TikTok revels in the glorification of a few things — comedy, yes — but also “hot girls”, wealth and enviable lives.  It serves as the fun house mirror to broadcast and reflect our wildest imaginations about our own lives for anyone to see. 

In a five minute swiping spree I watched a Bachelor parody, a pretty girl named Mia showing off a day in her life to 63.8k fans who had already liked the video, another pretty girl wearing a bandana as a shirt dancing to a Jackson Five remix, a spicy vodka sauce recipe, a baby wearing a dog costume and a self deprecating girl discussing her toxic taste in fraternity boys with nicotine addictions.

 No other social media world has quite this range within such little time. 

In my experience, the algorithm has curated my “for you page” especially for a 21-year-old female from New Jersey who went to college in Michigan, majored in theatre, exercises everyday and struggles with disordered eating. Was it partially my fault I subliminally gave the TikTok world this information? Possibly. But I didn’t realize that in watching “fitspo account” ab workouts, people making fun of New Jersey, vegans showcasing their full day of eating and adolescents belting musical theatre anthems that I was subliminally disclosing my persona. 

In twenty minutes of scrolling, I’ll see videos by users from New York City, Michigan and New Jersey, about astrology, hookup culture and college life, humor and pop culture videos. I blithely accept how accurate the content I watch is to my location and interests because it makes the app more addicting and more “relatable”. TikTok never runs out of content — it makes us feel special and acknowledged. It delivers us three course meals on a silver platter, leading us through a storytelling journey in an extended hand which requires little to no cognitive energy from us. Instead, it hopes we’ll surrender our minds to TikTok and get lost in the world of pretty people and hilarious stories for two or three hours at a time. It has been coined the internet’s Garden of Eden— hailed for it’s genius tactics and engaging persona. The stakes seem vaguely low because 19-year-olds become famous showing off a day in their lives, or failing to perfect a baked good or walking a half marathon around their hometown. The idea is that anyone can become TikTok famous — and many have

But like most good things, TikTok is a sharp and dangerous double edged sword. 

TikTok is a do-it-yourself world where one can quite literally make your audience of millions of strangers believe anything about your life. TikTok’s platform fights for genuine content: Viewers relaying their real lives to other viewers who, for whatever reason, are “similar” to them or have been interested in other videos with a similar message. The goal may be genuine connection and realistic content, but the world of TikTok is ethereal, feigned and a vortex of groomed perfection nobody can ever be quite sure actually exists. 

Anyone can log on to TikTok and curate an alternate-reality for adoring strangers ranging from 13 to 30 for so long that they begin to believe it themselves. Not only that, but the content many are curating can be destructive and triggering, with TikTok having little rules on censorship due to fears of security and surveillance. The latter stems from concerns regarding the Chinese Communist Party and TikTok, which rose in December of 2019. The former enables triggering content about sexual assault, mental health, substance abuse, eating disorders and other mature content to permeate For You Page’s with millions of views. 

A popular TikTok trend among high school and college aged girls has become the “what I eat in a day” or “FDOE” (full day of eating) videos. These videos are accompanied by sparkling filters and calming music and showcase bowls of oatmeal with expensive, organic toppings, and extremely restrictive or “healthy” lunches or dinners. These videos have been known to commence with a tanned, blonde, thin girl showing off a perfectly toned stomach in a floor length mirror with the fat text  “What I eat in a day to stay skinny/lose weight” accompanying her smile. Sometimes the videos are outwardly “What I eat in a day (in recovery)” videos. Other times, they show girls as young as 14 stepping on a scale every day to work towards a goal of 100 pounds. Oftentimes, these videos are accompanied by a tallying calorie count that doesn’t break 1,000 in a day. The same videos have been parodied by accounts who show a more realistic, or perhaps gluttonous, day of eating which includes breakfasts of 3 oreos and Chick-Fil-A at 11 PM. 

The issue with these types of videos is two-fold. First, none of these girls are registered nutritionists or diet specialists, and none of them are taking into account the stark differences in weight loss amongst individuals. Often these videos showcase destructive eating habits and blatant body dysmorphia. Perhaps the girls posting these videos don’t recognize their destructive potential, their glorifying of weight loss and the “skinny” body type, or the perpetual destruction of diet culture as a whole. Regardless of their awareness, their dangerous messages are still evident, shown between flashes of 10 calorie bowls of pineapple and dinners of spinach and carrots. 

Full Day of Eating videos operate under the assumption that anyone following the creator’s diet and exercise “plan” could look just like them, not taking into consideration health conditions and financial burdens that could prohibit individuals from pursuing similar meal plans and lifestyles. 

And of course, this type of content begs the overarching question: Did they even eat that? Is that really what they do to work out? 

I wonder why it matters and then I realize that, even if subliminally, this content can create divisive tension for someone who has a history and a past with disordered eating. If the calories aren’t there, I find my mind counting them up to compare it to my own day of eating. Likewise, these kinds of videos force us to compare ourselves and our habits to those of internet strangers who could be completely lying through the lens of their iPhone and tight spandex shorts. Who’s to say any of us are showing our true and honest selves behind the guise of our social media handles? Even if we strive for integrity in our online personas, it can be near impossible to be actualized and genuine when the premise of social media urges us to showcase our lives on a platform that doesn’t exist in real time, but in cyberspace. 

And of course TikTok has its positives— it is growing as a source of information— from pop culture to politics to news. There are even gynecologists, therapists and doctors on TikTok, trying to reach teens in an engaging and relatable way. Not only that— it’s humor is bright and astute and it is a cultural phenomenon, full of the future of our social and cyber worlds. 

TikTok is dissolving our semblance of reality, pushing us into a sphere where anything we watch could be true— and at the same time could be false. The terrifying part is that as an audience, we have no way to know. On TikTok, we have the ability to create whatever messages I want (though I have yet to make any content myself) and post it for a world of eager strangers—regardless of one’s truth or agency to do so. Furthermore, everytime an audience buys into a video laced with destructive symbolic undertones, we feed into the blurred line between our own reality and digital hyperreality. 

Maybe it’s a stretch—but to me TikTok is almost postmodern, creating a hyperreality for us to wallow in. Postmodernism came into philosophical vernacular as early as the 1870s and became known by French philosophers like Lyotard and Bauldrillard. Postmodernism has been described as a set of critical practices which employ concepts like simulacrum and hyperreality to destabilize reality and meaning. It regards the idea that reality is not our understanding of it, but is constructed as we attempt to understand our personal identities within the world, which makes nothing universal. Within postmodernist environments we discover hyperreality— the inability to distinguish reality (the world) from a simulation of reality (TikTok’s world).  Bauldrillard says that the hyperreality exists because, as individuals, we exist in all references and no referents— we live in a world of simulations. He believes that images and signs replace the concepts of reality as constituents in society. When we use TikTok in a destructive way, we are creating a hyperreality— a simulation that deconstructs our notion of actual reality. 

So what would Bauldrillard say of TikTok? 

He would say the signs and codes in which we exist by way of social media have been exacerbated by the onset of a new social media platform where our ultimate goal is to create more signs and codes. Furthermore, in TikTok’s postmodern society, the focus is on the creation of simulation — the play of images created by Gen-Z in order to subconsciously denote society which enables the obfuscation of reality.