Digital culture in the age of COVID-19: Viral 'U' creators and politiktoks

Wednesday, July 22, 2020 - 7:42pm

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Ever since the University of Michigan student body received University President Mark Schlissel’s email detailing the effects of COVID-19 on the winter semester, we’ve immersed ourselves in a digital world. Rapidly-evolving updates concerning student housing and remote learning meant that checking our email became an hourly necessity. And while self-quarantining, platforms like Zoom, TikTok and Instagram Live have lended us the ability to stay digitally connected while socially distanced. To engage with digital culture is to engage with community culture, and vice versa.

On July 9, the world came tumbling down for TikTok fanatics and Gen Zers alike. The app experienced an hour-long glitch causing the short-form videos to appear like-less and view-less, with users’ “For You” pages displaying arbitrary content as opposed to the personalized stuff the algorithm usually generates. Before app representatives could assure users that the outage was just a temporary disruption, TikTok devotees hysterically flooded Twitter with hashtags like #RipTikTok and #tiktokshutdown anticipating the app’s demise. Severely ill-timed, the glitch occurred just three days following Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s alleged threat to ban the app due to security concerns. 

In some sort of doomsday scenario where the government threatens app prohibition on Monday and the application stops functioning on Thursday, TikTokers launched into survival mode and pivoted their focus to other platforms. LSA junior Ari Elkins, who has accumulated a following of more than 246.7 thousand on the app making themed music listicles, spent the outage trying to direct his followers to his Instagram account. Nick Daly, a Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore who has gained TikTok popularity by posting musical theatre covers, did the same as he encouraged his 71.4 thousand followers to find him on Instagram instead.

In an interview with The Daily, Elkins remembered thinking “Everything I’ve put in is about to disappear” during the infamous glitch. Hannah Stater, a Music, Theatre & Dance student pursuing a master’s in harp performance, has earned over 378.4 thousand followers and 9.1 million likes posting covers under the name “hannah_harpist.” Stater told The Daily she recalled a wave of #RIP messages during the glitch as creators in her multiple group chats immediately declared the app dead. Within an hour, TikTok’s bug was sorted out, but content creators were still shaken by the malfunction and left uncertain about the app’s fate. Elkins admitted, “I did not really feel relieved when it got fixed. There’s always an idea in my head that I could wake up tomorrow and (TikTok) could be gone.”

A platform that has fostered political mobilization and given a voice to a new generation of activists, artists and business owners, the ban could mean a lot more than just an end to viral dances and unfortunate “thirst traps.” To users like Elkins, who views his content as a supplement to a career in music curation, the ban could translate to a severe professional setback. And to those like Stater or Daly, who are using their platforms to amplify Black and indigenous creators and distribute anti-racist resources, the ban could serve as a threat to free speech. So what is really behind the Trump administration’s supposed ban on the app? Are Gen Z voices at stake?

TikTok, which has experienced a surge of success in recent months, currently entertains 800 million monthly users — exceeding other popular platforms like Snapchat and Twitter. The majority of these users are between the ages of 16 and 24, allowing the platform to catapult the voices of Gen Z into the national dialogue in unprecedented ways. The generation’s impact via TikTok reached political bounds last month when users banded together to botch attendance of Trump’s Tulsa rally through phony ticket sales. The app has also allowed Black Lives Matter protesters to push first-hand footage that challenges the way the protests are illustrated by mainstream media. 

In an interview with the Daily, Stater spoke on TikTok’s role in the Black Lives Matter movement and highlighted the generational discrepancy between mainstream and social media protest coverage. She observed that, “Most Millennials and most Gen Z people don’t have cable, therefore they’re not watching the (same) news … that most Gen Xers and Boomers watch. In the wake of Breonna Taylor’s murderers still not having been arrested, people on the news … are not covering that any more. But TikTok is showing videos of protests still going on … enabling people to question the media and question traditional news.”

Secretary of State Pompeo initially positioned the TikTok ban as a means of safeguarding data, accusing the app, currently operating under an American CEO, of sharing information with the “Chinese Communist Party.” In his proposition, Pompeo essentially posed all Chinese apps as a security threat due to the Chinese internet security law, which would allow the Chinese government to request access to TikTok user data. However, many creators interpret the Trump administration’s TikTok ban as a way to hinder the work of Gen Zers and counteract the political mobilization the app has stimulated.

Elkins expanded on this belief, saying “I think the ban is a political tactic by the administration to censor the Gen Z voices at the height of an election year, which ultimately I find to be a threat to our democracy. While, of course, you should definitely take safeguards on our privacy and data, this is a bigger issue beyond TikTok that should be dealt with.”

Stater shared a similar concern, stating the ban “will speak volumes to … where the allegiances of our government are in regards to … free speech. If they were to ever ban TikTok and yet they still haven’t declared the KKK as a terrorist group, it just really speaks volumes to the government and the corruption that is at play.”

Daly said he believes that the ban could be working as both a political tactic and a genuine means of protecting users. He told The Daily, “I think that it is definitely possible that the motive behind the ban would be to push that anti-Chinese narrative that the Trump Administration has been spewing. But, I also do think that it is very possible that it could be due to security reasons, which is also valid. It can be both, unfortunately.”

Ultimately, we’ve seen TikTok evolve from cheap entertainment mid-quarantine to a platform that enables Gen Zers to carry unparalleled influence and range. 

And University-students-turned-TikTokers are taking advantage of their respective followings for however long as they can. Elkins continues to connect with other TikTokers and curate playlists that draw millions of users. Stater is using the funds she is raising via her TikTok success to buy her own harp in hopes of writing an album. Daly continues to represent Black theatre artists and book performance opportunities he wouldn’t have otherwise found without TikTok. Through their content, they are reaching the masses and encouraging other Gen Zers to do the same. And they’ll keep doing so even if the ban starts tomorrow, or the next day, or the next day. 

Follow Ari Elkins on TikTok here.

Follow Nick Daly on TikTok here

Follow Hannah Stater on TikTok here.