What is the first image that comes to your mind when you think of TikTok? Is it Charli D’Amelio and her friends dancing to a viral song? Or is it half-naked white boys jamming to hip hop music? While these may be the most common associations of TikTok, the platform has many more sides to it than just the content of attractive young people doing silly dances and pranks. Many young TikTok users were responsible for tanking a Trump rally in Tulsa in June by reserving tickets and not showing up for the event, something they organized through the app. In September, a TikTok creator collective, Tok the Vote, was founded to promote voter registration in the 2020 election.
Over the past two years, TikTok has expanded its influence in the United States and has become a crucial information outlet for Generation Z as well as a major platform for young activists to share their ideas and to expose injustices. This has even occurred here at the University of Michigan. In early September, LSA junior Sam Burnstein depicted the poor conditions of University quarantine housing in a TikTok. Another student expressed through a TikTok her frustrations with the administration’s poor COVID-19 precautions and the then-ongoing strikes within the University. Both of their videos quickly went viral and drew the attention of several major media outlets. TikTok has proved itself as much more than merely an entertainment app, but rather a platform where young people can make their voices easily heard by tens of thousands or even millions of people.
So, what is TikTok’s magic? In August, Instagram, now owned by Facebook, Inc., introduced a new feature called Reels, which allows users to shoot and edit short video clips that are nearly identical to the experience of TikTok. Snapchat has also recently presented its own take on short-form videos, Spotlight. While Reels has already been dubbed as a copycat of TikTok, it is also unlikely that Snapchat’s version of it will be able to replicate TikTok’s mainstream success.
The secret to TikTok’s success is rather simple: the algorithm. By relying on a very complex set of indicators, TikTok’s algorithm lands people into communities of very specific interests, which often leads the users to have some form of self-discovery or growth while they descend deeper into the app’s rabbit hole. Gen Z lesbians have found love through bonding on Alt TikTok and WitchTok. A YouTube influencer known as “bestdressed” admitted in a video that she had a revelation about her sexuality after the algorithm immediately placed her in “bi girl TikTok.” Public health experts also use the app to bring awareness to COVID-19 precautions, and teachers join the platform to give tips to students experiencing trouble with virtual education. The algorithm has made it possible for both mainstream and niche communities to exist simultaneously by almost exclusively sending catered content to the user’s “For You” page.
Indeed, with the existence of such a diverse array of users and communities, TikTok has transformed itself into a combination of a “how-to” guide database, Vine 2.0, a condensed version of Khan Academy and a dating app for Gen Z. Recently, TikTok also announced that it is in the process of testing a new “Learn” tab on the app to showcase educational and instructional content. It is clear that TikTok is no longer that app where creators post only funny videos and viral dances, but rather, it is an online space where people connect through monthly trends and sometimes share meaningful conversations about sociopolitical issues.
LSA freshman Alan Yang went viral on TikTok during the summer. During our phone conversation, he said that he uses TikTok for about two to three hours a day, but he confessed that over the summer, during lockdown in California, he spent almost six hours on TikTok every single day. Through his one viral TikTok, Yang has gained more than 2,000 followers already, most of whom he does not know but took an interest in his daily life. He deeply appreciated the immense power of TikTok to create a safe and close-knit community, especially during such an isolating time.
“When I am meeting someone new for the first time, just talking about TikTok is such a great bonding point,” Yang explained. “It is definitely a safe space where I am able to connect with my followers and community. It’s something that I really love and cherish, (a space) where I can just be myself.”
In addition to a fun community, Yang also sees TikTok as a learning platform. The videos that pop up on his FYP range from general fashion tips to class recommendations at the University. Yang also recalled a trend in recent months targeted toward high school students, where creators make college introduction videos in a specific format about dorms, food, classes and so on.
“If I were a high schooler, I would have found (the videos) super useful,” Yang stated. “Since there is no campus tour because of COVID, TikTok becomes this learning platform (for students applying to college).”
Yang was not the only one who benefited from TikTok’s variety of content. LSA junior and pre-med student Emery Hakim downloaded the app this past summer to watch food and dance videos in her spare time, but the algorithm eventually led her to science and pre-med related videos. Through this scrolling, she found and signed up for a virtual shadowing program where she learned how to do case work usually done in medical school.
“I joined (TikTok) because it was something that everyone had and it was just kind of a stupid thing to kill time,” Hakim explained. “But then I ended up finding really useful information about med school, the MCAT and volunteer opportunities.”
Being on TikTok also reaffirmed Hakim’s passions for medicine as a career. She discovered the account Institute of Human Anatomy during quarantine, which she found both informational and fascinating. She said she finds it comforting to know that she will be able to learn something interesting in medical school rather than being stuck in physics and organic chemistry classes.
“Being pre-med at Michigan is really difficult, and a lot of (what I learn) does not apply to what medical school is actually like,” Hakim stated. “Learning more about what doctors actually do on a day-to-day basis is really exciting for me.”
As practical tips and knowledge thrive on the platform, many have begun using TikTok as a professional platform to promote their own businesses and services. The hashtag “#tips” has 19.3 billion views on TikTok whereas “#resume” has 126.2 million views. Professionals from all fields, including business, medicine, restaurant and tech, have all joined the platform to share their insights through 30-second videos.
“#Cooking” has more than 25 billion views on TikTok, and LSA sophomore Kyle Nash was one of the many people who benefited from this source. During quarantine, Nash found himself clueless about how to make food for himself and his roommate. Though he never considered a TikTok a traditional platform to get beginner recipes and cooking tips, he came across a few videos which he found very useful. It has been a valuable journey for Nash, since he has gone from not knowing how to cook at all to being able to experiment with different dishes.
“With YouTube and other platforms, I would kind of have to look for (the videos), whereas TikTok just showed it to me and it wasn’t something I had to go out of my way to find,” Nash explained. “The fact that (TikTok) is so tailored to each individual person makes it a really great outlet for information.”
Unlike others I spoke with, Nash only spends about 15 minutes on TikTok every day, and was shocked to learn that many are so addicted to the app. Indeed, users spend an average of 46 minutes a day on TikTok and open the app eight times a day. The content on TikTok is always rapidly changing, with new trends being created almost weekly. Furthermore, the concise nature of the medium also facilitates the instant absorption of information.
Julie Albright, a sociologist from the University of Southern California, compared the consumption of these short-form videos to “drugging ourselves.” According to Albright, the active usage of these addictive platforms changes how our brains perceive time and thus drastically reduces our attention spans. Nevertheless, while most of our generation acknowledges such harmful effects, there seems to be no intention or effort to ultimately get off the app.
“I think (our shortening attention span) is awful. I am a part of it and TikTok definitely reinforces it,” Hakim said with a light chuckle. “It will definitely hurt our generation that we can’t pay attention to things for more than 20 seconds. But it’s okay … for now!”
Political expressions on TikTok are quite diverse. On one hand, you have Marxist college students with their trendy turtlenecks who make videos debunking the mud pie theory and celebrating Angela Davis; on the other hand, there are also many young people who unapologetically show off the Trump 2020 flag in their room.
TikTok was also a major platform used at the height of Black Lives Matter protests this past summer. Under the hashtag “#blacklivesmatter,” which has exceeded 20 billion views, Black creators explain systemic racism while many also share tips on how to protest safely. However, it is also populated with irrelevant videos that are obviously exploiting the hashtag for its popularity.
Engineering sophomore Rachel Pastori expressed her appreciation for political TikTok. According to Pastori, creators often took their differences and conversations outside of TikTok to YouTube or Twitch in the format of debate. Streamed six months ago, Harry Sission and Ashleigh Mae representing the liberals and Treyton Shriver and Kaden Duff representing the conservatives took part in a debate. All of these creators are young: Treyton is just 14 years old, while Harry is 18.
Pastori explained that she felt a sense of empowerment listening to these young people speak, rather than reading articles by adults who are much older than she is. Though she does not identify as a Republican, she finds it enlightening that TikTok is a platform that is inclusive of diverse political views.
“Sometimes, I go on TikTok after news comes out; I just wanna see other people’s points of views,” Pastori explained. “It’s really nice to see other people my age or older than me posting about the election or general U.S. politics.”
In addition to watching young creators sharing their political opinions and activism, Pastori also enjoyed the range of new ideas she is exposed to on TikTok. She told me that she saw a lot of videos about Native American and indigenous cultures on her FYP, which she found very interesting because she never had the opportunity to learn about them in school. Though she was raised Catholic, Pastori is not a devout, and rather found a pastor on TikTok who opened her eyes to a new and more liberal form of Christianity.
“A video would always come up on my FYP and I can learn something new,” Pastori said. “On Instagram or Twitter, you can only really see stuff from people who you are following. TikTok makes (the information) more accessible and you are able to reach more people through the algorithm.”
Indeed, while many creators post under political hashtags to make a joke out of the situation or express their opinions through a trend, there are also ones who are dedicated to sharing genuinely helpful information. Yang told me that he found updates about the Graduate Employees’ Organization strike in September almost exclusively through videos by creator chemcowboi, who gave daily updates about the then ongoing movement. In addition to updates about the GEO strike, they also share insightful advice about chemistry and graduate school.
Nevertheless, both Yang and Pastori agreed that there is a need to take the information found on TikTok with a grain of salt. Since the algorithm can make anyone go viral, it facilitates the spread of information, whether that information is true or false. Pastori clarified that a lot of creators use a picture of the source in the background of the video, and she also goes through the comments to see if others make objections to the creators’ points. Though she also does her own fact-checking on some of these topics, Pastori admits that she does not have time to always research.
“If I am suspicious about something that they brought up, I would go and check the validity of their sources,” Pastori said. “Sometimes their sources are slightly biased towards one side or outdated.”
In the age of information, it seems that every single new app that enters the market is trying to compete for our time and attention. Over time, as our brains become used to the sheer abundance of information that we absorb every day, we jump at the sight of a notification and the first thing we do when we wake up is grab our phones and check our socials.
Many social media platforms are trying to diversify and rebrand themselves as “more than just a form of entertainment” — Twitter is the app where journalists receive the most engagements, whereas Instagram has become known for its colorful, educational infographics. And as for TikTok — well, you just read about it.
Information is certainly not a bad thing. But learning about anti-racism by scrolling through an app is vastly different from learning about the topic by reading a book or a journalistic article. While creators are able to offer raw experiences or opinions on a certain issue, there are many nuances that a 60-second video (with no ingrained citation, by the way) fails to capture. No matter how much the app attempts to rebrand itself, it is simply insufficient as a learning platform.
However, TikTok can still be a valuable source for information. Though I do think that it is helpful to mention that if we are truly intrigued by a certain topic, learning shouldn’t stop at TikTok. Therefore, a conversation or a book can be empowering; instead of mindlessly scrolling and absorbing, we have the agency to discern, disagree and contend.
Social media broadens our perspectives about the world, but it also narrows it. We only click on what we want to see and the algorithm picks up the cues, so it sends to the FYP mostly what we are interested in and creators who share similar opinions as us. But learning isn’t about reaffirming our own values and seeing what we already know, it’s about breaking boundaries and stepping out of our comfort zone. While social media cannot do that for us, real life interactions do.
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