When Vine made its app store debut in 2013, a friend of my partners messaged him to ask why I was – in his words – “doing weird things on the internet.”
In his defence, it must have been eye-opening to watch his best friend’s new girl (whom he must have believed to be an introvert) making 6-second comedy sketches filled with accents, impressions and oddly erotic close-ups of pears.
Six years on and into a new phase of the digital age, users of the short-form video app TikTok have been supergluing their lips together this week in the latest viral challenge that has taken the internet by storm. If he thought I was weird, he had another thing coming.
As of July 2018, TikTok was reported to have 500 million monthly active users worldwide. For reference, that’s already more than Twitter and half the amount of Instagram. But TikTok is nothing like either of those platforms.
On the surface, it’s a short-form video channel where users can share 15-second long clips that can comprise of songs, filters and collaborative split screens. In reality, it’s so much more than that.
What do we want? Authenticity!
In a world of fake news and sponsored content, authenticity isn’t easy to come by. Ironically, Donald Trump’s tweets are some of the most genuine: they may show that he’s both deluded and totally ignorant (his suggestion to have flying water-tankers put out the fire at Notre Dame being a perfect example), but it’s clear that no one is writing these tweets other than The Donald himself.
When Trump tweets something cringe-worthy or gets into a fight with Kim Jong Un over who has the biggest *nuclear buttons*, there’s no social media executive to reprimand because public image is something that the president obviously thinks he needs no help with. And truth be told, you can’t really argue with that. But I digress.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
Twitter started out as a platform for people to express their thoughts and opinions, but it quickly evolved as brands began to see a dollar sign above the iconic Twitter bird. Rushing to capitalise on the new “in” channel, they turned the platform into a marketing tool. Instagram managed to stay predominantly expressive and cling on to authenticity for a smidge longer, but it wouldn’t be long before influencer culture would turn the Facebook-owned photo-sharing app into another advertising channel.
Kids will always find a way to rebel, and the creators of TikTok did well to take notice. With the death of Vine in late 2016, there was a gap in the market for a social media platform whose M.O was self-expression and entertainment.
Related: Goodbye Glossy Advertising…
A new breed of user
TikTok is the fusion of two apps: the original TikTok which launched with the name ‘Douyin’ in 2016 and an app called Musical.ly, a short-form karaoke app that allowed users to create lip-syncing videos at the tap of a button. Together, they form the TikTok we know today – an app which describes itself as a forum to “capture and present the world’s creativity, knowledge, and precious life moments, directly from the mobile phone.” If it sounds like Vine, it’s because – to a certain degree – it is. What’s changed is not so much the technology but the users.
Since 2013, Millennials have grown up. Most of us have full-time careers and some of us have families of our own. It’s not that we don’t have time to sit around all day supergluing our lips together, it’s – well, actually it’s exactly that. According to mobile research and communications firm Apptopia, TikTok’s users skew young, with people 11-20 making up its biggest contingent at 35 percent of all users. The next largest chunk was 21-30-year-olds at 23 percent.
It figures that the content would seem alien to anyone who isn’t in that age-bracket. In the space of 15 seconds, users may do dance routines, lip-syncing, pranks and comedy skits that include reaching into the fridge while listening to YMCA – and the outcome is hilarious.
If you aren’t on TikTok, you can either remain confused or you can choose to be comforted by the fact that the younger generation has taken to this app in search for a place to be their true unfiltered selves. Instead of “just another social media app”, it’s a rejection of the platforms that put users in boxes based on their demographic and perceived interests.
It’s a movement that rises above the age of Political Correctness or self-censorship, one that is championed by its young users who are not ashamed nor afraid to speak their mind.
“People talk about the numbers with TikTok because they’re impressive, but what’s more interesting is its growth comes at a time when stalwart American social media apps have stagnated user growth,” says Adam Blacker, vice president of Apptopia.
“Not only that, but TiKTok is an app created in China that is having success in the United States. Outside of games, this is essentially unheard of.”
The kids are alright
While TikTok trends have ranged from the mildly amusing to the downright bizarre (this superglue lip challenge being a prime example), the app has also proved to be an effective channel for activism.
Take the case of Gillian Sullivan, for example. Last month, the 16-year-old student took to TikTok to raise awareness of her school’s failure to give its dedicated teachers adequate raises. In her video, she urged her peers to support her in a strike in solidarity with the school staff.
“Hi, this video is for kids who are in Clark County School District,” she begins, warning viewers who aren’t from ‘CCSD’ to keep scrolling as the content is not necessarily for them.
“So, our district is refusing to give teachers who spent the past three years earning enough credits out of their own pockets, spending extra hours outside of school to earn credits to get a raise,” she goes on, zooming in and out on her front-facing camera for emphasis.
“And our district won’t give it to them. Like, literally, they won’t pay the teachers what the teachers earned.”
But while the content was a plea to her peers to strike alongside her on September 5th, the video went viral racking up over 36,000 likes on TikTok, and 47,000 on Twitter. Considering the average video receives under 100 views, that’s huge. In an interview, Gillian Sullivan laughed at how her mum used to make fun of her for the amount of time she spent on TikTok and noted how happy she was that her daughter had gone viral for spreading a positive call to action. Of course, Gen Z has repeatedly shown, it is not only technologically savvy; it is politically engaged and ‘woke’ to the bullsh*t.
The question is, do videos like Sullivan’s signpost the dawn of a new era or just the start of a new cycle?
The starry-eyed dreamer inside me who laments the days where the internet was a platform for free speech says yes, but the cynical voice in my head wonders at what point TikTok will become just another social media platform filled with brands, big corporates, fake news and paid-for posts.
Until that happens, we can take comfort in knowing that, as weird as TikTok and Gen Z may seem to the older generations, the kids really are alright.
[POUTIQ] Wendy Loraine is a freelance copywriter and founder of The Bristol Content Shop, and a regular contributor of creative social commentary for Poutiq. She is also a talented social media influencer, and Poutiq’s very own Tik Tok influencer!