TikTok, the app made huge in China under the name Douyin, is creeping into the western world – both a forced move from a massive, physical advertising bankroll, and a delirious organic uptick in users – and with it comes a new era in digital identity.
Myspace is dead. So are its Top Friends and weird glitter-font banners and personalised music themes. Instagram is just a social platform that every day moves closer to digital magazine. The filters that made it what it was are refined, but still used sparingly, with teens preferring to use third party software (and sometimes pay for) preset filter packs. Facebook is full of old people, many of them too caught up fighting with each other to actually worry about their profile, or how what they say and post represents them. These are all old formats now. Instead, we’re embracing easy-share video as personality. Vine (RIP) walked so Tik Tok could run, and its mega-rich Chinese backers, Bytedance, are taking full advantage.
TikTok, in a more user-friendly format and with a refined, internet-borne audience, is helping people express themselves on multiple levels, be it current or nostalgic:
It’s 1984 and your girlfriend just broke up with you. Modern pop, deliberately nostalgic, is playing in the background and your baggy denim jacket weighs heavy on your shoulders.
Wait, no – it’s 264BC and you’re the son of an Athenian politician and will soon die of leprosy.
Hold up, what if its just 2012, and you’re running down the stairs to play Minecraft on the family computer?
These are the moments people are earnestly recreating on TikTok and in video, just a fragment of a growing motorway of video slices used to show the world who we are and how we feel.
They are uploading short vignettes of their dog in its dying days, set to philosopher Alan Watts theorising on the reality of “falling in love.”
They’re filming the snapshots of their final days in high school, countdowns on gigantic scoreboards and hundreds of pages of schoolwork thrown down staircases.
They are filming themselves crying at the camera without saying a word. A blank face soaked with tears, playing on loop as many times as you fancy.
They are, as Monash University lecturer in social media Emily van der Nagel tells me, using rituals.
“It’s not simply about saying ‘I’m sad’,” she said. “It’s about sharing on a pool of cultural references to communicate.”
TikTok, perhaps more than any other current platform, allows its huge youth audience to articulate not just the see-me and hear-me aspects of socialising, but also a visual representation of the rituals and markers of youth.
“We’re seeing a beautiful layered cake of identity,” says Van der Nagel.
“At the base is ‘I’m at school with my friends, I have a uniform,’ then there’s ‘We’re doing something that exists within the culture of the platform (like a viral challenge)’, then there’s another layer that is ‘I have also set up a song that you know’.”
Refined by years of mistakes and ugly trends, TikTok offers a stern and deliberate effort to show off who you are and what you care about.
That original 10-second video on your Instagram you have from 2013 of a stereo playing your favourite song is now a ten second video of snippets of your life: you floating in a pool, you and friends running on the street at dusk, you hitting a 3-pointer, all while the same song plays. It’s an extension of identity creation – it’s the start of something better.
“The days of just consuming content are in the past,” says Ryan Beard, a creator on TikTok with more than 40,000 followers. “Whether or not it’s true, nearly all of the kids on there think they’re creating content that people will enjoy watching. It feels like the natural evolution of a picture-based social media.”
And sure, some of it has been forced. Facebook invested heavily into video despite it not being hugely evident at the time that people really wanted it. Vine appeared, flew too close to the sun, and burned out in a matter of years – leaving a broken puzzle behind, ready to be put back together. Snapchat allowed video messaging in perhaps the easiest to use format, and introduced the revolutionary Stories format that was quickly, uh… “adapted’ by other platforms.
As a whole, social media and the Big Tech Boom brought on the the next stage of documentary and the next level of record keeping. Much of this record keeping was accidental, well before we truly understood the depth of social media, but it stuck. Now we’re witnessing the start of a new way of showing the rest of the world who you are – this time, deliberately.
“It’s almost like a look into teenage id,” says Andrew Gauthier, former head of BuzzFeed Video and now Head of Video on the Kamala Harris campaign.
“TikTok is deceptively complicated but in a plain, simple way.”
Gauthier, who spent years at BuzzFeed practicing and preaching and helping revolutionise internet video, says TikTok is exciting.
“I’ve found myself unlocking my phone and looking at my social apps and being like ‘I don’t want to open any of these,’ you know? I don’t want to be stressed or angry. TikTok is all about joy.”
Those older than Gen Z (read: almost everyone) can probably recall having a friend who frantically obsessed over camcorders or the tiny pixel camera in their Motorola RAZR.
Maybe you were that friend, clipping together short, pixelated videos on iMovie and hurrying away in secret before releasing a short clip of you and your buddies screwing around, all for it to be passed around on a USB drive so everyone could transfer it onto their clunky, whirring desktop computer, never to be watched again. Wow! A short video of all the fun stuff we did at camp! Thanks for making it, Eric.
This is where we are now, except now Eric is everyone.
Perhaps the closest comparison comes not from the internet but from a relic of MTV: the music video. It is, in the way the world used to think of it, dead – clinging to relevance on the back of already huge celebrities and YouTube. But the results those videos yearned for; the scene, the vibe, the wish-I-was-there simplicity, still exist and are available to anyone with a phone in their back pocket and a bit of time.
“Music is an organising principal, right – Tik Tok is basically audio memes,” says Gauthier. “On other platforms it was a video or a GIF that was the organising principal. But on TikTok it’s a snippet of audio.”
“What’s interesting is thinking of the historical context – music is a global culture and media . There has been flashpoints where they all combine: The Beatles came to the US and blew up because of home television, NSYNC and Brittney Spears got big in the UK helped by ‘TRL’… Even Michael Jackson had MTV. With TikTok, it’s Asia.”
TikTok isn’t about your friends – many users spend all of their time on the For You page, barely looking at the contributions of who they’re following. It’s about your identity and your identity alone, and how you can convey it with video ahead of all else.
Perhaps the most powerful thing TikTok has going for it is a tool not even created by the Chinese tech giant: screen record. Apple introduced the feature on its iPhones in 2017, making it easier than ever to download a video (and its sound) to your phone, ready to be shared. The feature benefited all forms of content, but none more than those that had latched on to vertical display, ditching the common landscape default to favour a way of digesting content that required the user to do the bare minimum. Now, apps like TikTok and Snapchat can be recorded and trimmed and uploaded in a matter of minutes. No need for a third-party app to populate your Instagram page of Best TikToks. You can run the whole thing from your phone.
Taylor Lorenz, a staff writer with The Atlantic who covers internet culture, says screen record has definitely been helpful in the platform’s growth. Lorenz runs her own “Grade A TikToks” Instagram account, but also argues the app’s native re-sharing tools are crucial.
“It’s stupid to think that things will only remain on one platform,” she says. “Once you post something, you let the genie out of the bottle and you just have to expect that.”
“People are like ‘oh is it better than Vine’ and it’s like, it’s already wildly more successful than Vine.”
Different to Instagram, Facebook, and the other usual suspects, TikTok benefits from a design that jumps over traditional forms of social media. You don’t need to follow anyone to see content – in fact, you don’t even need an account to access the For You page.
“It’s almost like if Instagram opened on Explore only,” says Lorenz. “That’s very different and I think a much better model because it allows each individual piece of content to find its relevant audience.”
Good social media is easy by design – over the years, it has just gotten easier. Despite its success, TikTok is still an early breeding ground for virality. It’s easy to feel like you’re only one good video away from tens of thousands of new followers, because for a bunch of people, that’s true. Ricky Chainz, an Australian creator with over three million followers, likens uploading videos to TikTok to being the creative kid at school with a sketchpad.
“It’s like, this is what the creative kids at school can do now,” he said.
“They like it because they’re perceived as being a creative person by doing it, but it’s also an outlet for their creativity without the need for extreme tech knowledge.”
For now, TikTok still feels like a place where everyone is experimenting, throwing each other desperately into the void and hoping something sticks. While the regular brand of influencer exists, there’s a newer, fresher take on openness and ironic realism that Gen Z has transcended to become just plain old realism. You can cry on TikTok, and you can laugh, too. You can share how your day was, and now you can set it to music. TikTok might not be the end note of the next stage of social, but it’s certainly one of the first few trills.
“It was all done on my phone,” says Ricky Chainz.
“Three million followers on my phone. Just like that.”