The fastest growing social media app in the world is being utilised by religious groups, rejected by governments and fixated on by teens. What's actually the deal?
It was the footage that shooketh the Amish, a pious community who are famously, and vocally opposed to modern technology. It showed Rebecca Fisher (@amishbek) fixing her hair (‘how we do our hier [sic] #amish’). The 15-year-old also does Q&A sessions: ‘Are Mennonites and Amish the same?’, to which she responds with an 'uh-uh' sounding horn. A contingent of Mennonites weighed in too, because it doesn’t matter which religious fellowship you belong, or to what (orthodox) values you subscribe, if you’re under 21, you’re doing TikTok.
At $75bn the social media platform has been valued as the most valuable start-up in the world, and with 1bn active users, it swallows Snapchat and Twitter’s competition combined and whole. A bit like Vine, that discontinued platform of yore where six second videos played on loop. And loop. And loop. And loop, until you remember to look away or do something else. Quick, do something else! Teens goof and guffaw, pairing the app’s various audiovisual effects with dance routines and acting skits. The sounds on the app are lip sync and narrative-friendly, meaning anyone can do it and flirt with fame. Take floppy rainbow-haired 18-year-old Noen Eubanks for example, who despite specialising in definitely not high-fashion, has just landed a Celine campaign. Yes, forget notoriety on Instagram or YouTube where insidious vapidity is routine, the more sincere, raw and original teenage dream is TikTok shaped.
In a conscientious corner of the platform teens are even reenacting history in a bid to ace their exams (see this thread for a run down of the best). Exhaustive topics like the Boston Tea Party and the Treaty of Versailles are distilled into 15 second videos, and in 17-year-old Brooke Pavek’s case, seen by 78,000 followers. She accompanies her abridged rendition of the American Revolution with a song from the SpongeBob SquarePants musical, and in her depiction of the formation of the League of Nations, personifies America by dancing towards the camera, before backing away when France and Britain expect them to join. Limited in complexity and scope, yes, but the general framework is one that even historians have commended.
In some instances, the political supersedes the playful. During the UK election campaign, Nigel Farage's Brexit party posted over 80 videos, the majority of which were gung-ho supercuts about - you guessed it - Getting. Brexit. Done. Stormzy’s Vossi Bop was used by pro-Labour TikTokers who deployed the now infamous line “I could never die I'm Chuck Norris/ Fuck the government and fuck Boris”. And when Prime Minister Scott Morrison holidayed in Hawaii despite Australia being ablaze, users lampooned him by using a voiceover of Kourtney Kardashian drawling, "work is not my top priority". Ok, political and playful.
In November, Feroza Aziz, a 17-year-old Muslim American from New Jersey, uploaded a supposed make-up tutorial that quickly segued into a Public Service Announcement about the imprisonment of millions of Uyghurs in China. The video was swiftly removed. Why? Many believe TikTok's parent company ByteDance is engaging in censorship on behalf of the Chinese government. Indeed, there have been leaked documents instructing TikTok moderators to censor videos that mention topics offensive to the Communist Party of China, such as Tiananmen Square and Tibetan Independence. Such is the worry that on January 1 of this year, heeding advice from the Pentagon, the US Army banned the app on all government owned devices, for fear of cyber security threats.
The hunger for virality also means people take unprecedented risks with their safety. Risks not unlimited to actual death. A boy who was filming on train tracks and didn’t hear a train coming, another who accidentally shot his friend in the face, and another who choked on his mother’s necklace, ironically, by feigning choking. All of these are approximately 33 others are chronicled on a bizarrely macabre site tiktokdeath.com.
Granted, it all sounds like an even more dystopian version of that Black Mirror episode, but such is the proliferation of social media. And of all popular platforms, TikTok has a different fan fervor, in part because it's wired to a wonderfully free-spirited frequency. Yes, it could still be a flash-in-the-pan trend, but more likely is that it will become part of our digital DNA. And while you may be over 21, you're not immune from the mesmerising hypnotism and jovial camaraderie, of which we can all do with a bit of right about now.