The World of TikTok
2020 will be remembered as the year that changed the world for more reasons than just one. Along with a world altering pandemic, America saw protests that lasted months to fight for racial justice and in the past two years alone Italy saw 175k deaths due to COVID (World of Data). And somehow in between all of the headlines and tragedy, an app creeped into every facet of culture and forced legitimate shifts in industries of all kinds.
Musical.ly was an app where creators could film themselves lip syncing to a catalog of popular songs. The app was mainly popular amongst the younger Gen Z audience until it was purchased by ByteDance, a Chinese tech company, and transformed into the TikTok we know today. Although it was originally predicted the app would fail, as a Chinese owned app had never dominated the American app before (Jennings), it would one day become a global phenomenon in 154 countries (Wallaroo Media).
TikTok was originally popular amongst the Gen Z audience, similar to its predecessor, Musical.ly. Its most popular creators and content revolve around short dances to modern pop hits. Other popular content genres on the app include fashion, entertainment, comedy, sports and politics. But what separates TikTok from other platforms is the infamous algorithm––it's known for targeting niche content to an audience that did not previously exist. For example, interested in naps? There are TikTokers for that- see #Sleepfluencer on the app. TikTok’s true power is how it continues to shape and shift the non-virtual, physical reality around us.
TikTok in the World: Politics and Culture
Ever since the birth of America, democracy has been threatened time and time again. Maybe more so than ever in the past few years thanks to the rise of populism within the Republican party that led to Trump’s presidency. TikTok, while as a company, does not endorse political content (the company has banned political ads); it has created the perfect platform for the mass spread of political information. In 2020 mainly young creators were able to shut down the Tulsa, Oklahoma Trump rally by falsely reserving seats. According to the New York Times, there were many empty seats in the arena on the day of the rally. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were largely aided by the app as it is a way to quickly communicate and organize mass gatherings and spread social justice messaging. Creators took over the app educating their millions of followers on racial injustices across the globe.
But due to the lack of content regulation, the platform has also allowed for misinformation to reach its users. Beyond the well known dangers of misinformation in politics. According to researcher Anthony Yeung, MD, he “found that [although the majority of TikToks surrounding ADHD] were highly relatable, but approximately 52 percent were misleading.” This can be especially dangerous as it could potentially lead to more inaccurate diagnoses and therefore result in unregulated or unnecessary medication use. Considering the most common drug used to treat ADHD, Adderall, is frequently abused by its users (WebMD), one of the many unwanted outcomes of these misleading TikToks could be an increase of drug abuse. There are many examples of TikTok influencing culture for the better, however misinformation regarding politics, mental and physical health and society can be incredibly damaging.
One of the biggest industries to be impacted is the music industry. Prior to recent technological advancements, including TikTok, the music industry functioned in a relatively similar way to that of the days of white men signing black jazz artists into exploitative contracts (Blakemore). However, thanks to affordable production technology and accessible marketing tools, like TikTok, the music industry has democratized the industry. Possibly the biggest example of this is Old Town Road by Lil Nas X. Montero Lamar Hill, most famously known as Lil Nas X, was making and promoting his own music out of his sister’s apartment at 19 years old. After finding a $30 beat on the internet (Chappelle), he had the idea to blend the genres of Country and Hip Hop to create what would break records on the Billboard charts. Without a major label backing, this had been almost unheard of by any artist up until this point. But thanks to Hill’s savvy with social media, his quick rise to fame can majorly be credited to the viral dance trend using Old Town Road. In a similar fashion to Hill, artists like DojaCat, Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber can all credit their rise to fame to the internet. If major labels hope to keep their dominance of the market, adjusting to this new platform is no longer an option.
Influencers: The New Celebrity
Along with helping them promote their music, social media has also offered traditional celebrities other avenues of income through brand deals and sponsored posts. However, the creators who dominate social media are Influencers. Love them or hate them, influencers are the new classification of celebrity. However, rather than market the art or product of their talents, influencers market their personal brand. Most influencers chose a genre or niche to “brand” themselves with on their accounts. By doing so they can increase audience engagement with loyal followers. The most followed person on TikTok today, Charli D’amelio rose to fame by posting short dance videos in her school’s bathroom wearing her school’s uniform. Today she has over 142 million followers. These followers have offered Charli the most powerful tool on social media, an audience. More followers means more and better brand deals, invitations to the biggest events in America (see angry tweets about Addison Rae attending the Met Gala) and possibly even a TV show. However the life of an influencer is not always a glamorous one. During the aforementioned Black Lives Matter protest, influencers were being canceled for not speaking up on the topic quick enough or accurately enough- keep in mind that the majority of influencers have minimal to no formal education on social or political issues. A quick browse of the comments on Charli’s most recent TikTok and you will find death threats, body shamers and other harassment related to nothing. At the time of her rise to fame, Charli was only 16.
The Possibilities are Endless
TikTok content, and the people who make it, have seemingly melted off of the screen and into our reality. From Whipped Coffee to Bryce Hall, TikTok vernacular is everywhere. And while media (and social media is no exception) is ultimately dominated by negativity stories to attract more eyeballs, Gen Z is taking over TikTok to put an end to that. TikTok has so many capabilities that the younger generation is learning how to manifest and exploit for good. In 2021, after being kidnapped, a young girl was saved after using a warning sign to communicate to passing cars that she was in danger. Both the young girl and the civilian who would respond to her distress sign and call the cops learned this warning sign via TikTok. This shift in society the world is witnessing might just grant GeN Z the opportunity to redefine aspects of culture that were believed to be carved in stone. When Trump attempted to shut down the app, he proved what Gen Z knew all along, their messaging and the ability to spread it is a threat to a world built on oppression. But just like TikTok, they will not be silenced.
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