With stories about an algorithm that suppressed “ugly and poor creators” and President Donald Trump considering a US ban, TikTok was at once the most beguiling and maligned app of the year. The first major social media app to be run beyond the purview of Silicon Valley, the Chinese-owned platform joined the likes of WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter in the social media diets of many, despite a multitude of controversies. It popularised short-form video and developed a recommendation algorithm that made it one of the world’s strongest video competitors. But while the grown-ups were busy trying to work out the implications of national security threats from the Chinese Communist Party and a bifurcated US/China internet, teenagers were nurturing the most powerful tool they had ever seen. Now, at the end of 2020, TikTok is the most downloaded app of the year – and it’s changed an awful lot more than just how we consume media online.
I am technically too old for TikTok, sitting just outside its core 13-24-year-old market. But spiritually, I am just right. Just as being a boomer isn’t necessarily about belonging to an age demographic, but a rather a mindset, there’s no age threshold for TikTok; it’s more a willingness to hurl yourself into the chaos of the internet. Encountering somebody online that you relate to before following them religiously, DM-ing them and inundating them with supportive comments and queries whenever they post is distinctly Zoomer (Gen Z) culture. Asking questions, supporting worthy initiatives and mass-protesting in an app space is something that comes naturally to these digital natives. Following on from the era of the YouTube wormhole, TikTok’s algorithm recommends you the content you subconsciously crave – but unlike YouTube, these videos are under a minute long. That means that in one session, you could consume reams and reams of engaging videos – familiarising yourself with creators, trends and communities in the process. There is a space for everyone on there – the good, the bad and the plain bizarre.
The ordinary folk who have become known faces have hastened in a new era of content creator
Having a substantial following on TikTok translates to a strange sort of celebrity in 2020; I only have 140,000 followers, which is pretty small in the grand scheme of the internet, yet I now can’t go a fortnight without being recognised in the street. I’d love to be able to say that my scintillating journalism used to deliver me the same effect, but the fact that anyone knows my face is testament to how well TikTok has had people glued to their screens this year. It came from being myself – and that’s consistently what other creators say too. The ordinary folk who have become known faces have hastened in a new era of content creator; gone are the pastel pink hyper-edits and Photoshopped goddesses of the Instagram yesteryear. TikTok may have managed to draft in celebrities like chef Gordon Ramsay, but users flood the app to see distinctly ordinary and relatable individuals. If Instagram gave us the IG model, TikTok’s given us our talented next-door neighbour, and with the help of its algorithm, here is how these characters changed 2020 – and could well change the years to come.
A new era of digital activism
History will probably come to remember TikTok as having a prominent role in Black Lives Matter, promoting it as a trend on its Discover page and winning the hashtag more than 23 billion views. Kareem Rahma posting scenes in Minneapolis to the tune of Post Malone’s remix of Childish Gambino’s This Is America became a key cultural moment for young users desperate for change in the US and beyond.
Few will remember that in the first few days following George Floyd’s death, the #GeorgeFloyd and #BlackLivesMatter pages had 0 views due to a “technical glitch”. A year before, The Intercept had found evidence that non-white, disabled and poor creators were possibly being suppressed on the algorithm by moderators. But for many, the platform has started to feel like a different place recently, with more diverse creators appearing on the For You Page and more initiatives promoting inclusivity.
It also became a prominent arena for anti-Trump protests that actually led to real-life results; TikTokkers have been credited for having at least some role in the poor turnout at President Trump’s Tulsa re-election rally in June and they also forced his campaign to reset the Trump app’s rating after TikTokkers trolled it with bad reviews. In the summer of this year, I made a film about how algorithmic activism – the way users comment, like, share and rewatch videos to boost it on the TikTok algorithm – has been an important way for locked down social activists to mobilise when they can’t leave the house.
TikTok absurdism has changed internet comedy
The art of the TikTok comedy sketch is unique; you only have one minute for your skit and you have to hook the viewer in in the first few seconds, otherwise they’re just going to scroll straight past it. There are now common TikTok tropes that viewers instantly respond to; don a tea towel on your head for example and you’re instantly a woman. Put on a blonde wig, sunglasses and a baseball cap and you’re suddenly a “Karen”.
“When it comes to comedy, TikTok essentially kills the punchline,” says Baron Ryan, who has more than 700k followers from his TikTok sketches. “That’s not a bad thing, it’s just different.” A lot of the comedy on there is absurdist which, though it performs well in mainstream media too, can take on a life of its own on a platform that delights in oddness. “Pacing is quicker now and details are becoming a bigger deal. You leave an Easter egg for half a second in one shot, and the audience will almost always catch it. This is because watching content in your hands, by yourself is an extremely intimate experience TV cannot replace.”
For Ryan it isn’t just about the quality of your content but your behaviour as an individual. He references @kallmekris, a creator who’s created several loveable return characters including a taxing toddler: “While hilarious in her own right, [she] is incredibly likeable. She’s gracious with her fans, she works clean, doesn’t roast or criticise anybody with her comedy, and that is why she has over 10 million followers.”
He sees TikTok as having created a new comedy genre; a non-punchline-focused trend he calls “existential chuckle”. “We are not in the business of belly laughs,” he says, “we are in the business of, ‘Huh, that’s quite funny’.” In a world where there often isn’t much to laugh about – and plenty of existential dread – it’s of little surprise a Gen Z app has taken to artists like Ryan so readily.