At the start of quarantine, I began using TikTok. Before the pandemic, I was extremely judgmental of the app and of people who use it I viewed it as a frivolous platform mainly used to make ridiculous dances go viral. However, once quarantine began and I found myself looking for ways to fill my time, I downloaded the app to see what all the hype was about. Little did I know, I would spend countless hours on the app in the following months, as the algorithm became more and more tailored to my interests. When I was bored, I would go on TikTok. When I was feeling anxious, sad, lonely, tired, unmotivated, or really any emotion at all my first instinct was to open the app and scroll mindlessly. What at first was a harmless pastime began transforming into an unhealthy addiction. The first time I received a “digital wellbeing” video on my “For You Page” (FYP) warning me to stop scrolling and to go to sleep, I was a mixture of impressed and horrified with myself. I sent the video to my friend as evidence that I had been “converted” into TikTok culture.
While I am still somewhat ashamed to admit that I regularly use the app, I do think it has many merits, especially during quarantine when we are forced to be physically apart. The app still carries the stigma that it is made for only young adolescent girls, and that anyone else who uses it is immature or looking to fill their brain with a stream of thoughtless videos to satisfy their short attention spans. Despite the app’s harsh reputation, I have found that it has brought me a lot of joy through humor during quarantine. Many videos have made me smile or laugh for the pure purposes of entertainment, such as TikToks of babies and toddlers. TikTok also has an educational aspect to it, and it has exposed me to different identities and stories that I otherwise never would have been aware of. For example, I follow an account of a man who was a child burn victim and lost all his fingers, so he had his toes transplanted to his hands. I also came across a video in my FYP of a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder, which I had only read about in my psychology classes but never learned about in detail. It was interesting to learn about her first-hand perspective of the disorder—which many people deny is real—and to see how she navigates “switching” alters (personalities) around her husband and in-laws. Others I have spoken to about the app have also found it to be educational as well as entertaining. One of the children I tutor told me he is on “Civil Rights TikTok,” which is where he learned to speak so articulately about the subject. I have noticed that the company has made efforts to be cautious about its educational aspect, especially with regards to COVID-19. At the bottom of nearly every video that mentions the word coronavirus, even if it is a humorous video, is a banner that reads “learn the facts about COVID-19.” Another positive aspect to Tik Tok has been the food inspiration that has appeared on my FYP. I have been inspired to purchase certain items from Trader Joes and to cook new recipes during quarantine. While the product recommendation aspect of Tik Tok has been inspiring and helpful, it has also been dangerous to my bank account when I have found myself purchasing more skin care products than I actually need.
Tik Tok sets itself apart from other social media platforms because of its algorithm. While you can follow certain users, you are also exposed to new users every single time you open the app on your “For You Page.” Though the stereotype is that TikTok users are young adolescent girls, users of all identities and cultures have flocked to the app and created their own sub-communities. It is interesting to look at the comment section of videos, and read “How did I make it to [insert category here] TikTok?” In the comments people get very excited when an identity they embody appears on their FYP because it means the algorithm is frighteningly accurate, and they become perplexed when they come across a video very different from their own identity. I have noticed that it is much easier to become viral or “TikTok famous” than it is to gain a following on other platforms. This summer, I saw a video of someone making a cookie cake in an air fryer and decided to recreate it myself, which my brother posted on TikTok and gained 2.2 million views. The more you share videos or press “like,” the more videos will show up in your “For You Page” algorithm that are similar. The more a video is shared, the more likely it will appear on other people’s FYPs. The app is particularly interactive in that it has a unique feature allowing users to post videos replying directly to comments on their previous videos, in which the comment they are responding to is “floating” over their video. The app is also unique because you cannot rewind or fast forward videos, and the video repeats itself on loop unless you pause it or move on to the next video. Videos are meant to be short and addictive, and they disappear unless you “like” them which saves them to your personal library of liked videos. This sets a tone for extremely ephemeral trends, such as “whipped coffee” that was popular at the beginning of quarantine. The app’s fleetingness really exemplifies our fast moving culture and increased need to latch on to certain trends, while constantly moving on to the next big thing. In the context of a global pandemic, TikTok has provided a fast-paced refuge in a world that has slowed down during lock-down.