After I had spent two hours mindlessly scrolling on TikTok, a college-age looking man with Chalamet waves and a seasonally inappropriate tan told me to go to bed. “I understand it’s easy to keep watching videos, and trust me, I’ve been there,” he said through an unnervingly likeable smile. “Those videos will still be there tomorrow,” he continued. “So go get some extra sleep, turn your phone off, and do yourself that favor.” It was as though he could see the dark circles under my eyes through my screen — the result of staring at blue light for hours on end — and the greasy hair half falling out of my scrunchie. For the first two of many days in self-quarantine as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus, I had been unable to put down my phone. The video cut to the man (boy?) in PJs, curled up in bed like a swaddled babe. I was horrified.
For those who are behind the times (like I was just six weeks ago), TikTok is a social media app where users can share videos synced with their favorite pop songs or their own original sounds. The videos are then sorted by an algorithm, which is tailored based on your personal “likes,” and the best or most relevant to your interests are added to a main feed, called the For You Page. I downloaded the app in mid-February “for research” — I just wanted to be in-the-know about the latest in pop culture for my job, I told myself. I never followed any users or created any content myself. I simply watched my FYP for a few minutes at a time. Mostly, I “didn’t get it.” A tiny baby that can’t pronounce the word “popsicle”? Sure, OK.
But those minutes slowly turned into hours, of which I began to lose track. By the time the boy-man told me to put down my phone, I had apparently reached the critical mass of TikTok consumption, and worse, TikTok was the one to tell me. When I looked at the profile associated with that video, I saw that this was an official Tik Tok Tips account, and the sole purpose of the video was to encourage users like me to step away from TikTok. I realized with shame that I had been hit with the equivalent of the dreaded Netflix query, “Are you still watching?”
Unlike most of the users I had been watching on my FYP, I am not in high school. Or college. I don’t live with my parents. I am 12 years older than Charli D’amelio, who, with over 40 million followers, is one of the most popular users on the app, and was born in 2004. I am a 27-year-old woman who cannot relate to woes about prom being canceled because of the coronavirus, or my parents using my phone to track my location. And yet, somehow I have become addicted to watching real life teens doing things (in some cases, really stupid things!).
There are outliers, of course. Boomers crawl out of the woodwork every now and again, often going viral for imitating the latest TikTok trends (isn’t it hilarious when a dad does the Renegade?), or for dunking on their kids. People my age, however, were noticeably fewer and farther between, to the point that it became something of a running joke between the teens on TikTok, as well as us 20-somethings ourselves (though we share the sentiment on Twitter, obviously). And yet, while I had seemingly endless quarantine entertainment at my fingertips — shelves of unread books, passwords to nearly every streaming service — it was TikTok that I couldn’t. Stop. Watching.
And I don’t just flit through the feed glancing at one TikTok and then the next, I really consume the content. I watch each and every video to the end (the maximum length is 60 seconds), especially if the caption contains any version of “wait for it.” Will that baby make a hilarious face? Will that ping pong ball-thrower make the impossible trick shot on the final try? Will the fast-talking storyteller holding 10 digits in the air put a finger down at the end of the story? Will the girl plotting to kiss her “best guy friend” be rejected when she plants that kiss?
I’m not the only one who's failed to escape this platform's irresistible allure. The app is owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based company that was founded in 2012. They are notoriously secretive about their data, however several marketing firms estimate that TikTok has between 800 million and 1 billion users worldwide. And it's doing some social good, beyond providing and uplifting distraction. Last week, TikTok partnered with the World Health Organization to present a livestream with tips for preventing the spread of COVID-19, and just today, it was announced that company is donating $10 million to WHO’s Solidarity Response Fund, which helps distribute medical supplies, keep communities informed, and also fund research for new vaccines and treatments.
A source who works for the company and asked to remain anonymous tells InStyle that daily active users increased 13% week over week in the two weeks since Mar. 9. I have witnessed a kind of transformation on the app as others in self-isolation begin to turn to TikTok as their social media platform of choice to beat the quarantine blues. Since the beginning of March, the videos have taken on a lighter, more accessible quality.
College-aged kids “get the band back together” after returning from school and reuniting with their siblings; self-isolated celebrities like Vanessa Hudgens and Hailey Bieber both recently made their TikTok debuts performing silly dance videos; adult men have taken to perfecting ‘80s-inspired choreographed routines; several women in my own life (who have asked to remain anonymous) have downloaded the app to learn and share TikTok dances. Tyler Cameron and Hannah Brown of the Bachelorette have created light-hearted prank videos that are far more interesting than anything that ever happened when they were both on TV.
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Of course, none of us can escape the talk of COVID-19. But as the news grows increasingly dire, the people on TikTok have found humor, and even a means of sharing information. I’ve watched multiple young women film themselves as they are swabbed at a drive-thru coronavirus testing station. “Dad” did the math about “how many shits” you would need to take per day in a family of four to justify buying four cases of toilet paper at Costco. (The answer is 182 times per day for a 14-day quarantine.)
TikTok has been able to foster a sense of community and of understanding that other social platforms, like Instagram, have not. A clip of an elderly man visiting his wife with Alzheimer’s in her nursing home, explaining to her again and again that he can’t see her because of the pandemic, brought tears to my eyes. I caught myself smiling stupidly at a father dressed in all black, asking for his son’s ID as he stood outside of the front door of their house — his re-creation of a “club” entrance for his son’s 21st birthday. And I’ve seen more videos than I can count of professors video chatting with their students, showing off their dogs on request or kindly alerting one woman to the fact that she was not on mute, and the entire class could hear her breaking up with her boyfriend. (Sometimes TikTok offers schadenfreude, too.)
In a world where we’ve suddenly found common ground with indoor cats — seeking little else besides food, entertainment, and some mischief — TikTok took me by surprise, becoming a place to feel connected, understood, and, above all else, distracted from worry.
Getting called out for spending too much time watching dumb content for hours on my phone at first felt shameful. But sometimes, dumb things are not actually so dumb after all.
The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.
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