My 2020 Savior Was TikTok
The ‘Tok was my rock
I typically live and work in Washington, DC. I have a group of friends there; we all went to college together, graduated in the same class, and wound up living in the same city shortly after we graduated. Over 11 months between our graduation in May 2019, and the start of the pandemic’s lockdown in March 2020, we all became close, bonded over our shaky starts in a new city, with big kid jobs, living independently. We all share a group chat, which has helped narrate each person’s change in residence. Me staying with my parents in Jackson, Wyoming, another friend moving to Salt Lake, Utah to pursue a new job, others who intermittently traveled across the country, worked remotely, and none of us sure when life would go back to normal. Or what life would be like after this strange pandemic.
We also use this little group chat to talk about the more pedestrian parts of our day-to-day lives. This morning, I was telling them about Jon Ossoff (one of the two senatorial candidates for the Georgia runoff) and how his TikTok has cultivated a wonderful thirst trap that very well may help him win the election. For those of you unfamiliar with TikTok, it’s a “short-form, video-sharing app that allows users to create and share 15-second [to 60-second] videos, on any topic.” The app is viral and addicting, hooking billions of users on its unsettlingly personalized recommendation algorithm. After sending my friends a few examples of Jon Ossoff’s videos, I said:
“I know we all have our things, maybe vices or hobbies or people that got us through this incredibly difficult year. The things we turned to in our darkest moments to remind us of what we have to be thankful for, to remind us that this is all temporary.
For me that was TikTok.”
And I was 100% joking.
Well, not 100%. *cue Twilight Zone theme song*
I spent some time thinking about this statement, and about what I’ve discovered by spending time on TikTok. I’ve realized that ‘Tok was my rock. In other words, this little app was a vice, a distraction, a reprieve, whatever you want to call it, that genuinely helped me through this pandemic so far. And so, as 2020 comes to a close and I reflect on the year I’ve had, I want to draw attention to the positive parts of TikTok. I will, therefore, be leaving out the negative parts of it (e.g. its addictive nature, the international battle over its management in the US, all the drama it’s stirred up for young people still developing emotionally, etc). I want to point out four particularly wonderful aspects of TikTok, and I hope that if you’re one of those people who hasn’t yet downloaded it, you’ll kindly dismount your high horse and join the rest of us.
A quick thing to note before diving in: there are a lot of hyperlinks included in this article. Links to TikToks, interesting articles, artist/creator webpages. I encourage you to check them out if you have time.
TikTok creators are a reminder that in the face of adversity, arts and culture will continue to flourish.
I personally feel that if you still think the arts aren’t worth public funding after this pandemic, then you must be enjoying the mossy boulder you’re living under. TV shows like Tiger King and The Queen’s Gambit have punctuated the year, Billboard cited that there was a 4% increase in the proportion of people exploring new music in 2020, I even spent an entire summer collaging the Sunday edition of the New York Times.
The collaging was actually a trend that I picked up on TikTok. TikTok has a flourishing scene of artists, musicians, writers, and performers. An entire musical rendition of the Pixar film, Ratatouille, was composed, blocked, lit, and costume designed by a group of TikTok creators. The show debuted online last week. I find that absolutely incredible, an entire Broadway show was produced with 60-second video clips over a few short months.
The popular song, F2020, whose namesake indicates its subject-matter, was released by a TikTok artist known as Avenue Beat in June. As of today (1/5/21), it has 35 million streams. Avenue Beat is just one example. I’ve discovered scores of bands and artists through TikTok, including Tai Verdes who released the song Stuck in the Middle (34 million streams, here’s an article on him from Rolling Stone), which became so popular that he was able to quit his job and become a full-time recording artist. Or The 502s, whose upbeat indie-folk sound has been on repeat during my ski runs this winter.
Beyond theater and music, there are countless small-business owners and artists, like @mattchessco, who makes Warhol-esque portraits of American icons. Or there’s @paultwa who recently made a “2020 Year in Review” piece that illustrates the major events of the year in a panel resembling traditional stained glass. Paul has synesthesia, a perceptual phenomenon where concepts, letters, or words are visually abstracted. His synesthesia manifests in his visualization of the calendar year, influencing his design. I could go on with examples for hours.
In a time when theaters closed, public singing became a conduit for transmission, and access to art studios in schools and community centers was nonexistent, TikTok was a place where people were able to share their work, gain inspiration, and participate in the solidarity of being in an audience.
The medium lends creators unparalleled international collaboration on a scale that had not previously been possible.
Does anyone else remember Trump’s rally in Tulsa Oklahoma this June?
Maybe not considering almost no one showed up 😏
Trump scheduled a rally to promote his re-election, it was his first public event since the beginning of lockdown in March, and was scheduled in an indoor venue, upsetting many people in the aftermath of his controversial response to the novel coronavirus. Plus, it was originally scheduled on Juneteenth in a city that has had a rich history of racial oppression. Millions of spots were reserved for the event, causing the campaign to secure a secondary venue for additional viewers, however, the Tulsa Fire Department estimated 6,200 attendees at the actual event.
In the days leading up to the event, I saw droves of TikToks asking people to reserve tickets to the Tulsa rally online (with absolutely no intention of attending). Creators often deleted their content after 24 hours to avoid detection. The platform mobilized young people to participate in politics in a novel fashion. And not just general young Americans, but fans of Korean pop (known as K-pop) in particular. Here’s a quote from the NYT coverage of the Tulsa rally coup:
“K-pop stans have been getting increasingly involved in American politics in recent months. After the Trump campaign solicited messages for the president’s birthday on June 8, K-pop stans submitted a stream of prank messages. And earlier in June, when the Dallas Police Department asked citizens to submit videos of suspicious or illegal activity through a dedicated app, K-pop Twitter claimed credit for crashing the app by uploading thousands of “fancam” videos.
They also reclaimed the #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag in May, by spamming it with endless K-pop videos, in hopes to make it harder for white supremacists and sympathizers to find one another and communicate their messaging.” — Taylor Lorenz, Kellen Browning and Sheera Frenkel
Given the K-pop ties, it’s entirely possible that non-Americans participated in this re-election dissent. There’s also discussion (but no hard evidence, yet) that TikTok contributed positively towards Biden’s re-election, or at the very least, mitigation of voter suppression because the platform allows creators to share information with the public for free. Not to mention accounts run by actual politicians, like Ossoff’s aforementioned account.
When you’re down, it’s easy to tune into something that will make you laugh, and it’s a smaller commitment than other entertainment sources.
Listen, there are just some days when I wake up in an existential crisis and I still have to show up to work. Those are the days when a little laugh makes all the difference, but I don’t have 20 minutes to watch an episode of New Girl before getting out of bed. Or, maybe after a tough day of work, spent confronting issues that seem to have no answer, I don’t have time to launch into a 50-minute episode of Bones to escape my reality. Let alone a 2-hour John Hughes movie. Sometimes, I don’t even want to watch a YouTube video, it’s just too much work. This is when watching a few TikToks really just does it for me.
TikToks are 60-seconds max. That’s low-commitment for a generation obsessed with instant gratification. Just now, as I’m writing this, my friend Chris sent me this little TikTok from @ketnipz, one of my favorite creators. It made me laugh for a few seconds, brightened my mood, and I continued on writing. In a year filled with tragedy, it’s nice to have something that gives you a little serotonin.
I also want to add that TikTok made me laugh so hard this year, and I want to highlight some of the funniest people I’ve ever had the privilege to watch. These people often took me from being genuinely depressed to pee-in-my-pants laughing in less than a minute. If that’s not a testament to their talent, I don’t know what is.
- @thebeckyrobinsonshow has made my entire family laugh with her impersonation of a golf-obsessed suburban mother, who regularly runs over her children’s toys if they’re left in the driveway ahead of her “bruncheons” at the country club. Her children? They’re named Dashell and Maccabee.
- @lubalin composes songs based on random internet drama. The music production is absolutely amazing.
- @brittany_broski is massively popular. She started with her famous “Komboucha Girl” video, but has demonstrated that she’s a truly brilliant comedian, full of funny faces, voices, and observations, but also genuinely poignant reflections on her rise to fame and the cost associated.
- @grace_africa switches between her Nigerian and American accents so effortlessly that you won’t be sure which one is more comfortable for her. She’s one of the funniest women I’ve ever encountered.
The strength of the recommendation algorithm and length of videos is optimized for the exploration of new ideas and information.
As mentioned in the previous section, TikToks are short, they vary from 15–60 seconds, making them easily and quickly digestible. Their length, combined with the strength and diversity of videos recommended via the algorithm has exposed me to tons of new information and ideas. For example, Humphrey Yang has personally helped me save loads of money this year. He’s coached me through investment, retirement planning, and market analysis. I’ve learned far more from him than the undergraduate Managerial Finance course I took this winter. I’ve opened up a high-yield savings account, started and then gave up on day trading, started long-term investing, and purchased a certificate of deposit, all based on information I learned from watching TikToks, and it has quite literally saved me thousands of dollars.
It’s also been a powerful advertising tool, leading me to buy products like my new alarm clock after learning more about my circadian rhythm, a new mechanical keyboard that resembles a typewriter and has made work way more fun (and become a natural deterrent for my parents while I’m clacking away), even a new bra from Amazon that’s the best one I’ve ever owned. Many of these “advertisements” aren’t even paid, creators are simply sharing their best finds.
Beyond my own selfish reasons for appreciating the algorithm, it's also allowed so many people an opportunity to build a career. All of the artists mentioned in the first section? They were all either randomly discovered or popularized because the algorithm recommended their content to new people, who then share it with other people, skyrocketing them to fame and recognition. 2020 has put people out of work, TikTok has actually made a living for a lucky few.
At this point, you may be thinking “Chloe is absolutely addicted to this app and she needs help.” Maybe you’re on to something.
2020 took so much away from us: lives, opportunities, steady jobs, security, predictability, it even pulled us apart from each other. And I think TikTok gave many things to me, a bit of joy and laughter, new ideas or perspectives on the world, and on my darkest and most isolated days, it reminded me that I was not alone in the world. It reminded me that others are still creating, still innovating in the face of all this darkness. That we are simply lying in wait for the world to restart.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep addictively scrolling through TikTok.