Written by Daniel Pollock.
Chris Moore, a third year at Puget Sound, broke his foot because of TikTok.
Moore (@prettyboyswagchris on TikTok) was filming a video while longboarding when he fell and injured himself. He’s been on crutches since September; his surgery is scheduled for January.
“TikTok has given me literal scars,” Moore said, laughing.
Being immobile and on painkillers allowed Moore to spend more time on the app. His phone analytics show there was a point when he was on the app seven hours a day.
Moore says he’s addicted. He uses almost religious terms to describe the app.
“TikTok is the answer.”
“It consumes me.”
And Moore isn’t alone. Since its birth in 2016 (the result of a merger of three apps, including Musical.ly), TikTok has been downloaded 2 billion times, it’s quickly rising the ranks of the most used apps globally, and it’s the most downloaded app in the Apple App Store.
The rise in TikTok’s popularity can be measured by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic globally, and subsequent lockdowns. Many Puget Sound students expressed that they really didn’t interact with the app until the pandemic hit.
Amo Arado, a second year student who’s taking the current semester off, downloaded TikTok after the lockdown. It was March; he was back home after the campus shut down, and bored.
On Tiktok, he’s known as @ayyymo and his most popular video — he’s shirtless and wears oversized gourds on his arms — has amassed 1.1 million views.
For Arado, TikTok started as a joke. But the app quickly took on a new shape. Now, because of TikTok’s Creator Fund, the app pays Arado for his videos based on the number of views he receives.
Moore says he was intoxicated when he downloaded the app in the winter break of his first year at Puget Sound. He started seriously posting videos and spending time on the app after COVID-19 restrictions limited his social interaction.
Unlike other popular social media apps, TikTok offers limited forms of communication between users. An inbox feature allows users to message each other, usually to send videos back and forth, and users can also comment on videos, but the focus on the app is the videos.
Facebook and Snapchat were created for direct communication between friends, but on TikTok an algorithm decides who gets to see your videos.
TikTok’s defining feature is the For You Page, an endless scroll of videos, curated by the algorithm based on your prior interaction with videos. No two For You Pages are the same.
“Their master algorithm has me pinned down,” Moore said. “It knows exactly what I want to see. It knows I want to see a cat video and right after that it knows I want to see a sixty-second video about the history of the Great Lakes.”
This is where the “sides” of TikTok come in.
It’s a question that many young people today have heard or asked: What side of TikTok are you on?
The sides of TikTok are as varied and diverse as TikTok’s user base, and just as varied and diverse as Gen Z. There’s straight TikTok, gay TikTok, frog TikTok, Ratatouille the Musical TikTok — just to name a few.
For Kelsie Neumann, a second year student, her curated For You Page is a positive and happy space. She opens her TikTok app to feel good.
Neumann thought the algorithm would be restrictive and she wouldn’t hear new voices, but she’s had the opposite experience.
“I feel like I learn something new everyday on TikTok,” she said.
Arado says his FYP shifts with his interests. For a while he was seeing a lot of videos about mens hairstyles, but now Arado says, “I’ve been on the alt, artsy, ‘we don’t know if you’re gay, bi or lesbian’ side.”
For others, the algorithm has had far greater ramifications.
“The algorithm will tell you who you are,” Moore said.
The app changed the way he viewed and expressed himself and he believes TikTok helped him better understand facets of his identities and beliefs.
“I had no idea where I was a year ago politically,” Moore said. But watching the political videos that came through his FYP helped him gain insight into his own stances on political issues.
He also said he picked up embroidery after watching TikTok videos about it. Now, he says embroidery is part of his personality.
With its huge number of downloads, 41% of TikTok users are between the ages of 16 and 24 and so a conversation about TikTok easily turns into a conversation about a generation.
Open up the app, scroll through the videos and read the comments: It won’t take long to find someone talking about Gen Z, the generation born between 1997 and 2012.
It’s also an app defined by a global pandemic and the resultant social isolation. Videos discuss masks, coping with loneliness, and thirst traps seem to hint at our collective horniness.
TikTok also gets political. In September of this year, President Trump announced he would ban the app nationally if a U.S.-based company didn’t buy out the current owners, ByteDance, a company based in China. He claimed the app was a security risk.
Some believe the president was simply annoyed by the young TikTok users mocking him.
Neumann was sad at the thought of losing the community she had built through TikTok. And she viewed Facebook as more of a security threat than TikTok.
“I could almost see it as a way for the president using his power to shut down the many views of him that were portrayed on the app,” Neumann said. “So I almost felt like it came from a place of not security, but opinion.”
In the spring, news agencies reported on TikTok-ers joining forces to sabotage a Trump rally in Tulsa. Later, publications, such as The New York Times and Vox, questioned whether TikTok-ers really had that much sway over the event. But whether or not TikTok was the reason, the moment solidified a national myth of the app as a social and political force to be reckoned with.
Before TikTok, Arado hated to be grouped with Gen Z.
“I thought of them as little kids,” Arado said. “10 year olds with iPhones who were mean to me on Instagram.”
But on TikTok Arado found a generation invested in politics and activism. He realized the “cool” people he saw on the app were also Gen Z.
TikTok has given a generation a platform to communicate with itself, not only politically, but aesthetically as well.
Scroll through Arado’s videos and you’ll find a lot of the hallmark traits of a Gen Z TikTok-er: vintage T-shirts, Carhartts, dyed hair, obscure jokes.
“Alt” styles are so prevalent on the app that they almost can’t be labeled as alternative, moving into the mainstream.
Arado is quick to say his style is more indie than alt, however. When asked, he struggles to define his own aesthetic.
“My friends are more edgy than me, but I’m not not edgy, but I’m a little edgy, then I’m a little artsy but I’m not really artsy, then I have a little bit of STEM in me but I’m not really, and I dress like I came straight from Grease,” Arado said.
His response is as varied as a For You Page. Thankfully, though, he doesn’t have to have a clear answer; as Moore said: “The algorithm will tell you who you are.”
Arado appears shirtless in most videos. He calls his TikToks thirst traps.
“Whenever I talk about it, I’m like ‘damn I hate this,’” Arado said. “There’s no other way to put it: I can use my good looks for views.”
Arado says the intention of his videos is split 50/50.
“It’s either me trying to be hot or me trying to be silly,” he said.
He admits feeling “icky” while making some videos. One example, he said, was when he decided to take off his shirt to film a video about his bikes.
Arado says he posts videos partly to receive validation.
“There’s this expectation on me, even though it’s so dumb, doesn’t matter.”
But he also believes the app has given him a platform to express himself.
Moore felt a similar desire for validation, and initially started creating videos in hopes that they would go viral, but finally decided he just wanted to have fun with the process.
Despite its apparent interest in “alt-ness,” TikTok is built around trends: dances, lip-syncs, outfit recreations and more.
Arado’s Halloween costume was inspired by a trend. He wore a cheerleader outfit that looks straight out of the “I Say a Little Prayer” Glee performance (sidebar: Glee is another active side of TikTok). He said he decided to follow a trend he’d been seeing where male TikTok-ers donned maid dresses.
In conjunction with the desired alt aesthetic, there’s been a rise of straight TikTok-ers borrowing queer aesthetics. (Another popular trend: straight male best friends kissing each other).
Moore believes being queer is commodified on TikTok.
He is hesitant with straight people adopting certain facets of queerness.
“There’s a real struggle out there, and they’re getting just a glimpse of what it is to be gay, and they’re doing it for views,” Moore said.
But simultaneously he appreciates how these videos can deconstruct masculinity.
Arado also calls this a form of cultural appropriation, but he believes it has also helped people become more comfortable with their identities.
Moore also believes LGBTQ representation on TikTok is beneficial. He tries to represent his experiences as a young gay man through his videos.
“It’s good to show young people that yes there are adult gay people, we’re alive,” Moore said. “I never had that image when I was growing up and that would’ve helped a lot.”
Neumann (@kelsieneumann on TikTok) is known for her videos about her experiences as a Starbucks barista.
Through the app, she has formed a community of other baristas; they check in with each other about their work, and share work stories.
“It’s really crazy to have such a deep connection with these people that I’ve never met in person,” Neumann said.
As a working student — she’s worked two jobs on top of her full-time courseload — Neumann feels like some members of the Puget Sound community see her as a “mythical creature.” But through TikTok she’s found other baristas with similar experiences.
People have started to recognize her because of TikTok. One of Neumann’s videos appeared on her co-worker’s For You page, and at a different Starbucks location, the barista recognized Neumann from TikTok.
She’s connected with a broad range of Starbucks-related TikTok creators and she believes Starbucks should be compensating the baristas on TikTok who are creating what are now called “TikTok drinks” — drink combinations that have become so popular Neumann and other baristas have had to memorize the recipes like regular menu items.
“I swear if I have to make another one of those I might quit,” Neuman said.
Neumann calls these videos “free advertising.”
Unlike Instagram and other popular apps, TikTok has yet to see a huge surge in advertising. Ads aren’t nonexistent, but their presence is minimal, and only the biggest TikTok-ers create sponsored content.
But TikTok still has a definite sway on the economy. Neumann said that some Starbucks locations ran out of certain ingredients after TikTok drink orders went viral. In one of Moore’s videos, he wonders where all the TikTok boys are buying pearl necklaces. With the rising popularity of thrift-flip videos, it’s safe to assume thrift stores have also seen increased sales. And barbers have probably stayed busy giving more and more young people the ubiquitous TikTok mullet.
The Trump administration, in its last days, is still working on banning TikTok.
For Moore, that would partly come as a relief.
“I feel like my life would be better without it, as much as I love it.”
When Trump initially attempted to ban the app, Moore was partly hopeful.
“I was relieved and happy at the notion that this app would be out of my life,” he said. “I still wish someone would take it from me.”
Without a ban, Moore won’t delete the app. He feels too attached.
“It’s really dirty what they’re doing to our brains,” Moore said. “It knows you, and the more you know it, the more it knows you and the more you’ll become addicted to it.”