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The 'For You' Age: How TikTok Conquered 2019

by Brendan Wetmore & Charlotte Spritz

The rhetoric around TikTok — a complex social platform often mischaracterized as merely a lip-syncing app — tends toward amusement, confusion, and concern. Users' AI-enabled "For You" homepages are Pandora's boxes of pop culture, from "Old Town Road" challenges and Spiderman cosplays to outsider art-like skits and Insane Clown Posse sing-alongs, all made hazy by clouds of Juul smoke.

While think pieces and trend roundups litter the homepages of news outlets attempting to catch up to speed with TikTok and its clusters of sub-communities, for Gen Z, nothing about the app is exceptionally bewildering. Scrolling between videos of pugs eating peanut butter, high schoolers recreating scenes from Heathers and baby boomers dancing to Playboi Carti feels about right for a generation of first-time voters facing a reality TV star at the top of their election ballots.

TikTok launched in 2016 under its Chinese parent company ByteDance. An international expansion began almost immediately, aided by the company's 2017 acquisition of musical.ly, pioneer of the lip-syncing app format. Its Western popularity is unusual in the Silicon Valley age dominated by Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, all of which are censored in China. TikTok is that rare digital entity with a truly worldwide audience, although its Chinese iteration, Douyin, still operates behind the country's "Great Firewall" internet regulations.

It's sometimes speculated that those international users are being censored, too. It was widely reported last week that teenage TikTok user Feroza Aziz had her account suspended after openly criticizing the Chinese government's mistreatment of Uighur Muslims, though TikTok has strongly denied this claim.

TikTok might be considered "post-Vine" by those nostalgic for the now-defunct video sharing network's quick fix bites of laughter, but actual users will find the differences between the two increasingly stark. Talking about Vine in 2019 is now approaching "OK Boomer" levels of blasé. Either you get on the TikTok train, or you might as well still be on Facebook.

Compared to Vine and other video platforms, followings are built a little differently on TikTok, with virality occurring in community-based spurts. A large majority of creators gather around identifiers and trends that have practically become search engine-optimized cliques categorized by activity, interest, look and sound. Take the "VSCO girl," for example — a young woman who wears puka shell necklaces, speaks in gay colloquialisms, and fights against climate justice by carrying a reusable water bottle. Named after the popular photo editing app's user base of the same name, the term has become hyper-prevalent on TikTok, as it has on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and even IRL.

In an example of how self-deprecation has practically become the highest art form on TikTok, second only to irony, many young people identify with the style (or at least view it as a cultural touchstone) despite its negative connotations. Even if you're donning your Birkenstocks and nursing a Hydro Flask, if you scroll past someone imitating a VSCO girl, you'll laugh.

The same vein of relatability runs through an array of other TikTok cliques that rally around trends: dancers, boomers, e-girls and e-boys, comedians, POV-ers, makeup gurus and, most popularly, cosplayers. While some of the communities existed long before its invention, they have, at the very least, started experimenting with TikTok.

What's most fascinating about these trends is how they're migrating off the app and into the real world. TikTok dance videos are now dictating what songs become popular, helping bolster real-time chart positions for 2019's hottest songs, like Lizzo's "Truth Hurts," which technically came out two years ago. Cringe-inducing content from unlikely users is becoming office water cooler talk; cosplayers have a more streamlined way to display their creations and connect with likeminded fans ahead of conventions and meet-ups.

The way TikTok democratizes influence is refreshing. The home ("For You") page is an assembly of AI-curated videos from both strangers and people that you follow, and it's gloriously decentralized compared to most other platforms. It doesn't feel corporate yet, either. While the odd sponsored video appears occasionally, there isn't a clear-cut way for creators to monetize their content directly.

For now, TikTok has only a loose grip on any individual creator's output. Content is still being filtered, yes, but it's being spread more liberally than on any other social network. In this sense — and in the context of proliferating bots, fake news and social media's general decay —TikTok is visually, audibly and innately the most human platform we have.

To better understand TikTok, its trends and its sub-communities, PAPER put together a crash course guide for those unfamiliar with the app, complete with insights from some of its most prolific creators.

Click through the slideshow, below, to read how cutting-edge influencers are harnessing the platform's powers.

The POVer: Devyn (@basedgod6ix9)

Image via Kelvin Murray

POV videos place the viewer directly in the scene, where TikTokers take on various roles — the school bully, an ex, a girlfriend or boyfriend — while speaking directly to the camera. The result often uncannily transports viewers back into the performed situation, be it the school cafeteria or a nasty breakup. Closely related to comedy channels, these POV videos are often ironic or tongue in cheek.

When did you join TikTok?

I had TikTok back when it was still musical.ly. I'm sure my embarrassing videos from when I was 14 are still out there somewhere. I joined and started making videos on TikTok back in February of this year. I actually had an account before my current one, but it got suspended on my graduation day.

What's your favorite audio or trend?

My favorite trend right now is probably the "I'm not a model but here are some photos I took" trend that uses the Juice Wrld song. I made one where I put photos of Nikita Dragun and Antonio Garza as a joke, because a lot of people say I'm them because we're all trans women. I think it's my favorite because people can actually use it seriously and show some amazing photos or they can make it comedic with any sort of photo, whether it be comparing themselves to their lookalikes or things like rats or trash cans.

What's your best performing TikTok?

My best performing TikTok is probably my "Miss Environmental" one. It's basically me just poking fun at "VSCO girls," their use of metal straws and how saving the Earth (and, of course, the turtles) seems more of a trend than an actual concern. I made it back in July and it's gained 290k+ likes and 1.5m views, and it was my first video to hit over 100k likes. I actually consider it the post that really helped me gain a following.

How would you describe your genre of TikTok?

I honestly don't know how I'd describe my "genre" of TikTok. The only way I can really describe it is just comedy. I try to make jokes for people to laugh at and humor in my real-life experiences because I know I'm not the only one who goes through some of the things I have and I feel like people laugh more at things they relate to.

Has being TikTok-famous changed your life at all? If so, how?

TikTok fame has changed my life. It has brought a lot of positive influence in my life. I'm not dodging crowds of fans or getting recognized in public, but it's brought me a lot of happiness and a creative outlet. I get to make jokes and make people laugh, and I think that's all I've ever really wanted to do. I also have felt so much love and acceptance, being a transgender woman of color. Me having a platform can be a positive influence for younger people like me. It shows that we do exist, we can be loved and accepted, and we are more than just our gender identity or sexual orientation. I've also met so many talented, genuine people through this app. I've made friends with some of the coolest and funniest people that probably wouldn't even know I existed without TikTok. And yes, I have my rough patches with hate comments and such — it's impossible to not read what people are saying about me and not let it get to me, but the positives it's created immensely outweigh any negatives.

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