Techworld has launched a series where we'll be sampling a range of niche social media platforms and reporting back on our experiences. We'll peruse these platforms for a week, gather impressions and sometimes chat to users about why they're there.
Each year surrendered beyond 18, and the likelihood you've heard of - much less used - Tik Tok decreases exponentially. If at this moment you're wondering 'what in sweet hell is Tik Tok?' you most certainly fall into this demographic. For the uninitiated, it's a video-sharing platform beloved of tweens and amateur content producers, known variously as a hot bed of predators or a skin crawling cringefest of lavish proportions depending on who you ask.
Confusing matters, the platform used to be called Musical.ly before it was absorbed by ByteDance, a vast Chinese internet technology company. It's seen massive success since launching, racking up over a billion downloads in 2018 and surpassing the likes of Snapchat and Instagram.
It's true that this Techworld series is about examining 'niche' social media, and over a billion users does somewhat stretch the credulity of this classification. Yet despite its wild popularity amongst a certain demographic, the app remains niche for most adults.
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In its short lifetime, the platform has already courted controversy. The lack of strict controls on who signs up (the platform says it is for over 13s, but has no foolproof ways of ensuring this), as well as features such as the ability to direct message users, has led to safety concerns for the young people on the platform. According to the NSPCC, a worryingly high proportion of underage users has received disturbing requests via dms.
At 24, I'm much too old for Tik Tok, whose demographic surely peaks within the mid-tween bracket. So before creaking my decrepit way onto the platform, I solicited the opinion of a slightly younger person: my 21 year old sister. An excerpt of the conversation that transpired is preserved below for posterity.
So, with this heartening assessment ringing in my ears I downloaded the app, steeling myself for a barren hellscape of young 'degenerates' and the middle-aged creeps trying to cruise them.
As soon as you click on the app – whether you have an account or not – content starts playing straight away, plunging you immediately into the Tik Tok multiverse.
There is a central feed which for me was pre-populated with (what I assume is) a selection of the most shared or liked content at that moment in time. These short clips play on a continuous reel which you can scroll through the same way you would any other social platform feed.
Videos are labelled with hashtags, allowing you to search for similar content. And although I don't know for sure, I'm pretty certain that the algorithms are jigged in a way that causes you to see more of content you have shown an interest in, creating the same 'filter bubble' effect other platforms are criticised for.
In the style of Vine, the videos are short - 15 second clips, although these can be glued onto one another to create a sequence of up to 60 seconds. You can set your videos to songs selected from a vast database, or your own sounds or music.
At a glance
The cringe label is one that has snowballed through the internet, bolstered by 'Tik Tok cringe compilations' that have popped up on other platforms. The first result for a Tik Tok cringe compilation on Youtube has 6.7 million views. It mostly features people who lie outside of the mainstream: who are overweight, geeky or goth, for example. And as such, perhaps this cringeyness can actually be interpreted in Tik Tok's favour, in that the app allows for a little more authenticity than the curated-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life identikit aesthetic of Instagram.
Upon first alighting on the site, I was mainly presented was 'comedy' videos varying in the degree to which they could actually be considered comedy. Prominent at first seemed to be a strand of Aussie humour consisting of 'challenges' where some guy's mate would give him an instruction that he was, for reasons known only to himself, compelled to comply with at all costs.
These involved for example the cameraman saying 'Freeze' and their mate having to stop at the end of a moving escalator, forcing a queue of people to step around him; saying 'Pocket it' and forcing their mate to shove various food and drink items into their pockets; and saying 'Make it your home' and forcing their mate to climb into, say, a water fountain. All hilarious banter, of course. (Sneers the bitter, banter-hating female journalist).
More predictably, I was also met with a slew of 'American teens do catchy dances or lip syncing to segments of memeable songs'. These clips have developed their own shared language of watchability of the kind that emerged on Vine: the punchy timing; the probably-already-viral song clip; the tightly choreographed dance moves or comic routines.
The resulting clips are instantly gratifying sugar cubes of internet consumption that can be played on repeat. The same songs or sound clips which offer the most opportunity for memeable moments are sampled again and again by different users, each tweaking the narrative for various comedic interpretations. Like memes themselves, the jokes can infinitely mutate as extra meaning and meta-reactions are layered on top.
Other videos simply resemble the 'Amazing human' compilations you can find on Youtube: people doing parkour or gymnastics, or professional dancers.
Being a (comparatively) older user of the site can come with a certain 'cringe' factor of its own, that can sometimes veer into an in-built ickiness given the youth of many of the users. Given my knowledge of some of the problems the platform's faced, I can't help but occasionally see these exuberant, unselfaware youngsters through the eyes of would-be predators.
Some other journalists have commented on the discomfitingly suggestive nature of some videos of young people on the platform. The closest thing approximating this that I came across was an 18-year-old Ariana Grande lookalike from the UK. When I tentatively checked the comments though, they seemed to be mostly other young women or girls saying how pretty she was as well as, oddly, an echo chamber effect where multiple people seemed to have commented exactly the same thing: 'you look like Ariana Grande', as if unaware that hundreds, or even thousands, had already done so. Bizarre.
Perhaps one of the greatest joys of Tik Tok is simply that it's home to some truly baffling content. I came across one video where the cameraperson walks a room, deserted apart from a man in cowboy boots standing on a table and banging his head into a loose ceiling panel in time to the hillbilly yodelling of a country song.
In another, three young people wearing hooded jumpers inexplicably bang out the rhythm of bongo drums on a bed with their torsos. I mean, you're not going to see that on Instagram are you.
Sampling content from other countries is one of the joys afforded by the app. With a hashtag search function you can locate content uploaded from, say, Iran, Tibet, or Nigeria.
The most creative and committed content creators can take advantage of a range of visual trickery and effects. Probably falling into this category is a young Chinese woman whose videos consist of her throwing things - a hat for example - which land perfectly in their target location: like, on a head. Either it's an effect or she's just really, really good at throwing. No one knows (probably), that's the beauty of it.
There is also some very strong pet content on there. I think my preference for watching dog videos nudged the algorithm because eventually 90% of the content I was being shown featured pets, which I can't say I was complaining about. If all filter bubbles were purely populated with dogs they wouldn't have nearly the bad rap they do.
Based on the human content though, my heart-warming, slightly saccharine takeaway is that teens the world over are earnest, good at catchy content, and yes, incredibly cringey.
Would I use it again?
Seeing as my feed is pretty much 'Doggo Instagram' now, I'll certainly be checking in from time to time.