TikTok is earning the right to call itself a global pandemic. The burgeoning app is a reincarnation of the massively-yet-fleetingly popular Vine that succumbed to competition from social media titans Instagram and Snapchat as well as its inability to turn a significant profit.
Though it remains to be seen if Instagram and Snapchat can outdo the creative facilities that TikTok has to offer, the abundance of high-profile companies for which TikTok has been an advertising platform points to TikTok’s relative longevity in success and existence. Albeit this significant difference between TikTok and Vine, the former truly is the latter’s upgraded successor, practically and symbolically. Advocates of uber-simplicity and six-second content aside, no one will deny the benefits that a tenfold increase of usable time and an expansion of effects has on the breadth of creative capacity.
There is, however, something to be said about the extensive list of instantly recognizable and endlessly quotable vines. This “list” is explained by a vine’s brevity. The short length makes each one essentially a soundbite, and soundbites are much easier to memorize and memorialize than15-to-60-second-long bits. Also, much of Vine’s humor consisted of users creating fictional characters and fictional situations — like Rudy Mancuso’s “Mexican Superman” and Jordan Burt’s “Don, Blind Driver” — whereas TikTok has a noticeable lack of such humor. This difference is likely due, in part, to the contemporary shift towards reaction memes and social commentary that are ubiquitous on TikTok (as well as every other young adult’s current meme stronghold) but were not as popular during Vine’s tenure.
Whatever the structural and cultural divide is, the spirit and the encompassing idea have held constant: young generations are creating impactful media for their own enjoyment.
Like most major social-networking services, TikTok is mired in controversy, though not enough to impede its ascent towards global popularity. This controversy is situated in an area that evades the consciousness of the vast majority of (non-Chinese) TikTok users, falling somewhere between contemporary United States foreign policy, universal human rights and data security. There have been worries about the Chinese Communist Party accessing users’ data, potential censorship of videos pertaining to the various human rights abuses occurring in China and the US’ national security at large being compromised. This is not to say that TikTok’s community would dissipate upon a hypothetical mass realization of all these potential abuses. However, it does show that there are larger forces at work here and that the controversy is not one that will be completely washed away with the rapidly growing TikTok tide.
With controversy addressed, it is time to delve into the current state of TikTok.
Of the popular trends on TikTok, most can be grouped into music and dance, memes and duets. Let’s start with the currently trending music and dance TikToks. At the moment, the heavily circulating songs with corresponding dances are “Lottery (Renegade)” (2019) by K CAMP, “Say So” (2019) by Doja Cat and “TOES” (2019) by DaBaby. The first, known simply as “Renegade,” originated on Instagram but was popularized by TikTok juggernaut Charli D’Amelio (@charlidamelio). It incorporates a variety of unique dance moves — mostly hip-hop-esque ones, with a heavy focus on the arms and hands and overall speediness. The second, quickly becoming Doja Cat’s biggest song, has an extremely boppy beat and lyrics that imply very specific dance moves, such as a slow motion arm roll during the lines, “Didn’t even notice / No punches left to roll with.” This dance was actually created by popular TikToker Haley Sharpe (@yodelinghaley). The third, created by TikTok’s current favorite rapper, DaBaby, has a much less strict choreography than the others but is just as fun (though it is a bit bizarre to see teenagers mouth the words, “Better not pull up with no knife/ ‘Cause I bring guns to fights”). Though these songs currently feature on many TikTok uploads, new ones seem to pop up every day.
Memes are likely the most common type of TikTok video. A common theme right now follows a basic outline of text on the screen describing a random, unidentified person (often a teacher or really just any person with relative authority over a teenager, though not always) saying something seemingly innocent. The next chunk of text is usually just “boys/girls/people/kid named _____” with the blank space being filled in with a word or consecutive parts of multiple words said by the first person that completely changes the meaning of their sentence and, often, entirely erases the innocence of it. Usually, the meme is accompanied by an overweight rat dancing to 6ix9ine’s “Gummo” (2017).
There is also an abundance of one-off memes — concocted by TikTokers with an ounce of originality — that go viral. Many of these memes are enshrouded in immature, edgy or offensive humor. It is quite rare to find a string of TikTok memes that aren’t at least somewhat “edgy” — a fact that highlights an unexpected aspect of TikTok. Even though TikTok is dominated by the youth — the generation usually known to be the most accepting and politically correct — the app is littered with material that is racist, homophobic, transphobic and containing many other vile forms of intolerance and bigotry. The possible reasons that this type of humor is common on TikTok is up for interpretation, but it is interesting to note, especially considering that the vines that went viral may have appeared less offensive than many of the popular tiktoks.
“Duets” are a TikTok-specific creation where a content creator can play another creator’s video within their own video and, thereby, seem to interact with said video. The interactions range from a back-and-forth conversation to a physical action that makes sense in conjunction with the original video, to merely a reaction of the content of the original video, i.e. approval or disapproval.
There’s no one specific trend in these duets, but there are certain TikTokers who often feature as the content for duets. Take Tyler Brash (@tyler.brash). Quite possibly the cringiest TikToker, Brash’s videos are usually him acting out scenarios where a guy is talking to a girl he likes. These videos are absolutely ripe for other TikTokers — Max Dressler (_maxdressler) being the most famous of them — to react to. Duets often display the more creative humor of TikTok.
With the state of TikTok covered, it is important to discuss two more questions: Why is TikTok so successful, and how successful can it get? The answer lies not in the app itself but more in that the older portion of Gen Z — currently around college-age — was the first age subgroup to really experience something like this (with Vine) and so they have that nostalgia embedded within them. Conversely, the people who were in their early 20s when Vine was popular didn’t have a nostalgic reference point and therefore were not as drawn to Vine as older Gen Zer’s are to TikTok.
That being said, many Gen Z people are hesitant about TikTok due to stigma surrounding the app and its cringe factor, but this apprehension is merely the inevitable appearance of the generational gap that causes each aging generation to find the next one crass and alien. Technology and, more specifically, social media, create a distinction between past youth and young adult generational gaps, such as that of Baby Boomers and Gen X, and the more current, analogous generational gap between Millennials and Gen Z (though it could be argued that there is an intra-generational wedge between the two halves of Gen Z driven by the exponential advancement of technology).
The difference is that social media is a means of connecting people, ideas, culture, memes, stories, photos, videos and GIFs from all around the world in an astoundingly instantaneous fashion, the speed of which has never been remotely matched in past time periods. Because social media arrived on the scene during the teenage years of the youngest Millennials and the oldest Gen Z’ers, these now-older people can more readily process and adapt to an app overrun by teenagers and their specific sense of humor. These younger people can infuse their own culture, ideas, memes, stories, etc. because they have the technological capabilities that prior generations in their current position did not possess. In this way, TikTok is a success due to the timing of its existence.
Though TikTok already has above 680 million monthly active users, that number will likely grow significantly. No one can exactly predict quite how big it will get, but seeing as it has broad international appeal, advertising opportunities to give it profit and a perfectly-timed period of existence, nothing — not even global politics — seems able to stop TikTok from cementing itself as a global pandemic.