I first encountered the TikTok personality Angel Mamii when I stumbled across a video — er, a TikTok — of her running through a Walmart aisle, frantically explaining to her son that they need chargers because, in her words, “all my chargers are missing.” The entire clip, from start to finish, is a stiffly staged comedy sketch with an ending so abrupt it acts as its own twist, leaving the viewer wondering not, What happens next? but What just happened at all?
The confusing dialogue, clunky acting, and randomized narrative of the scene could be read as an argument in favor of contemporary filmmaking techniques by way of showing what it would be like if we had none of them. So, naturally, Mamii’s TikToks have been hailed as dadaist sensations and, following an endorsement from Barstool Sports, she and her partner now sport merch featuring the media company’s logo (a stool), in her clips.
While Angel Mamii’s videos are truly unique (and terrible) iterations of the medium, they are proof that TikTok, the social media app that allows users to record, edit, post, and remix videos ranging from a few seconds to a minute, isn’t just a platform for Gen Z-ers to post videos of themselves doing vape pranks, but an absurd platform on which users create confusing feedback loops of content, ever mimicking themselves and reality into asininity.
Losing it over the energy in this tik tok rn... not one point was made pic.twitter.com/LOmP2pyraC— alice (@ifinallythrewup) September 12, 2019
Pages upon digital pages have already been written about TikTok, usually surrounding conversation around youth culture, the simultaneous terror and joy that social media inspires, and the embarrassing attempts of older generations to keep up. From compilation videos and Twitter threads to articles deconstructing the app’s most popular trends and how the teens are handling micro-fame, Gen Z is commended for their creativity and resourcefulness. “It’s one of the most important companies on the planet, and it’s at the forefront of the possible future of social media,” Vox asserted. The app, The Week gushed that TikTok, “has captured Generation Z — in both its structure and its culture, [reflecting] the conditions of their lives.” The deluge of uncritical media coverage of the app is perhaps best summed up by the gibberish New York Times headline: “High Schools to TikTok: We’re Catching Feelings.”
Why is a highly curated platform with mysterious algorithmic forces and out-of-sight data collection seen as indicative of anything, let alone the preferences of an entire generation? Teenagers have been filming videos of themselves doing weird and/or dumb shit for years, and they’ve been uploading those videos of themselves to online platforms since Johnny Knoxville first tried to do a backflip nude off an 18-wheeler. And if you think that the rapid circulation of videos on TikTok is a new phenomenon, the Star Wars kid, who circulated on peer-to-peer networks like Kazaa and was hosted on sites like Newgrounds, would like to argue otherwise. We often speak of the importance of not understating the impact and influence of internet platforms, but have we considered the possibility that, as a corrective, we end up overstating them?
Algorithms and platforms of today play an incredible role in our lives: they shape our psyches and behavior, often invisibly, with side effects that range from harmless to insidious. TikTok, whose parent company, ByteDance, is based in China and is therefore beholden to its government’s censorship regime, has used its algorithm to suppress content documenting the protests in Hong Kong. It’s important to remember that our feeds are political, even and perhaps especially when they espouse no politics at all.
But also consider, despite the breathless press, that TikTok is not especially unique. It is just the latest version of a user experience formulated to increase screen time that preys upon the addictive centers of the brain. But because it’s a new social network that is distinct enough to take some time understanding and getting used to, its essential sameness is obscured to us adults, who end up focusing on its aesthetic differences and the fact that kids today can’t have a conversation without their faces in their phones. This is not unlike how we fret about vaping being an unprecedented threat to teen wellness, even though teens have always sought out sketchy intoxicants and other things that endanger their lives, or how we marvel at their expectation of praise, even after years of having to defend our own participation trophies
One could argue that the stock a cultural commentator places on any set of broad signifiers corresponds with how far removed that cultural commentator is from the group they’re discussing. There is literally no way that a teen believes that making a TikTok video is the expression of generational identity that certain Olds seem to believe it is. They’re just doing the things that teens have always done, but with different tools.
Millennials, the generation that has been synonymous with avocado toast and self-obsession to which I belong, were constantly accused of and berated for killing whichever industry or antiquated practice about which their elders wanted to reminisce at any given time. Remember the printing press? The 8-track? The broom? Whereas Millennials were endlessly criticized for our hand in accelerating relationships to technology, Zoomers, i.e., anyone born between 1997 and 2012, are commended for their creative uses of everything from TikTok to Google Docs. They’re lauded as the generation responsible for escalating talks of real-world structural change, both environmentally and culturally; when Millennials tried talking about this stuff, we were often scoffed at and given sarcastic labels such as “snowflakes” and “social justice warriors.” Maybe it is just Millennials’ turn at this, as every generation bemoans and mediates the previous generation's entitlement and ease. Some have tried to combat the judgmental wave and set a new precedent, which only confirms the pattern's power and relevance. Are we doomed to have killed for tappa-tappa-tappa?
There is literally no way that a teen believes that making a TikTok video is the expression of generational identity that certain Olds seem to believe it is.
When I think about what makes TikTok unique, one phrase comes to mind: it is a den of lies. One of the most popular formats on the app involves the initial set-up for a miniature storyline: the creator fills us in on some betrayal without offering a resolution, or makes some dubious assertion, or simply engages in random scandal-baiting. Sometimes in the caption, sometimes in the video itself, is some sort of promise to fill us in on the entire story in a follow-up post, but only on the condition that a certain predetermined level of engagement is met on the original post. (Imagine that rather than immediately gifting this video of a cockroach dragging a cigarette butt across a grate to the world, its creator first posted a front-facing camera video in which they promised to show us a crazy thing that a cockroach was doing, but only if their original clip got 100,000 views.)
Comments claiming the creator is “clout chasing,” often (deservedly) accumulate, and depending on the format, the video may be called out as being staged or fake. As engagement swells, the second video either does or doesn’t come. Even if a follow-up does end up coming, it’s generally anticlimactic and never lives up to the hype. Even the creator is over it, having racked up all the engagement, achieved the dopamine high, and often can't even believably pretend the reveal was worth waiting for. Perhaps the peak of excitement, for creator and viewer alike, rests in the promise of skyrocketing likes and comments, the anticipation for the titillating cliffhanger. This, too, is nothing that tabloids didn't already figure out decades ago, a discovery which was then recycled in the clickbait boom of just a few years ago. There is a question of whether content is truly engaging or just pantomiming through the motions. But does it matter if the effects are the same?
Perhaps TikTok actually is a microcosm for our cultural climate, but slightly off-kilter. Performance studies would have us believe that our every action is both a communication and a manipulation. On TikTok, we experience human communication from the metal box in our hands, watching performed reflections of human life, fabricated events, and everything in between. It’s not novel to point out the perils of attempting to extrapolate conclusions from mediated versions of something rather than the thing itself, but the possible difference between pre- and post-online life is that we really ought to know better. TikTok, like many platforms, is less indicative of social trends than it is of the priorities of its algorithm, which could drive even the most guarded content creator to desperately overexpose themselves.
The question of whether it is still (or was ever) helpful to sum up two decades of people in sweeping statements is now debatable, and even moreso with the exponential rate of technological innovation, and thus communication and performance. Why are we still relying on this dynamic of generational analysis? Isn’t it about time to move on?
If we must discuss cultural shifts by generation, let us step back and analyze the greater forces shaping such transformations. The truths will become obvious. Did Millennials decide to not buy houses because we like to keep our options open and/or spend all or money on lattes, or because we came of age in a precarious economy whose recovery has yielded a prohibitively expensive housing market? This is not so different from the notion that today’s teens might not actually be gravitating to TikTok as much as they’re settling for something that approximates the energy and chaos of the offline social lives they cannot fully lead because the infrastructure of real-life community has eroded. If we are to learn anything from each other, let us learn it from each other, and not by peeking out from whatever internet cave into which we’ve been shuffled.