TikTok is the first buzzy app to make me feel really, truly old, which sucks for more reasons than the growing realizations that come with aging: TikTok is simply unavoidable now. If you’re on Twitter, you probably see the app’s Vine-like videos retweeted on your timeline at least once a day. On Instagram, your friends have most likely posted some of their favorites TikToks to their stories. The app is currently serving as a sort of meme incubator, producing videos and in-jokes that become internet lingua franca in a matter of days, can turn songs into overnight hits, and make celebrities out of pre-teens (as long as you’re not, like me, too old to know what’s going on and to whom all pre-teens look the same).
TikTok is the biggest video craze since the still-tragic death of Vine. Its success seems to rely on the fact that it’s a mixture of all the shortform video apps of yesteryear combined, and somehow on steroids. There’s still, of course, the appeal of brevity: these videos are short. You can record up to 15 seconds on the app (but users have the options of making videos of up to 60 seconds long by cutting clips together or uploading footage filmed elsewhere). Unlike Vine, it incorporates the music focus popularized by Dubsmash and later Musical.ly; there’s a catalog of “sounds” users can choose from, including songs, dialogue and a variety of noises that I, frankly, cannot begin to interpret.
The videos are a mix of comedy and music: people can monologue about what’s on their mind, dance to a budding hit song or play pranks. It’s the Wild West of internet content, and I was out of the loop. To better understand it — and what’s driving our online lives right now — I located my inner Gen Z and spent a week on TikTok. Here’s what I learned.
I start by doing what I had long avoided: downloading the application to my phone. Immediately, the icon stresses me out: a dizzying 3D design of a music note. Eventually, it will become hypnotizing to look at; you get familiar with it fast, because the icon is all over the app. Did I unwittingly subject myself to a government-mandated mind control program? Thrilled to find out!
I decide to keep it simple and explore what the app promotes. The “For You” page is an easy way in for newcomers: scroll on through like Instagram’s Discover page as it serves you the latest, hottest videos TikTok has to offer. How it determines those, I have no idea, but the content…. The content is great. One of the first videos I see is a bird dancing to Blueface’s “Thotiana,” an apt, timely and silly beginning to my journey. As I continue to scroll, I notice some of the app’s popular memes at the forefront: there’s some nonsense about pennies wherein someone holds pennies in their hands before being confronted by a person or creature saying “I smell pennies” before running towards the camera. I hate this meme. Itt’s creepy as fuck, and my first real lesson in TikTok is to quickly scroll past any penny-centric videos.
Soon, I discover what has since become my favorite video — not just on TikTok, but of all time: A goldfish sits in its bowl as Adele sings “Someone Like You.” The camera quickly pans out to a fantastic array of Goldfish (the snack) facing the live fish on the counter, as the sound of a live audience singing Adele’s hit plays over the crowd. It is absolutely entrancing. I watch it on a loop before sending to everyone I know. I quickly find this format — song plays, then the audio switches to concert footage and the camera shows more of….something — is one of the more inventive memes on TikTok, and I start to hunt for more. An hour later, when I am looking for more reasons to talk about this video to more people, I realize that TikTok has already hooked me.
TikTok has now been moved to the “Social Media” folder on my phone, so I can keep tabs on it for “research.” After reading an article on BuzzFeed News about the “e-girl” movement I decided to search “#egirl” on the app. For those who have not heard about this “new kind of cool girl,” as BuzzFeed describes them, “e-girls” are the natural evolution of what scene girls in the early 2000s are. They’re marked by multi-colored hair, jet black eyeliner and often meticulously drawn marker hearts under their eyes. Also, sometimes, for reasons I’ve yet to fully understand, they apply makeup to look like they have a light sunburn. Their interests include anime, video games and the emo pop of Billie Eilish and Lil Peep.
I scrolled through on TikTok and found mostly guys making fun of the look, so I pivoted to the accounts for some of the specific users mentioned in BuzzFeed‘s article. The videos I found were mostly monologuing, make-up application and lip-syncing to random movie scenes and songs. They seemed pretty mundane — complaints about college and dating delivered straight to the camera with some strangely placed irony in their delivery — and occasionally peppered with memes. It was an interesting use of the app, but not the #content I was craving.
My editor sent me some his favorite TikToks, which were entirely teens pranking their parents. Some had been on my For You page already, but pissing off parents for viral content never gets old. One featured a song fake out: a girl and her dad swayed to “Santa Tell Me” before Khia’s raunchy “My Neck My Back” starts up, to dad’s dismay. In another, a boy made his mom hold a full glass of water to the ceiling of their kitchen with a broomstick, then just walks away, leaving her to hold it up — her priceless reaction is both uncontrollably laughing and annoyed anger. Some are just kids slapping parents in the face with lunch meat.
I realized that the most I’ve actively laughed thanks to the internet in a long, long time, has been thanks to TikTok. Maybe this will fill the void in my life where Vine once thrived? Will I finally stop spending hours watching Best of Vine compilations on YouTube while mourning its loss now that TikTok exists?
On Instagram, a friend posted a video of a girl doing a make-up transformation into Johnny Depp. I will probably be thinking about it for the rest of my life!!
On my train commute, where my TikTok use has really thrived, I realized that I hadn’t looked up the meme that taught me what TikTok was in the first place. A few months back, people would do transformation videos set to the drop in Soulja Boy’s “Pretty Boy Swag.” The video starts with them slowly adding things to their body, and once they hit a pose, the reference photo to a fictional character they are imitating appears in time with the drop. The videos were amusing and all over Twitter for a bit.
Today, I finally searched “#prettyboyswag” on TikTok. As I had hoped, it was as silly as I needed it to be. Within the search, a Bratz Doll challenge was thriving and had people showing off RuPaul’s Drag Race-level make-up skills. I even saw some willing, older users who were not just being pranked by their kids take part in the meme. Darla, the brace-faced young girl from Finding Nemo, seemed to be another popular choice for the meme. I couldn’t quite parse why. The further I dove into the hashtag the more I realized that a lot of the videos…. were bad, and completely missed the meme’s point, but when they were great, they were really great.
For no reason other than I was bored and running out of things to do on the app that weren’t scroll the For You page for hours or become an e-girl myself, I searched for vaping and Juul content. I just think Juuls are funny; I wish I could explain further. The results were mostly hypebeast vape tricks — sometimes fun! — and a couple of funny videos set to music, but nothing extraordinary. This was my first real TikTok disappointment, but I did this to myself.
To counter the lack of interesting vape content, I found a video of a girl trying to hold her boyfriend’s hand while he plays video games. When he pulls away, her dog offers his paw to hold. The type of quality content I needed.
As I entered my last day on TikTok for “work purposes,” I wondered if TikTok would continue to be a part of my life. I went back to the videos I had liked and rewatched them for some more laughs, but ultimately found myself enjoying the presentation of TikTok clips through Twitter, Instagram and friends who spend more time than I do on the app. I like my content curated, thank you very much, and the relentless, churning chaos of TikTok is something I may never be able to keep up with at the source. Of course, this was also the best way of consuming Vine content as well.
What struck me during my short time of intense TikTok usage is the sheer amount meme formats, and the creativity on display as they explode on the app. Vine was built on personalities: there were memes, of course, but the standout videos were all about the cults of personality, or random moments of comedic brilliance (there can only be one “Back at it again at Krispy Kreme!“). Dubsmash and Musical.ly were built on one purpose — lip-syncing — you knew what you were getting as soon as you opened those apps.
TikTok reminds me of the early days of YouTube: anyone could briefly be a star with the right ridiculous content, except now there are more chances than ever to find your right niche or meme to glom on to. The kids are, if nothing else, extremely creative.
Regardless of how it evolves — Will it become too chaotic for its own good? Or is the chaos what makes it appealing? —TikTok has already given us some of the biggest viral content moments this year (see: Lil Nas X). How can one not love an app that has most of its users drinking “yee yee juice” before turning into cowboys or cowgirls? That’s the type of energy the world needs more of.