Courtesy of Bloomberg / Holly Adams

September 23, 2020

LU | The Un-Banning of TikTok

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After a sine wave of decisions, changes and modifications etc Tiktok remains a part of our shaky future. In August, Trump signed an executive order that would have effectively forced TikTok to end business in the U.S. As with most Trumpian agenda, however, there were alterations that immediately followed: He extended the executive order deadline by 45 days; he stated that an acquisition prerequisite was being a “very American” company; TikTok filed a lawsuit; most recently, a deal was made with Oracle — to which Trump gave “[his] blessing;” TikTok is foreseeably here to stay.

About a year ago, I downloaded TikTok on a whim and semi-ironically made an account; two months later, I was grappling with the withdrawal of having deleted the app — a necessary “cleanse” to prepare myself for the upcoming semester.

I hesitate at my inclination to qualify my time on TikTok as “short,” because, when I had the app — mostly over winter break — I was fully invested. I grew up against a backdrop of Vine compilations and weird strains of Internet humor — it didn’t take long for TikTok to latch on to the type of content that would keep me scrolling. Each “like” crystallized an algorithmic understanding of my taste, while my “For You Page” churned out content recommendations that got better, funnier and quirkier as I went. It was a dark, endless loop of curation that I unconsciously contributed to just by watching, laughing and liking.

The months following my “quitting,” the success of this self-curation loop seemed to have created affinity groups en masse. My crafty friends sent me bead necklace tutorials from DIYTok. Other friends were a part of ChristmasTok, while the more nostalgic ones launched into PercyJacksonTok and GleeTok. Despite no longer having direct access to the app, I found myself watching Avatar TikTok compilations on Youtube to relive my obsession with the show. I was struck by the simultaneous flourishing of all these TikTok communities — they seemed even more robust than the existence of Subreddits (but I also question my ability to make this comparison, having used Reddit so infrequently that I forgot my password long ago).

Very recently, I found out that these niche communities were categorized as a part of Alt TikTok, which members take pride in being a part of — and distinguishing themselves from Straight TikTok, which is dominated by brand-name influencers and dance crazes — in other words, mainstream.

In my digital media class, we were assigned with creating a visual identity for a word. One student chose “praxis.” During crit, they explained, following a mildly apologetic smile, that they’d wound up on a side of TikTok inhabited by political-theory reading, vaguely Communist high schoolers who parodied the word so much that it stuck. This, I learned, was a prime example of one of the facets of Alt TikTok.

I think I partially earmarked this example because I forgot how versatile people’s intention and purpose for being on TikTok could be. While a lot of content is manufactured as entertainment, other videos aim to be lite-advocacy, teaching skills, spreading ideas or organizing causes. As a user, my FYP was filled with Aaron Hull before he dated Emma Chamberlain and other nonsensical laugh trap stunts — in other words, I was on TikTok to access a humor so absurd that I could dissociate from my present. Thinking back to my time on TikTok, I wonder if these sub-communities were yet to grow rampant or if I was so deeply embedded in one that I just couldn’t see beyond.

I think that was part of my urgency with trying to remove myself from the app. Good things have certainly sprung from TikTok — whether you see it as the embarrassment of Trump’s Tulsa rally or the inspiration of watching someone sew a dress from scratch — but so have the sinister parts of its nature. Many point to the app’s addictive design, but for me, it’s the high potential of losing myself in a TikTok reality.

Ironically enough, TikTok teens seem to be reading (and promoting) Baudrillard — if he were alive, I’m sure that the overflow of content and things to dissect would send him reeling. But sadly, Baudrillard is no longer here to process TikTok’s cultural implications; we are both stuck and graced with the burden, whether on his behalf or for our own sanity.
Cecilia Lu is a junior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. She can be reached at [email protected]Breathing Room runs alternate Thursdays this semester.