If you’re looking for a window into contemporary youth culture, there is nothing better than TikTok. The social short-video app’s primary feature is copyright agreements that let users record themselves lip-syncing to popular music, but it also plays host to a rapidly flourishing meme ecosystem. Spend a modicum of time with its videos and you’ll notice recurring motifs: Fortnite dances, T-poses, salutes, kids tying nooses (made of toilet paper) around their necks. But most pervasive is that essential tradition of youth: irony.
If you download TikTok and flip through the creative, lighthearted video clips trending on the app’s own network, you might feel relaxed. It’s just people goofing around and having fun, remixing soundbites and running jokes! TikTok can often seem like an oasis, a retreat from the more toxic sectors of the internet. The New York Times described it as “the only truly pleasant social network in existence.”
But the official app is not really how a lot of people consume TikTok. For many adolescents, TikTok is most often consumed secondhand, collected from the app and published on other platforms like YouTube by aggregators. The difference is that the TikTok clips you might see on YouTube and Instagram are presented not as “best of” collections — proof of TikTok’s charm — but as “cringe” compilations, mocking evidence of its users’ ugliness, incompetence, stupidity, and/or lack of sophistication. Those clips have a much wider reach. In effect, there are two wildly different TikToks: the official ecosystem, and the one that breaks free into the wider internet.
TikTok might be more familiar to you as musical.ly, an app that gained a foothold around 2016 among preteens lip-syncing to their favorite songs (and the 13 Reasons Why theme) and quickly spawned an entire cabal of teen influencers, with names like Baby Ariel (not a baby) and Jacob Sartorius (who briefly dated Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown). Despite its success among the youngs, however, musical.ly generated little more than disdain within the broader conversation about the relationship between tech and youth culture here in the U.S., a well of talentless teens doing what teens do: things they will later regret. In November of 2017, the Chinese company Bytedance bought musical.ly for $1 billion and merged it with its own TikTok, turning the lip-sync app into a more free-form affair.
The defining quality of TikTok, some would argue, is its earnestness. It is full of people of all ages singing along to cheesy songs and acting unguarded. In an age of rampant toxicity polluting the largest internet platforms, the videos’ naïveté can feel like a breath of fresh air. The Atlantic said that TikTok, as it has grown, now has a broad user base including “confused parents, the people who don’t quite know when the camera is recording, the ones who get a little too personal, or who aren’t Instagram-influencer attractive but have the gall to put themselves out there anyway.”
In internet-slang terms, this type of earnest content is also described as “cringey,” in that it makes you cringe with secondhand embarrassment. One recurring video format involves average-looking people lip-syncing “Oh, you’re with her now? I guess I’ll just have to show you what you’re missing” over Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.” Another incorporates the dialogue between Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan’s characters in 50 Shades of Grey: hearing “I want you to willingly surrender yourself to me … to please me” becomes even more unsettling when it’s coming from a man in elf ears or a squat, middle-aged bald man. Another video shows a group of men in military uniform on a school bus bemusedly performing the “Baby Shark” song, complete with hand motions.
This earnestness is brought up often when talking about TikTok. Lily, my 16-year-old sister, told me, “I don’t want to judge anyone for it because you should do whatever makes you happy but … it’s a little cringe. It makes my heart hurt a little bit. Like, something inside of me breaks every time.” In a social-media landscape largely defined by emotional detachment and irony, TikTok occupies a separate, growing sphere of, well, niceness. Self-care, wellness, TikTok — they all cross paths. Caring, it seems, has never been cooler online. Caring about yourself? The coolest.
But you won’t easily catch sight of that nice, earnest side of TikTok if you only view it secondhand, as clips move throughout the internet. After TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, bought musical.ly in late 2017 and merged the two services this past August, the rebranded app also began advertising heavily on YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram — the most popular platforms among their target demographic of teens. TikTok videos have since bled into the most popular online destinations for young people, namely YouTube and Instagram, as repurposed content. On Instagram, they’ve proven excellent fodder for meme accounts (accounts that aggregate funny, entertaining bits of internet ephemera under one account so their followers don’t have to find them on their own) and on YouTube, as longer compilation videos of sequenced 6-to-15-second videos ripped from the app.
Sophiya, a high-school junior in Louisville, Kentucky, estimated that she spends roughly three hours online every day, and almost all of that time is on Instagram. She first started seeing TikTok videos “sometime around late September” and then “it really took off in October.” She follows “roughly 20” meme accounts on Instagram. Blaire, 14, follows “75 to 100” meme accounts on Instagram and first started noticing TikTok videos around the same time. Lily, another high schooler, follows “15 or 20” Instagram meme accounts and spends three hours a day online, with “most of that” on Instagram. All three girls became immersed in internet culture during the transition from middle to high school, and might be considered tastemakers in the eyes of TikTok, or at the very least, the target demographic.
Sophiya says that while she was familiar with musical.ly during its heyday, she describes it as “basically a joke” when it was at its peak. The videos from TikTok, however, seem slightly different.
Many of the TikTok videos aggregated on meme accounts follow the same split-screen structure: On the right side of the screen is one user acting out the setup; on the left, another user delivers the punch line. This is known as the “duet” feature and its functionally equivalent to quote-tweeting someone on Twitter or reblogging them on Tumblr — it lets one user share what another posted while adding commentary. In a perfect world, it would be used for cool and constructive tweaks, but that’s a rather trusting attitude for an app aggressively marketed to teens. The duet feature really provides a novel and irresistible opportunity for trolling that’s evolved into a subgenre of its own. This is known in shorthand as “ironic TikTok.” According to Lily, whose Instagram feed has become littered with TikTok memes, “almost all of the TikTok videos I’ve seen are of someone making fun of someone else.” (An update provided users the ability to opt out of dueting, but the block is fairly easy to technically circumvent using screen recording and other tools.)
That the content of TikTok, a relative newcomer app, has already taken on such varying connotations depending on who is watching it and where it is being watched is remarkable. If the recentralized internet’s megaplatforms like Google (which index all the world’s information) and Facebook (one social network to rule them all) succeeded in expanding internet accessibility, they did so by making online a place that is somehow both impossibly loud and frustratingly flat. Teens are instead turning to Instagram meme accounts and YouTube channels that make it their business to curate the web and present it as something palatable, condensed, and comprehensible. Its more efficient for users to have content brought to them than to go out and find it. Sophiya estimates that almost all of the content she encounters on meme accounts is scraped from other platforms: screenshotted tweets, Tumblr posts, TikTok videos, etc. According to Blaire, “like, all of it is.”
Just as adults face the terrible habit of getting all of their information from the Facebook News Feed or their Twitter timeline, younger users face the stultifying allure of social-media accounts that do their browsing for them — and just like algorithmic feeds, those accounts surface the content most likely to get a substantial emotional reaction. Interestingly, the teens I spoke to were all acutely familiar with TikTok videos on either YouTube or Instagram, but only one had actually downloaded the app itself. TikTok proper is a far less caustic environment than I had been led to believe. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the meme channels of YouTube — the platform with both the strongest hold on Gen Z and an unnervingly robust alt-right audience — which cherry-pick the most virulent and regressive videos the platform has to offer. Here, clips featuring racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia (some even feature swastikas and Nazi paraphernalia) are the norm, and the border between irony and cruelty is nonexistent. One frequently seen video from the #ChooseYourCharacter challenge (which features users performing a kind of stationary dance like those of playable characters in a selection menu of a fighting game) shows a teenage girl with a mixing bowl and an apron with handwritten sign reading “property.” These types of videos are already garnering millions of views, with new compilations being uploaded by these channels almost daily.
The next generation’s culture wars will be fought online obviously, but also specifically among the curators — in Instagram meme accounts, aggregative YouTube channels, and the algorithms that stitch them together. TikTok might seem like an impenetrable new-fangled app for the kids and the tech savvy, but it’s a useful case study in the natural distribution of online content. The most viral of videos — the jabs at furries, the Fortnite dances, the “women = property” jokes, the phones held in mouths, the toilet paper nooses — are an indication at what sort of content people find to be worth sharing across the ecosystems of different apps. More often than we might like, it’s the content that appeals to our worst instincts.