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TikTok has exploded in popularity – is it the perfect antidote to isolation?

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Natasha Preskey
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TikTok

TikTok has exploded in popularity. Stylist investigates the impact of a phenomenon.

There was once a time, pre-pandemic, when a whole world of entertainment waited beyond the front door. You could visit a friend. Drink at a bar. Go to a workout class. Meditate with other people. Run a marathon. Need I go on? Most of us, however (until that time returns), are now channelling this energy directly into our phones.

My own usage has trebled. My friends say the same. And while Instagram is likely to serve you a photograph of freshly baked banana bread and you can rely on Twitter for the news, amplified and commented on, neither are really, truly providing the escapism we crave. Which is why TikTok, the Vine-esque short video-sharing app, is suddenly more appealing than ever.

What is TikTok?

One morning, with hair so scruffy my phone’s face recognition wouldn’t work (the ultimate insult), I downloaded the app. For anyone not on TikTok (and for those who are, bear with), when you open it, instead of being shown a timeline or news feed, you’re presented with a video. To see another, you swipe up. You can choose to either view TikToks from people you follow, or videos recommended for you. The first video I was greeted with was a clip of Love Island runners-up Siânnise and Luke T doing one of their synchronised dances. Then, a video of a couple paying for a pizza delivery with loo roll and tipping with hand sanitiser. For the first time in days, I was clutching my phone laughing, rather than filled with panic.

Where did TikTok come from?

TikTok began life in 2016 when Chinese company ByteDance founded a short-form video app called Douyin, which launched globally the following year as TikTok and later merged with lipsyncing app Musical.ly. In the years since, ByteDance has grown to a value of $75billion (£60billion), making it the most valuable privately held company in the world. To top it off, the platform recently launched an advertising service for companies wanting to cash in, too.

Who is on TikTok?

The app’s format is simple: much of TikTok’s content involves dancing or lipsyncing and sees users recreating other people’s videos with their own spin, such as the dance TikTokers perform to Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie while travelling down an escalator. Every celeb from supermodel Bella Hadid to Justin Bieber is on there. Its most-followed user until very recently, 17-year-old American singer Loren Gray, has over 42 million fans, and celebrities including Courteney Cox and Laura Dern have made cameos performing viral TikTok dance routines. Even J-Lo recently joined to take part in the ‘flip the switch’ challenge, where participants swap clothes in the moment of darkness between the flick of a light switch.

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While its content is resolutely amateur, it’s also grown to have a sheen of authority: the World Health Organisation (WHO) is now using the platform to broadcast public health messages about hand-washing set to upbeat muzak, while The Washington Post has over 430,000 users following its comedic videos about office life and, of course, the news. “The Washington Post just wants you to like its TikToks,” The Atlantic wrote, poking fun at its presence in a largely Gen Z populated world.

Towards the end of 2019, the app reached 1.5 billion total downloads, but if you have the feeling TikTok has crept up on you, you aren’t imagining it. “Its ascent to mainstream has been much more rapid than some of the other platforms,” explains Cassandra Napoli, marketing expert at trend forecaster WGSN. “And it’s because it’s uniquely positioned to capture the attention span of Gen Z and younger millennial audiences.”

Even short-form content is increasingly struggling to hold our attention. According to research by the Technical University of Denmark, Twitter trends such as #BBCQT and #TheApprentice lasted an average of 17.5 hours in 2013 before being replaced by another – by 2016, this had dropped to just 11.9 hours, suggesting we’re getting bored on social media more and more quickly. 

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There’s also a sense of relief in the silliness of it all. “In the past 12 months, we’ve welcomed celebrities, launched music careers and, right now, we’re seeing people use it to keep themselves educated and entertained during lockdown,” says a TikTok spokesperson. “So much of what starts as a trend on TikTok enters the mainstream, whether that’s nostalgic tunes returning to the charts (think Kesha’s 2010 hit Cannibal) or an emerging dance trend becoming family entertainment as they learn the routine together in their kitchen. It’s about bringing people joy.”

Without the pressure to create original content, curate a perfect interiors aesthetic or show what a #girlboss you are, TikTok is unique because it’s all about “celebrating normality”, says Holly Friend, a youth trends expert at The Future Laboratory. “You’re almost encouraged to try and fail, whether it’s at something like singing or dancing or whatever – which is very different to a platform like Instagram, where the focus is pro-succeeding.”

How to TikTok?

If you are thinking of opening an account, getting started is easier than you might think. Hannah Snow, a 27-year-old with over 800,000 people following her videos centring around LGBTQ+ issues and mental health, suggests keeping it basic. “If you’re an artist, put some of your drawings on there. If you can’t stop watching the dances, then maybe give one a go,” she says. “Honestly, it doesn’t have to be an intricate or imaginative series of different shots. In fact, from what I’ve seen, the simple videos seem to turn out better on TikTok.”

While some TikTokers have started to handle heavier subjects such as the environment, politics and mental health (the British psychologist Dr Julie Smith regularly produces TikToks to share information about anxiety and self-care), serious points are often still communicated through humour, fun visuals and playful dancing. When TikToker Hannah Grace, 31, wanted to create a video about the effects of climate change, for example, she chose to paint the top of her body to depict a nature scene, which slowly becomes covered in skyscrapers while she lipsyncs along to a pop song. 

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But for brands, the app remains a code they are desperately trying to crack. “Many are still nervous about it because it’s an unpredictable platform,” says Beckii Flint, a YouTuber turned marketing specialist at influencer agency Pepper Studio. “Even if they work with a popular TikTok influencer, it’s not a guarantee that their video is going to go viral, or even be seen by that many people because of the way the algorithm works.” She believes that on TikTok, as opposed to YouTube or Twitter, a “democratisation of content” means it is easier for someone completely unknown to go viral. Despite Rihanna’s own TikTok profile being empty, her cosmetics company, Fenty Beauty, is spending the time and money to get the platform on side by setting up a Fenty TikTok house – a gathering space for TikTok make-up artists such as Emmy Combs and Savannah Palacio to make content using Fenty products together.

And there’s serious money to be made for TikTok’s biggest stars. UK games company Online Casinos estimates that some TikTokers could be making up to $1m per sponsored post by next year. Right now, the top 40 TikTokers globally could charge between $45k and $175k for posts that feature products in the same way Instagram influencers make their money. TikTok users, however, can also buy coins in the app to give to their favourite creators, who can then convert them into cash.

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The platform, however, was recently heavily criticised for having a toxic culture within the company. According to documents leaked by The Intercept last month, the company “instructed moderators to suppress posts created by users deemed too ugly, poor or disabled for the platform”. Which is, of course, horrifying.

But despite these allegations, creators continue to carve their own space and followings on the platform – posting what they want, and looking however they want, while doing it. TikTok, therefore, can feel like a temporary oasis for a pointed reason. “It’s less wordy than Twitter and less boastful than Instagram,” says psychologist Jo Hemmings. “A 15-second video can provide you with a short burst of the feel-good hormone dopamine, so instead of worrying or challenging young people in the face of a pandemic, it is pure escapism, probably long overdue for many. If it can be used less competitively and more for entertainment or sharing concerns in a constructive and reassuring way, it’s perfectly possible to have a positive influence.”

And that, I can vouch for. When Twitter feels like a live blog of the apocalypse, and Facebook is a reminder of the friends and family we have to be apart from, frivolous and funny videos of people dancing round their bedrooms is actually the perfect antidote to isolation right now. 

The TikTokers to follow

ARIAM, @IAMBRATTYB

Who is she? An American TikToker known for her make-up tutorial videos.

Why we love her: Her easy-to-digest beauty looks: think masterful recreations of Lil’ Kim’s most iconic looks from the 90s.

Our fave TikTok: Ariam spent Black History Month making videos educating her followers about black historical figures.

ANNA O’BRIEN, @GLITTERANDLAZERS

Who is she? A body-positive TikToker.

Why we love her: Her DGAF attitude and self-deprecating humour. Watch her to feel affirmed and joyous – and for equally great outfit montages.

Our fave TikTok: Anna dancing to Lizzo’s Tempo in her underwear in the middle of a busy street.

SOPHIA SMITH GALER, @SOPHIASMITHGALER

Who is she? A BBC reporter who TikToks about life making the news.

Why we love her: Sophia offers a funny, behind-the-scenes look at the world’s biggest news organisation. From making fun of comments from her trolls to celebrating getting the BBC News theme music rave trend onto the actual news.

Our fave TikTok: A hilarious guide to sounding like a newsreader.

JENNY MARTINEZ, @JENNYMARTINEZZZ

Who is she? An excellent cook sharing 60-second recipes with her 470k followers.

Why we love her: She makes complex recipes easy to follow; perfect if you’re using self-isolation to become properly acquainted with your kitchen.

Our fave TikTok: Martinez drinking mimosas and making tortillas de harina with her daughter. She’s Mexican, so you know they’re authentic.

CHARLI D’AMELIO, @CHARLIDAMELIO

Who is she? The reigning Queen of TikTok.

Why we love her: To her 46.5 million fans, 15-year-old competitive dancer Charli is TikTok. She only joined last summer and yet her feed is essentially a masterclass in how to excel at the app.

Our fave TikTok: Charli performing a TikTok dance challenge with American talk show host Jimmy Fallon live on his show.

HALEY SHARPE, @YODELINGHALEY

Who is she? A teenager from Alabama and the creator of the viral dance to Doja Cat’s Say So.

Why we love her: The fact she created the dance for the international pop megastar in her bathroom, where most of her step-by-step dance videos are filmed.

Our fave TikTok: Haley pointing out that her dance has been performed on The Tonight Show twice.

NIKKI LOVES, @NIKKILOVES

Who is she? A 19-year-old TikToker best known for her lipsyncing videos.

Why we love her: She mixes music content with savage comedy sketches flawlessly. In one, she applies lip gloss moodily while the text on-screen reads, ‘When boys bash their own race to uplift another and then say it’s just a pRefErEnCe.’

Our fave TikTok: Nikki mocking all the times she’s practised TikTok dances only to back out of posting them. Relatable.

MARIAH CAREY, @MARIAHCAREY

Who is she? A legendary diva.

Why we love her: C’mon, she’s Mariah. We also get glimpses into her home and can confirm only Mariah could get away with decorating a wall with magazine covers featuring her own face.

Our fave TikTok: A series of people emerging from under her humongous skirt to the tune of her song Obsessed.

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