Gen Z finds fleeting fame on TikTok
Behind the self-mockery and self-deprecation on TikTok lie a certain void, boredom, perhaps a lack of challenge.
A Chinese app has taken the digital world by storm. It was created by a highly successful startup, ByteDance. Other than games, most Chinese entertainment apps that are hugely popular in China do not get widespread acceptance around the world. At best they become popular in south-east Asia, given the cultural affiliations.
But TikTok is different. It has seen an exponential growth across the world. It has been downloaded more than 240 million times in India and 100 million times in the US. Globally it has more than 500 million users. It targets, scarily enough, children aged 12 or above.
If you are not the TikTok sort, let me break it down for you. It allows users to create and share short videos with special effects. It is a rage among teens. In those 15 seconds they are the lead actor of the movie, the master of the plot, and the protagonist of their story. At first, the slapstick comedy almost reminiscent of a poorly enacted Charlie Chaplin antic feels trite, even annoying, but then you find something funny that makes you laugh, and soon you find yourself lost in a constant stream of videos clips.
Generation Z (Gen Z) grew up using the front facing camera on their own or mum's smartphone. They 'double tapped' this strange app because it gave them exactly what they wanted.
In a word, irony.
Irony is a pervasive culture among Gen Z as they grew up consuming dollops of memes on social media. On TikTok, satire and irony come in small bytes, as a constant stream of thought from millions of young minds. They can react to a video with a video. They can sing and dance, lip-synch, use their imagination to play pranks and even do magical tricks. Mostly, there are no rules. You can be your best wacky self. Perhaps the only rule is to not be ordinary. With this the possibilities are endless.
Teenagers are speed dating life through these tiny snippets of humour, candour, absurdity, and freakishness. Irony is the new language of this new generation that has grown up in what is called the post-truth era, brought upon by social media. In this era, the lines between fake and real are blurred, and many versions of the truth coexist. Truth is so nuanced that irony serves well to make sense of it. On TikTok, irony is the main message put out by Gen Z.
TikTok represents Gen Z's own uncanny version of realities. The maker calls the app's experience, 'raw, real, and without boundaries'. Youngsters can be themselves, make fun of themselves and be creative all at once. Behind the self-mockery and self-deprecation lie a certain void, boredom, perhaps a lack of challenge. Or a missing channel for creative self-expression in schools, homes, and social settings. Maybe instant fame is something the school cannot provide. The fame garnered on TikTok is ephemeral as though mimicking the length of videos, and Gen Z is fine with it.
Its tag line 'Real People; Real Video' reminds us that ordinary people get to express themselves in ways they could not earlier. It is not just for rich children to show off their dance moves. A young influencer could emerge from a city slum or a village. It gives them not just an avenue to be themselves, but also the possibility to overcome their extreme financial adversities. Some of them get paid by film makers for promoting their films. TikTok feels liberating for children who would otherwise go unnoticed. In the US, young rappers found a voice and music contracts.
Schools and law enforcement agencies are advising parents to keep a close watch on their children's use of TikTok. Not in the least because it is contributing to their falling attention span. So, it has attracted the attention of lawmakers because of security concerns. Not surprisingly, ByteDance agreed to pay the $5.7 million fine to US authorities to settle the lawsuit of illegally collecting personal information of children.
Governments such as Indonesia and India briefly banned the app because of their legitimate concerns about explicit content and over exposure of young children.
ByteDance managed to dance around the issue by promising more content moderation with monitoring software and moderators who filter out dangerous content.
The app's introduction says, the more you watch the better it gets. That's true. You will gradually see content that will keep you hooked. The App's AI recommendation engine is watching your viewing interests and serving up what you would like. This allows viewers to be hyper-engaged. TikTok is a case study in how attention is grabbed, retained and disseminated. Is it any wonder that Dubai Tourism partnered with TikTok for a social media campaign? Brands like NFL, Apple Music, Liverpool FC are flocking to the platform.
Scrolling through TikTok videos, you will find yourself laughing, sometimes admiring the talent and at times rolling your eyes, wondering if this marks the end of human civilisation. No doubt the content is unhinged and engaging. Gen Z finds TikTok as the right platform to express its worldview by parodying life.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies