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Lithium Seriously, why is TikTok a thing?

Jan. 23, 2020
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TikTok is a manifestation of my generation’s awkwardly agile navigation of the internet. And to be honest, I’m completely here for it. 

Following its original release in 2014 under the name “Musically” (remember that?), the platform was acquired and renamed “TikTok” by Chinese tech giant ByteDance. Since then, things haven’t really been the same. Dance-challenges-turned-viral-memes spread through the internet like wildfire, and by early 2019, TikTok hit one billion global downloads.

When TikTok was first gaining traction, I remember a flux of cringeworthy ads bombarding my social media—absurd videos of preteens lip-syncing, bellydancing, and performing the all-too-familiar hand choreographies its users are infamous for. 

Yet from what I’ve seen, since being rebranded, making videos has shifted from an embarrassing pastime to a guilty pleasure. TikTok, though admittedly bizarre, is something people aren’t afraid to announce their love for, whether they’re performing witty skits or creating time-lapse art videos

One reason for TikTok’s immense success is undoubtedly the allure of going viral, and the platform suggests a more straightforward path to superstardom than Instagram’s heavily curated, often FaceTune-infatuated ways. From 13-year-old Jacob Sartorius, whose debut single “Sweatshirt” charted on Billboard, to Baby Ariel, who was named one of Time’s 25 Most Influential People on the Internet, TikTok, though named differently at the time, seemingly offers lucrative careers to anyone who’s a little quirky and willing to put in the work. Put simply by Quora user Emmad Mahzari, the young platform “ma[kes] the barrier to entry of creating content much much lower.” 

Want to make out-of-this-world videos but have never held a camera? TikTok comes with beginner-friendly filters and some pretty impressive editing tools. Think something is funny but don’t want to embarrass yourself online? Don’t worry, the cringe factor is a key ingredient for celebrity. Personally, after watching a TikTok video, I’m either laughing hysterically or asking myself, only slightly horrified, “What the hell did I just watch?” Either way, though, a TikToker somewhere is benefiting from the attention. 

Lil Nas X, the rapper behind “Old Town Road” (AKA the longest ever running U.S. number one) credits the app’s massive influence with his breakneck entry into the music industry, saying in an interview, "I promoted the song as a meme for months until it caught on to TikTok and it became way bigger.” He’s talking about the Yeehaw Challenge, which was just absurd enough to work. #DNATest videos of users wiping their cheeks with a cotton swab along to Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” (just watch them) also gained traction, catapulting yet another record-breaking number-one song. Not bad for a three-year-old app. 

Yet in my opinion, something a little more profound lies behind TikTok’s immense popularity. We’re bombarded by the internet on a daily basis; whether it’s horrifying images of a natural disaster we feel obligated to repost, or the resurgence of #BlackLivesMatter following another heart-wrenching tale of police brutality, young people have more access to information than is good for us. It’s tricky enough to take things a day at a time when you’re in a funk, but barely being able to look forward to our futures for fear of the climate crisis is a whole other battle. 

So for many, TikToking is cathartic. The app is free of tragedy. It isn’t where 52% of Americans hear their breaking news. As corny as it might sound, TikTok is a microcosm of perhaps simpler, easier times. Because when you’re laughing for no reason at something that doesn’t make any sense, you can’t help but feel rejuvenated. Hopeful, even. 

Those are some powerful feelings being evoked by 15-second skits, and I dare say that if ByteDance gets its act together, they might keep the app afloat alongside some pretty heavy competition. But whatever happens next, as long as we can find outlets to step out of our comfort zones—to be silly and embarrassing and not always have answers to the world’s most pressing problems—I know we’ll be just fine. 

Visual by Baby Evil (@bby.evil)