I first encountered TikTok last summer on YouTube from a video compilation of posts that all used the same sound. For those not yet familiar with TikTok, one of the features of this social media platform is the ability to take the sound from other users’ posts and reuse it in your own. The compilation I found featured posts all using the song “My Brother’s Gay and That’s Okay!” from Comedy Central’s “The Other Two.” The compilation most likely appeared in my YouTube feed due to the fact that I had just recently streamed the first season of this new TV series, and the algorithms behind social media got to work.
However, despite this brief encounter with TikTok, I did not yet download the app because I didn’t really believe the platform was for me. For the couple of months that followed, I occasionally saw more TikTok compilations pop up on my YouTube feed. Then, as the fall semester began, I started seeing individual TikTok posts appear on my Twitter feed. Before long, one of my roommates had downloaded the app, and it became a semi-frequent topic of conversation as he would find particularly amusing posts and send them to our quad’s group text. Finally, the weekend before fall midterms, I downloaded TikTok on my phone.
Just in the past month, I saw TikTok posts on Instagram for the first time as a friend reposted them to her story. I mention this because — along with my journey to downloading the app — it demonstrates one reason the platform may have taken off in the past year. In a Zoom interview, Aliya Ismagilova ’22 said TikTok is like the new creative incubator for all social media, producing new content that eventually makes its way to other platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. Unlike these other platforms which feature non-native content, Ismagilova pointed out that there really aren’t tweets or Instagram stories being reposted in their original state on TikTok. This contrast between other platforms and TikTok’s rise as a creative incubator particularly stood out when Ismagilova called Facebook “the grave” for memes.
Thinking about what has drawn me in and kept me engaged on TikTok, I find it practically impossible to ignore the app’s creative nature. At any given moment when I’m scrolling through the app, I’m likely to see posts featuring comedy, dance, fashion, visual art, and music of all sorts (from DJ remixes to musical theater), along with the more typical social media posts sharing bits of users’ everyday lives. This creativity is something that came up in all the interviews I conducted for this article. Over email, Jack Shigeta ’23 specifically mentioned the app’s openness towards creativity when asked about his favorite aspect of TikTok.
While unbounded creativity may be what facilitates content creation on TikTok, Shigeta also points to the possibility of going viral as one big reason TikTok has taken off. Between the multi-featured yet still relatively smooth process of creating a TikTok post and the platform’s “For You Page,” which serves up new content to users based on somewhat unclear algorithms, it can take very little effort to go viral on the platform. Shigeta says that his most viral TikTok, with over 280,000 views as of April 12, only took him about 10 minutes to create. Andrew Yang ’22 has also had brushes with virality, now gaining over 90,000 views on one of his posts, also as of April 12. In an email interview, Yang said he has experimented with the app’s algorithms but expressed uncertainty regarding “what gets pushed to a larger audience.” However, he did say that based on what he’s seen, the quality of a post doesn’t matter as much as the audience’s engagement with it in terms of what content TikTok decides to present to its users.
If any Princetonian I talked to has experience with going viral on TikTok, however, it would be Eric Periman ’22. Since mid-March, Periman has had multiple posts gain well over tens of thousands of views, including one post with 2.5 million views and over 400,000 likes as of April 12. When asked over email about his experience with going viral on TikTok, he attributes the success of his posts to “a combination of luck, timing, and a stab at producing genuine content about my personal life” and not necessarily the increased amount of time he has “undeniably” spent creating TikTok content since he arrived home from campus.
While the rise of TikTok cannot be attributed solely to the pandemic keeping people in their homes, our new quarantined existence most likely didn’t hurt the platform’s growth either. An increased use of TikTok since Princeton sent most students home was yet another theme present in all the interviews conducted. Some of this may be due to a general increase in free time and boredom for some students while at home; as Yang said, “there’s only so much you could do while trapped in your own home.” In fact, many of the most popular posts I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks — often tagged with #quarantine, #coronavirus, and #covid19 — are about the pandemic and everyone’s experiences while stuck at home.
Periman also attributes his increased use of TikTok as a content creator to channeling energy that he would usually dedicate to on-campus activities. Furthermore, Ismagilova said that besides her own use of the app, a lot of her friends have only just now started using TikTok. As for me, I found myself spending so much time on the app and sharing so many posts with a number of my friends that I started writing a periodic, parody newsletter with a bunch of links to my favorite TikToks from the previous few days.
The world we live in is undoubtedly changing in various facets day by day, and how we socialize and connect with our communities is no exception. For at least some Princeton students, TikTok is taking on an increasingly prominent part of their social lives as our campus community is spread out across the world.