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How coronavirus helped TikTok find its voice

A person in a grass-covered suit lurks behind a wheelie bin before sprinting down a residential cul-de-sac. In a cramped bathroom, five housemates lip-sync in a limescale-stained bath. NHS staff dance on a deserted ward. A family of four performs a dance routine in a suburban garden. The father is out of time.

These are the faces of the UK’s TikTok obsession. Across the country, in teenage bedrooms and house shares, Brits stuck at home by the coronavirus lockdown are firing up TikTok, propping their phones against walls and hitting record.

Founded in 2020 by Chinese entrepreneur Zhang Yiming, TikTok is one of the most popular video-sharing apps in the world, downloaded more than 2bn times globally. Users create 15-second clips set to music or soundbites, which they can overlay with digital special effects.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, TikTok was predominantly favoured by British teenagers, who posted prank videos or the latest trending dance routine on it. But since the lockdown, TikTok has become a seething leviathan of user-generated content, chewing down our boredom, our fatigue and our fear and spitting them back at us in 15-second chunks, to be digested ad infinitum.

According to mobile industry analysts Sensor Tower, one in three Brits – 24 million people – has TikTok installed on their devices. The week before Boris Johnson announced the lockdown, 278,000 UK users downloaded TikTok on their phones, up 6% from the week previously. For the week of 23 March, when lockdown was enforced, UK installations surged by 34%. In lieu of going to bars, pubs or clubs, Britons would be staying in – and whiling away our time on TikTok.

I keep asking 18-year-old Madeline Mai-Davies what it’s like to be an overnight TikTok celebrity, but all she can do is rattle off numbers for me. “So the bush-man video went viral on 16.5m views,” Mai-Davies says giddily, “and the video where I pretended to surprise my boyfriend naked, now that’s got 12.5m views.”

After joining TikTok just six days ago, the unemployed waitress from Stevenage – like almost everyone else in the hospitality sector, coronavirus cost Mai-Davies her job – has 210,000 followers. In less time than it takes for a banana to go brown, she has accrued an online following double the circulation of some national newspapers. How does she feel? “To be fair, it has been a headfuck,” she responds, before reeling off more figures.

Mai-Davies became a TikTok influencer after a video she posted of her boyfriend pretending to break the coronavirus lockdown – by creeping down their road in a grass-covered costume – went viral. (At the time of writing, it had 1.6m views.) Sudden fame has left Mai-Davies punch-drunk on her own celebrity. “This Morning got in contact with me,” she says breathlessly. “They want me to FaceTime Holly and Phil. We’ve been in hundreds of articles in 20 different counties.”

Becoming a TikTok influencer is now a viable career. “I want to be a content creator and make people laugh,” says 24-year-old Akafi Ali, from London. Ali quit his job as a Sainsbury’s cashier to pursue his TikTok dream: his videos satirise Somali culture or feature Ali on caterwauling form. “Everyone is going to the supermarket to grab toilet rolls!” Ali says in one video. “Are you serious? Just wash your ass!”

Ali says TikTok was already popular before coronavirus, but that the lockdown has supercharged it. “There are a lot more people jumping on,” he says. With this influx of new influencers comes competition. “Before, if you uploaded a video, you could easily get 100,000 views in the first hour,” says Ali. “But now you don’t get on the For You page as easily as before.” (For You is the landing page on TikTok, tailored to users’ interests.)

Mai-Davies also plans to give the TikTok influencer thing a go and is posting daily videos. “When I go to bed, I think about ideas for tomorrow’s video,” she says. She tells me that some young girls have set up a fan page about her on Instagram. “They write, ‘I love her so much, she’s my Queen,’” she says. She sounds bemused. “This is so crazy. How have I got a fan page?”

The most important thing to understand about TikTok is that it is anarchic: it has no internal logic or guiding principle. Many TikTok videos are absurdist jokes. People surprise family members, impersonate celebrities or set up elaborate punchlines. The platform frequently has the surreal quality of a fever dream: videos riff on arcane internet ephemera or make nonsensical jokes. Non-sequiturs are common. Creativity is paramount.

“Surrealism is embedded into the DNA of the internet,” says Kenneth Goldsmith, author of Wasting Time on the Internet. He sees TikTok’s popularity as a natural reaction to the oppressive mania of a global lockdown – it is a pressure valve for people cooped up indoors. “The only response to an existential situation is absurdity and humour,” Goldsmith says. “It brings us back to the darker side of surrealism.”

On Instagram, we are primped and preening, on Twitter, loudmouthed and strident, but on TikTok, we can just be weird. Which makes it the perfect platform to ride out a pandemic that has nearly one-third of the world’s population trapped at home. “It’s therapeutic,” Goldsmith explains. “If we look at Freud’s theorising of the joke, the joke is always about showing humour in the face of death.”

“I’m sort of embarrassed by it,” says John Palmer of his TikTok account. The 17-year-old, from County Durham, specialises in the sort of hyper-surreal videos you’d expect to jump into through a chalk pavement drawing – if Mary Poppins used TikTok. Typically, Palmer’s videos refer to popular memes or obscure internet jokes.

In one video, Palmer rips a much-memed Michelle Obama soundbite to make a joke about Prince William using coronavirus to leapfrog Charles in the line of succession. In another, he pretends to talk to the squadron of imaginary friends he’s made in self-isolation. “It’s sort of about finding the template, but pushing the meme as far as it will go, making it weirder and weirder, until it gets to a point where it doesn’t make sense unless you’ve seen everything else before,” Palmer says. “It spirals down into something else.”

This is TikTok as pure subculture: in order to participate at Palmer’s level, you need to have swum through digital water since childhood, a graceful stroke through each platform – Facebook, Vine, Instagram – that is easy and assured. There is no need for gatekeepers: the price of admission to this subculture is simply understanding the joke. “I show it to my parents and they don’t get it,” Palmer explains. “It’s the meme culture of Gen Z. There’s so much background to memes. You need to have lived through them.”

As a TikTok old timer, Palmer is mortified by the platform’s exploding popularity during the coronavirus pandemic. “I’m not looking forward to all of the adults discovering TikTok,” he says with a sigh.

There’s a simple reason why people are flocking to TikTok: it’s a superb time waster. And in lieu of freedom or gainful employment, right now the only thing the British public has in abundance is time to burn.

“People are just looking for ways to keep themselves occupied,” says TikTok creator Rachel Leary, 23, from Manchester. “Having TikTok on your phone is a really easy thing to do to pass the time. There’s nothing else to do.”

TikTok is designed to be addictive: you can scroll its dashboard for hours without ever running out of content. Its algorithm uses artificial intelligence to observe your interests and deliver videos that fit. Palmer tells me that since downloading TikTok on his phone, his screen time has gone up from seven hours a day to 12.

And when you finally tire of scrolling through TikTok’s neverending dashboard, you can start making videos. Palmer only started posting his own videos when the coronavirus lockdown started. “I was locked in the house and had nothing else to do,” he says. “I thought making a video might be something to do for a day to occupy myself.” He sounds surprised. “But then I continued with it.”

TikTok is a curative to boredom: there is always a new challenge to try or dance routine to learn. “TikTok is a space for the familiar play we’ve seen on the internet for decades now,” says Ryan Milner of the College of Charleston. “Challenges that went around on YouTube or Facebook, like the ice-bucket challenge or the Kylie Jenner challenge, are now on TikTok.”

And although many TikTok videos may appear inane on first viewing, making a successful TikTok video takes skill, care and creativity. “When you’re writing the caption on TikTok, it really has to flow well and have the right syntax,” Palmer says, “because if it’s too confusing people don’t like it or ignore it. It has to flow really well.”

Leary reshot her most popular TikTok video – in which she pretends to DJ to the BBC News theme tune using household cleaning products – to improve her comic timing. “I didn’t instantly look at it and think, that’s so funny,” she explains. “So I refilmed it and the second time I took a swig of wine. That’s the part of the video that people have found the funniest and commented on.” Her instinct was correct: the video has received 151,000 likes and was played on the BBC.

Another characteristic of TikTok that makes it well suited to the coronavirus lockdown: it is primarily an indoor platform. “TikTok has always been about being 15 and staying at home,” explains David Nichols of the University of Melbourne. “That’s the accepted backdrop. And now everyone has to stay at home! So TikTok was made for coronavirus. Not deliberately, but it was.”

Unlike Instagram, where influencers swagger in front of a rotating backdrop of cocktail bars and tropical beaches, TikTokkers have always filmed themselves at home, in their bedrooms. “Instagram is more for like going out and getting drunk or going on holiday,” Palmer says. “Instagram is superficial. But TikTok is just people posting stupid things and it’s addictive, so you can keep going and going.”

Many of the young people I speak to say a variant of the same thing: TikTok used to be uncool, until suddenly it wasn’t. Palmer tells me that his peers would often write “Here as a joke” on their TikTok bios, because they were embarrassed to be on the app. “If TikTok came up in conversation, everyone would say, ‘Urgh, no one goes on that,’” says 16-year-old Libby Atkinson, from Manchester.

Coronavirus supercharged a process that was already taking place: the process of TikTok becoming cool. “All my friends are coming on it because they have nothing to do,” says Atkinson. As a result, more young people are jumping ship, from Instagram to TikTok. “Everyone is moving away from Instagram to TikTok,” says Ali. “It’s going to become the No 1 app that everyone is using.”

This exodus of Gen Z from Instagram to TikTok mirrors the way millennials dumped Facebook in the 2010s. “Apps are generational in a half-decade sense,” says Milner. “It makes perfect sense that Gen Z would have their own platform and it would be TikTok. If you look at Instagram and everyone on it is aged 25 and older, you want to find your own place.”

Even as we abscond from Instagram in droves, TikTok would not exist without it. Milner says: “Something unique about TikTok is how much it is centred on the image of the creator and their physical body… That wouldn’t have happened had Instagram not made us much more used to having our face and bodies being on camera.” Instagram sandblasted away our self-consciousness: it made us comfortable with being on camera.

Where 16-year-olds go, adults follow. Celebrities including Lizzo, Britney Spears and Justin Bieber have posted TikTok videos during the lockdown. Non-celebrities are also flooding the app: Leary’s mum has become hooked on the platform. “She keeps telling me that she can’t stop scrolling,” Leary laughs. “TikTok has made it into the mainstream now,” says Nichols. “It’s part of popular culture. A year ago, I’d have to explain what TikTok was to adults.”

As TikTok grows up, it loses its countercultural edge. “I discovered it through my daughter,” explains Wendy Paintain, a 54-year-old from Lichfield. “She was throwing herself around the living room, in front of her phone. I thought, what on earth is this rubbish? I downloaded it to have a look. And then I thought, actually, it’s quite entertaining.” She lets rip a loud laugh.

Paintain is the creative brains behind the Grandad Joe TikTok account, which features lighthearted videos of her father, Joe, 87, who is self-isolating with her during the pandemic, dancing and making jokes. The Grandad Joe account blew up after Paintain posted a video of Joe looking forlorn in a ransacked supermarket. It went viral, amassing 42.5m views.

Since then, Joe has been accepted into the TikTok top creators programme, been invited for TV appearances and has even started to make money from brand partnerships. “He’s grown really quickly,” says Paintain of her father’s TikTok account. “He got 1.6 million followers in nine weeks. He’s even got a blue tick!” (An indicator of a verified celebrity.) She takes me upstairs to speak to Joe, who is having a nap. “I can’t understand why it’s so popular, really,” Joe tells me. “I’m an old fossil. I guess I’m having my 15 minutes of fame. Did you know that I might be going on the telly?”

Alongside these older content creators, official bodies have been using TikTok to publish public health information during the coronavirus pandemic. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has uploaded TikTok videos urging people to stay at home; the World Health Organization has 1.4 million followers on the app. During the Easter bank holiday weekend, when many feared people may break lockdown rules, due to the warm weather, the UK government ran ads on TikTok, asking people to stay at home.

Coronavirus trends float through the app, like driftwood. There’s the #iwillsurvivechallenge (where users wash their hands to the Gloria Gaynor anthem), and the #stayathomechallenge, where NHS workers and TikTok creators urge users to stay indoors, sharing exercise routines or cooking tips to pass the time. (The #stayathomechallenge has more than 2.6bn views.) Bored in the House, the song by Tyga and up-and-coming rapper Curtis Roach, has become TikTok’s unofficial coronavirus anthem: more than 2m videos have been created using the song, with more than 923 million views globally.

All coronavirus content on TikTok has a banner linking to reputable news sources. The app’s UK general manager, Richard Waterworth, says: “We [have] introduced a range of in-app features, notifications and safety measures specifically designed to elevate credible and accurate information from trusted sources.” But preventing the spread of fake news can be difficult to enforce in practice: conspiracy theories linking 5G to coronavirus are easy to find.

Healthcare workers have also turned to the app. “Traditional TikTok was a dance platform,” says NHS doctor and former Love Island contestant Alex George. The 29-year-old has 104,000 followers on TikTok, where he posts videos explaining how coronavirus is transmitted or the correct way to wash your hands. “But that’s not true any more. People are engaging with health content.”

Coronavirus has helped TikTok to grow up. What was once a platform for uninhibited free play, detached from the cares and concerns of the outside world, has become outward facing. Although this is not the first time that TikTokkers have been civic-minded – during the 2020 Australian bushfires, users ridiculed Australian prime minister Scott Morrison’s handling of the crisis and raised money for affected communities – coronavirus has pushed TikTok into a new prominence. TikTok itself has pledged €62m to support European healthcare workers and communities affected by the pandemic.

George is hopeful that his videos will communicate key public health messages to a younger audience. “Young people don’t engage with traditional media forms,” he says, “but they might watch my TikTok videos and educate their grandparents about how to wash their hands properly.”

Sorcha Mackenzie joined TikTok long before coronavirus. She did so for the same reason many other people will be downloading it right now: because she was lonely.

“At the time, I was pretty socially isolated,” explains Mackenzie, a 28-year-old artist from Melbourne. “I was running this gallery across town, in the docklands, and it’s a pretty desolate area. Not many people come there. I would be there all day, until late at night, on my own every single day.” She was rapidly hooked. “It made the world feel like a very big place,” Mackenzie explains. “You feel interconnected.”

Mackenzie believes the new TikTok users are reaching out for the same thing she craved during her days in that abandoned Melbourne dockyard: a sense of community. “It makes perfect sense to me why TikTok has boomed and so many people have downloaded it at the moment,” Mackenzie says. “It offers a salve to isolation.”

As the British public hunkers down at home, alone, in some cases literally returning to the bedrooms of its youth, TikTok connects us to an online community of people who are also muddling along as best as they can. “It feels like a safe place,” says Atkinson. “You don’t feel like you’re being judged.”

The sublime and the serious, the silly and the strange: TikTok is the perfect platform for these times. As the world changes, people who’d never have dreamed of posting videos of themselves dancing in their pyjamas online or lip-syncing in their kitchen, think: why not?

“It feels like such an uncomfortable, incredibly bizarre moment,” says Mackenzie, “and there’s such a big shift in everything. People are forced to take stock of what is important. They lose that sense of ego or barrier of caring about what other people think about them.” TikTok allows us to see others and be seen ourselves. It brings levity to otherwise dark and anxiety-filled days. It lets the air in.

Layer by layer, the coronavirus pandemic has peeled away our braggadocio and our hubristic plans for the future and returned all of us to a childlike state. We sit at home, like children, and wait to be told what to do. And while we wait, we play online.