Dancing teenagers all over the world are straining to fit the narrow dimensions of their phone cameras. Unlike the expansive style of a trained dancer, their movements are tight and tapered. The dances are deceivingly achievable, as though one could step into the routines without much thought. The dancers’ casual nature is reminiscent of the trio in Godard’s Bande á Part, Anna Karina between the two men doing the infamous Madison line dance. The scene hearkens back to a time when the public happened to know specific dances—a cultural touchstone that feels twentieth century (think the hustle, hand jive, the running man). After skipping a generation of millennials, the choreographed dance now resurfaces as mainstream with Gen Z. On TikTok, these performances range from lackluster to expert—though either can lead to virality, and that is the point.
TikTok’s base, the fastest growing of all social media services, has exceeded a billion users. This flood of attention and content has brought the platform under intense global scrutiny. Pakistan has banned TikTok on the grounds that its user-generated content is immoral. The United States has argued that TikTok is a contemporary Trojan Horse, allowing ByteDance, TikTok’s China-based parent company, access to the private data of American citizens. And yet, the platform may still be brought under the umbrella of a complex international regime that includes both Chinese and American companies. The mercurial, dramatic nature of the TikTok negotiations means that the app could be banned in the United States. Even at the time of writing, a deal between ByteDance and American software company Oracle is subject to the whims of the American government.
This is playing out like a tedious version of Footloose. The global fuss over the platform is at odds with its standing as a virtual haven for young people. This much was clear in a recent interview between YouTuber Jeff Wittek and nineteen-year-old TikToker Dixie D’Amelio, who has 40 million followers. In the video, D’Amelio is asked if she believes China will steal her data. She responds dryly, “I mean if they’re stealing all my TikTok drafts it’s not that big of a deal . . . I don’t think anyone cares about data.” Her indifference may be characteristic of her age, but it may also reflect the generational expectation that our data has long been spoken for.
Given the smoke and mirrors of the present trade war, perhaps it’s better to view TikTok from the vantage of its teens and the culture they create. This means understanding the platform as a curious aesthetic hybrid, designed in China and populated, more and more, by American users. Now quarantined in their bedrooms, its teens nurture a multidisciplinary skillset that leans on enigmatic charisma, quippy humor, and a knack for editing. They conjure narratives from nothing and package them within a minute’s timeframe. As TikTok rapidly proliferates, its aesthetic influence—in all its splendor and conformity—can be seen beyond the platform.
Shadowbanned at the Gates of Fame
Confusion about TikTok’s aesthetic is to be expected—it mutates rapidly. There is an entire genre of TikTok videos dedicated to demystifying its algorithm, and even its popular users are uncertain about which content the platform favors. It happens from the moment you open the app for the first time: Like many social media platforms, TikTok records its users’ preferences, shaping them into an amorphous “For You” page populated with videos it decides you might share or like. But unlike other social media, TikTok’s range of video types is highly personalized from user to user, and its endless-scroll feature creates the effect of falling down a rabbit hole without a clear exit point.
Adding to TikTok’s inscrutability is the way it suppresses content from users who transgress its elusive standards. Though we have seen this from every platform, allegations of racism and censorship against the service run rampant. In the past year Tiktok has attempted to distance themselves from the Chinese government, though it still falls under its strict policies and regulations. From country to country, censorship on the video app can range from LGBTQ+ discrimination to the blocking of social justice messages. This has meant that even popular TikTok users will have their videos deleted before receiving notice that their livestreams or posted content violate TikTok’s community guidelines. The reasons for this can range from appearing to support drug use to something as innocuous as using a curse word.
What’s more, if a user creates several videos that do not receive as much engagement as their previous posts, it is common for them to become paranoid, believing that they have been “shadowbanned.” As the term implies, the reasons for this ban—which is understood as a reduced number of views to a user’s videos—are not disclosed to the TikToker in question. What Tiktok suppresses can often tell us why, as an audience, we must be critical of large, influential platforms. It also helps explain why TikTok’s content and aesthetic are always in flux yet strangely in line with whatever the platform deems acceptable in that very moment.
What is more clear is that TikTok shifts the visual dialogue away from the perfectly manicured aesthetic of Instagram, which is known more for its users’ aspirational, flawless image curation. TikTok instead privileges on-screen presence, performance, and bite-sized narrative. Originality is not prioritized. Videos that start trends are often outdone by other users’ videos—it’s all in the execution. With the seemingly random possibility that videos can become viral, users are encouraged to post several videos a week. (Most TikTok experts suggest posting three to five videos a day). It is, compared to other social networks, a lottery that relies on the Warholian aphorism about fame for fifteen minutes. With each video posted, a lottery ticket is tossed into the ether, which is why experts discourage the deletion of videos—older content may yet find its place in the sun. In this respect, TikTok further rewards the never-ending churn of production. One of the platform’s most effective moves was to distinguish its users as “creators.”
The aesthetic of these creators does not easily cross platforms. During recent weeks, when it seemed likely that the app would be banned in the United States, TikTok celebrities pleaded with their audiences to follow them on Instagram. Though, by visiting a TikTok star’s Instagram page, one is immediately struck with how banal and serious the grid seems. It is clear that the spirit and charisma of these stars does not translate to an image-based app—the stationary images having the same effect as a eulogy.
Often, the first videos that newly joined users see before shaping their algorithm are of teens with millions of followers. At the time of writing, sixteen-year-old Charli D’Amelio and twenty-year-old Addison Rae Easterling are the two most followed accounts, with 93 million and 65 million followers, respectively. And both TikTokers, D’Amelio and Easterling, have risen to fame in just over a year-and-a-half, having posted their first videos in 2019. This rapid rise was partly encouraged by quarantine; as the world went indoors, TikTok surpassed two billion downloads, a record-breaking quarter. By the end of March, D’Amelio had ousted eighteen-year-old singer Loren Gray as the most followed user on TikTok, and she has since left other top users in the dust with a lead of more than 25 million followers.
It was around this time, the beginning of lockdown, that I gave into my curiosity and downloaded the app. Easterling and D’Amelio were shown so frequently to me that they began to seem like prototypes for the platform. For a long stretch, D’Amelio’s Tiktok bio read, “I don’t get it either.” Though, from scrolling through her gallery of videos, I began to understand the appeal. Charli and Addison are both white, come from non-coastal cities, and share a girl-next-door quality. Their lives seem within reach of their audience simply because they remind us of someone we have probably seen before—maybe at the mall. They often dance in sweats with stains, in glasses, sometimes without makeup, blemishes showing. The attraction is their normality: two average girls were plucked out of obscurity to become the most famous people on a global app. Why couldn’t you be next?
The Instagram face, as defined by Jia Tolentino, is a combination of makeup and plastic surgery that produces Bambi-like features. In Tolentino’s essay for The New Yorker, it is called “white but ambiguously ethnic” and compared to the look of a sexy tiger cub. It usually features big eyes and lips and a small upturned nose and defined brows.
No Kardashian, Jenner, or Hadid has broken the top 50 most followed TikTok accounts. And, tellingly, the TikTok videos of top Instagram models feel strained.
This Bambi face is also present on TikTok, but what is striking and different about its users is their comfort in appearing on-screen sans makeup, or pre-Bambi. It is not uncommon for users on TikTok to post at least one video with their beauty routine, even if their account is not dedicated to makeup. Somehow, en masse, the artistry of contouring the face has been honed by an entire generation. Bronzer is brushed just under the cheekbones to amplify bone structure, and concealer is applied on the nose in the shape of an exclamation point, which creates a thin bridge. The final step is usually a small dash of highlight on the tip of the nose. The routine is shown with a candor that makes this kind of beauty seem within reach, demystified but most importantly defined as a process that can be mastered.
This might explain why the sexy, pouty Instagram influencer does not fare as well in their migration to video: no Kardashian, Jenner, or Hadid has broken the top 50 most followed TikTok accounts. And, tellingly, the TikTok videos of top Instagram models feel strained. Their faces in each frame cannot be distinguished from a single, still Instagram post. Their pouty, doe-eyed gaze becomes orchestrated and restrictive, with their chins pointing down and eyes peering upward. It is their stiff concentration that makes these videos fall short, betraying the pressure to uphold photogenic appeal on a telegenic app. In contrast, Easterling’s face is elastic and animated. She contorts with an easy joy that feels nonchalant and authentic. Her wide smile, scrunched nose, and open-mouthed laugh have become a signature, and it has influenced millions to mimic her facial style and gestural language.
Women have always led the influencer economy, and this aestheticized nonchalance has allowed them to rule TikTok. But it’s also true that TikTok’s younger generation of men have cornered a marketplace that is often underestimated—swooning teens. The fanaticism around these young men echoes the reception of boy bands in the 1990s and 2000s. Except with TikTok, there is a now a chance they might respond to one of your comments. TikTokers like Noah Beck, nineteen, and Josh Richards, eighteen, perform an easy, youthful virility that feels new and embellished by an awareness of their own beauty. In reality, these young men are updating an old role—that of the 50s crooner with his gyrating hips. It only takes a second to hit the follow button or throw a like their way, and by doing so you have access to their small pocket of the world whenever you please.
My Camera Shoots at Point-Blank Range
Instagram sticks largely to cities or touristic vistas. Alternatively, TikTok shows us corners of the world not popularly depicted—the taupe walls of Middle America, the insides of mid-size vehicles, and the indistinguishable landscape of the common North American backyard.
TikTok’s creators, by showing videos to an audience that most likely does not know them in real life, are encouraged to make their celebrity out of what can be found in their bedrooms—themselves.
The infamous content houses filled with young TikTok stars, and perched in the Hollywood Hills, may be multi-million-dollar mansions, but they look as though the staging furniture was never replaced. The only personal flourishes in the background of the stars’ videos are piles of clothes and empty takeout containers. The rationale being: “What do you expect from an unsupervised group of teenagers who move into a house together?” With their respective rises to fame, they’ve had little time to shed the more common aspects of teenage life. From the point of view of the camera, there is no discernible change.
The blandness of this architecture is an aesthetic marker of TikTok, even outside of the celebrity mansions. All interiors blend into a homogenous anywhere. What brings TikTok videos to life is instead the personalities and personas of the subjects. On Instagram, one may curate themselves into a background, but on TikTok, the creator is the foreground and the background.
By watching TikTokers in their everyday elements, a familiarity forms that can’t be equalled on other platforms, where popular users seem to live impossible, distant lives. Likewise, TikTok’s language of the front-facing camera gives viewers an arm’s length intimacy that grows with time. It’s an intimacy often reserved for friends on Facetime or lovers in bed. And this aesthetic closeness has led to popular videos where TikTokers pretend the camera-eye is their lover—Easterling captioned her version with “Just me and my future bae staring at each other.” With the camera at point-blank range, the audience is able to become acquainted with the details and idiosyncrasies of the subject’s face, and a bond forms that is much like an unrequited friendship. It is the visual equivalent of hearing someone’s voice in your ear, and at a time when physical distance means health and safety, this particular intimacy can feel intoxicating.
24-Hour Fashion Television
There is something of an ick factor with people who seek out TikTok only to return to Twitter and Instagram with a sense of having discovered something counter-cultural. TikTok is ubiquitous—it just changes fast enough to leave behind those who don’t commit to understanding its language.
But fast fashion, closing the loop between young people and industry, has trained itself on the aesthetic language of TikTok and moves at a similar speed. It has already replicated the midriff-bearing cardigans, chunky sneakers, and dangling cross earrings of the platform’s star creators—and all at a price that one could afford while working part-time jobs after school. Luxury fashion, though, has not been as quick on its feet. When Hedi Slimane at Celine dedicated his SS21 menswear collection to the TikTok star, calling it “The Dancing Kid,” he attempted to recreate something that was already mass market, in effect it’s the same as being influenced by a collection at Zara or ASOS. Large-scale corporations have already been watching this shift. For those outside of the realm of TikTok, the ways it is affecting the media we consume and products we buy can easily be dismissed—but soon, it will be unavoidable.
When news broke that Addison Rae Easterling had been casted in a reboot of the 1999 teen rom-com She’s All That, commentators noted that all she did was “dance in videos.” Their mistake was believing a movie studio was doing her a favor by giving her a role. Critics reflected on a time when movie roles were “earned”—a naïve idea of how the film industry ever worked. In this climate, however, the fiscal stability of traditional filmmaking no longer holds, and it’s no surprise that studios have turned to a twenty-year-old TikTok star with a ready audience of more than 50 million followers. With this kind of collateral, Easterling’s options remain wide open. It’s a shift that underscores how TikTok celebrity distinguishes itself—the individual is her own industry.
The way TikTok rapidly produces hit songs, fashion trends, and teen icons feels somewhat like MTV in the 1990s and 2000s. The difference is that TikTok’s content is largely created by the same generation that consumes it. Its creators, by showing videos to an audience that most likely does not know them in real life, are encouraged to make their celebrity out of what can be found in their bedrooms—themselves. It offers a pathway to find appreciation for common peculiarities, allowing imperfections to find an audience. Watching videos on loop, even the repetitive trends, can feel like a dopamine rush. It is random, loose, fun, and behind-the-scenes—any session on the app can elicit a spontaneous, effusive laugh, making it a respite from the sour atmosphere of Twitter or the digital mall of Instagram. Most importantly, it feeds on the unserious day-to-day nature of being young. If Twitter is the surly critic, Instagram the polished and distant beauty, TikTok is the carefree youth, for now.