I downloaded TikTok about two weeks ago. Against my better judgment I had gotten back on Twitter, thanks to a misguided craving for attention and a sick longing for hot takes about the Democratic primaries. Sure enough, I was soon twitchy with misanthropy, heavy with doom. I next sought comfort in an investigation of empowering lesbian teen singer-songwriter culture on YouTube. As I studied the comments (“My mom really said ‘is that a girl singing? And she said that a girl is pretty?’ YEAH HETERO HEATHER A GIRL CAN LIKE ANOTHER GIRL”), I was drawn inexorably to TikTok.
I started by alternating between Twitter and TikTok, which was kind of like switching between cocaine and heroin: very different sensations, both highly addictive. On Twitter, I was in a strangely angled echo chamber with nooks and crannies corresponding to my own varied interests: democratic socialism, Soviet history, curmudgeonly New York book reviewers, climate change, Moby-Dick. With TikTok, I was on a rolling plain of the unknown, an endless succession of posts by strangers—mostly, of course, teenagers and twentysomethings. On TikTok, anyone over 30 is hilariously old, and anyone over 40 is downright freakish.
Most of the videos I saw at first were of viral dances and musical memes. TikTok seemed like a genuinely fun place, one that was utterly foreign to me. I enjoyed watching people laughing and doing choreographed dances; I relaxed and experienced a brief respite from incessant premonitions of doom. The TikTokkers seemed so happy, and many of them were remarkably good at choreographed dancing. The doctor of the humanities in me couldn’t help being intrigued by the less-than-idealized settings in which many of these dances took place. Instagram, the favored social media platform of millennials who don’t enjoy bitter political arguments with strangers, is about shooting your life from an ideal angle. On TikTok, people scarf down fast food without a thought for plating and get kicked out of Dunkin Donuts for dancing to Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie.”
The presence of unappealing workplaces—the kinds of spaces diligently censored from Instagram—was especially striking. I saw more American workplaces in a day of TikTok than I saw in a year of Instagram. People were dancing in storerooms, warehouses, hospitals, convenience stores, in Target, Costco, Lowe’s, and Home Depot. Air traffic controllers were sliding and shaking their hips. Some TikToks were dangerous, like mechanics tying themselves to the wheels of lifted cars and spinning around. (Search term: #oshaviolation.) “Work is boring,” TikTok said, “but you can make it fun.” You might even get famous. @cameronfromwalmart_ racked up 2.9 million likes by doing the smeeze, a kind of gallop-dance, down a Walmart aisle, past two little girls who were also TikTokking. Like all smeezers, he danced to “She Gone Go” by Trill Ryan. @cameronfromwalmart_ is an excellent dancer.
Last week, catastrophe intruded on my fun new life of workplace dance procrastination. (The algorithm is such that I had been seeing only American posts.) Suddenly my feed was full of videos set to a song in which a man with a put-on accent said, “It’s Corona time,” accompanied by a dinky synthesizer hook. The song cued a mood of hilarious, excited anticipation; this was the tone of almost all the first coronavirus-related videos I saw. Parental precaution was ripe for mockery: one girl did a dance to “Corona time” in a hazmat suit her parents had bought for her. Kids recorded music videos in doctors’ offices and from hospital beds, claiming they were quarantined; surgical masks and toilet paper around the face became props. When colleges and high schools shut down, students posted videos of themselves having street parties, hoisting handles of liquor, slamming Solo cups. It’s Corona time!
As the panic escalates, COVID-19 has become fertile ground for a favorite TikTok theme: generational divides. Boomers are spraying everything with Lysol; millennials are looking for cheap flights to Italy. Gen Z is licking (sometimes even sucking) doorknobs and shoe soles. The internet says coronavirus makes you lose weight! Um, yes please! Boomers say don’t fly; airports (long a favorite site of TikTok dances) are empty, and so are the airplanes. But empty planes can make for great videos, especially if the flight attendants are obliging, and you can fly to Puerto Rico for $15. As Americans stockpiled supplies in anticipation of self-isolation or shortages, the ravaged toilet paper and canned food aisles of Costcos and Targets and Walmarts looked, to those with an eye for TikTok, less like disaster areas and more like dance floors. Many videos were set to the singsong refrain “We don’t give a fuck about no bitch” from a 2009 song by the rapper Young Curt.
A few good Samaritans tried to educate the TikTok youth in their own language. One school principal recruited students to help her do a smeezing PSA: “If you have to SMEEZE, SMEEZE INTO YOUR ELBOW.” @swole_dds urged calm. Coworkers did coronavirus handshake dances in their offices (no touching). “Can’t Touch This,” by MC Hammer, started to trend. Asian-American teens posted videos about struggling not to cough in public, often to the strains of “You gon’ die,” from the song “Death” by Trippie Redd. (“I HAVE NEVER BEEN TO CHINA! I HAVE SEASONAL ALLERGIES AND POST-NASAL DRIP!!!”) The desirability of death has been a popular joke among zoomers since long before COVID-19, but it’s booming now. Videos have popped up in which, to the strains of an Indonesian pop song, teenagers debate whether to join studies in which they will be injected with coronavirus in exchange for a few thousand dollars. They could really use the money! Pros and cons are weighed in text pop-ups, as is the TikTok custom, appearing to the beats of the song. The bad news is, you could die. The good news is . . . you could die! “All these people tellin’ me, oh, you really ‘bout to travel when there’s coronavirus?” @.charlesvb said in a video, to great comic effect. “YES! Baby girl, these flights are $50! And you’re telling me I have a chance to DIE? That’s a steal, girl, that’s a 2-for-1 discount right there!”
Another favorite song-snippet is from PTAF’s 2014 track “Boss Ass Bitch”:
Where this about to go
The latest TikTok videos give various answers to the question of where the pandemic is about to go. If she gets diagnosed with COVID-19, one rosy-cheeked blonde suggests, she will go to a Trump rally. @lamelivvvv suggests that we are headed for a global economic depression (not a bad guess). And then there’s Puerto Rico, on that $7 flight. YOLO!
Once the euphoria of cancelled classes faded (and it faded extremely quickly), TikTok turned to the horror of being stuck with parents indefinitely, unable to see friends or talk to on-campus therapists, getting sent home early from expensive study abroad programs, and paying an in-person tuition rate for online classes—which, students and professors agree, will be a shitshow. Students wonder whether Zoom, the most popular software among colleges, can be gamed. Can you manipulate the image so it looks like you’re there, even when you’re not? If everyone pretends their audio and video doesn’t work, will class be cancelled forever? Students were horrified to learn that the software can monitor students to make sure they’re paying attention. (One piece of online learning technology is actually called “Panopto.”) All the pleasures of second-semester senior year are being mourned. Some TikTok videos anticipate virtual graduations: kids dress up in caps and gowns, march around their bedrooms alone, grin into their laptops. Or they just sit and roll their eyes, or sit absolutely motionless, pretending they’ve “frozen.”
It’s all an eerie glimpse into a world in which physical interaction is a thing of the past. Part of the joy of TikTok has been the sight of people gathering together to dance in depressing, sunless places. By tricking Best Buy sample speakers into playing obscene rap tracks, by making store aisles into smeezing sites while still wearing their uniforms, TikTokkers infused these spaces with life, with human talent, with individuality, with humor. Today, from a public health perspective, internet addiction seems like an asset. Stay in your room alone all day on the internet, please! Play video games for as long as you want—just don’t go outside to play! Yet humanity’s most online generation is still desperate for human contact. Bedrooms were always right up there with Walmarts as favorite settings for TikTok videos: teenagers spend a lot of time in their bedrooms. But now they’re facing the possibility of a kind of house arrest, with electronic surveillance by their teachers.
As an elderly millennial, I’ve often reflected on the psychological effects of having your nurtured expectations of the world crumble just as you enter adulthood. Like many people my age, I feel perpetually disoriented, exhausted by endless crisis, though I don’t hope for a “return to normal,” like the irredeemable boomers. Is Generation Z better equipped to cope? Is disaster like the internet, something that just seems like an extension of their bodies? Are funny viral dances actually a totally reasonable way to deal with the world they’ve been given? As I watched a teenage girl in a hospital gown dancing to “Can’t Touch This” in the hospital while her perplexed mother looked on in the background, I wondered how sick someone has to be before TikTok stops being entertaining. I fear that we’re about to see a sharp decline in the number of TikTok videos being made by hospital employees.
At first, I almost never saw political material on TikTok. (This may have been because the algorithm hadn’t learned about me yet—that material was certainly there.) I thought it was a lot like The Office, only with more rap music: the need for political transformation was obvious, but no one ever talked about it. Now, scrolling through, I see the occasional Trump supporter, and one lonely teen Biden supporter, but mostly lots of young people who are arguing for a fundamental change in our political system. A TikTok feature called “Duet” allows people to engage in split-screen political debates—about Medicare for All or an increased minimum wage, for instance. These also involve music and dancing, making for a more wholesome and perhaps even a more productive mode of argument than Twitter. Will COVID-19 turn the tide of public opinion? “Good morning guys,” @realtonysteel, a dapper “High-Performance Success Expert,” announces in a video. “Things aren’t getting worse, the truth is just being revealed. Have a great day.”