Visual Culture
Welcome to TikTok, the Wildly Popular Video App Where Gen Z Makes the Rules
The hashtag #PoseChallenge has 1.5 billion views. And while millennials are used to ruling internet culture, most of them don’t know what it is. They don’t even know the name of the app that spawned it.
That app, TikTok, is among a set of new digital phenomena overturning millennials’ self-perceived mastery of the internet. I first learned of TikTok through my research into various Gen Z (born between 1995 and 2010) memetic subcultures on Instagram for a text titled Politigram & the Post-left (2018) that explores the landscape of young online communities during and after the 2016 election cycle. Through my activity on Tumblr in 2012, as part of the artist collaborative , I learned early on that much of the internet’s viral content was made by young teenagers. Following these communities offers a unique insight into emergent cultural shifts before they hit the mainstream. This fall, after seeing what must have been a hundred nearly identical TikTok videos in my Instagram feed, I finally had to download the app and figure out just what exactly was going on.
Screenshot on TikTok.

Screenshot on TikTok.

Screenshot on TikTok.

Screenshot on TikTok.

TikTok—or Douyin as it is known in China, where it originated—is a mobile-only social network that allows users to create 15-second videos, most often set to the tune of pop songs, and offers a wide variety of built-in editing tools and visual effects. It’s lip-sync karaoke—but it’s also so much more. The app launched in September 2016 and acquired its main competitor, Musical.ly, at a near–$1 billion price tag, integrating the two services in August. It is currently one of the fastest-growing social media platforms, with 500 million–plus monthly active users across 150 countries, currently outranking both Snapchat and Facebook on Apple’s app store.
Unlike other video platforms before it, TikTok has a unique social infrastructure. The network is designed to facilitate user collaboration in the form of “duets.” All content is intended for appropriation. Each user can build upon the content of a previous video, creating a “duet chain,” where performers mime the same sequence of actions. Users come in and out; the original doesn’t matter, only your version of it. On TikTok, chipmunk melodies and fast cuts predominate, as do dances that reference the avatars in the wildly popular video game Fortnite. It’s a decentralized network of performer-choreographers whose creative output resembles something like a never-ending video made by artist , but starring teenage gamers.
In the hours I’ve spent on TikTok, I’ve witnessed an American user base that is a diverse composition of subcultures, roughly construed as gamers, cosplayers, troops, and teen influencers. These groups cross-pollinate in some novel ways. “The reveal,” a technique in which users cover their camera lens and quickly cut to unveil a wardrobe change, appears to have originated within the cosplay community, but has since been widely adopted by police and military officers. Servicemen and women snap-change from civilian clothes into uniform, over the chorus “My Life Be Like” by hip-hop group Grits or “Good Girls, Bad Guys” by glam-metal band Falling in Reverse. Watching soldiers learn memetic techniques from anime-obsessed teenagers feels like an anomaly in today’s siloed-off experience of social media, where algorithms create “filter bubbles” in which groups with disparate opinions or cultural backgrounds rarely overlap.
Screenshot on TikTok.

Screenshot on TikTok.

Screenshot on TikTok.

Screenshot on TikTok.

While #PoseChallenge is visually mesmerizing, it is conceptually boring. Users strike a pose and bounce along with the beat of the music. This technique is utilized widely and reiterated throughout many other, more curious memes. #ChooseYourCharacter improvises on the “character selection page” common to fighting games. Users dress up as their favorite avatars and place a handwritten name tag at the bottom of their screen. They bump along to the intro music of Super Smash Bros., mime a quick few actions, and then return to their default starting position.
The meme has clear roots in the gamer-cosplay corners of TikTok, but has drawn participation from just about every subculture. It now expands to include all genres of familiar cringy internet caricatures: Juulers, K-Pop Fans, Chief, Edgy Virgin, Big Tiddy Goth GF, You-Know-I-Had-To-Do-It-To-Em, and Italian. TikTok users love to dress up as tongue-in-cheek meme-ified personas. They like it even better when it upsets you. Having a video taken down is often a source of pride.
Beyond the trending hashtags surfaced on TikTok’s closely moderated “Explore” page, it neglects to represent a large portion of content on the app. Misogynistic videos and hashtags, largely associated with the gamer constituency of the online right, are prevalent. Videos remanding gamer girls “back to the kitchen” are encountered frequently, and common hashtags include #Kek (40 million views), named after the cultish alt-right icon Pepe the Frog; and #NoNutNovember (69.6 million views) or #NNN (20.6 million views), a challenge based in dubious science and internet folklore where abstinence results in super-masculine levels of testosterone. 4chan trolling culture and questionably “ironic conservatism” has seeped deeply into the mainstream of Gen Z’s online experience. And while these topics may seem niche, the videos themselves have tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of likes.
Screenshot on TikTok.

Screenshot on TikTok.

Screenshot on TikTok.

Screenshot on TikTok.

TikTok feels like the definitive mark in a forthcoming tide shift. Millennials are aging out and Gen Z is taking over as the dominant online culture. To quote an anonymous 15-year-old user: “Boomer is a state of mind, not an age. We all become boomers eventually.”
Millennials internalized a strategy for how to use the internet: We built our personal brands to accumulate followers who we would later monetize to sell our art, music, or any number of creative endeavors. Producing images of ourselves being successful, even while we were struggling, was our “fake it ’til you make it” scheme that—no surprise—didn’t work for the overwhelming majority of those who tried. For every one successful creative director, thousands of same-age workers are relegated to freelance precarity. In an age of declining prospects, we used social media to weave the fiction of success on the off-chance that it just might become real. Now tipping 30, saddled with a lifetime of debt and rising rents, the reality of millenials’ unfortunate place in post-2008 history has begun to settle in.
To their credit, Gen Z listened closely and took our advice. Recent research, such as Sean Monahan and Sophie Secaf’s cultural report “GenExit” (2017), shows a new and distinctly non-millennial set of values emerging among the younger generation: “Declining labor market participation, stagnating or declining rates of college attendance, and record-breaking third-party affiliation” are among the most prominent of the trends they cite. Scrolling through video after video on TikTok, I realized that these trends are reflected in the content Gen Z creates, too: The majority are abandoning the personal brand in favor of fluid identity play. On TikTok, the popular use of masks or covering one’s face with a hoodie or dark glasses marks the beginnings of something Monahan, an artist and writer, describes as “post-selfie culture.” The best content occurs when users collaborate. You can’t do TikTok alone.
Observing Gen Z’s digital culture over the past several years has meant moving from platform to platform with them, as they change their usernames and preferred networks frequently. It’s as if they don’t care about building a following or about being recognized in the way platform-loyal millenials do. They only want to a join in the interpersonal fabric of memetic activity and savor the last bit of human connection left on our cold, data-collecting, psychographic-profiling platforms. Making TikTok videos is linking oneself to the cultural duet chain. They build narratives of collective participation.
Their memetic actions are mostly meaningless, and in that way mirror the meaninglessness of most actions in today’s society. Political action has failed. Mass protest has failed. Even capitalism has failed. Yet, somehow, we continue our zombie march to the tireless drumbeat of neoliberal austerity. The younger generation now mimes the zombie forms of gaming avatars in order to laugh at a world in which they themselves have no autonomy and are controlled by outside forces. Young people face a future that was set in motion years ago—they will soon inherit a worse economy than any recent American generation. While millennials earnestly tweet about the stress of their student loans and freelance precarity, Gen Z TikToks in joyous nihilism, mocking a society in which self-determination and upward mobility have long since collapsed.
Joshua Citarella is a New York–based artist who explores technology and digital culture in his work.