This is the weekly Amplify newsletter, where you can be inspired and challenged by the voices, opinions and insights of women at The Globe and Mail.
Alisha Sawhney is an audience growth editor at The Globe and Mail.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I used to roll my eyes at TikTok. But, like the aging millennial that I am, I finally broke down and joined the other one billion monthly active users on the highly addictive social media app. Of course, I told myself, I was only downloading it to lurk around the edges of youth culture. But now, two years deep, I wind down after a long day of working remotely from my couch by remaining horizontal and escaping down a TikTok rabbit hole.
Escapism is really the magic of TikTok. When you open the app, you’re immediately taken to the “For You” page, a unique feature among social media platforms. TikTok doesn’t prioritize a main feed of what your friends and followers are up to, but instead delivers you an algorithmic offering of content based on your previous viewing habits, generated by people you’ve never met before.
“It’s a lot more divorced from our lived experience because the content is mostly from people you don’t know in real life,” Vox senior correspondent Rebecca Jennings told me recently over the phone. We are, by default, exposed to videos on TikTok that feature niche or subculture trends, day-in-the-life recaps, restaurant tours and dance challenges from people who are more or less anonymous to us. “It’s not mind-numbing, it’s mind-opening,” she says. And for better or worse, the For You page never runs out of material.
TikTok is also a female-dominated online space – 54 per cent of its users globally are women. In my view, it draws in female creators and users like me because it does away with some of the assumptions – such as the supremacy of social validation – that other social platforms have been built upon. More importantly, there’s an ethos of imperfection. Unlike other platforms, such as Instagram – which today feels like a relentless feed of prompts for online shopping (plus too many photos of high school friends’ babies) – TikTok embraces montage-style videography that strings imperfect moments together, making for more meaningful and shareable content, all in a 9:16 frame.
In The Globe and Mail newsroom, my team is in charge of, broadly speaking, the relationship between the news organization and the reader, measured in part by metrics and real-time dashboards that help us understand what stories people like to spend time with and where they’re consuming them. Since publishers can find and distribute news on multiple platforms – from newsletters (like this one!) and social media to podcasts and news aggregator apps – my brain is always alert to the touchpoints that might invite a new reader to our journalism.
This means that I am also constantly thinking about the attention economy, and the ways in which I participate in it both professionally and personally. Our every move can be captured or optimized as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily, and if you flip through the mission statements of tech companies in their early years, it feels like a tour through a bygone era of techno-optimism. Needless to say, it’s hard to turn that part of my brain off after work.
Since I never really log out of the digital ecosystem, I’ve been drawn to TikTok as something of a mentally “safe space” online. Sure, I can make videos for my friends to see, but the objective is not to flex that I’m on vacation or “soft launch” a new partner. Instead, my friends and I are encouraged to join group challenges, lip sync along to trending sounds or post banal videos of our nighttime skincare routines. The bar and the stakes are low. And while I feel algorithmically linked to thousands of women on TikTok, I’m not posting videos to garner likes and comments. That thrill alone is liberating.
I bought the Gap sweater that went viral. Then I started asking questions
It may seem odd to link such magical thinking with an app that’s been making headlines lately for being banned on government devices across Canada, but TikTok’s allure has some scientific backing, according to experts.
“The benefit of TikTok is that it has this interpersonal context to it. It’s what we call ‘direct address,’” says Selma Purac, an assistant professor in the faculty of information and media studies at Western University. Quite often, TikTokers are speaking directly to their phone cameras. When regular people are engaging in this mundane form of expression, it’s accessible and something you can recreate in your own life, says Purac.
This “direct address” is related to the “mirror neuron” – a brain cell that responds to actions we observe in others. When you see someone smile, for example, your own mirror neurons for breaking into a grin fire up, creating a sensation in your mind of the feeling associated with smiling. This explains why “Get Ready With Me” videos of girls filming their personal makeup routines are so soothing to watch on the app. “It’s a neurological form of escapism,” says Purac. “The more mundane it is, the more likely we are to continue connecting with these young women.”
One popular form of this mundanity can be found on #beautytok, where creators do their makeup while telling a personal story. On the surface, it might seem like this type of content lacks depth, but it’s become a powerful platform for building women-centric communities online. On a given night, I might see a fellow millennial share her skincare routine while ranking movies that went triple platinum at sleepover parties during middle school. (She’s The Man or John Tucker Must Die, anyone?) But I’ve also watched women do their makeup while sharing stories of escaping abuse or overcoming painful experiences. It’s a therapeutic act, disguised as fluffy content.
Like all social media apps before it, the TikTok wave may be cresting as it draws scrutiny from governments in Canada and elsewhere. While its lifespan might be truncated, I do hope TikTok has at least set a precedent for creating corners of the internet in which I and other women can find solace. An online social space where things don’t have to be perfect.
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