TikTok, the world’s sixth most popular social media platform, has grown in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic. But despite being mostly populated by young people sharing silly home-made music videos, the Chinese-owned app has become political football, as the governments of India and the United States, under then-President Trump, tried to ban it in 2020, accusing the platform of helping Chinese geopolitical interests.
But TikTok deserves different attention than its relationship to the global trade wars. TikTok has succeeded in arousing among its users an enthusiasm for the emancipatory and even revolutionary potential of digital communication, similar to that associated with the early years of the Internet. TikTok is a business product generating billions of dollars in revenue for its owners, that’s right. But it’s worth exploring what exactly the app means for its users.
After downloading the app for the first time, I couldn’t leave it for hours, mesmerized by the energy, wit and daring of its users. The continuously repeated sounds and dances, sometimes intercepted by political messages, also struck me with a strange familiarity. TikTok reminded me of the Blue Blouse, a Soviet agit-prop theatrical movement that existed from 1923 to the early 1930s; it developed from performances of “living newspapers” (whose actors usually wore blue coats, hence the name) into a national creative platform of seven thousand groups across the country.
Performances of Blue Blouse were often presented in workers’ clubs and factory cafeterias during lunch breaks. They contrasted political information with entertainment and humor, and normally began with a thematic presentation followed by press briefings and satirical skits. Energetic dances and acrobatic movements were interspersed with political content. The movement published a regular magazine with guidelines for staging performances, standard scripts and training recommendations.
A common structure and repeating artistic elements reproduced across the country made their performances recognizable. It is important to note, however, that each performance not only reproduced standard movements and content, but was also strongly influenced by the local context, reflecting the issues surrounding it. It’s an analog precursor to TikTok sounds and movements, recreated by creators around the world, with a dash of individuality and localization.
The “living journal” vibe was particularly evident in the US segment of TikTok during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests last year. Street updates, educational content, and political satire have flooded the app. It became so persistent that even conservative commentators could spot it: Fox News’s Tucker Carlson hysterically denounced “the new cultural revolution,” comparing young TikTok creators who publicly denounced the racism and homophobia of conservative parents to Pavlik Morozov, the Soviet propaganda figure who reported his father Kulak to the authorities.
Generational conflict is one of the main drivers of the creators of TikTok, most of whom are between fifteen and twenty-five years old. But it would be extremely misleading to view TikTok as a mere subcultural phenomenon. The creators of TikTok poke fun at racism, homophobia, nationalism and various forms of cultural supremacy as a generational legacy that they militantly oppose.
According to “Why we publish, A large-scale anthropological research project conducted in 2012-2016 at nearly a dozen sites around the world, people tend to avoid initial political posts in public social media such as Facebook so as not to incite conflicts with their family, friends and colleagues. Instead, more private social media like WhatsApp can be used to exchange political content and even facilitate political actions. TikTok challenges this largely depoliticized appearance of public social media with confrontational and shameless activism.
Part of the reason is that the platform is primarily a “parentless zone” for its young users. But young people are articulating their political messages in the creative and humorous way TikTok offers, even in countries where it’s not just your conservative grandmother keeping a close eye on your social media content, but the state as well.
The most popular social networks use friendship as a model for social interaction. Your first contacts on Facebook or Instagram are people with whom you are personally connected in real life. TikTok works differently, as the ultimate incentive for creators is to appear on the automatically generated feed of suggested content. Therefore, the creators are aimed at a large audience of like-minded users, far beyond their social but also geographic proximity.
AI algorithms reinforce this appeal, making TikTok highly segmented and distinctly divided into mainstream, or often contemptuously called “Straight TikTok,” full of lip-syncing dances and videos, and progressive multi-genre segments such as Black TikTok, Queer TikTok, EduTok etc. Solidarity is often the model of social interaction on TikTok more than friendship. The basis of the social networks created and maintained on the platform are not personal connections but shared values and views.
Technological advances are always subject to revolutionary promises, which can quickly be betrayed. We all remember the crucial role that Twitter and Facebook played in the political mobilizations of the 2010s like the Arab Spring, ultimately leading to intensified political censorship and corporate control. Time will tell if the creators of TikTok are indeed a digital reincarnation of Proletkult, one who can “unite the feelings, thoughts and will of the masses and uplift them”, as Lenin said, or if this is just another digital carnival, good for draining energy rebel under strict control of algorithms and corporate interests and not much else.