TikTok's Strange (and Wonderful) Subcultures
By Nick Fouriezos
When I think of TikTok, the scream factory in Monsters, Inc. comes to mind. The app is a conveyor belt of doors, opening and closing, on some strange reality. You can quickly find yourself reeling from information overload — from real estate gurus and religious evangelists, to kink lovers and fashion trendsetters. That is, dear friend, until the algorithm jumps in, deluging you in the subcultures you’ve “liked” the most — a process that feels either as exhilarating as being accepted into a clique, or as claustrophobic as hotboxing in a straightjacket. Today, with the Biden administration revoking a Trump-era ban on the popular app, we look at TikTok’s emerging subcultures and how the online world we perceive is increasingly being rewritten by the app’s algorithm.
subs reshaping industries
It’s the high school cafeteria all over again. TikTok is a home for the literary “dark academia” crowd, who are Harry Potter-inspired tweed wearers, fans of leather accoutrements, thrifted turtlenecks and more. There’s cottagecore, which romanticizes nature and quaint forms, and classic scenesters such as the goth and punk kids. Some post-’90s additions include “e-girls” and “e-boys,” who play off gamer culture (the app’s third most popular category), and the wellness-focused “WitchTok.” And while these aesthetics may seem niche, they are making a mark on mainstream fashion. Marc Jacobs launched a new collection called Heaven in September with a direct appeal to teen subculture, with Vogue calling it “a polysexual line of clothing with pubescent dread phrases like ‘totally fucked up.’” Designer Anna Sui and fashion house Chloe recently adopted Cottagecore vibes, while Rick Owens and Marine Serre went goth in their 2021 shows, as W Magazine notes.
The momfluencer rose with Instagram, but the moms of TikTok are less Real Housewives and more real train wrecks. Poking fun at the inherent comedy that is raising children, many post videos focused on authentic hilarity. Their tips, tricks and hijinks are massively attractive to brands: In the U.S., around 82% of new parents are millennials, and millennial moms are natural brand evangelists — recommending products online, unsolicited, more than 10 times per month according to one study. They are also highly influential with their peers, with 55% saying people “frequently” ask their opinion when buying a product (as opposed to just 39% of total moms). Gen Z and millennials are reportedly driving America’s economic recovery by spending more than they did pre-pandemic, making them highly coveted by businesses looking to rebound.
Personal Finance Tok
Money gurus blossomed during the stock market rally of the last decade, then struggled as people pinched pennies during the pandemic. But the next generation of financial independence influencers is quickly adapting — and getting on TikTok. After quitting her marketing job last year, Tori Dunlap, the 26-year-old founder of the Her First $100K blog, built a $1 million business by publishing short videos focused on empowering women. Entrepreneurs of color are thriving with new platforms, from the investment-focused Errol Coleman to attorney Delyanne The Money Coach, benefiting in part from an algorithm that avoids traditional forms of soft discrimination (more on that later). However, fame can be a double-edged sword. Tat Londono, a Montreal-based real estate coach and landlord with 1.5 million followers, was pilloried after bragging about how she drove two luxury cars “for free” at a time when so many are struggling to pay sky-high rents.
The comprehensive TikTok audio library allows users to splice song clips over videos, paving the way for viral challenges and trends. Songs such as Absofacto’s 2017 tune “Dissolve” and Kyle’s “Hey Julie!” are getting repromoted by labels after they see TikTok fame. And there is perhaps no more surefire path up the charts for new songs than getting a start on TikTok. Just look at Olivia Rodrigo’s Billboard No. 1 album Sour, which scored the biggest debut of 2021 after getting viral hits on the platform (open the app and it’s almost impossible not to hear the spitefully satisfying line “like a damn sociopath” from her track “Good 4 U”). “If you have a viral TikTok song, you can get a multimillion-dollar deal,” Daniel Awad of Good Luck Have Fun management told Rolling Stone.
addicted to the algorithm
The Algorithm to Happiness?
I often tell people TikTok is the only social media site that consistently makes me more happy than stressed. The company swapped slogans from “Make Every Second Count” — a nod to its videos’ short durations — to “Make Your Day,” a tacit acknowledgment of TikTok’s true appeal. It’s no accident, either. While other algorithms favor users who have the largest audiences, TikTok puts ordinary creators on a more even playing field by testing all videos with a small group first. If the video sees high engagement, it then gets pushed out to larger and larger audiences. With younger users craving authenticity and stress relief, “happy” content naturally floats to the top of the For You feed — although serious topics can rise too.
The Strangeness of Subs
That algorithm also feeds into the formation of subcultures. A new video on, say, hiking may be pushed to a larger audience of outdoor enthusiasts if it does well with its first test group. Hashtags contribute to the algorithm’s sorting choices, and its relatively democratic process leads to some surprising communities. That was satirized in a recent TikTok, where creator Thaddeus Shafer goes through a video “journey” depicting “Canyons of Affirmation” TikTok and “Progressive Redneck” TikTok . . . before finding himself in the woods and tripping out in “Hallucinogenic” TikTok.
The New Demographics?
Marketers have long targeted “demos” with their content, silos centered around race, age and gender. But the real holy grail for brands is targeting users who have a direct interest in their products, which can transcend demographic boundaries. Facebook tried to target users by encouraging them to include their interests on their profiles, but the feature is relatively unused; Instagram achieves this, to a degree, with hashtags, but still falls short. TikTok’s algorithm, however, creates an organic form of community building that can then be easily targeted.
An App for the Better?
Attuned to the public relations failures of apps that have come before it, TikTok has tried to advertise itself as a more conscientious curator of content. It has enlisted influencers to create videos encouraging people to turn off the app if they’ve been watching for consecutive hours or late into the night — in sharp contrast to sites like YouTube, which has been accused of egging kids on to endlessly consume its content. In April, TikTok added auto captions to make videos more accessible to users who are deaf or have partial hearing loss. Still, it’s not all positive. About a third of TikTok users are 14 or younger, yet TikTok has been struggling to keep pornographic and violent content off the platform, with mixed success.
subs for the culture
Check out the tame yet viral dances, cringe-worthy acting, lip syncs and couples pulling eye-rolling pranks on each other, mostly performed by attractive white, heteronormative Gen Zers. First-time TikTokkers will likely find themselves browsing Straight TikTok (Charli D’Amelio, with more than 100 million followers, embodies the genre). But a number of users — particularly those from minority and queer backgrounds — have carved out spaces of their own referred to as “Alt” or “Elite” TikTok, in which they reject mainstream humor in favor of edgier content.
Even with nudity bans in place, TikTok users can get pretty suggestive — and there is no denying the popularity of thirst-trap videos on the app. Particularly suggestive viral dances, such as the “Silhouette Challenge” or the “Buss It Challenge,” have been praised for being sex-positive and, as one outlet put it, for “[sexualizing] Black women on their terms.” But others worry about the app’s potentially NSFW content reaching younger users. TikTok has created parental controls that can limit screen time and restrict some content, and some creators place 18+ disclaimers on their videos. But policing seems like a Sisyphean task given the sheer amount of content on the platform. With 689 million people using TikTok every month, and an average of 55% of them posting a video in that time frame, more than 12 million videos would need to be screened daily.
Similar to Alt TikTok, “DeepTok” undermines the mainstream, albeit in more bizzare ways. So-called distorted basement videos feature songs and videos that are altered and blurred in uncomfortable ways. Strange obsessions emerge, such as videos of beans or an image of a speckled fruit repeating again and again. Others mock department stores or brands in surrealist ways — like a video form of “deep-fried memes.”
Liana Gordan, a 17-year-old Canadian, didn’t grow up especially religious, despite her parents identifying as Orthodox Christians. But after watching TikTok videos from evangelical creators on her For You page during the pandemic, Gordon opened up the Bible. She then began publishing her own videos, where she breaks down complicated religious concepts, as Bustle recounted in May, attracting tens of thousands of followers along the way. From youth pastors finding a new conduit for conversion to believers taking sexualized trends and turning them wholesome, TikTok has a proselytizing subsect — albeit one that is pretty easily ignored if you just keep on swiping.
On the flip side, evangelists for normalizing sexual expression and accepting a wide variety of “kinks” are also emerging on TikTok (usually with age-appropriate disclaimers). Their takes aren’t purely sexual: Kinksters often discuss healthy communication while exploring sexuality with partners. Some find themselves quickly in strange territory, as user @mackickinback did when her kink education videos were soon overshadowed by videos in which she wished her followers “good night” in creative and comforting ways, which quickly grew her following to over a million (literally) overnight.
what’s next for TikTok?
The China Challenge
Although Biden has revoked the Trump administration’s policies against TikTok, the president has invoked an executive order calling for Cabinet members to conduct a review and recommend ways to protect the U.S. from sending data to competitors such as China. In the meantime, WeChat and a host of other apps backed by the Chinese tech giant ByteDance will continue sending data from the U.S. overseas regardless of what happens to TikTok, as Protocol reporter Issie Lapowsky writes.
Could the EU Regulate the US?
America isn’t the only one with trust issues. The European Union, which has instituted strong data regulations, is debating what to do about the way its data is handled in the United States’ less restrictive privacy law landscape. The EU’s fears about how that data may be used aren’t unfounded. “It wasn’t long ago that the NSA was caught doing some pretty aggressive snooping of its own,” Lapowsky wrote in a June 10 newsletter.
The Future of Advertising
Advertisers especially like TikTok because unlike with platforms such as Twitter, the ads are less obtrusive — with users often not even noticing they are watching ad content. As consumers complain of ad fatigue across a host of platforms, the seamlessness of TikTok could be a key advantage for brands also benefiting from a self-service sales model.
Given TikTok’s ability to build communities, it’s possible that it could become a powerful platform for organizing efforts. This potential could have ramifications for political protest . . . or it could create an economic herding effect similar to the way the WallStreetBets subreddit has used its sheer strength in numbers to reshape the stock market. During the pandemic, a number of “zillennial” investors emerged on the platform, with a keen interest in finances and day trading.