“How high is your TikTok bill this month?” my friend Seb asked me after I sent him yet another video from the app I wanted him to see. This time it was of a woman acting out a scene about how sometimes you hate one person in your friend group, but you don’t bother making a big deal out of it in order to keep the peace. (Is Seb the friend I hate? Only time will tell.)
It was maybe the sixth or seventh instance I had sent him a TikTok that described an otherwise indescribable feeling I had been having. And he was right — during the pandemic, stuck many miles away from the rest of my friends and family, I have been using the app a lot. Like, can no longer communicate with words and am solely relying on forwarding videos of teenagers to my adult friends a lot.
I scroll through TikTok before bed, which sometimes derails my completely acceptable 11 p.m. bedtime and means that I'm shaking myself out of an internet stupor sometime around 2:30 in the morning, drool pooling on my chin. I watch it waiting in line for COVID-19 rapid tests or standing in line to buy groceries or sitting on the toilet quietly wondering if I can’t taste because I’ve burned a layer of my tongue off eating Hot Cheetos first thing in the morning or because I am sick and, consequently, dying.
Frankly, if TikTok provided an auto-scroll option, I’d watch it even more: I’d let it play while I sit down in the shower because thinking about being alive exhausts me, or when I’m cooking yet another meal and muttering under my breath how fucking sick I am of food that tastes like I made it.
2020, for all its ills — which are innumerable, literally — has truly felt like TikTok’s year. Despite Donald Trump’s attempts to ban it, TikTok continues to be Apple’s most-downloaded app in the entertainment category. It has influenced music charts and made kids around the world semi-famous. It’s even been cited as having helped derail some of Trump’s campaign rallies — this year, users took to TikTok to organize and troll the president by booking tickets for his events and then not showing up. These days, they’re calling Trump’s voter fraud hotline and leaving very stupid and very funny messages. In October, the app surpassed 2 billion downloads worldwide.
But TikTok’s greatest accomplishment this year, which I’m sure everyone can agree on, is stopping me from swallowing my own tongue.
No part of the internet was improved by quarantine, by politics, by the panic and grief of the last nine months — except for TikTok. Being stuck at home or being forced to muddle through the extraordinary trauma of this year seemed to bring out everyone’s compassion, creativity, humor, and chaotic energy on the app. As we enter what feels like the 30th lockdown of the last few months, aimlessly scrolling through TikTok has been a salve for more than just me.
Look, I know TikTok is probably evil, as most tech companies turn out to be, but that’s later me’s problem. Current me just wants to be soothed. If I desire a unique distraction, somehow, the app always has more to give. I can watch extremely specific videos about how women pop their pubic ingrowns, of Snapchat-induced dysfunctional behavior, of an immigrant mom incorrectly guessing pop stars’ names and hits, of how fast-food joints dole out their sauces, and of best friends being cute. The greatest comfort on TikTok, for me at least, is how relatable it is, even in short, otherwise forgettable moments. Videos about the strangeness of having friends with stable families or of the anxiety around quarantine weight gain or...saving all the hair that falls out in the shower? Sure. I’ll watch it 30 times if I just don’t have to experience life for a few minutes.
TikTok is indeed weird and often gross — but it also feels pretty wholesome. (Though, it would also be nice if I could tell the app that I am in my late twenties so it can stop showing me videos of shirtless 17-year-old boys because I am not interested in prison.) On my For You page, so many of the videos I see are intended to comfort you, give a compliment, or connect with you from afar. There are so many videos like this one I watched earlier today, where a teenage boy hypes up another teenage girl who called herself “medium ugly.” He looks into the camera perplexed: “Girl, you’re not even medium pretty! That’s just pretty! The fuck?” My rotten trash heart swells; it was exactly what I needed.
If you’re looking for comfort, there seems to be something for everyone on TikTok. If you’re disconnected from your dad, @yourkoreandad acts as a surrogate as needed. If you’re disconnected from your mom, this video of an Indigenous woman and her daughter might be soothing. Teenagers use the app to tell men to shut it (he deserved it), to hype up a girl in cute pants, and to be excited about the shape of a carrot (it looks like a hot dog, but yes, we’re all still depressed).
This year in particular, as we’re all stuck inside, food and weight are some of the biggest topics on TikTok. Do you need a nutritionist to tell you that you can and should eat more than 1,200 calories a day? Here you go. Are you struggling to sit down and have a meal alone and you need company? You got that too. Do you have specific fears around certain foods? TikTok has someone who can help.
Maybe the best part of TikTok is that it’s the one app that seems to actively discourage my involvement, beyond rubbernecking at what teenagers are doing these days. It’s not that intuitive, it requires a pretty high bar for entry since the video editing is complicated for anyone who didn’t make stop-motion movies as a kid, and it’s largely dominated by people under the age of 22 who do nothing but make fun of me, someone on the bitter, wretched cusp of 30. Sure, I could start making TikToks instead of just watching them, but do I need a bunch of Gen Z kids making fun of me for being old enough to pay my own taxes? Not today, Bethany!
Plus, TikTok is a perfect kind of ephemera. You might find a video that’s mega-viral, a million or two views, but you’ll never be able to find it twice. The algorithm is so hostile to memory that it helps you train your own goldfish brain to forget. Anything you find that you hate is gone with one flick of your thumb. Even writing this piece was near impossible, because though I have vague memories of certain TikToks, I can’t find them and I can hardly describe them without sounding like I’ve taken an edible. 2020 is a year I’m ready and eager to forget. Nothing lasts, nothing matters, and TikTok won’t make you think about anything for more than 60 seconds.
TikTok won’t make you think about anything for more than 60 seconds.
I’d probably feel different about the app if I were indeed a part of its dominant user base. A 16-year-old version of myself watching an array of funny, smart, beautiful, interesting girls and young women lip-synching songs about aggressively demanding oral sex (good for her!) and smoking weed (is weed still cool, someone help me) would probably make me feel inadequate. I had enough body anxieties as a teenager even without the added pressure of an app that makes it seem like everyone in the world knows how to twerk except for me. (On that note, if anyone has a good tutorial they can show me, please speak up for the back of the class.) On the other hand, TikTok is a rare online community that actually feels as diverse as it proclaims to be. Every body type feels represented, every disability, every color, every perspective — though sometimes you have to dig for it. And as is true about all social media, I recommend that instead of reading the comments, you eat a good, hearty fistful of your own hair.
I miss everything about the normal world pre-COVID, even though I know it was imperfect. I miss going to the office. I miss big dinners in my favorite restaurants. I miss traveling. I miss watching first-year STEM students tumble into the subway car during frosh week and then projectile vomit out the doors every time the car stops at a station. I miss my niece, who once called me over FaceTime so I could watch her pull a baby tooth out of her mouth, bloodied with the tendon still attached, like the animal she is. It’s not fair — I should be able to watch her mutilate herself with glee in person.
It’s become rote to say that just surviving this year is a miracle, but it’s the truth. If you’re squeezing your way through 2020 with all your limbs, lungs, and guts intact, you did the best job possible. There’s still time left in this miserable year, and even more time before “coronavirus” is a word we no longer need to know. So look, if you need me, I’ll be on TikTok. Bring your phone, get a snack, and join me in the last good place.●