I want to apologize upfront for writing an article that sounds like your grandma has just discovered the internet. I haven’t used the actual app for TikTok in years; I found it so distracting that I had to delete it the first semester of my freshman year. That might make me a weird choice to write this piece, but I think there’s value in an outside perspective. Besides, TikTok is absolutely everywhere. You don’t need to have the app itself because its impacts are all around us. If you’re like me, you probably have at least one friend who dutifully sends you dispatches from the front. (I’m personally the recipient of an excellently curated collection of Taylor Swift TikToks). Plus, its huge success has forced other social media platforms to develop clones like Instagram Reels or YouTube Shorts, so cross-posting abounds.
And even if you’re really offline with no social media presence whatsoever (I wish I was you), you still haven’t escaped. TikTok has profoundly shaped the Gen Z lexicon in just a few short years. Words like “slay,” which originated in the specific context of Black and Latine queer ballroom culture, are now used regularly and unironically in everyday life. (And if you think you are using it ironically, I’m sorry to inform you that it’s already too late, it’s probably ingrained itself in your vocabulary forever). If you’re on #StudyTok, you might describe yourself as an “academic weapon,” which connotates a whole kind of studious lifestyle. Personally, at this point in the semester, I’m feeling like less of an “academic weapon” and more like one of those foam baseball bats they give toddlers to play T Ball with, but I digress. Lots of the app’s humor is lighthearted, weird, or abstract, designed for the short video format. But some of it points to larger issues in our culture.
Harmless jokes about “girl dinner” and “girl math” quickly took on what I honestly think are sinister undertones of sexism once they went viral outside of their original contexts. Joking about how girls are bad at math isn’t anything subversive or funny; it’s just the same tired misogynistic trope. I have a similar issue with those videos that explain the news “for the girls.” Insinuating that girls are either too stupid to understand important issues without them being dumbed down, or just too vapid to care, is dangerous. I’m not a total killjoy– I know most of these jokes are in good fun. And it’s not that I’m particularly sensitive to sexist humor; it’s been embedded in pop culture for decades and I’m used to brushing it off, though we’ve made significant progress in my lifetime. I’m more worried about young women on that app who will be exposed to that idea over and over again by the algorithm, and who may grow up to think they’re less capable than their male peers.
It only took a few years for TikTok to dominate the digital world, and in that time we’ve seen its capacity to drive significant social change, both positive and negative. Though it’s easy to dismiss social media as frivolous or unimportant, we need to reckon with the ways in which it will continue to change our society for years to come.