TikTok, the world’s sixth-most popular social media platform, has spiked in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic. But though it is populated mainly by young people sharing silly home-cooked music videos, the Chinese-owned app has become a political football, as the governments of India and the US, under then-President Trump, attempted to ban it in 2020, accusing the platform of aiding Chinese geopolitical interests.
But TikTok deserves a different kind of attention than its relation to global trade wars. TikTok has managed to incite in its users an enthusiasm for the emancipatory and even revolutionary potential of digital communication, similar to that associated with the internet’s early years. TikTok is a corporate product generating multibillion-dollar revenues for its owners, it’s true. But it’s worth exploring what exactly the app means to its users.
After first downloading the app, I couldn’t get off it for hours, fascinated with the energy, wit, and daring of its users. The continuously repeated sounds and dances, occasionally intercepted by political messages, also struck me with a weird familiarity. TikTok reminded me of the Blue Blouse, a Soviet agitprop theatre movement that existed from 1923 to the beginning of the 1930s; it grew out of “living newspaper” performances (whose actors usually wore blue blouses, hence the name) into a nationwide creative platform of seven thousand groups all over the country.
Blue Blouse performances were often staged in workers’ clubs and factory cafeterias during lunch breaks. They contrasted political information with entertainment and humor, and would normally start with a thematic presentation followed by acted-out news briefings and satirical sketches. Energetic dances and acrobatic moves 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 repetitive artistic elements reproduced across the country made their performances recognizable. Importantly, however, each performance did not only reproduce standard moves and content, but was also strongly informed by the local context, reflecting issues relevant to it. This is an analogue precursor to TikTok’s sounds and moves, reenacted by creators across the globe, with a pinch of individuality and localization.
The “living newspaper” vibe was especially apparent in the American segment of TikTok at the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests last year. Updates from the streets, educational content, and political satire flooded the app. This became so persistent that even conservative commentators could spot it: Fox News’s Tucker Carlson hysterically denounced “the new Cultural Revolution,” comparing TikTok’s young creators who publicly exposed the racism and homophobia of conservative parents to Pavlik Morozov, the Soviet propaganda character who reported his kulak father to the authorities.
Generational conflict is one of the major drivers behind TikTok creators, most of whom are between fifteen and twenty-five years old. But it would be grossly misleading to view TikTok as simply a subcultural phenomenon. TikTok creators mock racism, homophobia, nationalism, and different forms of cultural supremacy as a generational legacy they militantly oppose.
According to “Why We Post,” a large-scale anthropological research project conducted in 2012–2016 in almost a dozen sites across the world, people tend to avoid upfront political posting 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 may be used to exchange political content and even facilitate political actions. TikTok challenges this largely depoliticized appearance of public social media with a confrontational and unapologetic militancy.
This can partly be explained by the fact that the platform is mostly a “parents-free zone” for its young users. But young people are articulating their political messages in the creative, humorous manner offered by TikTok even in countries where it isn’t just your conservative grandma who monitors your social media content closely, but also the state.
Most popular social media use friendship as their model for social interaction. Your first contacts on Facebook or Instagram are people you are personally connected to in real life. TikTok operates differently, as the ultimate incentive for the creators is to appear on the automatically generated feed of suggested content. Therefore, creators appeal to wide audiences of like-minded users far outside not only their social but also geographical proximity.
AI algorithms enhance this appeal, which makes TikTok very segmented and distinctly split into mainstream, or often dismissively called “Straight TikTok,” full of dances and lip-syncing videos, and multi-genre progressive segments such as Black TikTok, Queer TikTok, EduTok and so on. Solidarity is often the model of social interaction on TikTok more than friendship. The basis for social networks created and maintained on the platform is not personal connections but shared values and views.
Technological advances are always prone to revolutionary promises, which can quickly be betrayed. We all remember the crucial role that Twitter and Facebook played in political mobilizations of the 2010s like the Arab Spring, only to eventually lead to intensified political censorship and corporate control. Time will tell whether TikTok creators are indeed a digital reincarnation of Proletkult, one that can “unite the feelings, thoughts and the will of the masses and raise them,” as Lenin once put it, or if it’s just another digital carnival, good for steaming off rebellious energy under the strict control of algorithms and corporate interests and not much else.