First released in 2016 by the Chinese technology company ByteDance, TikTok is a social media app allowing users to create, watch, and share short videos online.
The app has become globally popular and boasts over 1 billion active monthly users. Anyone is free to create videos and can select from video effects like background music, sound effects, stickers, or filters.
TikTok is known for its addictive nature and high engagement levels, which can be attributed to its AI-based, user-centric algorithm. The app curates infinite, highly personalized content on each user’s “For You” page. In this way, TikTok has distinguished itself from its competition and has had a large impact on society.
Consumerism[edit | edit source]
Impact of Subcultures[edit | edit source]
During the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly at its peak in 2020, TikTok became a place of self-expression for its users, leading to the emergence of distinct subcultures that have boosted specific product sales. For example, the "SquishTok" subculture, consisting of Squishmallow fans, caused the plush toys to grow in popularity within recent years. According to Jazwares, the parent company of the toy, Squishmallow sales tripled during the second half of 2020, and over 73 million Squishmallows were sold in March 2021.
TikTok For Business, TikTok’s tool for advertisers on the app, suggests that subcultures should be identified as lasting communities that can be integrated into a brand’s long-term marketing strategy. This approach has been successful within the “SkinTok” subculture. Dermatologists, estheticians, and skincare enthusiasts have gained billions of views and followers by promoting particular products on their accounts. This has in turn persuaded viewers to purchase the products themselves, increasing sales for these brands. After witnessing their influential power, skincare and beauty brands sought to collaborate with these creators to further promote their brand and products, which has proven beneficial for both the TikTokers and external brands.
Trends like “Things TikTok Made Me Buy,” “I Want It, I Got It,” and #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt, showcasing items that became highly demanded or sold out due to viral TikToks, further reinforce the app's influence on consumerism and product culture. Users who watch hauls of creators’ recent purchases become convinced that they need the items and buy them themselves, whether they truly need them or not. Though this has benefited product sales, it has also caused overconsumption, negatively affecting the environment. Millie Kendall, who established the Sustainable Beauty Coalition, proposes that “beauty brands need to think twice about making products every other day” rather than keeping up with TikTok trends and damaging the environment in the process.
Food Industry[edit | edit source]
Many restaurants and food joints have become famous through viral TikToks. Rahim Mohamed, more commonly known as “General Ock,” saw TikTok as an opportunity for him to promote his family’s bodega in Brooklyn, NY. Since posting his first TikToks in 2020 of his wild sandwich concoctions, such as a breakfast sandwich that substitutes sweet pastries for bread, Mohamed has gathered 3.8 million followers and 63.3 million likes (as of December 2022). He continues to garner attention to his account and business by posting viral videos of himself making crazy sandwiches as per customer request. Other food joints, like East 81st St. Deli in Cleveland, OH, have had similar success stories in which a customer posted a video raving about a particular menu item, the video went viral and inspired other users, even celebrities, to venture out to the restaurant and try it, and the restaurant is now visited by more customers than it has ever seen before.
Music Industry[edit | edit source]
Many artists, both emerging and more established ones, allow their music to be used by any TikTok creator. In this way, especially when videos go viral, their music reaches a larger audience, thus promoting the artist’s presence in popular culture. Research from MRC Data demonstrates that about 70% of users discover new music and artists through TikTok, and 67% are likely to search for a song they discovered while on TikTok on a music streaming platform later. 72% of users also confirm they associate particular songs with the app.
Conversely, many brands have used the prominence of music and sounds on TikTok to their advantage. According to research from MRC Data, when brands feature songs that are liked by the TikTok community in their videos, 65% of users are better able to remember the brand, and 58% feel more strongly connected to the brand and are more likely to share the brand with others. Given the popularity of the app, these statistics can be promising for both artists and brands looking to become more well-known.
Censorship and Moderation[edit | edit source]
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After TikTok’s global expansion in 2018, the platform’s moderation system took a decentralized form by integrating local laws.  As a result, a global variety of hashtags and phrases were categorized as having a high risk of violating the community guidelines.
These phrases included:
- #acab - This acronym stands for “All cops are bastards” and references the political movement against police. This hashtag became popularized as a result of the murder of George Floyd in 2020. (United States of America)
- #PutinisaThief in Russian - This political slogan is a response to the exposure of Vladmir Putin’s palace worth 1.4 billion dollars. It is located in Gelendzhik on the Black Sea where the city suffers from hot water shortages and poor sewage systems. (Russia)
- “I am gay” in Russian - In Russia, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments have risen due to legislation banning propaganda for non-heterosexual relationships to minors and allowing parental rights to be taken from same-sex couples. (Russia)
- “Why Do We Need A King” in Thai - In 2020, protesters sought to reform the monarchy by reverting the Constitution of Thailand of 2017 to reduce the king’s constitutional powers and repeal the legal punishment for defamation towards the king.  (Thailand)
- “I won’t graduate with the monarchy” in Thai - It is tradition for the king of the Thai monarchy to hand out diplomas during university graduations. In response to the 2020 protests in Thailand, activists urged students to boycott these ceremonies by not attending, therefore not receiving their diploma to graduate. (Thailand)
These phrases were partially or fully restricted from the public in their corresponding country, therefore repressing the virality of their associated social movements. This form of moderation closely matches what officials from TikTok claim about the type of entertainment the platform holds. TikTok’s head of public policy in the Americas, Michael Beckerman, has stated that the platform is “not the go-to place for politics” and rather focuses on entertainment. This apolitical stance has resulted in heavy criticism towards TikTok, with some users attributing banned phrases and videos to a clear directive from the platform to censor and minimize political movements.
Restricted Viewability on the "For You" Page[edit | edit source]
The moderation of acceptable videos on the public “For You” page according to the community guidelines is another way TikTok enforces its neutral position. In 2019, leaked documents revealed a restriction on videos from groups deemed “susceptible to bullying or harassment based on their physical or mental condition.” This user class contained users with disabilities or those who identify with the LGBTQ+ community. TikTok confirmed these reports and claimed it was a short-term solution to the increased amount of bullying on the app.
Influence on User Self-Expression and Mental Health[edit | edit source]
Impact on Radical Masculinity[edit | edit source]
Creators are free to express themselves on the app through a wide range of artistic and visual freedom. The “#femboy” hashtag dons hundreds of videos containing young men wearing nail varnish, twirling in skirts, crop-tops and dresses, etc. Although this is not new, it has been freshly adapted by young men on TikTok, redefining gender norms and masculinity.
For example, TikTok user ‘Moysilk’ “has been wearing skirts and dresses for a few years before seeing the "femboy" trend on TikTok.” Finally seeing other individuals dress like him “gave him a sense of validation” and belief that “dressing more femininely doesn’t deter from his heterosexuality.” However, understanding these articles of adornment as either masculine or feminine is incredibly narrow.
Drawing on the concept of “hybrid masculinity,” TikTok creators both challenge and reinforce traditional gender norms – putting a twist on gender norms while also reinforcing the importance of masculine traits. Content from TikTok users represent a broader shift in mainstream media towards hybrid masculinity – the fusing of feminine and gay aesthetics while keeping a sense of male privilege (e.g., Harry Styles’ Vogue cover of him in a dress, K-pop culture).
Popularity of the "Femboy" Subculture[edit | edit source]
A study done by analyzing young men in the top 100 most followed accounts on TikTok (as of September 2022) through their content aimed to see if there were any trends in their behavior and physical appearance. Jewelry, piercings and tattoos are frequently seen through most of the famous male TikTokers – 33% of the figures coded have ear or facial piercings and 71% wear at least one article of jewelry. TikTok user Chase Hudson, or “lilhuddy,” frequently stacks rings, necklaces, and bracelets together alongside his earrings and painted nails. Hudson’s presentation online has been praised as widely representative of TikTok’s “femboys.”
While young men who embrace the "femboy" aesthetic sometimes receive praise through TikTok videos for being ‘different,' many receive hate as there is disagreement with the aesthetic as a whole. This praise received by the young men can incentivize this new era of masculinity, allowing further self-expression and overall opposition for traditional masculine ideals.
Effects on Emotions and Eating Disorders[edit | edit source]
With most social media exposure, false realities have been normalized to highlight the glamorous events in people's lives. By showing only the positive events and qualities of a person's life, authenticity is lost and can foster harmful reactions from other users fawning over a certain lifestyle or qualities from another person.
TikTok is no different as many challenges sparked from the app focus on users' abilities to try and reproduce the same trending task. However, they also lead to the exposure of a growing number of users to problematic content. For example, some of these challenges revolve around ED-related topics such as the “#headphonechallenge,” a popular Chinese TikTok trend in early 2020 where people would measure their waists using headphone wires and the less amount of wire used would show a smaller or more “desirable” waist.
Nevertheless, TikTok also serves as a way to raise awareness and normalize mental health issues. The app serves as a thriving opportunity to create an easily accessible digital space for users to share their own experiences and produce positive content in support of their own issues. Communities such as “#proEDrecovery,” “#raisingEDawareness,” and others have provided advice and support to others in their recovery process, struggles, and personal stories all under a hashtag.
Conclusion[edit | edit source]
TikTok demonstrates the ability to pose both positive and negative effects on society, depending on how creators choose to use their platforms and on how TikTok itself presents content to its billions of users. More adverse effects may surface as TikTok's popularity continues to increase and its influence maintains a hold on society. We must therefore be cautious in how we use social media and other forms of technology and its long-term effects on the world, and future research should continue to explore other societal aspects that have been impacted by TikTok's legacy.
References[edit | edit source]
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