TikTok and Social Media: Creating a Virtual Dystopia for the Coming Generations

When TikTok first came out as the bastardized revival of Vine, I promised myself I would never get involved with it. I wasn’t particularly active with Vine to begin with, so sticking to my convictions wasn’t much of an issue.

For some context, Vine was an app that allowed users to create six-second videos. That was it. As a platform, it became mostly used for comedy purposes. You can think of it almost like six-second video memes. TikTok meant to replicate this in many ways.

When TikTok made its way into mainstream culture, I didn’t get involved with it, but I was shown some of their videos as friends and my sisters sent me links. It was primarily individuals lip syncing along to songs with some unimpressive hand movements. It was underwhelming. By then, I felt even more comfortable and sure in my decision to not associate myself. To be clear, there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with TikTok at that stage, I simply wasn’t impressed by it. It felt like another cheesy fad that only contributed to the pressures of social media, a culture of mimicry that wasn’t as much about creating original content so much as a competition of who could do it better. (Code for “who could look the hottest/prettiest doing it.”) As time went on, its users expanded content into the comedy of vine combined with the pop culture of the time (think James Charles, Ru Paul, Kylie Jenner). I still stand by my description of “bastardized revival.”

Currently, TikTok has amassed over one billion users. That’s a lot of people, and much of their demographic is Gen Z. That makes TikTok not just a “fun” app for creativity and social media, but an entire subculture, one with its own social rules, hot new trends, and influence.

I thought I could live my life away from TikTok; I didn’t anticipate having it infect the world around me.

I have begun to notice a startling trend as TikTok has risen in power, although I would be remiss not to mention the culpability of Twitter, Instagram, and other forms of social media that have all been involved in shaping the new social world. What I initially excused as cringey tween behavior came to be something more sinister, something not so much grown out of as grown into. With the addictiveness of TikTok combined with the pervasiveness and availability of technology, reality has begun its tumultuous shift into a dystopian virtual reality.

Sunday, November 30th, I was sitting in a Starbucks, sipping a hot cup of tea and reading articles for a research paper that was due the following Tuesday. All of a sudden, my attention was confiscated by two young girls (anywhere from 10-13???) not two feet away from me. One girl was inside, one was outside, and they both had phones propped against the window. In total silence, they both pressed a button on their respective phones and began to do a dance/hand motion combo very similar to something I might have seen on Musical.ly. Not ten minutes later, they were at a different table in the coffee shop, doing a similar thing.

I was… so uncomfortable. It was weird to watch. I couldn’t not watch, but it felt rude to watch. I certainly didn’t want to make these young girls feel like I was judging them, but at the same time, I was utterly astounded. Initially, I started to write it off as younger kids doing weird stuff, engaging in the stuff that their age group likes. I mean, plenty of people in my generation put some embarrassing stuff of YouTube, no doubt. But even that didn’t wholly encompass what was rubbing me the wrong way. After mulling it over, I realized what was so unsettling about it: these girls have zero regard for how the world around them is perceiving them because their focus is on the impression they will have on the virtual world. There was no regard for how making those weird videos would make the people in the shop feel; there was no concern for how odd it would make them look. It was all about their personhood online.

As someone who has an Instagram and a Facebook account, I can understand this and am guilty of this to an extent. But you can bet your ass I still feel a little embarrassed if someone catches me taking a selfie. And I sure as hell am not interfering in the space of others to make a video or undergo a whole photoshoot for that perfect shot for the gram.

Now you may be thinking, “Anna, sure that’s weird. But that’s not really a big deal. Calling it a dystopian virtual reality seems like a little bit of a stretch.” And to that extent, I would agree with you. But wait! There’s more!

Not only have I witnessed behavior like the aforementioned in the external spheres of my life, I have been forced to interact with it in the personal spheres of my life as well.

As I mentioned before, part of TikTok’s subculture is creating hot new trends and fad-like behavior. Think: creating of slang, but at an expedited level. There is a whole subsect of use-of-language stemming from TikTok culture, and if you aren’t a part of TikTok, it is immediately off-putting.

A video that I cannot for the life of my find haunts on my first experiences of running smack dab into TikTok culture. The video is a young man talking about Trump, I believe, and its comedic value rests in the way he speaks, and the way he ends all of his points with a very punchy and poignant, “PERIOD.” From this, a new language style evolved in which it became trendy to punctuate one’s conversation points with: “PERIOD.”

I was in conversation with someone within my personal sphere who also is an avid user of TikTok, and throughout the conversation, I was being assaulted with, “PERIOD.” I admit, I laughed the first couple of times it happened, but the humor quickly died and was replaced with annoyance and irritation.

Instances like this have become more frequent, and they make me incredibly uncomfortable. For the person I’m engaging with, it almost feels as if we are in a TikTok video--but there is no audience. There is no one liking the video, or commenting on how “savage” that was. It’s just me. It’s just me! Talk to me, damnit!

I’ve seen a similar kind of behavioral encouragement breeding in Twitter. Aggressive “feminists” may make a post that really shuts down men, occasionally by hyperbolizing an actual issue (I put “feminists” in quotes because feminism is not about putting men down to uplift women). You can say something sassy and aggressive and “savage” in 140 characters and get likes, retweets, and comments of praise. And that sort of online feedback sends a reinforcement that behavior like that is good, that it makes you more likable, that you should keep it up.

But here’s the thing.

You can post something like this:

Photo Credit: Twitter @fyeahmfabello

And you can get almost a thousand likes and all the positive feedback that the internet wants to offer you, and you can think you’re funny.

But if you walk up to a man and say that to his face? No one is laughing, because you’re not funny, you’re just an asshole.

I am alarmed by the way in which social media is creating a virtual reality space that is parasitical to our own IRL reality. Interactions are being shaped more by how they would be perceived on the internet than how they will be received by the people actually involved in the interaction. And sure, many times, things are caught on video and posted to the internet, but that should not be what shapes the way we, as human beings, interact with each other.

If this continues on the track that I am seeing it on currently, we are going to be headed into a space that is not only annoying, but quite frankly, terrifying. The “social” aspect of social media is beginning to exist in its own unique way purely in the internet space, and I fear that growing generations will soon no longer be taught how to be social in the real world when face-to-face with others without an audience.