These days it is hard to look anywhere without seeing COVID-19. Our fixation is justifiable. Hospitals are overwhelmed, over four billion people live under stay-home orders, and projections remain dire. A superabundance of downstream responses, from the cancellation of March Madness to global invocations of emergency powers, has provided a breathless stream of content for TV anchors and late-night hosts alike. No media feels normal; nothing feels untouched.
That is, excepting one platform: TikTok. Many of my friends are among the two million Americans who downloaded the app between March 16 and 22 this year. The short, humorous videos provide an escape from the boredom and dread of quarantine. Compared to other socially distanced pastimes like binging Netflix or scrolling through Instagram, TikTok is fairly interactive. You can learn the dances, create duets with friends, or make your own. The low barrier to entry offers surprise and variety, as well as the opportunity to join a trend from the comfort of home.
With the right For You page, an algorithm-generated sampling of videos, TikTok seems entirely unchanged. It is inescapably odd for The Daily Show to be filmed on Trevor Noah’s couch, but TikToks were always set in strangers’ bedrooms. Some of the most common TikTok formats inhabit a comfortably lonely aesthetic—a single figure dancing or singing or lip-synching while wearing headphones. Entire genres, such as the app’s many makeup challenges, presume a lone user. Group TikToks, while not uncommon, generate fewer copycats and variations. In an inversion of COVID-19, it’s easier for a TikTok to go viral in isolation.
Even TikToks that directly mention the virus assimilate to the app’s conventions. The material impacts of this crisis are, in many dimensions, unprecedented. But as a TikTok phenomenon, the pandemic fits a familiar hyperbolic mold. Earlier this year, the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani resulted in a cascade of “World War III”–themed TikToks. The Australian wildfires and Kobe Bryant’s death were similarly understood as harbingers of the end times. The density of major events in 2020 has produced its own sub-strain of memes, from jokes about members of Gen Z risking death for organic hand sanitizer to fantastical speculation about the events of the next month.
The similarity in response across these crises is not an indication that TikTokers are uninformed or flip. Genuine anxiety about the state of the world becomes more and more intense, until it can only prompt laughter. Every fear intensifies to the same apocalyptic register. Irrespective of how abnormal or destabilizing a state of affairs may appear, the app processes it with the same tools. The result is content that is often funny but that fails to make sense of the heightened alarm that fuels it. Everybody knows that COVID-19 is something new, but we remain incapable of creating something new to capture it.
Droves of newly bored people have accelerated the proliferation of content on TikTok as they reach for creative outlets and community. It’s the perfect thing to do in quarantine. But we must remember, even in extraordinary times, that the horizon of the ordinary constrains us. TikTok functions as it always has. It feeds its own visually trained algorithm and favors its own brand of humor. The world of the app proceeds without interruption, no matter what is going on in physical reality.
All memes are referential by their very nature. They require variation within repetition, new captions to recognizable images—that’s what makes them funny. Yet even amongst memes, TikToks are an especially self-involved bunch. Users note how adults, no matter how skillful they may be with other media, struggle to produce TikToks that match the tone of the app. The app’s charm, its unique quirks and motifs, demands mastery of a finicky internal language. A relatively small number of audio clips appear in thousands of videos; choreography from a single video becomes synonymous with a given song. The few political conversations that exist on the app often concern its own content. Controversial TikToks are met with a flood of hateful comments, and content producers are cancelled with quotidien abandon.
The confluence of an astute algorithm and a culture of paranoia whittles content on TikTok into a highly recognizable brand. While individuals use TikTok in a number of ways, the stand-out successes of its biggest stars conform to this understanding of the app’s purpose. Few videos successfully break the frame, despite the torrent of content. Anything can bend to fit a familiar voiceover or song. But this flexibility comes at the price of standardization, a narrowed sense of the forms the content can occupy.
The remarkable growth of TikTok over the last few months does not testify to the app’s ability to compute crisis, or to young people’s tendency to turn everything into a joke. We should instead recognize in its superficial plurality a desire to seek comfort in moments of mutual crisis. This impulse runs contrary to the innovation required for media to fit the moment, an evolution in form as well as content. In an era of unprecedented change, we should look to unprecedented jokes. TikTok may prove capable of clearing this bar, but only if it looks past the formula of its own success.