After a slow infancy in which it has become best known for generating dance routines and memes, TikTok can now lay claim to being the new disrupter of the age. The social media platform, first launched in China in 2016, has been gaining in maturity for a while now. Lockdown has unquestionably accelerated the pace. And where once the platform and its users were dismissed as puerile, the content lately has wisened up.
The comedian Sarah Cooper, for example, has harnessed an audience of millions by performing Donald Trump’s speeches via lip-sync, a tool more traditionally reserved for users who like mouthing along to Justin Bieber songs. Cooper has picked up a slew of admirers — Ben Stiller, Jimmy Fallon and Jerry Seinfeld for a start — and signed with the WME agency, making her one the biggest breakout stars of quarantine. Not bad considering she’s using someone else’s material and has yet to say a word.
Yet, phenomenal though her success has been, Cooper is an adult who has successfully exploited a platform designed for teens. Far more explosive is what is happening on TikTok in the hands of the kids. In a brilliant act of political sabotage last weekend, TikTok teenagers and K-pop fans claimed responsibility for the poor attendance at Trump’s Tulsa rally by block-booking tickets, and then jettisoning their seats.
Doubly devastating, the stunt not only humiliated Trump at a rally touted as his big post-Covid comeback, but also helped scramble voter data his team might have used in their campaign. In other acts of political subversion, K-pop Stans (or superfans, named after the 2000 Eminem song) have been spamming the #whitelivesmatter hashtag with music videos and posts, and matched a $1m donation from K-pop superstars BTS for Black Lives Matter groups. Where the bands lead, it seems, the fans follow. There are many millions of them, and they now understand their clout.
Of course, not everyone is buying this tale of teen insubordination. The architect of the Tulsa stunt turned out to be a 51-year-old woman from Fort Dodge, Iowa. And there’s a conservative reluctance to believe that the Zoomers roasted the Republicans. That may be so. But if I were running for office, I’d want to get the K-pop Stans onside.
TikTok teens might still be obsessed with #weightlossjourneys and #harrystylescardigan (and I urge you to look at the extraordinary DIY crochet efforts they have created in his name), but many of the users are starting to come of age. They’re becoming more political. More proactive. They may be back-of-the-classroom cheeky, but they’re wiser than they seem.
What’s thrilling to witness is that, even while many of them are still too young to vote, they’ve made their voices heard. Early signs suggest that Generation Z — cocksure, intuitively digital and armed with the reductive capacity to turn almost any ideology into a three-word meme — will be more anarchic and independent than the one that came before.
No one would argue that the Millennials had it easy, but they were terribly self-righteous, especially when it came to moaning and pointing out things that they deserve. By contrast, the Zoomers, who stand to enter adulthood during the worst recession in history and have had a massive hole punched in their education, are taking matters into their own hands.
A small example. This week I’ve received two emails from school-aged students who’ve started businesses from home. Frank Pugh got together with three friends on the day their GCSEs were cancelled and started FFSB to produce sustainable, reusable and ethically made masks. The masks fit both adults and children, and 10 per cent of profits goes to a charity called YoungMinds. Asked why they did it, he says that they were bored.
Charlie Bieger, meanwhile, a 13-year-old “student president”, has used lockdown to rebuild his website, create a streetwear-influenced fashion brand called CBX Clothing, and sell it all online. “I really hate being stuck inside,” he said when I asked what had inspired him. “And, while I really miss my friends, I think this time is teaching us stuff about our world which will overall make everything better once we’re out of quarantine.”
Much hand-wringing has been done by Boomers and Generation X-ers over this adolescent generation. We worry about the Covid-sized dent in their learning. How they won’t have access to higher education, won’t get jobs, how they’re totally sunk. But I sincerely hope that coronavirus will be their making.
Perhaps Zoomers won’t fetishise higher education like the generations before them have, or care so much about home ownership, or how the world has done them wrong. Maybe, they’ve figured out already that the old world order doesn’t have much to offer, and so they’re cooking up a new one, and they don’t expect our help. There’s such energy and optimism in their secret project-making, crochet-knitting, website-building plans. And good luck to them.
The Zoomers are coming and I for one can’t wait.
Email Jo at email@example.com
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