What Can We Learn From TikTok Teens?
Your TikTok ‘For You Page’ is a stream of consciousness tailored to you. Every iteration is different, and every time you open up the application it changes slightly. (There is a running joke that the TikTok algorithm often works out your sexuality before you do.) Content is organised by hashtags and these become ‘communities’ featuring creators that produce content centred around these themes. One day, you may find yourself on Nursetok. Next, you may be down the rabbit hole of ConspiracyTok.
The benefits of this hyper-customisation are clear: you only see what you are interested in and what will engage you. But the architects of the app have also understood the power of randomness and insert just enough ‘wildcard content’ to capture us and draw us in, so your ‘For You Page’ will always include an element of chance with what it throws up, exposing viewers to new niches, novel styles and the trending memes of the moment. While the criticisms around data harvesting and tracking users’ movements online are valid - ignoring the cultural impact of TikTok comes at our own peril as it continues to grow its userbase and become the ‘go to’ location for young people to get their news.
The aesthetics of the platform’s users are often pushed to an extreme by the sheer visual overload and noise. Standing out becomes a matter of priority for users who understand that the volume of content means they must create their own unique voice, and look, if they want others to follow, listen and share with their own networks.
In spite of how varied the TikTok landscape is, there is no mistaking who rules over it: the teens. It might be their natural ease with digital technologies that explains how seamlessly they came to dominate the platform. During the global lockdowns it was young people who promoted the idea of ‘romanticising’ their daily routines and finding joy in smaller pleasures, even when they were constrained within their familiar four walls.
As a result of the pandemic’s huge boom in users, the application has rapidly become a trend ecosystem in its own right - spawning new subcultures, from the frankly rather terrifying circus-inspired Clowncore to the dreamy, pastel pink-clad Dollettes.
These styles aren’t necessarily sold to us as ways of life and are, in fact, marketed as being interchangeable - something that feels a little strange to those of us who are more used to traditional subcultures (you would never want to be perceived as co-opting punk for the sake of its trendiness, after all!). Not sticking to one aesthetic doesn’t mean you are sacrificing your integrity but that you are exploring, growing and experimenting with your identity and creative expression through dress, makeup, and curation of your online content.
TikTok is a place where you can be rapidly exposed to the weirder, more wonderful fashions and trends that exist today. The explosion of visual styles happening on your screen is like a real-time encyclopedia of identities. The clothing becomes less about style and more about character and costume - leading us to believe that when we put on the outfit - we come to embody what it represents.
Without the restrictions of geography or time (videos on TikTok have no ‘expiration date’ and can go viral months after they were first posted) the audience is left to decide which of these are worthy of our attention. TikTok’s economy of images leaves it up to the audience to determine the value of its content.
Some ‘core aesthetics’, as they are popularly known, are little more than collections of images sourced online that cluster around a certain look and feel. Some examples of these I have found on my many scrolls include bloodcore, weirdcore, heartcore and cleancore. But some attract more attention and manage to bring together more adherents to become more built-out communities that have a common worldview and shared interests or activities that extend beyond the screen. These are the ones that capture media attention and can even be seen to influence the fashions making their way down the catwalks.
The Cottagecore community feel at one with nature as they float about in floor-length dresses and wander through fields (like the romantic poets). The so-called ‘Dark Academia’ adherents are obsessed with tweed and gothic architecture - they treasure rainy days spent browsing dusty old bookshops. Sometimes, TikTok trends flirt with the slightly stranger fringes of internet culture. For example, Fauntok users dress like anthropomorphic deer and share tutorials on how to create your own set of hooves or paint your legs to mimic the texture of fur. Think Mr Tumnus with the social media career aspirations of a Love Island contestant.
Clowncore blends elements of horror costuming with the Japanese tradition of decora (overloading on accessories frequently made from small toys or everyday household objects). They seem to revel in the unsettling synthesis of wide, bright red smiles and smeared black eye-makeup, often cackling manically at their cameras and posing with baseball bats a la Harley Quinn.
And don’t forget the Granola Girls who take being ‘the outdoorsy type’ to the next level and make it the central focus of their personality - muddied Birkenstocks and battered Fjallraven Kanken backpack not a requirement but highly recommended. Oh, and there are the Pirate Fairies, of course. They dress like Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean but finish it off with a Boots counter-worth of glittery eyeshadow. Their origin story lies in the 2014 Tinkerbell spin-off animation whose enduring cultural legacy I clearly never should have questioned.
So why do a bunch of teens dressing up in strange outfits and dancing around on our smartphone screens matter?
Well, maybe they don’t. Maybe TikTok is just the latest example of a digital world and it will soon be replaced by the next venture-capital-funded attempt to capture and dominate our screentime. Maybe its success will be fleeting and the little worlds it has helped spawn will soon be forgotten both by those who created them and those who watched.
But perhaps the TikTok teens are onto something. They understand that artifice is not incompatible with authenticity. In fact, style coupled with the catwalk of cyberspace can be a powerful medium through which we can override or obscure our insecurities and reveal ourselves, free of the pressure to conform to our day-to-day environments. Less ‘fake it till you make it’ and more ‘dress for the person you want to be’. (The emerging science behind enclothed cognition - how dress affects our behaviour and performance - suggests there is considerable truth to these idioms.)
Perhaps they are trying to encourage us to embrace those slightly eccentric, somewhat eclectic but ultimately more genuine elements of ourselves that mainstream digital culture, dominated by clone-like Kardashians, has taught us to suppress. They celebrate having the confidence to dress up and be more open-minded; to ‘trying on’ different versions of ourselves that are allowed to change and develop over time. The inevitable truth is that we will be on-screen more and more as time goes on. And when our wholly digital, metaverse-dwelling avatars are just around the corner, making friends with our alter-egos seems more important than ever.