The meteoric rise of TikTok has been said to exemplify the core traits of ‘Gen Z’ (the generation that follows millennials, starting from the somewhat arbitrary date of 1996). In recent years it has set the record as the world’s fastest downloaded app, becoming the first other than Facebook to reach 3 billion installations.
As well as providing entertainment, it is an ideal advertising space for companies to connect with this emergent demographic, though what exactly is the ‘TikTok generation’ and to what extent is the app an accurate reflection of its concerns?
A Sign of the Times
In a world marked by catastrophes of various kinds, the nature and content of TikTok mimics that: a fast-paced profusion of sounds, images, and ideas. It arguably speaks to a generation lacking a unifying ethos, but rather a melting pot of identities and modes of thinking.
Particularly throughout lockdown it has emerged as the go-to hub of self-expression, especially for a generation that is navigating its ethical values throughout a disorientating global period. Consequently, there is a desire to not be left behind and to engage with this dynamic, if somewhat disorientating, mode of digitalised generational self-definition.
In the past, post-war generations were commonly referred to as ‘lost’ following moments of radical social upheaval. Gen Z is arguably no different, if we consider the financial crisis of 2008, the escalating climate emergency and other moral challenges that have been thrown into the limelight over the past decade relating to gender, race, and corruption.
What’s the Issue?
One of the great benefits of TikTok is that it can also provide a cheery distraction from all the noise. Such is the diversity of TikTok content, the personalised ‘For You’ page uses a sophisticated algorithm to meet your tastes in humour and other general interests.
However, many still question the overall function of the app, with many amongst the older generations bemoaning the adverse psychological effects – such as addiction – that it fosters.
Those who don’t use that app have also argued that it represents an intellectual decline amongst the younger generation as, zombie-like, they consume utterly random videos full of unconnected ideas.
There is also a heavy discourse surrounding attention spans, as many have argued that it enables an impatient and passive mindset when it comes to finding intellectual stimulation.
However, it is hard to empirically quantify such a generalisation and, besides, it is not necessarily a generational sickness but a product of external social conditions. The fast-paced capitalist and consumer climate we live in fosters a mental condition of instant gratification, and TikTok is only a symptom of this craving for immediacy.
The more basic explanation is that TikTok has tapped into something fundamental about the human psyche that has always been there. Dr Gemma Briggs, for example, believes that attention spans haven’t got shorter, but are heavily task-dependant.
Therefore of course the more that we sit umbilically attached to TikTok, the less time we devote to more productive tasks. However, it is an extraordinary leap to blame the app for causing a default setting of laziness and goldfish like apathy into a whole generation.
Credit Where It’s Due
Overall, the TikTok generation deserve more credit. Whilst many videos do feature nonsensical surrealistic humour that seems to treat the world with flippant indifference, a substantial amount of the content is genuinely informative and thought-provoking.
By and large, the bite sized content that is consumed is not just inconsequential clips that can be consumed and instantly forgotten, but are often incredibly resonant and impactful.
Aware of this, TikTok have now extended videos up to three minutes to enhance the scope for learning and meaningful engagements with serious topics.
Pressing current affairs are expressed in a more digestible way, through features such as sounds and filters to promote genuine understanding on a visceral level.
Whilst to the outsider it may seem bizarre, Gen Z are also interacting with a highly sophisticated level of irony and humour; creating a recognised language through memes and symbols that they can feel empowered by.
In other quarters, content can be highly therapeutic as communities of like-minded people revel in the things they enjoy. Now, there are many channels dedicated to things like cooking or other hobbies that help to promote mental wellbeing and self-care.
Whilst the ‘boomers’ or millennials may not get it instinctively, TikTok doesn’t have to represent the intellectual failure of a generation, or young people’s inability to communicate with one another except through silly dance routines.
In fact, there is far more to it than that, as a generation utilising new media engages on a collaborative platform to open up a whole range of discourses in the name of social progress. For this reason, it can be seen as threatening to the establishment, since an entire generation is becoming progressively more socially aware, challenging accepted norms, and gaining a firm grasp on how to utilise modern technology.
Overall, we should be triumphing this unique form of self-expression, as young people increasingly become active creators rather than passive consumers. Gen Z are showing more signs of entrepreneurialism and risk-taking with a greater access to learning tools, all on a highly meritocratic domain where popularity is rewarded, and different ideas are raised and debated.
Ultimately, TikTok is too diverse in terms of its content to be labelled as the authoritative voice of a generation. Though lacking a unifying ideology, it does speak to a shared curiosity about the world, a tech-savviness, and a search for identity within confusing times. It’s time to give Gen Z a break.