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TikTok is the social media sensation of lockdown. Could I become its new star?

Guardian Technology 14 Apr 2020 09:00
Coco Khan tries to get TikTok interested in trees. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Andy Warhol predicted a time everyone would have 15 minutes of fame. He was nearly right – it is actually 15 seconds. That is the maximum duration of a video clip with music (non-music clips can last up to a minute) on TikTok, the video-sharing platform that has taken the world by storm. Favoured by under-25s, who make up its core audience, TikTok this year surpassed Facebook and WhatsApp as the world’s most downloaded non-gaming app.

TikTok’s content doesn’t take itself too seriously, and ranges from food to fashion, pranks to pets – as well as the ubiquitous dance challenges. It is a perfect fit, in other words, for the lockdown, when many of us are stuck inside and in desperate need of some silly fun. This may be why, even if you haven’t downloaded it, you suddenly find, clogging up your social media, clips of Justin Bieber dancing to I’m a Savage by Megan Thee Stallion, or Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez swapping outfits to Drake’s Flip the Switch. It seems everyone from doctors and nurses in PPE to bemused parents quarantined with teenagers are flocking to the app – and sometimes going viral in the process.

The hours I spent honing my little clip was no surprise to Arshdeep Soni, AKA @arshsoni10, a 24-year old TikTok user with 6 million followers. “Sometimes I stay up until two or three in the morning,” he tells me. Based in Shepherd’s Bush, London, Soni performs magic tricks on his TikTok. “There’s a lot of work that goes into it. Planning ideas, rehearsing the right tricks for the right moment, then editing the video. Then I have to figure out the best time for me to post. There’s lots of tactics.”

“I try to go makeup-free, or not look so great some days,” says Abi Else, AKA @aaaaaaaaaabi, a 22-year old TikToker from Brighton who focuses on style. “I think it’s important that younger people know that it’s fine to not look perfect all the time.” Pressure to conform to certain beauty standards is one of a range of pressures women face online; their appearance is often targeted in the abuse they receive. And TikTok has come under fire after reports that moderators were told to suppress videos from ugly, obese, poor and disabled users. TikTok claims the policy was to prevent bullying and has since changed its guidelines.

Hooper spends roughly three days a week working on TikTok, and the rest of the week is spent running an Etsy store selling pendants and other crafts. Recently, Hooper – who uses the pronoun they – has started producing and selling their own merchandise, a project they are working on with their mother. Mum does the “nitty gritty, stuff like costs, margins, packaging” while Hooper takes care of the creative side of things.

“I don’t think that criticism is limited to TikTok,” she says, noting that YouTube is “far worse” and that TikTok has “sorted out” a lot of its problems. TikTok recently raised the age for using its live broadcast function from 13 to 18 after it was reported that predators were using the feature to groom children. It has also added functions such as restricted mode and family safety mode, which allow parents and children’s accounts to be linked.

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