All the Content, Just For You: TikTok and Personalization
Andrea Ruehlicke / University of New Brunswick

TikTok's For You Page
TikTok’s For You Page

Personalization is the buzzword for most social media. Our Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook feeds are curated both by and for us. YouTube, Netflix and a host of other streaming platforms cannot wait to recommend content they are sure we will enjoy. Social media thrives on the notion that the ideal online experience is one that is tailored around the individual and their interests. TikTok extends and nuances this understanding of content made for the user. Labeling each users’ home screen as the For You Page (often shortened to FYP), the app presents itself as a tool for delivering content tailor-made for the user. TikTok uses auto-play to extend this idea and to drop the user into an endless stream of content they are assumed to enjoy. The platform represents a new development in how we think and talk about personalization in virtual spaces.  Looking at some of the formats of videos lets us more easily consider how users understand the platform and how ideas around individualization impact the types of videos that get created. 

While most social media platforms have the user begin from a homepage or dashboard, TikTok removes this requirement of user-initiated direction. Rather than pointing out options the user might want, these videos are presented immediately upon arrival. The app drops the user into an always playing stream. The auto-play format encourages an understanding of being known by the algorithm. While other sites suggest content, there is still a sense of control for the user. They must accept or reject the platform suggestions. TikTok bypasses this step. While the user can reject a suggestion by immediately swiping to the next video, acceptance is assumed. As soon as you open the app (and watch an ad), videos begin playing. You can confirm you enjoy the video through liking it or following the creator, but you do not have control over where you start. This auto-play also allows for playfulness in being read or misread.

The focus on personalization is viewed as the way to deliver users the most optimal experience online.[ (( Kant, T. (2020). Making it Personal: Algorithmic Personalization, Identity, and Everyday Life. In Making it Personal. Oxford University Press. ))] Not only can you find users who share your interests, the platform will create an entire experience just for you. It is important to point out that Michelle Kim and others have reported on how TikTok has faced pressure due to revelations that it was intentionally suppressing some users’ videos.[ (( Kim, M. (2019, December 6). TikTok Admits It Suppressed Reach of Queer, Fat, and Disabled Creators. Them.] While feeds are assumed to be personalized, it must be made explicit that not every user and video is treated equally. This notion of extreme personalization is occasionally taken up by creators. One form of personalization is content that presumes a one-on-one relationship between the creator and the viewer. These videos tend to feature a creator staring at and speaking directly to the viewer. The example below highlights this presumed closeness. While this video is posted for mass consumption, the format suggests a much more intimate relationship between creator and viewer.


even tho I’ve been learning French for 5 years ##frenchiebabyy ##passecompose ##ShowAndTell

♬ Lets Link – WhoHeem

TikTok, 8/31/20.

On TikTok, it is not the user that enacts personalization. Tanya Kant reminds us, “Rather, with the help of a multitude of personal data collected by platforms as you go about your day, your needs and interests can be algorithmically inferred and your experience “conveniently” – and computationally – personalized on your behalf.”[ ((Kant, T. (2020). Making it Personal: Algorithmic Personalization, Identity, and Everyday Life. In Making it Personal. Oxford University Press.))] Customization is provided to the user by the platform. There are few options for individuals looking to tailor the app to their desires. Instead, the individual user can be considered as a provider of data.[ ((van Dijck, J. (2013). ‘You have one identity’: Performing the self on Facebook and LinkedIn. Media, Culture & Society, 35(2), 199–215.))] They can like videos and follow creators (and alternatively quickly skip videos that are not to their tastes). But the notion of customization on TikTok comes from having provided “enough” data that the platform and algorithm can provide videos and creators that have been tailored to one’s interests.

Personalization systems both shape and are shaped by users. While seemingly providing total control to the user, these systems also lead the user towards certain choices so as to better fit with how the system has recognized them.[ ((Cohn, J. (2019). The Burden of Choice: Recommendations, Subversion, and Algorithmic Culture (Vol. 2019). Rutgers University Press.))] My own experience with the platform demonstrates this push that Jonathan Cohn discusses. My own feed is heavily populated with Dungeons and Dragons and various other role-playing properties despite my non-engagement with these properties in any aspect of life. Despite my protestations, clearly TikTok believes me to be a once or future d&d player. Here we also see the opaqueness of the algorithm. Finn Brunton and Helen Fay Nissenbaum discuss what they have termed “known unknowns.”[ ((Brunton, F., & Nissenbaum, H. F. (2015). Obfuscation: A user’s guide for privacy and protest. The MIT Press.))] Users know their data is being collected and that attention is being paid to which videos they watch in full, skip over immediately, and which videos they formally like. But they likely have no idea what data is being recorded or how those actions play out in future recommendations. For example, I can only guess how I am being read by the platform by which videos play on my FYP. Feeling misread also offers limited recourse. One can aggressively start liking content and following certain users in an effort to sway the algorithm, but there is not a surefire way to avoid spaces and genres. 

The labelling of categories and subcategories of TikTok is another way this presumed personalization plays out. In the example below the creator is welcomed to BookTok. This video makes explicit the process of being sorted by the algorithm. This user is both seen as belonging in BookTok and as explicitly not belonging in other areas of the platform. Inclusivity is presented as having spaces for everyone, not that everyone is equally welcome in all spaces. Here, being properly recognized by the algorithm is presented as a sign of having found your community.


Repostingso people can use the sound! I think I fixed it🤣 ##booktok ##bookworm ##books ##readersofbooktok ##readersoftiktok ##repost ##fyp ##bookshelfchair

♬ original sound – Mariah Ankenman

TikTok, 8/16/20.

These communities may seem vast as in the example of BookTok but can also be far more specialized. Frog TikTok had a moment in summer 2020 with popular articles being written about the sub-genre.[ ((Lindsay, J. (2020, July 8). What is frog TikTok, and why does it so often cross over with lesbian TikTok? Metro.] The video below calls attention to both the ways in which the algorithm works to continually dissect your interest while also demonstrating a number of niches available to users. Here we also see a sense of the time investment required. One must demonstrate the correct interests to be read as belonging to a variety of TikTok spaces. This also takes time for the algorithm to read and place the user in these spaces. FrogTok then is not something one can stumble into immediately upon joining. 


@thaddeusshafer ##############

♬ original sound – Bryan

TikTok, 6/29/20.

In focusing on a personalized experience, there comes a sense of difficulty in trying to discuss trends. Similar to Eli Pariser’s notion of “filter bubbles”, users can also call attention to their own spaces on the platform. My own conversations with friends have run into the same difficulty in finding sound or format touchstones across the platform. Unless a video is directly shared with others, there cannot always be assumed understanding between users. Here we see the idea of having a very different TikTok experience than others. This duet speaks to both the ideas of being read by the algorithm and the ways that trends do not circulate to everyone. This notion of being grouped with others who share your interests is a continuation of the sense of personalization. The creator is calling attention to the presumed accuracy of the algorithm and the assumed disconnect between their personalized feed and that of their friends.


##duet with @seekatlas this algorithm is bullying me ##millennial ##millenialsoftiktok

♬ original sound – aimee marshall

TikTok, 8/27/20.

Taken together, these videos convey the difficulty in discussing personalization. The term is both immediately understood and difficult to precisely define. Each video included here speaks to a different aspect of the term. TikTok’s structure, use of auto-play and the self-reflexivity of creators work to extend how we understand personalization and social media platforms. 

Image Credits:

  1. TikTok’s For You Page
  2. @ari.tendo’s TikTok, 8/31/20
  3. @mariahankenman’s TikTok, 8/16/20
  4. @tiasamudaa’s TikTok, 6/29/20
  5. @readysetteach’s TikTok, 8/27/20


Self-Promotion in 15 Seconds: Finding Mainstream Success Through Memeable Sound Clips on TikTok
Meghan Grosse / Washington College

Still from Lil Nas X’s 2019 music video for “Old Town Road (Remix)” feat. Billy Ray Cyrus. Lil Nas X’s original song first found viral success on TikTok.

Artists have been using the internet to find new audiences for a long time now. Stories of musicians who were “found” on YouTube or who release their songs through SoundCloud are familiar ones. On TikTok, the audio clip is essential. A well selected 15-60 second clip can turn a mundane video into one with millions of views. TikTok is a platform that encourages play and engagement, and as such, is uniquely well positioned to connect artists with potential fans. The kind of filtered perfection frequently associated with something like Instagram is less common on TikTok. Rather than seeing the perfect album cover shot, musicians may appear in their homes and perform straight to camera. This relatability coupled with the memeable structure of the platform is highly valuable to artists. Because of the viral nature of TikTok, in which sound clips are the foundation for challenges and trends, songs can easily spread to a larger community and new potential fans. The best songs on the platform become earworms, and if attributed correctly, the artists’ names are seen countless times by an enormous audience.

One of the most highly visible success stories from TikTok is Lil Nas X and his song “Old Town Road.” In less than a year’s time, the song that first gained attention on TikTok earned Lil Nas X a record deal and the single reached Diamond status, indicating it had sold 10 million units. While the original meme had TikTok users drinking “Yee Yee Juice” to transform them into cowboys, the song has now been memed in a variety of ways. One trending use of the song involved people recreating popular choreography for the song.

Video compilation of TikToks recreating a popular dance to “Old Town Road (Remix).”

These dance challenges are a familiar part of the TikTok landscape, but the kind of imitation in those challenges shows up in other ways. Another trending use of “Old Town Road,” a slight variation on the original “Yee Yee Juice” videos, involves a person or people appearing first in what is, presumably, an outfit from their everyday wardrobe. Then with a hop and quick cut, the same person/people emerge in their best approximation of cowboy garb. 

Video compilation of “Old Town Road” TikToks evolving into new memes.

Still others use the song as the background to horseback riding, dog riding and suitcase riding, and much else. 


Monkey rodeo 🤠🤠 ##monkey ##rodeo ##viral

♬ Old Town Road – Lil Nas X/Billy Ray Cyrus

TikTok, 11/28/19.

It is hard to overstate the magnitude of success Lil Nas X has seen since premiering his music on TikTok. Young artists like him continue to seek that same level of success on the platform, many using TikTok to speak directly to fans. More recently, 19-year old singer Abigail Barlow has seen her single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” move into mainstream charts after promoting it through social media. Taking a quick scroll through her TikTok feed, it might be hard to distinguish her from other users. Neither her nor her home are perfectly filtered or made up, and her excitement and sense of overwhelming joy watching her song move up the Apple Music and Spotify charts seems equally earnest and unfiltered.



♬ Heartbreak Hotel by Abigail Barlow – Abigail Barlow

@AbigailBarloww‘s celebratory
TikTok, from 7/24/20, as her song was climbing the iTunes Pop charts. Two days later, she posted a follow-up video when “Heartbreak Hotel” reached #6 on the iTunes Pop charts without a record label.

In multiple videos she credits TikTok with “making [her] dreams come true,” claiming that “TikTok is the future of the music industry.”[ (( See @abigailbarloww‘s  “Just…. thank u” TikTok from 7/28/20. This video is also embedded further down in this column.))]


##duet with @abigailbarloww thank you so much. For everything. STREAM IT NOW

♬ original sound – Abigail Barlow

@AbigailBarloww‘s TikTok duet, 7/24/20, with her original Heartbreak Hotel upload from 7/5/20.

Engagement with fans, in most cases, works in these artists’ favor. The people in these videos are not just listening to their songs, they are creating new content that then further promotes the song. Of course, there are instances where TikTok users have co-opted songs for harmful purposes. This was the case for the artist Jonathan Visger who performs under the name Absofacto. While Visger is signed with a label, his efforts on TikTok got his years old song back into public attention and onto the Billboard charts. The song for which he is TikTok famous, “Dissolve,” is a frequent favorite on the app. After many months of seeing the song in non-controversial TikToks, it became an anthem for videos referencing childhood sexual abuse and incest that were, at best, described as “vaguely creepy” and, at worst, as “deeply disturbing.” In this instance, the artist, Jonathan Visger, and his fans had to work overtime to reclaim the sound. Once a sound is on the app, artists have little control of what happens with it. Nevertheless, artists continue to seek attention on the app, and music industry and TikTok executives continue to explore ways harness that attention.

The success of these independent artists is not lost on executives at TikTok. Whereas artists like Lil Nas X made money when they signed to record labels, TikTok is looking for other models for artists using their app. In August of 2020, even as the app’s future in the U.S. market is unclear, the platform announced it would partner with UnitedMasters to distribute songs from the app on well known streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify. Unlike with a record label, artists keep a high percentage of their royalties—90% or 100% if they pay a monthly fee. In either case, they retain ownership of their master recordings. Of course, artists need to find ways to gain attention on the app before this kind of thing would pay off.

In Japan and South Korea, TikTok launched a feature called “Spotlight” to help highlight the work of independent musicians. The feature included music industry representatives who actively worked to discover new artists and then provide exposure for them on the app on through other music platforms. For artists who find success, TikTok then goes on to co-promote concerts and events to showcase these artists with established groups in the music industry. In the United States, the process of gaining attention requires more effort, and perhaps more luck, from individual artists.

Countless Quora forums, Blogs, and YouTube videos all try to tackle the question of how to get attention on TikTok. A blog dedicated to independent artists using TikTok claims that “[c]ontext is king.” Their advice for musicians is largely technical—use trending hashtags, apply popular filters and camera effects, and shoot videos in the 9:16 aspect ration suited for the platform. However, they also encourage “authenticity” and “fun” as essential for building a fan base amongst the young demographic using TikTok. Artists like Abigail Barlow and Lil Nas X are very much of the Gen Z demographic mentioned in the blog and together represent these characteristics clearly. “Authenticity” and “fun” are not without labor though, and in some ways, the aesthetic of TikTok—in many ways quite distinct from the highly glossy world of Instagram that may be more defining of the Millennial generation—can mask the labor of creative production in content that appears to showcase mundanity, boredom, and imperfection.

Like on other social media platforms, artists must create their music in addition to creating a steady stream of other digital content. Good self-promotion requires constant work responding to comments and direct messages, and on TikTok, it may mean dueting with fans or creating videos featuring their comments. In rare instances this pays off, but like other creative industries, this labor pays off for very few. TikTok may, as Abigail Barlow suggests, be the future of the music industry, but it is one that offers ample opportunities for uncompensated creative labor by artists and their fans. And, even in the best-case scenarios, artists need to get listeners to streaming services to see income. 


Just…. thank u

♬ original sound – Abigail Barlow

@AbigailBarloww‘s “thank u” TikTok recapping the song’s viral success, from 7/28/20.

TikTok is a highly relevant place for artists to reach new fans, particularly young and active ones. The platform is not just a place for people to hear new songs, but to interact with them and the artist. This kind of buy-in can be enormously helpful, particularly for independent artists. The labor that goes into creating a successful TikTok presence is high. Still, seeing an artist like Lil Nas X shows the great potential power TikTok has to influence the mainstream music industry, allowing artists to rise from unknown and unsigned to the top of the year-end Billboard chart in a matter of months. For those who can find the right 15 second clip, TikTok may be the way to find new and engaged audiences.

Image Credits:

  1. Still from Lil Nas X’s 2019 music video for “Old Town Road (Remix)” feat. Billy Ray Cyrus. Lil Nas X’s original song first found viral success on TikTok.
  2. Video compilation of TikToks recreating a popular dance to “Old Town Road (Remix).”
  3. Video compilation of “Old Town Road” TikToks evolving into new memes.
  4. @LadBible‘s TikTok, 11/28/19.
  5. @Homeworthy‘s TikTok, 1/25/20.
  6. @AbigailBarloww‘s celebratory TikTok, from 7/24/20, as her song was climbing the iTunes charts. Two days later, she posted a follow-up video when “Heartbreak Hotel” reached #6 on the iTunes charts without a record label.
  7. @AbigailBarloww’s TikTok duet, 7/24/20, with her original Heartbreak Hotel upload from 7/5/20.
  8. @AbigailBarloww‘s “thank u” TikTok recapping the song’s viral success, from 7/28/20.


Your Mascot Could Never: The Effectiveness of Benny the Bull on Tiktok
James Bingaman / University of Delaware

The Chicago Bull's Mascot: Benny
The Chicago Bull’s Mascot: Benny the Bull

In an article identifying the biggest sports media trends, global marketing giant, Nielsen, listed “capturing the attention of Gen Z” (Nielsen Sports, n.d., para. 8) as one of the trends to watch out for in 2020. Gen Z — affectionately named “zoomers” — are those born after 1996 (Parker & Igielnik, 2020) and are often associated with having their heads buried into their phones or taking part in the latest dance trend. Currently, a lot of discourse surrounding Gen Z is related to their use of TikTok, which is currently the top downloaded app of 2020, and the 6th largest social media site (Sehl, 2020). With almost half of all users being below the age of 24 (Sehl, 2020), TikTok has almost become a necessity for creators, brands, and organizations to reach out to this younger generation. Sports organizations are no different. Effective communication via social media is integral to the success of sports organizations (Siguencia et al., 2016) so being able to successfully navigate this new social media environment should be one of the main goals for every sports organizations’ media strategy in 2020 and beyond. This short essay will focus on the innovative way that the Chicago Bulls have utilized TikTok by focusing less on sports and instead focusing on an often underappreciated source: their mascot, Benny the Bull.

Benny the Bull

Beginning in the late 1960s, Benny the Bull became the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) first mascot and has enjoyed unrivaled national and international popularity ever since (Borrelli, 2019). Already a success on other social media platforms, Benny the Bull has transcended the sports realm and has become somewhat of an influencer on TikTok, partaking in collaborations with some of the platform’s biggest stars (e.g. Charlie D’Amelio). Mascots having social media accounts is not a new phenomenon as teams will often use mascots online to increase emotional connectivity with fans (Wandel, 2018), especially through TikTok. Benny the Bull has already led other teams to use their mascots more frequently on TikTok (Moran, 2019). However, Benny stands out from the rest. By the end of August 2020, Benny had 2.9 million followers and 46.6 million likes, whereas the Chicago Bulls had just shy of 400 thousand followers and 1.6 million likes. There are several reasons why Benny has thrived on TikTok, however, this piece will look at three main reasons: the influence of dancing on TikTok, the difference in how the platform is used, and the formation of parasocial connections between Benny and users.


@charlidamelio @dixiedamelio @addisonre

♬ Bagaikan Langit(cover) – _ucil👑

@bennythebull‘s TikTok, 2/15/20.

James won’t “renegade”

According to Siobhan Burke (2020) of The New York Times, “TikTok has become a wildly popular global platform for dance, especially among teens, with tools that make it easy to film yourself dancing to music, integrate special effects and share the results” (para. 5). Although TikTok is a platform that welcomes creators from all backgrounds and styles, overwhelmingly, dance has taken over as the predominant art form. Knowing that these short little dance routines thrive, it’s easy to see why a mascot could be successful in this kind of environment. We are used to seeing mascots dance. We see it in stadiums, arenas, and on our televisions when we watch sporting events. Even the official Benny the Bull website (Benny the Bull, n.d.) lists “dancing” as Benny’s number one activity. Although the identity of Benny the Bull is kept under wraps, the most recent performer to don the red fur was Barry Anderson (who has since retired after 12 years as Benny), a former theater and dance student at the University of Montana known for his high-flying routines (Borrelli, 2019). The Chicago Bulls took this high-flying, dancing red bull virtual and found a new, niche home that catered towards that kind of act.


‼️NEW DANCE‼️ Who do you want to see do it next? ##BullsBMOChallenge ##dance

♬ Benny Dance Challenge – chicagobulls

@bennythebull‘s TikTok, 1/14/20.

Despite his presence in a viral video from 2013 of the Miami Heat taking part in the Harlem Shake trend, along with some of the goofy antics with his family that he posts on Instagram, it’s hard to see LeBron James — or any major athlete for that matter — taking part in weekly dance trends on TikTok (like the video shown above). The renegade dance routine, created by Jalaiah Harmon, went viral on TikTok earlier this year and was even featured during NBA All-Star weekend (Madu, 2020). Sure, athletes could post a video of themselves doing the renegade on their personal accounts, but official sports accounts often use footage from games, interviews, or clips from extended pieces that are posted across all social media platforms, so taking the time to teach LeBron routines like the video above or to ask him to give up time to dance seems unlikely. Likewise, front office members that might have the time to dedicate to dancing on TikTok won’t grab the same attention of an audience as a professional athlete would. On a platform where dancing thrives, the only logical answer is to use the mascot, not only because they have a history of dancing, but because this is a more casual way to engage with fans rather than getting a professional athlete involved.

TikTok is not like any other platform

TikTok is not like other social media platforms. Other social media platforms like Twitter are used to build relationships and share information with others via text (Wang & Zhou, 2015). In what could be seen as a competitor, Instagram relies on users sharing pictures (Waterloo et al., 2018) that fall within eight categories — friends, food, gadgets, captioned photos, pets, activities, selfies, and fashion (Hu et al., 2014). While users can also post videos on Instagram, TikTok is different in that it’s entirely predicated on being a video platform. Unlike photos, video can increase immersion and interaction, ultimately extending the experience for users (Dinhopl & Gretzel, 2014). Mobile videos that are shot in the first-person are more engaging as they increase immersion, social presence, and entertainment for users (Wang, 2020). Fans engaging with Benny the Bull on TikTok are not just doing so through photos (Instagram) or text (Twitter) but are instead absorbed into a world where, for just a moment, mascots are not people in costumes but are performers and characters they can connect with.

Individual vs. Team

Parasocial interaction refers to the perceived one-way relationship that exists between a viewer and a media figure that can be analogous to real relationships (Weiss, 1996). Social media has afforded users with new avenues to connect and engage with their favorite media figures (Pegoraro, 2017) including athletes or other sports figures (Kim & Song, 2016). There is no reason to leave mascots off this list. If people can become connected to fictional characters on television, there is no reason they cannot become attached to a mascot. As demonstrated with the image below, other users respond to Benny in a similar way that they would to other creators. This is not the type of comment you would see with a branded account, but rather a social interaction that is common among online friends and followers. Having an individual, even if it’s a mascot, to respond and connect with makes it much easier to form these parasocial relationships. This is where immersion is important. Although Benny has other social media accounts, none afford him with the immersive experience that TikTok does.

Parasocial Connection with Benny
TikTok users have formed a parasocial relationship with Benny

Having people connect with Benny is smart for the Chicago Bulls. Firstly, with the official account showing multiple players on a day-to-day basis, it would be harder for fans to form a parasocial bond. That kind of attachment and identification with the team looks more like fandom than a parasocial relationship. Secondly, the Bulls don’t have to inundate fans of Benny the Bull with highlight clips or sport-specific content. Instead, they just let Benny do his thing, yet still reap the benefits of the Chicago Bulls branding, social media engagement, and potential crossover of new and younger fans. The Benny the Bull TikTok account allows the team to connect with fans at a parasocial level, which is something that’s difficult to do as a sports team.

Final Thoughts

Although Benny the Bull is associated with the Chicago Bulls, the account itself is not as sports-focused as the primary TikTok account of the Bulls, expanding the potential for users not interested in sports to become connected to the character. Mascots have always been used as a form of branding (Vrabel, 2017), and with TikTok offering a new platform for sports organizations to foster existing relationships, promote their brand, and appeal to new fans (Su et al., 2020), mascots have a new and exciting outlet. The dance-focused, sometimes silly TikTok platform, is perfect for characters like Benny the Bull to successfully transition from being obscure relics of the in-stadium sports experience to being integral for continued success among Gen Z and social media sites dedicated to creativity. With sports organizations poised to use TikTok as part of their media strategy, don’t be surprised to see your teams’ mascot dancing along to the newest trend.

Image Credits:

  1. The Chicago Bull’s Mascot: Benny the Bull
  2. @bennythebull’s TikTok, 2/15/20
  3. @bennythebull’s TikTok, 1/14/20
  4. TikTok users have formed a parasocial relationship with Benny (Author’s screengrab)


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Things That Shouldn’t Have Gay Energy But Do Anyways: CTI, Remixes and TikTok Duets
Luis Loya and Elaine Almeida / University of Wisconsin-Madison

image description
Loya and Almeida examine a “queer zeitgeist” on TikTok.

the global dominance of social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and
Instagram, TikTok emerged as a highly successful video sharing platform. Here,
we think about how TikTok content creation serves as an extension of queer
community and identity formation, and what particularly makes TikTok a fruitful
place for queer performance. We utilize Communication Theory of Identity (CTI)
as our research lens to understand how TikTok hashtags and the duet/remix
features connect the multiplicity of identities within queer life, such as
bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender. CTI places communicative acts at the
center of identity work, treating identity as an on-going and negotiated
project, rather than an overarching structure (Hecht 1993; Hecht 2005) thus
serving as a useful framework to address the various experiences of using
TikTok as both a content creator and consumer. While other communities remix
and duet videos, we hone in on the ways online queer communities are doing
identity work by using this feature.

Tracing its lineage to
earlier identity theories that situated identity as existing in the individual
and society (Bush, 2016), CTI allows us to think through how an individual and
their environment (be they physical or digital) interact through communicative
acts to articulate identities, and sit with the reality that identity is
dialectal and never finished (Hecht, 1993). With this view, CTI sees identity
as composed of four frames (Hecht 1993, Nuru 2014): (1) identity as personal;
(2), identity as enacted; (3) identity as relational; and (4) identity as
communal. Personal identity is one’s self-concept and self-image, and in some
articulations of CTI, one’s spirit (Golden, Niles, & Hecht, 2002); that is
to say the most intimate and private parts of one’s identity. Enacted identity
is the performance, expression or “acting” of one’s identity, that identity is
emergent and that communication itself is a part of one’s identity. The
relational identity consists of three levels: (1) how one sees themselves in
relation to others and shapes social behavior to those around them; (2) the
sense of self gained through relationships such as family, friends, co-workers or
sexual partners and (3) the relationship itself is an identity, such as a
member in a business or a particular family. Finally, the communal frame sees
identity based on group/community affiliation and is held collectively by that
group, working to unite the collective. These frames work in conversation to
articulate the various manifestations and negotiations of identity, though
frames may not always be in congruence. It is through these gaps but also
through the merging of frames that CTI sees communication as the key tool in
bolstering and living identity (Kam & Hecht, 2009).


##gaytiktok ##lesbiantiktok ##bitiktok ##nonbinary ##frogtiktok

♬ original sound – Bryan

@thaddeusshafer‘s TikTok, from 6/26/20.

TikTok closely resembles its video sharing predecessor Vine and the lip syncs and duets also resemble its prior conception known as But below the surface and the default homepage lies a plethora of TikTok communities, many self-aware that they occupy an alternative space, as seen in the video above. Historically, queer and trans communities have found unique value in new and emerging technologies as a way to connect with others (Miles, 2018), educate about queer experiences (Fox & Ralston, 2016), and experiment with their identity (Cavalcante, 2019). Within TikTok we see queer content creators utilizing technology in ways similar to past research by educating viewers about international civil rights laws or by sharing how the voice changes when starting hormone replacement therapy. Unlike other social platforms though, TikTok is designed for this inherent queering that takes place. It calls us to think about this small paradigmatic subversion that queer creators undertake. While in some cases they use unique sounds to tell stories like duffel bags for trans women (video below), many queer them for community identity building.


Tell me it’s not just me.. ##greenscreen ##lgbtq ##trans ##transgender ##queer ##travel ##fyp ##foryou

♬ Commercial – BlueWhaleMusic

@nicoleamaines‘ TikTok, from 1/29/20.

The duet function allows creators to capitalize on a sound’s success to gain views while also providing opportunity for alternative interpretation. In duets, many creators echo the audio and visual, however in these self-proclaimed queer spaces content creators remix the visual into something outside heterosexual norms. For example, using the deep end freestyle sound, one user breaks from the norm and uses the sound to express his transman identity. Another user remixes a popular audio by Lil Mayo into a queer video by editing the word “homophobe” instead of “thots”. In duets, creators undertake identity work in their relational-enacted frames. The duet allows for the frames— in particular the relational subframe of how one sees themself in relation to others— to converse with the creator’s enacted goals and narrative, noting and playing off of the iterative nature of identity and the app. While the original TikTok video creates an identity narrative, the duet allows for the queer creator to negotiate their own identity into the video, queering the original video and their own. As creators, a queer enacted identity is able to contextualize the relationship not only between the creator and the sound, but the viewer and the queer digital space.

While as few as one identity is enacted in each video, creators still express their communal queer identity, working to unite the collective as Hecht suggests (1993). The communal frame acknowledges that held collective identities are not monolithic, but dialectically on-going in their formation. Diary videos like being trans at Disney World show a theme of anxiety and hiding as well as a tension of wanting to live true to one’s identity while wanting to hide because of potential discrimination. This video, while it speaks the creator’s enacted identity, alludes to the commonly held experiences many trans and gender non-conforming folks face, thus uniting folks who are typically alienated by geography. This identity work takes place for both the creator, who operates on an enacted-communal level, and the viewer, who is able to partake in identity formation through the personal-communal frames. Other trends take a more humorous approach like describing things that aren’t gay but “radiate gay energy”. For example, this video includes Volvos and rosy maple moths while another clip, seen below, includes the Jewish faith and the unsolved murder of JonBenét Ramsey. TikTok’s queer community is fundamentally different from previous platforms, with its emphasis not only on traditional identity expression online but an embrace of absurd and nonsensical humor.


##greenscreen ##lgbt ##lgbtq ##gay ##pride ##list ##transrights

♬ You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) – Album Version – Sylvester

@ethiopianpolice‘s TikTok, from 8/29/20.

In addition to identity expression, the duet feature allows queer creators to subvert non-queer sounds and Western knowledge. In this video, the creator subverts a dancing audio and traditional Western queer history. Here, the creator shows that despite gay marriage being recently legalized in North America, indigenous tribes have been practicing this for thousands of years. That CTI reads identity as iterative renders this continuing queer negotiation of both communal and personal frames—how we identity with others and how we deeply see ourselves— in heterospaces as a dialectical and recursive strategy for claiming queerness.

TikTok creators also share common experiences through remixing sounds that originate in a queer space, thus bolstering queer created content. For example, this sound originated with a user storytelling how their father wants them to act straight when friends are around. This sound is then re-used to express queer identity, but in a different way, like this video about sapphic attraction. Whereas queer identity work in heterospaces serves as a reclaiming of space for historically marginalized folks, the compounding and intensifying of queer spaces allows for the continuation of queer digital community building and works to tear down monolithic iterations of queerness in the zeitgeist. This works to create dynamic, complex identities for queer folks beyond one-dimensional queer identity manifestations. Again, queer folks continue to do the work of pushing the boundaries of queerness, utilizing TikTok’s platform and original “alt-mainstream” virality to form community and self.

Overall, the queer
community on TikTok capitalized on the duet and hashtag affordances to mirror
prior patterns of community expression online while demonstrating new ways to
subvert the dominate culture. Through the process of remixing sounds, queer
users affirm their own identity, teach others about their identity, and
collectively construct a network of pop culture and symbols toward a “queer
zeitgeist”. Identity is ongoing, with communication sitting at the heart of the
work along with who we are communicating to. TikTok works to bolster each form
of identity through the performances, duets and comments function, but more
importantly, the queer zeitgeist is manifested through the relational-enacted
frames and communal-enacted frames, which call us to situate their identities,
and our own as viewers, in a queer paradigm. This study was done both before
and during a global pandemic of COVID-19, a time when many people are stuck at
home, face limited social interactions, and use technology even more. This
context elevates TikTok’s importance as a platform for queer community and
replacement for social life. Unlike other queer media spaces like television or
Twitter though, the community on TikTok is made of many individuals without
celebrity status and users have significantly less of a following, a characteristic
of the early stages of social media like YouTube that showcased videos from
everyday users.                      


Cavalcante, A. (2019). Tumbling into queer utopias and vortexes: Experiences of LGBTQ social media users on Tumblr. Journal of Homosexuality, 66(12), 1715-1735.

Bush, L. (2016). Creating our own lineup. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 45(3), 290–318.

Fox, J., & Ralston, R. (2016). Queer identity online: Informal learning and teaching experiences of LGBTQ individuals on social media. Computers in Human Behavior, 65, 635-642.

Golden D., Niles, T.,
Hecht, M.L. (2002). Jewish American Identity. In J. N. Martin, T. K. Nakayama,
& L. A. Flores (Eds.), Readings in
Intercultural Communication: Experiences and Contexts
(pp. 44–52). New
York: McGraw‐Hill.

Hecht, M. L. (1993). 2002—A research odyssey: Toward the development of a communication theory of identity. Communication Monographs, 60(1), 76–82.

Hecht, M. L., Warren, J.,
Jung, E., & Krieger, J. (2005). The communication theory of identity. Theorizing about Intercultural Communication,

Kam, J. A., & Hecht, M. L. (2009). Investigating the role of identity gaps among communicative and relational outcomes within the grandparent–grandchild relationship: The Young-adult grandchildren’s perspective. Western Journal of Communication, 73(4), 456–480.

Miles, S. (2018). Still getting it on online: Thirty years of queer male spaces brokered through digital technologies. Geography Compass, 12(11), e12407.

Nuru, A. K. (2014). Between layers: Understanding the communicative negotiation of conflicting identities by transgender individuals. Communication Studies, 65(3), 281–297.

Image Credits:

  1. Loya and Almeida examine a “queer zeitgeist” on TikTok.
  2. @thaddeusshafer‘s TikTok, from 6/26/20.
  3. @nicoleamainesTikTok, from 1/29/20.
  4. @ethiopianpolice‘s TikTok, from 8/29/20.

Make This Go Viral: Building Musical Careers through Accidental Virality on TikTok
D. Bondy Valdovinos Kaye / Queensland University of Technology


MAKE THIS MORE VIRAL THAN THE GIRL THAT UPLOADED ME AND DIDNT CREDIT @buiibeu ##foryou ##foryoupage ##fyp ##dancemonkey ##viral ##inoxia ##busker ##singer

♬ original sound – INOXIA

Artist Sophie Fraser’s TikTok video of her performance of Tones and I’s “Dance Monkey.”

Over the past two years, TikTok has made headlines as the breakout international short video platform disrupting international entertainment industries, such as the music recording industry. Going viral on TikTok has launched or spurred on the careers of numerous recording artists such as Lil Nas X, Arizona Zervas, Doja Cat, and many more. However, building a music career on TikTok is challenging because the platform has several issues with authorship and attribution (Kaye et al., forthcoming). Users can easily upload videos that miscredit or misattribute artists, though in some rare instances that can work in the artists’ favor. This essay, drawing primarily on qualitative interview data with a viral TikTok musical artist conducted in May 2020, examines how misattribution on TikTok can still unexpectedly lead to new music career opportunities through accidental virality on TikTok. 

Virality is a commonly understood concept in internet and platform studies referring to the process by which content circulates rapidly and “spill[s] over into other social platforms and mainstream media,” (van Dijck, 2013, p. 77). On digital platforms, viral content is often associated with memes, cultural information that quickly passes from person to person scaling into larger social phenomena (Shifman, 2013, p. 365). Marketing and advertising experts are fixated on strategies to help content become memes and go viral (i.e. Berger, 2013) but in many cases memes are created organically, unexpectedly, or accidentally (Katz & Shifman, 2017). Emerging social media influencers can benefit from memetic content going accidentally viral when caught on camera and uploaded to digital platforms becoming “eyewitness viral stars” overnight (Abidin, 2018, p. 38). TikTok is a prime platform to explore accidental virality given the bite-sized nature of content between 15 and 60 seconds long and the ease with which TikTok allows users to create new videos based on elements of the video they were just watching (Kaye, Chen, & Zeng, 2020). When a TikTok video goes accidentally viral, it can have sweeping repercussions for the professional careers of TikTok creators. 

Sophie Fraser, otherwise known by as Inoxia or @inoxiasounds on TikTok, is a young Australian songwriter and vocalist who went accidentally viral on TikTok in November 2019. Fraser had been steadily building her music career busking on the streets of Melbourne when, in November 2019, a random passerby happened to record a video of her cover performance of the popular song ‘Dance Monkey’ by breakout Australian recording artist ‘Tones and I’ and posted it on TikTok. The video, which did not credit Fraser as the performing artist or Tones and I as the original recording artist, went viral. At the time, Fraser was not a TikTok creator or user and admitted she “had no idea what the app was” (Fraser, 2020, personal communication). The video has already accumulated over two million views by the time Fraser created her own TikTok account to post her first short video showing a visceral emotional reaction to the viral success of the anonymously uploaded video of her performance. 


##duet with @buiibeu ##inoxia ##foryou ##whattheheck

♬ nhạc nền – Bêu – Bêu ✅

Fraser’s first TikTok expressing gratitude for the support she had received.

After creating her own TikTok account, Fraser uploaded a longer and higher quality version of her Dance Monkey cover that also credited the original artist. In the accompanying video text, Fraser implored TikTok to “make her video go more viral than the video that uploaded without crediting her.” Her call was heeded by millions and, indeed, her video went far more viral than the original uncredited video uploaded by the original TikTok user unexpectedly catapulting Fraser’s professional music career forward. “It sparked interest among all the major labels. I got flown over to LA and I met all these celebrities, music executives, and was taken to all these fancy dinners” (Fraser, 2020, personal communication). At the time of writing, Fraser’s reupload video has over 110M views. 

Compared to other digital platforms such massive organic growth is often unprecedented. A key draw of TikTok for creators is how easy the platform makes creating, publishing, and growing videos as opposed to other digital platforms. Fraser explained that she prefers TikTok to other digital video platforms, “YouTube is slower growth. They are longer videos and my watch time is pretty low. People don’t stay too interested. TikTok I’ve had to learn is that the shorter videos do better. Posting on TikTok is really easy. TikTok is fast and steady” (Fraser, 2020, personal communication).

Creators can find success posting silly videos or dance challenges on TikTok, but for Fraser the platform has become a professional calling card, “Because I have such a big following on my TikTok I feel like I have to be professional I have to upload strictly singing videos… Like a portfolio for labels” (Fraser, 2020, personal communication). This contrasts with her profile on other platforms that still function as “normal” social media for the young artist, such as Instagram, “I let my personality show through a lot more on my Instagram than on my TikTok,” (Fraser, 2020, personal communication). Even so, Fraser commented that TikTok has now become the primary vehicle for boosting her musical career. 

Fraser’s meteoric TikTok rise was cut short by the global COVID-19 pandemic that required her to shelter in place at home. To maintain her viral digital profile, her manager encouraged her to become a TikTok “content creator” meaning she should engage with other logics of TikTok such as dance challenges, memes, and other trending content. According to Fraser (2020, personal communication), “I didn’t know if that would benefit at all me because I’m a musician first. I never thought I would be a content creator or be in this position. My mindset is all about singing, writing, and performing.” Fraser posted several videos while in COVID lockdown, but explained that she was more interested in biding her time before she could get back to the streets and return to busking. 


BitCH I’m SO BORED ##aussielife ##fyp ##boredinthehouse ##singing

♬ original sound – INOXIA

An example of Fraser’s COVID lockdown content.

Fraser’s rapid growth flips the “traditional” professional music career trajectory on its head, “I thought I would release some songs, people would like it, and I’d grow from there… It’s not linear at all,” (Fraser, 2020, personal communication). The nebulous TikTok recommendation algorithm facilitates virality in unexpected ways. In Fraser’s case, she reflected that her success came from “a young girl who took a quick five second video of a busker on the street. It was so random. Nobody could have expected this happening” (Fraser, 2020, personal communication). Fraser explained that she owed her newfound success to an anonymous passerby whom, to this day, Fraser has been unable to locate and thank. “I was practically begging her to follow me back so I could thank her. I wanted to say you’ve literally kickstarted something for me and fast-tracked my music career. She did so much for me, and I haven’t ever been able to even tell her my real name” (Fraser, 2020, personal communication). 

Fraser’s case study is featured in a recent study on TikTok attributional platform practices, or the additional efforts that creators make to properly attribute content on digital platforms (Kaye et al., 2020). TikTok employs an automatic attribution system to credit original creators whose sounds or videos are reused by other creators. Like previous findings on other digital creative platforms (Monroy-Hernandez et al., 2011), TikTok’s automatic attribution system is imperfect and can lead to creators being misattributed by others accidentally or intentionally. In these instances, creators may use additional practices to reinforce their connection to their own original content. In Fraser’s case, the original misattribution was overcome by the artist uploading her own video to boost visibility and directly asking audiences to properly acknowledge and credit her work. This underscores the tensions between encouraging creativity by facilitating reuse on the one hand and properly acknowledging creative labor on the other. This case study illustrates how accidental virality can influence digital identities, professionalization, and build fame overnight for talented creators like Sophie Fraser.

Image Credits:

  1. Artist Sophie Fraser’s TikTok video of her performance of Tones and I’s “Dance Monkey”
  2. Fraser’s first TikTok expressing gratitude for the support she had received
  3. An example of Fraser’s COVID lockdown content.


Abidin, C. (2018). Internet celebrity: Understanding fame online. Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing Limited.

Fraser, S. (2020, May 12). Personal communication. [Recorded Zoom interview].

Katz, Y., & Shifman, L. (2017). Making sense? The structure and meanings of digital memetic nonsense. Information Communication and Society, 20(6), 825–842.

Kaye, D. B. V., Chen, X., & Zeng, J. (2020). The co-evolution of Chinese mobile short video apps: Parallel platformization of Douyin and TikTok. Mobile Media & Communication.

Kaye, D.B.V., Rodriguez, A., Wikström, P., & Langton, K. (2020, forthcoming). You made this? I made this: Practices of authorship and attribution on TikTok. International Journal of Communication. Accepted for publication.   

Monroy-Hernandez, A., Hill, B. M., Gonzalez-Rivero, J., & Boyd, D. (2011). Computers can’t give credit: How automatic attribution falls short in an online remixing community. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – Proceedings, 3421–3430.

Shifman, L. (2013). Memes in a digital world: Reconciling with a conceptual troublemaker. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 18(3), 362–377.

van Dijck, J. (2013). The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

TikTok’s Digital Eugenics: Challenging Ableism and Algorithmic Erasure through Disability Activism
Jessica Sage Rauchberg / McMaster University

Photograph of a hand holding a phone with the TikTok logo on a black screen background
Recent #challenge videos on TikTok exhibit ableist and eugenicist attitudes.

This past summer, a viral back-to-school TikTok prank amassed millions of views and accusations of creating ableist attitudes online. In the #NewTeacher challenge, parents set up a fake FaceTime with their child’s “new teacher” using TikTok’s Green Screen feature and capture their child’s humorous reaction. While some videos featured a model or celebrity as the “new teacher,” many parents chose to use photos of people with facial difference and other apparent disabilities. The parents laugh as their child screams, cries, and vocalizes their disgust about how their “new teacher” is disabled and ugly. Though disability activists with facial difference used their platforms to collectively speak out against the #NewTeacher challenge’s ableism, those who reported the videos were told that there were no violations of TikTok’s guidelines. My choice not to include #AutismChallenge and #NewTeacher challenge videos in this column is deliberate. By including sample videos, the spectacle of ableist and eugenicist attitudes on the app are centered and therefore naturalized. I instead chose to feature videos by disability activists who use TikTok as a platform for community building and engagement in spite of algorithmic suppression. 

Created by the Chinese company ByteDance, TikTok has been downloaded nearly 2 billion times since its 2016 inception and is host to over 100 million users in the United States. The micro-vlogging app is no stranger to controversial, viral challenges. In May 2020, the #AutismChallenge surfaced, where users uploaded videos of themselves making facial expressions and hand gestures that “appeared to parody people with [autism and other] disabilities,” all to the tune of The Black Eyed Pea’s “Let’s Get R—.” The videos collectively received millions of views and criticism from autistic TikTok users, influencers, and media outlets alike before videos tagged under #AutismChallenge were removed from the app.[ (( At the time of my writing, ableist #NewTeacher challenge videos were still available on TikTok’s platform. For more information on the Autism Challenge: “Autism Challenge.” Know Your Meme, Last updated May 17 2020, ))] These ableist, dehumanizing TikTok trends surfaced months after the platform came under fire for hiding disabled users’ content while simultaneously failing to remove videos that mock disabled people. It is clear that the app’s governance imagines a social media site where disabled people do not exist: a type of digital eugenics. My coinage of digital eugenics refers to how TikTok and other social media platforms rely on the use of algorithmic coding that literally erase the possibility for disabled, queer, trans, and fat users from full participation and visibility on a social media network.

Social media algorithms are not neutral technologies: through meticulous coding practices, social media networks use algorithms as ideological tools to convey the guidelines for citizenship and belonging on the internet.[ (( Safiya Umoja Noble. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: NYU Press, 2018. ))] For instance, if disability is represented as something negative offline, such beliefs, representations, and tropes will influence the development and design of digital platforms. My belief that algorithms are an ideological tool used to support dominant offline cultural practices is not novel: algorithms reproduce anti-Blackness and misogynoir on Google and other search engines.[ (( Ibid. ))] These coding practices replicate racial biases online while claiming to fix them and are used to track and police poor folks’ use of the internet.[ (( Ruha Benjamin. Race After the Internet: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019; Virginia Eubanks. Automated Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018. ))] Likewise, these same algorithms promote content and hashtag networks that further online ableism (as seen with TikTok’s #NewTeacher challenge and #AutismChallenge).

One way TikTok and other social media platforms regularly enforce digital eugenics is through shadowbanning (also referred to as “shadowban” or “soft block”). Shadowbanning is an increasingly popular practice used to hide and suppress the visibility of user’s content without formal notice—even if the account is open to a digital public. Popular users on a social networking app may suddenly discover that likes, comments, shares, and overall engagement with their content no longer reflects a larger follower count. Once a platform flags an account and places it under a shadowban, users may be unable to use hashtags to promote their posts. Shadowbans are not random, isolated, or coincidental; rather, they are intentional and deliberate. The use of shadowbanning strategies are intended to surveil and control marginalized communities. They are reflections of our own offline cultural beliefs about who “naturally” belongs, and who does not.

Such practices are embedded into the core of TikTok’s governance. For example, the network’s “Auto R” moderation guidelines mark certain vulnerable or minoritized user populations into “risk groups” as a means to prevent cyberbullying. For example, disabled people are placed into a “Risk 4” category, meaning that any videos that the account posts are only available to other accounts based in the same country. Instead of reaching a global audience of over 1 billion users, a disabled TikToker whose account is flagged under “Risk 4” may have extremely low engagement with their content, even if they host several thousand followers on their page. As of September 2019, TikTok also flagged any account that discussed disability into an Auto R risk group (specifically autistic users and users with facial difference).

For disabled users who are also fat, queer, trans, and/or poor, the Auto R shadowban measures may subject these accounts to further “risk” protections that will hide, censor, or eliminate their accounts from being featured on the app’s #ForYou home page, where many accounts gather viral acclaim. An August 2020 video from Imani Barbarin (@crutches_and_spice), a Black queer disability writer and digital activist, acknowledged the ways that TikTok’s various risk labels engage in intersectional suppression to censor multiply minoritized users: “I saw TikTok as a way to reach gen z, millennials, and older millennials about ableism and issues in the disability community… I knew going into [using TikTok] that TikTok suppresses the videos of Black, disabled, fat, and queer people, and I am all of those things.” Though the company claimed that the Auto R measures were a temporary fix to counter cyberbullying when TikTok rose to global prominence, the feature remains, demarcating which bodies are exceptional and worthy of viral attention, and which should be erased.


To the people that brought it to my attention I may be sh@dowb@nned. ##lgbt ##thicc

♬ original sound – Crutches&Spice ♿️ :

Imani Barbarin (@crutches_and_spice) addresses nearly 30,000 followers about being shadowbanned.

My criticism of TikTok’s digital eugenics and algorithmic infrastructure should not be read as total skepticism for the app as a site of community building and disability activism. Top videos tagged under #disability feature disabled accounts using their platforms to educate thousands of followers about operating a mobility device or scripts for talking about disability and ableism. For example, Lizzie Velasquez (@littlelizziev) whose image was frequently used in the #NewTeacher Challenge, has used her platform to ignite conversations about disability, facial difference, and stigmatization. In one video, captioned “#duet with @dr.allison.rodgers Teaching a child about kindness & empathy starts with a conversation as simple as this! #newteacherchallenge #bekind”, Velasquez is shown on the left half of the screen as she watches a parent and her child talking positively about Lizzie’s photo and the cruelty of #NewTeacher challenge.



♬ original sound – Dr. Allison Rodgers

Lizzie Velasquez (@littlelizziev)’s duet with a follower who spoke out against the #NewTeacher challenge: “It’s as simple as this!”

Disabled TikTokers also spoke out against the platform’s “Risk 4” shadowbanning practices that purposefully target and hide disabled users’ content. In one video, model Jess Quinn (@jessicaemily.quinn) dances as she removes her prosthetic leg and shows off her rotationplasty. The video, captioned: “Hey TikTok, what’s that you said about people with disabilities being shadowbanned to ‘protect them?’ We’re fine, thanks. #allbodieswelcomehere.” Quinn’s video went viral, garnering over 375,000 likes.


Hey TikTok, what’s that you say about people with disabilities being shadowbanned to “protect them”? We’re fine, thanks. ##allbodieswelcomehere

♬ CHAMPION – Bishop Briggs

Jess Quinn (@jessicaemily.quinn) dances as she removes her prosthetic limb in response to TikTok claiming that Auto R algorithms are used to “protect” disabled users from cyberbullying.

TikTok’s disability activism is uniquely resilient: on a platform that simultaneously suppresses disabled voices while permitting viral challenges that are predicated on eugenicist logics, disabled users continue to find ways to thrive, educate, and build community. For many disabled people, social media platforms like TikTok facilitate possibilities for survival.

Image Credits:

  1. Recent #challenge videos on TikTok exhibit ableist and eugenicist attitudes.
  2. Imani Barbarin (@crutches_and_spice) addresses nearly 30,000 followers about being shadowbanned.
  3. Lizzie Velasquez (@littlelizziev)’s duet with a follower who spoke out against the #NewTeacher challenge: “It’s as simple as this!”
  4. Jess Quinn dances as she removes her prosthetic limb in response to TikTok claiming that Auto R algorithms are used to “protect” disabled users from cyberbullying.


Witness Me: How Tiktok Users Broke With the Sociopathic American Gaze in the Wake of George Floyd’s Murder
Alex Hack / University of Southern California

For most of my youth, a fairly strong divide has existed between millennials and those who came before us.[ ((Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy. “The Generation Gap in American Politics,” March 1, 2018.] This chasm evidenced by everything from “OK Boomer” memes to the various ‘millennial tests’ on television that sometimes attempt to prove us inept,[ ((Ellen’s New Millennial Challenge After Rotary Phone Fail, 2019,; What Does Millennial Late Night Writer Karen Chee Know: MC Hammer, Thigh Masters,] in addition to the endless attacks on Millennial character that littered the 2010s.[ ((Ryan Jenkins, “The Top 8 Millennial Weaknesses and How to Overcome Them,”, June 15, 2016,; Frank Chung and “Why ‘Lazy’, ‘Entitled’ Millennials Can’t Last 90 Days at Work,” New York Post, March 12, 2019.; Joel Stein, “Millenials: The Me Me Me Generation,” Time,]

It’s been rather lonely, generally unable to connect with the GenXers who somehow managed to, at least ideologically, escape much of the current and impending nightmare that has colonized my thoughts. And so, as Gen Z comes of age, I’m appreciative of the company,[ ((Kim Parker, Nikki Graf, and Ruth Igielnik, “Generation Z Looks a Lot Like Millennials on Key Social and Political Issues,” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, January 17, 2019,] despite the circumstances. In the wake of a global pandemic, my millennial peers and I find ourselves hope(lessly)tethered to the young faces that spend much of their time sounding off against injustice in one minute or less, wielding an attitude that crystallizes a deep disenchantment, and serving deadpan that warms my blackened heart.

I now see power in our collective cynicism, especially as, even if only for a few weeks, many of us were able to escape the White (neo)liberal ideologies and allegiances that monopolize this country’s political discourse. In the time following George Floyd’s murder, the video sharing app TikTok demonstrated the capacity of generations who lack an inherent faith in America as concept, to do what Elizabeth Alexander describes as taking up “the perspective of […] witness rather than […] spectator,”[ ((Elizabeth Alexander, “‘Can You Be Black and Look at This?’: Reading the Rodney King Video(s),” Public Culture 7, no. 1 (January 1, 1994): 77–94,, 83.))] and in doing so, briefly managed to collectively reject America’s unethical roots.

Slavery, colonial capitalism, western expansion, and the violence needed to maintain them, are the foundation of what today make American racism so prosaic. According to Steve Martinot and Jared Sexton, racism’s mundanity and control over American consciousness betrays a “total violation of reason and comprehensibility.”[ ((Steve Martinot and Jared Sexton, “The Avant-Garde of White Supremacy,” Social Identities 9, no. 2 (2003): 169–181,, 173.))] Despite White supremacy’s lack of comprehensible ethical ground, America conforms to its predetermined mold. This absurd moral blindspot, excused as ignorance, being what largely holds this country and its spurious institutions together. As pointed out by Shannon Winnubst, “White culture” seems very much “allergic” to any claims that White supremacy might be located in the individual “and daily habits of White people across the US and the globe.”[ ((Shannon Winnubst, “The Many Lives of Fungibility: Anti-Blackness in Neoliberal Times,” Journal of Gender Studies 29, no. 1 (January 2, 2020): 102–12,, 103.))] And it is the stagnant banality of Whiteness and its historical weight that overwhelmingly determines what and how we see, often via cultural mechanisms we hardly recognize.

Martinot and Sexton implicate the spectacle, making the claim that the general public’s relationship to police brutality is one of “spectacular events”[ ((Martinot and Sexton. “The Avant-Garde of White Supremacy,” 173.))] (like the many horrific recordings released over the years) that work to hide racism’s existence in our everyday lives. As the exception to the rule—because, certainly, such acts of wanton violence must be extraordinary in our ‘civilized’ society—they witness exceptionally bad cops, or fearful cops, or misinformed cops, and of course the implicit guilt of the Black body, but never racism’s everyday, rooted, omnipresent nature.

In many ways, George Floyd’s murder broke with this logic, perhaps it was the murder’s duration, eight minutes and forty-six seconds of a cop unsympathetically suffocating a man to death, or simply the video’s lack of explosive violence. Beyond the boredom of the coronavirus, something won out over White denial. Derek Chauvin’s casual callousness as Floyd begged for his life and called out for his mother, his rejection of the pleas of nearby witnesses, and his contempt when they began to question him as the life drained from Floyd’s body, all somehow laid bare the commonplace nature of this disturbing violence.

The murder demonstrated a savagery, that if ignored, would implicate its viewer. A stance reminiscent of the “Mrs. Flint” Alexander discusses from Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The white mistress of a southern plantation, Mrs Flint’s “nerves were so strong she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash.”[ ((Alexander, “‘Can You Be Black and Look at This?’ 83.))] But obligatory attention, driven by White guilt, the kind that encourages the posting of a resource list and little else, does little to escape American sociopathy.[ ((Kimberly Juanita Brown, “Regarding the Pain of the Other: Photography, Famine, and the Transference of Affect,” in Feeling Photography, ed. Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu (Duke University Press, 2014), 181–203,, 188.))]

Chauvin, looking down at George Floyd
Chauvin, aware he is being recorded, looking down at George Floyd as he casually suffocates him. From The New York Times visual analysis of George Floyd’s murder.

In her visceral depictions of violence, Jacobs urges her readers “to reject Mrs. Flint’s perspective and assume instead her own, the perspective of a witness rather than a spectator,”[ ((Alexander, “‘Can You Be Black and Look at This?’ 83.))] hoping to make abolitionists of them. But for Alexander, the perspective of witness often involves a kinship that acknowledges the precarity of ones own position, as many of the Black testimonies she cites involve the knowledge that this violence is also meant for, and may very well be experienced by, those narrating. And I’d like to claim that a combination of institutional distrust[ ((John Gramlich, “Young Americans Are Less Trusting of Other People – and Key Institutions – than Their Elders,” Pew Research Center,] along with TikTok’s format and algorithm, including the idea that those on your “For You” page (TikTok’s home page or “newsfeed”) are also like you—whether that be queer, black, radical, into cottage core, kinky, conservative, etc.—allowed a kind of witnessing and collectivity to take place, that skirted the ubiquitous mundanity of White, capitalist, American logics.

These logics determine the expectation that in viewing anti-Black police violence you accept the assumed criminality and baser nature of those harmed. But this concept has become troubled amongst a group of people that often accept theft, criminality, and sex work as an essential part of their condition under capitalism. In a recent Washington Post article, that declares Millennials “the unluckiest generation in U.S. history” (as if the exploitation of “economic growth” has much to do with chance), we are placed below every generation—in ascending order, The Lost Generation (1883-1900), Gilded (1822-1842), Transendental (1792-1821), Missionary (1860-1882), Gen X (1965-1980), Progressive (1843-1859), Boomers (1946-1964), and Silent (1925-1945)—in economic growth after entering the workforce.[ ((Andrew Van Dam, “Analysis | The Unluckiest Generation in U.S. History, Washington Post,] This fate, of course, now also befalling Gen Z. And we should be far from surprised that generations forever harmed by American fundamentalism (the same system that has violently abused the non-White for longer than the generational expanse just listed) lack the desire to live and die by its laws.

Rather than being produced for the evening news or as the eye-catching fodder that might populate your Facebook newsfeed, the personal style of the TikTok content posted in response to Floyd’s murder—often handheld, including eye contact, physical proximity, and point of view perspective—avoided what Kimberly Juanita Brown calls “voyeristic distancing,” and in cases of physical harm, foreclosed on the usual visual and aural techniques utilized to allow the viewer to “escape the violation on display,” like obscurity or a reliance on racial stereotype.[ ((Kimberly Juanita Brown, “Entering through the Body’s Frame: Precious and the Subjective Delineations of the Movie Poster,” in Black Female Sexualities, ed. Joanne M. Braxton and Trimiko Melancon (Rutgers University Press, 2015), 13–26, 16.))] By directly addressing their audience, the videos managed to bypass the way Black pain and experience is often “distorted and dehistoricized”[ ((Alexander, “‘Can You Be Black and Look at This?’ 80.))] via the grand American consciousness and the mechanisms that maintain it.

Screenshots of some of the TikToks mentioned below
Screenshots of some of the TikToks mentioned below, recorded in their creators’ cars.

Surprisingly, TikTok instead unearthed a more authentic Black subjectivity and gave it a platform. Some of the most visceral of these videos taking place in automobiles, the enclosed spaces engendering not only a physical closeness, but allowing the user to feel they are in what is normally a private space, creating a momentary intimacy. In these videos we see a dad talk to his child, who is nervous about him participating in the ongoing protests, or a shaken service member worried about Vanessa Guillén, or a young man tearfully ask “why the fuck is white skin still more fucking valuable,” or a family being attacked by a white mob as the young daughter in the backseat cries in fear, or a man pulled out of his car and wrestled to the ground by police. This last perspective echoed by a White twenty-two year old walking home from a protest. The posts’ memetic nature (upsetting movements brought on by police aggression, violently jerking their cell phones around once they hit the ground) demonstrating not an equivalency but a solidarity that surpasses the obligatory social media post.

The videos I mention above, as well as thousands of others, garnered millions of likes, views, and shares. With so many young people already willing to accept the lie of meritocracy, identification with those exploited by the system or with a desire to unsettle it, becomes less of an ideological strain. After Floyd’s murder, videos including demonstrations, police violence and misconduct (much of which has already been removed), oral story telling, protest tips, discussions of White privilege, education, relevant news, indigenous experience and solidarity, and calls for justice and restraint, flooded the “For You” pages of those who already sympathized with the cause. Many of the posts asked something of their viewer, and engendered an incredible amount of action, including the signing of petitions, the creation of websites, the attending of protests, the redistribution of wealth, and eventually the sabotage of a presidential political rally.

TikTok has already slowed the wide circulation of similar posts, actively pulling its users towards a White universalism, one I’d argue is more restrictive than before, the app coming under fire for hiding Black and #blm content.[ ((Megan McCluskey, “These Creators Say They’re Still Being Suppressed for Posting Black Lives Matter Content on TikTok,” Time,] But for a brief period of time, the users who were ready and willing to amplify and support Black voices became aware of that fact that more is indeed possible, young Americans encouraged to serve as witness and to take up Black orientations[ ((Sara Ahmed, “ORIENTATIONS Toward a Queer Phenomenology,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian & Gay Studies 12, no. 4 (October 2006): 543-74.))] in new and emancipatory ways. TikTok itself (newly acquired by Oracle,[ ((Siladitya Ray, “Oracle Reportedly Wins Race To Acquire TikTok’s U.S. Operations,” Forbes,] a company whose billionaire co-founder funds the Trump campaign[ ((Siladitya Ray, “Trump Lends Support To Billionaire Donor Larry Ellison As He Backs Oracle’s Bid For TikTok,” Forbes,]) and its social media counterparts will likely never lead to sustainable change, but I believe the app allowed for a kind of mutual looking that reoriented our gaze and briefly opened our eyes to the value of Blackness and the possibility in its perspective.

Image Credits:

  1. Chauvin, aware he is being recorded, looking down at George Floyd as he casually suffocates him. (Author’s screenshot from New York Times analysis.)
  2. Screenshots of some of the TikToks mentioned below, recorded in their creators’ cars. (Author’s Screengrab)