If you’ve been spending time outside like a functional human and have no idea what TikTok is, here’s a rundown: The app was formerly known as Musical.ly, a platform dominated by preteens lip-syncing to uncomfortably suggestive choreography. In August 2018, the app was bought by ByteDance and merged with its app TikTok.
In the months since, the app has spawned increasingly bizarre — but hilarious — 15-second videos, from gummy bears serenading each other with Adele’s “Someone Like You” to teens flexing their makeup skills on literal potatoes. TikTok users aspire to get a coveted feature on the apps “For You” page, which is basically a scroll-through version of Instagram’s “Explore” tab.
There are definite parallels between TikTok and Vine — the iconic six-second sketches were all about catching the viewer off guard, and that sentiment is still trendy in Vine’s successor. If this TikTok was cropped into a square and half the length, you could easily expect to find it in a Vine compilation.
Despite the quick sketches, DIY-aesthetic, and Vine-like dry humor, the app itself is way more complex than Vine ever was. TikTok users can add Snapchat-like face filters, use impressively complex in-app editing tools, and sync their videos to virtually any audio clip. Although there’s still a portion of its original Musical.ly users who duet weirdly sexual dances together, it’s being overtaken by a growing set of TikTok users who prefer to ironically lip sync to dialogue from movies, TV shows, and even Vines.
TikTok isn’t really any other social media platform because, as BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick tweeted, it’s “pure chaos.”
TikTok is Gen Z at its best: Weird Dadaist humor blended with a mastery of memes.
The “Pretty Boy Swag” videos, for example, have TikTok users dressing up to Soulja Boy’s 2010 bop. During the song’s build up, users will don pieces of costumes and assume position. When the beat drops, they’ll cut to whatever obscure object they dressed as, from a literal rotisserie chicken to Big Chungus to an unwrapped tampon.
TikTok’s most popular videos tend to be absolutely nonsensical; art imitates life, and right now life makes no fucking sense. And although Vine definitely embodied some of that weird millennial humor, TikTok is tends to be darker. When Vine was thriving, a majority of younger people were hopeful about the future — Obama was cool and the internet was fun. TikTok may never be able to replace that, but its deeply chaotic presence is a perfect reflection of how surreal each news cycle feels.
Obviously not every TikTok is going to be hilarious, and without great content moderation, much of the videos are wildly problematic. A dive into cringey TikToks, according to the Atlantic, found a video of a kid dancing to Rihanna’s “S&M” in front of the Confederate flag. A misogynistic video shows a teenage girl in an apron participating in the “Choose Your Character” challenge by wielding a bowl and a sign that says “property.” And aside from the more controversial videos, there’s an abundance of gross lip syncs that will make you want to collapse into yourself out of secondhand embarrassment.
But like NY Mag points out, the content you see from TikTok depends on where you view it from. You’re more likely to hate it if your only exposure to it is from Twitter threads complaining that it’s not Vine or compilations highlighting how awful it is.
If you need a laugh, or need to disappear into a void of sardonic skits set to a tinny backing track, go straight to the source and swipe through TikTok itself. It’s worth it.
Here’s a list of a few accounts to get you started.