I opened a TikTok account because my boss ordered me to. 

The year was 2020 and lockdowns had just started rolling out globally as the world grappled with the novel coronavirus that we would know as Covid-19. 

Working in new media, there was no newer media than this short-form video app that was making headlines for its viral growth. I was asked to check out TikTok in order to understand how we could leverage this booming platform for our short films. 

It ended up saving my sanity in the darkest days of the pandemic.

via GIPHY

Like any person forced to learn something they’re not particularly interested in, the path of most resistance was trudged upon. As an elder millennial, I went full boomer as I reluctantly cycled through the five stages of grief. 

  1. Denial – “Isn’t it just dancing and Jason Derulo’s weird comeback?”
  2. Anger – “TikTok makes no sense for our short films that are all longer than a minute!”
  3. Bargaining – “Is it okay if I delegate this to someone else to research and manage?”  
  4. Depression – “I feel like a predator looking at young boys who are half my age.” 
  5. Acceptance – “Okay, got to get to my new nightly routine.”

It’s easy, almost instinctual, to hate something so beloved by young teens. Take One Direction, the beloved British boy band. How its two biggest stars approach young fans in their individual careers illustrate the insidious perception of youth’s purported shallowness. 

When Zayn Malik struck out to make his own records, he deliberately chose to distance himself from the pop songs that made him famous. His new sound and image was a tonal change – more sophisticated, sexy. Serious. He admits to outgrowing the songs he once belted out at sold-out stadium concerts. It’s likely a reflection of the mercurial taste of a 22-year-old. But this disavowal colours the experience for long-time fans.     

In contrast, Harry Styles is openly grateful for the affection young fans have shown him, even as he embarks on a solo career that is very different. Speaking to Rolling Stone magazine, he stood up for his young female fanbase when asked if he felt pressured to to prove himself to an older audience. “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music — short for popular, right? — have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy?” Harry quipped.

I have been guilty of making that same assumption when it came to TikTok. At first, I didn’t understand how their biggest star could be a 16-year old nobody. The term ‘nobody’ is used to contrast the typical frameworks that other social media platforms are built on. 

Cristiano Ronaldo is Instagram and Facebook’s most-followed star. This soccer legend and walking advertisement has a combined reach of almost 450 million across these two platforms. On it, he shares his highly curated life reel, consisting of pictures from the pitch, news clips from interviews, and promotional content for shoes, shampoo and underwear among others. It’s what we’ve come to know, expect, and accept from any one with a large enough social media following. It makes sense.

Tiktok’s winning formula

@charlidamelio@markellwashington1  dc @4abeyy♬ Talkin’ Bout (feat. Saweetie) – Loui

16-year old Charli D’Amelio has 116 million followers on TIkTok alone. She participates in viral dances, lip syncs to trending music, loves Dunkin Donuts, and shares candid videos of her doing her makeup, annoying her family and just being a young teen. She’s a talented dancer who started dancing at the age of 3 but you might not know that, only seeing glimpses of her freestyle dancing in the rare TikTok. If you even saw her at all on your For You Page.

Therein lies the magic sauce that hooks you into TikTok. Come for the short entertaining videos, stay for its incredibly relatable and accurate algorithm. What video is suggested to a user takes into account their previous engagement which includes time spent watching and interactions like follows or comments. There is no universal trending video here, just personalised videos on your feed.

Despite Charli being the most followed account on TikTok, I have some friends who have never come across her. The friend who loves dogs gets her fill of daily doggo recommendations while another who loves cooking is served up with new recipes or chefs to follow. So how do you make sense of a platform that flummoxes with its randomness?

The only correct answer? Just lean into it. 

As I shed my unnecessary antagonism, I began to embrace the sheer creativity and authenticity displayed on TikTok. I have been bewildered but endlessly tickled by the rise of a digital cult. Spat out my coffee over the hilarious reactions of Tega. Inspired by Gen Z’s usage of the platform in encouraging people to vote and in awe of the bravery at exposing rampant misogyny in schools. Charli herself has been vocal about the Black Lives Matter movement and spoken out about body acceptance and the need to stop bullying. 

As Harry Styles astutely mentions in Rolling Stone, it’s young women across ages who have always had their finger on the pulse. While young men make up part of the Gen Z population on TikTok too, Reuters reports a majority female user base in Southeast Asia alone. Just because I may no longer be young doesn’t mean I have to be reductive or belittle their unbridled passion, whatever they may be.  

I have left that job, but I’m still on TikTok. Where I aim to be until they claw my phone away from my wrinkled arthritic hands. 

Gen Zs and the generations to come, please be gentle with me.