By Grace Lu
Graphic by Chloe Jung
In the wake of Trump’s announcement that TikTok will be banned if it’s not sold by its Chinese parent company ByteDance, I’ve been reflecting on my experience with TikTok. I wasn’t TikTok famous by any means, but I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame. Like many users, I started out by simply watching the endless stream of videos on my For You page (think TikTok’s version of the Instagram explore page). At some point during 20S, I decided to try posting videos of my own. Soon, I learned how to film videos in the app, incorporating trending audio snippets into them. This in turn led me to creating videos about my college experiences, specifically my experiences with Dartmouth’s remote spring term. What I enjoyed about TikTok was how easy it was to film a video. I could film, edit, and post one in under five minutes, making it the perfect study break activity.
Something strange about TikTok that I discovered along the way was that the effort one puts into making a video doesn’t correlate with the number of views it gets. Often, the videos I personally thought were creative and funny would gain only a few thousand views. On the other hand, a video of me repeatedly lip-syncing “And I’m just f**cking with ‘em I got nothin’ to do” paired with text listing the different ways that Dartmouth’s administration had mishandled their COVID-19 response received over sixty thousand views. Before I filmed that video, only my close friends were aware of my TikTok account. To my surprise, some of my classmates texted or DMed me on Instagram about the video even if they didn’t have a TikTok account. While I was relieved that they found the video funny, I also worried that I would be defined as the “Dartmouth TikTok girl.” I’d like to think I’m more than just a series of videos roasting my school. I promise I’m not as Dartmouth-obsessed as I seem on my account.
On Tuesday July 28th, I decided to film a TikTok of me reacting to my brother’s high school yearbook. After slapping on a vibrato voice effect, I closed the app believing that the video would at best hit 10,000 views. Within four hours it had exceeded one hundred thousand views and within twenty four hours it had reached eight hundred thousand views. I was blown away by the number of people who tagged their friends in the comments and shared the video’s link with others. During my study breaks I read the flood of texts from my friends, all of whom were letting me know that their friends had seen my video. As of August 7th, the yearbook TikTok had been viewed by over 1.3 million people—a mindblowing figure. I’ll never personally know 1.3 million people during my life but 1.3 million people have seen a 60 second video I uploaded and had an opinion about it, whether it’s positive, negative, or neutral.
While it was exciting to see some of my TikToks blow up, it also forced me to consider how public I want to make my life. For instance, my yearbook TikTok had numerous comments asking me what high school I attended. Although I left these comments in limbo, my former classmates felt perfectly comfortable with answering the question. I doubt they realized the potential ramifications of their actions, but having seen how Claira Janover, a Harvard graduate and TikToker, was doxxed over her comments in support of BLM, I certainly did. I was horrified by the thought of waking up and seeing an influx of DMs on my Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok accounts. I was terrified by the thought of receiving hundreds of threatening phone calls and letters and having a post-college job, my future, pulled away from me because a one minute video had been misconstrued by the Internet. The dark side of TikTok, I realized, was that it was all too easy for one’s life to be amplified and scrutinized by an anonymous sea of millions.
Something else that my TikTok experience has challenged me to consider was how I want to present myself online. My account was like the old finsta I never got around to deleting, a collection of personal thoughts about how classes were going, how the administration was handling COVID-19, and my struggles with imposter syndrome. On TikTok, I was fine with making these thoughts public because I knew that TikTok’s algorithm would show my videos to people who had gone through similar experiences and thus, could relate to me. But what I felt increasingly uncomfortable with was the fact that the app’s algorithm was showing my videos to people who I knew but also many that I didn’t. My videos were being shared with the people whose faces I had seen around on campus, whether at Foco or in Moore Hall, but whom I had rarely spoken to. I didn’t want my fellow peers to have the wrong impression of me from a few videos and I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was oversharing and coming off as a little too quirky.
Although my TikTok account is now deleted, I’d like to thank TikTok for serving as my creative outlet during quarantine. I certainly can see why so many teens and young adults enjoy using the platform. However, my experience has also left me with bigger questions to reckon with, especially with how public I want my life to be and how I want to portray myself.