What Does TikTok’s Success Say About The Future Of Social Media?

03/12/21 10:11AM EST

Below is a complimentary Demography Unplugged research note written by Hedgeye Demography analyst Neil Howe. Click here to learn more and subscribe.

What Does TikTok’s Success Say About The Future Of Social Media?  - 3 12 2021 10 08 33 AM

Has TikTok become ground zero for “generation wars” between Homelanders and Millennials?  According to this Millennial-penned essay, TikTok is the best illustration of how Gen Z is using social media differently than older users. (The Walrus)

NH: Skinny jeans. Side parts. The word “doggo.” The “laughing while crying” emoji.

These are a few of Millennials’ favorite things that have come under fire from teenage Homelanders, who are loudly declaring them uncool. Most of this latest round of generational warfare is taking place on young people’s favorite platform: TikTok.

Since launching in 2016, TikTok has drawn attention for its rapid growth and its young-skewing userbase. (See “More Homelanders Use TikTok Than Facebook.”) The app has more than 50 million daily U.S. users, and according to one analysis of Android users, 62% of them are under age 30. Roughly a third (32.5%) of active users are 10- to 19-year-olds, while 29.5% are 20- to 29-year-olds. Another analysis from The New York Times estimated that more than a third of daily TikTok users are under age 14.

Every emerging social media platform says something about the generation that uses it. TikTok is best known for its informal, unmediated style and constant stream of content.

Unlike other social apps, TikTok doesn’t require users to follow anyone before it starts serving them videos. Its homepage isn’t filled with “friends” or “followees,” but suggested videos that the all-powerful TikTok algorithm has decided you will like. (The people you follow are shunted off in another tab.) 

The videos max out at 60 seconds and consist of basically anything: people dancing, lip-syncing, joking around, pulling stunts, offering self-care tips, reviewing movies, trying the latest #fitnesschallenge. Scrolling the app feels like descending into a bottomless well of faces, or like peeking in the windows of an enormous factory filled with people doing random things.

It’s this freewheeling quality that made TikTok especially appealing to use during the pandemic. It’s gone from a fun diversion to one of teens’ primary sources of connection with the outside world. It’s the closest thing that Homelanders and late-wave Millennials have to a digital experience that mimics, well, life. 

Every message has a face and a voice behind it. And those messages can often be pretty banal. The now-defunct Vine, which also focused on short-form videos, was much more performative; the app had trouble attracting everyday users who weren’t angling for stardom.

On the one hand, TikTok’s format and low barrier to entry allows users to find people with similar interests easily. On the other hand, as the author of this essay claims, the conflating of content and everyday behavior encourages an arguably unhealthy sort of exhibitionism in your real life

Sure, users aren’t spending hours photoshopping the perfect vacation photo like they would on Instagram. But they could be adjusting their speech patterns or otherwise behaving with an audience in mind--much like “relatable” YouTube stars who all speak and type similarly.

TikTok does not pay most creators directly; it has a Creator Fund that pays token amounts for the most popular videos. But users can monetize their accounts in other ways, like by cutting sponsored deals with brands or soliciting Venmo donations. When people can get thousands of views or get paid for a 30-second video of them chatting away in their room, the line between their “TikTok self” and their “real self” blurs.

But this trend isn’t going away. TikTok’s success reflects a broader pattern of social media companies prioritizing easily digestible, off-the-cuff content. Snapchat was followed by Instagram Stories, which was followed by TikTok, which was followed by Facebook Stories, which was followed by Twitter Fleets.

The efforts by the old guard to evolve were no doubt an attempt to carve away some of TikTok and Snapchat’s market share. Facebook and Instagram are dominated by Millennials, and Twitter by early-wave Millennials and late-wave Xers.

Of these features, Instagram’s Stories are the most popular--probably because of its comparatively young userbase and its early emphasis on visual content. The success of the trendy new app Clubhouse, which offers live audio chat rooms, continues this pattern. 

The blurring of “real life” and “content” means that even the most casual interaction or interest (see “The Rise of the Nanoinfluencer”) can be mined for likes or targeted for criticism.

I’ve often said that Homelanders may grow up to become an oversocialized generation, for whom social media provides endless real-time cues about the right and wrong things to say and ways to bebave.

Teens have always been sensitive to social norms and how their behavior is perceived by their peers. But now they have to think about how their behavior could be perceived by the entire internet. The double-edged sword of pushing back against a curated internet is that the less curated (aka normal) moments then become subject to the rules of digital content.

The pandemic has only exacerbated the pressure to appear “right” at all times.

There are few opportunities to be truly unplugged when every interaction with friends takes place through Snapchats, TikToks, or in a Zoom window--with total popularity scores being toted up by some omniscient central computer. Feels like Black Mirror coming to life.

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ABOUT NEIL HOWE

Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.

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