In March, Thing 3 asked me to watch some dog TikToks. I watched out of a desire to connect with my offspring. Any time I asked one of my kids what music was playing on their devices, the answer was always “TikTok,” which wasn’t a clear answer for me but seemed to them a reasonable explanation to give their mother. The videos were cute, but they missed the mark a bit for me. My curated Twitter feed has been my go-to for years; first for news, then for edtech posts, followed by a desire to make connections and now, for my research. My daughter, exasperated with my lack of interest, walked away, shaking her head, throwing “you don’t know what you’re missing” over her shoulder.
On May 4th, Everything Hertz released a podcast with Chelsea Parlett-Pelleriti, whose goal is to make statistics approachable, and on the podcast they discussed her use of Tik Tok as a channel for communicating academic content. I downloaded the app and looked up Chelsea’s account; I thought I might find some other academic TikToks that would benefit my research; instead, I found people sharing their unique perspectives on COVID on my #ForYouPage. The initial randomness of TikToks appearing on my #fyp provided me with the opportunity to curate my incoming content and, as protests in the United States began to increase, I started seeking out content creators from the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. Much like Twitter had initially provided me with a platform where I found educators who were willing to learn from each other, TikTok gave me something I didn’t knew I needed: an escape from the pandemic panic and an opportunity to learn from a new group of people outside of academia and teaching.
I don’t know if I have the words to express how I feel about TikTok, but its randomness and tailoring to my region, needs, and interests pulled me in. I quickly lost interest in middle-aged wine-drinking and bemoaning our current experience TikToks (aka straight TikTok); Thing 3 was very helpful in guiding me to start liking videos so that I would see more of what I enjoyed seeing on my feed. Mindful of how a blank egg is perceived on Twitter, I connected my Twitter account with TikTok to have a rudimentary profile and started liking things.
I followed Chelsea Parlett-Pelleriti first; after all, she was the reason I came to TikTok, even though her videos about stats mostly went over my head. Then Nicholas Caprio showed up on #fyp and I recalled Miss Mazpeppa educating Rose about having a gimmick; he uses printed cards instead of speaking in each of his videos. His messages about mental health and quirky historical facts earned him a follow from me.
I’m drawn to the sincerity of people’s messages, but I also want to laugh. I also miss people watching on the GO Train. TikTok was an excellent substitute. I worried, though, about looking for funny creators: where do you draw the line between laughter and mockery?
It turns out you don’t have to draw the line; some erudite people walk the line so magestically I watch in awe and respect. I started spamming my kids with Polish-American TikTokers who find the element of the ridiculous in Polish parenting yet manage to demonstrate respect for their upbringing; they don’t feel the need to offer English translations to monolithic Americans. These creators know their audience and revel in creating content for that niche, the people who poke fun at their culture while demonstrating they wouldn’t have it any other way. Consistently, I came across diasporas from many countries and the self-awareness that the betweenness of one’s home culture and the culture of the place they live in can only be understood completely by others from the same background, but appreciated by other second-generation creators. The sophistication of creators who put on a Polish/Russian/Korean/Mandarin/Cantonese/Japanese accent flawlessly to deliver cutting messages to gallivanting boyfriends/send anti-racist messages/support #blm #metoo #Icantbreathe and cut their trolls splendidly by shaming them publicly while switching to their real English accents to expose the simpletons who judge them solely on the foreign accent, which is actually a foil to initiate discourse about what polite white society doesn’t want to talk about – this is the poetry of manipulating a language which is not a mother tongue to the level of mastery which can shame unilingual English speakers.
The top level creators, however, are the offspring who feature their immigrant parents and have made them sensations on the platform by using their parents’ “other” accent as a source of empowered humour. At first I inspected some of these accounts for signs of mockery or dismissiveness of the parents but no, the parents are in on the joke and initiating the content; they are aware of how they sound and they revel in this disturbance of what is expected of them; their followers are in the hundreds of thousands and remind me how far we’ve come from feeling like Toula when she worries about introducing her boyfriend to her family in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
As my TikTok addiction grew, I began recognizing some of the TikTok trends and didn’t have to wonder what my kids were doing on their gizmos; I recognized the music playing. I realized that some accounts I followed were following other accounts I followed, and I wondered if TikTokers collaborate and create crossover content. Then I saw Uncle Roger and Auntie Jenny post stories that gave me hope.
And the connection to Tinder and my research? Like for Part 2 😉