Whether you love it, hate it, don’t get it or your grandma’s trending on it, TikTok is a cultural phenomenon. But how did it become so popular and should we be worried by its reach?
Whether you love it, hate it, don’t get it or your grandma’s trending on it, TikTok is a cultural phenomenon. But how did it become so popular and should we be worried by its reach?
Join our host Sarah Taillier as she chats with Crystal Abidin, Professor of Internet Studies at Curtin University and Founder of the TikTok Cultures Research Network.
They explore why TikTok is so popular, how its algorithms might work and its influence on society, now and into the future.
Professor Crystal Abidin
Professor of Internet Studies, Curtin University
Professor Crystal Abidin is a social media researcher, digital anthropologist and Founder of the TikTok Cultures Research Network, which shares research into TikTok cultures with scholars based in the Asia-Pacific. Crystal’s notable awards include the WA Tall Young Poppy Science Award (2022), The Australian Top 40 Early Career Researchers (2021) and ABC Top 5 Humanities Fellow (2020).
Crystal has published multiple books and more than 80 articles and chapters on various aspects on internet celebrity and vernacular internet cultures. Her most recent book, TikTok and Youth Cultures, is due to be published later this year.
This podcast is brought to you by Curtin University. Curtin is a global university known for its commitment to making positive change happen through high-impact research, strong industry partnerships and practical teaching.
Read the transcript.
Host: Sarah Taillier
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Sarah Taillier: 00:00 This is The Future Of where experts share their vision of the future and how their work is helping shape it for the better.
00:10 I'm Sarah Taillier, if you haven't used it. TikTok is a short video platform that's exploded in popularity over recent years. It now has more than a billion users and is especially popular with Generation Z. That's people born from 1997 to 2012. In this episode, I was joined by Professor Crystal Abidin, a returning guest and the founder of the Asia-Pacific based TikTok Cultures Research Network. We talked about how activism is promoted on TikTok, how young people engage with the platform, and how we can expect it to evolve.
00:46 If you'd like to find out more about this research, you can visit the links provided in the show notes.
00:52 Just firstly, Crystal, why is TikTok so popular?
Crystal Abidin: 00:58 Big question, million-dollar question. There are so many reasons for it. I think the original story of why TikTok got so popular was because it was known as a young people app. Before COVID, it was mostly under twelves who were on it because the pre-iteration of TikTok was an app called Musical.ly. It was mainly, mostly genuinely young children who were lip-syncing and dancing on the app. It was fun. And so when the buy over happened and Music.ly became TikTok, those were the first generations of people who migrated over.
01:30 So there's a lot of fear and concern over young people on an app that adults don't know how to access. What are my kids doing? Are they up to no good? But during the pandemic, when there was time for the grownups to start exploring TikTok, that was when they discovered it's just about any other social media app except attention moves so differently there. You've got a three-second lead-in for someone to decide if they're going to stay on the video, flick you away, like, comment or decide that it's not worth their time. And so because the videos used to be so short at 10 to 15 seconds, the runway to capture someone's eyeballs was very intense. The competition was very rife.
Sarah Taillier: 02:10 So you're a social media researcher and digital anthropologist, how do you use TikTok?
Crystal Abidin: 02:16 The correct answer is I use it professionally for science. In reality, as I was doing research from my upcoming TikTok book, I actually spend a very systematic amount of time on the app across different devices and different accounts because I needed an overview of what this app was doing, when it read me differently as a different profile as a person with different behavioural practises. But as a person, outside of my job, I genuinely enjoy social media as a private citizen. So I also do use TikTok on my personal device for relaxation, to learn about the world and also to keep up with the young people so I don't feel so old when I teach in the classroom!
Sarah Taillier: 02:59 What are some examples of TikTok activism, an area that you've done a lot of research in, and how have creators really leveraged features on the platform to promote their messages?
Crystal Abidin: 03:10 This has really changed over the years, but in the origin story, this is something Australia has a lot to be very proud of. Around 2018, in the start of 2019, right around bushfire season, young people in Australia, we're talking middle schoolers, high schoolers, took to TikTok in rural areas in their home country, on their home grounds to share about what life was like on a daily basis during bushfire season. Some of it was educational like how do I prep my home? Some of it was giving awareness about what the media needed to be focusing on and others in the thick of it when they were evacuating from their home. So really arresting scenes of flames, chasing them through waters and the boats, showing the plight of the animals and the wildlife that we're suffering so that in [inaudible 00:03:57] up knowledge and also growing empathy of audiences, we were also able to give life underground feeds of what was happening when journalists couldn't get there.
04:07 That form of activism we like to think of as citizen journalism where people gave us grassroots perspectives of what's happening. But these young people went above and beyond. They were also calling for fundraising efforts, reaching out to other people who were suffering from climate change action. And as we know it later on with the likes of Swedish youth activists, Greta Thunberg, young people around the world use TikTok to organise all sorts of social movements and marches and protests.
Sarah Taillier: 04:34 So Greta might be the perfect example for this question. How important is TikTok as a tool for modern activists?
Crystal Abidin: 04:44 It depends on who you're asking. If it's the young people, the vernacular on TikTok, using humour, using memes, sometimes using even self-deprecating relational types of storytelling, those are the ways they speak to each other in a very unique code-switch-y manner that blocks them from adult censorship or allows them to slide under the radar so platforms don't censor them as much. But the very catchy feelings of using memes and audio and music also means that all of these contents travel far and wide to social media pedestrians who might just be passing by and then want to find out a bit more about the app.
05:24 On the other hand, it's not glitz and glamour. There is also a phenomenon where people tend to exploit impressions of activist pursuits because being woke or politically active on TikTok is something to be desired. People look to you as a role model. There is visibility, fame, and sometimes you have the chance to conform to the industry template of being an influencer - sponsorship deals and money starts rolling in. So there is some lip service. There is some bandwagoning of TikTok is who may not actually be genuinely interested in activism and politics, but who perform semblance of it.
Sarah Taillier: 06:05 On that, how are some users working with various algorithms to trigger or promote their activism?
Crystal Abidin: 06:12 Oh, in the scholarship there is this thing we like to call the algorithmic imaginary. So even if we don't really know how the algorithm works, if enough people share this imaginary and believe that it works in A or B or C ways and on a large cohort and a large scale, we practise these same behaviours, then over time it's like a prophecy fulfilled. The algorithm does work in the way because of the scale of people manipulating it in the same way. So for this reason, a lot of young people have become very tricky tricksy in how they want people to stay awhile, interact with their content, engage with them. Some of this is baiting. They might give you no context posts and you're like, "What's happening? I need to watch this five second TikTok 10 times" and artificially boost their engagement.
07:02 Other times there's this thing I call in my book 'easter egging', where they might intentionally put a shadow in the background or Photoshop in a spaceship and pretend they don't know what's there. And in the comments section, people are speculating in conspiracy theory and giving you engagement. But there are also people who are just really out here pleading for views like, "Please, please, please, please give me views. Like this. I need to cash out on my creative fund. I'm just starting out. I'm a small business. Please support me and not buy from any of these big corporations." And all three methods, many, many more, work and appeal to different audiences.
Sarah Taillier: 07:40 It's hard to imagine. Maybe that's because I'm not the ideal market for TikTok, how pleading would be effective.
Crystal Abidin: 07:49 Yeah, it actually is really effective in the small business world. For starters, we need to remember these are genuinely young people who have the ability to curate the types of silos or genres or subcultures they want to see on TikTok simply by interacting with the algorithm and the contents in a specific patented way. So you get to see more of what you like, less of what you've just flipped off in a microsecond or so. And so a lot of these young people also believe in the ethos of the underdog. If you're someone who's not usually given visibility on the mainstream social media, TikTok might be the way for you to gain that. If you're someone who's got a voice and wants to speak out against the man of big corporations, they're also likely to speak and represent you.
08:35 So small businesses who often talk about needing to support locals, buy local, help a young mom, help a teen, are often using this rhetoric. It's similar to greenwashing by bit corporations, and I say that because interestingly, a lot of these small businesses are involved in drop shipping where they purchase goods wholesale from very cheap sites like AliExpress or Amazon, and they might just mark up the price rather than actually produce something local. There's really interesting vernacular here. Rather than saying it's local produce, they will say locally assembled, locally packed, inspired by local curation and you need to read between the lines to know actually technically they're not lying. So there was something local in this, the packaging, the mailing, the thought, but the actual product, none of it actually goes back to the locals.
Sarah Taillier: 09:27 So interesting. How do you think activism on the platform will continue to evolve?
Crystal Abidin: 09:34 Oh, I think one of the biggest shifts was during COVID-19 when some of the biggest NGO groups, companies, politicians, and governments started to immigrate to TikTok wholesale in mass. And that shifted the culture a bit because for one, it gave TikTok legitimacy. This is now like any other social media that you send your PR team to manage. Number two, a lot of these NGO and health groups like the WHO clearly knew that they were speaking to young people there. Not directly teaching them about safe hand washing and social distancing, but asking them to take this information, disseminate it at home to the grownups, to the elders, to the grandparents who might be more susceptible to misinformation.
10:20 So we are also now seeing activists groups organise institutes taking to TikTok, partaking in all sorts of dank memes and trends and challenges to speak to young people and promote their cause. And it's a small shift in how we used to hear individual voices to how corporations are learning to speak like individual young people to get our attention. How do you do young kids?
Sarah Taillier: 10:43 When we are talking about larger bodies and representative bodies, we've recently seen government bodies and a lot of agencies around the world really pulling away from TikTok and banning it from Canada right to here at home in Australia. Those concerns have been bubbling away for a long time. Why do you think these moves have been made now?
Crystal Abidin: 11:05 The big picture here is that these decisions should have been made a long time ago. We need to be sceptical of social media. All social media, regardless of where they were founded, what types they are, because at the end of the day, they are corporate entities who are out here to make a profit. We don't want them to be arbiters of morality of what is right and wrong and what is policy. So pre-TikTok, there were really very many major social media scandals on Facebook, Cambridge Analytica for example, that was very concerning, not just with individual user privacy, but even, say, the emotion contagion study that showed us how large cohorts of people could have their emotions and thoughts manipulated. So I understand why governments want to make sure their employees segment those apps away from everyday life to make sure there's no data leakage.
11:56 But it took so long for this to actually happen because TikTok ended up being the scapegoat for all these sorts of ongoing moral panic. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of it being Chinese founded was wrapped in a lot of xenophobia and sinophobia, and it just became an excuse for these companies and governments to decide once and for all to separate those boundaries. But I have to say and stress, it's not a TikTok problem. It's a social media problem. Unfortunately, TikTok was scapegoated because it's convenient to use the xenophobic, excuse when in reality the US who owns Facebook is also foreign intervention, it's also a foreign interference, but we don't tend to think of it that way in the global north. So we need to be very careful about some implicit racism here.
Sarah Taillier: 12:42 When we are talking about the people that are using this platform behind Generation Z, there's Generation Alpha, is there any way of predicting what will come next? What type of social media platform might replace TikTok for this generation?
Crystal Abidin: 12:58 So caveat for science, I spent a lot of time looking at TikTok families, minors, children, and babies, because TikTok really boomed during the pandemic, a lot of COVID parents who were trapped indoors with little ones with COVID pregnancies were taken to the app originally to share the ordeal of being stuck at home. They were giving tips on how to improve breastfeeding. How do I stimulate my child who's trapped in a tiny apartment? Are these milestones okay? There were even these funny memes like COVID babies, they're different breed. They walk at day two, they start speaking in day five, but the reasons for that was because we were stuck at home with them. So we had more close observational skills.
13:40 Well, the long-term repercussions are there just so many babies, cohorts of them who now have their entire early years documented on TikTok? No surprise that many of them has also turned into commercial influencers when advertisers have come on board to use them to sell all sorts of products and services. So I don't foresee this generation going anywhere for now because like the millennials who used to curate the young people on Facebook from the day of ultrasound scan to the birth, to the first walk to the first birthday, we are now doing the same with regeneration Alpha who are going to grow up and inherit TikTok for better or for worse, and discover your entire lives are on them.
Sarah Taillier: 14:21 How do you navigate that?
Crystal Abidin: 14:24 As a researcher, I've got very strict rules on what I would and would not do for my child or for the other children in our care, in our huge migrant community. But I have to always come from a point of view of empathy and practise what we call standpoint theory, which is that every individual person makes decisions based on where they're coming from, their own cultural background, and also the calculations of like the benefits and disadvantages. So if we go back to the very early history of influencer culture, mommy bloggers who might be the equivalent of family TikTok as today, were among the most trusted resource and authority on how to care for your children because they were set aside from sponsored ads by companies or PR apps who were peddling things. So mummy blogs were trusted because they shared opinions out of the goodwill of their hearts.
15:16 It was only when the industry got so saturated and commercialised that we now began to have concerns over authenticity, trust, disclosure, and the like. So there is always a benefit if you look at the right pockets. And it's with all social media, there's also huge downsides if we do not curate our use carefully.
Sarah Taillier: 15:36 Earlier on you touched on how younger users in Australia help to lead the activism space on TikTok. What about the space in terms of representing First Nations communities in Australia?
Crystal Abidin: 15:48 Yeah, Australia has been such a good example of how to make space for diversity across our various groups of First Nations people around the globe, around our diaspora groups, around our various lands. I think one of the things that white Australian creators have been good in doing is making space. So oftentimes I've seen prominent white TikTokers who might have a more prolific following, do this thing called a duet, which is a feature on TikTok where you have one half of your screen being your own and the other half being someone else's screen. And they might sometimes do these duets simply as a way to elevate or amplify contents of white Nations folks to their audience members without really adding much commentary.
16:32 I've also seen very tricky and cheeky challenges. So if say there is a incident or a phenomenon or discussion happening involving our friends in the white nations, sorry, the First Nations communities, people who are in self-identified white nationalist groups might sometimes hijack those conversations. And we see the pushback very strongly about who gets the claim space to talk. We see in the common section pushback against the disavowal of people bringing racist intentions here. TikTok, like all social media, is rife with all kinds of politics. But on TikTok specifically, the comment section is very important because you're seeing the pushback on what kinds of contents are simply not acceptable with enough volume, with enough people engaging with the moderation button, the complaint button, the flagging button, lots of these accounts have been taken down.
17:28 Something else I really enjoy about learning from our First Nations friends here is there are various takes to how we should learn about culture. There is the educator who sometimes literally gives us tutorials like a lecturer. They're show and tell, "Here's how I live. Oh wow, I'm just an ordinary person in an ordinary house. What are your stereotypes about us?" But there are also people who take the time to [inaudible 00:17:51] their traditional wear, tell you about cultural stories, tell you about dreaming, and it's a bit of story time where you tune into a free lesson on TikTok to learn.
18:00 It's for the most part, quite a friendly space because you remember at the end of the day, their volunteering knowledge for free, they should be paid for their time. And certainly many corporations now value this as institutional knowledge. But on TikTok, it's done out of the goodwill of their hearts for people to learn about their cultures. And if anything, I think we are very, very, very blessed to be able to have an insight into all of these ethnic groups around the world to learn about minority groups.
Sarah Taillier: 18:26 We're just going to take a short break and we'll be back right after this ad.
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Sarah Taillier: 19:01 And we're back.
19:03 Crystal, what's the story behind the TikTok Cultures Research Network?
Crystal Abidin: 19:08 Oh, thanks for asking. TCRN is a group that I founded based here at Curtin University. I need to say I have a lot of gratitude for various groups of people who funded this in 2019 when people had no idea what TikTok was. I sat in rooms with men in business suits trying to explain why young people were dancing to ten second videos and why that was important to study. But we're now in 2023, the impact of TikTok is quite clear. In short, we are a group of academics housed out of Curtin University who support the internationalisation of research on TikTok. And most importantly, we support scholars from the global south in the Asia-Pacific region to do research translation.
19:49 So we all notice a stereotype or this image of academic sitting in our armchairs and ivory towers just doing research. But it's very important to me as a social media scholar that our research has a real world impact. And through TCRN, we equip people with the ability to respond directly to platforms to give them advice, to give them ethnographic research that they can then use to improve the welfare or the wellbeing of their users. And in our case, we've been really fortunate to be able to work with several platforms to offer them advice on how we can improve, say, the wellbeing of influencers, the safety of children, or even just prioritising minority groups, people of colour, groups of ethnic minority descent in various points on their apps so that we can have a more diverse and inclusive social media culture.
Sarah Taillier: 20:39 How do you engage with TikTok as a platform? How does the network engage?
Crystal Abidin: 20:44 The professional version of this story is sometimes you just really need to have a very thick skin. The early stories of every type of this kind of industry collaboration often involves cold calling. They need to trust your reputation. Know that you have a track record of working with industry, know that your research has directly informed policy, and they also need to know why academics should be included in this space. Can they not just hire a market research company to do the same? And here is where our scholarly training and our ability to situate groups underground and translate their needs into policy updates is really, really valuable.
21:23 In our case, we're really fortunate because across all 10 of TikTok's country officers, we were contacted by a few of them across the many events withheld and were able to speak to specific needs of each cultural or regional market. So we've got good partners in them. I'm happy that we've got a really collaborative relationship, but also happy that because we are based in the university, there is research, editorial and financial independence. And I can still very safely say I'm proud that we are running TCRN as a mentorship hub.
Sarah Taillier: 21:53 And when we're talking about engaging with a platform, how does a network engage with the community as well with different outreach programs?
Crystal Abidin: 22:02 For the most part, we've got three primary demographics that we speak to. The first is other young researchers and scholars. It might just be the nitty-gritty of them presenting at a conference for the first time, writing their first paper. And we offer genuine advice and expertise on how they can improve their process. The truth of the matter is, academia is so opaque. There are so many things that you really only learn in quote-unquote "All boys networks." So if your parents were academics or you implicitly just absorb themby osmosis. And if you're a first-gen student or if you're a person from a migrant background needing to learn a brand new cultural context that's not explanatory or self-evident, and we need to be there to bridge that divide if we want to decolonise academia.
22:48 The second group of people we prioritise is the public. So every time we have research outputs, we make sure that they are inaccessible forms that grandpa in the park or an 11-year-old might be able to read and understand. And we really believe in the ethos that there has to be some sort of societal impact in the work that we do. And of course, last but not least, being able to speak directly to industry has been useful. It fast tracks the recommendations you can make and what they choose to adopt as they update their processes.
Sarah Taillier: 23:20 That's very comprehensive. You've got a book, we've touched on this throughout our chat, you've got a book on TikTok coming out this year called TikTok and Youth Culture. What do you hope people will take away from reading it?
Crystal Abidin: 23:33 Oh, I'm really excited. So TikTok and Youth Cultures is coming out later this year. It is a comprehensive view of how young people perceive TikTok from the very early beginning. So I interviewed the first generations of people who onboarded onto TikTok in 2018. They were from different parts of the world and one part in East Asia, they were paid a really, really handsome sum to try the app out. And if they liked it, they were given promises on how they would be prioritised on the algorithm, so to speak. In another part of Southeast Asia, there were ordinary high schoolers who might have a good sense of humour on other apps like Musical.ly or on Dubsmash or on Vine, if you remember Vine. And they were groomed in incubators to be the first generation of original TikTok creators.
24:25 So these earlier origin stories allowed me to understand why TikTok was perceived as a youth app, but there are also larger repercussions. TikTok is now no longer youth in terms of its youth demographic, the average age of the users in your thirties, everyone and their grandmother, the 60-year-old, CEO, politicians, even in Australia, they all have TikTok accounts. And yet somehow the news discourse always talks about this as a young person app. So that consistent sense of generational that "I'm too old for this. They're younger people than me." That's a very interesting point of tension for a lot of the social cultural issues playing out on that app. And I also look into that.
Sarah Taillier: 25:05 What was the journey like in bringing that book together?
Crystal Abidin: 25:09 Oh, the research was the most fun bit. Now I'm trained as an anthropologist, so I like talking to people. This research began pre-COVID, so I did travel to several parts of Asia to interview the first generations of TikTokers, watch them make their contents, interview the first agents of TikTok companies. There was really good insight into what they did in the flesh and offline spaces to go viral online. And during COVID, I just adopted new methodologies from digital anthropology to expand my understanding of what's happening online. It entailed a very concerted point of online immersion to see what people were doing. There were of course, consistent interviews with the same groups of people over multiple years, which I really enjoyed. And then the usual content analysis, really breaking down what does this really mean? What is this lyric? What is this dance challenge? And trying to distil all that into a holistic ethnographic point of view.
Sarah Taillier: 26:06 Oh, you must be excited to get your hands on that book.
Crystal Abidin: 26:09 Oh, very sure. I'm really looking forward to the next one. It's academic's dream to be working on books.
Sarah Taillier: 26:14 So what is next for your research?
Crystal Abidin: 26:16 A few more books.
26:20 To be cheeky, my research has taken me on a journey where I've systematically studied Instagram, wrote a book with colleagues on that. Also did a historical overview of Tumblr because I grew up on that app and also produced a book with colleagues on that. TikTok started as a label of love. It then became this project filled with angst because everyone I knew was pitching this as just a young person app. Very soon it became this app that was meant to be feared because it was based in China. There was so much xenophobic content. As a mixed race Asian person who studies the Asia-Pacific region. I think a lot of us can identify with that kind of xenophobia. So then I just turned that anger into passion and did more research.
27:03 So it depends on where the social media landscape takes me. But I do have other projects in the pipeline looking at Korean social media cultures. And my most latest update, maybe debuting this information here is a book called The Monetization of Drama. It basically talks about how we used to like watching influences because they were aspirational. "Oh, that's the life I want. They look so cool, great fashion, good travelling." And then that got boring fast. And then we started watching dramas, channels, scandals, behind the scene snippets, all the goss, all the tea in African-American vernacular.
27:41 We are also now in the third stage in the pandemic where we want everyday soothing content, home cleaning, restocking your fridge, ice making even in Australia. And then in the fourth stage, which is the book I'm going to write next it focuses on the bodily triggers like ASMR, the [inaudible 00:28:01] eating, all of those things you see on the internet that make you kind of go, "Ugh, there's this thing going down my spine." So yes, I've got a series of books lined up, but now I'm shifting into the second stage of my major work looking at the monetization of drama.
Sarah Taillier: 28:15 I cannot wait to see that and find out what's next on your journey. Question without notice, but how do you actually evaluate and find interesting and reputable people, content makers on TikTok?
Crystal Abidin: 28:29 There are many ways you can discover content before even evaluating if it's worth following. But on TikTok, unlike most other apps where you might organise information by hashtags, the most efficient way to find people is through the audio meme. So it's the sound that these individual users use. If you click into that rotating vinyl at the bottom of a video, it shows you all the videos that have ever used that sound, and it probably also curates all the people who have interpreted this song or this lyric in the same ironic way to prove a point. And that's how you can select what kind of discourse or tonality am I going for.
29:09 Now, if you've identified someone whose contents interests you and you are genuinely wanting to evaluate if it's worth your time, one of the most tricky things about TikTok is oftentimes there is the one trick pony syndrome. Where in the past, on the likes of YouTube or Facebook or blogs even, you needed to have a very consistent reputation for people to subscribe to you and continually listen to you. TikTok is this marketplace that is post first rather than persona first. So an individual post would go viral, but you may not be good for anything else after it, and you might just have followed that person for that one trick pony. And so it's become a template that people then start to use the same tricks, the same meme, the same vernacular, and produce the same contents over and over because that's what is successful in the app.
Sarah Taillier: 30:01 That is really helpful. Crystal, thank you for coming in today and walking us through the TikTok landscape. All the best with your book and the next stage of research.
Crystal Abidin: 30:12 Thanks for having me, and this is really fun. I appreciate the time.
Sarah Taillier: 30:15 You've been listening to The Future Of a podcast powered by Curtin University. As always, if you've enjoyed this episode, please share it. And don't forget to subscribe to The Future Of on your favourite podcast app. Bye for now.