Just Watching

I FIRST SHARED a TikTok video in my Instagram story on April 20, 2020, right around the time I ran out of tolerable TV series to binge and an inability to read anything other than tweets set in. It took me a while to realize I could download it, the video I mean—a Belgian man’s inexplicably menacing take on the “turn around” portion of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”—because I initially found the app’s interface so counterintuitive that I was reluctant to explore. For anyone used to the polished calm of Instagram, TikTok’s chaotic ugliness is disorienting. Each frame is cluttered with text (the caption and hashtags, username, sound title) and icons to comment, follow, and like. Popular videos often consist of crude filters, awkward camera angles, bad lighting, and screaming. If you took a shot every time you saw a messy bedroom or the interior of a car, you’d be dead in under an hour. For months, I opened the app only to marvel at its inscrutability—people were using this to communicate, but why?—and closed it without a clue. I don’t mind how old and slow all this makes me sound. I am old, by TikTok standards, and slow by my own.

According to my phone, I invited TikTok into my life in April of 2019, an implausibility given that I can’t remember any year before 2020. It’s also confusing because I associate TikTok’s palliative effects so closely with loss and the momentary cessation of daily sorrow. I half imagined I downloaded it on the first day of New York City’s shutdown—as if it were recommended by the terrible tall mayor—in tandem with picking up prescriptions and procuring dried beans. When people ask the internet, “What is the point of TikTok?” Google supplies a cranky blog post that elides the question by dismissing its “whirlwind of amateur videos” as irrelevant “for anyone over the age of 20.” But I, a woman of thirtysomething experience, can tell you that TikTok is a depression prophylactic, an immunity booster for your emotional health at any age. It has been a precious source of solace during an unendingly precarious time.

I’m not lamenting my pandemic experience. I walked past the morgue trucks, I read the news (in tweets). I know I’ve been spared the worst by a generous margin. My pains are mundane and surmountable. My boyfriend lost his job, and consequently his health insurance. My monthly income dropped to zero, then climbed to a third of what it had been. We lost the home we planned to inhabit and relocated to a place I hate. Someone significant to me passed away (not from COVID-19). My cat died abruptly (not from COVID-19). Several friends contracted the virus and then my brother did, too, while he was staying with my mom. When I spoke to her on the phone, she said she’d been sleeping in my old room. She thought, perhaps still thinks, we might never see each other again. Many nights I lie down with no intention of falling asleep. I watch a TikTok in which a man spins off an office chair, in which a cat breaks a vase by climbing inside, in which a snacking toddler screams, “You chunky, too!” at her teasing parent, and I laugh until I cry.

The psychology here seems straightforward, explicable if not wise. I am taking refuge in a fun house of diversion, juicing myself with videos of rescued animals and skateboarder girls, escaping reality through a highly curated and therefore artificial version of the same. But humor and distraction are my love language. I understand the necessity of comfort, but I don’t like being consoled, not by another human being discernibly laboring toward that end. It makes me feel condescended to, as TikTok’s impressive algorithm has learned because I feed it as much information as it wants. (I rewatch, heart, favorite, and download profligately, and I’ve only had to block one account: Mike and Kat, a corny straight couple whose gimmicky staged reaction videos kept turning up on my “For You” page.) I’ve been this way for a long time; when my little brother cried at night in the wake of our parents’ divorce and my snoring dad slept through his sobs, I collected my brother, took him downstairs, and put on our homemade VHS of Simpsons episodes. Laughing was our reminder that the conditions for sadness are abundant but not total.

I watch TikTok not to be numbed but to remember what I like about being alive, the elements of which we’re now largely deprived: unexpected spectacles, spontaneous conviviality between strangers, accidental hilarity. Social distancing reduces opportunities for interaction, not just with other people but with environments, objects, and animals, which in turn decreases the odds of being ambushed by delight—a delight doubled by virtue of its unpredictability. Because the medium’s finest achievements are so dependent on musical cues, formless sounds, absurdity, and surprise, detailing any individual TikTok is as ill-advised as explaining why a joke is funny. It’s safer to describe the contours of a trend, like “pretend you’re going to pet your dog, but don’t.” I’m partial to the recent “go ahead, cheat on me—this is my dad” format, in which daughters subvert expectations with footage of their fathers acting in silly, unintimidating ways. There’s an infinite variety of behavior that fits this description, so even after an unmasculine display becomes the expectation, there is satisfaction in the specificity of variation. The best memes in any medium thrive because of their flexibility; they’re containers, not scripts.

Left: Rover the Cat TikTok screen grab, May 23, 2020. Right: Kayla Holley TikTok screen grab, February 10, 2020.
Left: Rover the Cat TikTok screen grab, May 23, 2020. Right: Kayla Holley TikTok screen grab, February 10, 2020.

Compounding the punishment of social distancing is the atmosphere of doom and shame, fear and rage, that makes pleasure feel obscene. My instinct is to depict TikTok as a tool for social progress. Much of what I see of it is gay, disabled, hostile to white supremacy, fumbling toward unapologetic anticapitalism. But like all social media, it’s a time capsule of various milieus, magnifying and preserving whatever attention rewards. Overtly ideological content doesn’t dominate, but there are plenty of videos of maskless customers berating underpaid employees, families fighting about Trump, abortion protesters agitating outside clinics, and apoplectic adults abusing teenage Black Lives Matter protesters.

And regardless of a video’s subject matter, replies lean political. A clip of an adorable diapered toddler is flooded with #savethechildren and rants about pedophiles. My all-time favorite TikTok, “Can I Pet That Dog?,” was deleted from the app with the explanation that the mother of the boy in the video couldn’t handle the comments any longer. “I can tell by his accent he’s being raised to be a hillbilly white supremacist” was selected as representative. I didn’t write that, but I thought a version of it in spite—or because—of my adoration. “Do you believe #BLM?” commenters ask a young white woman who found Jesus after she went viral as a stoned, hot, lizard enthusiast. She allegedly blocks people who push the issue and in refusing to acknowledge it, answers the question.

There is no escape from what life is like, but there are momentary reprieves from the worst of it, and those reprieves supply the gladdening required to endure. The ways in which TikTok sustains me make me think of Vivian Gornick’s odes to the streets of New York. “Nothing healed me of a sore and angry heart like a walk through the city,” she writes in The Odd Woman and the City: “To see in the street the fifty different ways people struggle to remain human—the variety and inventiveness of survival techniques—was to feel the pressure relieved. . . . I felt in my nerve endings the common refusal to go under. That refusal became company.”

I frequently recall a moment very close to the 2016 election when my boyfriend and I waited at night on a subway platform. I broke into the groceries we’d bought, and two bored little boys came over after they noticed. They asked about our cookies, and we gave one to each of them. They wanted more, so we told them to help themselves, and I admired the boy who took the most because that’s exactly what I would have done. They pawed through our bags, asked about the parsley. Can you fathom? We ate on the platform together without hesitation. We touched each other’s food with unwashed hands.

Looking at TikTok is not the equivalent of a Gornick New York encounter. It’s lesser. But it’s still something that “soothes beyond all explanation.” What makes life seem worth it, unlonely, good—I don’t think we always identify it, and when we do, it can’t always be conjured at will. That’s why a rote version of comfort offends me so. As with the over-rehearsed and badly acted TikToks involving an almost kiss ruined by a last-minute head swerve, the pantomime of emotional response broadcasts its absence. Sometimes we have to be tricked, not pressured, into happiness. As one shocked creator put it while recording a glorious mountaintop landscape: “Y’all, look at this shit. . . . The fuck?! Can’t believe I wanted to kill myself last week.”

Charlotte Shane’s newest book is Pet Grief (TigerBee Press, 2020).