Humiliating. That would be the one word I’d use to describe my first time lip-syncing to a TikTok sound in late 2019. With my 20th birthday creeping up, the embarrassment of watching my Dua Lipa impersonation was enough for me to set the app aside for over a year. As far as I knew, it was just a place for middle schoolers to do the Shoot dance and film slime videos. Mouthing words to an audience of no one felt too much like being 13 for me to enjoy it.
The fairly distant relationship I now have with social media looked very different when I was younger. In middle school, I deep-fried photos with Instagram filters, feeling bummed out when I didn’t get likes or followers. Thankfully, growing up ended this feedback loop. Nowadays, I’ll occasionally post a nice picture on Instagram and only open the app to reply to my friends’ comments.
This “mature” disinterest isn’t because I have some kind of superiority complex about social media. Rather, most of the people I follow are old high school friends and mere acquaintances. Every time I meet a friend of a friend or a new face at a club event, we end up exchanging Instagram usernames or Facebook information. In theory, it’s a way to keep up with one another. In practice, it just ends up being a social accumulation of pictures—really nice pictures of virtual strangers.
Admittedly, I’ve thought of just lying when asked for my username by saying, “Actually, I deleted my Instagram.” It always felt too rude, though; in a world where it’s become second nature to exchange social media, it would be uppity to decline a friend request from someone who goes to your school. The easy solution to this would be making a new Instagram account or mass unfollowing people. But I like the few memories I have saved, ice-skating with my high school buddies or visiting art exhibits. It also just seems too silly to spend time filtering through something as inconsequential as my Instagram following. And when I tried making a “finsta” (a secondary “fake Instagram,” meant to be less formal) many moons ago, I found that the same excess of acquaintances also built up there.
Using social media became an easy way to pass time without any personal or emotional connection, as I’d find myself disconnected from peoples’ posts every time I scrolled through my feed. A vacation picture captioned with inside jokes probably meant a lot to the poster’s old friend, but would probably just warrant a glance and a like from me.
The main reason I haven’t wiped it all away is that a wide-reaching Instagram and Facebook network can be incredibly helpful. A few months ago, when a friend needed to leave a bad home situation, people who I hadn’t talked to in years helped me crowdfund for her. Their well-wishes enabled me to feel some relief in spite of my worries. This made social media more than a simple slice of social currency.
The pandemic, of course, changed even my indifferent attitude toward social media networks. I miss my friends now that I’m back in my familiarly unfamiliar hometown of Syracuse. Summer brought reprieve in the form of safely hanging out outdoors, but with the upstate winter in full force, my best friend and I don’t really want to freeze just to stand six feet apart. And with my Columbia friends, it’s hard to feel the comfort of their full presence when they’re miniaturized to tiny FaceTime squares. Simply put, friendship is just not the same over Zoom. It’s also harder to find time to hang out online. Before the pandemic, I’d usually end up seeing my friends at John Jay before even getting the text to come. Nowadays, we have to create When2meets just to find 10 minutes to play Among Us.
Even though I’ve mostly accepted that things just aren’t going to be the same for now, I’ve still needed to fill in the gaps of the virtual world. Somehow, TikTok doesn’t do the worst job at it. While I did get over my aversion to the app prior to the pandemic, I only started actively using it many months into quarantine. With Instagram still populated by many sweet almost-strangers, Twitter a remnant of my teenage stan years, and Facebook being Facebook, TikTok was a fun and fresh alternative to satisfy my sudden craving for social media.
At first, I just liked scrolling through videos. The nature of TikTok is perfect for my short attention span, and it was a throwback to the years I spent on Vine. Later, I started making simple videos for myself. One of my first videos was of stickers I picked up on a visit to the toy store for my nephew’s Eid gift. It was a simple “haul” of three sticker sheets laid on top of a blanket, with a voice-over needlessly explaining that the stickers of cats are indeed stickers of cats, but it was nice to act like a YouTuber, talking through the day. The only comments I got were from my best friends, enjoying my influencer cosplay, and their presence was what made it fun. Little by little, I watched their videos and got acquainted with the posters in their childhood bedrooms, the landscapes of their local parks, and even the (masked) faces of their other friends. Unlike having to schedule a Zoom or FaceTime call, I could catch up with their lives without having to coordinate schedules.
With all that I’ve explored on TikTok, I’ve found the connection more fulfilling than any other platform. My account is private so that way only my friends see my videos, but even when you’re private on TikTok, your comments on others’ videos can be seen. You can boost the content of artists, activists, and small businesses, making it an easy way to show your appreciation for someone else’s work. Separate feeds also exist for the people you follow versus the For You page, featuring content from all creators. This makes it easy enough to connect or disconnect from the wider TikTok world at your own discretion. I can choose whether to watch videos from just my friends’ daily lives or from everyone recommended by the app’s algorithm. It’s a pleasant contrast to Instagram’s constant runway of strangers.
At times, I have definitely fallen prey to the algorithm’s addictive quality. I’ll find myself meaning to watch a few videos and instead scrolling through 50 TikToks on cake decorating. It’s hard to be harsh on myself during a global pandemic, so sometimes I do indulge. More often, I take a short break from work to surf the app but end up discovering a lot of informational videos. In the span of 60 seconds or less, I’ve learned about Victorian innovations in women’s fashion, how to fake bleached brows—to the joy of my own threatened eyebrows—or where I can find ingredients for one of the hundreds of recipe videos I’ve watched.
But amid all the other content on the app, my friends remain the best part. It is especially nice getting to see videos of friends who recently graduated from college. I used to think my almost-30-year-old brother was strange for talking to his old friends on Snapchat. However, my own proximity to the impending doom of the post-grad world makes connecting with older and wiser friends through social media an obvious solution. Seeing them still using playground swings or doing silly dances is a comfort to me, as someone afraid of the “real world.” I’ve even connected with much older friends. A high school friend who I hadn’t seen since graduation showed up on my For You page. It turns out liking videos of ’90s animes can eventually help you reunite with friends.
In a way, I’m just using TikTok the same way early social media users expected it to work: connecting with the people I care about. However, this isn’t quite true. Although I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my experiences with TikTok, I remain aware that the app caters to me because it wants to keep me scrolling. Sometimes I give in, but thinking carefully about my use keeps me a bit smarter than even the smartest algorithm. I focus on following my friends and the creators I enjoy, keeping myself private, and to my best ability, keeping my app time limited. With few fulfilling alternatives for connecting, I still get to see my friends. In the end, TikTok gets the closest to what I want from social media. I connect with the people dearest to me and feel comfortable using social media to talk about mundane experiences. While I haven’t been concerned with a follower count since I was 12, my 27 followers—or my 27 real-life friends—really do make my day.
Enjoy leafing through our third issue!