Teens Transform TikTok

Every day for the last month or so, TikTok has been making headlines around the world. President Trump bans U.S. citizens from making transactions with TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, effective Sept. 21. This forces ByteDance to sell TikTok to another company, or leave the US market.

Microsoft then steps up as an unlikely potential suitor. Now Twitter is rumored to be interested, and investment firms including Sequoia Capital and SoftBank might help consummate a deal. Meanwhile, Instagram Reels and rival app Triller stand poised to peel off users and creators.

What’s lost in all of the hysteria, though, is the fact that TikTok itself is changing. The version of TikTok that broke through last year -- lots of wholesome-looking people doing silly dances to mainstream pop music -- is now referred to as “Straight TikTok.” It’s the place where creators look like teen idols, with faces that tend to be conventionally-attractive, well-off, white and (as the name implies), heterosexual.



Now, rising up in opposition to “Straight TikTok” is “Alt TikTok,” the home of LGBTQ+ creators, people of color, punks, surrealists and cynics. “Alt TikTok” likes to mock the tropes of “Straight TikTok,” but it’s also a self-expression free-for-all.

In a recent Rolling Stone article about the phenomenon, producer-singer Cmten says, “Alt TikTok is teenagers doing whatever they want.” Rapper Freddie Dread explains, “Straight TikToks are for children basically; it’s dancing and wholesome content,” while Alt TikTok “is more artsy, more punk.” Tyler Shepherd, the owner of Subculture Party, says, “It’s gothy, it can involve a lot of cosplay, costume, dramatic makeup, crazy fashion.” And the music is more “bizarre, abrasive, unruly, headlong,” with songs like Cmten’s “Never Met!” or 645AR’s “Yoga.”

In addition, Gen Z is increasingly brazen about mocking millennials on TikTok. One high-profile example occurred when Disney+ debuted "Hamilton" on July 3. The musical is practically a sacred text among millennials, and became a pop culture phenomenon immediately upon debuting on Broadway in 2015.

Gen Z TikTokers had a different take, though, using the platform to mock playwright/lead actor Lin-Manuel Miranda. Rolling Stone explains that Gen Z sees him as the “ultimate millennial,” and while that generation “advocates for change by working within the system,” Gen Z “wants to smash the system entirely.” So they challenge a musical that doesn’t mention most of the Founding Fathers were slave owners; erases historical Black figures; glosses over Alexander Hamilton’s support of the three-fifths compromise; and privileges a straight white male viewpoint.

So a work that seemed revolutionary just five years ago is now considered problematic by a younger generation, who are using TikTok to express their point of view.

How can brands successfully navigate the ever-changing landscape of TikTok?

*Follow TikTok talent to other platforms. Many TikTok creators are hedging their bets, and rounding out their social media portfolios. Consider multiplatform deals with TikTok talent, and sponsoring them on Snap, Instagram, Triller, Twitch and other platforms where they may appear.

*Consider Alt TikTok talent. Diversify your talent roster to include BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) talent, the LGBTQ+ community, and the punk/goth scene. That’s where the energy of TikTok is today, and these are the creators getting the most attention from Gen Z.

*Don’t fight your critics. Take a page from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has thoughtfully engaged with his detractors, and graciously acknowledged their criticisms of his work. The members of “Straight TikTok” with the most self-awareness and self-effacing humor (like Charli D’Amelio) are the ones who adapt, and endure.

TikTok will almost certainly survive and continue to thrive in the U.S. under new ownership. The brands that master its complexities are the ones that will continue to stay in tune with teens.
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