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Identity in Communities and Networks

‘For You Page’: TikTok as a lens for identity discourse in Western culture

Abstract

This paper aims to consider the impact that the popularised app TikTok has recently had on millennial and generation z culture regarding their identity formation and performance.Apps such as TikTok allow teens and young adults to explore and perform the nuances of online identity whilst gaining audiences through participatory culture. 

Introduction

As described by John Herman in a 2019 New York Times article, “TikTok is an app for making and sharing short videos… The result is an endless unspooling of material that people, many very young, might be too self-conscious to post on Instagram, or that they never would have come up with in the first place without a nudge. It can be hard to watch. It can be charming. It can be very, very funny. It is frequently, in the language widely applied outside the platform, from people on other platforms, extremely “cringe.”” 

Identity

Ultimately, identity for teens online can provide an opportunity to become a part of social networks or subcultural communities, and we do see this forming in some instances on TikTok, just as much as other social networking sites. We can see identity in this context as the fractured self, a representation of various interests and personalities colliding together. Identity can be seen as a performance, as argued in this article regarding how teens are relying on TikTok to display such performances of identity:

“They are filming themselves crying at the camera without saying a word. A blank face soaked with tears, playing on loop as many times as you fancy. They are, as Monash University lecturer in social media Emily van der Nagel tells me, using rituals. “It’s not simply about saying ‘I’m sad’,” she said. “It’s about sharing on a pool of cultural references to communicate.” TikTok, perhaps more than any other current platform, allows its huge youth audience to articulate not just the see-me and hear-me aspects of socialising, but also a visual representation of the rituals and markers of youth. “We’re seeing a beautiful layered cake of identity,” says Van der Nagel. “At the base is ‘I’m at school with my friends, I have a uniform,’ then there’s ‘We’re doing something that exists within the culture of the platform (like a viral challenge)’, then there’s another layer that is ‘I have also set up a song that you know’.” Refined by years of mistakes and ugly trends, TikTok offers a stern and deliberate effort to show off who you are and what you care about.” (Esposito, 2020).

The interesting aspect of identity performance among many young users on TikTok is the change of self projection from other social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook. On sites such as these, we see the heavily edited and altered identity performed in most instances, to show a successful and attractive persona, with content to impress audiences. Though this does also occur on TikTok in some instances, there is a curious trend of showing the ‘real’ self, or less visible problems and flaws that one would not normally express online in fear of appearing less than. 

Participatory Culture

The rise in social media sites such as Tik Tok and its predecessors Music.ly and Vine have arguably only exponentially added to the sense of participatory culture within teen subcultures online. Media and meme creation that directly references current affairs and other user’s content on an immediate basis allows the conversations and trends to be constantly changing and evolving. 

“Participation in online cultures of sharing and interaction via social media is becoming increasingly ubiquitous and, arguably, compulsory among groups of young people in late capitalist societies (Marwick and boyd, 2014Robards, 2014). And, particularly as a result of the evolution and diffusion of mobile multimedia technologies, such participation takes on an increasingly ‘always-on’ character, whereby users’ connection with others via such platforms forms a constant feature of everyday lives that traverse a range of physical settings.”

An example of this instant reflection, commentary and criticism that can work to build and enhance user’s online identity performance is the duet feature on TikTok.

References 

Boyd, D. (2017). Why Youth Heart Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life. https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/22hq2

Donath, J. Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community. Retrieved 3 April 2020, from https://smg.media.mit.edu/people/Judith/Identity/IdentityDeception.html

Ellis, K., & Kent, M. (Eds.). (2016). Disability and social media : Global perspectives. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com

Esposito, B. (2020). The Next Stage Of Teen Identity Is Playing Out On TikTok – Pedestrian TV. Retrieved 28 March 2020, from https://www.pedestrian.tv/news/the-next-stage-of-teen-identity-is-playing-out-on-tiktok/

Herman, J. (2019). How TikTok Is Rewriting the World. Retrieved 3 April 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/10/style/what-is-tik-tok.html

Hodkinson, P. (2017). Bedrooms and beyond: Youth, identity and privacy on social network sites. New Media & Society, 19(2), 272–288. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444815605454

Mascheroni, G.Vincent, J., & Jimenez, E. (2015). “Girls are addicted to likes so they post semi-naked selfies”: Peer mediation, normativity and the construction of identity online. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 9(1), Article 5. https://doi.org/10.5817/CP2015-1-5

van der Nagel, E. & Frith, J. (2015) Anonymity, pseudonymity, and the agency of online identity: Examining the social practices of r/Gonewild. First Monday, 20, (3).
https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/download/5615/4346
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v20i3.5615

Pearson, E. (2009). All the World Wide Web’s a stage: The performance of identity in online social networks. First Monday, 14(3).
https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/download/2162/2127

Turkle, S. (1997). Multiple Subjectivity and Virtual Community at the End of the Freudian Century. Sociological Inquiry67(1), 72-84. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-682x.1997.tb00430.x

17 replies on “‘For You Page’: TikTok as a lens for identity discourse in Western culture”

Hi Alise, this paper raises some interesting questions and I would have liked to read more about your exploration of TikTok. However, I’ll settle for asking a question (or few). How far is the “curious trend of showing a ‘real’ self” also an online performance? That is to say, what strategies do users employ to add credibility to their online TikTok personas and appear ‘real’? I’m not a great fan of TikTok, which probably says something about my generation, but it’s great to see a paper on a platform that is currently very popular. Looking forward to reading your reply.

Hi Deepti,

Thank you for such a contemplative question, engaging with the ideas of ‘real’ self representation has been so interesting! To answer your query, in my opinion it can come down to style and tone of the content created. Videos shot with less ‘glossy’ production value, and in a tone that seems congruent with their brand and/or personality is more likely to come across as genuine, but isn’t this in itself also a manifestation of oneself for an audience? I guess it is hard to know for sure what is a performance of identity and what is not, but many creators work hard to ensure their relatability through showing their ‘real’ self.

Thank you again Deepti, hope I have provided a satisfactory response 🙂

Hi Alise,
Your paper was wonderful in the way that it explored the various identity-forming practices on Tik Tok. I admire your willingness to explore an emerging platform using the limited academia that must be available about it at this point.
While I do have the Tik Tok app, I’ve never posted my own content, so I was particularly fascinated by your analysis of the role participatory content plays in this app. I’ve definitely seen the “cringe culture”, where people are more willing to post amateurish, comedic content on Tik Tok than on other social networking sites.
I’m interested to hear more of your thoughts on the authenticity of identity on Tik Tok. Do you think users have a singular, authentic self, or do they purposefully change their appearances and behaviours to make themselves more relatable to particular communities?
My paper discusses identity in social networks too, however, it is focused on mental health communities. I would love to hear your feedback on it if you have the time.

Kind Regards,
Kiralee.

Hi Kiralee,

I too find TikTok so interesting whilst only viewing content, and find ‘cringe culture’ to be such a nuanced exploration of what hold cultural value in society and what humour or sub cultural trends don’t necessarily age well, as well as their ability to be recycled for ironic use.

In regards to your well-thought question, I would believe that creators of both camps exist, ones that portray a constant and ongoing persona that works for them and their audience, and creators that feel the need to change or modify their identity and image in order to appeal to new and existing viewers.

I really look forward to reading your paper!

Hi Alise
This was a very interesting read. As an active user of TikTok (yet not an active poster) I resonated with a lot of the points made. The point about “sharing a pool of cultural references” I found especially interesting as it seems that these days so much of our pop cultural references stem from online trends/memes rather than significant moments as they once did in the past.
My piece focus’ on how Twitter has become a space to facilitate online communities, and explores a little bit about online identity
https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/wp-admin/post.php?post=925&action=edit
Kind Regards,
Keisha

Hi Keisha,

I definitely agree that the pop cultural and even societal conversations in our current age are being both held online and steered by what we see to have value in our online content. News is now coming directly from what occurs online, and what occurs online is a reflection or reaction to what happens in our real lives.

Thank you for sharing your paper with me, I look forward to engaging with you about Twitter and its impact.

Hi Alise

I found your paper such a relevant read, Tik Tok itself is a hot topic and I found it interesting that you dove deeper beyond the ‘cringe’ layer and looked at how users can form an identity on the platform.

A quick point of discussion: You talk of Tik Tok being a place where users project their real self but I am keen to know your thoughts on the large array of filters that the platform provides. Some filters can simply give the illusion of make-up or different coloured eyes and hair but can also be as extreme as completely distorting the face of your shape. I’d also like to consider the ‘beauty-mode’, does this basic filter suggest that a user’s natural form is not ‘beautiful’?

My paper, ‘Life Through a Filter: How Social Network Pressures Lead to an Identity & Body Image Crisis’, actually focuses on the issues of being ‘heavily edited’ and ‘altered identity’ that you mentioned and also the physical and mental consequences of this. I’d love for you to check it out and let me know your thoughts!
You can find my paper here:
https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/life-through-a-filter-how-social-network-pressures-lead-to-an-identity-body-image-crisis/

I’m looking forward to your reply!

Thanks, Giorgii 🙂

Hi Giorgii,

Thank you for comment, I find your points about the filters available on the app insightful. Although I agree that these beauty filters can allow creators to present a self that is not authentic, I actually in my own viewing have come across varying uses of such tech, including using the filters for comedic and satirical effect, to criticise such ideas of beauty filters, or as a clear stylistic choice that is not meant to read as authentic.

I can’t wait to read more about your perspective on this concept! 🙂

Hey Alise

I love your point about filters being used for comedic and satirical effect- very true! Some users’ intentions are not to be deceitful to their audience but rather to add another level to their ‘production’.

I’m eager to hear your thoughts on my paper where I do discuss this concept of being deceitful online!

Hi Alise,

That was a very interesting article, I commend you on referring your article to such a new platform like Tik Tok. I found your analysis on identity presentation differentiating from Instagram and Facebook, to Tik Tok which might show a more authentic self. It is good that young adolescences can unspool this authentic material in engaging way. However, as you mentioned majority of the Tik Tok users are very young. I know my 12-year-old cousin is obsessed with becoming Tik Tok famous. I’d be interested to know your opinion on whether social networking sites is the ‘best’ way to show case such a vulnerable self. I have noticed this authentic self can also result in being vulnerable about very important and personal topics, that should seek professional help. I wonder if using Tik Tok as an outlet to express all their problems could have a negative effect on these young women and their development. What’s your thoughts?

Chantelle

Hi Alise,

Your paper is very interesting and your concept about how performance is also part of one’s identity is very impressive. Tiktok which has become one of the pillars on online media content creation is actually allow one’s to reveal their parts of their identity online through there uploaded contents. From my point of view, Tiktok being being a platform promoting creativity may enhance an individual’s identity as well as reshapes it. Do you agree with my point of view?

I also invite you to have a look at my paper which is quite similar to yours :

https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/ideal-self-the-virtual-representation-of-identity-on-facebook/

Hi Bradley,

Thank you for your comment and sharing your perspective with me, I can definitely agree with your ideas of TikTok being a place to explore and reshape identity through creativity and experimentation! I look forward to reading and engaging with your paper as well 🙂

Hi Chantelle,

Thank you for your comment, it is especially poignant at this time of a pandemic and mental health issues among young people rising, that such issues be broadcasted to mass audiences. Young people often show impulsivity in the quest to be heard and understood, and while it may have consequences to share such vulnerable moments online, I am not 100% sure how I feel in regards to whether or not these things should be posted or how young is ‘too young’ to be online. it is a conversation that definitely should continue!

Hi Alise,

Your paper is really interesting and your concept about the perception of Tiktok with regards to the teen identity is very impressive. Indeed, digging deeper, the performance of and individual can actually represent his identity. From my point of view, Tiktok is a platform where one can actually express themselves, revealing their identity through the content that they are uploading. Also, this platforms promoting creativity may allow an individual to enhance his own identity or even reshape it.

My paper is quite similar to yours and I invite you to have a look at it

https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/ideal-self-the-virtual-representation-of-identity-on-facebook/

Hi Alise,

Your paper is very interesting and your concept about how performance is also part of one’s identity is very impressive. Tiktok which has become one of the pillars on online media content creation is actually allow one’s to reveal their parts of their identity online through there uploaded contents. From my point of view, Tiktok being being a platform promoting creativity may enhance an individual’s identity as well as reshapes it. Do you agree with my point of view?

I also invite you to have a look at my paper which is quite similar to yours :

https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/ideal-self-the-virtual-representation-of-identity-on-facebook/

Hello Alise!

This was an interesting piece of writing. I found your piece of writing about Tik Tok interesting and relevant to today’s times. I think that writing about Tik Tok is new and exciting and the app itself is booming at the moment. I have to agree with you and say that yes Tik Tok is cringe but I think that is somewhat the appeal to the app. I am on the application and as you mentioned, I see the app being very different from other social media sites. Other social media sites seem to encourage the presentation of the ideal self whereas you mention, Tik Tok lets people explore their real self and actually encourages a more relaxed representation of self.

I was wondering, do you think that Tik Tok will take over the social media space and change it to be more inclusive and encourage a more authentic self?

Thanks, Isabella.

Hey Alise! I like how you use TikTok as an example for your paper as I think it is really trending these days. I also agree with you that some users show their real self doing stupid/funny act as a part of self-representation. I think you can also look at another view of how TikTok is a good platform to build online communities, where anyone can do a duet with others/even TikTok influencers. Great job!

My paper is about how fashion aesthetics in Instagram build young girls’ identity. Feel free to read it 🙂 https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/instagram-fashion-aesthetics-construct-female-high-school-identity/

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