Communities and Social Media

TikTok: The Centre of Youth Culture in 2021

A persons age can quickly be determined by the first thing they think of when someone says ‘TikTok’. If you started singing the 2010 Kesha hit, you’re probably a millennial. Was your first thought a clock? Okay, Boomer. Thought about your favourite app, Gen Z. In the few years since its launch TikTok has made its way into the cultural zeitgeist as more and more people have downloaded the app. Young users flocked to TikTok to discover the new trendy app and it has quickly cemented itself as the core of Youth Culture in 2021. The app is a fusion of other Social Media sites to come before it (Abidin, 2019), but to its users, it’s very unique. For the most part, the content is authentic, young, funny and tailor-made to their interests. In 2021 TikTok has become the centre of Youth Culture through its user demographics, affordances and ability to uniquely and regularly combine elements of Youth Culture into one place. 


TikTok was first launched in China in 2016 as Douyin. The app then began to enter different markets outside China as TikTok in 2017 (Jennings, 2019). However, it wasn’t until TikTok merged with another app in 2018 that it became available globally. All of’s users and content were moved to TikTok in the merge (Jennings, 2019). By the end of 2019, TikTok had 508 million monthly users outside of China (Iqbal, 2021). In Q1 of 2020, TikTok was downloaded 315 million times, which is the most downloads in a quarter for any app (Sensortower, 2020). In Q2 of 2020, it was downloaded another 300 million times. The only other apps to ever surpass 300 million downloads in a single quarter are Zoom and Pokémon Go (Iqbal, 2021). 62% of TikTok users in the United States are between the ages of 10 to 29 (Statista, 2020). 

TikTok videos are vertical and can be up to 60 seconds long. When a user opens the app they are met with a ‘For You Page’ which allows them to scroll endlessly through videos that the algorithm thinks they will enjoy. You also have the option to click a button in the top left to navigate through videos of people you follow. This is a key point of difference between TikTok and many other social media platforms, the primary page of the app is not based around the content of people you follow, but rather content TikTok thinks you will enjoy based on previous content you have watched/interacted with. On the bottom of the screen, there is a bar of icons. On the homepage (as described above), the discover menu allows you to see trending hashtags and videos and also allows you to search through the app to find accounts, hashtags, videos and sounds. The middle icon is a plus sign which opens the menu for you to create your own videos. To the right of that is the inbox, which acts similar to a notification centre and then to the very right of the screen is the “me” which takes you to your profile (TikTok, 2020). Users can like, comment, share, save, duet (film their video alongside the original) or stitch (insert another person’s video within their own) other creators TikTok’s. As well as use sounds created by other users. TikTok allows you to import images and videos into your own TikTok. 

Imitation public’s are formed across the app (Zulli & Zulli, 2020). Zulli and Zulli define this “as a collection of people whose digital connectivity is constituted through the shared ritual of content imitation and replication.” (2020, para. 27). There are two ways imitation publics form on TikTok, the first is through the creation of videos on the app. By using other creators sounds, trends and effects an imitation public is formed. The second way they are formed is through grouping individuals onto ‘a side’ of TikTok. The different ‘sides’ of Tiktok are a key part of the apps ecosystem. Content is generally split into two categories ‘straight TikTok’ and ‘alt TikTok’ (it’s also referred to as ‘gay TikTok’) (Zulli & Zulli, 2020). When you think of TikTok you may think of stereotypically pretty white teenagers lip-syncing to popular songs and creating dances. This is straight TikTok. Alt TikTok is described by Sung as the “…rejects mainstream trends in favour of surreal humour and alternative aesthetics…alt TikTok embodies all things queer.” (2020, para. 3). The algorithm will place you on either side based on what content you watch and interact with. The more time spent on the app the more time the algorithm has time to learn who you are and what you like to watch (Matsakis, 2020). Identifying as being ‘on’ a particular side of TikTok means that you will the content you will create will align with the characteristics of that side and can be imitated by others on the app (Zulli & Zulli, 2020). 


Literature on Youth Culture has evolved over time. However, the elements that make Youth Culture seem to not have changed significantly over time. Music, style, vocabulary and civic engagement (Bennett, 2015 and White, n.d.) are fundamental components of Youth Culture. In her research about Mobile Youth Culture, Abeele explained how Youth Culture is crucial in ensuring a smooth move from child to adult. She also discussed how Youth culture allows young people to “express, support and reinforce their autonomy”, “ experiment with and express their identity” and “build and maintain intimate relationships with their peers.” (2016). It has also been suggested that Youth Culture can be seen as “interpretive reproductions” of the society that exists around them (Abeele, 2016). They don’t just reproduce exactly what they witness, they instead “interpret, transform and creatively appropriate elements of it into their own social world” (Abeele, 2016). We see all of these parts of Youth Culture on TikTok. There are always examples on the platform of people enforcing their autonomy over their lives (Merryman, 2020; Smith, 2021), expressing and experimenting with new identities (Roberts, 2019; Gehrman, 2020), as well as building support networks with other users (Parker, 2020; Harvey, 2020). Though the elements of Youth Culture have not changed the spaces in which these elements exist and thrive has changed. Web 2.0 fundamentally changed the way we communicate (Brown, 2009) and over time these elements of Youth Culture went digital. However, they were spread across various platforms. Music plays a big role on YouTube (Edmund, 2012). Style is a part of Instagram and YouTube due to their focus on visual content (Leaver et al., 2020). Civic discussion took place mostly on Twitter and vocabulary existed across all the platforms. 


Here is an explanation of how each of the key elements of Youth Culture exist on TikTok.

Music is a large part of the platform, not only is there the ability to use music within TikToks, but it’s also a great platform for new and emerging artists to post their music and be discovered by audiences. Doja Cat, Little NAS X and Megan Thee Stallion all utilised TikTok to grow their audiences (Adetoro, n.d.). Megan Thee Stallion’s song Savage became a phenomenon on TikTok midway through last year. The platform announced at the end of 2020 that it had featured in 30 million Tiktok videos (Rolling Stone, 2020). It also allows users to discuss new music, remix, make dances to them and create memes. Users did this with Olivia Rodrigo’s song Drivers License (McManus, 2021; Cohen, 2021; Gutoskey, 2021, Lil Nas X’ music video Montenegro (Call Me by Your Name) (Hill, 2021; Surbano, 2021) and WAP by Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion (Espron, 2020; Doran, 2020).

Fashion videos are prominent on the app (Rose, 2021; Vazzana, 2021). However, the style component of TikTok isn’t just about people showing off their favourite outfits. The visual nature of the app means we get to see what young people are wearing in every video, thus trends catch on quickly. An oversized jumper and tracksuit pants is one of the most popular casual looks for young people right now as worn by Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, two of the biggest creators on the app (D’amelio, 2020). TikTok has also allowed for fashion styles to pop up through its ‘different sides’. Weekman describes them as Cottagecore, Dark Academia, Light Academia, E-girl, Y2K, VSCO girls, Euphoria and 90’s nostalgia (n.d.). All distinct styles are popular on their corners of the app. 

Vocabulary and language is a key part of the app. There are different words and phrases that are used in various contexts. Whilst some of them have not originated on the app, their use has become widespread and a part of Gen Z vernacular. Some of these include ‘no cap’ (meaning no lie), ‘and that’s on _’ (this can be used in any context but it places significance on the last word e.g. ‘and that’s on private school’) or ‘it’s the _ for me’ (this phrase is used to insult someone or yourself e.g. if someone is known as a bad driver you could say it’s the driving for me).

Civic engagement is very prevalent on the app particularly in times of heightened public discourse surrounding an issue. TikTok has created an environment of little resistance, where users can have these conversations in the creative ways they are already comfortable and familiar with (Abidin, 2019). This means that participating in political movements and discussions has become a normal part of a users experience on the app, rather than something that is only found and limited to particular parts of the internet (Abidin, 2019). This genre of content typically takes two forms. The first is a person educating other users about a topic and the second is videos of protests/marches/movements that are taking place. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement which became the centre of public discussion in mid-2020 also became the centre of content on TikTok. There are videos of People of Colour educating users about various topics (Washington, 2020; Benjy, 2021). There was also a lot of video footage of the protests that were happening globally at the time (Springer, 2020; Rahma, 2020). The way content is spread on the platform means the content is brought this content right to the viewer without them having to search for it.


To some people, TikTok does not seem to be that different to other social media platforms. However, I would argue there is are a few distinct differences that make it the epitome of Youth Culture. One of the key distinctions is that TikTok truly is the intersection of all the other platforms. The platform is a “mish-mash” (Abidin in Bogle and Edraki, 2019 para. 11) “…with the performativity of Youtube, the scrolling interface of Instagram and the deeply weird humour usually reserved for Platforms such as Vine or Tumblr” (Bogle and Edraki, 2019 para. 11). 

Statistics indicate that neither Facebook nor Twitter has large numbers of young people using the platforms regularly (Iqbal, 2021). In 2020, 2% of US teenagers elected Facebook as their favourite social media platform (Iqbal, 2021). In 2018 only 3% of young people elected Twitter as their most-used app (Iqbal, 2021). Therefore, due to the low number of young regular users, I do not believe that either can be the core of Youth Culture in 2021. 

Instagram is structured around the interpersonal connections of its users. When someone opens the app they are brought to the feed of users they follow, which is very different to TikTok which is structured around its For You Page (Zulli & Zulli, 2020). A single user may be able to build their own community and following. This happens on TikTok as well but communities are primarily built around similar interests and content rather than a few key people. Thus, I do not believe in 2021 it is the epitome of Youth Culture. 


TikTok has taken over as the centre of Youth Culture in 2021. Its focus on content rather than interpersonal connections means creativity and memetic processes are allowed to flourish on the app. By placing users in different parts of the app, developers allow users to create and watch content they enjoy. This has allowed for music, style, vocabulary and civic discussion to develop on the app. Youth Culture has existed for many years however, the spaces it occupied have shifted. It will be interesting to see where TikTok goes from this point and how long it will maintain its status as the core of Youth Culture. 


Abeele, M. (2015). Mobile youth culture: A conceptual development. Mobile Media & Communication4(1), 85-101.

Abidin, C. (2020). Mapping Internet Celebrity on TikTok: Exploring Attention Economies and Visibility Labours. Cultural Science Journal12(1), 77-103.

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Zulli, D., & Zulli, D. (2020). Extending the Internet meme: Conceptualizing technological mimesis and imitation publics on the TikTok platform. New Media & Society

16 thoughts on “TikTok: The Centre of Youth Culture in 2021

  1. Hi Ruby!

    Thank you for your paper! I found it highly engaging! I tend to agree with your points surrounding TikTok and loved the start of the paper with the way you can identify what generation someone is in depending on their definition of TikTok! I was wondering what your opinions on TikTok was, in the respect of will it be a fad like Vine or Musically or will it be around for a while like Instagram or facebook? I would love to hear your opinions on this!


    1. Hey Grace!

      Thank you so much for reading your paper and your kind words, I really appreciate it!

      This is a really great question and to be honest I’m not sure if TikTok will be a fad or a social media staple. On one hand think it’s growth suggests it could be around for a while (Iqbal, 2021), but on the other I wonder if users will grow tired of its affordances. I’d love to know your opinion on this!

      I’m hoping it sticks around a little longer so we can keep dancing though!


      Iqbal, M. (2021). TikTok Revenue and Usage Statistics (2021). Business of Apps. Retrieved 4 April 2021, from

  2. Hello Ruby! Thank you for sharing your insightful paper. I now know a lot more about TikTok and youth culture than I did. Such an interesting SNS! I did read an article (Banjo, 2021) here: which details what I think of as “the dark side” of TikTok – by which I mean the way TikTok employees work with creators to essentially manufacture trends, instead of allowing them to occur organically.

    Are you aware that TikTok pays managers to advise its top creators, even issuing them specific instructions by weekly email on which videos to create (Banjo, 2021)? For example, Banjo (2021) claims that Megan Thee Stallion’s song “Savage” was only a hit because TikTok used its analysis of user data to direct Megan Thee Stallion’s record label, 300 Entertainment, on the best way to promote her. Did you know 300 Entertainment had selected another song as the promotional focus for the album, until TikTok intervened (Banjo, 2021)? TikTok admitted they strategized the way “Savage” was released on the app to ensure it was “propelled… to No. 1” (Banjo, 2021, para. 10).

    Actions like these make me wary that TikTok is actively and knowingly influencing youth culture, instead of just providing a platform for youth to express themselves. It is even more concerning when, as you say, “participating in political movements and discussions has become a normal part of a users experience”. That is potentially a lot of power for a SNS to hold, and I am not very comfortable with it. What do you think? Regards, Karena

    1. Hi Karena,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my conference paper, I really appreciate it!

      I had not read this article before, so thank you for bringing it to my attention. However, to be honest, I’m not really phased at all by this. It’s not particularly surprising to me that TikTok helps to manufacture and elevate certain trends and songs. Obviously I do not know for sure, but I would assume 95% of the trends on TikTok at least begin organically.

      As social media students we are both aware that companies such as Google and Facebook (Meyer, 2014) have huge influence over their various platforms, algorithms and what shows up on a users feed. Political discussions and depictions of certain movements happen on every single social media platform. I’d say the issue here is less about TikTok having a lot of power but rather social media platforms in general having a lot of power. I’d love to know whether other platforms make you as uncomfortable as TikTok?

      Meyer, R. (2014). Everything We Know About Facebook’s Secret Mood Manipulation Experiment. The Atlantic. Retrieved 16 May 2021, from

  3. Hi Ruby,
    I loved this connection to youth culture to social media! I feel as if we often forget that there is a distinct culture for young people and how prevalent youth culture is as it is so ingrained in our everyday lives. Youth culture has been presented across every generation and I think it’s a really interesting topic this idea of youth culture now being performed on online social media platforms.

    I love TikTok and it’s one of my favourite apps to use. You mention that it’s different to other platforms in a number of ways and that TikTok is more of the epitome of youth culture rather than Instagram. Do you think youth culture is performed differently on each platform?

    Again, I loved your paper you did such a great job!

    1. Hey Grace,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my paper! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      I do think that Youth Culture is performed differently on each platform. The affordances of TikTok create a more authentic user experience (Zulli & Zulli, 2020) versus’ Instagram for example. The affordances also allow Youth Culture to really thrive on the app as all aspects blend so seamlessly. This can happen through duets, stitches, using others sounds, hashtags etc. Instagram can often be performative (Faleatua, 2018) so I feel that although Youth Culture does exist there, it cannot thrive and flow in the same way it does on TikTok.

      I’d love to hear what you think!



      Faleatua, R (2018). Insta brand me: playing with notions of authenticity, Continuum, 32(6), 721-732, DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2018.1525921

  4. Hey Ruby,

    Loved your paper and your original idea, I’ve never really thought about youth culture before but now I’ve realised what it is.

    I really like TikToks that celebrate nostalgia and youth cultures of the past. Think people being transported back to the ’80s with “Take on me” playing on a cassette while wearing 80’s fashion. Or when people do a montage of early ’00s fashion. Oh, and the hair ones, the ’80s was a really great time for hair.

    My point is all of this nostalgia and arguably past youth cultures are all coming together through TikTok and becoming a part of today’s youth culture. I think it is also important to note that everything is cyclical and recyclable too, e.g. fashion. As per social cycle theory (Callahan & Hoffman, 2014), do you think youth culture is also cyclical?

    Do you think this will have an effect on today’s youth culture? Will it lead to a greater appreciation of nostalgia and what has come before? Or do you think we will just continue dancing?

    Read my paper it’s brilliant.

    Callahan, G., & Hoffmann, A. (2014). The idea of a social cycle. EconStar, 130, 1-41. Retrived from

    1. Hey Connor,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my paper!

      Based on the article you provided (Callahan & Hoffman, 2014) I think Youth Culture is cyclical. Most of the components of Youth Culture and what is ‘cool’ today is based off material from the past, e.g. music and fashion (Konda, 2019) & (Kimpton, 2014).

      However, I think vocabulary tends to not be cyclical because, for example, we aren’t really saying phrases are parents used to say all the time when they were growing up. I also don’t believe civic engagement is cyclical either, because I don’t think it is a trend.

      Callahan, G., & Hoffmann, A. (2014). The idea of a social cycle. EconStar, 130, 1-41.

      Kimpton, P. (2014). Readers recommend: songs that sample recycle reinvent | Peter Kimpton. the Guardian. Retrieved 16 May 2021, from

      Konda, S. (2019). Style secrets: Why do fashion trends repeat?. Medium. Retrieved 16 May 2021, from

  5. Hi Ruby,

    I could not agree more that TikTok has become the centre of Youth Culture. Almost everyone I know in my generation has the app, or views TikTok content through another social media.

    TikTok has become the social media to promote and excel in music and youth culture not has a massive impact on the musical industry due to the rise of TikTok. I believe that a central difference between other social media platforms compared to TikTok is that TikTok has given artists a platform to showcase their music (Abidin, 2021).

    I also agree that vocabulary and language is a key part of the app and is shaping everyday language. I for one have unknowing used popular phrases from the app in everyday life and people around me have understood my exact intention.

    You mentioned your interest in how TikTok will progress and how long it will maintain its status as the core of Youth Culture. I would love to hear your option on what you think will change. Will there be another app that will replicate TikToks impact?

    Zoe 🙂

    Abidin, C. (2021). Mapping Internet Celebrity on TikTok: Exploring Attention Economies and Visibility Labours. Cultural Science Journal, 12(1), 77–103.

    1. Hi Zoe!

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my paper, I really appreciate it!

      I have also unconsciously used TikTok phrases and people have known what I meant. That being said I’ve also said things and have had to explain their meaning (particularly to my parents!).

      Zulli and Zulli (2020) explained that TikTok itself is a memetic text as well its content. For this reason I believe the app will always be changing as its users and content change, grow and evolve. I also believe that one day another app will come along and replace TikTok as the core of Youth Culture, in the same way TikTok took over from its successors.


      Zulli, D., & Zulli, D. J. (2020). Extending the Internet meme: Conceptualizing technological mimesis and imitation publics on the TikTok platform. New Media & Society.

  6. Hi Ruby!

    What an interesting and insightful read! I totally agree with you and what really fascinates me is the fact that these people on TikTok are really able to influence their audiences with just a few seconds in a video.

    TikTok has really become the centre of Youth Culture in 2021 and influencers have risen to fame because of it. I feel if though TikTok is really influential in that sense, the users should use the platform to shed light on some of the more serious issues prevalent in the world as opposed to posting videos of themselves dancing.

    As someone who is constantly on different social platforms, I really don’t get the hype of TikTok, but from what I’ve seen, TikTok seems to be able to provide a fun, youthful community for its consumers to enjoy and let loose which I think is important today more than ever with all the events going on in the world.

    This was a great read and very well articulated! great job!

    1. Hi Saranya!

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my paper, I really appreciate it!

      Although I spend a lot of time on TikTok I also spend a lot of time on social media sites and I think it has been really interesting to see how TikTok content has spread onto other platforms. I wonder if you have been able to see this too?

      I didn’t get the hype about TikTok at first as well but once I joined I began to understand (a word of warning once you’re on it’s hard to stop!!).


  7. Hi Ruby,

    I enjoyed your paper on the repositioning of TikTok as the centre of Youth Culture in 2021. I also looked at TikTok for my conference paper and the way it has been adapted by different communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    In my research I came across a recent paper from Michelle Kennedy (2020) where she argues that the female stars of TikTok represent a certain ideal of youth culture which is a “slim, white, normatively attractive teenage girl” (p. 1072) while the ‘other’ girls are rendered invisible by the algorithms at work on the TikTok platform (p. 1073).

    If TikTok is the centre of Youth Culture in 2021, should the ‘other’ girls who are doing important activism work not be more represented on the platform?




    Kennedy, M. (2020). ‘If the rise of the TikTok dance and e-girl aesthetic has taught us anything, it’s that teenage girls rule the internet right now’: TikTok celebrity, girls and the Coronavirus crisis. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 23(6), 1069–1076.

    1. Hi Mads!

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my paper, I really appreciate it!

      I have read that paper by Kennedy. I loved the analysis of the representation of girlhood on TikTok and I actually used the paper in another assignment I wrote about TikTok.

      I agree that the major TikTok stars she discusses such as Charli D’Amelio do represent a certain (what I would call unrealistic) ideal of Youth Culture and girlhood. I think it’s vital that the ‘other girls’ be lifted up and brought to the centre stage of TikTok. Not every user of the platform thin, white, able-bodied, middle class young women and considering TikTok has been regarded as a place for all people to find their community, its important for all these communities and their role models to be given equal attention.

      I look forward to reading your paper 🙂


  8. Hi Ruby.

    Youth culture in the 21st century is so fascinating with how it converges smoothly and really can influence how we develop our own identities as well as relationships with others. TikTok is definitely an app that is much more than something that is used to pass time. You highlighted that really well with the interpersonal connection example.

    Gatekeeping social media can really stunt youth culture (Castro, I, E., et al, 2017). It divides people into different groups where youth culture loses its sense of community, not saying that youth culture falls under a specific list of people’s interests and activities.

    Furthermore youth culture brings together that sense of community. TikTok, as you have mentioned, seems to be the perfect middle ground to host it as it is presented as a safe space whereas Twitter is known for heavy discussion as said in your Youth Culture paragraph. The app definitely presents itself as a safe space for personal expression and open discussion. It really breaks the fourth wall and opens up for social opportunities.

    An interesting point of thought/discussion would be the assumptions that come with youth culture on TikTok. Social capacities are challenged as linear development is fundamental (Farrugia, D., et al, 2017) and that is what makes TikTok a strong space for it as the app is excellent at adapting to change.


    1. Hi Lauren!

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on my paper! I really appreciate it.

      I agree with your point about TikTok being great at adapting to change. Zulli and Zulli (2020) identified that TikTok itself is a memetic text, lending itself to change. I think this is one of the many things that makes TikTok so appealing to users.


      Zulli, D., & Zulli, D. J. (2020). Extending the Internet meme: Conceptualizing technological mimesis and imitation publics on the TikTok platform. New Media & Society.

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