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This week in TikTok: All coronavirus, all the time

Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Hello from The Goods’ twice-weekly newsletter! For the next few Tuesdays, internet culture reporter Rebecca Jennings will be using this space to update you all on what’s been going on in the world of TikTok. Is there something you want to see more of? Less of? Different of? Email me at, and subscribe to The Goods’ newsletter here.

We’re in one of those times when it feels like there’s only one news story happening in the world: coronavirus. Even TikTok, which was designed to be pure escapism (but of course was never going to stay that way), isn’t immune to the deluge of scary and uncertain news.

One particularly macabre genre of early-2020 TikTok: the coronavirus stockpiling video. Typically set to one of the many unofficial Covid-19 theme songs (yes, really), people are filming themselves stocking up on hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and canned goods at their local big-box stores with the same joviality as they would a Sephora haul. Grocery and pharmacy employees are taking videos of empty shelves and sold-out signs. One Long Island teen created a TikTok of her family’s store of jumbo pet food bags and bottled water with the caption, “I’m not allowed to go to any public places except school until further notice.”

The messages here, of course, are quite bleak — a reminder that yes, people may have to self-isolate, and that only those who can afford to spend on supplies will likely be prepared for it. Even the practice of panic-buying is not a great idea, according to experts. Yet I’ve found a strange sort of comfort in these videos, and I suspect others have, too: When hurricanes or blizzards loom, people gobble up news media about the mad dash to prepare. It’s part schadenfreude (a mix of “look at these overzealous weirdos” and “it’s their fault for not getting their shit together sooner”) and part anxiety-stoking (“should I be spending $50 on toilet paper too?”).

No one really knows what’s going to happen with coronavirus, or whether the people who are privileged enough to self-quarantine will have to dip into their stores. I think the real comfort I get from stockpiling TikToks is that at least there’s an answer, and the answer, as always, is buying more stuff. It turns the biggest health scare of 2020 into a somewhat solvable problem, implying that as long as you’ve got a Target nearby, you and your loved ones might be spared the worst.

Phew, that was dark! Let’s take a look at what else is happening in the world of TikTok.

TikTok in the news

  • Silicon Valley continues to be terrified of TikTok. Two weeks ago, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman called the app “fundamentally parasitic,” comparing its digital fingerprinting technology, in which TikTok tracks which devices are watching videos, to spyware. Last week, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told NBC that she worries about TikTok because it grew faster than Facebook did, and while she mentioned TikTok’s ties to China, she seemed more concerned with the fact that her kids are way more into TikTok than anything else on their phones.
  • Guess who else doesn’t love TikTok? The US government! On March 4, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley said that he would introduce legislation that would bar federal employees from using TikTok due to concerns that TikTok was sharing its data with the Chinese government (TikTok has repeatedly pushed back against this claim). The House of Representatives has already approved a ban on TSA officials downloading TikTok on government devices due to a bill from Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger, proving that anti-TikTok sentiment is among the few topics Republicans and Democrats can agree on.
  • TikTok has banned an account that acts as a hub for self-appointed pedophile hunters in Australia. Pervert Productions, which at its peak had only 3,000 followers, had at least one minorly viral video of a man allegedly arriving in a parking lot to meet an “underage kid,” then fleeing when confronted. New South Wales police have warned against vigilantism, reminding citizens that it is both dangerous and could jeopardize actual investigations.

Meme watch

The most effective way to spread information? Make it go viral on TikTok. That’s the honestly-pretty-genius strategy employed by the Vietnamese Ministry of Health, which worked with two popular singers, Min and Erik, to write a song to inform viewers on how to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“Let’s wash our hands, rub, rub, rub, rub them,” explains the chorus in Vietnamese. “Don’t put your hands on eyes, nose, mouth / limit going to crowded places, fight back against corona!”

Not only is it a certified banger, but when it was picked up by Vietnamese dancer Quang Dang, it also became a dance trend called the #GhenCovyChallenge, which John Oliver then shouted out on Last Week Tonight. It’s just one of the many ways people are using humor to cope with the crisis, like many TikTok users did with memes about World War 3 and the Australian bushfires. Teach yourself Quang Dang’s dance tutorial here — if anything, it’ll be something to do if you’re stuck inside.


$10,000 = How much 26-year-old TikTok consultant Sean Young makes in a month. I met Sean at a TikToker meetup on the Santa Monica Pier, where he told me about what it’s like to work with brands and major celebrities about how to launch their TikTok accounts (he couldn’t name names but he assured me I’ve definitely heard of them). While he shared tons of interesting stuff about why celebrities are drawn to the app, like the fact that because TikTok’s audience is so global, actors are under increasing pressure to pull off big box office numbers abroad, my favorite part was when he admitted that his biggest fear was that in a few years, he’ll be replaced in his job by tweens. Read the whole interview here.

$12.99 = The cost of a fake Cartier “Love Ring” on Amazon, which retails for $1,650. A video showing the dupe posted by 18-year-old Alabama high school senior Holly Yazdi racked up more than 231,000 likes and is one of the many TikToks showing how to score cheap knockoffs of luxury status items like Gucci boots and Lululemon leggings.

$100,000 = The symbolic value of a single grain of rice in a viral TikTok showing the vast difference between $1 million and $1 billion. The 32-year-old e-commerce consultant Humphrey Yang told BuzzFeed that it took him hours to individually count the 10,000 grains of rice to visualize a billion dollars, and that many of the responses to the video have been people struggling for “half a grain of rice,” or $50,000. It’s infuriatingly difficult for humans to visualize the difference between those two very large numbers, which made Yang’s video feel so valuable.

$10 = How much an 18-year-old TikToker made the first time he livestreamed himself sleeping. “Sleepstreaming” is now something of an industry on TikTok, Twitch, and other platforms, with millions of fans; the NYT has the story.

One Last Thing

Introducing: the Fenty Beauty House. Rihanna officially opened the LA pad for beauty TikTokers to create content in at a party on March 5, and it counts popular creators like Emmy Combs and Makayla as members. There is, of course, a designated makeup area and a pool, and once again, Rihanna proves herself a business genius. She has spoken: TikTok houses are the future of marketing.


When @priscillaono comes thru to the #FENTYBEAUTYHOUSE and our housemates had to flip the switch

♬ Follow Muslim_Poor for a kissy - muslim_poor

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