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This week in TikTok: Bored teens are making self-isolation content

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.

Like many of you, I’m currently self-isolating and bored, and so I recently spent an afternoon learning a TikTok dance to a very catchy song called “Supalonely.” So did Courteney Cox. Meanwhile, Kate Gosselin’s daughters packed up their college dorms and moved home to live with their former reality TV star mom. One kid pretended his camera froze so that he wouldn’t get called on during his online lecture class. One girl lamented the byzantine process of getting tested for the coronavirus despite showing all of the symptoms. Another girl lamented the fact that she was stuck at home instead of hooking up with all the hot dudes currently on Tinder.

This is TikTok on coronavirus, and much like the world around it, everything feels weird and different. No one really knows what’s going on, including many of our public officials, and the social video platform du jour is where people are going to both share information and take up large chunks of newly free time.


Still don’t know why Barbie was there

♬ original sound - boiohboii

As John Oliver said on Last Week Tonight on Sunday, a literal hamster on TikTok is providing more substantive best practices than the president of the United States. The video in question was just a 12-second clip of a hamster with captions like “Stay home if possible” and “wash your hands for 20 seconds,” but that alone, he argued, is clearer than what we’re hearing from Trump. It’s no wonder the coronavirus is the only thing anyone wants to talk about on TikTok right now.

TikTok, for what it’s worth, has implemented safety measures in which searches for #coronavirus show videos from organizations like the World Health Organization and the World Economic Forum, and videos hashtagged #coronavirus include a notice to contact local health authorities for updated information.

Mostly, though, TikTok is useful as a place to see how other people are living through this extremely unprecedented crisis. The app has always been a window into people’s homes; it’s just that now what we do when we’re at home alone amounts to the full extent of our lives.

I’ve been fascinated by how students are reacting to the weirdness of suddenly taking classes online (spoiler: they’re still finding ways to goof off and/or leave class, and yes, the homeschooled kids are giving advice about how to cheat). It’s also been so funny to see more adults join TikTok for the sole purpose of learning dances — BuzzFeed has a handy list of 15 of them to learn during self-isolation — which honestly is a fun way to move your body if your activities, like mine, have been heavy on the drinking-wine-on-the-couch variety.

Another way to pass the time creatively: Write corona-themed parody lyrics to a Hairspray song, have your sister secretly record you on a TikTok that then goes viral, and then pledge to write a coronavirus musical. Shakespeare may have written King Lear during quarantine, but imagine what the current generation will do on TikTok.

Here’s some news that is not coronavirus-related:

TikTok in the news, non-corona edition

  • The Intercept published a bombshell report on how TikTok instructed its moderators to suppress content featuring “ugly” or fat people, rundown homes, and people with disabilities in an effort to increase its viewership retention rate and appeal to new users. Though TikTok said that “most of” the guidelines obtained by the publication were out of date or were never in use, it’s pretty damning, particularly considering when TikTok was revealed to have suppressed the content of users with disabilities in the past, it claimed that it was an attempt to prevent bullying.
  • In other bad news, media studies scholar Ysabel Gerrard wrote a Wired opinion piece on TikTok’s pro-anorexia content problem, in which users share diet tips and purging methods, make videos about what they eat in a day, and promote harmful products like “metabolism drops.” I’ve seen plenty of it on my own timeline, despite not seeking it out, which makes me particularly concerned for teen girl users who probably see even more of it.
  • Before the Tonight Show went audience-free, Jimmy Fallon interviewed TikTok queen Charli D’Amelio, where the (very sweet!) 15-year-old had to explain what TikTok is to millions of viewers and taught Jimmy how to do eight popular dances. It’s cute!
  • This Katie Notopoulos piece on what looking at strangers’ faces on TikTok all day does to our brains sent me into a brief panic about what I do for a living, but on the whole, it doesn’t seem like lurking is a huge problem. Phew.

Meme watch

Contrary to the mood on most social platforms, TikTok feels surprisingly pure and gentle right now. Most of the videos on the trending hashtag #lifeathome feature wholesome content like Kristin Chenoweth hitting increasingly high notes while Clorox-wiping her kitchen, or a student asking to go to the bathroom during an online class, to which his teacher replies, adorably, “Sure!”

Of course, like seemingly all horrible news events these days, coronavirus has also proved a useful tool for gaining clout. As early as January, teens across the world were falsely claiming on TikTok that they had the virus, and now, one particularly fame-hungry user took a video of herself licking an airplane toilet seat and captioned it “Coronavirus challenge.” She then said on Instagram she did it for the express purpose of getting on CNN (TikTok removed the video).

It’s all clearly one giant experiment, and no one knows whether the class of 2020 will have to hold their graduation ceremonies online yet, but while we all wait, there’s never been a better time to get really, really into TikTok. Ironically, being quarantined at home is what the app was basically designed for, and I have a feeling it’ll be even more important to all of us over the next few weeks and months.

One Last Thing

Let this corgi explain what it’s like to work from home. Have a safe week! Stay inside!

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