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This week in TikTok: Are you cottagecore or more “dark academia”?

Plus, the uncanny world of “boyfriend TikTok.”

Hello from The Goods’ twice-weekly newsletter! On Tuesdays, internet culture reporter Rebecca Jennings uses 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 rebecca.jennings@vox.com, and subscribe to The Goods’ newsletter here.

I’ve spent lots of time on “aesthetic TikTok,” the part of the app where people put together what are essentially slideshows of Pinterest boards devoted to a certain feeling or mood. You don’t need a psychology degree to understand why — it’s a pleasant escape from looking at anything else on my phone, most of which is bad news. For a while, my For You page was just Italian coastlines and Roman statues set to the music of Call Me By Your Name; though somehow the algorithm must have known I was planning a trip to Italy, it did not predict that it, along with everyone else’s vacations in 2020, would eventually be cancelled.

There are lots of aesthetic videos on TikTok — ironic ones laying out the criteria of, say, Karencore (think the Kate Gosselin haircut plus “mommy’s go-go juice” T-shirts) or ones that show examples of historical literary and artistic movements like retrofuturism. Perhaps the most famous of these aesthetics is “cottagecore,” where people display a dreamy life of domesticity and homemade rosewater and chicken ownership.

@rissahdude

not all of these are super underground like dark academia but they’re aesthetics i like that need more love >:( #aesthetics #rareaesthetic

♬ crimewave by crystal castles - kermishy

And then there is “Dark Academia,” in which the viewer imagines life as a New England Ivy League or English boarding school student studying Greek literature and wearing lots of tweed. In a recent piece, the New York Times categorizes it as a “more approachable” version of cottagecore. The argument is that not all of us can access the actual trappings that cottagecore requires — a house in the country, excess time to devote to twee crafts, a calm and quiet home life — but the simple act of putting on a blazer and reading Dostoevsky is far more doable.

I don’t think that’s the full extent of their similarities, though. Both take historical aesthetics that evoke conservative values and gender roles (Eurocentrism and heteronormativity, respectively), which modern-day fans often reject. Cottagecore is particularly popular among lesbians on TikTok, and as one Dark Academia TikToker told the Times, “It’s a very open community, even though it’s about classics. It’s also about breaking stereotypes regardless of gender or sexuality.”

The same goes for the web of offshoots of Dark Academia and cottagecore — there’s goblincore or crowcore (collections of weird shiny trinkets), meadowcore (pretty pictures of meadows), fairycore (meadowcore but with mushrooms and magic), and Light Academia (Dark Academia, but girlier and in the summer). These cute little slideshows aren’t just an escape from the Bad Internet, they’re a reminder that another kind of life is possible. TikTok is (rightfully) in the news for its political importance right now, but whenever a post from aesthetic TikTok pops up on my feed, I’ll always stop and watch.

TikTok in the news

  • Three police officers in Tacoma, Washington are under investigation for their TikTok posts. One officer poked fun at a police abolition protest that requested police presence; another voiced support for the “thin blue line” flag. The third, however, posted a video saying that she felt the flag was divisive and should be removed from all police vehicles. All three have been told to “cease the unauthorized use of city equipment, uniforms or vehicles in any personal communications.”
  • More than 200 million Indians are being urged to delete their TikTok accounts after the government banned it along with dozens of other China-owned apps. At Bloomberg Opinion, Mihir Sharma writes how the decision will be a detriment to India’s thriving internet culture. “Much more than Facebook or Twitter or YouTube, TikTok in India had an equalizing effect. It was the online home of small-town Indians with outsized dreams and, if you looked, unforgettable stories.”
  • There isn’t a single social media platform that hasn’t been infiltrated by white supremacists, and TikTok is, unfortunately, no different. The Guardian covered how easily it is to find videos from the Boogaloo Bois on TikTok, where people show off their guns and extensive combat clothing. This, on an app that was once for tweenage lip-synchers.
  • 22-year-old Harvard student Claira Janover lost her internship at Deloitte after posting an anti-”all lives matter” TikTok (she used the analogy that “all lives matter” is sort of like if she stabbed you and then she got a paper cut and said “all cuts matter.”) One Twitter user posted the video and claimed that Janover was threatening to stab people, and conservatives like Ann Coulter and Charlie Kirk piled on, eventually reaching Deloitte. “During the hiring process, Deloitte continually pushed this message of ‘We want to support you. We want to include you. We want diversity,’” Janover told Insider. At so many companies, however, “diversity” can be little more than a corporate buzzword.
  • A Subway sandwich artist filmed a video of how to make the chain’s tuna salad and it’s precisely as nauseating as you expect. As commenters pointed out, it’s probably not very different from any other pre-packaged tuna salad, but the video is part of a larger segment of TikTok where staffers at massive chains reveal behind-the-scenes footage and little known quirks of their corporate employers. This, of course, can get complicated.

Meme watch

There’s this one TikToker who’s constantly showing up on my feed, but I’ve hardly ever been able to make it through a full video because I simply cannot bear to. Nearly all of his most popular videos go like this: Schmaltzy music plays as we stare at a close-up of his face, while he lip-syncs to us as though we are desperately in love. Often, he is weeping.

On TikTok, he is a running joke, but he is also very popular. His name is Devin Caherly, and his POV videos are why 2.4 million people follow him and so many other accounts of teenagers making videos pretending to be the viewer’s boyfriend. Back in November, Sarah Manavis wrote about the phenomenon for the New Statesman, where young men shoot TikToks where they pretend to comfort you after a breakup or take you out to dinner in the 1920s, the gist of all of them being that the creator is earnestly suggesting he is the platonic ideal of a partner.

There is something both charmingly naive and very icky about this, but they are teenage boys on the internet, and there are obviously worse things they could be doing. Whenever Devin shows up on my feed, it’s a reminder that TikTok will never really escape its deeply cringey roots. Somehow that’s comforting!

One Last Thing

Here is an example of someone making fun of the aforementioned genre of video. I have watched it 100 times.

@themichaelspencer

i recreate this guy’s videos every day pt. 1 #duet with @bradrad #foryou #fyp

♬ SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK - Joji