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This week in TikTok: Please stop romanticizing the pandemic

TikTok is already nostalgic for early quarantine. Dark!

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! 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, and subscribe to The Goods’ newsletter here.

In the rankings of time periods I wish I could return to, I can tell you wholeheartedly that March 2020 through June 2020 would be in absolutely last place, except for maybe a particularly unfortunate awkward phase in seventh grade. But on TikTok, kids are already nostalgic about quarantine.

In dozens of videos, many set to one of last spring’s unofficial TikTok anthems, Benée’s “Supaloney,” people are longing for the earliest months of the pandemic. “I really had the audacity to complain abt my first quarantine, sis i was playing fortnite for like 2 hours w my friends, on facetime til 5 am, waking up at 2 and following my own school schedule with no teachers, taught myself for 4 months, working out, listening to new music, on tiktok 24/7, tried chikfila for the first time, had time to myself, TANNED FROM MY WINDOW, dyed my hair a lil purple. I had no reason to complain,” reads the caption on one example. Replied one person in the comments, “it was so fun and we were all complaining.”

Hm! This is not necessarily how I remember last spring, but to be fair, lockdown in the US was a deeply mismanaged affair that left individual states to handle a mess that none were equipped to do well. The videos often have the energy of “Come on in, I’m going to take you on a little trip” to a world where early lockdown was full of Tiger King binges, dance trends, workout challenges, fluffy coffee, and tie-dye sweatsuits, which sounds pretty nice if you only experienced it via TikTok and not, say, as a parent or an essential worker.

That’s what our brains do, though, when we’ve spent ungodly numbers of hours staring at our phones for the past year. I’m reminded of Ellen Cushing’s excellent piece in the Atlantic about how the pandemic has given us all smooth brain syndrome, where time is meaningless and nobody knows how to be normal anymore. Nostalgia cycles are already sped up so fast thanks to the internet that last spring, everyone on TikTok wanted to live on Tumblr in the year 2014, and now they already want to go back to last spring. The combination of those two forces means that in 2021, early quarantine actually seems pleasant instead of terrifying.

As much as TikTok has contributed to the dizzying acceleration of cultural trends, it also acts as a handy time capsule for various phenomena, a tool to define the past days and weeks and months of pandemic monotony. Consider this video that recaps every big TikTok trend of 2020 in one glorious loop, in which the comments are entirely devoted to people remarking “THAT WAS A YEAR AGO?” Elsewhere on TikTok, teens publish the videos they made during their last days of normal school and their first days in quarantine, back when most people thought the whole thing was only going to last a couple weeks.

Perhaps the weirdest timefuck are the videos where people come to the sudden realization that, a few decades from now, our future indie children will be dressing up in masks just for the aesthetic and going to Covid-themed roaring ’20s parties. They remind us that, eventually, all of this will be flattened into something like ’80s shoulder pads or the brief Gap-ad-fueled swing revival of the ’90s. You can already see it happening in the videos that wax nostalgic for last spring, as though the only thing going on in the world was more time for video games and FaceTimes and not wincing every time you heard a siren outside or wonder whether this was the week you were going to get laid off.


#ColorCustomizer #greenscreen I stg if I see a kid in the future doing this it’s on sight #covid #indie

♬ kids - ଘ(੭ˊᵕˋ)੭* ✩‧₊˚

Now that the end is in sight, it’s as if we’ve completely forgotten how miserable it’s been. There are echoes of it elsewhere on the internet too: This weekend, editor Emily Ramshaw tweeted about how anxious she was to return to normal life because it would mean bringing back work travel, busy weekends, and blazers. Though many pointed out the glaringly obvious first-world problem-ness of this sentiment, others agreed that they’d come to appreciate certain aspects of quarantined life. (Ramshaw followed up the tweet with an acknowledgment of her privilege and that she meant that she enjoyed spending more time with her kid.)

Which, sure, I suppose hanging out with my cat all day has been nice, and I’ve become a much better cook over the past year. But actively dreading the end of the pandemic sounds like contrarianism to me, or at the very least extremely revisionist history. This brand of perverse nostalgia for quarantined life is both myopic and dishonest — of course there have been moments of joy and surprisingly positive aspects of quarantine (I’m petting said cat right now!), but they are nothing compared to what we’ve collectively had to sacrifice. I’m already dreading the onslaught of the inevitable “I actually miss the pandemic because I’m an introvert!” discourse we’re going to be subjected to. But I suppose I can deal with the cute little TikToks about how fun it was when we all learned the “Savage” dance last April — for now.

Vox is looking back on the complexities and heartbreaks of the past year, and you can read more here.

TikTok in the news

  • Curbed interviewed the woman who found a passage into an entire apartment behind her bathroom mirror, which was my childhood dream and is now my adult nightmare.
  • Speaking of nightmares, I hate deepfake Tom Cruise.
  • Wired explored how misleading hyperpartisan political information spreads on TikTok with the help of trending audio and dueting.
  • Douyin, ByteDance’s version of TikTok that operates in China, removed more than 2,800 videos in 2021 for flaunting wealth and promoting “money worship.” While China’s economy has exploded over the past few decades, so too has its wealth gap, which is now on par with the US.
  • Forget hype houses, the next TikTok collective is a sketchy-seeming commune in Tennessee that keeps having to insist it’s not a cult.
  • TikTok finally exposed the truth behind Big Mirror Selfie.
  • Squishmallows are the new Beanie Babies.
  • My old high school was found to have toxic mold in it, so now all the kids have to go to class in the abandoned Macy’s at the former mall downtown, and of course they’re TikToking it. Go Seahorses!
  • ICYMI, here’s my profile of TikTok’s most chaotically compelling antiheroine, Trisha Paytas, for New York magazine.

One Last Thing

Nothing has ever been more Italian than this man leaping over a barrier to deliver a pizza to Pope Francis in his Popemobile.



♬ suono originale - Gennaro