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Life TikTok and the death of pop culture as we know it

Feb. 18, 2022

When we look back at the 2020s, what will be remembered? 

Amidst a culture of revival, this period in time seems almost unable to be immortalized, absent anything about which to reminisce. The backdrop of my youth will be a cacophonous buzz; trends, songs, and moments will flit past me in a flash. All I’ll be left with is a general feeling of incessant motion, as pop culture has become distorted beyond control, fashion trends cycle in and out within weeks, and moments leave cultural memory as quick as they entered. A harbinger of this change is TikTok, which, for better or worse, has led to a deluge of content and narrowed internet niches. In twenty years’ time, I don’t think a singular cultural juncture will strike us when we reflect on the 2020s. Rather, it will be a gestalt of briefly-lived moments painting a portrait of this era. This is, after all, the age of the cultural stream. 

As far back as its advent, cultural critics have documented just how fast the internet works. In the late ‘00s, researchers made note of the "stream," a term used to define the never-ending sprawl of online media. Many American media outlets were skeptical of the stream, fearing it would lead to an oversaturation of media. Journalist Alexis C. Madrigal wrote in 2013 that the stream truncated the art of storytelling by leading media to be shorter and more frequent. He notes, "No matter how hard you sprint for the horizon, it keeps receding. There is always something more.” Now, in 2022, it’s clear what Madrigal meant. On TikTok users experience a never-ending vortex of content waiting to be discovered. The app has accelerated the stream, transforming it into a cascade.

Because of the colossal nature of the stream, with so many pieces vying to catch your eye, an attention economy has formed. Political scientist Herbert A. Simon first documented the "attention economy," a term he used to describe how companies treat attention as a scarce commodity. Because we are constantly bombarded with new things to pay attention to, companies and creators turn to sensational means—clickbait, fake news, and hyperbole—to occupy viewers’ attention for longer periods of time. Everything must be the next big thing. The oversaturation of media has caused the attention economy, which in turn has led to the increase in micro-trends. Fashion blogger Mina Le similarly observed that the competitive pressure to be “on trend” has led to creators posting with more frequency and proclaiming new fads at a faster rate, causing trends to cycle rapidly. The patterns are similar in music, as artists can go viral out of nowhere and fizzle out within weeks. The competitive nature of the internet means content is moving faster than it ever has before. 

Not only is content moving quicker, but it’s becoming fragmented. For Lithium Magazine, Jill Risberg wrote about the dangers of TikTok’s personalization, observing that spending too much time in a personal bubble of content makes things feel like “niche is normal.” TikTok communities are unique because you don’t self-select into niches the way you would on other apps. While I may have listened to the occasional Slowdive track before downloading TikTok, it was the algorithm that noticed my affection for melancholic ‘90s alternative rock and guided me to the app’s indie music niches, where I became a certified shoegaze fan. Sometimes the algorithm precedes you; writer Amelie MacGowan says TikTok knew she was bisexual before she did. The formation of online micro-communities is a double-edged sword: it’s an opportunity for like-minded users to connect, but it also allows for echo chambers to go unchecked.

Because of the oversaturation and fragmentation of media, there is a less hegemonic culture. On TikTok, users interact only within their digital spheres, meaning that cultural moments can be confined to certain niches. While there may be some overarching trends, rarely are they as ubiquitous as they were during the age of television and radio. Now, major media outlets hold less power. While trends used to be dictated by celebrities and media monopolies, the pop culture podium has shifted to a new kind of influencer: the average person, stylized. While media hierarchies certainly still exist, the reconfiguration of social interactions means that normal people are able to become mainstream through going viral, as is the case with popular figures like musician Lil Nas X and trainspotter-turned-model Francis Bourgeoisie.

A unique aspect of TikTok’s influence is the rise in content of the everyday. Not everything is a polished production these days; often, viral videos simply show creators in their bedrooms. TikTok blends social media and entertainment, popularizing depictions of mundane life, as is the case with the popularity of day-to-day vlogs and accounts that romanticize the lives of strangers. One could say that TikToks function as a time capsule—brief snippets of our lives that, in a few years’ time, we’ll be able to look back at fondly. But this mundanity is still posed, filtered through the gaze of the internet. In a thought-provoking essay about TikTok and its depiction of the suburbs, Daisy Alioto writes, “The TikTok gaze is you staring back at yourself in your phone. The TikTok gaze is you deciding to film yourself at all.” There is a pressure to live a life that is presentable online, a desire to give our lives coherent meaning. I wonder how the tendency to idealize our lives on TikTok will impact the way we view the past, as we are unable to access the “raw footage” as we view our memories through a TikTok gaze. 

We are no longer observers of pop culture. Rather, we have become it—endlessly making our own contributions to a giant feed of culture. When trends accelerate beyond control and niches narrow, we are simply left with ourselves to navigate the stream. In this sense, pop culture has become intensely personal. The internet has enabled each of us to experience culture in our own customized way. The death of pop culture means the rise of the individual, left to fend for herself in an oversaturated world. 

When we look at the 2020s, I think it will look like this: millions of tiny glimpses into people’s lives leaving one portrait of an age. It’ll be like staring at an apartment block and watching all the tales unfold from separate windows. 

Illustration by Adam Maida for The Atlantic.