Anasthasia Shilov

Everything’s different now. The rhythm of normal life has been broken by the reality of quarantine and Zoom and social distancing — words that didn’t mean anything just a month ago. Stability has cracked to chaos: lockdowns, toilet paper shortages, deserted city streets, closed businesses, plummeting stocks, makeshift hospitals. No more business as usual. Coronavirus has transformed everything.

Social media has not been immune. Instagram is now crowded with hastily-sketched carrots, kids juggling toilet paper and countless other stay-at-home challenges. Twitter feeds alternate between quarantine jokes, frustrated political rants and terrifying testimony from the nurses and doctors fighting on the frontlines. And Facebook (at least my timeline) is nothing but Zoom memes and sobering news articles.

But the biggest social media change is the rise of TikTok. To be clear, TikTok has been on the rise for quite some time, and most of my friends who have the app downloaded it months ago. But TikTok’s sprawling cast of mini-celebrities, inexhaustible list of trending sounds and dances and generous algorithm that delivers seemingly random videos has proven particularly conducive to a quarantine environment. As the virus rages on, more and more users are taking the leap from viewer to creator and posting their first TikTok — dabbling in stand-up, learning popular choreographies or coming up with the most absurd videos they can possibly think of.

TikTok is a new ground zero for original comedy. There are some popular categories: viral trends where users match different jokes to the same sound, outrageously-niche “point of view” videos and sketch bits where TikTokers act out different characters. The best are the unfiltered too-good-to-be-true moments miraculously caught on camera that radiate “Vine energy.” The algorithm gives every TikTok the potential to go viral. Everyone’s feed is a mix of the most popular hits and stray amateur videos from random users that are sometimes startlingly intimate windows into their lives. 

Other social media apps like Instagram and Facebook are often ruled by the outside eye. People  are careful to curate the right image: happy, social, cool, funny, alternative. But on TikTok, where your viewers are strangers and the videos stand alone, people just post whatever they want. It’s messy. And as the world unravels around us, it’s only gotten messier. 

Cooped up indoors all day, TikTokers are just filming the first things that come to mind. One quick scroll will show you a teenager bringing their mother a plate of salt for her to suck on while she pedals a stationary bike, a professor yelling at his student over Zoom for vaping during class (he’s actually just drinking from his hydroflask) and a quarantined girl imagining a sexual fantasy with the Quaker Oats man. 

TikTok has never had any social norms. It is thriving in a time when a devastating virus has demanded a collective shift in our priorities. So many things that seemed important just a month ago have been revealed to be pointless. Everything’s different now.

When we talk about corona, we talk about two main consequences. There’s the public health crisis. A lot of people are getting sick. Many of them are dying, and the survivors often endure days of intense suffering before recovery. There’s also the economic crisis. A lot of people are facing stinging salary cuts or losing their jobs entirely. Many of them must now confront the impossible task of weathering a global pandemic without an income. 

But there’s another consequence of corona. It’s probably a less urgent one, but it’s one most of us are certainly feeling: the mental health crisis that is the spawn of social distancing. What happens to us when face-to-face connection is forbidden? When the news becomes nothing but a 24-hour disaster reel? We are locked in our homes, away from our friends and bored out of our minds all while we try to dodge the loud, lingering fear of fuck, what if me or someone I love is next? 

I’m not saying TikTok is the cure. But it certainly helps. By providing an easy source of entertainment, it’s a remedy for our boredom. By being a lighthearted distraction, it’s a refuge from the chaos that surrounds us. And by shining a light on the insides of quarantined homes across the country and world, it’s a bridge that connects us.

The other day, I watched a TikTok of a middle-aged woman asking her husband in an exhausted, shaky voice what he wants for dinner. Laughing, he is unable to answer and says he can no longer take her seriously in the messy headband, black shirt and black sweatpants she has been wearing for two weeks. The screen cuts to “five minutes later,” when the woman emerges from her bedroom with a new look: a flowing, sequined silver dress fit for a gala. Freed from the headband, her hair is loose and thick. She places a hand against the wall, leans to the side and faces her husband with a glare that kills. 

It is TikToks like these that remind us we are not the only ones losing our minds during quarantine. Families across the world are struggling to entertain themselves and yearning to connect with someone outside their homes. Here, the individual experience of isolation becomes a shared experience we can all laugh about. Some of us are hit harder by coronavirus, but this is happening to everyone. We’re going through this together. 

Still, it is so surreal. I’m sure we’ve all been suddenly stopped some time over the past few weeks by the thought is this really happening? The new world we live in seems dystopian, if not apocalyptic. We are quarantined during a global pandemic, spending our days Zooming classes and watching 15-second videos of strangers telling jokes or doing the same dances over and over. It feels like a Black Mirror episode.

But in this Black Mirror episode, technology is not terror. It’s comfort. Tik Tok — and, to a lesser extent, Instagram and Snapchat and FaceTime and Twitter and Facebook and Zoom — is what’s making social isolation bearable. It’s keeping us sane and it’s keeping us connected. It’s saving us. 

I’ve seen a lot of posts about all the incredible things humans have accomplished under quarantine during epidemics throughout history. During the Great Plague of London in the 17th century, Isaac Newton helped develop calculus. The other week, former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson tweeted “Great literature will come from this. Great art will come from this. Great awareness will come from this. Great love will come from this.”

Great TikToks are already coming from this. And maybe I’m overthinking it, but what I’ve seen on that app is incredible. The fact that so many of us are still able to laugh is testament to our spirit. You could even call it our resilience. Okay, I’m definitely overthinking it, but I’m not the only one spending hours a day laughing at videos, sending my favorites to my friends and patiently waiting for one of my own TikToks to be the one that launches me into viral stardom.

Andrew Kornfeld | andrew.kornfeld@yale.edu