May 19, 2022


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TikTok and the Evolution of Digital Blackface

Before she made it big on TikTok, Blackmon had built modest followings on other platforms. On YouTube, she posted videos about her life in a series she called STORYTIME. She talked about getting married at 19 (she’s since divorced) and the time she tried (and failed, hilariously) to work as a stripper. Building an audience on Instagram proved harder. “You have to be on vacation,” Blackmon says, “or doing something extravagant,” which she wasn’t. She didn’t feel as if she could be herself.

Another app Blackmon checked out, but only as a spectator, was Vine. Launched in 2013, Vine was TikTok before TikTok. With a remarkably simple premise—upload six-second videos that would loop infinitely—Vine appealed to a dopamine-crazed culture that desired virality in short, repetitive bursts.

But the real allure of the app could be traced, in large part, to the ingenuity of the Black creators who made much of its most irresistible content. Bought by Twitter in 2012, Vine became the dominant engine of Black culture on the internet from around 2014 to 2016. It rivaled Twitter in its capacity to incubate trends, hyping Southern dance crazes such as the Nae Nae and career-boosting comedians like King Bach. “I was there for the short comedy,” Blackmon says. Arguably Vine’s biggest impact was how it mainstreamed Black slang. In one of the most recognized Vines during that period, 16-year-old Kayla Newman—best known by her alias, Peaches Monroee—delights in her own fabulousness. “On fleek” was born, and The Culture adjusted accordingly.

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The app eventually went bust. Its success led competitors, like Instagram, to create their own video features. And unlike YouTube, Vine never figured out a way to share revenue with users; a deal to pay top creators to produce content fell through in 2015. Big names departed the platform, and revenues dwindled. In 2017, Twitter shut down Vine, and it was mourned largely by millennials and Gen Zers who’d made a home on the platform.

Around that time, ByteDance, a Beijing-based tech company at the forefront of Chinese social media, was launching an app called Douyin. In the early days, it was used to create homemade music videos, but users quickly turned it into a marketplace for all sorts of short-form content. By 2018, ByteDance had released the app outside China, acquired the lip-sync app, and renamed the international version TikTok. Vine supercharged—videos were now capped at 15 seconds, and later 60—TikTok also offered a suite of editing tools, from filters to green-screen special effects, that gave creators near-limitless possibilities.

In the beginning, TikTok’s embrace of wackiness and absence of anything even marginally serious was its prime attraction, and its most marketable one. Twitter was preoccupied with millennial bickering; the election of Donald Trump turned Facebook into a political echo chamber; Instagram felt plastic; gamers ran Twitch. On TikTok, kids just wanted to have fun. It was a place for dance challenges and wellness how-tos, movie reviews and the kind of existence-pondering comedy sketches BoJack Horseman might post were he on the app (or real). The platform elevated creativity and experimentation above all else; its algorithm, as Blackmon puts it, is generous. Though personalized based on user activity, For You feeds retain a light randomness—according to TikTok, the algorithm tries to avoid duplicating content or privileging accounts with large followings. As Blackmon says, “it’s one of the only places where you can have no following, no content, and you post one thing and it gets a million views in a day.”

Blackmon signed up for TikTok in February, about a month before the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders started coming down. Like a diary, many of her early videos chronicle daily mundanities—cooking a buffalo chicken wrap, talking about natural hair, declaring a newfound love for iced coffee. “I don’t know what Caucasian woman got into me, but iced coffee—bitch!” Blackmon says, raising the glass into the video frame. “Well call me Karen, OK,” she jokes, invoking the meme for privileged white womanhood. With more than half a million views, it was her first viral hit; she’d been on the app less than a month. A week later, she struck gold again. A video of Blackmon dancing with a stranger in the restroom mirror at a club racked up 615,000 views.

TikTok, it turned out, was reminiscent of Vine in more ways than one. The common denominator of many of its viral moments is an unspoken partiality to Black cultural expression. It works like an accelerant. Chart-topping rap songs, from the likes of Drake and K Camp and Megan Thee Stallion, provide the soundtrack to weekly dance challenges. Lil Nas X is the app’s first breakout artist, and its most recognized pedagogue around self-improvement, Tabitha Brown, is a Black mother and vegan from North Carolina. When, at the end of 2019, a random voicemail of a Black woman colorfully referring to her coworker Rachel as a “big, fat, white, nasty-smelling, fat bitch” began to circulate, the woman’s hostility and perceived sassiness became a costume for everyone to put on and make their own. The collective fascination again proved the point. As Blackmon puts it, “Be clear: Without Black culture, TikTok wouldn’t even be a thing.”