“Tick tock… Tick tock… It’s a clock! The arena is a clock”, screamed the preteen memory of Katniss Everdeen as my Uni friends introduce me to “TikTok” on a random term night. I smiled to myself. How bizarre it seemed to me that they’d give such an ominous name to an entertainment app. That was my sole reaction to it, though. I brushed it off as just another one of those modern-day social media platforms that bombard people with unnecessary information and provides them with a virtual sense of “being in touch”. It would become, I was sure, something I’d actively try to avoid engaging with. You see, the thought of getting a notification from my phone, displaying a percentage increase in time spent on the device is a haunting one, and I couldn’t help but think an app named after the passing of time would undoubtedly bring that fear to life. And so, I proceeded to ignore it. Nod along to my friends’ references. Kept the onomatopoeic ticking of clocks as background music to the structuring of my everyday life.
A couple of weeks later, the news app on my phone updated me on the appropriate way of defining the situation we were all under. A pandemic, it called it. Everyone was to remain inside. Outings were to be limited, exclusively for the purchase of goods and/or some form of exercise. As uncertainty towards the future and term-time rose, the ticking of clocks grew fainter every day. It became harder to conceive a tomorrow and a yesterday when every day felt roughly the same. It was as if Plutarch Heavensbee had decided to alter the settings in the arena and disorientate us, seemingly making ticking clocks redundant.
That same night, messenger alerted that someone had shared a link with me. It was one to a TikTok, from what I presumed was a Timothée Chalamet fan, commenting on the swell of emotions that hit them every time Visions of Gideon came on, emotions undoubtedly associated with the heart-breaking ending to Call Me by Your Name. It made me laugh. In those mere 45 seconds, someone had managed to conceptualise their reaction to a movie in bittersweet terms, spurring, in true Gen Z spirit, a comedic reaction to one’s own suffering. And I had enjoyed it. Maybe I’d dismissed TikTok too fast. Maybe there was more to it than yet another way of wasting my time.
My pleasant reaction to the TikTok lent itself to a great conversation with said friend. A conversation, might I add, which featured further links to other videos, each and every one of them expressing, in a matter of seconds, an array of emotions shared by two individuals, miles apart. The ticking of the clocks had always been a language I’d associated with order and structure, with things to do and places to be as part of human life. Now, dropping the c’s along the way, it was becoming, in my eyes, at a moment when those old structures seemed pointless, another sort of language, better suited to the needs of our time. Jokingly, I texted saying that looking through the chat seemed like we’d been “speaking in tik tok”. My phone autocorrected it to “tick tocks”. And never had autocorrect been more wrong.
You see, there was more to the dropping of those c’s than a marketing decision made when the company took over Musical.ly. The former, that is, tick tock, speaks of a time when structuring your day in a specific manner marks your exits and entrances, the places you ought to be at for the realisation of a series of activities. The latter symbolises a virtual form of communication, better suited to social distancing and limited exits to the outdoors. It speaks of a reality in need of reconceptualization. And so, what would have previously been defined as 45 seconds of wasted productivity time, became a vessel for a catching up session with a friend.
When people learn a language, often they’re taught a set of roles that go with it. Structures they ought to follow. A (relative) logic to the way letters are pronounced. A process of association by which words acquire meaning and the contexts in which it’d be most appropriate to use them. That’s all fair enough. Indeed, it’ll get you through most box-standard language exams, and possibly even allow you to flex in front of your family and friends as you order something at a restaurant on holiday. But often people forget to mention what I find to be the most crucial part: its organic, ever-changing nature. People forget to mention that those rules are, and ought to be, revised. That they didn’t give birth to language but were rather a result of it as people attempted to homogenise different strands of what seemed to be a single being. Language is very much a living entity, something subject to context just as much as our identities are. Subject to time in the same manner as we are. It will take up different forms, engage with the arts and society in an array of creative ways, creating all sorts of symbols and adding layers to meaning.
And Tik Tok is a strand of this modern language. One based on creative attempts to disseminate clear cut, often intentionally comedic, ideas about people’s common interests. One designed to keep conversations going with friends, to share a beacon of random surrealism and get that friend of yours to crack a smile every now and then. One entirely based on embracing ridicule as an element of life, and, above all, providing the world with the necessary tools and space to develop an inherent ability to make fun of ourselves. A creative ability, might I add, which becomes most poignant, it seems, when the outside world has been infected with overwhelming destruction, and it is up to us to keep watering the creative (now house) plant.
Don’t get me wrong. TikTok remains in my mind something to be understood, largely, as banal and superficial. There for short term entertainment, in all its glorious superficiality. And there’s definitely value to that. No real need to have profound thoughts on it or see it in any different light. But for those of you out there who, like me, will turn your nose at anything that seems too “trendy” and unproductive, this article encourages you to revaluate its worth within the broader framework of twenty-first-century popular culture and communication. And for future historians, who will attempt to reconstruct our experience of the COVID-19 induced lockdown as part of their histories from below, may they be encouraged to come to terms with how the ticking of clocks became a communication tool far beyond the structuring of dystopian days.