By Dagny Zenovia
Currently, nothing moves faster than a TikTok challenge. The Chinese app that has experienced a huge spike in popularity in the West is redefining the future of social media. With all eyes on the screen while people stay at home, TikTok has been the center of comedy, activism, and controversy. Looking at how Black people interact with TikTok, there is a pattern of trends and silencing that might change for the first time.
Black Culture and Capitalism
Historically, presently, and probably in the future, Black people set all the trends. From music to fashion and from technology to food, it is a real challenge to find anything popular that was not created or invented by a Black person. In modern times, think of the phrase, “on fleek.” Trending all over the world and used by everyone, but it took a long time before the creator, Kayla Newman, a Black girl, got any credit nor received any compensation. This is the pattern that has defined an aspect of Black history. This is the source of the notion that everyone loves Black culture but hates Black people. This time, things could be different, thanks to TikTok.
Who is TikTok
So, what is all this talk about TikTok? It is a video based app where users can lip-sync to music or act out sketches or choreography. It was created by the Chinese company ByteDance, owned by Zhang Yiming. According to Forbes, he is the 13th richest person in China, worth over $16 billion. TikTok generated $5.6 billion in revenue in the first quarter of 2020. The app was made available in the US in the Fall of 2017, but became the most popular social media app in 2020. The company started in 2019 hosting “creator sessions” throughout Africa, specifically Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. TikTok has been signing African comedians, dancers, and singers from YouTube and Instagram as well as hiring local talent managers to create branding campaigns and hashtags. In January 2020, the South African phone company MTN launched TikTok data bundles for prepaid customers. Looking at how TikTok moves, the company is focused on targeting the demographic that will enhance and maintain it’s trend power, Black youth.
TikTok and Black creators
Turning to look at TikTok’s content, the company is in a position to change the pattern of erasing Black people from Black culture. The experience on TikTok is very niche focused. The app pushes content that is calculated and aligned with the user’s preferences. Self-expression goes viral very quickly without the need to mold an audience like on Instagram and Facebook. This is where a lot of the comedy, activism, and controversy have occurred this year. During the protests in America, many Black creators pivot their content from entertainment to activism. Black creators found it difficult to find content with #GeorgeFloyd and #BlackLivesMatter. TikTok responded to the rumors of shadow banning focusing on a technological glitch and explaining how the app’s algorithm selects content to prevent online bullying. Since then, Black voices and creators have been promoted on the app. In July of 2020, TikTok established the TikTok Creator Fund, a $200 million fund aimed at helping eligible creators in the US to supplement their earnings. The concerns that TikTok is having to balance globally are not new. Similar to every other highly successful app, think Uber and Facebook, the tension between innovation and tradition is not about privacy or freedom, but about control. However, the way TikTok is handling Black culture on the app is new. It is providing a platform, planned or not, for youth expression and activism that is not beholden to ads, censorship, and bias.
This is the remix. For the first time in a long time, Black voices and creativity is being heard and recognized. Whether or not TikTok loves Black people is not the question to ask here. The bigger picture that TikTok is illustrating is that doing business with the people that make your company thrive can be done without theft and oppression. Real business and innovation can be done by supporting and elevating Black people. This is why TikTok is the remix to trends and activism. It will be exciting to see how TikTok’s story evolves.