TikTok and the Proletkult
TikTok, the sixth most popular social media platform in the world, has grown in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic. But despite being mostly populated by young people sharing silly homemade music videos, the Chinese app has become a political soccer ball as the governments of India and the US under then-President Trump tried to ban it in 2020. accuse the platform of supporting Chinese geopolitical interests.
But TikTok deserves different attention than its relationship to global trade wars. TikTok has managed to get its users enthusiastic about the emancipatory and even revolutionary potential of digital communication, similar to how it was in the early years of the Internet. TikTok is a corporate product that generates billions of dollars in revenue for its owners. But it’s worth exploring what exactly the app means for its users.
After downloading the app for the first time, I couldn’t go for hours, mesmerized by the energy, wit and daring of its users. The repetitive sounds and dances, occasionally interrupted by political messages, also seemed strangely familiar to me. TikTok reminded me of the Blue Blouse, a Soviet agit-prop theater movement that existed from 1923 to the early 1930s; it grew from performances by the “living newspaper” (whose actors usually wore blue blouses, hence the name) to a nationwide creative platform of seven thousand groups across the country.
Blue blouse performances were often staged in workers’ clubs and factory canteens during lunch breaks. They contrasted political information with entertainment and humor, and usually started with a thematic presentation, followed by mock news and satirical sketches. Energetic dances and acrobatic movements were interspersed with political content. The movement regularly published a magazine with guidelines for staging performances, standard scripts, and training recommendations.
A common structure and repetitive artistic elements reproduced across the country made their performances recognizable. It is important, however, that each performance not only reproduced standard movements and content, but was also strongly influenced by the local context and reflected the topics relevant to it. This is an analog forerunner to TikTok’s sounds and moves that have been recreated by creators around the world with a dash of individuality and localization.
The vibe of the “living newspaper” was particularly evident in the American TikTok segment at the height of the protests against Black Lives Matter last year. Updates from the street, educational content, and political satire flooded the app. This became so persistent that even conservative commentators saw it: Fox News’ Tucker Carlson hysterically condemned “the new cultural revolution” and compared the young creators of TikTok, who publicly exposed the racism and homophobia of conservative parents, to Pavlik Morozov, the Soviet Propaganda figure sent to the authorities through his kulak father.
Generation conflicts are one of the main reasons behind the TikTok developers, most of whom are between fifteen and twenty-five years old. However, it would be grossly misleading to view TikTok as just a subcultural phenomenon. TikTok creators ridicule racism, homophobia, nationalism and various forms of cultural supremacy as a generational legacy that they militantly oppose.
According to Why We Post, a large-scale anthropological research conducted on nearly a dozen websites around the world in 2012-2016, people tend to avoid pre-political posts on public social media such as Facebook to avoid conflict inciting others to their family, friends and colleagues Instead, more private social media like WhatsApp could be used to share political content and even facilitate political action. TikTok challenges this largely depoliticized appearance of public social media with a confrontational and uncompromising militancy.
This can be explained, among other things, by the fact that the platform is usually a “parent-free zone” for its young users. But even in countries where not only your conservative grandma is closely monitoring your social media content, but also the state, young people articulate their political messages in the creative and humorous way that TikTok offers.
Most of the popular social media networks use friendship as their model for social interaction. Your first contacts on Facebook or Instagram are people with whom you are personally connected in real life. TikTok works differently as the ultimate incentive for creators is to appear in the auto-generated feed with suggested content. Therefore, YouTubers address a broad audience of like-minded users who are far outside their social, but also geographical proximity.
AI algorithms add to this attraction, making TikTok very segmented and clearly broken down into mainstream or often pejoratively referred to as “Straight TikTok”, full of dances and lip-sync videos and progressive segments from multiple genres like Black TikTok, Queer TikTok, EduTok and so on . Solidarity is often more the model of social interaction on TikTok than friendship. The basis for the social networks created and maintained on the platform are not personal connections, but shared values and views.
Technological progress is always prone to revolutionary promises that can be quickly betrayed. We all remember the crucial role Twitter and Facebook played in the political mobilizations of the 2010s like the Arab Spring, ultimately leading to increased political censorship and corporate control. Time will tell if the TikTok creators are indeed a digital reincarnation of the proletarian cult, one that “can unite and elevate the feelings, thoughts and will of the masses,” as Lenin once put it, or just another digital carnival is good for exhausting rebellious energy under tight control of algorithms and corporate interests and not much else.