How TikTok became the pastime of a country in quarantine

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TikTok has become the preferred platform for Generation Z’s knee-jerk response to the simple fact of existing: content creation. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — If you’ve been on social media these past two weeks, you’ve likely noticed a surge of TikTok videos on your feed. On your Instagram stories or Twitter timeline, there are people doing very literal dance interpretations of Young Thug, boys in head towels impersonating their mothers, and musicians singing 20-second song snippets, because that’s how long you need to be washing your hands in the time of coronavirus.

The pandemic has registered strongly on the social media app of the moment. Hashtags like #loveinthetimeofcorona and #handwashtunes have amassed tens of millions of views, and since the implementation of enhanced community quarantine in Luzon, engagement only seems to have skyrocketed.

Since its launch in 2016, TikTok has become the preferred platform for Generation Z’s knee-jerk response to the simple fact of existing: content creation. Owned by the Chinese tech company ByteDance, it was downloaded 738 million times in 2019 alone. The original Chinese version of the app, Douyin, is blocked off from the rest of the world due to the Chinese government’s firewall restrictions. No matter what country it’s used in, however, the content on TikTok is generally uniform: short videos, lasting from a few seconds to a minute, of people dancing, lip syncing, and acting very pabebe, a word that has no English equivalent but is the perfect adjective for several of the TikToks I’ve seen, no matter where they’re from. It’s the logical successor to older apps like Vine and Dubsmash, having located the middle-ground between the former’s snappy, time-bound humor and the latter’s savvy usage of audio.

Many of the recent TikToks on my feed have dealt directly with quarantine in the Philippines. One imagines what graduation might look like for the class of 2020: school administrators going from house to house to hand out diplomas. In another, comedian Long Mejia tries to spit over his balcony, only to realize, too late, that he’s wearing a face mask. In this one, a woman gazes at the camera as she does her household chores in a cocktail dress and full make-up, because she just really misses making an impression. Here, a group of friends have their temperatures taken by a guard at a 7-Eleven, reacting to their results like beauty queens advancing to the final round. In one of my favorites, a girl clasps her hands placidly as an excerpt of Rodrigo Duterte’s quarantine speech urges her to discover the unknown corners of her home.

Other TikToks foreground the ubiquity of the app itself. A security guard with nothing to do maneuvers a small rock like it’s a toy car. A bored jeepney driver is spotted filming a dance video. Nurses self-consciously TikTok during downtime. An inmate TikToks behind bars. A community official on patrol yells safety reminders through a megaphone: “TikTok TikTok muna kayo sa bahay ninyo! Maligo! Matulog!” Unlike the TikToks previously mentioned — staged, edited, calibrated for laughs — these videos capture more organic scenes from a region on lockdown.

"The Philippines currently presented by TikTok has been simplified and sanitized for your viewing pleasure. It is here to boost collective morale, not to offer sobering, bite-sized accounts of life during a pandemic."

A TikTok, however, doesn't necessarily need to be about anything. It’s possible that the app’s appeal lies in how little it demands of its users. Great editing skills and creative vision aren’t requisites to going viral. Most TikTok trends can be easily replicated — hand dances, reenactment of iconic movie moments, or lip syncs. And while there are several fresh, genuinely hilarious videos on the app, the quintessential TikTok is largely devoid of content. This is also what makes it the ideal channel for escapism. Filipinos may have flocked to the app to alleviate their boredom or because it's a quick and easy way to get famous, but it’s equally possible to frame TikTok’s predictable, lighthearted nature as an anesthetic to mass anxiety. Its steady stream of riffs and remakes, scored to the same five songs repeating over and over, imparts a sense of familiarity and reassurance. And when the algorithm elects a TikTok that jolts with its originality, it only reinforces the impulse to keep scrolling in search of the next one. In a moment of such national urgency, TikTok is an engrossing, desensitizing distraction.

Of course, the reality of COVID-19 is very much a constant presence on the app. On the search tab, there’s a banner that reads “COVID 19,” with the subhead “Stay informed so you can stay safe.” When you tap on it, official statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) tell you how many confirmed cases and deaths there have been in the country. Scroll down and you’ll see information on how to protect yourself, frequently asked questions, and debunked myths about the virus. Posts tagged #covid19 bear a reminder to listen to your local health authorities for crucial updates.

Many of the app’s actual videos, however, conceal the fatal implications of the virus beneath a glossy façade. The Philippines currently presented by TikTok has been simplified and sanitized for your viewing pleasure. It is here to boost collective morale, not to offer sobering, bite-sized accounts of life during a pandemic. To consider the quarantine videos on TikTok as unfiltered representations of modern life would be delusional. In the past two weeks, the national mood has been a lethal cocktail of panic, rage, ennui, vague absurdity, and frustration. While society’s more privileged members have tucked themselves away in the safety of their homes, many laborers are left with no option but to keep working, lest their families starve. Some were automatically arrested by the police for attempting to work. In one barangay in Parañaque, curfew violators were forced to sit under the sun as punishment. Several major hospitals have stopped accepting new COVID-19 patients after reaching maximum capacity. Senator Koko Pimentel, who tested positive for the virus, broke protocol and visited one of those hospitals. A policeman was caught on video beating civilians who ventured outside the Golden Mosque Compound in Quiapo. A man in Bulacan was killed by the police after dodging a checkpoint (officials claimed the man had shot at them first). The news cycle is charged with an unsettling frisson of uncertainty. And on top of all that lies the singular anxiety of monitoring yourself for symptoms that tend to overlap with the common flu.

In Duterte’s Philippines, the threat of death has been a daily burden for a majority of the underprivileged. Now, this cloud looms over the rest of the class spectrum, though it's been significantly mitigated by the comforts of money and status. For the first time in their lives, many middle- and upper-class Filipinos are reckoning with the possibility that they could die sooner than expected. The poor, meanwhile, remain at the frontlines, where they’ve always been. As of March 30, the WHO page on TikTok notes that there are now 1,347 confirmed cases and 82 deaths in the country. You wouldn’t guess it was this bad just by going through the app’s infinite “For You” feed. Instead, you’d see scores of bored, untroubled people, inventing new forms of recreation, captive in their homes and on our screens.