This week in TikTok: Yet another terrible prank parents are pulling on their kids

Hello from The Goods’ twice-weekly newsletter! On Tuesdays, internet culture reporter Rebecca Jennings uses this space to update you all on what’s been going on in the world of TikTok. Is there something you want to see more of? Less of? Different of? Email rebecca.jennings@vox.com, and subscribe to The Goods’ newsletter here.

The backlash to influencers has bubbled for years, and quarantine has not helped: Over the past six months, quasi-famous people on social media have been a de facto target for our anger and anxieties about responsible social distancing, performative activism, and whether anyone should really be begging small businesses for free stuff when tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs (or ever). Professionally popular people, it seems, have never been less popular.

Famous TikTokers are no exception. Los Angeles collab houses, which were taking off just before lockdown, have continued to host a carousel of new houseguests while their members seem to pretend nothing out of the ordinary is going on. On Friday, LA city attorney Mike Feuer charged Sway House e-boys Bryce Hall and Blake Gray with misdemeanors for violating local health orders by throwing giant parties during the pandemic. A week earlier, Mayor Eric Garcetti shut off the power and water in their Hollywood Hills rental home; if convicted, they could face fines up to $2,000 and a year in prison.

All that bad behavior is causing somewhat of a reckoning among creators, at least according to them. Some have written weepy apologies for their past misdeeds; last week, while I was speaking to the founders of the newly launched Alpha House, they stressed that their main distinction as a collective was “kindness.”

Crucially, there is no sponsored content (yet), no talk of lofty business ideas (yet), and no merch (yet), sort of like what TikTok used to be two years ago. But I say “yet” because that is what happens to influencers who get famous enough; the business opportunities become too large to ignore, and there are too many entertainment industry people parachuting into their inboxes promising to deliver their wildest dreams.

This is the paradox of being “one of the good influencers”: Once enough people like you, you’re forced into the machine that will make them hate you just as quickly (see: Emma Chamberlain, who built her Youtube following being weird in her bedroom and now gets paid by Louis Vuitton). What will happen to all the cool alt-TikTokers rooming together when they become just as famous as the Addison Raes and Bryce Halls of the world? These are the things I am choosing to worry about, instead of, uh, everything else happening with TikTok right now. Which, speaking of:

TikTok in the news

  • Things are not going well for TikTok! Just four months after taking the job, TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer announced his resignation from the company on August 27. His note to staff said, essentially, “I didn’t sign up for this.” TikTok employees seem to be feeling similarly.
  • If you’re reading this on Tuesday, it could be the day we find out who the hell is buying TikTok, according to CNBC.
  • Here’s who that might be and why they want it, per Mike Isaac at the Times: Walmart and Microsoft could team up to “draw on Walmart’s digital sales background to turn TikTok into a kind of e-commerce app for both creators and users,” while the software company Oracle would “use TikTok’s data about social interactions to benefit its cloud, data and advertising businesses.”
  • That’s if a sale even happens. On Friday, China announced new restrictions on artificial intelligence exports, which meant that certain technologies could not be exported without a license. This could “throw a wrench” into a potential TikTok sale, as it might break these new laws.
  • Even with a US buyer, though, Casey Newton argues at The Verge that the problems are just beginning. “The company will have to somehow recreate ByteDance’s powerful algorithmic feed, design a steady stream of new features and experiences to keep influencers engaged, and fend off fierce competition from Facebook, Snapchat, and a host of TikTok clones along the way,” he writes, adding, “it’s unclear to me how many of the elements that have made it so successful to date will survive.”
  • In happier news, here’s a delightful piece about how Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” took over TikTok.

Meme watch

All pranks parents pull on their kids and then post online for clout are terrible (with the sole exception of that one iconic Vine where the kid unwraps an avocado and says “thankssssss”). And there’s another very popular one on TikTok that’s getting some backlash: the “new teacher” prank, where parents pretend to introduce their kid to their teacher over FaceTime. The joke, though, is that the image on FaceTime is not their new teacher, but a distorted face designed to horrify the child, or worse, a real person deemed ugly enough to be the butt of a joke.

Naturally, this is pretty gross, and an incredibly unkind thing to do to a kid who’s already being forced to adjust to a life with no classrooms. Disability activists like Melissa Blake and Lizzie Velasquez, who was once deemed “the ugliest woman in the world,” have also spoken out against it. In one video, Velasquez says, “If you are an adult who has a young human in your life, please do not teach them that being scared of someone who does not look like them is okay.”

This is far from the only meme categorizable as “ugliness as shock value” that proliferates on TikTok; you could argue that even the earliest transformation trends, where a creator makes themselves look as terrible as possible and then surprises the viewer by suddenly becoming beautiful is a form of it. One current example is a trend where you use a filter to distort your face so that it looks wider at the bottom, and then take the filter off and record your reaction. The point is that you look wildly relieved that you don’t actually look like that.

Luckily, others have pointed out the rampant fatphobia inherent in these memes. “Thank goodness I’m skinny and perfect and beautiful and not fat!” said one girl sarcastically in a viral critique of the trend. What sucks is that TikTok is already enough of a beauty pageant, and memes like this only make it more explicit.

One Last Thing

Of all the billions of “WAP” challenges on TikTok, this hypnotizing behind-the-scenes transition video is maybe the most impressive?

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