During the pandemic, faced with a world that was coming undone and leaders who seemed to only accelerate its undoing, I found myself amid a personal revolution.
I learned about mutual aid and dissociative feminism, all while unlearning the myth that working hard will guarantee you a spot on the top rung of the socioeconomic ladder, or that doing so is the ultimate form of female empowerment. One could say I was “radicalized,” but none of the ideas felt very radical because they made so much sense when I looked out the window and saw the alternative.
I’m reluctant to tell you about where I could’ve possibly discovered such a treasure trove of knowledge. And to anyone in front of whom I still wanted to maintain a shred of intellect or dignity, I would tell them that I learned about it by doing my readings like a diligent political science student would.
But I’ll tell you all the truth: TikTok made me politically conscious.
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly TikTok detected my
preexisting interest in politics and perfected the art of capitalizing on it. But it did. The algorithm started to feed me fewer and fewer cat videos and thirst traps and more and more comprehensive breakdowns of dialectical materialism and summaries of bell hooks’s works (I still get a few thirst traps, but mostly of women wearing communism-themed hats.)
This is the space where I learned about microaggressions, and how many of them I had encountered or even perpetrated before having the language to validate my experiences; it’s where I found the tools and courage to begin recovering from my eating disorder.
Most of the creators I came across were my age. They, too, felt disillusioned by a world that was becoming increasingly uninhabitable due to the climate crisis and ballooning inequality. They were frustrated that despite becoming ever more aware of these problems, there was so very little we could do as individuals to reform them. They could be my neighbour or even the person that sits beside me on the bus to campus.
These big ideas about economic and social justice wedged themselves, one by one, between me and my previous naïve understanding of our institutions and systems as mostly fair and good. It made me question whether the academic and professional path I was pursuing fit into this new understanding.
Using their own lived experiences and prominent theories, creators from all walks of life showed me that inequality is baked into every aspect of the system we live under and that alternatives are more possible than we’ve been led to believe.
Although I was restricted within the four walls of my high school bedroom, the social and intellectual parameters of my world stretched on indefinitely.
The political discourse that unfolded within the TikTok microcosm was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. They were messy, pretentious and bitter, but also unsanitized, funny and deeply validating. Conversations ranged from intergenerational trauma to the queerification of dairy milk alternatives.
Like all communities, this one is made up of flawed individuals, most of them teenagers or young adults whose political opinions are forming at the same time as their premature brains. On the same platform where nuanced theory is being broken down and activism strategies are shared by community organizers, there are TERFs, trolls and self-proclaimed male “feminists” whose efforts to dismantle the patriarchy begin and end with badly painted nails.
Setting aside all the flaws of the internet, I hold a deep fondness and appreciation for #PoliticalTok. It is the only space I’ve been in where a young person’s ideas about how society ought to be structured are taken seriously. Adults and other chronically-offline individuals who insist that the debates happening on TikTok are of little to no consequence are dismissing its huge significance in shaping the political attitudes of an emerging voting bloc.
‘Chronically online’ is often used to pejoratively describe a state of disconnect from all that is human and important. Being told to ‘touch grass’ is fun and all, but during the pandemic, when all of us have been pretty chronically online, this term shouldn’t carry the same stigma and scathing connotation that it once did, or maybe still does. There is inherent value in community.
Despite the mountain of genuinely trash takes that are littered all across TikTok, there are also well-thought-out, researched and informative ones. TikTok has taught me things I’ve never been exposed to in any of my courses. It’s led me to radically reconfigure my belief system and orient it around less privileged points of view. This has been more important than ever as I reenter academic spaces after two years of online instruction, where knowledge must fit into neat, abstract and empirically provable categories, which often obscures real experiences of oppression that cannot be captured in footnotes and citations.
It’s a space where people with shared trauma heal together while acknowledging the systemic factors that contribute to their illnesses, and there is something so rare about the level of vulnerability and critical thinking that can exist simultaneously within an online space.
I’ve never been able to find another community capable of replicating such a dynamic.
I stand before you as someone who belongs to the handful of insufferable people who post half-baked opinions about how much they hate men and capitalism on the internet. To me, making my silly little TikToks and commenting ‘based’ on others is a legitimate act of engagement with a political community — a community that is vibrant, curious and filled with people who share a deep desire to lament about how messed up the world is and hope to make it a little bit less so. Though TikTok can seem miles away from reality, this is my community.
Even as the pandemic wavered and went, I clung onto this community that was once my lifeline. As much as I have loved entering heated political debates and picking fights with the ‘devil’s advocate’ in my political science classes at UBC, I have kept in touch with my chronically-online comrades because they remind me that community can extend beyond the bounds of campus.
If you are ever interested in joining us, you know where we are.
"TikTok made me politically conscious."