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The Messy Nest: Columnist Naomi Shulman talks TikTok

  • Naomi Shulman is shown May 31, 2017 in her Northampton home.

For the Gazette
Published: 2/21/2020 10:29:32 AM
Modified: 2/21/2020 10:29:20 AM

It’s early morning on a school day. I am up before the sun, thanks to the local high school’s ridiculously early start-time (don’t get me going). The water kettle is bubbling. The cats are pacing to and fro in front of their food bowls, tails straight in the air, awaiting their victuals. And the teen is sitting on the floor by the space heater, a bowl of cereal in her lap and her smartphone propped up against the wall. I’m listening to NPR, as usual, but her phone is competing. She’s tuned in to TikTok.

If you’re a parent of cellphone-aged children, you are surely aware of TikTok. If you’re not familiar with the app, well, it’s kind of tricky to sum up. (I tried once to describe it to my dad, a man who resents most aspects of the Internet age and has willfully ignored the rest. He has no social media presence, and while he does technically have a cellphone, it is decidedly not smart. He uses it for outgoing calls only. If someone calls it, he looks around and says, “What’s that noise?”)

Anyway: TikTok. It’s a phone app where kids essentially make little videos that they can then share with each other. But they don’t just share their own videos — they build on each other’s. Viewers respond to other clips by making their own versions, sometimes lining them up side by side. If you’re reading this online, there’s a nice tutorial for you at slate.com/technology/2018/09/tiktok-app-musically-guide.html. If you’re reading this in print, I salute you, fellow dinosaur, and offer you this explanation via text from my 18-year-old: “Its format is videos under 1 minute. It makes really easy digestible content, fast, and because it’s designed to use preexisting audio. It’s like a meme machine because you can just use someone else’s audio to make a variation of the same joke. It’s actually attracted a lot of really talented funny ppl using the video format to its fullest, like a mini YouTube.”

Well, that explains it, right?

TikTok made its way into our house when it was called Musical.ly, and my kids were tweens. That was about five years ago, or maybe it was five minutes ago? I don’t know anymore. I’m starting to feel more and more like my dad — I find it increasingly hard to keep up with all the whippersnappers and their flimflam apps. I might not have become aware of TikTok at all if not for the fact that my kids upload their own videos — and sometimes ask me to participate.

The role I play in these videos is that of clueless old person, and it’s a role I play very well, if I may say so. “Mom,” one of my kids might say, “look over there and say, ‘I don’t get it.’” And so I will gamely look over there and announce, truthfully, that I don’t get it. My portion is now over. The video that results will be shared across the land, and if any parents happen to see it, I’m pretty sure most of them won’t get it either.

I accept this truth of parenting: Bringing up the next generation means feeling a little left out of their generation. About six months after some newfangled thing becomes popular, I might hear about it on old people’s social media, aka Facebook. I learned about VSCO girls, for example, long after it became uncool to be one. When my kids’ friends start writing things like “And I oop” or “sksksksk” in each other’s Instagram comments, I’ll engage in a bit of exploratory googling to figure out what’s going on. Sometimes what I find makes sense. Other times, it doesn’t, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. My mom wasn’t supposed to understand why I wore combat boots with flowery dresses in 1989, either. I wasn’t wearing them for her. The more I watch TikTok, the more I understand the platform, but it has the added effect of making me feel even older than I already did. I recognize myself in all the other parents who have been suckered into making videos with their teens. I am the mom holding the phone two feet away because she doesn’t have her reading glasses. I am the mom mispronouncing “VSCO” in “VSCO girl.” I am the mom.

TikTok is only the latest ticking clock that lets us know exactly we fall on the timeline of cool. My kids are currently at high noon. I’m well past my bedtime. Or maybe it’s early morning again, and the alarm is going off. Tick tock, tick tock. I’m tripping over the teen glued to her phone screen, but she’ll be out the door for school in 10 minutes, and out of the house for good almost as quickly. I’m just trying to keep up here. To quote the college kid’s text, “Get over urself oldie times a changin.” Whatever. By the time this piece makes it into print, they’ll all be on to the next app, anyway.

Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Yankee Magazine, as well as on NEPR and WBUR. Follow her on Twitter: @naomishulman.




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