Earlier than she made it huge on TikTok, Blackmon had constructed modest followings on different platforms. On YouTube, she posted movies about her life in a collection she referred to as STORYTIME. She talked about getting married at 19 (she’s since divorced) and the time she tried (and failed, hilariously) to work as a stripper. Constructing an viewers on Instagram proved more durable. “It’s a must to be on trip,” Blackmon says, “or doing one thing extravagant,” which she wasn’t. She did not really feel as if she may very well be herself.
One other app Blackmon checked out, however solely as a spectator, was Vine. Launched in 2013, Vine was TikTok earlier than TikTok. With a remarkably easy premise—add six-second movies that will loop infinitely—Vine appealed to a dopamine-crazed tradition that desired virality in brief, repetitive bursts.
However the true attract of the app may very well be traced, largely, to the ingenuity of the Black creators who made a lot of its most irresistible content material. Purchased by Twitter in 2012, Vine turned the dominant engine of Black tradition on the web from round 2014 to 2016. It rivaled Twitter in its capability to incubate tendencies, hyping Southern dance crazes such because the Nae Nae and career-boosting comedians like King Bach. “I used to be there for the quick comedy,” Blackmon says. Arguably Vine’s greatest affect was the way it mainstreamed Black slang. In one of the vital acknowledged Vines throughout that interval, 16-year-old Kayla Newman—greatest identified by her alias, Peaches Monroee—delights in her personal fabulousness. “On fleek” was born, and The Tradition adjusted accordingly.
The app ultimately went bust. Its success led rivals, like Instagram, to create their very own video options. And in contrast to YouTube, Vine by no means discovered a strategy to share income with customers; a deal to pay prime creators to supply content material fell by means of in 2015. Massive names departed the platform, and revenues dwindled. In 2017, Twitter shut down Vine, and it was mourned largely by millennials and Gen Zers who’d made a house on the platform.
Round that point, ByteDance, a Beijing-based tech firm on the forefront of Chinese language social media, was launching an app referred to as Douyin. Within the early days, it was used to create do-it-yourself music movies, however customers rapidly turned it right into a market for all types of short-form content material. By 2018, ByteDance had launched the app outdoors China, acquired the lip-sync app Musical.ly, and renamed the worldwide model TikTok. Vine supercharged—movies have been now capped at 15 seconds, and later 60—TikTok additionally supplied a collection of modifying instruments, from filters to green-screen particular results, that gave creators near-limitless prospects.
To start with, TikTok’s embrace of wackiness and absence of something even marginally critical was its prime attraction, and its most marketable one. Twitter was preoccupied with millennial bickering; the election of Donald Trump turned Fb right into a political echo chamber; Instagram felt plastic; avid gamers ran Twitch. On TikTok, youngsters simply wished to have enjoyable. It was a spot for dance challenges and wellness how-tos, film opinions and the type of existence-pondering comedy sketches BoJack Horseman may put up have been he on the app (or actual). The platform elevated creativity and experimentation above all else; its algorithm, as Blackmon places it, is beneficiant. Although customized based mostly on person exercise, For You feeds retain a light-weight randomness—in keeping with TikTok, the algorithm tries to keep away from duplicating content material or privileging accounts with massive followings. As Blackmon says, “it is one of many solely locations the place you possibly can haven’t any following, no content material, and also you put up one factor and it will get 1,000,000 views in a day.”
Blackmon signed up for TikTok in February, a few month earlier than the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders began coming down. Like a diary, a lot of her early movies chronicle day by day mundanities—cooking a buffalo rooster wrap, speaking about pure hair, declaring a newfound love for iced espresso. “I do not know what Caucasian girl acquired into me, however iced espresso—bitch!” Blackmon says, elevating the glass into the video body. “Properly name me Karen, OK,” she jokes, invoking the meme for privileged white womanhood. With greater than half 1,000,000 views, it was her first viral hit; she’d been on the app lower than a month. Per week later, she struck gold once more. A video of Blackmon dancing with a stranger within the restroom mirror at a membership racked up 615,000 views.
TikTok, it turned out, was paying homage to Vine in additional methods than one. The widespread denominator of a lot of its viral moments is an unstated partiality to Black cultural expression. It really works like an accelerant. Chart-topping rap songs, from the likes of Drake and Ok Camp and Megan Thee Stallion, present the soundtrack to weekly dance challenges. Lil Nas X is the app’s first breakout artist, and its most acknowledged pedagogue round self-improvement, Tabitha Brown, is a Black mom and vegan from North Carolina. When, on the finish of 2019, a random voicemail of a Black girl colorfully referring to her coworker Rachel as a “huge, fats, white, nasty-smelling, fats bitch” started to flow into, the girl’s hostility and perceived sassiness turned a fancy dress for everybody to placed on and make their very own. The collective fascination once more proved the purpose. As Blackmon places it, “Be clear: With out Black tradition, TikTok would not even be a factor.”