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Move over, Instagram influencers: The magic of TikTok is authenticity

Despite an uncertain future in the US, the social video app could have lasting implications for what we want from social media.

Abrar Al-Heeti Technology Reporter
Abrar Al-Heeti is a technology reporter for CNET, with an interest in phones, streaming, internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. She's also worked for CNET's video, culture and news teams. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.
Expertise Abrar has spent her career at CNET analyzing tech trends while also writing news, reviews and commentaries across mobile, streaming and online culture. Credentials
  • Named a Tech Media Trailblazer by the Consumer Technology Association in 2019, a winner of SPJ NorCal's Excellence in Journalism Awards in 2022 and has three times been a finalist in the LA Press Club's National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.
Abrar Al-Heeti
6 min read

In what experts say could be a long-term shift, people are posting more unfiltered content on social media during COVID-19 lockdowns. For many, the polished life of Instagram influencers is less alluring during a pandemic.

Angela Lang/CNET

With people spending more time at home during the coronavirus pandemic, there's been a noticeable shift in the kinds of content posted online. These days, you won't see many photos of sunny Hawaiian vacations or over-the-top parties. Instead, platforms like TikTok have flooded social media feeds with pajama-clad, makeup-free creators trying to stay entertained by posting everything from simple skits to rants to candid moments.

Another trend has picked up steam on TikTok: mocking Instagram influencers for what many perceive as superficial content focused on product promotions and super polished looks. Countless creators on TikTok have posted videos pretending to be an influencer, starting off with the YouTube and  Instagram influencer catchphrase, "A lot of you guys have been asking about…" before jumping into mock routines for simple practices like applying hand sanitizer. 

Erika Priscilla, a 27-year-old TikTok creator from New Jersey, regularly impersonates influencers by posting fake tutorials for basic tasks like putting hair in a bun and sharing updates about "secret projects" with over-the-top excitement. She posted her first parody video in late spring mocking the "influencer catchphrase," and it instantly went viral. She now has more than 260,000 followers on TikTok. 

"There's a huge audience that watches these videos of these influencers and thinks the same thing," Priscilla said. "I'm just the person that's saying what everyone's thinking." 

Chinese-owned TikTok has had a tumultuous few months in the US, with the Trump administration pushing to bar downloads of the app, citing data privacy concerns. But with TikTok's exponential rise in popularity amid COVID-19 lockdowns, the app has ushered in an era of unfiltered personality and humor not typically found on sites like Facebook-owned Instagram. Instagram has long been a platform where polished snapshots of lavish trips and designer products score the most likes. TikTok's algorithm, by comparison, regularly surfaces videos by everyday creators who may not have the same large following and deep pockets as famous influencers. The app appears to be tapping into many social media users' appetites for more authentic, relatable content.

"I don't think scrolling through Instagram feeds of beautiful people living their perfect lives is entertaining," says psychologist Bart Andrews, vice president of clinical practice and evaluation at nonprofit counseling center Behavioral Health Response. "Now people are really looking for a more significant distraction. They want to be entertained. They want their boredom to be broken."

Below the surface

Overall social media use has increased during the pandemic, with around half of US adults reporting they've been using these platforms more since the COVID-19 outbreak, according to the Harris Poll. TikTok in particular has seen significant spikes in use over the last several months. The app, which merged with short-form app Musical.ly in 2018, gained 300 million downloads by the end of the first quarter of 2020, according to a Verizon report. Its user engagement doubled from February to March. Another report, by finance news publisher Finbold, found that in August, TikTok had 44.6 million downloads, while Instagram had 38.5 million and Facebook had 22.1 million. 

Last month, President Donald Trump called for ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, to sell the app or risk being banned in the US. Trump last week approved a deal "in concept" for Oracle and Walmart to acquire stakes in TikTok's US operations, postponing a ban on downloads that was first slated to go into effect Sept. 20 and pushing it to Sept. 27. But on Sunday, a US District Court judge granted TikTok's request for a preliminary injunction, further delaying any potential bans.

A key appeal of TikTok is its focus on humor, with videos ranging from pranks to embarrassing moments to videos of cats pouncing on their owners. That can be a coping mechanism for the stresses of the pandemic, says Wallace Chipidza, assistant professor in the Center for Information Systems and Technology at Claremont Graduate University. If someone is funny, he notes, people don't care as much about what they look like. They become more consumed in the quality of the content itself, rather than the overall aesthetic. 

"There's a shift in the culture around not wanting to project an inauthentic version of yourself, because people have gotten a little tired of that," says Kudzi Chikumbu, creator community director at TikTok. "Especially in this year, that is kind of interesting and wild, people are coming back to themselves and wanting to share their authenticity."

With nearly a third of US TikTok users between 10 and 19, the app largely caters to a younger demographic hungry for more authenticity, says Kendall Cotton Bronk, psychology professor at Claremont Graduate University. That doesn't mean members of Generation Z are always able to recognize artificiality when they see it, but a 2018 CNBC report found sincerity is critical to many in Gen Z, "with 67 percent of those surveyed agreeing that 'being true to their values and beliefs makes a person cool.'" 

But TikTok is by no means perfect, especially when it comes to showcasing the diversity of its creators. Many of TikTok's most popular creators, such as Charli D'Amelio and Addison Rae, are young and white. Creators of color have repeatedly called for better representation on the app's For You page, which shows videos based on a user's history and the company's algorithm. One researcher also observed that TikTok's recommendation system would only suggest creators with similar physical traits, from race to body type to hair color. He warned this could create bubbles that prevent users from being exposed to a variety of people and content.

But when users are exposed to others with shared experiences and emotions -- regardless of ethnicity, race, religion or gender -- it can help them feel less isolated, especially during the pandemic. 

"People are looking around and they're seeing everybody is kind of in the same boat," Andrews says. "Seeing more people like you in social media has a normalizing, calming effect."

This desire for more authentic content isn't new. For years, campaigns championing untouched photos of models have gained popularity in advertisements and magazines. As the pandemic has reshaped our lives, we've been exposed to even more unfiltered content, with everyone from news anchors to television hosts broadcasting from home. That authenticity is now extending deeper into social media as people push back against platforms that suppress posts by "unattractive" users -- something TikTok itself was in hot water for earlier this year. The company has said these policies are no longer being used by moderators.    

Lasting changes

Time spent on social media will likely drop once things eventually go back to normal, Andrews predicts. But Chipidza says the shift in the kinds of content we post will probably stay.

"Content needs change over time," he says. "There definitely is going to be an evolution. For better or for worse, we will see new kinds of usage."

Even with TikTok dominating the short-form video space, it's too soon to write off platforms like Instagram and parent company Facebook, says Corbett Drummey, CEO of influencer marketing and content creation platform Popular Pays. In fact, he notes, features like Instagram Stories (along with its disappearing-photo predecessor Snapchat) arguably did help to usher in more real, unfiltered content. The social media giant will likely continue to iterate on Reels until it becomes the kind of platform that gives TikTok a run for its money, even if that means shifts in strategy and content. Many TikTok creators also continue to point followers to their Instagram accounts -- something they began doing more urgently following news of a possible TikTok ban in the US

"It's early, but we're excited by the range of content our global community has shared on Reels," a Facebook Company representative said in a statement. "We're continuing to build and improve the experience."

Priscilla, the TikTok creator, says things are definitely shifting across the board. She's been noticing more authentic content make its way onto Instagram, too, as people spend time at home.

"Influencers are opening up more in a real way," she says. "At this point, that's what everyone wants to see. They just want to see something they can relate to."

Watch this: TikTok, WeChat app ban explained