Douyin/TikTok and Generation Z: Online Communities and Identification

Since January 2022 I have been working on a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Project on video-sharing platforms and youth culture, at Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence and Fudan University in Shanghai .

How are video-sharing social networks such as TikTok modifying forms of online participation and sense of group belonging among youth? And what may the consequences be for society? The fastest growing social media application, with over 1.4 billion downloads and 800 million active users worldwide as of September 2020, the Chinese social network Douyin/TikTok epitomises what may be described as a second generation of social media, ensuing after the first wave of the 2000s and 2010s. Compared to text-based first wave social media such as Facebook and Twitter, this second generation is marked by the dominance of audio-visual content, such as the 15 second videos of TikTok, by light-hearted and often goofy videos, dance crazes, in which users imitate the funny dance moves popularised by celebrities or young “dubsmashers”, lip-sync to the tune of famous pop music songs or participate in all sorts of video-recorded “internet challenges” and related “trends”.

Studying TikTok provides an entry-point to explore the culture and ethos of that generation most strongly identified with it: the so-called generation Z or Zoomers comprising those born since the late 1990s, and are now teenagers or in their 20s: 41 percent of TikTok users are aged 16–24. It has been speculated that the turn of young people towards TikTok reflects a suspicion towards first generation social media sites and the way they have been “colonised” by older people. However, there is little systematic research about this social media to consider how this emerging “style of participation” is different from first-generation social media and how it reflects shifting generational values. In-depth empirical research is called for to explore whether the logic of commenting and sharing of first-generation social media is giving way to a different logic based on emulation and citation.

The project funded by the EU Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) programme focuses on how these new forms of interaction are connected with new forms of identification in groups and communities.

Research Questions: How are groups and communities constituted on TikTok? How do they recognise themselves? What are the identifiers of membership in a community (for example hashtags, emojis, fashion etc.)? Are there many overlapping and fluid or few consistent communities? Are these communities inclusive or exclusive, low or high threshold in terms of access?

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 101030375