TikTok’s popularity skyrocketed as young people were stuck indoors because of COVID-19. And among the dances and viral challenges on the app, there’s a thriving queer community.
This month on Offbeat, we dig into LGBTQ TikTok. How has the app helped viewers and creators feel less alone? And, in this month’s question segment: How does the TikTok algorithm determine what content goes on the For You page?
Offbeat: Queer TikTok in Quarantine
Saniya Masood: It took me like 20 years to figure out my sexuality, and like TikTok did it in a matter of two seconds. Like, are you kidding me? That was so frustrating. Like, I was just like, “How did you know?”
Allison Mollenkamp: Welcome to Offbeat, a podcast from The Diamondback. I’m your new host, Allison Mollenkamp.
For nearly a year, Americans have been social distancing, with the internet as their main window out into the world. Some used it to learn to bake. Others watched every episode of their favorite show.
TikTok’s popularity skyrocketed as young people were stuck indoors. And among the dances and viral challenges on the app, there’s a thriving queer community.
This month on Offbeat, we’re digging into the impact of LGBTQ TikTok. Like every episode of our show, this one started in a pitch meeting. The idea came from Offbeat reporter Rosa Pyo. This story wouldn’t exist without her, so from here on out I’m handing her the reigns. You’re in good hands.
Rosa Pyo: In August, UMD sophomore and finance and supply chain management major Cat Agostini posted a TikTok about which way to wear their hat: forwards or backwards. When she posted the TikTok, Cat had 11 followers, mostly friends.
Cat Agostini: The absolute stupidest TikTok I have ever made, and I will stand by it. It’s completely stupid. And I like hashtagged it like LGBT, #Lesbian, I put all the hashtags I could to get to the gays.
Rosa: But something about that TikTok resonated with people, and their following grew. 11 became 40. 40 became 400 overnight. They now have well over 40 thousand followers.
Cat’s content is decidedly queer. She routinely posts jokes about being a lesbian or nonbinary that gets hundreds of likes.
But some of Cat’s content, and often what truly goes viral, is a little more earnest — things like “sneakier things you can do to be more masculine in an environment that might not be accepting” or advice for flirting. Sometimes it’s as simple as reminding people to eat a meal or drink water.
Cat says they want to be like a queer older sibling to younger LGBTQ people on TikTok.
Cat: Like, I’ve got you. Like ask me questions. Ask me advice. Because I wish I had me. I wish I had anyone. So I’ve established family of like older people who can teach me things and help me be a better person and then I also like am really happy to have the platform to help people younger than me try and navigate all of this, because it’s a lot.
Rosa: Cat grew up in a strict Catholic household and wasn’t given a lot of positive messaging about queer people as a kid. They knew from an early age they were attracted to women. But it wasn’t until high school that Cat started to see more positive representation on shows like Orange is the New Black.
Cat: So all of my content started positively showing like queer people. And I was like, “Oh shit, this is a pos…” Like I had always been introduced to it as a negative, so seeing it as a positive I was like, ‘Oh, like this is a good thing. This is like normal and like other people have, you know, the same kind of thoughts or sexuality as I do.
Rosa: TV helped Cat in her journey, and now they use TikTok to give that same support to young queer people. But the idea of an online space for the LGBTQ community isn’t new.
Maggie Dailer: I started to like sort of watch a lot of like YouTube videos about like, like YouTube LGBTQ+ creators like coming out and exploring their sexuality. And then I was like, “Wait, why am I watching these?” And then I would watch like a bunch of shows with different types of representation and I was like “OK, there’s something there.” And then I was like, I started to accept that like, that’s who I was.
Rosa: This is Maggie Dailer. She’s also a TikTok creator. She has 60 thousand followers, and she’s a junior studying kinesiology and psychology at UMD.
Maggie has found community on TikTok, and it helps her to continue to understand and articulate her own identity.
Maggie: Like a couple of my videos are like struggling using the word like “lesbian” to define myself even though like I only like girls and then like other people like validating that is validating that for me. But it’s also validating that for others. And it’s like “OK, we’re all collectively feeling this. Let’s, like, break this down. Why are we feeling this way? What can we do to change it?
Rosa: The opportunities for those conversations have grown alongside the app where they’re taking place. In late 2019, TikTok had just under 40 million active users in the US. By August 2020, that number had grown past 100 million. Globally, TikTok reports it’s been downloaded more than 2 billion times.
The growth coincides with the beginning of stay-at-home orders in the U.S.. Quarantine got Maggie started on TikTok and social distancing has created an opportunity for some to reflect about their sexuality.
Maggie: A bunch of people have commented on my videos saying like I’ve helped them come out, and I just think that’s crazy. I’m like, “Wow, like I needed like this growing up.” And like I had this with like a bunch of different YouTubers and then the fact that like I’m being this for other people is kind of really cool to me.
Rosa: Maggie wants to make a space where people can see their experiences represented, even if it’s not the big serious stuff.
Maggie: I don’t make too like in-depth content. But like just something that can like entertain people or like be like, “Oh, I felt like this” or “This is how I feel right now.” I just think that’s really cool, and I’m just trying to be someone that like I would have enjoyed like watching like growing up.
Rosa: And there are certainly young people on TikTok. Nearly a third of the app’s American users are between the ages of 10 and 19. But nearly another third are between 20 and 29. This includes some UMD students.
Saniya Masood is a senior psychology major at UMD, and she got really into TikTok last year.
Saniya: Obviously during quarantine I got a little addicted to it.
Rosa: Saniya felt relieved to learn about other queer people’s experiences. It made her feel less alone.
Saniya: I’m like not the only person who thinks like this? And it was just like really really, it was like a weight lifted off my shoulder because I felt like I was like weird kind of just like, I don’t know, the stuff that I like used to explore my sexuality. But then like people kept coming out with like their stories and I was just like, “Wait a second, OK, I’m normal, this is OK.”
Rosa: After years of thinking about and exploring her sexuality on her own, Saniya had a new source of LGBTQ representation. But the representation itself was limited in scope, because TikTok’s most famous creators are often white.
Saniya: I come from a pretty traditional household. I’m Muslim, and I’m Pakistani. And that is like … uh. That’s like a little scary to kind of put on the internet because there’s not that much representation in that area. There’s like maybe like three people I know on TikTok who are Muslim and gay, but I’m sure there’s more, it’s just I’ve only seen three people who are like really famous.
Rosa: Saniya’s experience on TikTok has been mostly positive. She says there’s an “abundance of acceptance” on the app, including support on the bad days. But her experience highlights the need for queer representation that’s truly intersectional. If LGBTQ content only looks one way, it can be harder for people who don’t fit the cookie cutter mold.
Saniya: There’s just like no representation. That’s why it was like really hard for me to kind of accept that I was bi because it’s kind of looked down upon in my culture. And, yeah, so when I saw people, like those three people that I know on TikTok, the famous people on TikTok, it was like really refreshing honestly, just cause I’m like “OK, if they can be openly gay and they also, you know, love their religion, Islam, and I can do the same. Like why can’t, why can’t I live my life like that too?
Rosa: Saniya’s advice for young people exploring their sexuality is to take your time and not feel pressured to choose a label early on.
It’s advice Aidan Appelson is taking when it comes to gender. They say nonbinary feels like a placeholder for now, while they dig deeper into what their gender expression looks like.
It’s a process the past year has helped make possible.
Aidan: It was really interesting over quarantine, like once, once I really didn’t have to, I don’t know, present myself to other people every day, it became … at first it sort of started out as laziness. Like I used to put a lot of effort into like my outfits. So I then started wearing like basketball shorts around the house every day so that sort of started to fall apart. But then I think after a while when I started getting bored of that it was “Well, what do I want to wear now if no one else is gonna see?”
Rosa: The freshman biology major was inspired by a TikTok creator who they followed for trick shots, who posted a video wearing a dress one day. The dress wasn’t a big deal, and Aidan applies that ethos to their own ventures into makeup and jewelry.
Aidan: I almost don’t like the idea of “Oh, wow, but this is a huge change for you.” I’m like, “No, this is, this is just something else that I’m sort of exploring.” I don’t think it needs to be like this super explosive thing like if you’re … to me, finding out like oh, yeah, I don’t know if I want to identify as a male anymore, as a man. I prefer to be nonbinary. I think that should be the equivalent of someone being like, “I think I want to be a baker” after quarantine.
Rosa: Within the larger queer space in TikTok, there are many smaller pockets, each with their own culture and stars.
Chloe Mañus, a UMD senior, shared some of his favorites.
Chloe Mañus: There’s like a whole niche of like lesbians specifically that like actually work at Lowes and Home Depot and they make TikToks about like their experiences working or like lesbians and trans people specifically that work on farms and they make TikToks about that. Those are my two favorite niches.
Rosa: So whether you want to see behind the scenes at Lowes or be inspired by people finding their style outside the gender binary, queer TikTok provides an opportunity for people in the LGBTQ community to share experiences.
For Cat, putting on a hat led to finding a family.
Cat: Having all of those people who are the nicest and sweetest people to a random internet stranger from New Jersey who makes stupid TikToks about not having a girlfriend, it’s, yeah it’s basically the family that I’ve chosen.
Rosa: So we’ve heard from some queer TikTok creators and their content consumers, but how does the TikTok algorithm choose what content ends up on the For You Page? How is it different from other social media? And what problems does the algorithm have? We’ve got some answers for you on this episode’s question segment.
Dr. Jen Golbeck: When you reached out and were like, could you talk about queer TikTok I’d be like, “Yes, I can because this is all I’ve been thinking about for the last month.”
Rosa: This is Dr. Jen Golbeck, an information studies professor here at UMD. She studies social media, artificial intelligence, privacy and other related topics, and she sometimes even teaches a class called “Becoming a Social Media Influencer.” I talked with her to get an understanding of how TikTok’s algorithm works.
Rosa: How are social media algorithms leading people to content they’re interested in?
Golbeck: At a high level, there’s essentially two ways that we do it. So one is to look at stuff that you liked or interacted with … and then once we have that we’ll either look at stuff that’s similar to that, so if you like this video, maybe you like some of these other videos, because those videos are kind of like the one that you like … The other way to do it is to say, “OK, well you liked this video and maybe like 10 videos. Here’s other people who liked those 10 videos, and here’s stuff that they liked.”
Rosa: I think TikTok has been really interesting within quarantine because it had a really huge uptick during it. So, how does TikTok differ from other social media?
Golbeck: An interesting thing about TikTok is that, you know, obviously you can follow people and then you get a lot of content from those people. But so much of the interaction on TikTok is from the For You Page, which has a mix of a lot of people that you don’t follow trying to pull you into more creators and new topics and really discover what you like. And that’s not really the way that most social media works. Most of the time, you’re really heavily focused on the people that you’ve chosen to follow … The algorithm is working really hard to try to find creators and content that you’re going to like because so many people spend time on that For You Page that’s algorithmically generated for them.
Rosa: You said there’s two different ways that the algorithm works and you know social media sites use both ways so often, how would you say that TikTok kind of leans and how its algorithm works?
Golbeck: Likes are sort of important and comments and interactions are sort of important, but watching the videos is really a thing that they want to do the most of … What they’re doing on top of that is, you know, trying to very closely model what your interests are, what the topics are that you care about. And, and then show you more things that are like that. And it works remarkably well. They’re really good at getting these kind of nuanced profiles of people in precisely matching your interests, and you can also tell when it goes wrong, like if you go down a rabbit hole and look at a bunch of stuff you don’t like your For You Page is going to be screwed up for a while potentially.
Rosa: Like many others, Golbeck felt seen when the TikTok algorithm figured out her sexuality and started feeding her tailored videos.
Golbeck: I’m a bisexual woman married to a cis, straight man. So my bisexuality is like very hidden, right? Like I sort of had the privilege that comes with that, but also like my queerness is erased to the outside world. And so then to have Tiktok be like, “Oh, you’re a crazy bisexual lady, like here’s a bunch of lesbians for you.” I’m like, “Yes, thank you for understanding me, Tiktok, in a way that like other people don’t.”
Rosa: We’ve been focusing on LGBTQ nonbinary folks, especially those that are people of color that don’t really fit within the cookie-cutter mold of kind of what people see as the LGBTQ plus community. I was just wondering about … how the algorithm kind of gives a preference to white people in LGBTQ+ communities, when it’s like promoting content on the For You Pages.
Golbeck: It’s a great question … TikTok really wants creators to have a particular topic that they’re focused on and to be really precise about it … this is just kind of a guess based on what I’m understanding from these videos is that what we may be seeing in these kind of intersectional communities where you have people who are talking about LGBTQ issues but also issues that people of color face is that the algorithm’s a little confused because it’s gonna see those as two different things … And if that kind of splits your audience, you’re not going to be featured as highly in the algorithm. So that’s a guess. But I think if you do have gay creators of color, that they’re going to be talking about those intersectional issues and they’re going to get split because of that by the algorithm.
Rosa: Would you say that there’s an issue within social media algorithms, specifically on TikTok with seeing intersectionality?
Golbeck: For sure … the TikTok algorithm like, it’s so automated, it’s so nuanced that, yeah — intersectionality can absolutely throw it off.
Allison: Thanks for listening to Offbeat. I’m your host Allison Mollenkamp. This episode was created by Riley Brennan, Sara Chernikoff, Amelia Jarecke, Kimi Fleming, Clara Longo de Freitas, and Rosa Pyo. And a special thanks to friend of the pod Colin Fox for lending AA batteries in our time of need.
Our music this month is “Hot Damn” by Marco Sesay. You can find him on Soundcloud. If you’d like to hear your music featured on the show DM us on Twitter @dbkoffbeat. And follow The Diamondback on Twitter and Instagram @thedbk.
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Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next month with a brand new episode.