TikTok is a mobile platform for creating and sharing 15-second videos. Or as stated by Wired (2018), “a short-formed monitised musical meme machine”. TikTok users lip sync, dance and perform to popular songs, dialogue or voiceovers from films and television shows and other audio clips from popular culture and edit the videos creatively using the templates and effects provided on the platform. It is currently the fastest growing social media app for short-form mobile videos and is experiencing a surge of popularity in Asia including Sri Lanka with Mobile Action showing TikTok to be the third most popular app on Google Play Store in Sri Lanka. The mobile research firm Sensor Tower estimates that TikTok has been downloaded approximately 800 million times worldwide by the end of 2018 and this figure does not take into account downloads by Android users in China.
The rising popularity of TikTok is unique for several reasons. For one, it is Chinese owned and was initially popularized by users in China and Asia before being noticed by users in the USA. Approximately only 80 million out of 800 million TikTok downloads are from the USA. Secondly, “TikTok found a way to make allowing regular users to legally play copyrighted music worth the copyright holders’ while. TikTok isn’t offering a new service and then scrambling to monetize it, it’s cashing in on a culture other platforms frown upon.” And while some TikTok stars (popular users) are being offered work in mainstream media similar to the professional trajectory of some YouTube stars, the popularity of the platform has driven celebrities to set up accounts on the platform and join some of the lip sync challenges.
This paper focuses on the top 30 videos under the ceylon_tik_tok hashtag and the comments on those videos. Aside from being a popular hashtag for Sri Lankan TikTok users, Ceylon_tik_tok also brings together a community of TikTok content producers who meet in person in public spaces and create content together that they then publish on TikTok. The users are Sri Lankans and majority are based in Sri Lanka with a few exceptions.
The methodology of this paper consists of two components: the analysis of the videos and the analysis of the comments for creative output.
In analysing the video content, the researchers sought out to answer the following questions; how Sri Lankan women’s sexual expression online questions and shifts norms around women’s sexuality, behaviour and class; how they challenge the false binary of online vs offline; how their use of TikTok shifts the boundaries between public, private and personal domains.
How Sri Lankan women’s sexual expression online questions and shifts norms around women’s sexuality, behaviour and class; how they challenge the false binary of online vs offline; how their use of TikTok shifts the boundaries between public, private and personal domains.
The videos were analysed by comparing them against ascribed gender role expectations for women such as subordination and passivity, respectability, and respectable femininity. The videos were also analysed for how much they conform to or challenge heteronormativity, and the publishing of videos in TikTok amounting to the public was compared with the spaces they were produced in. Where relevant, the findings are also compared against the Feminist Principles of the Internet (FPIs) with specific attention to FPIs on expression, consent, data and privacy, and anonymity.
In order to determine the social perception of the performances, the researchers conducted textual analysis of the comments posted under each video. The top 15 comments from the top six videos under the hashtag were selected for this purpose. The comments can be voted up by the users, and the top comments appear to be in the order of popularity and not chronological. These comments were tabulated on 8th January 2019.
In order to identify and analyse the perceptions of the viewers/users, the comments were tabulated according to the ten categories used by Wotanis and McMillan in their paper on performing Gender on YouTube: supportive, critical/hostile, and omitted from analysis. Under supportive, the comments were further divided into compliment based on video content, compliment based on personality of the performer, and compliment based on the appearance of the performer.
Critical/hostile section was further divided into criticism based on video content, criticism based on personality of the performer, criticism based on the appearance of the performer, inappropriate remarks that are explicitly or aggressively sexual, and inappropriate remarks that were sexist in nature. The comments that were omitted from analysis were ones that were incomprehensible due to syntactic structure, ones where the language used was not one of the official languages or the link language in Sri Lanka (example: Hindi), and comments that appeared to be spam. Comments that could fit into more than one of the above categories were included in multiple categories. Upon data tabulation, another main category had to be created under “ambiguous intent” to file comments that could not be clearly classified as supportive or hostile.
While the methodology in itself is clearly defined, conducting research on the internet brings a new set of questions and ethical conundrums for any researcher.
While the methodology in itself is clearly defined, conducting research on the internet brings a new set of questions and ethical conundrums for any researcher. The researchers of this study faced similar concerns, which are reflected upon at the end of the discussion.
Gender and sexual expression
A majority of the performers presented their gender expression as women. While their gender identity could not be conclusively determined based on the gender expression on their videos or their profiles, most of them presented as cisgender. While the gender expression was clearly as women, there were marked differences in how they took on or challenged ascribed gender role expectations for women.
All performers presenting as women in the top 30 videos had long hair. Hair is “a signifier of information about gender roles, hair is a vehicle to communicate messages about sexual and gender-based preferences, practices, or beliefs” and while Buddhism and Hinduism associated long hair with unrestrained sexuality, post-colonial Sri Lanka as with other South Asian countries, attributes long hair to respectable femininity. Some of the performers use long hair as a device in their performances by touching or flipping the hair, for example ceylon_tik_tok_01 , or in one instance spreading it on the ground (ceylon_tik_tok_30).
Some of the performers use long hair as a device in their performances by touching or flipping the hair or in one instance spreading it on the ground.
Three of the performers had braided their hair into two thick braids, a style that is usually associated in Sri Lanka with how girls wear long hair to school. While this might show them conforming to subordination or respectable femininity, only one of the performers combines this with a shy and submissive performance while dressed in a frock (ceylon_tik_tok_27). The other two combine the braids with crop tops and jeans and one of the performances shows the woman rejecting a man quite vehemently lip synching to “I don’t like you a little bit” (ceylon_tik_tok_03). Therefore the performers seem to be subverting gender role expectations for women by choosing which traits of respectable femininity they would adopt and which they would challenge.
Choice of clothing plays a role in women’s gender expression in the performances although to varying degrees. There are a few performers who wear a saree or a frock and whose performances “conform to behavioral expectations of girls to be passive, quiet and nice”. Many seem to rely less on their clothes to express their gender and sexuality and more on the choreography, facial expressions and movement. Several of the top 30 videos are closeups of just the face of the performer which shows little reliance on clothes. At least one performer combines a frock with sneakers and sunglasses (ceylon_tik_tok_02) and performs choreography that is more “masculinised”.
It is significant that 10 of the top 30 videos are by the same performer. This person presents as a man through their clothes and mannerisms and a majority of their performances are heteronormative. While their gender expression is of a man, their gender identity could be gender nonconforming or nonbinary, something that is constantly under speculation in the comments to their videos as the analysis of the comments would show.
There seems to be a simultaneous challenging of the gender binary in this performer’s videos while also conforming to certain masculine traits through clothes, behavior, mannerisms and choice of songs to lip sync. However the masculinity they express can also be considered a softer masculinity that does not employ certain conventional masculinity traits such as displays of physical strength or virility.
A majority of the performances in the top 30 videos conform to heteronormativity, “the myriad ways in which heterosexuality is produced as a natural, unproblematic, taken-for-granted, ordinary phenomenon”. There are several solo performances where the performer is not lip-synching but rather responding to the lyrics and emotions of a song sung by a man. These performances seem to be directed at a heterosexual audience and performing to the gaze of a heterosexual man.
There are also some performances where a woman and a man (the men presenting as cisgender or gender nonconforming/nonbinary) perform heteronormative interactions which show “asymmetrical gender relations in a binary power structure of dominance and subordination”. For an example, the woman looking sad and pouting if the man stops paying attention (ceylon_tik_tok_21) or the woman blushing and hiding her face if the man pays her attention. These performances are examples of “social pressures [women in Sri Lanka] face and heteronormative structures that continue to be imposed on them”.
These not only perpetuate heterosexuality as the norm but also make the performer conform to traits of respectable femininity. One video that somewhat challenges heteronormativity is where a group of women are seen leaving their boyfriends behind and running after someone who presents as a man but appears less masculine in a conventional sense than the men they were with (beards, mannerisms) (ceylon_tik_tok_05). However it is still focused on reproducing heterosexuality. Another video that challenges heteronormativity is between a woman and the same performer in the earlier example who presents as a man but whose gender identity seems to be ambiguous. They are walking up a public road holding hands and it is not clear what the nature of the relationship they are performing is although there is definitely tenderness in their interaction (ceylon_tik_tok_07).
One video that somewhat challenges heteronormativity is where a group of women are seen leaving their boyfriends behind and running after someone who presents as a man but appears less masculine in a conventional sense than the men they were with (beards, mannerisms)
A few of the videos are interactions just among the people performing in them and while there is clearly an audience, they don’t necessarily seem to be performing for the gaze of a man. Some of them are comedic performances that challenge and break through the traits associated with respectable femininity (ceylon_tik_tok_11). They are not afraid to employ facial expressions, behaviour and movements that are not considered subordinate or passive. One such example is a performance by a woman lip synching to a remix of a recording of a controversial phone call by a Sri Lankan politician (ceylon_tik_tok_20). It is a creative and fun video where her performance is definitely not passive and shows her moving about energetically, doing kicks with her feet, etc.
Perhaps due to the nature of the content on TikTok, there were very few supportive comments that commented on the performer’s personality. While a creative platform that allows individuals to interpret the audio tracks in their own unique ways, it appears that the users/commenters do not make a distinction between the personality of the performer with their choice of video direction/audio selection.
The most common category of supportive comments was compliment based on video content.
The most common category of supportive comments was compliment based on video content. The users/commenters took notice of video settings, inquiring the creator of the location of the video. Contrary to the comments section of other video-based creative platforms like YouTube, the users were more aware of the content and expressed their opinion on the direction of the video. Significant among these were the comments made on the video of the user whose gender presentation is ambiguous; most of the comments under the user’s videos were of the brilliance of concept, and comments on the team work exhibited in the video.
Compliments based on the appearance of the performer was an interesting study, especially in the case of the above user. A majority of the comments questioned the performer’s gender, followed by an expression of affection or support; for example, “girls or boys? So cute”. However, there were comments that assumed the gender of the performer, ascribing the social norms of femininity to identify them as she/her. For example, “both girls r looking so gorgeous *heart-eyes emoji x 3*” can be cited. The comments based on appearance of the performer was thus an engaging study, in terms of a gender non-conforming performance.
In the instance of women performers, though, the existing gender tropes were apparent. One video where the performer simply gazes at the camera, most of the comments focused on their eyes, commenting on how they make one go crazy. It could be noted that eyes were the most commented about physical feature under compliments on appearance.
It is important to note that there were no critical or hostile comments targeting the video content in any of the videos under analysis. This could be an indication that the reception of a creative platform like TikTok is different from that of any other creative content production, where concept/direction are often critiqued. However, this also meant that the negativity was directed towards the appearance of the performer, and in many instances extended to explicit and sexual comments.
When compared to platforms such as YouTube where gender ambiguity or femme-presentation is often met with heavy hostility, the hostility on TikTok was significantly less.
One of the videos where a woman does an active dance that does not necessarily cater to Mulvey’s notion of the male gaze, the comments were pointedly hostile towards her attire. It was apparent from the comments that some users have been following the performer, as “last time full dress now half dress next without dress ha” and “next video la dress remove pannuvigala” (translates to remove the dress in the next video) were among the top comments. This video was also one where the rare sexist remark had been made: “dress properly.. later don’t blame boys”. Thus, social norms that are prevalent offline were not completely absent on this online platform. However, comments such as “see ur dressing sense ..then u upload ur video’s.. but its nice”, coupled with the low frequency of hostile comments on appearance could be indicative of a shift in attitudes on the platform.
When compared to platforms such as YouTube where gender ambiguity or femme-presentation is often met with heavy hostility, the hostility on TikTok was significantly less. Overtly hostile comments on the appearance of the gender ambiguous performer commented on “his” size being too small, and how that could lead to “him” being snapped like beans. The only other sexually explicit remark was on one of their videos, which stated that “tree is small but fruit is big”. It is unclear who the commenter is addressing in their remark.
Most of the ambiguous comments were on the videos done by the gender ambiguous performer. A vast majority of the comments simply questioned their gender, often resorting to a simple “boy or girl?” The performer does not address these comments in any of the videos analysed by the researchers. This was an interesting phenomenon as the users did not appear to have attached any hostility to their line of questioning. In the instances where emojis were used alongside the comments, they were of the confused face or the thinking face. Some of the users had taken to responding to the above question by others with “you who are asking the question must be an alien”, accompanied by the emoji of an alien. Such interactions illustrate the sense of community on the platform. However, the most refreshing element of the comments was the lack of hostility that one has come to expect on most Sri Lankan platforms. This could very well be an indication of the progressive nature of the TikTok users, which comprises of a younger demographic.
A vast majority of the comments simply questioned their gender, often resorting to a simple “boy or girl?”
Expressions and emojis
Emojis are an integral part of online communication, and is generally hailed as the means through which intent and tone can be conveyed. The users of TikTok appear to be heavy users of emojis, as almost all comments were accompanied by one or more. Most common emojiis were the heart emoji and the kissing face. The use of these place the online community and communication norms at an intersection. Combined with the content of comments, classification of comments as positive/supportive or invasive/creepy becomes rather difficult. The researchers came across multiple comments that expressed sentiments such as “I love you” followed by several kissing emojis or hearts. The reception of these comments dictate that the norms of online behaviour are rather different to that of offline behaviour.
Most TikTok content creators are not celebrities.
Most TikTok content creators are not celebrities. Under general conditions, having a virtual stranger walk up to an individual and say “I love you” would constitute of harassment. In instances where one is an offline public performer, while the above sentiment may be accepted with good humour, physical actions such as kissing or hugging would constitute of harassment. However, these norms do not seem to apply online.
Consent and data and privacy
All 30 videos that were analysed were uploaded by the performers to TikTok which by default places them in the public sphere. The researchers are not privy to how much the performers are aware of the consent and privacy policies of TikTok or the lack thereof. TikTok collects user contact details, content created by users, location of users, credit card details, information in messages sent through TikTok, contact list (if user gives permission), information shared from third party social network providers, and technical and behavioural information about how users navigate and use TikTok. TikTok shares this data and information with third party service providers such as cloud storage providers, analytics and search engine providers and other IT service providers, with TikTok’s business partners and advertisers and if required by law then also with law enforcement agencies, public authorities and government bodies.
TikTok shares this data and information with third party service providers such as cloud storage providers, analytics and search engine providers and other IT service providers, with TikTok’s business partners and advertisers and if required by law then also with law enforcement agencies, public authorities and government bodies.
It is evident that while the performances of women and gender nonconforming/nonbinary people on TikTok are advancing the Feminist Principle of the Internet on expression (“right to sexual expression as a freedom of expression”), the FPIs on consent, data and privacy, and anonymity are not adhered to much on the platform. The FPI on consent for an example states that “women’s agency lies in their ability to make informed decisions on what aspects of their public or private lives to share online” and it is clear that the agency enjoyed by the performers in creating unmediated video content freely expressing their gender and sexuality is not extended to the amount of control they have over their content on the platform.
Boundaries between public, private and personal
Another dimension of public, private and personal can be explored through two videos in the top 30 by the same performer. In these videos she is lip synching to the same children’s song about a grandmother. She is playing the role of the grandchild and in one video the role of the grandmother is played by her grandmother (ceylon_tik_tok_10) while in the other it is played by her younger sister (ceylon_tik_tok_28). The videos are very popular given the authenticity of the performances by the grandmother and the sister when compared to the choreographer performativity of many of the videos on TikTok. However a question remains as to how informed they are of where this content that is produced privately and published publicly goes, who gets to view them, what kind of comments and responses they will receive, etc.
Another instance where the boundaries between the public, private and personal are fluid is the Ceylon_tik_tok community. Originally starting as a hashtag and account on TikTok and Instagram, this community has evolved into one that not only interacts with each other from the privacy of their homes or whatever spaces they create their videos from (TikTok gives users the option to create duets by making side-by-side videos of a new video responding to an existing video) but also interacts with each other outside of the platform by organizing meetups. These are often organized in public spaces in Colombo or suburbs and the performers collaborate to create new content on TikTok during the meetups. Some of these involve large groups of people and elaborate performances and in addition to being viewed by the TikTok audience, are first viewed by the general public who are bystanders in the public spaces where they meet.
It also successfully challenges the false binary of online and offline by showing that communities and interactions can fluidly and naturally shift between online and offline and are most often a mixture of the two.
This phenomenon contributes towards shifting norms around women’s gender and sexual expression by not only moving the performances from the privacy of a home to a public space but also by promoting women performing in public spaces just for fun and not in a professional capacity which is usually considered more acceptable. It also successfully challenges the false binary of online and offline by showing that communities and interactions can fluidly and naturally shift between online and offline and are most often a mixture of the two.
“The internet is a space where social norms are negotiated, performed and imposed, often in an extension of other spaces shaped by patriarchy and heteronormativity” and the researchers found this to be largely true of TikTok. However they also found some differences on the platform: the performers played around with their gender and sexual expression through their clothes, facial expressions, dance moves, etc.; and the percentage of hostile comments by users was significantly less than on similar content on YouTube (although the relatively small sample size prevents the drawing of any generalizable conclusion) which might be attributed to TikTok’s younger demographic of users (both the performers and the audience) as well as the nature of content the platform has been oriented for.
The internet has prompted the definition of literacy to be changed. Along with the change in this definition, the communication theories that were most common (sender, medium, receiver) are now being adapted to reflect the current conditions (December 2006). These include indicators of context, tone, and even body language through visual cues. It was observed that emojis or visual cues played a key role in the comments pertaining to this study, allowing the researchers, and possibly the users, to discern the intended tone. Whether these tones are similar to what two strangers would use when interacting with each other offline or not is a question that arises. Communication is subjective the way in which the receiver decodes the message. It appears that the norms pertaining to communication online is different to that offline, although further study is required to validate this assumption.
Furthermore, the features of gendered speech as has been studied in offline communication is being challenged as well. While multiple studies have been done on gendered speech and language in the offline communities, there is little evidence to show distinction based on gender in the online social media platforms. When analysing the comments made under each video, it was almost impossible to guess the gender identity of individual users. The user names furthered this relative anonymity. It could be surmised that the relative anonymity offered by online platforms allow users to behave in an atypical manner when compared to their offline behaviour. Thus, gendered language and speech patterns cannot be identified. The researchers feel this could be a liberating experience for the socially constrained individuals, thus allowing them a platform to express themselves without abiding by established social norms - for they seem to be either non existent, or in the process of being formed on this platform.
The internet is not merely a tool or a social phenomenon, it is also a site of research. When considering the internet in this light, the ethical considerations that are a part of any research site emerges.
The internet is not merely a tool or a social phenomenon, it is also a site of research. When considering the internet in this light, the ethical considerations that are a part of any research site emerges. However, navigating the ethics of conducting internet research is not simple. The fundamental dilemma faced by the authors of this paper was the matter of public, private, and the personal. The data used for the study, the videos and the comments, are freely available on the TikTok platform for any user to view and each video has a permalink that can be viewed outside of the application. One could argue that this means the data is public, and can be freely used for the research without obtaining explicit consent from the users. However, as the writing of this paper, and its presentation, publication, and wide readership would be beyond the scope imagined by the creators of the videos at the point of uploading the videos. Would this mean that explicit consent has to be obtained for the videos to be used for the paper? The matter is further complicated by the presence of third party accounts that repost these videos on other platforms such as Instagram. Such actions expand the reach of the audience, yet one could argue that the general intention of that audience would be similar to that intended by the audience of TikTok. Although the researchers ultimately decided to consider the videos as public data, it is not a perfect solution or a perfect practice (see Feminist Principles of the Internet on privacy and data, memory and anonymity).
“Human subject” is a term that is often debated in the field of social research. While the definition of the word is somewhat concrete in matters of real-life research, the term becomes subjective in internet research. If the individual considers the digital to be an extension of their self, then any material produced and posted online would require the same treatment as a “human subject”; if the individual considers the digital to be similar to writing an article to the public newspaper, it would not be so. As the internet itself is evolving, and its involvement with each individual is heavily subjective, it often becomes the duty of the researcher to interpret the intention of the individual.
There are also people who choose to remain anonymous or to maintain an alternative identity online, which makes it difficult for any researcher to contact them in order to obtain consent.
There are also people who choose to remain anonymous or to maintain an alternative identity online, which makes it difficult for any researcher to contact them in order to obtain consent. The human subjects of this study were assumed to have intended the data to be public. Nonetheless, the fact that the videos are being used for a purpose that is unlikely to have been envisioned by the creators places the study in an ethical conundrum. As extensively discussed in the report “Ethical decision-making and internet research” published by Association of Internet Researchers, these are questions without answers; the answers are subjective and would vary from case to case. And as articulated by the in the case of TikTok and gender and sexual expression on the internet, the researchers chose to approach all data as public; but this may change in future studies if the content undergoes a more in-depth analysis.
The researchers mapped TikTok on the four-quadrant framework by Gender at Work. When observing the framework, it emphasises the importance of understanding the ways in which transformation "moved from individual to collective awareness, then to consciousness and eventually [...] to change in behaviour and discourse". From what the study has shown, a fair conclusion to draw would be that there is a sense of individual awareness. Whether this awareness is conscious or subconscious has to be determined through further study. It is still deeply rooted in the informal or hidden experience, though, as the policies and formal laws are yet to recognise the transformation that has been happening at the ground levels.
It is still deeply rooted in the informal or hidden experience, though, as the policies and formal laws are yet to recognise the transformation that has been happening at the ground levels.
The researchers feel that TikTok is too new as well as the duration and sample size of these notes from the field too limited in order to draw conclusions from the above findings and discussion. However many questions have emerged in the course of writing this paper which warrant further exploration in the future including through interviews with TikTok performers.
- How do TikTok performers navigate the public, private and personal boundaries of filming and publishing videos? For example, are people who share their private and personal spaces such as family aware of and/or supportive of the content they publish in a public space such as TikTok?
- Are TikTok performers aware of the data and privacy terms and conditions of the platform? Would such awareness have an impact on how they use the platform and what they choose to share?
- Do TikTok performers consider their gender and sexual expression on the platform to be political?
- What differences in language can be observed when compared to commenting on similar content in online and offline media? Can the language be considered gendered or not? What has caused this shift in language use?
- How do individuals respond to commentary that express affection or admiration? How is this different to the response to similar commentary offline? What are the reasons behind this difference?
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