I Am the Main Character

Understanding TikTok as young people’s media practice.

In 2021 I submitted my master’s thesis on the topic of TikTok. Below is the abstract and you can find the link to the entire dissertation here.

As of January 2021, the video production and sharing app TikTok had 689 million monthly users. Though it is hard to measure precisely how many of those users are young people, there is no doubt that the app is particularly popular among children and teens. Much of the discourse around TikTok in the mainstream media has taken a negative view of this, portraying the app as a discrete entity capable of having a direct effect on its young users. This view fails to appreciate the complexity of the relationships between the app and its users, and has led to an unbalanced understanding of the app itself. In an attempt to redress that balance, this study seeks to acknowledge the popularity of TikTok with young people in order to better understand its use, asking the seemingly simple question: why TikTok? That is to say, what is it specifically about TikTok that has made it such a success with young people? Starting with a re-interpretation of the app as a media using a framework derived from mediatisation research, practice theory is used to hone in on the particular ways in which young people use TikTok. Four videos which exemplify the concept of the ‘main character’ – a video ‘trend’ on the app – are analysed through this practice-based lens. In an attempt to interrogate the fixed nature of the categories adult/child and structure/agency, a basic language of media practice is established which helps us to comprehend the ways in which young people are negotiating their own spaces for exploration in a world which otherwise offers them very little tangible power. This has been undertaken with the aim of better comprehending how and where young people choose to engage with the world around them and what part new digital media such as TikTok have to play in that process.