I accidentally went viral on TikTok. I learned we failed our youngest generation.


(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Anna Grajales, Global Shaper, Leon Hub

It’s 7:05 AM. I’m waiting to board a flight, coffee in hand – but I’m filled with dread. I’ve never understood why people make a line before the flight allows passengers to board the plane, especially if everyone has a ticket and, therefore, a guaranteed seat. I stare at the line as I see my business partner make her way to the end of it. Incorrigible.

I grab my cellphone, open TikTok and record a 15-second clip questioning human behavior. I caption it: “Stop waiting in line to get on a plane!” and post my complaint in the social media abyss.

This was only the beginning.


Since the notifications on my phone are disabled, I forgot about it, quite frankly. A new city and a couple hours later, I opened the app and see my 15-second complaint had almost 15,000 views and all sorts of comments. I guess I had gone viral on TikTok – but what does that even mean?

Founded in 2014 by Alex Zhu and Lulu Yang under the name Music.ly, TikTok originally started as a lip-syncing app. Yes, you read that right. In 2017, the company was acquired for $1 billion by Beijing-based media and tech company ByteDance. The company merged Music.ly with their own very similar app, TikTok, and relaunched it as a new app for making short videos.

Soon after the merger, TikTok absorbed Music.ly’s content and users, and it took off. In less than three years, TikTok garnered up to 500 million users in 155 countries and 75 different languages, and was downloaded 1.5 billion times in 2019. The amount of data collected by the app is the main reason why the US banned the use of it for its military…but that’s a topic for another conversation.

TikTok downloads
TikTok has been downloaded more than 1.5 billion times.
Image: Oberlo

I joined TikTok two months prior to going viral, for research. As a millennial screenwriter working on a blockbuster comedy geared toward centennials, it seemed like a good way to get to know them in a non-invasive way. At first, I started uploading videos of quick parodies, trying to test out what kind of humor they appreciate.

If I’m being honest, the app is very confusing for a creator. As a viewer, however, it’s awesome. There’s no need to follow anyone, although you can if you’d like. As soon as you open the app, a video awaits. Slide up and get another one. And another one. This makes the app addictive. Most users spend an hour on the app daily – and while that might not seem a lot by today’s standards, keep in mind each video is 15 seconds long, with some even shorter. One week into using the app, I couldn’t tell you why or how any video gets featured on the “For You” page – and three months later, I still can’t.

You’ll find a range of videos, from political or social parodies to teens doing their makeup or showing off their outfits, to more toxic ones, in which teens bully or mock other teens for a laugh. The thing the videos have in common is that they’re all created by very young teens. According to stats, 41% of users are between the ages of 16 and 24.

Tik Tok app conquers teens of the world
41% of TikTok users are between ages 16 and 24.
Image: Oberlo

Back to my own viral video.

I checked the comments. A few commenters agreed with me on airport lines, but the majority did not. But they didn’t simply disagree – they called me idiotic, or uncultured (to put it more appropriately). One comment even criticized the shape of my teeth. I have no idea what that had to do with airport lines, but the commenter seems to have been triggered by them.

These comments were familiar. I’ve seen them on Twitter many times and on Facebook every time I post something political. But it was odd to see 16-year-olds commenting in this way. Centennials are more laid-back, right? They are self-aware and know so much more about society than my generation at their age. They are the Greta Thunbergs, they created the March for Our Lives. They are the first generation to grow up with the internet and the full-on switch to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These hateful comments must be learned behavior.

Wait a minute – is this what we taught them?

media, entertainment and culture

What is the World Economic Forum doing about improving online safety?

With almost 3.8 billion people now online globally, the digital world offers significant benefits, but also poses the risks of harmful content.

The Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM), created by the World Federation of Advertisers, is scaling its impact by partnering with the World Economic Forum’s platform for Media, Entertainment and Culture to improve the safety of digital environments, addressing harmful and misleading media while protecting consumers and brands.

GARM focuses on ensuring viewer safety for consumers, reducing risks for advertisers, developing credibility for digital platforms and, more broadly, ensuring a sustainable online ecosystem.

The Alliance is working with the Forum’s network of industry, academic, civil society and public-sector partners to amplify its work on digital safety and to ensure that consumers and their data are protected online within a healthier media ecosystem.

Businesses can join the Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Media, Entertainment and Culture and apply to partner with the Alliance and similar initiatives. Read more in our Impact Story or contact us to find out more.

Millennials were the first generation to dictate the conduct of online behavior. It’s not that other generations didn’t contribute, but millennials were the early adopters of most, if not all, social media platforms and online interactions. Older generations are responsible for the trolls, the influencers and the fake news. We made hate the automatic response to adversity, and our lack of tolerance stopped any kind of dialogue that would lead to progress. And the younger generations took notes. We failed them.

Does this mean we all must create TikTok accounts and be nice to centennials? No, not really. But if we want to solve any of the burning issues, we need to set an example and focus on what we have in common, not how we’re different. Having the last word does not make you the wisest person in the room – but taking the time to understand our differences and accepting others’ opinions might.

I replied to every single comment on my TikTok video, with humor, of course. Then, with 30,000 views and 15 seconds of fame, I put my airport opinions to rest. If anything, I learned an important lesson on why hate should not be the automatic response to a different point of view – and why we need to change this behavior in ourselves to set the example for the youngest generations.

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