The joy of authenticity
Where once we looked for “relatability” in the figures we followed online, TikTok shows how today something else defines the world’s most watchable people: they show up as the most authentically, joyfully and completely who-they-are versions of themselves.
How exactly do we hold on to joy? It’s a question you might ask as you find yourself watching OnlineKyne (@onlinekyne) educate you with a brief but illuminating TikTok about something called a Möbius strip. Dressed in a violet satin gown, with a glossy brunette lace front and diamanté earrings that reach her collarbone, the mathematician and drag queen works to fill sizeable gaps in our knowledge. Safe to say, Year 11 Algebra class this ain’t.
You might find yourself sold on Kyne Santos’s brand of charm and comedy even if you’re not entirely sure why. Santos, incidentally, enjoys an audience of more than 1 million followers on TikTok, so there’s evidently a market for getting hopped up on this very specific source of joy. This is, it has to be said, no mean feat considering that much of her page consists of chat about tetrahedrons and trapezoids – but that’s the power of charisma, plus Santos’s own enthusiasm for math itself.
You might keep scrolling and find the common denominator in where your joy arises, delighting in watching people such as Khaby (@khaby.lame), one of the biggest TikTokers on the planet and, with more than 110 million followers, the biggest in Europe, as he sends his trademark shrug and baffled look to camera over the airwaves. Khaby, for those unfamiliar, posts long-suffering reaction videos to increasingly complicated and absurd life hacks. Born in Senegal and raised in Italy, his beautifully simple mime routines ask for respite from the contagion of “perfect” lifestyle bloggers via a cure of common sense, all without saying a word (though he broke his silence to offer us an exclusive interview in this issue of TikTok For You).
Khaby’s posts include gestures such as offering a knife to Queen Elizabeth as she struggles to cut a cake with a Grenadier Guard’s sword, or suggesting using a peeler instead of your teeth to peel a cucumber (it’s better than it sounds). Viewers might come to the conclusion that there is no neat connection from Khaby to Kyne – both just make you feel like we’re all in on the joke, whatever the joke is.
You keep scrolling. In the space of four minutes you might see para-athlete Milly Pickles (@millypickles1) sharing her new running blade ahead of track races; or Jing (@_itsjing), a “Chinese girl living in LA”, lip-syncing jokes about beauty standards between America and Asia; or skin king Hyram(@skincarebyhyram) banging on about CeraVe being the cure to all human ills; or “CEO of chai” Kevin Wilson (@crossculturechristian) reviewing different spice blends with his trademark sip, sigh and a smile. You might find yourself beaming at any one of these offerings.
Kyne and this community of Creators are what professional panickers might bemoan as members of a generation shortening our attention spans, feeding an addiction to the terrifying time-thieves in our palm. That they also provide respite from IRL anxiety seems to be an aside, as if the consumption of joy was a happy accident, rather than the whole point. There is, after all, sort of no other way to consume content made by someone grinning wildly over a cup of tea, or attaching metal to their leg and gleefully running around a track, than to relish these intimate, shared pleasures.
Creatives have always aimed to tell us something about who we are and the times we are living in. If TikTok is the moment, then its 1 billion global users must be in pursuit of short bursts of joy. It’s a welcome shift and goes beyond something that has defined social media for a while: “relatability”. For some time what got attention was a cast of predominantly white replicas of one another who were responding to a generation looking for older brothers and sisters to help them feel connected to an overwhelming digital world. Many of these had bodies, ideas and even postcodes like their audiences. In marketing agency rooms across the country, “relatability” was held up as if it was a golden ticket, and scrawled on Post-Its and stuck on walls as we watched these “relatable” teens give a generation what we all thought we wanted – people just like us.
Years later, and among other developments, we’ve learnt that the world doesn’t have to be such an overwhelming place; and more importantly that difference is crucial for our survival as joy-seekers. As the world burns in more ways than one, it is radically life-affirming to move past relatable figures who mirror our lens on life and on towards authentic experience, no matter how different those experiences are from our own.
It is not only better bandwidths, camera angle knowledge, ring lights and access to information that has made us look beyond relatability as a concept. We still identify with universal human experiences, of course – that’s how we’re designed – but in a globally connected world, we just want to see real lives happen.
For every video you watch about the banality of British airport queues, you might also come across fascinating insights from queer Latinx girls cooking recipes which you have trouble keeping up with, to divers in the Olympic village sharing how they’ve broken Japanese beds.
What is it that works so well about these varied ways people express themselves? It might be that they stick to the rules: true joy can only be authentic, indeed there is nothing more authentic than true joy; it can’t really be performed (and if it is, it fails, sabotaging itself, in the same way that jokes which need to be explained are no longer funny). When our collective emotional capacity is low there is little more that we require than people showing up as nothing but themselves.
Joy is a protest, a therapy and an antidote for miserable times. We realise that we want to see choreographed dances get interrupted by happy onlookers, impromptu electric slides breaking out in Black Lives Matter protests across the globe, even Gorilla Glue getting removed from a scalp.
We have always needed spaces to laugh, learn and apologise in when we get it wrong, spaces where we’re presented with – literally – new horizons, but somehow it feels like we need them more than ever. Joy brings with it a special, cohesive magic and that is where we can only hope we’re moving towards, pursuing joy through the lives of other people in the hope that we might experience some for ourselves, too. It is the defining feature of TikTok, which is one of the reasons why we reached for it during the pandemic.
We live in a moment at which we are asked frequently to meditate on this question: What does it mean to be who you are? For some, the answer can mean fear, via online attacks, trolling, wading through the toxic soup of the most poisonous corners of the internet. In short, when you know what’s out there, you know to advocate for a place of joyful respite. And, in response, bedrooms, streets, play parks, swimming pools, classrooms and cars across the planet are being claimed as sites of joy, public and private spaces transformed as 4.2mm camera lenses capture us stumbling around to Megan Thee Stallion.
On high streets across the country there are schoolkids practising Amapiano dances in the street learnt from South African TikTok, boys doing wheelies to share with the hashtag #bikelife. Even school-goers enjoy a new kind of cool capital that helps organise the social hierarchy with a single question: Can you edit a TikTok video? It’s probably because the laughs got so many of them through homeschooling.
Now, you might flick between news updates on your phone, reading about Covid data and foreign policy meltdowns, and then back to TikTok, your thumbs playing a jagged game of Snake as it slides over the phone screen between apps. The things you learn could be that for every news story there is a Yayayayoung (@yayayayoung) shouting “Merry skincare!” That for every moment you lift the quilt over your head to slide deeper under the covers, there is a Pool Guy (@thep00lguy) power-blasting gunge off pool tiles with the kind of job satisfaction that makes you wonder whether you should make a career jump. During lockdown, thousands of people watched Elsa Majimbo (@elsa.majimbo) happily eat crisps and declare that, “It’s a pandemic!” with a glorious shriek and jocular smile, relieved at an excuse to cancel on friends (I saw that video and swiftly passed it on; TikTok is a network of joy in circulation).
The spirit of joy may be difficult to describe, but it’s easy to feel. You know when it lands, a euphoric jolt in your ribcage as your heart swells and your body transforms into the somatic equivalent of an exclamation mark. Where those sizzles of joy come from tells us something about human nature, about each other and about how and why we stay around for more of it.
It might be worth rewatching OnlineKyne talk you through the Möbius strip again, hearing her describe a boundary curve that takes us on a journey to end up in the same place, and back again. It is a lesson in thinking about how to hold on to joy, that perhaps the only conclusion to come to is that we must stay travelling in the direction of it.
For now, that’s all any of us can do, to savour the last thing we do before we fall asleep every night, flickers of trapezoids and blades in our heads, smiling.