Social media’s commodification of Relatability as the next front of the Culture Industry
We have seen in recent years the gradual staleness of conventional founts of cultural products and the commensurate rise of user-generated entertainment in the form of social media like YouTube and TikTok. While this has initially signalled an increase in original content, with the most promoted content creators becoming increasingly homogenous. With specific focus on the TikTok Discover Page, we will look at how aspirational relatability has become the latest characteristic to be standardised and commodified by the Culture Industries of TikTok and social media.
Apart from doomscrolling Covid-related statistics, regretting socialization plans made months earlier, and getting an age-induced quarter life crisis on TikTok, very little was done over winter break. While after careful curation, the For You Page (FYP) can achieve some semblance of personality, the Discover page remains bland and homogenous – populated by the latest in a series of identical trends, brands, and personalities.
For TikTok in particular, the perennial darling of the algorithm is a young, Conventionally Attractive™ person (often cis-gendered, female, and Euro-Asiatic) performing dances and sharing their personal lives on the internet; a case in point being the meteoric success of Charli D’Amelio, an American teenager who in 2020 dethroned Loren Gray in becoming the most-followed person on TikTok (Cortés, 2020). As journalist Michelle Cortés (2020) puts it, “the rise of the TikTok dance and e-girl aesthetic has taught us […] that teenage girls rule the internet right now”. While these creators undoubtedly possess talent and dedication beyond anything I can imagine, it is worthwhile to consider the social (and corporate) forces that have propelled them – and often only them – to the top.
Many a time has the Discover page induced a quarter life crisis in your author
Allegedly, the appeal of TikTok is in its realness. Clinical psychologist Prerna Kohli characterized TikTok as “a safe space, where everyone can be authentic and real”, where creators can (and very often do) film from the comfort of their rooms. Cursory viewing of Charli D’Amelio’s 50 most recent TikToks at the time of writing shows the importance of quotidian relatability in her videos; nearly two-thirds are either about her routine or (in the form of dances and lip syncs) filmed in her room.
Charli D’Amelio’s 50 most recent TikToks, a very objective analysis by the author
This relatability, however, might be born out of a cynical marketing push more than any organic desire to share and relate to others. Marketing journals for instance push the idea of influencers needing to “decide if they want, or even can, leave out a part of their personal life […] willing to get up in the dark to shoot a selfie on the beach at sunrise” (Haenlein et al., 2020, p. 18). On the flip side, the narrative of beautiful, relatable people has been promoted through the throttling of alternatives. TikTok has, through its moderators, pushed for the direct and systemic exclusion of ‘unpalatable’ content including ugly, poor, queer, and disabled people (Biddle et. al, 2020; Köver, 2019).
Unfortunately, TikTok is neither the first nor the last place where hegemonic, exclusionary ideals of femininity are peddled for profit. Media scholar Melanie Kennedy has characterized the current TikTok trend as “a continuation, and indeed intensification, of the construction of femininity and celebrity” (Kennedy, 2020, p. 1073). Indeed, there are very few things that cannot or have not been re-spun and pedestrianized for profit. Why this occurs can be explained by the concept of the Culture Industry, as elucidated by critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their 1944 Dialectic of Enlightenment.
In it, they describe the formation of cultural monopolies under capitalism – think about the vast majority of the media that you or I engage with – and how they standardize art into easily consumable entertainment products through spectacle, simplification and standardization, as shown below:
The ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics. Marked differentiations […] depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organizing, and labelling consumers. […] The public is catered for with a hierarchical range of mass-produced products of varying quality, thus advancing the rule of complete quantification. Everybody must behave (as if spontaneously) in accordance with his previously determined and indexed level, and choose the category of mass product turned out for his type. (123)
Although they aimed their arguments towards the film and broadcast television industries due to their usage of spectacle, generic plotlines, and high production values, highly sanitized “realness and relatability” to ironically seem to me the latest evolution in marketing than any democratic internet-based expression of self.
From fast food brands appropriating human problems and emotions (Sarah Z, 2018) to the celebrity talk show migration into vlogging and YouTube; safe, relatable, marketable content is simply the newest form of standardized content produced for us to unwittingly imbibe. All so that we can take our minds off the alienation felt in a system concerned purely with profit and productivity. The massive success of Charli and her contemporaries may just be proof that everything is working as it is designed to. And that just might be a bigger problem than the posts of a teenager.
Silence Brand internet meme. Horkheimer would be pleased.
Food For Thought
Does entertainment need any other purpose than to be another opiate of the masses?
Can cultural products constructed under such a paradigm have genuine artistic merit?
By Voon Jung, Year 1, Sociology Major
Biddle, S., Ribeiro, P. V., & Dias, T. (2020, March 16). Tiktok told moderators: Suppress posts by the “ugly” and poor. The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2020/03/16/tiktok-app-moderators-users-discrimination/
ByteDance hit US$3b in net profit in 2019. (2020, May 28). The Business Times. https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/technology/bytedance-hit-us3b-in-net-profit-in-2019
Cortés, M. S. (2020, March 27). Charli D’Amelio now has more followers than anyone on tiktok [News]. Refinery29. https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/2020/03/9615235/charli-damelio-most-followers-on-tiktok
Haenlein, M., Anadol, E., Farnsworth, T., Hugo, H., Hunichen, J., & Welte, D. (2020). Navigating the new era of influencer marketing: How to be successful on instagram, tiktok, & co. California Management Review, 63(1), 5–25. https://doi.org/10.1177/0008125620958166
Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (1972). The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception. In J. Cumming (Trans.), Dialectic of Enlightenment (Second, pp. 120–167). Seabury Press. (Original work published 1944)
Joshi, S. (2020, May 14). Why coronavirus lockdown has made everyone join tiktok [News]. Vice. https://www.vice.com/en/article/z3eew9/why-is-everyone-on-tiktok-in-coronavirus-lockdown
Kennedy, M. (2020). ‘If the rise of the TikTok dance and e-girl aesthetic has taught us anything, it’s that teenage girls rule the internet right now’: TikTok celebrity, girls and the Coronavirus crisis. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 23(6), 1069–1076. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367549420945341
Köver, C. (2019, December 2). Discrimination—TikTok curbed reach for people with disabilities. netzpolitik.org. https://netzpolitik.org/2019/discrimination-tiktok-curbed-reach-for-people-with-disabilities/
Sarah Z. (2018, October 2). The late capitalism of fast food twitter—Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6bLq4466LM