TikTok went from social media best-kept secret to must-have app to source of international controversy with the speed of, well, most things nowadays. Initially likened to Vine for its shortform video format, TikTok has grown far beyond its predecessor now, not only birthing its own world of stars and becoming an essential music industry tool for creating hits. but becoming a powerful instrument for protesting, showing solidarity, and educating. Social media activism has exploded, and TikTok’s users have helped the platform separate itself from the pack.

From the coronavirus pandemic to Black Lives Matter and End SARS protests to crucial elections around the globe, the trying circumstances of 2020 have given us a need to share information with unprecedented urgency. TikTok’s been particularly important as a tool for the marginalized to express thoughts and share perspectives that historically have been looked over by media.

Beyond being used to spread knowledge, TikTok has been a source of community in a year where many have felt more isolated than ever. LGBTQ and non-binary people have used the app to offer safe spaces for one another, share stories of coming out, and muse on the small joys and frustration of day-to-day life. As with any app, TikTok is only as valuable as the content its users create, and while it has been used by white extremists for hate speech, people on the app seem to be doing more uniting than dividing.

The story of this year couldn’t be told without mentioning TikTok. With that in mind, we've chosen 20 posts which illustrate why it is the rare app that is not simply reacting to the peoples’ agenda, but helping to actively shape it.

1. Covid PPE for a medical professional - @ormurs

The use of Tones and I’s “Dance Monkey” makes this particular clip feel a bit ancient, but this post by operating room nurse Joel Benji from late March was one of many important dispatches from the front lines of the Covid-19 crisis. Most of us aren’t donning disposable body suits and shoe covers, but TikToks like this showcased not just the importance of PPE, but the tremendous risk faced by medical personnel and other essential workers over these last nine months.

2. Covid-19 vaccine: need to know info - @who

As TikTok’s become more widespread, mainstream institutions, including the World Health Organization, have begun recognizing its utility for reaching people in a way traditionally media simply no longer does. Yes, there will always be an element of “How do you do, fellow kids?” to this particular lane of social media, but this clip features useful info on the vaccine rollout from WHO’s Dr. Kate O’Brien. Watch the video for some important info, but maybe don’t read the comments.

3. Prison inmate shows cooking creativity - @Jmoneylifeisamazing

With carceral reform one of the issues highlighted during the Black Lives Matter protests, more attention is being paid not just to the problems with the justice system, but also the conditions of jails and prisons. That’s why the rise of “Prison TikTok” has been so crucial. Inmates are documenting not just the inhumane living environments and abuses of power, but also moments of small joy–dancing, making a good cup of coffee–that help to humanize people who, in many cases, have been forgotten by the brunt of society.

4. NYU students rail against quarantine food - @coolbeans_grace

College students quarantined in their NYU dorm rooms were able to showcase how TikTok can hold officials accountable by highlighting the inadequate meals the school was providing, which frequently seemed not to factor in students’ food allergies or dietary restrictions. The university went on to apologize and take steps to rectify the situation, proof that, for better or worse, a threat to public image is sometimes the fastest way to achieve change.

5. Life of a virtual teacher - @iamsofiabella

Overworked, undersupplied, and, in many cases, suddenly finding their wellbeing at risk just by going to work, hopefully 2020 has been a year where teachers are receiving the recognition (and raises) that they deserve. In this TikTok, a young teacher takes us to virtual class from her perspective, proving that being in charge of 20 kids over a spotty wifi connection is exactly as intimidating of an experience as we thought.

6. What it’s like to be an African-American influencer - @sirthestar

Discrimination and biases rear their heads in every industry, even the nascent world of social media influencers. Here, popular personality Sir Carter spoke about how much work he’s had to put into his socials to develop the following that he has, and whether it is as difficult for his white peers. “As an African-American in society, you have to work so much harder to get the same–or even a little bit less–recognition than your counterpoints,” he said.

7. Voting advocacy through makeup - @lilbittylivie

Record turnout in the 2020 U.S. election was driven by impassioned, urgent, creative (and, occasionally, desperate) calls for civic action on social media. Most of them were verbal appeals, but this clever makeup artist put a particularly unexpected, and gory, spin on the theme.

8. “Don’t worry about what’s in the vaccine” joke - @worldsokaittest

The “Don’t worry about what’s in the vaccine” meme can be applied to everything from scuzzy bars to a boyfriend’s choice of underwear to niche jokes about John Mulaney, but this hilarious story about an incidental multi-day bender is the best illustration we’ve seen.

9. The problematic elements of online activism - @jazbost

No surprise here: the intersection of social media and social justice activism didn’t always yield flawless results, particularly from people who made a spectacle of performing allyship from behind their phones. Here, Jasmine Bost explains some of these issues at hand, including pressuring Black friends to post about BLM, and dubious instances of “allyship fatigue.”

10. Informational post on testosterone for people transitioning - @emmettpreciado

Trans TikTok users like Emmett Precadio have made a point of not just documenting their own lives, but using their platform to share their experience with transitioning. Here, he talks about his taking testosterone, but he has also done videos about dating as a trans man and has made a point of assuring other users that his profile is a place of acceptance.

11. Police brutality in Gwinnett County, Georgia - @jaythegoat3476

Simply captioned, “This is America,” this harrowing video shows a tense altercation in which a white police officer, responding to what was dubbed a “property damage call,” grabs a Black woman and tases her. The video ultimately led to the firing of the involved Georgia officer, and it’s an example of the important role civilians can play in holding abusive police accountable for their actions.

12. Climate change call to action - @sunrisemovement

Unsurprisingly, an organization led by millennials and members of Gen Z has a pretty ace social media presence. The Sunrise Movement, which is helping push for the passage of the Green New Deal, uses TikTok to urge government action on climate change, and inform young people about who is disproportionately to blame for our dire environmental crises and what can be done about them.

13. George Floyd moment of silence - @naomiibrookk

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, along with those of Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and many others, spurred nationwide protests and has led to positive change, but the pain and exhaustion in the African-American community is palpable. In this post honoring George Floyd from May, user @naomiibrookk expressed her dismay at seeing another Black person unjustly killed. “It’s like time is repeating itself. What have we fought for, for our world to become something so pitiful like this. We are getting killed every day for our skin tone,” she said. “I’m tired of fighting for justice when we should already get it.”

14. Inside Nigeria’s End SARS protests - @welovephyno

In mid-October, the world became aware of the End SARS movement, which sought to put an end to abuses of power by Nigerian police, specifically those in the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. Nigerian activists had been championing this cause for years (SARS has been around since the early ‘90s), but through social media it became something that people around the globe could learn about and support. Apps like TikTok were especially important when Nigerian law enforcement turned violent against the protestors, and it was used by those on the ground to communicate, document, and provide aid.

15. American TikTok ban attempt explained - @stiles.stylings

One of the Trump administration’s pet projects has been continually threatening to “ban” TikTok, it seems primarily because its owner is Chinese company ByteDance. Like many Trump statements, it was designed to foment panic, even while the likelihood of actual action was slim. Fortunately, informed TikTok users were able to combat the fear-mongering with sober, clear-eyed assessment of the situation.

16. “Privilege check” with interracial couple - @shi_and-toni

2020 has been filled with long overdue conversations in which people have confronted their unconscious biases, privileges, and their own experiences with race. It’s hard for that to be laid out more clearly than here, where an interracial couple highlight the chasm between the white American and Black American lived experience.

17. Enby post about correct pronouns - @gardenfaerie

One of the most important uses of TikTok is its ability to provide support and community for queer and non-binary people, particularly younger folks who often feel alone. For many, even simple things like getting someone to refer to you with the correct pronouns can feel like an uphill battle, and seeing that struggle reflected in a stranger’s post can be a highly important form of encouragement.

18. Feeling like you’re “faking” mental illness - @emilystilinski03

Persevering through mental health issues can be a trying and isolating journey, which is one of the reasons TikTok has become a valuable safe space for people to share vulnerable details about their experiences with depression and anxiety. Here, a young woman shares that sometimes feeling even a brief moment of joy can make one question how real their mental illness is. “I thought I was the only one with those thoughts,” the top comment reads, and with over 1800 people having liked it, that really says it all.

19. Staying in tune with Black Lives Matter once it stops trending - @dzekiel

It was easy to feel like an activist when everyone’s social media feeds were filled with inspiring images of people taking to the streets, actionable steps to take, and (for better or worse) those social justice slideshows. But organizers have used TikTok to drill home an important message: for any actionable change to happen, we need to continue fighting, especially now that many of our feeds have returned to “normal.”

20. Structural ableism at the ballot box - @mackenzie.937

The power of an app like TikTok is that it can immerse you in someone else’s perspective in a very short amount of time, and get you to look at the world around you differently and with more empathy as a result. In this case, Mackenzie Trush points out one of countless examples of how civic design is not accessible for many people with disabilities.

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