Fandom is changing, and third-party platforms have a big stake in this. Our user-generated content and communities are structured along their guidelines, rules, regulations, and options. These services empower users and allow them to express themselves in new formats, such as intimate live-streams, long-form YouTube video essays and viral Instagram photoshoots. But there is a flipside, since it’s often not content creators that profit but platforms themselves. In other words, our attention and data fuels this new economy.
The increasingly popular platform TikTok is an example of this – a contact zone where users, content and cultures meet. New fan performances also emerge on this platform, and I would love to share some insights on cosplay specifically.
The Power of TikTok
The short videos on TikTok have a unique aesthetics, style, and fan culture. At the start of lockdown and the COVID-19 transition, the number of downloads went quickly up. As posted in Tinuiti: “The app saw a 27% increase in the first 23 days of March compared to February with 6.2 million downloads”. TikTok became one of the ultimate tools along with Zoom and Instagra to document our lockdown, and share our experiences.
TikTok is a short video platform that lends itself to remix. A good example of this is how users increasingly covered and added to the sea shanty Wellerman, which went viral partly as a result of this creative participation.
TikTok cannot be discussed without its unique cultural context and popularity in Asia, and the rise of increasingly personalized social media, facilitated by artificial intelligence. Data is at the heart of the app. Notably, the USA tried to ban the app in 2020 under the suspicion that the Chinese government used it to harvest data and spie on Western users. TikTok was labeled a national security thread, but Biden later paused the ban.
This is indicative of what I call data-driven participatory culture in my work. Different platforms, business models and technologies are rapidly changing how active audiences meet up, what users create, and how fans professionalize. The content and engagement of audiences is increasingly collected and monetized by third-party platforms. This platformization can create tensions – economic, social and political.
Data is part of TikTok’s success and at the heart of its business model. Its algorithm seamlessly plays videos without effort by the user. It keeps surprising us again and again as viewers, and we can just stay in these comforting loops of short videos. The dark side of this is that more of the same is suggested, and biases get amplified. For instance, its AI also confronts users with racial biases and content.
In The Guardian, Sirin Kale writes “The most important thing to understand about TikTok is that it is anarchic: it has no internal logic or guiding principle. Many TikTok videos are absurdist jokes. People surprise family members, impersonate celebrities or set up elaborate punchlines. The platform frequently has the surreal quality of a fever dream: videos riff on arcane internet ephemera or make nonsensical jokes. Non-sequiturs are common. Creativity is paramount.”
Cosplay on TikTok
TikTok allows cosplayer to express themselves in new ways and in short formats. These short videos are often raw, funny and have meme-like qualities.
During 2020, pass the brush challenges flourished on the platform. The MCU, Disney princesses, Avatar, users still engage in pass the brush videos of different franchises. This is part of a wider trend on TikTok around make-up. In the Hindustan Times, Sanya Budhiraja explains: “To partake in the ‘pass the brush’ challenge, a TikToker has to get a makeup brush passed onto them. Usually, they start the video with a natural look and then glam up after momentarily covering the camera with the makeup brush. They then pass on the brush to the next makeup fanatic, who goes through the same process.”
TikTok users often build on each other and incorporate each other’s work. That’s one of the key differences compared to live-streaming cosplay creation on Twitch, or uploading carefully staged cosplay music videos on YouTube. TikTok is short, witty and surreal. Users create webs of connections. TikTok vids are the exquisite corpse of cosplay, where users build on each other artistically. Music is a big part of the experience, since many vids are covers, duets, or playful montages on sound. Cosplay content on TikTok includes:
- Short tutorials
- Comedic skits
- Original songs, covers and duets
- Musical remixes and entire musicals
- Challenges (e.g. pass the brush)
Most of these vids are bite-sized videos that seamlessly bleed into each other. To study this platform requires new ways of working for professionals and researchers, since the content is ephemeral, fleeting, and difficult to purposely sample.
Scrolling through your TikTok feed is an experience where each video instantly follows up the next. Your agency is not entirely limited, but you can also just immerse yourself and let TikTok do its thing. That’s part of its magic. A magic that is reflected in how it mediates cosplay. TikTok allows fans to engage in transformation and play. Cosplay performances on TikTok are fast-paced, playful and surreal – little pieces of pop-art, really.
TikTok is like a pop-culture collage – different parts of content make a whole. And guess what? They turn out to fit each other beautifully.
Read more about cosplay by going to my publications and check my recent articles on cosplay and conventions or fan fashion. There’s new work coming up on Twitch cosplay, Frozen fashion and more. Keep an eye on this site or drop me a mail if you are interested.