Illuminated by phosphorescent blues and deep into the first wave of the pandemic, I ‘liked’ my first TikTok. It featured Penny, a bashful-eyed brown dog, being voiced-over by her owner. Although I didn’t laugh, a stitch of comedy stirred behind glassy eyes, and I, along with hundreds of millions worldwide, spiralled into the app’s addicting algorithm.
Capitalizing on TikTok’s popularity, U of T created three verified accounts in 2020: @uoft, @utsc, and @utm. A U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that the school plans to use the app to “better connect with current and prospective students,” as well as to “share student stories, study tips and resources, and also highlight… ground-breaking research.”
The @utsc account already brushed with virality when videos about fish-killing toxic chemicals in tires and utilizing McDonald’s cooking oil for 3D printing took off. The videos garnered 395,000 and 89,000 views, respectively.
However, @utsc is not the only flourishing U of T TikTok account: the Centre for Ethics at U of T — @centreforethics on TikTok — has also gained thousands of followers and more than 80,000 likes with its videos.
According to Amelia Eaton, a research assistant for the Centre for Ethics and a fourth-year student majoring in ethics, society and law, the goal of the account is to ”bring conversations about ethics to the public.” She added that “the app is still mostly a younger audience, who may not be in university, but are still concerned about climate change, racial justice, artificial intelligence, and other ethical issues.”
Both Eaton and Centre for Ethics Director Markus Dubber acknowledge that complex academic ideas can be tough to squeeze into a 60-second video. Dubber wrote to The Varsity that “TikTok is great for quick hits that reach a different (generally younger, and less academic) audience, and points them in the direction of our other content,” content that includes more in-depth YouTube videos, podcasts, and events.
Besides the official U of T accounts, others have taken to creating content about the university. The videos under the “uoft” hashtag have more than 46 million views, collectively. Not far behind sits the “uoftears”’ hashtag — a snarky nod at the perceived difficulty of the university — with almost 13 million views.
Under these hashtags are a variety of videos, including a group of students thanking an emotional professor over Zoom for their class, students fretting over grade deflation and poor mental health, and aesthetically-pleasing study vlogs.
As far as responding to these TikToks of students expressing concerns about the university, a spokesperson for U of T wrote in an email to The Varsity, “While we do not anticipate responding to any specific videos, we look forward to sharing resources for students on this channel, including mental health resources.”
There is precedent for students using TikTok to advocate for change. As out-of-state students showed up to their New York University dorm rooms to quarantine, they were met with less-than-desirable meals. Vegetarians received meat; some food had gone bad, and some students went hungry — incidents that all went viral on TikTok. The university apologized and assured students that the problems would be rectified.
Despite TikTok’s potential for virality, overall it feels absurd and finite. Once you scroll past a video it is most likely impossible to find. One New York Times critic described the app as a “bottomless gumball machine, serving up ephemeral treats.”
However, part of what makes TikTok so addicting is its diversity of — often bizarre — content. One moment you’ll be chortling at absurdist humour and the next you’ll watch an intimate dedication to someone’s deceased loved one.
A number of blogs give their recommendations for how universities can succeed with their TikTok accounts. One suggests using a mascot, and another suggests participating in trends. Overall, they advise to embrace the bizarrity. I look forward to seeing how one of Canada’s oldest institutions embraces a decidedly Gen Z app.