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TikTok, towards a gestural web?

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TikTok can be disconcerting because of its own codes, but also because of its gestures, which are cryptic in the eyes of double-click ‘boomers’. How did simple movements become essential elements to understand the current web? Does the future of the web lie in gesture?

There is a before and after the iPhone. The smartphone has created a whole new grammar: it has “tactilised” our relationship to the web. Scrolling is no longer done with the mouse, but with the thumb. Actually, it’s a paradigm shift. Because the way we move in virtual space is directly related to the way our IRL body behaves. On Instagram, we don’t freeze stories the same way we do on Twitter. In short, these micro-gestures constitute a sub-language, or even a subculture. 

The digital one-man band 

The fusion of body and machine is commonplace, from science fiction literature to the appearance of real augmented humans (the motorised exoskeletons of the American army have been in use since 2006). The cyborg is no longer a mere chimera, but a latent reality. There is, however, a more discreet form of fusion between body and machine, the one carried out via the Internet. With the progressive arrival of video, the body has come to light. From an image enclosed in a small screen, the body has gradually become intimately linked with the machine: this is the appearance of touch, swipe and virtual reality. This corporality of the web has never been more prominent than with the arrival of TikTok. Concerning Snapchat, the sociologist Yann Bruna goes so far as to speak of “spatial hybridization” between the real and the virtual. The bringing together of spaces is increasingly tenuous.

“TikTok is part of the long history of moving images, from the animation of still images with the zoetrope to today’s cinema”, notes Laurence Allard, a lecturer in communication sciences and a researcher at the University of Paris 3-IRCAV and the University of Lille. Human beings have always had to operate a machine with their bodies to make movement appear. 

Fabienne Martin-Juchat, professor in information and communication sciences and specialised in the anthropology of corporal and affective communication develops :

“Using your body to convey emotions is part of the ‘new spirit of capitalism’. It allows capitalism to be re-enchanted. The body is a faster way to convey emotion than writing or emoticons. This is part of the continuity of digital technology, which is a real machine for communicating affects”.

The digitally challenged body

All the more so because, as is often the case with applications where the challenges are numerous, the body is put to the test. And many practices, such as completely waxing all the hair from the face, have nothing to envy the challenges of the 2010s (from the “planking” of 2011 to the “Ice Bucket Challenge” of 2014). The body appears consubstantially linked to the memetic aspect of the Internet

In its review of the “unforgettable” viral phenomena of the previous decade, Radio-Canada lists no less than six challenges involving the Internet user himself. As we can see, web culture must deal/compose with the body of users, who constitute a form of raw material, flexible according to current trends. Each challenge, each meme, adds to the pool of choreographies and gestures that become part of the collective memory.

In 2018, at a time when the app was still largely unknown to the general public, Cyril Di Palma (general delegate of the Génération Numérique association) already made the following observation:

“TikTok gives its users the feeling of being insiders, technically more competent, more advanced. They like to cultivate the idea that their challenges, their visual and gestural humour belong to them, that a ‘non-initiated’ could not understand them”.

This visual humour, fundamentally gestural, has since been widely democratised and has infused other parts of web culture. Each platform, each epiphenomenon, carries with it its own particular gestures: deliberately hermetic or not. From the first emojis to choreographies with a Dua Lipa backing track, via the “like” button on Facebook, a great story of the digital body as an emotional exoskeleton unfolds.

“Emojis are a prefabricated set of ready-made emotions. Using one’s own body, on the other hand, is a completely different construction of oneself and one’s digital identity”, explains Fabienne Martin-Juchat. TikTok is therefore part of the “affective capitalism” instituted by the GAFAMs and the Internet in general, but is detached from it because the body orchestrates the different semiotic elements, it makes the link between text and music.

TikTok makes it possible to go beyond the rigid ‘conservatism’ of classic digital communication elements (emojis, text, gifs that renew themselves as much as they stagnate) by bringing them together in a single format, what Laurence Allard calls the algo-ritournelle, in reference to the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari. “The ritournelle, the meta-loop, has neither beginning nor end”, explains the researcher. As in this video reaction, where Mia Khalifa is already laughing from a previous viewing of the loop.

Getting in on the dance, but at what cost?

“We show an idealized individual, an ‘artist of the minute’. There is a social dilution of the desire to become an artist”, explains Fabienne Martin Juchat, who refers us to Yves Michaud’s work on ‘l’art à l’état gazeux‘ (‘art in its gaseous state’). In the book of the same name published in 2003, the philosopher draws up the observation of a society where everything has become beautiful, everything must be beautiful. According to the #foryou (the selection of videos chosen especially for a user), TikTok would be the paragon of this art in its gaseous state, that is to say this cult of beauty that has contaminated our daily life. 

However, this reality is rather an algorithmic construction, or even the result of an outright censorship of bodies deemed “abnormal”. This is what we learn from an article in The Intercept, published in March 2020. TikTok would have knowingly deleted the accounts of Internet users judged “ugly” or those with “too many wrinkles”. A not-so-serene relationship with the body, as it is subject to pre-existing social norms and injunctions. 

Despite these flaws, some academics, such as Melanie  Kennedy, see TikTok as a “fun” bubble which opposes the “aggressive architecture of the Internet”. In fact, this is the wager of the application, as an article in the Guardian in June 2020 suggests:

“Trying to position itself as a place for teens and tweens to come to be silly, unashamed, unfiltered – a tonic to the earnestness of Instagram, the stress of Snapchat, the verbal warfare of Twitter”.

So what happens to our initial hypothesis (and that of Cyril de Palma), on an application that is hard for the uninitiated to decipher? “There is a real lowering of the cost of entry into creation. The set of popular cultural references specific to TikTok provides an ‘entry into dance’, and we are seeing the arrival of unexpected audiences (the elderly, care assistants during the first confinement)”, says Laurence Allard, who is preparing an article entitled “From one loop to the next, TikTok and the algo-ritournelle: performing between rage and boredom in times of pandemic” (forthcoming). 

Genuine intergenerational encounters can be seen in the loops of the app: grandmother and grandfather play the game. “This generalised resurgence of movement in our sedentary, confined societies is partly due to TikTok”, adds the academic. 

TikTok is like retweeting with your body

The gen Z app cultivates its rooted foothold. Heir of Musical.ly, mainly focused on karaoke and choreography, it has not forgotten where it comes from, as Laurence Allard explains:

“TikTok’s gestural marketing is not Instagram’s. They seek to make people forget Musical.ly, and to create native advertising, with gestural characteristics. For example, when Maybelline launches its #MaybellineClick campaign with Bilal Hassani, their goal is to viralize the gesture of putting on lipstick. TikTok is a kind of retweeting with your body”.

The logo is therefore no longer a fixed image, confined to being dusted off every ten years, but a movement, constantly remixed by its users. Following the example of the sign of the rapper Jul, which has since surpassed the success of its creator. We don’t know if Maybelline’s campaign has had the desired effect, but the fact remains that it is towards this intrinsically gestural virality that the young people’s application is aimed. “During a banal conversation between adults, a little girl furtively performed an incomprehensible gesture that was immediately normalized: “Ah, but that’s from TikTok that is!“”, testifies the academic Marc Jahjah in a blog post. A bit like the way the dance of the ‘Backpack Kid’, the flossing, had contaminated the playgrounds in 2018. But these gestural memes are not co-created by the users: the latter are often content to follow fashion, and to collectively take up a gesture of an NFL player or a rapper. 

TikTok delineates the gestural meme, analyses Laurence Allard:

“On TikTok, everyone can become a meme. In the past, memes were derived from series, or characters from digital culture. Now everyone can ‘meme-ize’ their moves. It’s a mix of film culture, digital culture, karaoke, dance, which come together with our own references”.

Cinematic storytelling?

Of course, memes have always been a windfall on the Internet with improbable and peculiar gestures. Why would TikTok be more creative than Instagram, than Vine or other apps that showcase the body? Laurence Allard helps us to see more clearly: “Tiktok is the heir of musical.ly, which put forward covers of choreography. It was mainly about dancing together. Vine, on the other hand, is remembered for its 6-second videos: it was the beginning of the loop as web narration. Vine had been sold as a form of video gif. ‘Viners’ were a kind of gif-artist”

On TikTok, it’s not so much the gif side as the “ritournelle” that counts, Allard continues:

“Originally, virality was not achieved through image, but through sound on TikTok. The musical scheme remains foremost in the mimetic logic. Instagram is a photo app at the base, showing a fixed and then moving body. What is interesting with TikTok is that the moving body has a structuring effect: it orders the montage. The body becomes a tool, not just a representation. The app is closer to cinema than Instagram is to photography”.

The creation of loops requires to be one with the application:

“In the body, there is also a collective body. The notion of a self, independent of collective narrative, is constitutive of modernity. Before the 18th and 19th centuries, your destiny did not belong to you. The feeling of being oneself is therefore quite recent, individuals are still looking for authenticity in collective mechanisms”, says Fabienne Martin-Juchat. What TikTok shows us is a body that has gone through the collective mill, accompanied by the creation of gestural memes specific to the social network. 

The tiktoker is a somewhat versatile artist, conscious of embracing a collective and normalized narrative. However, one cannot help but notice the astonishing creativity emanating from what Le Monde calls “the application of funny challenges and lipsync”. Our intimacy, which has become virtual, has become mediated and now constitutes a form of “staging and facial expressions”, as Melanie Kennedy points out in her article

Of course, to the “direct, face-to-face link” of the old communities, “an indirect link has gradually been substituted”, as the sociologist Durkheim had already theorised, thinking of books or money. The Internet was the extension of this ‘indirect link’. “Through digital culture, we transmit emotions, orality, there is a pre-Gutenberg side”, laughs Fabienne Martin-Juchat. Rest assured, TikTok does not claim to be a revolution on a par with that of the printing press. But it intends to make its mark all the same. 

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