It’s hard to say what drew me to the internet for the first time, but I imagine it must have been the mystery of a parallel life. In the early 2000s, my family made a financial effort and bought me my first computer. The moment culminated with the appearance of internet cafés in Romania and the rise of messenger. I was a teenager who sent his days locked inside the house, and the internet-connected computer allowed me to create my own parallel universe.

Nearly 20 years have passed since and today’s virtual environment allows us infinite possibilities of expression. If the internet of my adolescence encouraged some sort of anonymity, a faceless and nameless virtual life, today’s internet nearly forces you to express yourself using your real face and name. For me at least, there are a couple of decisive transition moments in between platforms, that marked my online behaviour: from mIRC, I moved on to Yahoo! Messenger; from Facebook, I moved on to Instagram; from downloading torrent movies, I moved on to Netflix.

In the meantime, I became addicted to TikTok, an app where I can continuously watch short videos in vertical format, most of them being created directly on the platform with the use of available tools (predefined sounds, sometimes parts of familiar songs, or filters). The users can also reply to other videos with another video; they can create “duets” or they can simply add themselves inside other users’ clips. Unlike other platforms, hashtags actually work on TikTok, especially when sorting through challenges. The content is spontaneous, funny, and, even though it seems clumsily-made, it is completely representative of the new aesthetics of the internet, adopted and spread especially by Generation Z.

Alex Trif is 17 years old, he is from Bistrița-Năsăud and he discovered TikTok by accident. He released his first video in July 2018, using the soundtrack of the series Stranger Things. Since then and until today, he managed to gather over 600.000 followers. Even though we would be tempted to believe that he is another teenager dancing on the internet, Alex wants to convey a message, first and foremost, about himself and about his life — by extension, perhaps also about the generation he is a part of. Dancing is not a new way of expression, the only novelty is the format: the transitions, the interpretation, the dance or the musical background, they all put together a small universe of feelings or events, that only lasts for a few seconds and gathers tens of thousands of likes.

For Alex, the transitions are a content creation technique. “They are the kind of TikToks that suddenly jump from one idea to another, corresponding to the musical background”, he says. The creation of such a video can take up to 15 minutes or even one hour, depending on the complexity of the transitions. Otherwise, he publishes daily videos where he dances or acts. In a recent TikTok, Alex plays a school principal: the clip lasts a few seconds, and it shows him sitting in a director’s chair, with his back towards the camera, as he’s slowly turning around, slightly taunting and with an air of importance. He moves his fingers as if he were an evil character. Even for me, a man who finished highschool 10 years ago, the moment is very relatable.

Alex mostly shoots his videos at home, but there are also some recent depictions where he is dancing on the street or in a store. We see him dancing next to the frozen goods freezer, up on a double ladder, descending it while dancing. The clip ends with him gasping, with his hand against his mouth: he had been noticed by the store security guard.

Unlike other platforms, TikTok had nothing to do with the people you know. The algorithm does not suggest that you connect with other users you know in real life; it is not about connections you can make or maintain online at all, but only about content. As Alex Trif says, you can create content while just following the trends in the app, the kind of short videos you would probably create as well: “I don’t really spend my time looking at TikToks, I only make them.”

TikTok has been downloaded over a billion times since its launch in 2017, and in Romania, the number of users has already exceeded 2 million. The company behind the app, ByteDance, is headquartered in China and was valued at over 75 billion dollars last year. I downloaded TikTok in december 2018, not knowing what to expect. Since then and until last autumn, I had forgotten that I had the application installed on my phone. Today I spend an average of two hours a day on TikTok.

That’s how I came across the videos of @ninjagirldraws, a teenager from Bucharest. Her name is Dania Mihaiu, she is 18 years old and has  almost 3 million followers. “I discovered TikTok when it was called Musical.ly. I like the fact that it is a platform that does not bore you and you can find videos that cover all areas”, says Dania.

Before I spoke to her, her videos, liked by hundreds of thousands of people, appeared quite often in my feed. Dania paints and draws on TikTok: “I make videos in the artistic field — I paint, I draw, I create DIY and customs.” Hence her interests and expectations of the application. “I prefer watching funny, artistic or educational videos,” she continues. She spends about 4 hours a day creating content. Dania understood that just filming yourself while drawing is not enough — even if what you’re doing is cool, but you have to follow the trends, making duets or using popular songs on the platform. And if what you do inspires people, it’s even better: you become so popular that you end up being followed by millions of people.

Among her TikTok followers are also her parents, who fully support her. “When I started 3 years ago, the only support I needed however had to come from me”, Dania says, knowing that you cannot be successful on the internet unless you have something to say and you know how to say it. She is in college and she believes that in the future she will continue doing what she is doing today.

I haven’t started spending at least two hours a day watching videos on TikTok because I want to keep up with the trends, hear the news or because I want my dose of inspiration. It is definitely not the same effort I make when I look at the dozens of pictures my friends who are over 30 post on Instagram. TikTok keeps my eyes fixed on my phone because it delivers the exact content that holds my focus, which is limited as it is. The content and the algorithm work hand in hand to keep me in the app.

For both Dania Mihaiu and Alex Trif, who are both part of Generation Z, I could be a case study. On Facebook I write long, boring texts, I make jokes that only friends over 30 understand, and on LinkedIn, I am the character you suspect would go to motivational camps to hug trees. My Instagram feed instead reveals yet another man: obsessed with sneakers and self-absorbed, the kind of online character who doesn’t shy away from posing on top of cars. Those who know me personally may think I want to prove something: to send a uplifting message, beyond what is visible to the eyes that fixate the logo of the luxury brand on my sweatshirt. That’s right, but who has the patience to see that?

Ana Gum (Țârlea) certainly has the patience to see beyond a post on the internet. She is 31 years old and dances on TikTok, but always with a small editing twist, something personal that can add an extra meaning to the story she wants to tell through the content. “[…] I love most of the content on TikTok (everything that is moral). Honestly, I find it the most positive and invigorating platform. YouTube is already the new television, on Instagram you only have a place if you are rich or beautiful, but on TikTok — people want to see real, relatable people”, says Ana. “You’re going to laugh, but I read the comments below one of Kendall Jenner’s videos, and a comment with a lot of likes said that they didn’t want to see celebrities of her rank on this app,” she continues.

Ana first found out about Musical.ly, until it was bought by ByteDance and later turned into TikTok. It happened in February 2018, and later she also opened her account. “I signed up in April and I must admit that I was very attracted to the platform even then because of the award-winning challenges (I won €500 just two months after creating the account), then by the ease of forming your own community, but first and foremost, by how addictive it is.”

She says that she just started becoming popular on the application, managing to gather 180 thousand followers. She was born in Bucharest and currently works in Belgium in the field of engineering. “I graduated from two faculties, Film and TV Directing, as well as Installation Engineering, following a master’s degree in Energy Efficiency in Construction Installations. I know, they seem like two antagonistic areas, but areas in which I enjoy working on a daily basis (because I don’t need more than 9 hours of sleep).”

Victor Mihalteanu, known on TikTok as @victor_voice, followed similar studies. “I finished Film and Media School in England, I came back to Romania to do something new with all the experience from there, and now I’m a freelance filmmaker (filming, editing, directing, making storyboards).” Victor is 29 years old, lives in Cluj-Napoca and creates comedy sketches.

“I create comedy sketches in which I interpret, I play jokes thought by me or taken from memes […] and I change them a little bit. Sometimes I also give them another meaning, I make them in a funny way and the more special thing I add is my voice. That’s why some jokes have my voice in the background and I just mimic them as if they were my thoughts. If it’s not me in the clips, I take scenes from movies or cartoons and do a voice over (like lip syncing), and besides the fact that they seem to be talking, I also make them funny. You can see an example here.”

Victor spends at least 4 hours a day working on his videos and sees the TikTok app as a fast forward YouTube. Of all the content creators I’ve spoken to, he’s the only one who mentioned that he doesn’t receive only positive feedback, but that sometimes he has to deal with hate. “Here I realize what their problem really is and send them a virtual hug,” he says.

What Victor does not mention is the political nature of its content. For an app made around the idea of viral content, TikTok will never be able to detach what is trending from a social or political point of view. Sometimes there is intense talk of bullying, Donald Trump or some illiterate prime minister from an Eastern European country; some other times, there will be talk of a pandemic. TikTok will contain both evergreen content and content that reflects a view on the current events. The algorithm delivers the content that it considers to be relevant to users anyway. And Victor understood from the start the political and social character of the application.

He wanted to create viral content, he says. This is how he ended up opening his account: “When I started making videos, the other social networks no longer had organic reach. So, since then, I made a promise that on the next successful platform (such as TikTok), I will sign up and make viral and quality content with everything I learned and experienced on the internet. Once I heard about TikTok left and right, I went on the platform and I instantly liked it, it looked like Vine mixed with YouTube, plus a kind of Instagram, and I knew it was time.”

At the moment, TikTok is among the few mainstream places on the internet where you don’t get pushed into by any idealistic conception of what the application could be. Or, even more current, about who you could become. Nobody assumes the reason why you’re on the internet, at least not at start — until the algorithm knows exactly what kind of content to deliver to you. It’s a feeling of security, it’s somewhat liberating, but also annoying at the same time. The Internet is no longer about the mystery of a parallel life or maybe it never was; nor about the actual connections as I thought when Facebook appeared. We have reached the point where the internet needs to be relatable, and TikTok is now what may be the internet in the following years, in the next decade or, why not, forever.

The answers have been edited for length and clarity. The dialogue with the content creators was facilitated by the Le Squad agency. This article originally appeared in Romanian with the title TikTok Now, TikTok Forever.

Laurențiu Ion is a marketer and a writer. He works in Digital Marketing and is the author of three books, the most recent being „Corporația norilor” (Curtea Veche Publishing, 2019). In 2017 he was included in Forbes 30 Under 30. Laurențiu writes about the tight connection between people and technology.