If you don’t spend a lot of time online, you might not recognize these names. But on TikTok, their stories have become sensational, memeified, hashtagged and revamped.
The most recent is “#WestElmCaleb”. The women have taken to TikTok to share their experiences of being showered with affection, shackled and ultimately ghosted by a New York-based designer named Caleb, who has become an example of the worst parts of online dating culture.
Together, these stories represent the emergence of what I call the “TikTok tabloid,” in which users collectively fabricate and dramatize stories like an investigative gossip reel. Traditional tabloids spotlight celebrities and public figures. But the TikTok tabloid targets ordinary people.
How did we come to the era of tabloid TikTok? As a student of digital consumer culture, I see it as an outgrowth of the dynamic of social surveillance: using digital technologies to closely monitor oneself, while producing content online in anticipation of being watched.
Shocking! Exclusive! Scoop!
Tabloid journalism is not new. Common tabloid genres of stars, sex, scandals and murders have been cultural guilty pleasures since the early 1900s.
In the United States, early tabloids like the Daily Mirror and the New York Daily News ushered in an era of sensationalist reporting. These papers were especially popular among working-class readers who reveled in the speculative shenanigans of high society.
In the 1970s, glossy tabloids like People and Us Weekly took the helm with behind-the-scenes celebrity exclusives and human-interest stories. Tabloid journalism migrated to the small screen in the 1990s with TV shows like “Hard Copy” and “Inside Edition.”
And in the 2000s, the internet churned out 24-hour celebrity gossip with clickbait headlines on websites like TMZ.com and PerezHilton.com.
Previous eras of tabloid journalism were marked by highly curated content focused on the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The attention brokers were editors, publishers, paparazzi, journalists and publicists. The tabloids filtered the news to the masses and, in turn, the masses influenced the behaviors of celebrities.
But now we’re seeing a new iteration of tabloidization happening in real time on TikTok, where digital technologies are empowering everyday consumers to play the roles of armchair pundits, investigative journalists, paparazzi digital, talking heads and celebrities themselves.
Watch and be watched
Traditional tabloid journalism is grounded in the surveillance dynamic of “the many watching the few”: an obsession with a relative handful of selected stars and scandals. Emerging tabloid TikTok relies on the dynamics of social surveillance, or “the many watching the many” – a network of ordinary people watching and being watched.
According to media scholar Alice E. Marwick, social monitoring is defined as “the ongoing listening, investigating, gossiping, and investigating that constitutes the gathering of information by people about their peers, made evident by the social digitization normalized by social media”.
Classical visions of surveillance envision a prison state – a Big Brother panopticon where a guard in a tower can watch the prisoners in the cells but the prisoners in the cells cannot see into the tower.
In social surveillance, everyone online is both a keeper and a prisoner, constantly consuming online content and producing content for others to see.
This permanent dynamic makes it possible to control behavior. Everyday people have the power to orchestrate what other users see, read, and believe – not just about mainstream celebrities, but everyday people as well.
In the case of Gabby Petito, who disappeared in September 2021, TikTokers developed theories about her disappearance based on her latest Instagram post and Spotify playlists, claimed to psychically follow her and was quick to be the first to report the latest from #GabbyPetito.
Such a deep dive into people’s privacy for public entertainment is a feature of social surveillance that is only accelerated further by TikTok’s interactive features.
“As for the second part”
TikTok’s unique features and culture of storytelling make it the perfect social media platform to get everyday people fueling tabloid-like coverage.
First, the platform’s interactive features allow TikTokers to collectively contribute to the TikTok tabloid in real time. TikTokers can respond directly to comments with new videos, curate and track content via hashtags and sounds, stitch videos together with other content, caption them for context, and use a green screen effect — all like a real news studio.
Second, TikTok’s algorithm serves users’ content based on a combination of their interests and what appears to be a general trend. Watching a few West Elm Caleb videos easily triggers a stream of West Elm Caleb content on the “for you” page, or #FYP: TikTok’s version of front page news.
Third, storytelling practices on the TikTok platform mimic exclusive reporting, hot takes, and cliffhanger media. TikTokers are dangling tantalizing story bits in front of viewers with caveats of “as for part 2” or serializing their content. These stories then take on a life of their own, becoming culturally embedded memes.
Social media can be a useful accountability mechanism. On Twitter, for example, users expressed outrage at Central Park Karen’s racist actions and found solidarity by sharing experiences of sexual harassment through the #MeToo movement.
But where platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook allow users to tell stories, TikTok allows users to create full-fledged narrative rabbit holes. A nugget of content can be collectively turned into an epic drama.
The Promise and Peril of Advertising
Tabloid TikTok is democratizing access to fame while fueling America’s cultural penchant for gossip.
The tabloid TikTok may seem fun and frivolous – an entertaining live action, participatory role-playing version of TMZ taking place in real time. But there may be a dark side to this form of public shaming and internet sleuthing.
The constant rolling of sensational news can harm well-being, especially for those most directly affected. In November 2021, Sabrina Prater unwittingly became the front page of tabloid TikTok when her banal dance video turned into conspiracy theories about being a serial killer. She later posted a tearful video pleading for the emotional attacks to stop.
Unlike traditional celebrities, few everyday people have publicists, spin-docs, and social media managers who can help them deal with exam stress.
Who manages the public images of people who have not chosen to become public figures?
It would be easy to say that they should just stay away from TikTok. But it is not that simple. Social monitoring ensures that we all have the potential to make headlines, beholden to tabloid tastemakers TikTok.
Jenna Drenten, Associate Professor of Marketing, Loyola University of Chicago