TikTok joined the ranks of social media giants in record time. It’s not surprising, considering that the app lends itself perfectly to easily consumable entertainment and comedy.

However, what TikTok is used for more and more is infotainment. Influencers offering short, quippy snippets of advice and tips on a variety of things, while gaining a bigger platform. Fashion, beauty, and cooking are the conventionally big categories for informational videos, but because of the low threshold for getting sucked into a rabbit hole, some content that we’ve never seen take off on other platforms have found a home on TikTok.

There’s a part of TikTok that is reminiscent of middle-of-the-night TV, where lives rule. Fortune-tellers and tarot readers wait to tell you your future in rapid-fire rounds, people scratch lottery tickets (though gambling is against community guidelines on TikTok, so alternative verbiage springing up is common — the lottery scratchers often use “pickles” as shorthand for money), Chinese factories host Lucky Scoops to sell off their low-grade stock of crystals in mystery bags and, of course, NPC lives where people behave like NPCs until you send them a gift and get a reaction.

Yeah, it’s weird.

Besides all of… that, books is another category that has seen explosive growth.

BookTok, like many verticals on TikTok, started off as a place to share what books you’ve read, what you thought about them and have discussions around books in general. But as the platform matured, the focus on the content has turned to a more commercialised tone and that original community feeling is gone.

This is part and parcel of the normal lifecycle of any new platform, so it’s not new or unexpected, but it has taken a lot of the booktokkers by surprise. Many of the original accounts that were there to grow BookTok, have since closed up shop because they felt buried underneath the avalanche of commercialisation that is driven by TikTok’s algorithm.

In its relatively short existence, BookTok has seen a lot of drama. Granted, this seems to be very in line with TikTok in general, because apparently there is no -tok that is entirely drama free. BookTok has seen plagiarism accusations, trigger warning wars, Verba, authors behaving badly, the Kraken, CoHorts… the list goes on. Most of these things come up so quickly, you miss them if you blink.

But none of the drama has hampered the growth of BookTok, because TikTok has even added tools to the platform specifically designed to enhance the experience.

From TikTok’s Newsroom: “Developed in collaboration with our launch partner Penguin Random House, this feature allows users to now link their favorite Penguin Random House books within their videos. Clicking the link directs people to a dedicated page with details about the book, including a brief summary, and a collection of other videos that linked the same title.”

As this partnership exists solely with Penguin Random House titles, there are a lot of books that are left out of the equation. And I have to wonder, is this going to affect how the algorithm treats those outside of the PRH line-up? Are those using it going to see an increased push to the FYP?

Considering that BookTok as a community prides itself on being a launching platform for indie authors (there’s a whole other conversation to be had about what really goes on in the back-end of this phenomenon, which I won’t get into here) it seems like a misstep from TikTok to partner with PRH alone. We’ll just have to wait a bit, blink a few times, and see if it sticks or changes.

TikTok also says, “From book reviews to writing tips, plot reenactments of popular novels and more, #BookTok is a delightful, wholesome corner of TikTok that encourages and inspires others to enjoy literature in all of its forms.”

Personally, I wouldn’t use the word delightful to describe BookTok, but I digress.

BookTok thrives on the quantity and personalisation of its recommendations.

This means that a lot of readers use the app to find their next book. But it’s not like online communities for the bookish are a new thing — Reddit, YouTube, Bookstagram etc. — so what is it that makes TikTok so different?

Normally, you’re left to seek out those bookish communities and recommendations for yourself. TikTok just dumps them in your lap, whether you want them or not. And once you watch one bookish video all the way through, the algorithm will start sending more your way like an overzealous tennis ball throwing machine.

This becomes painfully evident when you can’t get away from the same old books being touted as The Best Thing Ever over and over again. And when you don’t like the BookTok darlings — books that tend to have a lot of issues (among other things: abuse & abusive relationships, misogyny, racism & whitewashing, poor writing & construction), it quickly gets tiring to see the same old memes and re-enactments.

More than once, I’ve seen people complain about how they decided to read a book based on the hype, but it turned out to be so horrible it pushed them into a reading slump. But there are a lot of aesthetic codes that you get from reading these books, and having them on your social feeds, that work as shorthand for who you are because of what these books supposedly say about you and your life as a reader of these books.

TikTok is the perfect breeding ground for toxicity.

A lot of us old-timer millennials (and older) downloaded TikTok as a joke when we were looking to alleviate our boredom in the Unprecedented Times. By the summer of 2019, TikTok had stopped being a joke as a lot of content creators started putting more effort into the platform. That summer is often seen as the “golden age” of TikTok, which had turned into a fresh, new app where anyone could get famous.

Gen Z especially embraced it as a place to post creative and light-hearted videos. You didn’t have to look perfectly polished like on Instagram, didn’t have to spend hours doing research like on YouTube, and didn’t have to prove that you were having The Best Day Ever like on Snapchat. There were funny trends, musical puns and fun summer activity ideas.

Just like everything on TikTok happens in the blink of an eye, so did TikTok’s “golden age” and it came to a close as soon as autumn 2019 rolled around. By then, TikTok had entered it’s body shaming era, full of the hypersexualised dances we know today.

Normal teenagers had been catapulted into TikTok fame, not for having a talent or doing anything super crazy, just for some short, simple and entertaining enough dances. And as quickly as the new Gen Z celebrities, like Charlie D’Amelio and Addison Rae, became famous, so too, did the haters show up.

Once people like Rae and D’Amelio started making money on TikTok, others quickly jumped on the bandwagon and the competition began to define the type of content being made. In this fight for fame, content creators have discovered what tabloids have always known: controversial content gets more engagement. This has bled into TikTok as a mentality that you climb the ladder by tearing those who came before you down.

Though TikTok content today is more polished than it ever has been before, perhaps it’s the fact that it’s still houses pockets of less polished content that makes it feel more intimate than older platforms? People will still just jump on TikTok, as they are (I know, Instagram is clutching its pearls) and say something, such as “I’m having a bad day” (Snapchat just fainted) to their audience. And with that intimacy, comes a kind of parasocial relating that has toxic fandoms flourishing.

Which, finally, brings me to the point I’ve been building up to.

BookTok’s emphasis on aesthetics, archetypes, and performative reading has transformed the act of reading.

BookTok is characterised by an acute focus on aesthetics — it’s quite easy to romanticise just about anything with some clever editing and the right music. The appearance of a book, the ambiance of the reading environment, and even the accompanying music in the videos are all meticulously curated to create a visually appealing experience.

Now reading is typically a very solitary act, unless you’re reading aloud to others. And this focus on aesthetics elevates reading from a solitary pursuit to a performative act.

Just as fashion and lifestyle content on social media are curated for public consumption, so too, does BookTok encourage readers to curate their literary choices to project a specific image instead of letting your curiosity guide you. This performative reading aligns with the broader trend of using digital platforms to construct and present identity, rather than record and share lived experience.

Archetypes, rooted in specific genres or authors, serve as shorthand representations of individual identity within BookTok. The “disaffected cool, sad girl” aesthetic, influenced by works of authors like Ottessa Moshfegh and Sylvia Plath, exemplifies this phenomenon.

Other archetypes include, but are not limited to, the dark academia reader (The Secret History of Donna Tartt is their bible), the smut enthusiasts (#smuttok), and the distinct fan groups of specific authors, like Colleen Hoover, Taylor Jenkins Reid, or Emily Henry.

By adopting such archetypes, readers not only express their literary preferences but also align themselves with a particular cultural or social group. The ability to quickly pass judgment on others’ reading choices based on archetypal alignment demonstrates how BookTok cultivates a sense of belonging and differentiation through shared aesthetics. Whether or not you’ve actually read the book, agree or like what’s in it, is beside the point. Though, Lord have mercy on anyone who dares to take a critical eye to reviewing one of the BookTok darlings.

BookTok has turned the act of reading into a public spectacle, encouraging users to share videos of themselves reading, sharing their latest book hauls and even zooming in on strangers’ book covers in public — this is considered to be fundamentally reading for clout, because if you were just reading for yourself, you’d read on your phone or Kindle where no one can see what you’re reading.

The TikTok algorithm rewards content that aligns with consumerist and materialistic expressions of identity.

While BookTok has played a crucial role in revitalising book sales and rekindling interest in reading, it has also ushered in a paradigm where the pursuit of aesthetics and trendiness can overshadow the intrinsic value of literature. The quest for an ideal aesthetic, from book choices to broader lifestyle elements, fosters a culture of overconsumption, undermining the genuine exploration of ideas and the development of critical thinking skills that reading inherently offers.

The impact of BookTok extends beyond the digital realm and into physical spaces, notably bookstores. The platform’s emphasis on aesthetics and archetypes has prompted bookstores to adapt their displays to cater to the platform’s considerable audience. It’s now normal to see a display with a poster reading #BOOKTOK and a selection of BookTok darling books right beneath.

As a side note, Barnes and Noble’s “Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss” display is one of the worst of the bunch. As Leigh Stein said, “This whole concept is like something a Gen Z hourly worker came up with and then a Boomer store manager brought to life.”

This convergence of digital and physical spaces highlights the far-reaching influence of this “TikTok gaze” on shaping cultural tastes and influencing the commercial landscape. While street style and music preferences have long been the subjects of public attention, BookTok has now also transformed reading into a communal experience, where individuals are evaluated not only on the content they consume (or pretend to consume) but also on how well they embody the archetype associated with their chosen reading material.

While the platform has successfully revitalised interest in reading and literature, which is wonderful, it has also raised important questions about the balance between aesthetics and substance, individuality and conformity. As technology continues to shape our cultural experiences, understanding and critically examining the impact of platforms on literature and identity will be ever more important.

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