DoomTok and the 15-Second Zeitgeist

Talking about TikTok and the election right now might feel like I’m beating two dead horses to…post-death death? Maybe just a much gnarlier death. This I won’t dare contest with the reader. I know you’re right. Depending on your age, where your finger finds itself scrolling in the morning, and the nature and combativeness of your dinner conversations, you’ve definitely been hearing about or engaging with one of these things quite often over the past few months. Whether it’s the “For You” page or FiveThirtyEight, we’ve all been there, stumbling down holes of our choosing. That’s just 20**.

But there was a very special time, when the TikTok horse and the election horse merged into one god-awful, monstrous horse, and all hell broke loose. Or, at least the TikTok horse had us convinced it would on November 4th. When TikTok became flooded with All Things Election, a period of about four days ‘fore the 3rd, it was not a pretty sight. Rather, it looked more like a scene out of The Purge and The Hunger Games’s crossover bust. At a period of about once, say, every four scrolls (which is very frequently, for all non-Tokers), you’d come across some 24-year-old bespectacled Doom Prophet’s nightmarish take on the aftermath of the election. And, not frequently, but rather always, this seemed to include not just “civil unrest,” in the nebulous sense, but an all-out, guns ablazing, civil war, projected in comically horrifying detail.

I say “comically” because some of these “takes” were, indeed, intended as jokes, or for the mere purpose of amusing the viewer. However, the “joke” rested not in the trueness of the claim that the creator was making, but, rather, the irony through which it was depicted – the chipper piano riff of “All I Want for Christmas” sounding over flags burning and bedlam in the streets, with a caption that read “If you’re stressed rn, just remember this is what the U.S. will look like in 2 days” (there are many iterations of this, so I am not at liberty to credit only one user). A person appearing to be sleeping soundly, under the caption “Me sleeping through the election and the chaos” — followed by a car crashing through their window (@kingmonaire). People running around in front of a shaky camera and Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” blaring, shooting each other in mock pugnacity with various Nerf guns (@swagswervo). The list goes on.

And, on November 1st, I found myself laughing at the wildly unhinged visions of American hell these people were creating – whether or not they were intentionally satirical, or really were portraits of hell. In only 15 seconds, they seemed to capture the essence of the torment and distress that has been building over America for years. This is where the zeitgeist of our times finds itself pouring out – on the reels of a platform intended mostly for 14-20 year olds. As if to say, if you can’t vote, at least you know what the streets will look like tomorrow! Even for those of us who can legally cast our ballots with pride, this projection of our soon-to-be reality was profoundly alarming. That’s why, just as the snarky “civil war” calls proliferated the Tok, so did many genuine and fearful calls for action, help, and plain humanity.

Earnest pleas for safety and for unity were hurled into the abyss of civil war half-jokes. What made these posts different from those Instagram stories you might have scrolled by (probably containing the word “guidelines” ), was that these pleas were coming from actual people, whose faces, eyes, and tone one was not only forced to see, but read, process, and compare against one’s own. We really saw just how scared our neighbors were – and were forced to consider how scared we might be ourselves. 

One video in particular, which has upwards of 33,000 views, urges people of color and LGBTQ people to stay inside during the election and a few days after. This TikTok highlights a tweet where the user claimed to have “leaked screenshots” containing threats of violence from alt-right groups. Another video, posted by @cjb6123, with nearly 220k views, highlights a list of cities throughout the nation most at-risk for violence following the election. And yet another tours the city of Chicago, taking us past blocks of stores and restaurants that remain boarded up from top to bottom (posted on Nov. 2nd). It is not only the left that is scared — videos of the same origin proliferate the conservative “side” of TikTok, as well, pitching threats by Antifa and the rabid, radical left as their bait for fear and panic. It seems that, regardless of your political affiliation, you were forewarned to be afraid – someone was after you. We found ourselves pushed beyond the boundaries of civility, into the primal depths of the “fight or flight” mode. You could stay safe inside and protect yourself, or you could run amuck in the streets and try to defend what was “rightfully” yours (that is, your president and all that they stand for).

Looking back on this “trend”, what is it that we learn about our system? What is it that we learn about ourselves? Maybe, it’s that the only way to escape the nightmarish present and imminent future is through timely, if ill-placed or insensitive, humor. That would at least explain the “funny” stuff. Maybe, it’s that we tend to hyperbolize our futures, because the uncertainty of what’s to come is sheerly unbearable. And, after all that, the apocalypse or a second civil war never did come. Could this be because we are lucky, or because we exaggerated? Are we willing to make the bet either way?

It’s safe to say that, regardless of what ended up happening and the degree to which we celebrated on the 8th, a genuine and palpable terror did seem to shake the nation for more than just a few hours when the ballots were cast. Now, the unrest part seems to have eluded us, for the time being. But its memory is unshakeable. Believe it or not, (and I can’t help but laugh as I write this), sardonically jeering TikToks last forever. Perhaps, in a few years, they will come to serve as a reminder of the reality we are capable of projecting onto ourselves; the one that we oh-so narrowly escaped. They will remind us of a time when we felt genuinely unsafe, at least, on a collective scale, and nudge us to make sure that we never feel that way again.