#WitchTok among “TikTok cultures” in new book

Image: Tarot cards like these are popular topics on #WitchTok. Presented here: the Waite-Smith deck.
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Image credit: Nosferattus, via Wikimedia Commons

LAWRENCE: Donald Trump threatened to do it Ban TikTok outright, while President Joe Biden’s administration has raised concerns that the China-based app is mining user data.

University of Kansas researcher Jane Barnette has other concerns, which are articulated in her chapter of the new book TikTok Cultures in the United States” (Routledge).

The book edited by the viral TikTok teacher Trevor (@dr_boffone) Boffone, analyzes the trending, video-based social media app from multiple angles, with chapters focusing on the representation of gender and sexuality, feminism, race and ethnicity, and wellness.

Barnette, an associate theater professor who teaches a class on witches in popular culture, contributed a chapter titled Hocus-Pocus: WitchTok Education for Baby Witches. In it, she focused on the potential – and actual – transmission of provably false information about witchcraft traditions among the billions of posts tagged #WitchTok.

“A lot of TikTok is educational,” Barnette said. “It teaches people how to cook a recipe or apply makeup and so many people are using #WitchTok to get into the craft.”

With over 3 billion downloads since its debut in 2016, TikTok is the fastest growing social media app and the 7th most popular overall. Much of its growth has been attributed to the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown and pandemic confinement.

Barnette said she decided TikTok was worthy of academic study after seeing its relevance to the lives of her Generation Z students. Although TikTok was recently raised to a 10-minute time limit, video posts have had a time limit of one and then three minutes for most of the app’s lifespan. Creator are empowered/encouraged to form “duets” by placing themselves side-by-side with the original video contribution and providing timely comments on it. The “Stitch” feature is similarly referential, but allows the commenter to stitch their video to the original post.

Barnette wrote that these features provide users with “a means of analysis performed” and that they “fall into the category of adaptation dramaturgy or adaptation,” which was the subject and title of her 2017 book.

“I realized that TikTok has this really interesting performative mode,” Barnette said. “It’s a way to expand and reformulate conversations. And I think that can be really powerful, especially for young people trying to figure out, ‘What’s my attitude? What is my political stance? What do I think?’ ”

The problem comes, she writes, when false information is passed on by young people enthusiastic but misinformed User. Typical rhetorical policing by community elders can handle many aspects related to #WitchTok, Barnette writes. And yet, in its most extreme form, it can be downright dangerous, she said, citing clips containing dubious information about herbs to induce abortion that she saw released June 24 after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Decision.

In the year between when Barnette wrote her book chapter and today, views of #WitchTok posts went from 18.5 billion to nearly 24 billion. So, Barnette said, it’s up to us – both inside and outside the academy – to study the impact of the wild, free for all aspects of the platform on the emerging public conversations within their various communities of interest.

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