Picture it: United States, January 2020. I’m talking with my co-workers about this new app, TikTok. All of us who lived through the rise and fall of Vine, the now-defunct social media app also structured around shortened video, knew that TikTok would succeed in spreading the funny, stupid, insane moments of life. What we didn’t know is just how much it would consume our lives over the next six months, virtually changing how we socialize entirely—and maybe even changing how we identify ourselves.
TikTok and You: The Care and Keeping of Artificial Intelligence
For those who didn’t know, TikTok saw a 58 percent boom in global downloads during the first quarter of 2020, right as the pandemic forced us inside and online. Our viral use of TikTok echoed the rise of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which only furthered its success. When we couldn’t hang out with our friends, we made friends online. If we couldn’t go to a cooking class, we could watch @thehealchef prepare another simple, exquisite dish. And the more hours we spent watching videos, the more we gave TikTok’s AI signals upon signals for the content we loved.
In turn, TikTok adapted to better predict what we wanted to see with laser-level accuracy, bringing to light whatever weird obsession or burning question we had. This confluence of technological developments and the onset of pandemic-induced introspection birthed a new breed of soul-searching, slowing down our lives so we could get to know ourselves through the AI mirror.
But I’m a Cheerleader!
Cut back to April 2020, where I am in the middle of some serious pandemic depression. I’m spending a good portion of my day mindlessly scrolling my FYP (For You page) to avoid real life. In turn, TikTok held up a reflection of my many sides and facets, including the lifelong secret of my bisexuality. I slowly noticed #BiTok and #WLW (Women Loving Women) appearing on the videos I loved, spurring a review of my recent follows on social media, almost all of which were queer women I’d seen on TikTok.
This time-wasting app had articulated something about myself that I hadn’t yet fully embraced. I never checked any box on social media, I didn’t talk about it with my friends or family, and I’d largely compartmentalized it in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” section in my brain. It was just a fun party trick for me! I just had gay friends! I had only dated cisgender men! I wasn’t allowed to identify as queer. A truth I had battled with for 25 years was discovered by an algorithm in a few weeks—and mine was not the only “aha” moment.
Hi, Gay! Happy Pride!
And here I am, grappling with a newly uncovered part of my identity in my adult life. It feels like growing up in the Middle of Nowhere, Illinois, again. And it’s scary. But seeing people like fellow Chicagoan @chrissychlapecka, an out and proud self-proclaimed bisexual bimbo, made me feel seen. Queer comedians like @calebsaysthings and @matteolane showed me that my very weird point of view wasn’t so weird at all.
Suddenly, I am encountering a whole new community online while simultaneously navigating my physical world with a new piece of my identity. But I’m making my queer debut alongside the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, so I had zero experience interacting with fellow queer people publicly, outside of a few close friends.
That’s when, in June 2021, one of our agency-sponsored Zoom hangouts showed up on my calendar—this time for a virtual Pride Happy Hour. On a regular Thursday afternoon, co-workers from across our regional offices led us through a conversation on LGBTQI+ life and history. I listened to my colleagues share how happy they are to live openly at work as their full selves, and my heart leapt into my throat. The IRL community I searched for was actually in front of me all along. I joined the LGBTQI+@Manifest affinity group a month later, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I could exhale. Coming out is never easy, but living as my authentic self has never been easier.