Follow Vogue Arabia

I Ventured onto TikTok for the First Time, and This is Everything I Learned

TikTok has not only changed the way we use social media — it has changed how we engage with society. But is the most downloaded app in the world just fun and games?

From top: Sarah Miladd, Huda Kattan, Hadeer Ahmed, Hadia Ghaleb

The simple notes belie the swift choreography; the signature TikTok claps and rolls happening in a flash – all while coordinating your facial features into looking like you are au fait with one of the world’s hottest apps. For someone hopelessly untalented, it seems impossible. But Sarah Miladd is a pro, teaching me the ropes as I venture onto TikTok for the first time. She infuses her moves with a bubbly ease that has earned her 7.4 million adoring followers. She moves gracefully and quickly, patiently guiding me through the gestures until finally – about a dozen tries later – I vaguely manage to coordinate my face and hands. The 23-year-old Emirati is a bona fide TikTok star, as much for her charm as her adorable comedy sketches and dances, but I doubt my debut will result in similar success. Miladd cried when she reached a million views for the first time. “People used to bully me, saying I’m not good at anything and I’ll always be a failure. So I set a goal for myself to be famous. When my post went viral, I felt like I was achieving something.”

Not as manufactured as Instagram, as old-fashioned as Facebook, or as angry as Twitter, TikTok is made-to-measure for young Gen Z-ers, who are always scrolling screens. The Chinese video-sharing app was the most downloaded app of 2020 and is the most popular app in the world for under 20s. That’s an astounding feat, seeing as it only launched worldwide in 2018. TikTok was introduced in the region on January 1, 2019, with a one-minute lightshow on the Burj Khalifa before the annual fireworks display. It is among the most popular apps in the MENA region, which has a young, technologically savvy population.

“We don’t disclose user figures, but TikTok has been exceptionally well received and our local community is growing quickly,” says Hany Kamel, content operations director at TikTok MENA. They don’t read and they don’t talk on the phone, but Gen Z are the great communicators of this era, creating snackable videos that speed around the globe, earning money with each sponsored post. The region’s style and fashion superstars include Emirati Hadia Ghaleb, with 1.3 million followers, Egyptian Hadeer Ahmed, who is nudging one million, and her compatriot Ingy Elengbawy shows 340 000 people her styling tricks. While TikTok use exploded during lockdown, its appeal mostly lies in its ease of use – and the powerful algorithm it employs to tailor personalized content to each user. It’s also telling that TikTok doesn’t see itself as a social media app in competition with Instagram (even though the platform is trying to emulate the TikTok magic sauce with its Reels), but rather as an entertainment platform in the mold of Netflix. “TikTok is a content creation platform, not a social platform,” explains Kamel.

“Users are not motivated by the desire to share social updates, but by the desire to create and consume content they are passionate about.” The region has seen an explosion of diverse content, ranging from food and fashion to sport and education. Fatma Hilal is an Emirati TikTokker garnering millions of views for her stylish flatlays. “The goal of each post is for a woman to feel she is the princess inside this short, dreamy scene.” TikTok has a closer relationship with its top creators than other platforms, and holds a much tighter rein on trends. Hashtags – or “challenges,” in TikTok parlance – are not organically created by users, but instead by the company itself, or by brands looking for marketing. The challenges are pushed by the algorithm and thus go viral. But while the app has billed itself as “the last sunny corner of the internet,” even the brightest day can’t hide shadows. “Social media platforms can cause a physiological addiction to dopamine, as well as a psychological addiction to ‘connecting,’” explains Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of The LightHouse Arabia in Dubai. “Billions of dollars are being spent by companies to keep us on their apps longer. Neuroscientists who are familiar with coding are creating features that understand dopamine and other neurochemicals to keep us scrolling.”

High social media use is linked to mental health difficulties such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness, Dr Afridi says. “It creates an illusion of connection but it’s hollow and doesn’t feel meaningful. The anonymity also allows people to say horrible things, and if you are on the receiving end of negative comments, it can become difficult to cope.” This is something both Miladd and Hilal have had to deal with. “I learned early on to stop replying to negative comments and to keep my comments positive for other people’s mental health,” Hilal says. “It’s only for fun and not to make a person feel bad.”

TikTok, too, is aware of this potential damage and has created filters for negative comments, so users don’t see it in their feeds. “It is our top priority to create a safe and positive in-app experience for our users,” Kamel says. “We enforce a set of comprehensive community guidelines, and we take action on content and accounts that violate them.” While TikTok can be a fun tool for creativity and distraction, it’s not real life – and if you are using it to compare yourself to others or escape your reality, it might be time to take a step back. “Even the happiest people and the most authentic ones online have whole lives they do not show,” Dr Afridi says. “Engage in hobbies in the real world. Stay connected to your passions. Read, learn, travel, play sports – do what brings you joy.” Will TikTok moves ever bring me joy? I think this embarrassing Gen X-er will stick to dancing on her own.

Read Next: This TikTok Creator’s Stellar Wardrobe Fuses Modest Style, ’80s Silhouettes, and Thrifting

Originally published in the October 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia

View All
Vogue Collection