The Year 2021, as Told by TikTok Videos

Maybe you’re obsessed with TikTok, or maybe you think you’re too old for it. (You’re not.) You might be one of those people who don’t trust the video app because of cybersecurity concerns, or maybe you’ve spent 309 minutes scrolling on it today.

Love it or hate it, but accept it: TikTok can’t be dismissed as a cute collection of little dance videos. It’s the fastest-growing social media app ever. Short, homemade videos, paired with the app’s notoriously high-functioning algorithm, have made TikTok a kind of international town square for ideas. It’s a place for prophets, for false prophets, for women applying makeup while describing feminist theory, for nuns, for gun nuts. 

TikTok is shaping cultural conversations among the youngest people, and that power seems only likely to increase. The app’s 1 billion monthly users skew very young—a Pew Research survey of American social media use in 2021 found that more than half of 18- to 24-year-olds use TikTok. Another survey found that in 2021 teenagers used TikTok more than Instagram or Snapchat.

That power is unwieldy. In August ​​the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a human rights nonprofit, released a report that analyzed more than 1,000 TikTok videos and found that 30% contained content that promoted white supremacy. Nearly a quarter showed support for an extremist or terrorist. TikTok responded to the report, saying that the app “categorically prohibits violent extremism and hateful behavior, and our dedicated team will remove any such content as it violates our policies.” Simultaneously, TikTok attracts teachers, professional and amateur—astrophysicists declaiming on life in the universe, middle school teachers sharing classroom management techniques, epidemiologists explaining the latest COVID reports.

The app can bring songs to number one, turn unknown creators into global sensations, trip a collective sense of nostalgia, and birth major trends. The better parts of TikTok feel life-affirming, like real communities. These pockets are niche and welcoming: Strippertok; knitting TikTok; a creator who goes by Sativa Diva who gets high and ranks fictional characters; Nick Cho, who goes by Your Korean Dad and role-plays as the viewer’s father. TikTok, more than other social media, makes storytelling social. That power shouldn’t be overestimated. 

Scrolling on the app mimics the feeling of changing channels on TV. One risk of TikTok is calibrating your attention such that halfway through a three-minute video, you think, God, this is long. And like all social media, if you spend long enough on it, it will change you. Here are the TikToks—and TikTok genres—that changed us in 2021.

Beauty Trends TikTok

There’s really something about an unpaid, unfamous person touting a product like a roadside preacher that makes you say, “Get in the car, we’re going to Target.” And there were so many we loved this year—Tree Hut body scrubs, foot peels and face washes, and concealer hacks. “TikTok recommended” is an emerging platinum standard for beauty products, particularly drugstore buys. Your Glamour editors tested TikTok-recommended high-pigment lip color by wearing it in the shower, and we’re not (that) embarrassed.

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