I love TikTok, #ButImShy

How TikTok Gave These Emojis New Meaning

Social distancing is the new norm, and shyness is trending on TikTok. What does it all (aka: the emojis 👉👈) mean?! Let’s dig in.

Two years since Lil Nas X posted “Old Town Road” to TikTok and rode the Yeehaw Agenda wave to the top of the Billboard charts, the platform has established itself as a driving force not only in the app world, but IRL.

Sometimes, TikTok even seems to anticipate global trends, like Cassandra from those ancient Greek myths, only algorithm-based. Take, for instance, shy memes — and the emojis associated with them (👉👈).

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Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that TikTok predicted the coronavirus pandemic. I’m just saying that a trend rooted in introversion seems timely, now that working from home (not for my kids, though) and social distancing are en vogue—and a necessary step in preventing the spread of COVID-19. With public gatherings canceled, it’s time for the shy to shine. The awkward shall inherit the Earth.


Please give me a like? It’s ok u don’t have too 😔👉👈 ##fyp ##foryou

♬ Kokiri Forest with Ocarinas - daviderickramos

Shy memes on TikTok are accompanied by a variety of hashtags—#butimshy, #imshy, #shy, #shykids, #shybaby—but there’s a general, genre-defining format. In most “shy” TikTok memes, users create videos of themselves in a scenario or situation, pair the video with a specific song, then add “but I’m shy.”

The other defining ingredient in the shy meme recipe is awkwardness made physical: touching the tips of your index fingers together, in a sort of half-twiddling, half-twirling gesture, plus an exaggeratedly pigeon-toed waddling walk. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it.

Many of the videos also use a particular emoji combination that mirrors (or is mirrored by) the depiction of awkwardness: finger-pointing emojis and the pleading face: 🥺👉👈. (There’s also the option to add inward-facing socks and shoes on the outside of the fingers, for a little razzle-dazzle 🥺👉👈👟🧦).

In short, TikTok’s shy memes are what happen when you mix together a whole host of cultural references, niche content, and in-jokes, then use technology to share that mixture with the world.

As evidenced by TikTok’s shy memes, one of the most interesting things about viral trends is that the individual pieces don’t need to resonate with an audience for the end product to hit home. Viral trends are gestalts in this way: organized wholes that are perceived as more than the sum of their parts.

"One of the most interesting things about viral trends is that the individual pieces don’t need to resonate with an audience for the end product to hit home."

You don’t need to recognize that the forefinger touch-and-twiddle is a common trope in anime to understand what @hellbabylexi is trying to get across when she says “I wish I was ur sk8er gf but I’m shy.” You don’t have to remember Gweneth Paltrow’s 2010 red carpet trend of turning her knees inward (it can make one seem younger, and make legs seem thinner) to recognize the kind of performative childishness, often paired with sexuality, that underlies the humor in @psychogeorge’s TikTok of a very shy fairy flying for the first time.

Most TikTok users probably don’t recognize the “Kokiri Forest” song from the original 1986 version of The Legend of Zelda, and it’s even less likely they (or anyone else) recognize that the ancient wind instrument playing it has roots that stretch back over 12,000 years. The videos land whether or not you speak the language or know CPR. 🥺👉👈 has already transcended TikTok, and started to show up in regular text messaging.

Viral TikTok videos like these exist in a sort of URL-to-IRL feedback loop. In part of the loop, humans shape the meaning of tech (ten years ago, few of us would have described an eggplant as phallic; now we all know what the eggplant emoji means). In another part of the loop, tech provides a template that expands human creativity. In yet another, human interaction is the motivation for updating or changing tech to better represent its users.

Or, we can think about it in linguistic terms. Memes and emojis create a recognizable visual language, an ever-existing pidgin language that never has (or needs) the chance to solidify into a creole. Even digital natives can’t claim this type of discourse as their mother tongue, because it’s always changing. And, maybe because it’s always changing, it’s also timeless. (Again, think about that ancient vessel flute).

This constant newness explains why 61% of TikTok users are between 16 and 24, and why teen creators thrive there. It’s also what makes the platform appealing to 30-somethings and, increasingly, to businesses. TikTok’s ever changing nature is what makes it not only a place where trends are created, but also makes it especially responsive to the zeitgeist. Users from around the globe have already started making TikToks as they cope with coronavirus stress (and some of the #Corona videos are also #ShyKids vids!).

"TikTok’s ever changing nature is what makes it not only a place where trends are created, but also makes it especially responsive to the zeitgeist."

And there’s sure to be a lot more quality content posted to TikTok in the upcoming weeks, as people hunker down at home and have more time to create (and more boredom to combat). Personally, I’m waiting for the TikTok trend that responds to the Marxist critique of tech-facilitated art in Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production.” TikTok videos seem like the perfect medium for that type of discourse; they’re a haven for #authentic creation, and proof that the uniqueness of a work of art doesn’t actually have to be inseparable from its “being embedded in the fabric of tradition.”

And, before you say anything about how early 20th century notions about the aestheticization of politics are too niche or elevated for a video social networking platform, I invite you, yet again, to remember all those 16-year-olds making memes with music from a 12,000 year old flute.

Terri is a writer, researcher, and program coordinator for the US's first academic trivia league for HBCUs. She lives and works in New Orleans, with her partner, their 3 kids, and an ever-growing book collection.

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