Though TikTok has been around ever since it Musical.ly rebranded itself in 2017, I was one of the last Gen Zers to download it. I thought I was above the mindless scrolling that makes the app so addicting and immune to understanding various TikTok sounds and references. So, when I downloaded it for the first time about six months ago, nothing could prepare me for what I saw.
I’ve been a Brockhampton fan since high school. I knew of the band and their music before Ameer got kicked out, before they became famous and before they moved from their music incubator in South Los Angeles. I was astounded, then, when one of the first TikTok videos I saw not only featured Brockhampton’s signature song “Sugar” but that it had garnered hundreds of thousands of likes. I frantically searched the comment section and found further recognition and adoration for the band. And that’s when it hit me: Brockhampton was no longer underground indie. They went mainstream.
For the last three years, I remained completely content 一 and perhaps a little smug 一 in my enjoyment of Brockhampton’s music. When asked to name my favorite song, I always answered with the band’s hit track “Sweet” and wholeheartedly expected turned heads and confused faces in response. But I couldn’t feel this way anymore. I could no longer gatekeep Brockhampton. And it’s TikTok’s fault.
What Is Gatekeeping?
The term “gatekeeping” refers to controlling or wanting to control general access to something. It describes the general feeling of superiority for enjoying certain media and contempt for any larger groups who dare to come across it. The word encompasses the attitude of people who like something before it goes mainstream. This can include enjoying grunge music before Nirvana popularized it or engaging in the indie scene with Mac DeMarco before “Chamber of Reflection” came out.
Gatekeeping can even refer to film bros who will tell you why “Pulp Fiction” is the greatest movie — or “film,” as they’d prefer — of all time. If you’re in the community, you’re “in” but if you’re out, you’re merely a plebeian.
On TikTok, the concept of gatekeeping still applies. It ranges from music popularized as TikTok sounds to books summarized by the common #booktok hashtag. Any popular media described by users becomes fair game, not only in turning mainstream but also in being denoted as previously gatekept by consumers. Videos with #gatekeeping in the description have garnered nearly 69 million views across the app, making it a popular topic of discussion.
On the one hand, TikTok and its potential for gatekeeping is contemptible because it withholds access and enjoyment to different forms of media or previously underground cultures. It maintains the notion that some people are above others sheerly because of the kind of media they consume. But, on the other hand, gatekeeping’s popularity as a topic on TikTok exposes this phenomenon and encourages users to push against it, allowing for more equality and the acceptance of others into fan bases and consumer groups.
What Does Gatekeeping Mean for the Future of (Social) Media?
Though placing yourself into certain consumer bases can give users a sense of community, doing so for the sake of being condescending becomes less and less tolerable. Social media users no longer allow others to maintain a sense of pseudo-superiority simply because they stumbled upon a TV show or music artist before they became mainstream. Instead, individuals provide a sense of empathy and acceptance for others. This exiles those who believe this practice of preeminence is benevolent.
TikTok gatekeeping even led to the popularity of the meme “gaslight gatekeep girlboss.” The phrase parodies the infamous “live laugh love” used by odious millennials and Gen Zers. Gaslighting is the act of manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity. It stems from cisgender, heterosexual men engaging in this practice toward female pursuits. A girlboss typically refers to women persevering under false pretenses. In other words, if a girlboss can be successful, why can’t you? It claims to promote hustle culture but is largely a sexist fantasy entrenched in the perpetuation of capitalist pursuits.
The sarcastic underpinning of each word suggests the perceived malevolence of such practices among young people. Users are discouraged from pursuing these shallow terms so as to avoid the dreaded condemnation for being exclusionary.
Though social media contains a slew of downsides, it dissolves the belief that we should be wholly individualistic. If anything, it helps us avoid being neglectful of the world around us. It reminds us that others exist, and they deserve the same level of respect and acceptance we wish for ourselves. Using social media 一 TikTok especially 一 requires a certain level of empathy because any Joe Schmo can pop up on your “For You” page. And if Joe Schmo shows up, so will their music taste. And their music taste might include Brockhampton.
Much to my dismay, TikTok made me realize that I was not the only Brockhampton fan in the universe. Although it wounded my ego a little bit at first, I benefitted from learning this. TikTok forced me to forego their indie status; instead, I traded it for more peers who knew their music. That also meant more shows to attend as the band grew in popularity. Brockhampton went from playing the 1 p.m. slot on the first day of Austin City Limits in 2018 to garnering one of the largest crowds at Lollapalooza in 2021. And it was beautiful.
So perhaps popularity and mainstream acceptance in lieu of gatekeeping is inherently a good thing. We must remind ourselves that it’s okay for others to enjoy what we enjoy, even if we found it first. Because at the end of the day, we all start out as cultural novices, too.