Opinion | Black creators and TikTok: What they think the app has to do to ‘foster an inclusive environment’

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TikTok’s “For You” page isn’t for everyone — as Black content creators know all too well. These individual homepages on the social media platform promote videos for users and can therefore turn content creators into viral sensations (and sometimes millionaires). But those users not spotlighted by its algorithms can struggle to get credit for the dances and other content the site popularizes, even those that take off. After much public criticism from Black influencers, TikTok apologized in June 2020 and pledged to “foster an inclusive environment on our platform.”

More than a year later, many Black content creators are still waiting for that welcoming environment. Some went on strike last month to call attention to how Black creators’ content is often replicated by White influencers without mention of the original choreographer. The controversy flared in the spring when White influencer Addison Rae performed several viral TikTok dances on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” without crediting their originators, most of whom are Black. (After an outcry, the show invited the dances’ creators to perform.) Some of the strikers were also motivated by account suspensions they consider unfair and a practice known as shadow banning, which hides — but does not delete — videos from users ostensibly for content that runs afoul of TikTok policies (such as prohibiting profanity).

Asked about the strike and its content-moderation practices, a TikTok spokesperson told me this week, “We care deeply about the experience of Black creators on our platform, instilling a culture where crediting creators is the norm, and fostering a safe and supportive community environment.” I spoke with several Black creators about their experiences on the platform and how they’d like it to change.

Following are edited excerpts of Nana Efua Mumford’s interviews with Jazmine Moore (@kiri.jaz), who creates anime content; Theo Wisseh (@theowisseh_) and Noah Webster (@NoahMadeSMK1), who live in the Atlanta-based Collab Crib, a home for online content creators; and Mya Johnson (@theemyanicole), a choreographer who co-created the “Up” dance shown just below.

Why are you and other Black content creators on strike?

Theo Wisseh: I think the whole purpose of the strike was just to bring light to the fact that Black culture was just being stolen and being carried away by all these other people and not being credited.

Noah Webster: Social media apps are meant to be curated for your liking so you stay on the app longer so you’re always seeing something that you like. But the problem is, if somebody is only shown White creators doing Black people’s dance moves and they’re never shown the people who created the dance, then they’re not even going to know about those [Black] creators. … So that’s where I feel the problem arises. It’s not the [public’s] fault because they don’t know better, but at the same time it’s like, you got to stop hyping these folks if they’re not really doing nothing.

What has the impact of the strike been so far?

Wisseh: TikTok has been pretty boring so far. So, I think that it’s working.

Webster: Since the strike started, coincidentally, I haven’t seen too many challenges, so that kind of says something itself right there.

How would you describe the dances that you’ve seen in your absence?

Jazmine Moore: It was actually intriguing to watch because I was like, “Wow, you guys really need our help.” It’s like, “Oh, wow, this is why y’all need to give credit when it’s due, because they’re just taking our spice or that magic that we have, they’re just taking as their own.”

How do you come up with the dances and challenges? How much effort goes into making content?

Webster: Well, first of all, we don’t steal content. So everything that we come up with and create is from the heart. It’s from our original thought. … We don’t try to copy a lot of trends or ride the wave. We just try to make our own little trends.

What message would you have if you could talk to some of the White content creators who have co-opted the Black dances or Black culture?

Wisseh: I just recently saw this White creator, he’s pretty much famous for stealing content, and he was like, Bro, it’s just TikTok. Like, if you get mad over TikTok … blah, blah, blah, it’s just content, whatever. And I’m really sitting here thinking, like, this man is probably getting millions for the content that he stole while the person who made it is getting like $5 from the [TikTok] Creator Fund and no recognition, which is real messed up. So, I just think they should just be ashamed of themselves.

There are also issues with TikTok banning profiles.

Wisseh: My video will get deleted immediately if I say [certain words]. TikTok actually deleted my account twice in like two months. And I really don’t know why each time they deleted it. … They gave it back both times. But it’s just still the fact that they deleted it.

Johnson: It really hurts because, as you can just hear, how much time, sweat, energy and passion I put into my work. And then, one day you just scroll on your TikTok, and it says that your TikTok has been banned. It really hurts because I’ve really worked really hard and then even seeing all these other Black creators’ accounts getting taken down. It is like, wow, they keep doing the same repeated process.

Do you feel like when people are now doing the “Up” dance or any of the other challenges, that you are getting more credit?

Johnson: I feel like after the Addison Rae situation, I think I am getting a lot of credit because people realize who created the dance. … So, me and my friend Chris [Cotter, who co-created the dance] are definitely getting a lot more credit, different people reaching out. So, it’s been a blessed opportunity for both of us.

Artists like Roddy Ricch and K Camp are on mainstream radio because their songs or sounds were featured in viral dances. Similarly, major artists like Megan Thee Stallion are seemingly writing songs and lyrics that are designed for these viral dances. So, what does that tell you about your power as a content creator?

Webster: Honestly, that just shows me that I can still accomplish the dreams that I have for myself, because even though I do social media and I’m considered [an] influencer, one of my biggest passions is still music. And to see all these influencers can go up there, make a viral hit, and really the entire world [is] following their song and doing their dance. That’s just awesome to me.

What have you learned through the strike? What are the lessons learned for others?

Wisseh: If you’re a Black person on TikTok, it’s harder for you. So if that demotivates you at all, I just want to tell those people to just keep going.

Johnson: It’s always good to reach out to the people who actually made those dances. A lot of the Black creators don’t ever get the credit they deserve.

Webster: One thing I have learned is that our voice is strong and that we are being heard because we are extremely valuable in this equation. We are pretty much the ones coming up with the content, coming up with the trends that are making these apps and these [other] people so popular. So I think that we just need to be shown a little bit more respect moving forward in this game, because it just goes to show how easily we can shut this all down if we need to.

Is there anything that you think we should know about all of the work that you’re doing or what your experience has been as a TikTok creator?

Johnson: Doing what I do is really fun for me, so I just hope that TikTok finds the issue, what’s going on and realizes what they’re doing. People who really work hard, like a lot of people, that’s like their job. People just make money off of this stuff, and that’s how they get opportunities. But we can’t get those opportunities or get those achievements and goals that we are wanting to if we keep getting those pages taken down or not getting the credit that we deserve.

About the top video

Videos: Jazmine Moore, Keara Wilson, Riley Saurage, Lindsay Charles and Mya Johnson. Video production: Kate Woodsome and Danielle Kunitz.

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