Ever seen someone flip a coin with a forklift? Just place the coin on a hard, smooth surface. Lower the tip of the blade onto it, about halfway across the coin, leaving a bit of pressure, and ever so gently rake it back. The edge of the coin will catch, sending it flying up and over, maybe even onto the fork itself. It takes some practice.
So does fabricating a piece of salmon with the edge of your hand, instead of more slowly, with a knife — or chopping dozens of perfect slices of cucumber with increasing speed but without looking. Have you ever witnessed the joy of a clean, single-pass flat weld? Or of capping a ruptured water line as it sprays mud all over the place?
What happens if you pet the sloth you care for at the zoo? Sometimes, it pets you back. Maybe, for no particular reason, you’re curious about what goes into a predeparture check for a Boeing 737 Max? It’s alarming: A robotic voice recites various notifications as screens light up: pull up, wind shear, wind shear, wind shear, terrain, obstacle, obstacle, pull up.
All of this I learned on TikTok, the wildly popular video app that people seem to have a hard time describing. It’s an app with lots of teens, and lots of music, and lots of, well, everything. It’s ruled by mysterious algorithms, which shuttle users around its sprawling platform however they please, for whatever purposes their creators decide. It’s an app that’s unapologetic about wasting your time. It’s also, apparently, a good way to waste some time at work.
Perhaps you’re curious to see the kitchens of every restaurant chain you’ve ever been to, at their best and worst, or to watch a carefully choreographed super-speed dishwashing routine, or about how Kind bars get made, or how to run casing down a freshly drilled oil well?
Laying down new railroad ties looks satisfying, you might discover on TikTok, while removing old rotten ones looks tedious. The need to remove frozen condensation from things spans professions: In Alaska, it is cleared off roads in the middle of the night, during a blizzard, and in warmer climes, it’s scraped off overloaded and malfunctioning air-conditioners (to the tune of “Broken,” by lovelytheband).
TikTok, which encourages users to contribute short videos to hashtags, or to join in on jokes or challenges or to sing along with clips of songs, has, in its manic and frequent demands for content from its users, become an unlikely force for labor visibility.
Shaun Douglas Duenas gives a glimpse of work between jokes and memes.
“The platform can sometimes be a means of relieving yourself from the stress that any job can bring,” said Shaun Douglas Duenas, a TikTok user. Mr. Duenas, a 21-year-old from Guam who currently lives in Houston, has built a sizable following on the app with comedy videos, riffing on popular songs, hashtags and memes. He also occasionally posts from his airline ground-crew job. Once, he shuttled viewers through a 15-second tour of an empty commercial jet ready to be restocked and cleaned, edited to the rhythm of “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows.”
“People were shocked that I don’t act or do film but work for an airline,” he said.
While TikTok does have familiar features, like profiles and followers, it relies more heavily than other platforms on algorithmic recommendations and featured songs, categories and hashtags. This makes it easy to browse an enormous catalog of jobs, as represented, briefly, by the people who do them: #scrublife will take you inside hospitals; #cheflife, into kitchens; #forgelife, into the world of superheated steel; #farmlife, to the fields.
There are hashtags for most major retailers and restaurant chains, full of employer-specific gripes, jokes or observations. There are also more generally relatable sketches. Nobody appreciates the customer who shows up a minute before closing. Many videos are shot on break. Some are shot on the way from one job to another. But plenty more are shot in a whisper, between customers or during a lull, mindful of nearby bosses. There are hashtags that are widely applicable to employed people, like #coworkers, #working, #bluecollar and #lovemyjob.
People do share their jobs on any large social platform. But on TikTok, which is relatively new, users are frequently shown content from people they don’t know. Creation is low-stakes and popularity is extremely unpredictable. Feedback is amplified to encourage more creation. Users are incentivized to keep their profiles open to the public if they want to grow.
This cuts two ways. Browsing one of the bigger work-related hashtags might turn up the satisfying surprise of a video of a man separating a piece of salmon from its skin with a single sweeping motion. (Sample comment: “thats one sharp hand u have.”) But its poster — Gary Kinsey, 44, of New York, who describes himself as a traveling model chef (as in modeling and cooking) — was surprised as well. It was his first video on the platform, and it got more than 6,000 likes, far more than it did on Instagram, where most of his posts are carefully shot finished dishes. It was strange and unexpected, he said — but mostly just nice.
The video was scored by a musician friend, and he said it helped get her noticed. He’s helped others too. “I received a video of a lady in Atlanta who attends culinary school stating she learned the fish skill from the video,” he said, “and that meant a lot.”
The writer and technologist Paul Ford has suggested that the growth of YouTube, through its millions of videos shot on webcams, allowed a narrow but illuminating glimpse into peoples’ homes. “The curtains are drawn. Some light comes through, casting a small glow on the top left of the air conditioner. It’s daytime. The wall is an undecorated slab of beige,” he wrote.
“That is the American room,” he explained — or at least an American room: in some ways generic and literally standardized, in color and dimension and through the catalogs through which it was built, but distinctly recognizable; spacious, suggesting a large home, but barely filled.
Later, the video app Vine could be said to have given us a glimpse of life of the American teen, who is extremely diverse, but who posted from another set of conspicuously standardized places outside of the home: the American retail store, the American sidewalk, the American car.
TikTok has arrived at a time when mobile devices are far more integrated into our daily lives and in which sharing from one, wherever you are, is a default behavior. It makes sense that for now, at least, it’s a portal to the vastness of American jobs. (Or, a few taps away, the Chinese job, the Indian job, or the Russian job.)
In the long run, social platforms have a tendency to professionalize. You can seek out virtually any line of work on Instagram, but you’ll have to do some looking and get permission to follow; the most visible form of labor on the platform is influence, which isn’t meant to look like labor at all.
YouTube is now a workplace unto itself. It pays creators according to the size of their audiences, and so while there are vibrant YouTube subcultures adjacent to various jobs, these jobs tend to be obviously fascinating or exclusive. In the long run, the successful YouTuber’s job ends up being YouTube.
But there aren’t many ways to make money on TikTok yet, and as in YouTube and Vine’s early days, it’s not entirely clear to everyone what they’re supposed to be doing there, except, of course, posting. It’s neither purely aspiration nor performative. TikTok’s priorities will make themselves clear over time, should it stick around, and perhaps they will have no need for the break-room vent sessions, or the shot from the paratrooper dangling his legs out of the back of a plane. For now, however, people are filling this new space with what’s right in front of them.