What TikTok has taught me about book culture, as a researcher of book culture

By Kenna MacTavish

“Get it, you’ll love it!” was what a friend messaged me in April 2020 in response to a lockdown muttering I had about possibly downloading TikTok. Fast-forward a year and I do, indeed, love it. The fact that I currently fill up with my days researching social media platforms and books meant that when I happened upon the book side of TikTok, I was hooked. TikTok has changed the way I think about online book culture, and the ways people share reading experiences and recommend books to others online.

The pace at which TikTok operates is hard to describe to anyone who is not on the platform. It combines the rabidness of Reddit users with the infinite scroll and trends of Twitter, and adds in a moving, visually fuelled stream of consciousness similar to the way Instagram users now swipe through Stories in a seemingly endless cycle on content. The platform affordances of TikTok allow users to follow others and also scroll through the For You Page (FYP). The FYP is an active “Explore” home page driven by an advanced algorithm that collects any and every bit of data about you it can, to deliver highly personalised content by creators large and small all over the world. This means that every user’s FYP is going to be different, but it also means that many users with similar interests and/or personal attributes will find themselves on the same side of TikTok as each other. If you had a mature reading age in primary school, currently struggle with mental health issues, and also love NBC sitcoms that aired from 2005-2015, there’s a side of TikTok for you and I know this because I’m on it. Similarly, if you had a mature reading age in primary school, buy books at a faster pace than you can read the books you already own, and care about the type of coffee you consume each day, I can guarantee you would find yourself on BookTok.

At the time of writing, videos tagged with #BookTok had collectively amassed over 6.6 billion views. It’s a large community which, for the most part, is insular and effective at targeting users to buy, share, and read more books much like other book-centred communities on other social media and social cataloguing sites like Instagram, YouTube and Goodreads.

But there are stark differences in the way BookTok operates compared to other social media platforms. On TikTok, dominant trends about what books to read are established quickly and effectively, enabled in part by TikTok’s algorithm and how it targets like-minded individuals. Conversely, bookstagram is a slow-paced, community driven space to share reading experiences where the overall visual and readerly aesthetic of an individual account is at the centre of a network of followers who have chosen to follow and engage.

One of the primary ways TikTok has changed the way I think about online bookish communities comes from the way the individual user is positioned within the content. Many of the more trafficked BookTok videos feature the TikTok user’s face and body at the forefront of their content. They might be crying about the ending of a book, lip-syncing while holding books, or just talking about a book with their eyes straight down the camera. Some accounts rarely feature the creator’s face, but the stand-in is often an expansive, personal library serving as a backdrop for recommendations. Across bookstagram, photos of bookshelves and personal libraries have long been established as cornerstones of the visual-based platform; they are aspirational spaces that complement images depicting acts of reading, book hauls, and recommendations.

Bookshelves have a long history as objects that signal cultural and economic capital. There are videos on all sides of TikTok that feature “tell me you’re rich without telling me you’re rich” as the top comment. These videos are always a visualisation of excess and often feature house tours, wardrobe tours, car tours and more. Since being on TikTok, I have noticed how often this comment appears on bookshelf tours, especially on accounts run by young people. Calling out performances of excess and privilege have been expressed in the past in relation to the bookstagram community, and TikTok and its capacity to match non-book loving people with bookish content through audio trends and algorithmic sorting continues to shed a harsh light on the world of bookish excess. While it may be considered aspirational to own shelves upon shelves of shiny books, many book lovers on TikTok have been faced with the harsh reality that showing off your shelves does not signal the same sentiment to everyone, especially within a community operating on a platform that can show your content to anyone in a stream of algorithmic sorting.

The level of alienation is much lower across other digital sites of book culture because the dissemination of content across other platforms such as Instagram and YouTube rely more heavily on communities of followers already being familiar with certain types of content, aspirational or not. BookTok has therefore changed the way I think about the intrinsic and instrumental aims of users who share personal reading experiences online. Are they fostering a community of like-minded individuals? Or are they capitalising on the most toxic parts of that “like-mindedness” and instead alienating members of that community and beyond? Additionally, what power do users who challenge all of the above actually wield across the platform?

I asked my internet pal Seamus (name changed for privacy), BookTok/littok content creator and fellow postgrad, what he thought about the BookTok community and he only confirmed what I have observed over the last twelve months stating that “the BookTok community oscillates between congenial-lovely and toxic-vindictive in equal measure”. As with other sites of online contemporary book culture, there are sides of the BookTok community that share their love of reading with others while remaining critical of the authors or texts they are engaging with. However, Seamus noted that there is another side who will overlook flaws with such vigour that there have been cases where users will report the videos of other creators who levy any kind of criticism against their favourite authors and books, often forming “hit lists” in private group chats.

TikTok’s platform affordances and rhetoric are distinct and therefore do not translate well over to other platforms. Seamus made a name for himself on TikTok by discussing his experience as a postgrad in literary studies and making satirical videos critiquing the Western literary canon. One of these videos was recently taken out of context and shared on Twitter. As a result, Seamus was on the other end of harassment and even death threats from Twitter users who did not understand TikTok’s satirical rhetoric and took aim at Seamus’s humorous video about getting therapy if you enjoy reading Bukowski. TikTok is, for the most part, a space that champions humour and satire. But these anecdotes from Seamus are just some examples of how BookTok remains another site of contemporary book culture in the hands of literary gatekeepers, often wielding a vindictive power in an otherwise congenial community.

BookTok straddles a fine line between alienation and aspirational content creation. As a researcher of book categorisation systems, I love the video of the woman removing all the dust jackets of her personal library of hardbacks and categorising the covers by author surname in binders before shelving all the coverless hardbacks back on the bookshelf in a vertical rainbow system of categorisation. On the other hand, I cannot get past the fact that the creator has, with a great deal of sincerity, demonstrated they have the privilege of money and time to rearrange their large library of hardbacks for the sake of views.

With privilege comes responsibility, especially when your following is large. In another video, a user (who is not currently in the internet’s good graces) narrates their struggle after having followed this dust jacket-less trend noting, “you have to stop doing silly things to your bookshelves, I know coverless books look really nice but one day you’re going to have to put them all back on” while physically demonstrating that fact in the video. In this video, the alienation is still there, the aspirational content is still there, but it is shared under a guise of self-aware humour and, as a result, has generated over a million more views than the first video. This type of self-referential content or “community- referential content” also reveals itself in the way BookTok users recommend and share thoughts about books to others.

BookTok has changed the way I think about how we share reading experiences and recommend books to others because BookTok has found distinct new ways to do this. There are “books to make you sob” videos, there are “books I never see on BookTok” videos, there are “books that are worth the BookTok hype” videos, and more.

There are currently 110 videos under “the book recs challenge” audio by @moongirlreads_, a popular bookTokker with over 4.4 million likes across their account. This audio calls out people who think BookTok only recommends the same five books and asks readers to share their favourite, lesser-known books with the same themes as the five most popular titles on the platform.

There are three ways this audio represents how one of the dominant threads of the BookTok community operates. First, the audio outlines the bookish genealogy of the community. Second, it collects the assumptions about the community in one place and creates a self-referential call to action to challenge those assumptions from within. Third, it uses platform affordances of TikTok (in this case that you can use other user’s original audio) and invites further dissemination of content in the form of book recommendations. These recommendation-based formats are just another subsidiary of “list culture”, a term David Wright develops in From Codex to Hypertext; however, they also speak to the way this bookish community has quickly evolved and developed within a short form video-based user generated content platform.

The BookTok community can be alienating and rabid. You engage with a like (if you are following one another, they get a separate notification in the masses of other users liking a video), a comment that the creator may or may not see, or a DM if you’re feeling brave (but if you love content about books, you probably don’t spend much of your life feeling extrovertedly brave enough). The community exists in “the [insert niche] side of TikTok” and you can comment to stay there, but the algorithm might one day pull you out of it, and if it doesn’t, the user you followed might change their content or disappear as a result of being thrown into a kind of stardom they never wished for.

I have met new bookish friends on TikTok—including Seamus who I mentioned earlier—but this was only after I subscribed to a Patreon account. Patreon is a membership platform where creators in all fields can set up tiered subscriptions, so that fans and followers can financially compensate their favourite creators for their work. One of the perks offered by Seamus was a Discord channel where he and all of the Patreon subscribers could chat, an example of how online bookish communities are increasingly platformised. When we all met one another on Discord, I soon realised that most of us were postgrad students in our mid to late 20s and we all shared a love of tearing down the Western literary canon, cats, and reading fan fiction. TikTok had once again wielded its power to bring together like-minded individuals under a guise of alienation, aspiration, and humour—only this time it got me too.

Kenna MacTavish is a PhD candidate and tutor at the University of Melbourne. Her research explores the post-digital affordances of books, platforms, and genre systems and she is the author of a forthcoming chapter on bookstagram in Post-digital Book Cultures: Australian Perspectives (Monash University Press, 2021)

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