The dividing line between millennials and Gen Z tends to be fuzzy — is it 1996? 1997? If it were up to me, I’d say your birth year doesn’t really matter. The real litmus test is how comfortably you can make a TikTok. I’m a ’93 baby just shy of 30, and let me tell you: I never feel older than when I try to make a TikTok.
My first attempt sent me into a panic, which surprised me because I’d always considered myself at least a little social media-savvy: In college, I had a successful side hustle running social media accounts for businesses, and like any good millennial with a blue checkmark, I’ve done a few #sponcon deals. Still, the app felt wildly counterintuitive to me.
Here is a short list of things I could not figure out: how to create a green-screen background, how to use filters, how to even find filters, how to sync video clips with background music, how to reshoot a clip without losing all your other ones, how to continue aging without sliding into despair, and so on. Even the hashtags stumped me. Why were they all something like #DoritosTriangleTryout? What does that even mean? I thought a lot about my grandma, born in 1923, who never quite got the hang of using a mouse.
I needed to figure this out, though. I’m an author; promoting my books online is important. In just a few short years, TikTok has completely transformed the publishing industry. It drove 20 million book sales in 2021, per NPD Bookscan; no other social media platform has had the same kind of impact. In 2022, #BookTok’s favorite author, Colleen Hoover, outsold the Bible by 3 million copies. The Bible! Through the publishing grapevine, I heard that editors were seeing an influx of manuscripts from #BookTok writers, and their works were getting snapped up quickly.
So, like an ancient hag, I Googled how to do a green screen. I clicked through several articles but still couldn’t hack it. I decided it was better to start simply than not start at all, so I filmed and posted some no-frills videos — just me talking to the camera, that’s it. Over the next few months, I kept playing around on the app and picked up a few editing skills but I never gained traction or looked like a natural. Gen Z is allergic to try-hard energy, but stepping in front of my ring light — yes, I used a ring light — without a crisp red lip and freshly-curled hair felt wrong to my millennial soul.
No matter how much I leaned into TikTok trends, everything I did felt embarrassing. The time-suck ultimately got to me. I hired an assistant to crawl the platform and keep me up to date on trending sounds and ideas, but I still couldn’t bring myself to carve out the time to actually make any of the videos she suggested. I was done.
My friend Dana Schwartz, No. 1 New York Times-bestselling author of Anatomy and sequel Immortality (as well as a Bustle contributor), feels similarly. “It’s objectively cringey for me, as a 30-year-old, to be making lip-syncs. I see these incredible glossy productions but I simply do not have the time or energy to make them,” she says. “And so it requires a lot of time and effort on my part to make a lot of content that is, objectively, a little cringey and reductive.” Still, as a YA author, she feels it’s “absolutely worth it to try [her] geriatric best to connect with readers.”
Dana and I might feel particularly ancient in our corner of the platform, but elsewhere, age seems to be less of a defining factor. Thanks to the algorithm, my friend Emily Raleigh, 29, mostly sees content about home design, coastal living, and cottagecore made by creators of all ages, including grandparents. The app nailed her interests — she’s the owner of The Dune Market, a seaside boutique that sells quaint home goods. The first time she tried to make videos about her shop, she says, “I just felt like the new kid in school that didn’t know how to get to their locker, and I needed to retrace my steps and make a few mistakes until I could find my way efficiently to that locker.” Her efforts paid off; customers who stumbled across her account now make up “a massive sum” of her business.
More than a year after my initial foray into creating content for TikTok, I was bored in the house and in the house bored (see, I did finally learn something). I tried again — just for fun this time; I wasn’t hustling to sell books. The more I played around with TikTok’s editing features, the easier it got. I’m never going to be a native speaker, the way I feel on Instagram, and I still feel deeply uncool whenever I open the app, but I was finally able to get around. I filmed a video in minutes — bare-faced in pajamas, joking about my dating life — and posted it without a second thought. Of course, that’s the one that racked up nearly a million views. In the end, all I had to do was relax.