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A Guide to Gen Z Through TikTok Trends, Emojis, & Language
There are nearly 3 billion Gen Zs alive today. In 2019, Gen Zs surpassed Millennials to become the largest generation on the planet. And with the oldest Gen Zs still only 26, the generation’s $150 billion in spending power will swell 70% over the next five years.
In January, I wrote about Gen Z in Gen Z Behaviors and the Consumer Renaissance. Six months later, I want to revisit the defining characteristics of the younger generation. To make things more interesting, I’ll do so through the lens of TikTok trends, emojis, and language—the building blocks of Gen Z culture.
I’ve broken Gen Z behaviors into three broad characteristics:
Authentic & Unique
Alternative title: It’s the authenticity for me 🚫🧢
Creative & Self-Expressive
Alternative title: People who think Gen Zs aren’t creative 🤡 🤡 🤡
Pragmatic & Self-Directed
Alternative title: We stan entrepreneurs 🙏
I’ll go through each of these below and throw in some (mostly) relevant Gen Z culture for good measure 🙆♂️
Authentic & Unique
There’s a TikTok trend set to a sound that goes, “Waking up in the morning…thinking about so many things” and that includes people admitting to embarrassing behaviors. One girl admits to a regrettable twerking video. Another grimly recounts a Talent Show dance.
The trend captures something second nature to digital natives: baring their most cringe-worthy moments for millions to see.
This is a uniquely Gen Z behavior: Boomers wouldn’t dream of putting something like that online. Even many Millennials would find the practice abhorrent, having been trained to meticulously curate an airbrushed online persona. Self-sabotaging that persona is blasphemy. But to Gen Zs, authenticity comes naturally. It’s there in Gen Z cultural icons—Charli D’Amelio’s low-production dance videos, Olivia Rodrigo’s vulnerable songwriting, Billie Eilish’s entire oeuvre—and it’s there in the long tail of Gen Zs who post content to the internet.
Authenticity—while becoming a tired word to describe Gen Z ethos—captures where young people derive status online: status comes from being singular. If Millennials tried desperately to fit in, Gen Zs try desperately to stand out.
McKinsey research concluded, “Gen Zers value individual expression and avoid labels.” This leads to new forms of consumption: consumption as access rather than possession, and consumption as an expression of individual identity. This in turn contributes to the rise of the ✨ aesthetic ✨
(Side note: adding ✨ is a Gen Z way of making a word or phrase seem “fancy” or adding emphasis in a slightly ironic and tongue-in-cheek way.)
Gen Z ✨ aesthetics ✨ often recall the 80s or 90s and typically entail dressing in unique and authentic ways—often buying clothes secondhand on platforms like Depop. Younger people recoil from the Millennial “aesthetic”, which is seeing as cloying and try-hard. The word “cheugy” recently had a resurgence to encapsulate the Millennial aesthetic.
Cheugy can be seen as antithetical to Gen Z’s emphasis on individual expression. Cheugy is mainstream and distinctly not trendy. Ugg boots are cheugy. “Live Laugh Love” signs are cheugy. According to this TikTok, even Herbal Essences shampoo is cheugy (*frantically throws away all my shampoo*)
People can be cheugy too. In a helpful sample sentence from USA Today: “Did you see that older girl trying to do that TikTok dance? She’s so cheugy.”
Another popular Gen Z term—and another term with echoes of Gen Z authenticity—is “no cap”. To cap means to lie and is often expressed with the 🧢 emoji. You might watch a TikTok claiming that Ariana Grande is better than Taylor Swift and passionately comment “🧢🧢🧢!!!” I know I do. “No cap” thus means “no kidding” or “I’m not lying” and is often expressed with 🚫🧢. You might text a friend, “This is the best pizza I’ve ever had 🚫🧢.”
Gen Zs are genuine and forthright and singular. They don’t tolerate capping. They look down on cheugy. They bare their souls for the world to see and rely on the uniqueness of that soul (no matter how unsightly) to forge their own unique identities.
Creative & Self-Expressive
Gen Zs view themselves as highly-creative: over half (51%) say that Gen Z is more creative than previous generations. While Gen Zs deserve some credit (they really are quite creative!), they’re also the beneficiaries of better tools for self-expression. TikTok makes it orders of magnitude easier to be creative than a platform like YouTube. TikTok gives you the tools to create content—filming, editing, sound syncing. And, just as crucially, TikTok nurtures a culture of creativity by removing the friction to come up with ideas for content. You can follow a popular trend, build on someone else’s sound, and rely on features like Stitch and Duet. The culture of creation on TikTok solves the cold-start problem.
There’s a longstanding “rule” in social media called the 90-9-1 rule: 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all content posted. TikTok blows the 90-9-1 rule out of the water: 55% of TikTok users create content for the platform. Over time, the internet becomes more participatory; more people shift from consumer to creator.
Gen Z is the first generation to be truly digital native, and the internet is key to unlocking creativity. More than half of Gen Zs (55%) say that they find the internet a more creative space than anything they experience offline. Three in five also say that it’s easier to express themselves online than offline.
This is partly because online communication is more nuanced than ever. Two decades ago, you were worried your sarcasm via email would be misconstrued. A decade ago, you were worried using the :) emoticon would be inappropriate with a colleague. Today, you have a never-ending list of emojis and reactions to express yourself.
Gen Zs are fluent in digital language and—more than any generation before—have adopted their own forms of online communication. Millennials might use 😂 to connote laughter. Gen Zs use 💀 (I’m dead) or, more recently, ⚰️ (same meaning). The clown emoji is used to convey when people are obviously wrong, such as “People who think Gen Zs aren’t creative 🤡 🤡 🤡 .” Instead of saying, “I like your shoes,” a Gen Z might say, “It’s the SHOES for me” or “I high-key love those shoes.” Gen Z language evolves rapidly, fueled by the furious speed of internet culture.
A corollary of online expression is the rise of stan culture. Being a “stan” means being a massive fan—for instance, one might say, “I stan Taylor Swift.” The term originally comes from Eminem’s 2000 song “Stan” about an obsessive fan named—you guessed it—Stan.
More than any generation before them, Gen Zs form their own identities around affiliations with creators. This is because creators are more accessible than ever before: you can spend your Friday night livestreaming with your favorite creator; you can consume nearly 24/7 content of a creator’s life; you can even wear a creator’s clothes. Olivia Rodrigo this week sold her clothes to fans on her Depop store.
Celebrities have never been more accessible; they are like your always-on internet best friend. I found myself reflecting on this while listening to Lil Nas X’s new song “Sun Goes Down”, a moving song about the artist’s darkest moments. He sings:
And nobody knows it when you're silent
I’d be by the phone
Stanning Nicki mornin’ into dawn
Only place I felt like I belonged
Strangers make you feel so loved, you know?
A decade ago, people sought status online broadly; now, people seek status among their niche of fellow Nicki Minaj stans.
Stan culture is a way to find belonging. Stanning a creator becomes a form of self-expression.
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Pragmatic & Self-Directed
A recent TikTok I watched asked, “What’s something that’s not a cult but borderline seems like one?” One creator stitched the video (meaning that he added his own video response) with these words:
“That would be like 98% of the United States population that has been brainwashed into believing that it’s normal to give up 5 out of every 7 days of your week just to make someone else rich for 40, 50 years doing something you don’t even actually enjoy just to get 10 years of freedom before you’re too old to actually enjoy it.”
“Traditional” careers are anathema to many Gen Zs. Many grew up watching parents lose jobs during the Great Recession; they have an inherent skepticism of “the system” and refuse to work within it. This manifests in everything from growing populism (see: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders) to the rise of Dogecoin and side hustles.
You also see hints of this attitude in Gen Z trends like the use of 👁👄👁. The “eye mouth eye” emojis capture a certain ennui and listlessness—in Josh Constine’s words, the emojis mean you “feel helpless amidst the chaotic realities unfolding around [you], but there is no escape.” I might, for instance, say, “Me watching my boss give a promotion to his nephew who never shows up to work 👁👄👁 .” The implication is that I’m passively watching something unfair happen, and there’s nothing I can do about it. The emojis capture Gen Z wryness and droll exhaustion.
This wryness results in a practicality: where Millennials were idealistic, Gen Zs are pragmatic. Study after study reports that Gen Z is the most entrepreneurial generation in history. A 2020 study found that 54% of Gen Zs want to start their own company; 89% have considered an education path that looks different than college. A Gallup poll found that 77% of young people in grades 5 through 12 want to be their own boss. The main reasons cited are autonomy and flexibility.
You see this in the robust entrepreneurial subcultures on TikTok. There are 334 million views of videos with the #entrepreneurship hashtag.
My claim to fame is having the top-rated #entrepreneurship video on TikTok 💁♂️
The video is from the Index TikTok, which we started because Gen Zs are uniquely entrepreneurial and because there’s a strong entrepreneurial bent to TikTok. Today’s 15-year-old watching TikTok videos is tomorrow’s founder.
Gen Z’s desire for agency collides with their creativity and self-expression to fuel the creator economy.
The writer Barrett Swanson recently lived with a house of TikTok creators in Los Angeles, sharing his experience in this stunning piece for Harper’s. One person he spoke to framed the impact of the creator phenomenon:
“It’s the new A-list celebrity except it’s attainable for anybody. You can be in Cleveland, Ohio, alone in your bedroom, and you can get a million followers overnight. That’s fucking crazy. That’s never been possible. Wealth, fame, status has never been more attainable for anyone in the history of the world the way it is right now.”
Swanson visits Clubhouse, which is a “collab house”—a multi-million-dollar mansion that houses creators for free (in return, they post videos for brands). Collab houses are almost like a new form of university for young people eschewing college and flocking to LA. Clubhouse alone has three “schools”:
Clubhouse Beverly Hills is like grad school—it’s meant “for our more seasoned influencers.”
Clubhouse For the Boys is like undergrad—it’s for up-and-coming creators.
Not a Content House is the high school of the Clubhouse venture, meant for even younger and less experienced creators.
The CEO of the Clubhouse collab houses says:
“It almost reminds me of the old days in the U.S. when people got on their horses and buggies and went west for the Gold Rush. And everything was uncharted territory, and they got to California and Colorado and they marked their territories and said, ‘This is mine.’ And they started digging, and some of them made a lot of money and some of them didn’t succeed, and it was totally unregulated . . . and what dawned on me was that the social-media market is a lot like the Wild West. There are a lot of kids running around. And there aren’t any patterns to the behavior. A lot of people are just dropping out of college and moving here literally with a bag and the hopes of becoming an influencer.”
As Gen Z comes of age, work disaggregates. America will become a majority-freelance economy by 2026. Many young people aspire to be creators because they want autonomy and flexibility. They’ve spent their lives looking at the “rigged” system and going 👁👄👁 . Entrepreneurship is a way to reclaim lost agency.
Hopefully the “alternative titles” from the beginning of this piece now make sense:
It’s the authenticity for me 🚫🧢
People who think Gen Zs aren’t creative 🤡 🤡 🤡
We stan entrepreneurs 🙏
It’s interesting to think about where our online identities end and our offline identities begin; the lines are blurred or even nonexistent. One passage from Swanson’s piece has stayed with me:
After all, these kids were very young when their parents gave them iPhones and tablets—they’ve never known a self that wasn’t subject to anonymous virtual observation. And so it may well be that whatever we mean by “authentic” here isn’t the standard definition that Rousseau and the Romantics first fathomed—a true effusion of your unvarnished personality—but is “authentic” in the sense that their identities have been made in perfect, unconscious sympathy with whatever their mob of online followers has deemed agreeable and inoffensive.
Gen Zs may be more “authentic” online, but there’s a certain performance to that authenticity. They’ve never known—and will never know—a life not under the gaze of the internet. But because of those blurred lines between digital and analog, Gen Zs have no choice: they bare their souls online, rely on the internet for creative self-expression, and turn to digital realms for work.
In many ways, this newsletter is about Gen Zs: it’s about digital natives—people steeped in internet culture and fluent in digital language. That’s Gen Z. Increasingly, that’s all of us.
Sources & Additional Reading
The Anxiety of Influencers | Barrett Swanson
True Gen Z and Implications for Companies | McKinsey
The First Venture Capital Firm on TikTok | Insider
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