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Journal of American Drama & Theatre

Volume

Issue

36

2

Burning it Down: Theatre Fires, Collective Trauma Memory, and the TikTok Ban

Danielle Rosvally

By

Published on 

June 1, 2024

Real Time Fires


As a researcher of the nineteenth century, I am no stranger to the destruction of collective memory vis-à-vis archival failure. Theatre fires are an omnipresent force in dialogues about every aspect of nineteenth century performance history knowledge, particularly speculative thought about what we do not know. Consider, for instance, the Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903—the second deadliest single building fire in US history (second only to 9/11). (2) Jane Barnette has explored this historic event through spectator testimonials. (3) Barnette proceeds with caution because, as she argues, the spectator experience, and particularly performed spectator experience, is innately biased. This nuance is reinforced through Jewel Spangler’s exploration of the 1811 Richmond Theatre Fire—when it occurred, it was America’s deadliest urban disaster—in which Spangler reminds the reader that curation of the archive is a communal act of editorial significance. (4) Who is left out of the story is as important as who is kept in. Whose story is told, and how, is continually shaped and re-shaped by the things that are kept: the journals that were deemed important enough to pass down through history, the images that were created and saved and who they depict, and the generations of choices that archivists both formal and informal made about what should take up precious space in physical holdings say as much about the event these holdings document as their contents do.


This question of space is greatly nuanced in the digital era as information becomes easier to store in smaller footprints. The question of performance, too, has experienced similar shifts as platforms for theatre and performance have become greatly diversified. While analog theatre spaces continue to host precious and precarious repositories of information, robust archives of performance also exist in the digital realm via many platforms including social media. (5) As I watch congressional proceedings and national conversation surrounding the threatening potential of a TikTok ban in the United States throughout 2023 and into 2024, I cannot help but feel an uncanny similarity between historical theatre fires and the impending potential destruction of a massive repository of performance. What have we lost to the ashes that we might not even know is gone, and what (then) might we lose if history repeats itself? The difference, of course, is that I watch this slow burn in real time; the possibility of a day when I open my phone to find a pile of burnt charcoal in place of the familiar stylized TikTok icon does not seem so far away. I have often longed for a time machine to access unburnt relics of the past, and I feel as though I am being offered just such an opportunity with TikTok. To those of us paying attention, there is the possibility of packing a fireproof safe with a few pieces of content for safekeeping should a ban occur.


What is at stake if TikTok, like the Iroquois or the Richmond Theatre, burns to the ground? What would happen if the United States experienced the same ban that has already been enacted in India or Hong Kong? Users from these regions describe how, overnight, their access to the platform and even their own back videos, was completely gone. (6) Too many theatre historians and performance scholars dismiss TikTok as a frivolous platform for Gen Z to make viral dance videos, participate in trends, and review products. (7) This dismissiveness plays right into the current political narrative being pushed by those who actively seek to annihilate the TikTok repository. But there is more to this app than the surface-level reading of its detractors. TikTok is a keystone to contemporary culture-making and a critical artifact of life in the COVID-19 era. (8) Losing TikTok to government action would not simply be a shame for Millennials and Gen-Z micro-influencers, who would no longer have their virtual playground, but would in fact be a significant blow to the preservation of pandemic-era collective trauma memory. Historians are well aware of the wide-ranging impact of a loss like this in myriad ways such as: further marginalizing already-minoritized voices; allowing mass re-writing of historical information and erasing individual trauma from national memory; and pointedly glorifying certain groups while villainize others. At present, TikTok is poised to combat these threats, but only if it can persist as a repository of theatrical information.


The Looming Threat


As I consider the proverbial contents of my fireproof safe, let us examine the spark that threatens to engulf this collection. For the past several years, TikTok has been at the center of debates in the United States regarding data security. On August 6, 2020, President Donald Trump attempted to use executive power via Executive Order (EO) 13942 to create a ban specifically targeting TikTok citing threats to national security. The arguments he made boiled down to a perceived threat caused by Chinese ownership of TikTok’s parent company (ByteDance) and provenance of data collected via the app. (9) After multiple court cases which ruled in favor of TikTok, President Joe Biden signed further EOs that repealed and replaced Trump’s and pledged to create better policy for regulating sensitive user data across diverse platforms. (10) Since then, TikTok has been a topic of conversations centered in the idea of security risks. In December of 2022, Biden signed a bill that prohibited the app on government devices. (11) On March 7, 2023, the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act or the RESTRICT Act (S. 686) was introduced to the senate as a bipartisan bill aimed to ban foreign technologies from operating in the US if they pose a risk to national security. (12) While TikTok is not named explicitly in the bill, it is fairly transparent what is being targeted. On April 14, 2023, the Montana State Legislature passed Senate Bill 419, “An Act Banning TikTok in Montana,” becoming the first US state to ban TikTok. (13) SB419 was signed by Montana State Governor Greg Gianforte on May 17, 2023. (14) The bill was set to go into effect on January 1, 2024 but then TikTok sued the state in an effort to block it (an effort which was ultimately successful as a court ruled on November 30th 2023 that this was a violation of the first amendment). (15) On March 13, 2024, the United States’s House of Representatives passed HR 7521 a bill called the “Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act” which would, effectively, ban TikTok in the United States. (16) This bill was later tied to an essential foreign aid package (House Resolution 815), unanimously passed in the House on April 19, passed in the Senate on April 23, and was signed into law by President Biden on April 24. (17)


I argue these conversations center around “the idea” of security risks rather than their actuality because all publicly available information in early 2024 indicates that TikTok poses no greater threat to an individual user’s data than any other social media app in common use. In March 2023, the Internet Governance Project, an organization based out of Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy whose mission is to perform independent analysis of global internet governance, posted a study done by Milton L. Mueller and Karim Farhat which found, among other things, “The data collected by the TikTok app is very similar to the data collected by its peer competitors. This data can only be of espionage value if it comes from users who are intimately connected to national security functions and use the app in ways that expose sensitive information. These risks arise from the use of any social media app, not just TikTok. They can easily be mitigated without banning the app.” (18) I will return to the specific motivations behind targeting TikTok in spite of the evidence below. 


In considering this ban, I turn to the wisdom of Stephen King who—in the face of book bans—encourages kids to go to the library, “get a copy of what has been banned. Read it carefully and discover what it is your elders don't want you to know. In many cases you'll finish the banned book in question wondering what all the fuss was about. In others, however, you will find vital information about the human condition.” (19) While the information currently available to the public does not point to a TikTok-specific security risk, it does indicate something more sinister about a greater worldview. The consumer tendency to diminish the platform leans into this harmful rhetoric.


As Stephen King urges, let us go to the proverbial library by way of a primer on what TikTok is and how it works. TikTok is a social media app where users create, share, view, reshare, and comment on short-form videos. TikTok built on the popularity of Vine, another short-form video-sharing app that lived a brief but formidable life from 2012-2017. Notably: Vine videos were capped at 10 seconds. (20) 2019 saw TikTok begin to flourish in the United States—growth that would continue in the pandemic years to come. (21) It was the “most-downloaded app of 2020” when users were stuck in their homes with no way to connect in real time. (22) Instead, clearly, they connected on TikTok. And, since TikTok archives even as it offers a platform for performance, this makes TikTok the most robust and egalitarian archive of pandemic-era life in current existence.


I pause here briefly to consider my use of the term “archive” for this collection. In 2003, Diana Taylor introduced the terms “archive” and “repertoire” to refer to two very different but intertwined systems of knowledge preservation. The “archive,” to Taylor, represents a gathering of materials collected through objects—memories mediated by recording technologies. “‘Archival’ memory exists as documents, maps, literary texts, letters, archaeological remains, bones, videos, films, CDs, all those items supposedly resistance to change.” (23) The “repertoire” is a collection of embodied knowledge, “performances, gestures, orality, movement, dance, singing, in short all those acts usually thought of as ephemeral, nonreproducible knowledge.” (24)  In her 2010 meditation on her prior work on Archive and Repertoire, Taylor added that:


Digital technologies constitute yet another system of transmission that is rapidly complicating western systems of knowledge, raising new issues around presence, temporality, space, embodiment, sociability, and memory (usually associated with the repertoire) and those of copyright, authority, history, and preservation (linked to the archive). Digital databases seemingly combine the access to vast reservoirs of materials we normally associate with archives with the ephemerality of the ‘live.’ (25) 


Taylor has never conceived of the “archive” and “repertoire” as a binary (not in 2003 when she first introduced these paradigms, nor 2010 when she revised them to include the digital); rather Taylor has always argued that these three things “overlap and work together and mutually construct each other.” (26) To Taylor, the digital will never replace the archive since they require each other vis-à-vis this mutuality.


Social media platforms have always enabled a form of performance; the putting-on of an avatar self to encounter the world in certain ways makes performance via social media innately entwined with social media use. (27) Theatre companies over the years have taken this invitation more literally and created full performance pieces over social media. (28) The pandemic ushered in a new wave of this phenomena: as we became isolated, we sought connection via digital art. Sarah Bay-Cheng asks “If we have seen the performance and the documentation, can we readily distinguish between the two? What if we have not seen the original performance, but we have seen detailed recordings? ... How do I delineate the performance I attended from the digital records I have collected, especially those that are personal to me in my mobile phone?” (29) Digital media blurs these boundaries and presents the opportunity for a broadened definition of memory spaces. (30)


When considering TikTok’s applications to the pandemic-era audience and user base in light of the app’s pandemic-era popularity, part of this usage pattern lies in TikTok’s multiple facets as a platform. In addition to providing a viewing space, TikTok has a native editing client which allows users to turn their smartphones into recording suites: they can record, edit, upload, and shape videos all from the app itself. This reduces access barriers and effectively allows anyone with a smartphone to single-handedly become a content creator. (31) TikTok is also incredibly good at creating audiences by connecting users with niche interests. The app’s proprietary algorithm shows users content it believes they will like based on their interactions with other content. Unlike legacy social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter, TikTok’s user experience is largely driven by a rotating “for you page” (FYP) that greets users when they open the app. The FYP is a constant scroll of videos that the algorithm has discovered for the user. The more a user interacts with TikTok, the better the algorithm becomes at predicting a user’s interest and providing them with things relevant to these interests. Because of the strength of the algorithm, TikTok enables niche audiences to find each other (a feature, Trevor Boffone and I have argued, which amplifies the voices tend most to be marginalized from mainstream archives, namely: queer, POC, and femme voices). (32) This aspect of TikTok’s usage, along with its prominence as a repository of pandemic-era performance, makes TikTok a vital tool to understanding and remembering life during the COVID-19 Pandemic.


TikTok and Collective Trauma Memory


Like a theatre, TikTok enables community building and content on TikTok exists in robust multi-modal conversations. Cremation of this theatrical repository would also incinerate these community ties because, unlike an analog theatre, TikTok’s communities are connected almost exclusively via the app and its features. In essence: as a theatrical repository, TikTok enacts collective memory. Collective memory is the idea that memories are not individual experiences, but rather connected to a greater whole. In his 1925 meditation On Collective Memory, Maurice Halbwachs proposes that all memories are collective memories. Even individual memories, that is: something that one individual person remembers in a room by themselves, is connected to a bigger picture. It is impossible to remember, argues Halbwachs, without creating some kind of discourse or connecting with some other perspective of the memory and this makes memory collective. (33) Considering TikTok, this description perfectly encapsulates how the app functions. TikTok allows users to respond to each other directly on posts using various frameworks. There are, for instance, more traditional means such as comments (i.e. simple text responses). But TikTok has one-upped the comment by giving creators the option to either respond in old-school text, or to compose a video response in which the comment will be visible at the top of the screen for whatever duration the creator chooses to set (see Figure 1; Creator @theanissagarza Responds to a Comment with a Video). (34) Additionally, creators have the option to “stitch” on to other videos (to take another creator’s video and append their own content to the end), or “duet” a video (to have another creator’s video playing in half the screen while they record something going on in the other half). Duet videos allow creators to discourse across time and space—to hear and react in the fractured time-space of the internet but nonetheless more directly than legacy platforms have previously enabled whether the duet shows togetherness (as in Figure 2 where dancers are moving synchronously together to do Bob Fosse’s iconic choreography to “Rich Man’s Frug” from Sweet Charity), or conversation (as in Figure 3 where two singers are enabled to sing in duet even amidst 2020 lockdowns). (35) In this way, TikTok facilitates not just community-building, but also citational practices since original creators are, by default, identified in stitch and duel videos, as well as para-textual commentary. 


Sometimes, a call to duet will so wildly circulate on TikTok that it inspires its own sub-movements (called a “trend”). The Rich Man’s Frug became one such trend. In noticing a dominating presence of white dancers putting out Rich Man’s Frug videos, user @djouliet made her own call to action with the sound and choreography—mimicking the trend’s original creator @markstephen60 by doing the dance in her kitchen but calling out “come on, Black girls, let’s go” to invite other femme Black dancers to duet her. User @itsjust_lydia took up the call (see Figure 4; Black Dancers Claim Space with the “Rich Man’s Frug”). (36) This is one example of how TikTok enabled creators who did not see themselves represented in a certain conversation to take control of the narrative and add their voices to a growing archive.


While such interaction paradigms differ from those enacted in more traditional theatrical performance spaces, performance scholarship is already equipped to deal with them. Pascale Aebischer calls such interactions “platea-based engagement” (referencing the medieval paradigms of locus as the mode of performance where a performer is quietly in a world of their own behind the proscenium arch and the platea as the mode of performance that invites the audience to comment on or engage with the performance in the here and now). (37) Valerie Fazel has argued how Aebischer’s notion of platea-based engagement might be used to more deeply understand marginal commentary on digital performance, especially on YouTube. (38) TikTok is a new generation of platform, but some of its uses are common with its ancestors. As a collective model of platea-based engagement, TikTok’s opus represents a communal construction of memory, and (specifically) pandemic-era memory.


But “communal” does not necessarily mean “collapsed.” Because of TikTok’s strength at allowing creators to find other members of their own communities, the platform is unique in its ability to enable vibrant individualism. In her work on theatrical production during the shelter-in-place era, Dani Snyder-Young recognized a melting pot-esque treatment of audiences by performers and platforms. (39) Not a single pandemic-era performance examined by Snyder-Young’s research team displayed exceptionalism when dealing with its audience, but rather treated them as an amalgam and erased nuance. This is not what TikTok does. Because the algorithm is so good at connecting content and audience, TikTok content creators are encouraged to “let their freak flag fly,” and they will be connected with others who enjoy even incredibly niche content. This aspect of the platform effectively democratizes the archive and allows voices that Spangler notes are not frequently preserved in disaster narratives guaranteed spaces in the story. In Spangler’s words: “The archives themselves, and what they contain, are shaped by the understandings, needs, and desires of the powerful. To be sure, we can search out sources that purport to allow the disempowered to speak, or seem less influenced by elite perspectives, yet we have to be aware that so long as the archive is still the well from which professional historians primarily draw, the problem of power will always be with us.” (40) Because of the ways in which the pandemic had an undue impact on communities of color, this is an important ethical element of preserving pandemic-era memory. (41) While TikTok’s user demographics broken down by race are not currently available, a 2021 study done by Pew Research Center speaks to a degree of diversity in TikTok users. (42) According to this study, 31% of Hispanic US adults polled self-identified as TikTok users, 30% of Black US adults polled self-identified as TikTok users, and 18% of white US adults polled self-identified as TikTok users. Accordingly, TikTok’s ability to highlight and encourage individuality is both unique and necessary and underscores the stakes of taking this repository seriously. 


The COVID-19 pandemic was a moment of global collective trauma, and it is no coincidence that TikTok’s rise to prominence paralleled this. The work of scholars like Dena Al-Adeeb, Noe Montez, and Belarie Zatzman have explored the ways populations who have experienced collective trauma have created collective memory. (43) Past theories of collective memory have located it as a nexus of projects generally connected with nationalization. In an analog world, this makes complete sense. But there are two extraordinary forces at play with collective trauma memory in regard to COVID-19 and TikTok. First: the global nature of the pandemic. Second: the fact that TikTok overcomes geographic boundaries by way of its accessibility and international presence. TikTok connects content creators over broad swathes of the world. Not only is TikTok accessible from a technological standpoint, but language barriers do not stand in the way of the several visually oriented genres that make TikTok’s bread and butter: dance challenges, culinary videos, cosplay trends, lip synch. Because of this, TikTok’s oeuvre is what Astrid Erll would call a study of “transcultural memory,” or a mnemonic device which transcends the containers of a single culture or incident and instead reaches a global community. (44) Erll coins the term “traveling memory” to encompass a sense of “the incessant wandering of carriers, media, contents, forms, and practices of memory, their continual ‘travels’ and ongoing transformations through time and space, across social, linguistic and political borders.” (45) TikTok serves as the medium for such traveling memory, and the destruction of the TikTok archive would mean an end to these proverbial transformations. It would mean not just a collective forgetting of the specifics the archive held, but also the destruction of the transformative possibilities that time and space could give to eccentric short-form videos containing incidents from day-to-day life and the creative reimaginings of collective trauma.


Terri Tomsky devised the notion of “traveling trauma,” which is trauma which is able to move upon similar pathways as commerce in a digital world; either via analog or digital means. (46) To Tomsky, trauma can be viewed in similar ways that Edward Said views the notion of “theory” and “traveling theory”: it can be interpreted and re-interpreted by the communities who receive it globally. (47) Tomsky also created the idea of a “trauma economy” wherein trauma can be viewed under similar terms as production and capital: when the market is flooded with it, it becomes less valuable or holds less meaning. (48) I can think of few times in history when global trauma was as fungible on an international market than during the COVID-19 pandemic and assorted lockdowns. During this time, global isolation flooded the trauma market and human contact was a critical missing feature in our daily lives. So, while trauma was, perhaps, less meaningful (according to Tomsky’s paradigm) because of its prevalence, connection was more meaningful because of its lack.


This market was part of TikTok’s recipe for success. Sarah Bey-Cheng has made the case that “the digital image is … not only a marker of memory… such images may now serve primarily as a kind of social connection.” (49) Boffone further argues that the pandemic-driven need drove massive global audiences to bond over “silly” dances, or share what life in lockdown was like via TikTok. (50) Tina Kendall highlights this function of TikTok in pandemic life, after all it offered “a means of working… performative play.” (51) In addition, Kendall argues, TikTok thrives off of the bingeability of its content— the never-ending scroll allowing a locked-down user endless access to more. (52) Thus TikTok provided a valuable commodity to a hungry market: the commodity of connection. Networking and community creation were a key part of TikTok’s marketing of itself in its early years and (as previously discussed) the app is exceptionally good at this task. (53) The marriage of market need with ready commodity availability is certainly one reason why the pandemic saw an uptick in TikTok usage, and in April 2020 the app crested 2 billion downloads which was the “best quarter for any app ever.” (54)


In the United States at least, it is safe to say that TikTok is a commodity of the pandemic. If archival memory is political, and collective memory even more so, so is social forgetting. Francis X. Blouin Jr. and William Rosenberg emphasize this: “resistance to remembering is an equally powerful determinant of its moral, political, and social uses, especially if this resistance is abetted by the archives.” (55) Litigious action to try and exterminate the memorial cache that is TikTok threatens the collective memory of this trauma-driven time.


There is, of course, a time and place for forgetting. Marita Sturken argues that forgetting is a necessary part of memory formation, and that “to remember everything would amount to being overwhelmed by memory…. Yet the forgetting of the past in a culture is highly organized and strategic.” (56) The politicization of this particular act of cultural forgetting entwines TikTok in the mire of racism that is linked with the pandemic in general. COVID-19, in its early days, was characterized by Donald Trump and far right followers as a “Chinese virus,” and this language has been called out as a root of xenophobia and anti-Asian racism during the pandemic era. (57) It cannot be ignored that the anti-TikTok legislation is flavored with the same type of xenophobia and anti-Chinese sentiment. Returning to an earlier thread: if the issue was about data security, as politicians contend that it is, then why not pass reasonable laws to govern that? Why target a single app? In Montana, the April 2023 attempt to make Senate Bill 419 apply to any “social media applications that send data to foreign adversaries” and shift the language of the bill from addressing threats posed by “the People’s Republic of China” to instead address “foreign adversaries” was rejected. (58) In her very first TikTok (Figure 5: AOC’s First TikTok: A Statement on the TikTok Ban), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez discusses these issues and the notion that proposed legislation has been put forth, purportedly, to combat a national security risk. (59) Ocasio-Cortez notes that such risks are, historically, presented to Congress via classified briefing when they are first identified and no such briefing had been provided regarding TikTok and Chinese data infiltration. 


The racism in anti-TikTok rhetoric became even more clear via the various congressional hearings regarding the app. On March 23, 2023, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was called to testify before congress regarding the app’s usage of data, and the company’s relationship to the Chinese government. (60) The word “communist” appears in transcripts of that testimony 97 times. The phrase “Chinese communist party” appears 51 times, the most frequently-repeated three-word phrase in the testimony. (61) On January 31, 2023, Chew was again called to congress (this time along with Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and X CEO Linda Yaccarino) to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the impact of social media on children. (62) During this hearing, all three CEOs were asked detailed questions about child protections on their platforms but Chew (notably the only one of these businesspeople who is not white) was the only CEO asked about his nationality and relationship to China. Senate Republicans Ted Cruz, John Cornyn, and Tom Cotton repeatedly hammered Chew about this relationship, Cotton going so far as to pester Chew about his citizenship through multiple questions as Chew continued to emphasize “I’m Singaporean.” (63)  


Accordingly, the undercurrents of xenophobia ring strong in the US attempt to institutionalize a massive act of forgetting. Despite allegations of national security threats via the app, the IGT report finds no evidence of a threat via TikTok to the US and, moreover, finds that, “Banning TikTok would impose unfair harms on millions of innocent American users of the app, who have established equity in their creations and followers. It would expropriate investors and eliminate hundreds of US jobs. … The attack on TikTok is really a kind of proxy war waged by a specific political faction in the US.” (64) It is once again time to remember Stephen King. Since the undertones of Anti-Asia(n) racism are now clear in anti-TikTok rhetoric, it is important that we take a closer look at what, exactly, this rhetoric is trying to make us forget. Let us go back to the library and check out some more banned books.


Social Media, Social Memory


Screens have an important place in the institutionalization of social memory. Sturken cites psychological research that “people often misremember the moment when they first heard of a national catastrophe by reimagining themselves in front of a television set. This particular mechanism of remembering, whereby we imagine our bodies in a spatial location, is also a means by which we situation our bodies in the nation.” (65) In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, this notion of re-envisioning the catastrophe in front of the screen was a process rather than a single moment. While the announcement of preliminary lockdowns certainly caused a wave of psychic shock, it was as the pandemic drew on for years that the true extent of collective trauma would begin to unreel itself. In 2024, we are still unpacking the effects of this trauma. Destroying TikTok’s repository of memory before history has been able to take full account of what is happening thus has destructive potential of unknown capacity.


In trying to contend with what social media networks mean to the idea of collective memory, Andrew Hoskins argues that mediated memory can be viewed as a kind of “memory ecology” with each part of memory functioning like a part of a bio-organism. So, what happens when you amputate the leg of memory? Alison Landsberg’s theory of “prosthetic memory” addresses how mediated moments of history that an individual did not personally witness can be appended to a person’s memory like a prosthetic limb might be appended to a person’s body. Prosthetic memory, to Landsberg, is a memory that is “adopted as the result of a person's experience with a mass cultural technology of memory that dramatizes or recreates a history he or she did not live.” (66) While Landsberg’s theory might seem to answer my above query, unlike Landsberg’s prosthetic memories the TikTok archive of our shared pandemic time relates a history we all lived. It is not that dramatizing the pandemic in real-though-not-linear time introduces us to what pandemic living was like, but rather connects and connected us to aspects of this experience that were either very similar to or very different from our own. In this case, the mediated memory allows us to more fully engage with the collective trauma of pandemic living, and better understand how we (as humans living in the world) coped.


As a case study, let us consider Stephen Sondheim. On November 26, 2021, Sondheim died at the age of 91. At this time, vaccines were available, but mask mandates were still enacted in states like New York. No at-home treatments were yet available for COVID-19. While Broadway had re-opened in September of 2021, audiences were still required to mask. The day of Sondheim’s death, TikTok user Jonny Perl posted a simple video of himself at a piano playing the opening notes of Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” (the opening number of his musical by the same name; see Figure 6: Jonny Perl at the Piano). (67) Sondheim had a special relationship with this show. A piece about how artists relate to their work and legacies, Sunday in the Park with George contains lyrics that Sondheim would later use as the titles for two books of collected lyrics and autobiographic stories: Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. (68) Accordingly, the selection of this music to accompany a short-form video memorial for its composer is fitting.


Over the next few weeks and months, other TikTok creators used Perl’s sound to form their own memorial videos. Tyler Joseph Ellis, for instance, filmed a montage of himself visiting George Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” at the Art Institute of Chicago (Figure 7). (69) User Sam Black choreographed a short dance piece to Perl’s sound (Figure 8). (70) Other users dueted Perl with the spoken text that an audience would usually hear when this music was played in the theatre (Figure 9). (71) Another user used Perl’s music to underscore a process video of themselves making a Sondheim-themed mask (Figure 10). (72) Individually, these videos serve as touching tributes to a master of American musical theatre. As a conglomeration, they create a communal statement of memory in dialogue with each other. They allowed Sondheim fans to grieve in real time, though geographically distant from each other still in dialogue together. At a time when large gatherings entailed no small amount of risk, this connection created community.


Sturken uses the term “technology of memory” to encompass not just the things that help memory (physical mnemonics such as objects, images, memorials, etc.), but also the body. The immune system, she argues, is a subset biological system of memory since it remembers the viruses it has previously encountered. (73) Sturken discusses this in regard to HIV and the AIDS epidemic, a period of history that has been widely compared to COVID-19 not the least because the leading national expect on both diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, was the chief American voice during both healthcare crises. As I have contended throughout this essay, TikTok is a crucial technology of memory for the cultural memory of the COVID-19 pandemic, a virus which is notoriously immune-evasive and tricky for our bodies to fight. This novel coronavirus is something science is working every day to uncover more about, to explain more about how the body does or does not remember encounters with it, and how and why long COVID manifests. The systemic forgetting of a TikTok ban would enable not just the destruction of a specific archive of embodied performance, but also can be seen as none other than a metaphorical blow to the social collective along the very same lines. Forgetting what the pandemic was like at its height is a matter of national security—a matter of protecting those most vulnerable in our society. It is an act of violence to forget how we coped with social distancing, the zany things we did to find connection, and the silly skits we made to try and take ourselves somewhere else.


The pandemic is still too fresh for there to be a national memorial or act of institutionalized memory commemorating those lost. (74) TikTok is the closest we have to such a thing. Destroying this repository is baldly political, boldly detrimental, and would constitute an egregious act of erasure. Theatre history scholars would do well to remember how such acts have impacted our work over time, and how burning it down has created hierarchies of remembering in archival footprints. Theatre fires erase massive repositories of information from archival memory that can only be reconstructed through careful piecemeal work that has the high possibility of omitting critical under-represented stories. In the same way, TikTok enables remembering things we cannot afford to forget. Historians and scholars must pay even closer attention to its fate unless we tacitly approve such erasures from collective memory.


Editor Note: All videos in this essay are available as a YouTube playlist here: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJ7A05JBnG_BgJdsklZt9mYtyFFVmNI9V&si=PipeRqsVDapSvMaQ

References

  1.  The author would like to thank Trevor Boffone for his feedback on early drafts of this essay

  2.  This data can be found on the webpage of the National Fire Protection Agency, the NFPA: “Deadliest Single Building/Complex Fires and Explosions in the US | NFPA,” National Fire Protection Agency, accessed May 6, 2024, https://www.nfpa.org/education-and-research/research/nfpa-research/fire-statistical-reports/catastrophic-multiple-death-fires/deadliest-single-building-or-complex-fires-and-explosions-in-the-us.

  3.  Jane Barnette, “The Matinee Audience in Peril: The Syndicate’s Mr. Bluebeard and the Iroquois Theatre Fire,” Theatre Symposium: A Journal of the Southeastern Theatre Conference 20 (2012 2012): 23–29.

  4.  Jewel L. Spangler, “Slavery’s Archive, Slavery’s Memory: Telling the Story of Gilbert Hunt, Hero of the Richmond Theatre Fire of 1811,” Journal of the Early Republic 39, no. 4 (2019): 677–708, https://doi.org/10.1353/jer.2019.0086; The fire killed over 70 people including the Governor of Virginia. For more information on the fire specifically, see: Meredith Henne Baker, The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America’s First Great Disaster (LSU Press, 2012).

  5.  Many scholars over the years have argued about this, but the most pertinent argument to this article can be found in: Trevor Boffone, “TikTok Is Theatre, Theatre Is TikTok,” Theatre History Studies 41 (2022): 41–48.

  6.  An in-depth examination of this was done by Planet Money: “Nervous TikTok,” Planet Money, accessed January 3, 2024, https://www.npr.org/2021/01/13/956558906/nervous-tiktok.

  7.  Trevor Boffone, “‘It’s Just TikTok,’” Conceptions Review, September 13, 2022, https://conceptionsreview.com/its-just-tiktok/.

  8.  For more on TikTok’s power to generate culture, see: Trevor Boffone, “The D’Amelio Effect TikTok, Charli D’Amelio, and the Construction of Whiteness,” in TikTok Cultures in the United States, ed. Trevor Boffone (New York: Routledge, 2022), 18.

  9.  Federal Register. “Addressing the Threat Posed by TikTok, and Taking Additional Steps To Address the National Emergency With Respect to the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain,” August 11, 2020. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/08/11/2020-17699/addressing-the-threat-posed-by-tiktok-and-taking-additional-steps-to-address-the-national-emergency.

  10.  Bobby Allyn, “U.S. Judge Halts Trump’s TikTok Ban, The 2nd Court To Fully Block The Action,” NPR, December 7, 2020, sec. Technology, https://www.npr.org/2020/12/07/944039053/u-s-judge-halts-trumps-tiktok-ban-the-2nd-court-to-fully-block-the-action; The White House, “FACT SHEET: Executive Order Protecting Americans’ Sensitive Data from Foreign Adversaries,” The White House, June 9, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/06/09/fact-sheet-executive-order-protecting-americans-sensitive-data-from-foreign-adversaries/.

  11.  David Ingram, “Biden Signs TikTok Ban for Government Devices amid Security Concerns,” NBC News, December 30, 2022, https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/tiktok-ban-biden-government-college-state-federal-security-privacy-rcna63724.

  12.  Mark R. Warner, “S.686 - 118th Congress (2023-2024): RESTRICT Act,” legislation, March 7, 2023, 03/07/2023, http://www.congress.gov/.

  13.  “An Act Banning TikTok in Montana,” SB 419 § (2023), https://leg.mt.gov/bills/2023/billhtml/SB0419.htm.

  14.  Ayana Archie, “Montana Becomes the First State to Ban TikTok,” NPR, May 18, 2023, sec. Politics, https://www.npr.org/2023/05/18/1176805559/montana-tiktok-ban.

  15.  David McCabe and Sapna Maheshwari, “TikTok Sues Montana, Calling State Ban Unconstitutional,” The New York Times, May 22, 2023, sec. Technology, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/22/technology/tiktok-montana-ban-lawsuit.html; “ACLU and EFF Applaud Ruling Halting Montana TikTok Ban,” American Civil Liberties Union (blog), accessed December 21, 2023, https://www.aclu.org/press-releases/aclu-and-eff-applaud-ruling-halting-montana-tiktok-ban.

  16.  Cathy McMorris Rodgers, “Making Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for the Fiscal Year Ending September 30, 2024, and for Other Purposes,” H.R. 815 § (2024), https://www.congress.gov/118/bills/hr815/BILLS-118hr815enr.pdf.

  17.  Milton L. Mueller and Karim Farhat, “TikTok and US National Security” (Internet Governance Project, March 1, 2023), 26, https://www.internetgovernance.org/wp-content/uploads/TikTok-and-US-national-security-3-1.pdf.

  18.  Stephen King, “The Book-Banners: Adventure in Censorship Is Stranger than Fiction,” The Bangor Daily News, March 20, 1992.

  19.  TikTok videos recorded in the app are capped at three minutes and must be a minimum of fifteen seconds. One can, however, upload a video not recorded in the app that can be up to ten minutes long. 

  20.  Trevor Boffone, Renegades (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 1–3; Trevor Boffone, “The Rise of TikTok in US Culture,” in TikTok Cultures in the United States, by Trevor Boffone (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2022), 5; Boffone, “TikTok Is Theatre, Theatre Is TikTok,” 42.

  21.  Jing Zeng, Crystal Abidin, and Mike S. Schäfer, “Research Perspectives on TikTok and Its Legacy Apps,” International Journal of Communication 15 (2021): 3161–72.

  22.  Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003), 19.

  23.  Taylor, 20.

  24.  Diana Taylor, “Save As... Knowledge and Transmission in the Age of Digital Technologies,” Imagining America 7 (2010): 3.

  25.  Taylor, 3.

  26.  For more on this, see: Danielle Rosvally, “The Haunted Network: Shakespeare’s Digital Ghost,” in The Shakespeare User, by Valerie M. Fazel and Louise Geddes (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017).

  27.  A few salient examples are Such Tweet Sorrow (a 2010 collaboration between the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Mudlark Production Company which told the story of Romeo and Juliet via Twitter) and A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming (2013, Royal Shakespeare Company) which used the now-defunct Google+ to perform a digital version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

  28.  Sarah Bay-Cheng, “Pixelated Memories: Performance, Media, and Digital Technology,” Contemporary Theatre Review 27, no. 3 (2017): 330.

  29.  In another forthcoming essay, I propose the term “meso-archive” for these liminal spaces. For the purposes of this paper since I am not explicitly discussing the intricacies of storage and retrieval, I will use the term “archive” to reference TikTok’s collection of performance.

  30.  Statistically, this is a large swathe of the US population. As of November 2023, 92% of US adults have at least one smartphone and the rate of smartphone ownership does not vary substantially by race or ethnicity. “How Many Americans Own a Smartphone? 2024 | ConsumerAffairs®,” November 1, 2023, https://www.consumeraffairs.com/cell_phones/how-many-americans-own-a-smartphone.html.

  31.  Trevor Boffone and Danielle Rosvally, “Yassified Shakespeare: The Case for TikTok as Applied Theatre,” in Applied Theatre and Gender Justice, ed. Lisa Brenner and Evelyn Cruz (New York: Routledge, Forthcoming); Spangler also notes this omission of marginalized voices in her examination of how the voices of enslaved peoples are often lost from narratives about the Richmond Theatre Fire and archives in general: Spangler, “Slavery’s Archive, Slavery’s Memory.”

  32.  Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, trans. Lewis A. Coser (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 53.

  33. @theanissagarza. "Pandemic Theatre!!," TikTok, February 4, 2022. https://www.tiktok.com/@theanissagarza/video/7060995383224421678.

  34.  @oneinkimillion. "Love This Song and Show," TikTok, October 6, 2020. https://www.tiktok.com/@oneinkimillion/video/6880674673688841477.

  35.  Unfortunately, since @djouliet has since made her original video private, I cannot tell how many others did but I have seen several examples including: @itsjust_lydia. "Come on Black Girls - Let’s Get into That Fosse!," TikTok, April 30, 2021. https://www.tiktok.com/@itsjust_lydia/video/6957074188783914245; @mahoganymommy. "I’m Rusty, but I Gave It a Shot," TikTok, April 24, 2021. https://www.tiktok.com/@mahoganymommy/video/6954766488880336133

  36.  Pascale Aebischer, Shakespeare, Spectatorship and the Technologies of Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 13–28.

  37.  Valerie M. Fazel, “‘A Vulgar Comment Will Be Made of It’ YouTube and Robert Weimann’s Platea,” in Shakespeare’s Audiences, by Peter Kirwan and Matthew Pangallo (Abingdon, UK: Milton: Taylor & Francis Group, 2021), 183–97.

  38.  Dani Snyder-Young, “We’re All in This Together: Digital Performances and Socially Distanced Spectatorship,” Theatre Journal 74, no. 1 (March 2022): 1–15.

  39.  Spangler, “Slavery’s Archive, Slavery’s Memory,” 677.

  40.  J. Nadine Gracia, “COVID-19’s Disproportionate Impact on Communities of Color Spotlights the Nation’s Systemic Inequities,” Journal of Public Health Management and Practice 26, no. 6 (December 2020): 518, https://doi.org/10.1097/PHH.0000000000001212.

  41.  “Who Uses TikTok, Nextdoor,” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, accessed January 11, 2024, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/chart/who-uses-tiktok-nextdoor/.

  42.  To name a few: Dena Al-Adeeb, “Trauma, Collective Memory, Creative and Performative Embodied Practices as Sites of Resistance,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 12, no. 2 (2016): 268–74; Noe Montez, Memory, Transitional Justice, And Theatre in Postdictatorship Argentina (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2017); Belarie Zatzman, “Applied Theatre Encounters at Canada’s National Holocaust Monument,” Canadian Theatre Review 181 (2020 Winter 2020): 1, https://doi.org/10.3138/ctr.181.003.

  43.  Though, of course, TikTok has subcultures which emerge geographically, as well as regional nuance to its status as culture. TikTok is not viewed or treated the same way in every part of the world. For more on TikTok as regional culture, see the many wonderful projects affiliated with the TikTok culture research network: https://tiktokcultures.com/

  44.  Astrid Erll, “Travelling Memory,” Parallax 17, no. 4 (2011): 11.

  45.  Terri Tomsky, “From Sarajevo to 9/11: Travelling Memory and the Trauma Economy,” Parallax 17, no. 4 (2011): 50.

  46.  Tomsky, 51.

  47.  Tomsky, 53.

  48.  Bay-Cheng, “Pixelated Memories: Performance, Media, and Digital Technology,” 327.

  49.  Boffone, “The Rise of TikTok in US Culture,” 5.

  50.  Tina Kendall, “From Binge-Watching to Binge-Scrolling: TikTok and the Rhythms of #LockdownLife,” Film Quarterly 75, no. 1 (September 1, 2021): 43, https://doi.org/10.1525/fq.2021.75.1.41.

  51.  Kendall, 42.

  52.  Milovan Savic, “From Musical.Ly to TikTok: Social Construction of 2020’s Most Downloaded Short-Video App,” International Journal of Communication 15 (2021): 3173–94.

  53.  Craig Chapple, “TikTok Crosses 2 Billion Downloads After Best Quarter For Any App Ever,” accessed April 14, 2023, https://sensortower.com/blog/tiktok-downloads-2-billion.

  54.  Francis X. Jr. Blouin and William G. Rosenberg, Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 110.

  55.  Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 7.

  56.  Katie Rogers, Lara Jakes, and Ana Swanson, “Trump Defends Using ‘Chinese Virus’ Label, Ignoring Growing Criticism,” The New York Times, March 18, 2020, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/us/politics/china-virus.html.

  57.  Blair Miller, “Montana House Advances TikTok Ban, Rejects Amendment to Make It Apply More Broadly,” Daily Montanan, April 14, 2023, https://dailymontanan.com/2023/04/13/montana-house-advances-tiktok-ban-rejects-amendment-to-make-it-apply-more-broadly/; Jameson Walker, “Amendment to  Senate Bill No. 419,” accessed June 5, 2023, https://leg.mt.gov/bills/2023/AmdHtmH/SB0419.002.002.pdf.

  58.  @aocinthehouse. "Some Thoughts on TikTok," TikTok, March 24, 2023. https://www.tiktok.com/@aocinthehouse/video/7214318917135830318.

  59.  The full hearing can be seen here: “Full Committee Hearing: ‘TikTok: How Congress Can Safeguard American Data Privacy and Protect Children from Online Harms,’” House Committee on Energy and Commerce, accessed May 31, 2023, https://energycommerce.house.gov/events/energycommerce.house.gov.

  60.  Justin Hendrix, “Transcript: TikTok CEO Testifies to Congress | TechPolicy.Press,” Tech Policy Press, March 24, 2023, https://techpolicy.press/transcript-tiktok-ceo-testifies-to-congress.

  61.  A full transcript of this hearing can be found here: Hugh Allen, “Senate Hearing with CEOs of Meta, TikTok, X, Snap and Discord About Child Safety 1/31/24 Transcript,” Rev Blog, accessed February 29, 2024, https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/senate-hearing-with-ceos-of-meta-tiktok-x-snap-and-discord-about-child-safety-1-31-24-transcript.

  62.  For a video of this incident, see: ‘I’m Singaporean!’: TikTok CEO Fires Back at GOP Senator Pressing Him about Possible Ties to China | CNN Politics, 2024, https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2024/02/02/tom-cotton-shou-zi-chew-singaporean-tiktok-testimony-vpx.cnn.

  63.  Mueller and Farhat, “TikTok and US National Security,” 26.

  64.  Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering, 26.

  65.  Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 28.

  66.  @jonny.perl. "Original Sound," TikTok, November 26, 2021. https://www.tiktok.com/@jonny.perl/video/7035053268883590405.

  67.  Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes (New York: Knopf, 2010); Stephen Sondheim, Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany (New York: Knopf, 2011).

  68.  @tylerjosephellis. "May His Memory Be a Blessing. Forever," TikTok, November 29, 2021. https://www.tiktok.com/@tylerjosephellis/video/7036160901216570630.

  69.  @samtheboynextdoor. "Sam Black," TikTok, December 14, 2021. https://www.tiktok.com/@samtheboynextdoor/video/7041666130166942981.

  70.  @ward027. "#duet with Jonny.Perl," TikTok, November 27, 2021. https://www.tiktok.com/@ward027/video/7035420095564270895.

  71.  @thebadjujudesign. "Sometimes People Leave You, Halfway through the Woods," TikTok, November 27, 2021. https://www.tiktok.com/@thebadjujudesign/video/7035113597479030062.

  72.  Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering, 12.

  73.  Though several local memorials have been built, and there is at least one effort to create a national memorial: “Home,” COVID-19 Memorial Monument, accessed March 7, 2024, https://covidmemorialmonument.org/.

About The Authors

Danielle Rosvally is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at the University at Buffalo. Her forthcoming monograph (Theatres of Value: Buying and Selling Shakespeare in Nineteenth-Century New York CityState University of New York Press, 2024) considers the commodification and economization of Shakespeare’s work in America’s nineteenth century. Danielle's interest in the digital has fueled past work on database methodologies in humanist text, social media, and the personification of Shakespeare by performers/users. Her next project, Yassified Shakespeare (co-authored with Trevor Boffone; @yassifiedshax on TikTok), is a multimedia exploration of how iterations of Shakespearean performance and Shakespeare’s cultural capital critically intersect with drag and drag aesthetics. Her work has been seen in Theatre Topics, The Early Modern Studies Journal, Studies in Musical Theater, Shakespeare Bulletin, and Fight Master Magazine. She is the co-editor of Early Modern Liveness (Bloomsbury 2023), and the forthcoming special issue of Shakespeare dedicated to contingency titled "Inessential Shakespeares: Contingency, Necessity, and Marginalization in Early Modern Drama."

JADT publishes thoughtful and innovative work by leading scholars on theatre, drama, and performance in the Americas – past and present. Provocative articles provide valuable insight and information on the heritage of American theatre, as well as its continuing contribution to world literature and the performing arts. Founded in 1989 and previously edited by Professors Vera Mowry Roberts, Jane Bowers, and David Savran, this widely acclaimed peer reviewed journal is now edited by Dr. Benjamin Gillespie and Dr. Bess Rowen.

Journal of American Drama and Theatre is a publication of the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center.

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