Why is TikTok so scared of 30?
The app’s favorite insult accelerates a familiar societal dread.
Please don’t confuse this piece about the age 30 on the internet with the one I wrote last year about the age 30 on the internet. The difference is I’m 29 now. —Kate
When I wait for the bus, go for a run, or otherwise allow my mind to wander, I’ve recently been returning to the same question: What should I do this year, before I turn 30?
I think about vlogging, something I’ve attempted in fits and starts since I was a teenager, but never really committed to due to the suspicion that it will give second-hand embarrassment to everyone who knows me. I wonder if scaling back my social media use was actually a huge mistake, and if it would be better for the things I hope to achieve in my career to establish a presence. I worry I don’t have enough pictures of myself to look back on, and think I should take more selfies.
All these things have to do with the internet, and the implicit idea that I’m too old act on any of them once I’ve entered my third decade. As if the internet—a vast, ever-expanding, seemingly never-ending reservoir of communication and creativity—has a time limit. If so, who is running the clock?
Obviously, the trepidation around 30 is not new, especially for women. The narrative of the Big Bad Thirty is perpetuated in pop culture by countless movies and TV shows—not to mention, the casting of those movies and TV shows. But now the internet has added another element of dread, with users internalizing the messages they’ve gotten from society and regurgitating them onto my TikTok For You Page.
TikTok knows I’m 29, and perhaps some cruel elf working the algorithm is the one responsible for putting videos like this one on my feed. In it, a pair of 24-year–olds fret about seeming out of place at a college bar of 22-year-olds, which is like a dog worrying about being out of place in a room of identical dogs. Then there are videos like this, where a 30-year-old documents herself wearing the clothes made popular by teenagers as if she was, like, Steve Buscemi. In this one, a user simply remarks how good Alexa Demie looks for 31—an age Demie may or may not be (the star is, seemingly, purposefully silent on the matter).
“This app gives me a heart attack about my age every day,” one commenter wrote.
It’s not just videos. As creator Shannon McNamara pointed out back in September, “you’re 30” or “you look 30” has become an online insult frequently slung at users for, say, caring about pop culture or learning a TikTok dance. It’s not just used to invalidate their looks, but also their use of the internet. Not only can people over 30 not exist IRL the way 20-somethings are permitted to, but they can’t post like them on social media, either.
“Even if you’re 25, you’re now pushing 30, and people use it to invalidate you if you’re partying or what you’re wearing or what you’re doing, because you’re almost at this horrific number of 30,” McNamara says.
Which, it should go without saying, is so stupid, because 30 is young. (Thirty is young I type through gritted teeth, glancing at the calendar app where the ten remaining months of 29 spread before me.)
I don’t worry too much about how this has impacted me. The way I feel about 30 now was likely more determined by messaging I internalized in the 27 or so years preceding TikTok. But given that users on TikTok have been pumping out this messaging for the past few years, and roughly 50 percent of the app’s users are under 34, then a not-insignificant amount of the app’s core demographic likely already worry that they are, or are getting, too old to use it.
I know when I turn 30 the Canon G7X (a camera favored by vloggers) tucked away in my desk drawer won’t disappear, that I can start posting on social media more frequently whenever I want, that I can take more selfies. But the question is, will the internet still accept me if I do? And if not, then what?