This month’s installment of Inkstick’s monthly culture column, The Mixed-up Files of Inkstick Media (inspired by From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler),where we link pop culture to national security and foreign policy, is all about TikTok as means of…knowledge. That’s right. Turns out, you can learn a thing or two there, especially about knowledge that has been excluded.
I still remember my undergrad days, living in the library and spending what felt like every waking hour studying. I had a favorite nook in the south stacks isolated from the rest of the building, with wooden chairs uncomfortable enough to keep me awake and a row of brass lamps that lit the tables with a green glow. With the help of caffeine and smuggled snacks, this is where I got to know the classics, page by page: Thucydides, Plato, Virgil, Aristotle. This is also where, for the first time, I read the writings of Waltz, Morgenthau, Sagan, Tickner and other great political theorists — a baptismal plunge into the canonical theories and debates that defined international relations as a discipline in the United States. Their works influenced me just as it had shaped generations of policy practitioners, a niche community built through the collection, critique, and application of knowledge, one citation at a time. Since then, I’ve benefited from name-dropping the canon, in the same way experts casually trade acronyms and technical jargon to affirm and challenge ideas, but also to signal kinship and assert a sense of belonging. Knowledge as power and social currency.
Most disciplines have failed to acknowledge and integrate Indigenous knowledge systems, and in general, have dismissed the scholastic contributions of the marginalized, mainly because the gates have been kept shut for so long.
These college memories were not that long ago; after all, it was 2007, the year of the iPhone and Twitter was only a year old, but technological advancement and information access had jumped lightyears, making my silent retreats to the library feel like medieval times. My age haunts me every time I open TikTok, the social media app that runs on frenetic short-videos about everything. With a reported 1 billion users globally today, TikTok has become a digital library of continuous, eclectic content: Non-sequitur humor, DIY tutorials, panoramas of vacation landscapes, and high-octane young people documenting the minutiae of their lives. Alongside other social media platforms like Facebook (now also known as Meta), Instagram, WhatsApp, and Twitter, TikTok’s interface changed our relationship with data, and our ability to know. We have grown accustomed to the ways social media compresses nuanced opinions and ideas into flat, bite-sized hot takes, which are then “fed” to us through an infinite scroll as prescribed by powerful and problematic algorithms. In this hyper-speed consumption of information, we, too, are consumed; users are mined for their data and pushed toward content that maximizes clicks, even if the material is incendiary, incorrect, or intentionally false.
While social media seems to encourage the complete opposite of the traditional scholastic pursuit (to the surprise of no one, scientists found that more teenagers are using social media than reading books), there’s a growing group of researchers using it, especially TikTok, to share not only what they know, but also to challenge the very nature of the knowledge economy. Their goal is to build a gateway into issues that normally have territorial gatekeepers. Dr. Ellie Mackin Roberts (@elliemackinroberts) is a professor and ancient historian whose videos about Greek mythology and politics amass thousands of views. Zoologist Lindsay Nikole (@lindsaynikole) recently reached a million TikTok followers for sharing evolution factoids through fast-paced animal skits. Model and climate activist Isabelle Boemeke (@realisabelleboe meke) is known as the first pro-nuclear energy influencer after her chrome-filtered monologues with educational detours about uranium pellets went viral. And most recently, Jessie Loyer (@indigenouslibrarian), a First Nation Cree-Métis writer and librarian, received a sizable viewership for her Tiktok featuring herself looking dead-straight at the camera with a smile, calmly sharing this message:
“Citation styles like MLA or APA aren’t sophisticated enough to handle Indigenous knowledge…if you’re gifted a Cree song by an elder, that unrecorded oral teaching would be cited as “personal communication” on par with a casual phone call…this erases the collective authority and complexity of his gift.”
Implicit in Loyer’s 60-second clip are the questions: “Who participates in knowledge creation? Who do we take seriously? Who gets to belong in the canon?” This line of inquiry is striking given that the medium she chose to make her point cannot sustain deeper discourse. Yet, her point persists: Most disciplines have failed to acknowledge and integrate Indigenous knowledge systems, and in general, have dismissed the scholastic contributions of the marginalized, mainly because the gates have been kept shut for so long.
FOLLOWING THE KNOWLEDGE TRAIL
It was only recently that I started to confront knowledge hierarchies and colonial legacies embedded in international relations, which, according to policy scholar Ananya Sharma, is the task of unlearning conventions to expand our ways of thinking about the world instead of trying to define or predict its nature. And when I engage in this exercise of expansion, it is almost always online and in nontraditional, non-canonical form: I encountered political theorist LHM Ling and her theory of “worldism” through her archived lectures on YouTube. I’m in awe of the way Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez deftly practices politics and achieves radical transparency with her constituents through Instagram Q&As. I’m learning about Indigenous lifeways and activism, and how this impacts global issues through Grownup Navajo and Rezilience accounts. I find myself thinking about the linkages between foreign policy, critical race theory, and non-binary movements after watching social media sermons by artist-scholar-activists Alok Vaid-Menon and Janaya Future Khan. Social media has allowed the unprecedented cross-pollination of knowledge in unexpected formats. None of this is trivial or gimmicky or fake news. And yet, to Loyer’s larger point, I doubt that any of this would be perceived as serious or value-added within academic and policy circles because there exist unspoken definitions of what merits sophistication and credibility.
Social media is power and social currency, so much so that it has been weaponized, distorting social and political landscapes that lead to real-world harms. Paradoxically, it also bestowed us with the gift of connectivity and curiosity, which ushered in a new kind of knowledge that weaves different experiences and expertise that expanded our understanding of the world. This is our Janus-faced reality: While countries manipulated social media platforms, many young people today witnessed political crises unfold not through mainstream or “legacy” media, but through social media accounts of on-the-ground activists — in Sheikh Jarrah, in Kabul, in Yangon — who, for the first time in history, can show their truth in front of a global audience. Like it or not, the way we process the local and the global is inseparable from social media and the Internet. This is all the more reason to regulate social media because it can create — and has created — a novel way of thinking. Because of it, we no longer learn in linear fashion, but rather bear witness, forcing traditional research to commingle, respond, and build upon cultural and social influences.
I was privileged to have spent time in that brick-faced library where I received a formal introduction to the Greats. Today, I am equally privileged to live in a time where I can use technology to critique them, and question who is still missing from the canon. Perhaps it’s because I am a millennial, or maybe because I am a stubborn optimist, but I look forward to a future where a body of scholarship that fuses the classics, Indigenous knowledge, and social media sermons is seen as legitimate and essential to understanding how communities, societies, and countries behave in a world that has blurred the boundaries between the real and the digital.
Lovely Umayam is a writer and nuclear nonproliferation expert. She is the founder of the Bombshelltoe Policy x Arts Collective, which convenes policy experts, artists, and community members to explore how nuclear issues relate to today’s cultural trends and social movements.