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Why are we taking woke lessons from the TikTok generation?

As yet another company falls foul of a women-erasing Twitter storm, Siobhan O’Neill wonders why companies keep using woke youngsters for their messaging.

‘Respect your elders’ used to be a thing… 

In a world where we lived with or near to – were cared for and took care of – an extended family, we heeded the advice and wisdom of those with more life experience. Some old wives’ tales are BS for sure, but when I was a novice parent the best advice on feeding, burping, sleeping or weaning my babies came from the older mums and grandmas in my family.

Those older generations fixed their own cars, did their own DIY and decorating. They knew how to wire and plumb and lay carpets and mount tiles. We learned from them.

The same used to be true in business.

New recruits and apprentices learned their trade from their seniors who had been around the block and seen it all before. They respected the experience and expertise of those who’d been doing their job since before they could walk.

As someone who’s been in communications for more than 20 years as a freelance journalist, a PR and a comms manager, I’ve launched products, authored papers and reports, managed events, devised strategies and handled social media for a bunch of different organisations.

So as I watched yet another Twitterstorm break out last week when TedX London tried to cancel women by referring to them as ‘womxn’, I’m forced to wonder: why are these organisations taking advice on social media messaging from the TikTok generation?

I can picture it now. A comms team gathers to discuss their new approach and a right-on, low-rent junior suggests an easy, cost-free way for the company to sound ‘more inclusive’.

Older team members nod. This youngster uses TikTok and Snapchat and Instagram and they could help you seem contemporary and relevant, introduce you to new audiences and who doesn’t want to seem like a switched-on LGBTQ+ friendly organisation?

Apparently ignorant of the many other companies who made the same mistake, they send out their innocent-seeming tweet and instantly get ratioed to hell and back.

And who’s going to run the crisis management on this snowballing situation? A million to one it ain’t gonna be the inexperienced, fresh-faced numpty who suggested the bad take in the first place. It’s going to be someone like me who’s been around the block, seen it all before and if they’d been asked would have told you not to touch that womxn bollox with a bargepole.

Yet so many companies, organisations and political parties are apparently taking advice from ingenuous newbies. The Labour Party wants to appear in touch with the issues young people feel passionate about. Charities want to tick diversity and inclusivity boxes. So they paint rainbows and adopt ‘trans-friendly’ language that throws women under the bus. 

As Helen Lewis pointed out in her brilliant article on Woke Capitalism, instead of investing in meaningful initiatives like tracking diversity among employees, or converting their workplace to be more accessible to people with disabilities, companies can swap the sign on their women’s toilets to unisex, add pronouns to their emails and at zero cost score huge woke points for their ‘commitment to inclusivity’. Very little changes in real terms for people in the organisation: minorities are still underrepresented, pay gaps are maintained, but the PR looks great.

But optics aside, the key to effective messaging is understanding your platform and your audience. Sure if you want to promote your initiatives amongst youngsters, take your message to TikTok. But Twitter isn’t a platform that’s down with the kids. They might pop by to see what’s trending and share their stans or opinions on Love Island, but unless they’re campaigning on specific issues, it’s not a space they hang out in. The vast majority of them have tiny follower numbers and are shouting into a void.

Instead it’s people like me who’ve been building a community of friends and colleagues for well over a decade who have the most ‘influence’ on Twitter, and messages about ‘cervix-owners’ or ‘people who menstruate’ go down like a lead balloon with us, who are after-all the people with all the economic power to boost or block a company based on how it speaks to us.

I turned 50 this year and as a fully paid-up member of the invisible women, it’s been delicious to join the ranks of those who have had it with taking lessons from kids who have never paid a bill in their lives. 

Women like me are old enough to remember the stories of post-war privations our Boomer parents lived through. We knew about ‘Women’s Lib’ and the fight for the ownership of our bodies. We lived through the Three-Day Week, the miners’ strike and multiple recessions. The news was full of working people going toe to toe with police on picket lines, or in Toxteth, Brixton and Yorkshire. We remember the Moors Murders, and witnessed the Yorkshire Ripper, Sarah Payne, the Suffolk Strangler, Millie Dowler. We know that hundreds of women are killed or hospitalised each year as a result of domestic violence. 

And your organisation wants to erase the word ‘woman’? You really haven’t thought this through, sweetheart, because women see you, we’re angry and we’re not going to take your bullshit any more. You really don’t want to see us trending on Twitter, because ten to one it won’t be good news for your social media metrics.

If the TikTok generation are to be believed, their greatest tribulation is having a meltdown that might ruin their new lashes, and their biggest fear is that someone might disrespect the special way they identify. Very few of the most vocal have known any kind of struggle or hardship.

No women I know are saying genuine inclusivity, diversity, championing and supporting of minority groups in business and society aren’t a good thing. We’ve been there after all and we’re still fighting the socioeconomic patriarchal structure that means when a couple becomes parents only the woman’s career suffers. Our bodies define our place and our experience. On Twitter our voices are collective and loud and we don’t appreciate being reduced to ‘people who menstruate’.

So organisations take note. Understand your audience. You can listen to the kids, try to look cool and buy yourself woke points. (Where can you spend them?) Or you can take lessons from your elders who hold the economic power and appreciate a little respect.

Photo credit: Sky News

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Siobhan O'Neill

Siobhan O’Neill is a freelance writer, content designer and research analyst working across a range of media and platforms.

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