Algospeak: how TikTok is changing the way we talk.

17.05.23 | By Kimberley Killender | social media

Algospeak: how TikTok is changing the way we talk.

Pop culture and TikTok trends are fast becoming the new chicken and egg.

Pop culture and TikTok trends are fast becoming the new chicken and egg. The radio is dominated by trending sounds. Netflix shows with trending personalities. And dancefloors taken over by trending choreography. Even everyday conversations - at least had by those 30 and under - are peppered with vocabulary entirely shaped by the app.

With some of the strictest censorship of any social media, TikTok users have had to adapt their language, and in turn, have changed the way an entire generation is speaking. Knowing when, how, and if to use this new language should be an essential in any marketers toolkit. Just add it to the list of reasons you should be paying attention to TikTok.

The problem: 

Over the space of two months in 2021, TikTok took down 80,000,000 videos that were deemed to have violated its strict community guidelines. 90% of these were removed within only 24 hours of being posted. Why? The vast majority of them contained words or phrases forbidden on TikTok and were caught by the algorithm. 

Scroll on TikTok for a while and you’ll quickly realise the language loopholes people use to avoid the same fate. Algospeak - born from algorithmic language rules - is an entire digital language formed around what we can’t say online for fear of losing views and connections. 

The solutions:

(Redacted): censored spelling: Sex happens. But log on to some of the most popular social media platforms, especially TikTok, and you’ll find a sexless world. But you might find a seggsy world. Or a secs-y world. Or even a s3x-y world. 

As platforms try to control harmful content online, they’re clamping down on sex and sexual terms. In turn, users lean on phonetics, emojis, and intentional misspellings to talk openly about sex and sexuality. 

One of the most common examples of this is the replacement of the word ‘sex’ with ‘seggs’. The seggs hashtag has 1.6 billion views under its belt, with content that covers everything from educational content and historical sex lessons, to embarrassing stories, comedy bits, and personal experiences.

X-rated for the whole family: Adjacent to this comes the world of porn. Porn content is strictly monitored in order to keep the platform in the app store. This is a lesson Tumblr’s porn community learned the hard way with a messy mass blog-deletion event, after the platform lost its place in app stores due to the amount of mature content. In response to TikTok’s strict rules, TikTok’s mature-content creators have found ways to promote their OnlyFans, or to continue providing jokes, education, and discussion around porn by simply subbing in the word ‘corn’, or even just the corn emoji. After all, TikTok can’t ban all corn content, and the algorithm isn’t sophisticated enough (yet) to separate the horny from the corny.

Identity politics in play: Most controversially, TikTok was found to be censoring words related to sexuality and sexual identity. Saying ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, or ‘transgender’ wouldn’t get your account deleted, but it could get you shadow banned. Shadow banning - also called ghost banning or stealth banning - means creators can still post as usual, but their content is hidden from the community. TikTok used the algorithm to make the videos harder to find, and less likely to be organically served to viewers. Notably, one of the most popular reimagined spellings designed to navigate this was ‘lesbian’ transforming into  ‘le$bean’ and eventually ‘le dollar bean’, with the ledollarbean hashtag currently having racked up 1 billion views. 

We love a language loophole

In an effort to keep things PG 13, sometimes censoring or changing the word isn’t enough. Enter: loopholes. Words that have entered the digital vocabulary with such force that they’ve become a replacement for the actual word when contextualised correctly. 

A spicy take: Sex workers on TikTok rebranded as Spicy Accountants, and eventually, just Accountants - making tax season on TikTok very interesting for the original accountants of the world. Emoji’s also started being used for emphasis, such as the chilli emoji to indicate it was “spicy” work, or the sparkle emoji around certain words, designed to draw attention to its importance or potential double meaning.

From taboo to talked about: Users talking about their mental health journey’s have replaced the word ’suicide’ with ‘unalive’. The ‘unaliving’ hashtag has over 10 million views, ‘unaliveawareness’ has 2.6 million, and ‘unalived’ has 15.7 million views. The content ranges from uplifting advice, stories about people’s mental health, real-time experiences with psychiatric care, to humorous or overly dramatic videos about wanting to ‘unalive’ because of a minor inconvenience. Under this umbrella, terms like ‘menty b’ replaced ‘mental breakdown’ and ‘toaster bath’ and ‘sewer slide’ also appeared in place of ‘suicide’.

The pandemic that shall not be named: Panini, panoramic, panda express, ponzi scheme; if it begins with a P, it’s probably been used in place of the word ‘pandemic’. Whilst ‘pandemic’ isn’t one of TikTok’s banned words, during the peak of Covid, TikTok tried to stop the spread of disinformation by filtering ‘pandemic’ content out of suggested videos, leading to lower reach and interaction on content. But TikTok was determined to talk about it, and the ‘any random P word can mean pandemic’ language trend began.

TikTok users have created a subculture language. 

It’s not just censorship and shadowbanning that are forming this new wave of language. The way surfers and the word ‘dude’ are inherently linked, dive into the comments of any TikTok video and you’ll find TikTok phrases like ‘bestie’, ‘beloved’, and even ‘My brother in Christ’ are peppered through casually, and often sarcastically. Despite many of these phrases actually originating on Tumblr, the use and popularity of them give a unique insight into the TikTok generation's humour; and it’s just a little bit unhinged. The comedic undertone has made it easy for users to take these phrases from comment sections to real life conversations, inherently changing how an entire generation communicates. 

Algospeak is becoming increasingly common, not just across the internet, where it has spread across platforms rapidly as people seek to bypass social media content moderation filters, but in real life. As people begin to use these sayings and replacement words to communicate online, we soon begin to see them play out in speech, and even across marketing.  

The challenge for brands is knowing when using them is appropriate, and knowing when to avoid them. Accidentally use dated language, and your brand will sound out of touch. Use the word incorrectly, and you’ll be hit with the “Silence, brand” comments. Don’t understand the origins of a phrase, and you could get caught in the crosshairs of a cultural appropriation debate. If you try to force rapidly changing language into your brand voice for the sake of it, rather than organically letting words filter in, your audience will hear the lack of authenticity, or think you’re trying too hard. Understanding the difference between what’s trending and what’s changing is key to ensuring you’re using the right words in the right way.    

Need help navigating the new wave of language? We’ve got you bestie. 

Related articles.

  1. 16.05.23 | copywriting

    Copy clichés to avoid like the plague.

    Read more16.05.23 | copywriting
    Read Copy clichés to avoid like the plague.
  2. 28.02.22 | opinion

    Publishers, booktokkers and making bank.

    Read more28.02.22 | opinion
    Read Publishers, booktokkers and making bank.
  3. See more articles

Download our Health and Wellness Brand Report