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Ghosts in the Algorithm: The Dickinsons on TikTok by Elizabeth Dinneny

By the end of 2020, the social video app TikTok had 75% more users than the previous year, meaning that one out of every six people in the U.S. uses TikTok weekly (Koetsier). The app’s popularity grew significantly as social distancing mandates were put into place and schools shifted online. Unable to interact in person, users relied on social media to connect online. TikTok’s one minute-maximum video format lends itself well to quickly emerging and changing genres of video communication. The audio of each video can be made into an “sound” that other users can select as the track for their own video, allowing for sound trends to circulate throughout the app. Even though TikTok’s infamous AI customizes the stream of videos that appears on each user’s feed (the “for you page”, or FYP), sounds often move across the many “sides of TikTok” (Wylde).[1] One such sound, titled “Joe Rogan Clips,” includes audio from sixteen different videos of Joe Rogan talking all at once, so that the sound is completely incomprehensible until one moment in which Joe Rogan says, at the same time in all of the videos, “it’s entirely possible that…” (@joeroganclips). In videos that use this sound, TikTok users map the incomprehensible clamor of voices onto a specific argument, such as the decades-long disagreement over the best Skittle flavor, by using text to denote the argument in the video (@bemyrobloxbabe). The text changes briefly for the “it’s entirely possible that” moment, then displays a fact that everyone in the argument can agree upon and move past, which, in the case of this Skittles example, is that purple is the worst flavor. Users who like the sound and would like to see more iterations of it can simply click a link to find an essentially endless stream of videos using the Joe Rogan Clips audio. Like most other social media platforms, users can also find related videos through hashtags.


TikTok’s #emilydickinson is overwhelmed with fan videos made for Apple TV’s Dickinson. These videos often include clips from the show with a TikTok audio or song played over them. Examples include a video captioned “Emily Dickinson is a MOOD” and with Paramore’s “Hard Times” as the audio (@villanevies). Emily and Susan’s relationship has its own hashtag, #emisue, created by fans of Alena Smith’s Dickinson, but the majority of TikToks in #emilydickinson focus on Emily and Sue anyway. After spending some time scrolling through videos on the hashtag, you will come across TikToks about Dickinson beyond Alena Smith’s portrayal. In fact, you might find one featuring the Joe Rogan Clips audio to comment on scholarly discourse regarding Dickinson’s sexuality.



#emilydickinson #dickinson #TrulyGlowingSelfieLove #history #poetry #idk

♬ original sound - Joe Rogan Clips

Here, TikTok user littlebasingse uses the Joe Rogan Clips audio to critique heteronormative approaches to Emily Dickinson’s sexuality and love life. By captioning the agreement “Emily writing love letters to her sister in law,” they point out that, despite the acknowledgement of this fact (Smith and Hart), some historians have disagreed—and still disagree—over Dickinson’s possible relationships with men, rather than take an interest in her intimate (and artistically collaborative) relationship with Susan (Smith). 


That most of the videos tagged #emilydickinson are about Emily’s relationship with Susan demonstrates an interest in Susan’s influence on Emily’s poetry, an openness to the poet’s potential queerness, and a rejection of the Dickinson-as-spinster mythology. In “Rating All of the Adaptations of Emily Dickinson’s Life Based on How Gay They Are,” user ariavelz offers a brief overview of the three most recent depictions of Dickinson in film and television: Alena Smith’s Dickinson (9/10), A Quiet Passion (1/10), and Wild Nights with Emily (13/10) (@ariavelz). In another, andsadprose offers five “theories” of Taylor Swift’s “ivy,” including a queer reading of the song as about Emily and Susan Dickinson’s relationship (@andsadprose). Many Dickinson TikToks are also tagged #gay, #bisexual, and #lesbian, consequently connecting Dickinson to the larger LGBTQ “sides” of TikTok and queer users’ AI-customized FYPs. A person on “lesbian TikTok,” then, could easily come across Dickinson videos in their feed. As a result of TikTok’s AI, Dickinson’s queer ghost appears to those most open to seeing her.


TikTok might spread the Dickinsons’ story more quickly and directly than any other media in this exhibition. These quick, one-minute videos often get right to the point: Susan Dickinson was the love of Emily Dickinson’s life, and her poetry still cultivates “a mood” with which younger generations can relate.[2] Social media apps enable users to create their own public representations of Emily Dickinson, unconfined by scholarly and on-screen iterations. On TikTok, Dickinson’s ghost passes through FYPs, tags, and DMs as users conjure different electronic versions of the poet with every interaction. This level of access to Dickinson’s reputation will undoubtedly result in shifts in attitudes toward her life and poetry. While TikTok continues to grow, countless Emilys and Sues will continue to haunt the algorithm, waiting for users to find them.


More #emilydickinson TikTok formulations include a Dickinson/cottagecore aesthetic, poetry readings, and videos of users including Dickinson in collections of their favorite women’s writing. A selection of these can be viewed below. 



Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium ##cottagecore ##pressedflowers ##garden ##herbarium ##botany ##inspiration ##myaesthetic

♬ Little April Shower (With Rain) - Cover Kid


"A Book" by Emily Dickinson #cottagecore #aesthetic #poetry #vintage #flowers

♬ Mystery of Love [Instrumental] - Live - Hannah Stater


##dickinson ##emilydickinson ##suegilbert ##emisue

♬ maiichard_16 - maiichard_


Need I say more #emilydickinson #emilydickinsoncosplay #cosplay #historicalfigures #poet #foryou #fyp #lesbian

♬ I am twistyyyy - hoho


Emily Dickinson would choose a squirtle. #pokemon #poetry #gottacatchemall #classicpoetry #alt #funny #fyp

♬ original sound - BDG (Alolan Form)


mary oliver and emily dickinson have my WHOLE heart #booktok #bookworm #poetry #wlw #maryoliver #emilydickinson

♬ original sound - Jessica


Poema 543 - Emily Dickinson #poesía #lectura #parati #fyp #introvertido

♬ original sound - Alexánder Zambrano


[1] Other sides of TikTok include cottagecore, culinary TikTok, and mom TikTok. For more, see Kaitlyn Wylde, “13 Sides of TikTok Beyond Dancing.”


[2] According to digital marketing firm Wallaroo, 32.5% of TikTok users are between the ages of 10 and 19, and 29.5% are 20-29 years old.