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Why TikTok’s chaotic ‘kickbacks’ took off with young people starved for company

The Tik Tok app on a phone.
The Tik Tok app on a phone.

It was just supposed to be a kickback.

That’s what a 17-year-old named Adrian and his friends were planning for his birthday — a “kickback,” or a casual get-together on Huntington Beach. But once TikTok got hold of the invitation to the beachside, fire-lit party, the kickback devolved into a massive mob of partygoers, some of whom set off fireworks in the streets of southern California or got arrested for unlawful assembly.

In other words — it was the stuff of not-quite-post-pandemic party legend.

“Adrian’s kickback,” a hashtag that’s since been viewed more than 352 million times on TikTok, inspired a slew of copycat parties, most recently in Seattle, where police broke up a gathering on Alki Beach known online as the “Washington kickback.” Similar “kickbacks” have also been planned in Wisconsin and Hawaii, among others, according to videos with the same hashtag.

It’s the rare instance of a meme coming to life, but the drivers behind its virality aren’t surprising. The concept of “Adrian’s kickback” was random enough to be funny to users, and when it became not just a meme but an event, it promised a carefree party during a time when people feel safer gathering, experts say. Plus, it was just in time for summer.

“After a year of mostly connecting in a virtual space, people are ready for in-person encounters,” said Nick Brody, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Puget Sound. “Clearly, ‘Adrian’s kickback’ tapped into that need.”

(CNN attempted to contact the eponymous Adrian, the manager the New York Times reported he acquired after the TikTok post took off, and the user who promoted the “Washington kickback” but didn’t hear back.)

Of the 350 million-plus users who interacted with the hashtag in some way, only a few hundred actually showed up. Some were less impressed with the kickback than others. Some swore they saw bejeweled rapper Lil Uzi Vert make an appearance.

It was weird. Parts of it were unlawful, according to police. It was a blip in the cultural zeitgeist of late May. It was uniquely 2021.

TikTok was in on the joke

Unless a video is created by a leading influencer or perfectly calibrated to fit an abstruse algorithm, it’s difficult to know when a video will take off on TikTok — and even under the best of circumstances, going viral is not a guarantee, Brody said.

The success of “Adrian’s kickback” defies explanation. “Adrian” was not an influencer, for one, and the initial video that kicked off the hashtag was just a screenshot of an invitation cobbled together on Snapchat.

But for whatever reason, likely due to the unique mixture of absurdity and the unknowable nature of TikTok’s algorithm, the video landed on users’ “For You Pages,” or #fyp, and enough users saw it to send the hashtag #adrianskickback into the digital stratosphere.

“He was just a kid with a small social media following and his party invite ended up reaching millions,” Brody said.

The unassuming nature of a random teen’s birthday party also made it ideal meme fodder on TikTok, where absurd content often thrives alongside unironic lip-syncs from influencers like Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae, Brody said.

So “Adrian’s kickback” became an inside joke among TikTok users, something you’d know about only if you were tuned into the app’s fickle frequencies. Users wanted to be in on the joke.

“Your ability to understand humor signals that you are part of a group, similar to how most groups of friends have in-jokes and idioms that only the group of friends will understand,” Brody said.

How it jumped from joke to real-life party

Adrian was always going to attend his birthday kickback. But hundreds of people wanted to let loose and get social, too, lending a piece of online ephemera some staying power (though the in-person chaos was, naturally, documented on TikTok, too).

Soon, celebrities like the performer Skai Jackson and musician Kyle were cracking jokes about the kickback, and some TikTok influencers even appeared to confirm their attendance to the party. Some users claimed they even traveled hundreds of miles to party with Adrian.

The size of the crowd that ultimately showed up grew uncontrollable. Officers arrived to patrol the area, where attendees some ran through busy streets and lit fireworks or scaled lifeguard towers, and nearly 180 people were arrested, police said in a May 25 statement.

And in Seattle the next weekend, the arrests were less numerous but the party was no less spirited, even dangerously so: Police reported a “strong-arm robbery and multiple fights and assaults” at Alki Beach that evening.

The possibility of an unforgettable, “Project X”-style party undoubtedly drew users to attend these events. They were also perfectly timed with the start of summer, the end of the school year and a serious downturn in new Covid-19 cases in the US, Brody noted.

“Teenagers are graduating and finishing their school year, looking for any excuse to meet up with friends in-person after a year of disconnection,” he said. “In this way, what goes viral on TikTok and elsewhere often reflects other, offline needs and trends.”

Kids will be kids

The fact that these “kickbacks” happened in real life, at least twice, is partly owed to teens just being teens, Brody said.

Adolescents are “at a stage in their life where they are trying to simultaneously balance forging bonds with a community of peers, figuring out their unique identity and beginning to exert their independence and autonomy from their caretakers,” he said.

All of those hallmarks of teen-dom were complicated by the pandemic, he said — independence is hard to come by when you’re pent up at home.

Younger people are also more likely to engage in risky behavior and less likely to think about the long-term consequences when risky behavior goes wrong, like the post-kickback arrests, said Christian Montag, head of the department of Molecular Psychology at Ulm University in Germany, who’s published works on the psychological impacts of TikTok on young users.

And the relief of approaching the end of the pandemic, which kept young people cooped up for months at a time, may have exasperated those risk-taking tendencies, he said.

“We currently see that the longing to break out of the boring pandemic everyday life with lots of restrictions has become so strong that young people think even less of the long-term consequences of their behavior,” Montag said.

Countless studies have been dedicated to the influence of social media on developing minds, for better or worse. Teens even before the dawn of social media compared themselves to their peers and relied on their peer relationships to inform their identities, but TikTok, Instagram and other curated profiles make that comparison even easier and more acute, said Montag.

The trend will one day fade away

Like all social trends, the “kickback” will die, too, or be forgotten by those who didn’t attend (or those who did attend and were disappointed). Not that some young folks will ever stop looking for mayhem or participating in stunts online to gain clout and memories in the process.

There is likely no deeper meaning to the success of “Adrian’s kickback,” said Brody: He compared the draw of “Adrian’s kickback” — kids just hanging out, looking to cut up on a weekend — to the plot of Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused.” The Texas teens in that ’70s-set film, though, weren’t coming off the heels of a deadly pandemic like this generation is.

For many American kids, it’s been months or longer since they felt free to let loose. It’s no wonder some of them jumped at the chance to be a part of TikTok history — although the parties were likely more enjoyable for those who weren’t arrested by the end of them.

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