TikTok’s algorithms make it a safe haven for those with an interest in the occult – and they’re drawing more and more people into the practice
Witchcraft is on the rise. In an age of uncertainty, dislocation and environmental turmoil, younger generations are taking a renewed interest in astrology, horoscopes and the occult. In the past five years, there’s been a marked increase for those searching on Google for ‘crystal healing’ – and the subculture of people who identify as witches is on the rise.
“You can worship one god, many gods, or no gods,” explains Chelsea Selby, a practicing witch and founder of occult beauty brand Witch Baby Soap. She partakes in spell work and rituals, and claims to develop intuition through meditation, divination and the observation of moon cycles and pagan festivals. Selby says the appeal of being a witch comes from the inclusivity, accessibility and openness to interpretation. “It’s a completely customisable practice,” she explains. “Whatever your spirituality, it helps deepen that connection and make it stronger.”
It’s also become embedded in popular culture. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 sparked a knee-jerk reaction from thousands of witches, including musician Lana Del Rey, who attempted to place a mass hex on the US president (it did not work); a rise in the pagan population saw the University of Edinburgh appoint its first pagan honorary chaplain in 2018; and Netflix’s reboot, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, is about to embark on its third season.
Today’s witches are increasingly congregating on TikTok, the rapidly growing social video platform that was 2019’s third-most downloaded non-gaming app after WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. At the time of writing, TikTok’s #witch hashtag has received over 585 million views, #babywitch – a hashtag for those just getting into the craft – has 45m, and the more platform-specific #witchtok and #witchesoftiktok have over 6m and 84m views respectively.
Take a trip into one of these hashtags and you’ll encounter a thriving community that live-streams tarot readings and spell tutorials, and posts engaging, educational videos on crystals, candles, plants and their take on the study of ‘magick’ (witches use this spelling to distinguish what they do from the ‘pulling a rabbit out of a hat’ kind of magic).
TikTok isn’t the first place that modern-day witches have congregated online, but the way the platform is constructed have made it an ideal digital home for those interested in the occult. As a platform, TikTok’s content revolves around 15-second videos that are narrated or paired with music, and can be ‘duetted’ by other users so their video sits side by side with the original.
“TikTok seems open to interpretation,” says Natasha Slee, social media creative at FREEDA, a media brand championing women around the world. “Yes, it began as a lip-synching concept but, its tools and algorithm encourage creativity and promote variety. There’s less of a quest for perfection in image and appearance, and more for humour and creative editing.”
Selby, who has 283,000 TikTok followers, says this makes the app feel more laid-back and accessible than Instagram. “On TikTok it’s quick tips and things that anyone can do. It also humanises witches. There’s a lot of negative stigma surrounding witchcraft and witches but with TikTok, I can show the more personal side of myself, like being a mother.”
Juliet Diaz, the author of Witchery: Embrace the Witch Within, says TikTok’s appeal comes from the positivity of the community compared to other platforms. “I use TikTok as a very positive feed to spread love and spirituality in a way that connects with everyone, rather than a select few,” says Diaz, who has close to 88,000 TikTok followers. “The community is very open to other people’s beliefs and so far, I’ve had a very positive experience.”
The algorithm also plays a big part. Instagram’s algorithms for choosing what content to prioritise is seen as a hindrance, stifling content creators to the point where they have to make an effort to beat it or outsmart it. “Hashtags allow you to find your community but [TikTok’s] algorithm also allows serendipitous discovery of communities you might not even know you’re interested in yet,” says Slee. “That’s something which I don’t think the Instagram algorithm offers as well.”
A big part of TikTok’s algorithmic advantage comes from the For You page, or #fyp. It’s the first feed you see when you open the app, and comprises of a collection of recommended videos, personalised to you. But rather than getting trapped in an echo-chamber, as you might with other platforms, TikTok’s For You page works to introduce you to new content creators that embrace new ways of thinking. “The For You page is a very important feature because it doesn’t make us live in a bubble,” Selby explains. “Even though I’m a witch I’m not only showing on other witch’s feeds, like you would on Instagram. It helps you reach people you normally wouldn’t. It’s nice to be on a platform that supports creators, and doesn’t just look at us like advertising opportunities.”
TikTok’s popularity is only set to rise throughout 2020, and there’s no denying the platform and its algorithm will undergo change in that time. Whatever direction it takes, however, Diaz hopes it will keep its community feeling in mind. “TikTok is ahead of the game,” she says. “The reason professional witches are so successful is because we’re very genuine about what we do, and platforms like TikTok don’t make it seem like we’re trying to make a profit, but that we’re doing this because we love it.”
All Rights Reserved for Josh Walker