Students Are Documenting Their Own Gentrification on TikTok

In a new trend, students in low-income areas of Birmingham and Manchester lip-sync to a Zoella clip about stepping over "a syringe, and, like, an empty packet of baccy".
August 10, 2020, 12:42pm
Students Are Documenting Their Own Gentrification on TikTok
Screengrabs via TikTok. 

TikTok may have gifted the world wholesome pegging content and introduced the next generation of teens to “Daddy Marx”, but the video sharing platform isn’t without its problems. Political issues aside, the Generation Z-favoured app is also home to classist “chav” caricatures and simulations of domestic abuse. The latest questionable TikTok video trend comes via students, and exposes the social chasm between locals and young people studying at Britain’s universities. 

The videos all centre on TikTok creators lip-syncing to the following line: “I’m now walking down a street, which, I’ve just stepped over, like, a syringe, and, like, an empty packet of baccy. Mark’s like, ‘Where are you taking me?’”. The sound is taken from a snippet of a video by the vlogger Zoella, which has been reposted as a TikTok and currently boasts over 73,000 likes. It features the infamous YouTuber and her best friend Mark Ferris walking down a road in the middle of Brighton, where, according to Zoopla, the average property costs £381,283. It’s hardly a gritty suburb, contrary to what her words and disgusted tone imply.

Zoella’s painfully sheltered remarks have subsequently been used as a voiceover in hundreds of TikTok videos, the majority of which are by students enacting exaggerated horror at the living conditions in their term time homes. 

“My friends when they came to visit me at uni in Birmingham,” one video is captioned. “Southerners entering Leeds University in first year,” another reads. Almost every student-dominated area has its own video – there are ones about Cowley in Oxford, Lenton in Nottingham, Fallowfield in Manchester. And these videos are popular, too – one set in Selly Oak in Birmingham has over 19,000 likes.

Liv, 21, is the woman who made the video. She’s going into her third year at the University of Birmingham and lives in Selly Oak, a residential area of the city popular with second and third year students. “I saw the original TikTok video [of Zoella] and it reminded me of the time I stepped on a needle in Selly Oak for the first time ever,” she tells me. “I just was in shock because at home in Cheshire, I have never come across one in the street.”

These videos unwittingly document a very particular type of gentrification, known as “studentification”. The term was coined by academic Darren Smith in 2002, and is defined as “social, cultural, economic and physical changes resulting from an influx of students within privately rented accommodation in particular neighbourhoods”. Studentification has seen a rapid increase in recent years: the Office for National Statistics found that student numbers have almost doubled since 1992 and a 2016 study recorded over 96,200 students living in Greater Manchester.

Why is studentification an issue? Phil Hubbard, professor of urban studies at King’s College London and an expert on studentification, explains that it can have adverse effects on local residents. “Non-student households living in studentified areas often report problems of late night noise, littering, absentee landlords not looking after properties, and car parking issues,” he says. “House prices also tend to go up as studentification takes grip.”

Will, 19, is a student at the University of Coventry and another TikTok creator who has used Zoella’s voiceover. He first heard it on the platform’s “For You” page, and says it inspired him to make a video about the Lower Stoke area in Coventry. “The intention was to make a spoof about what other locations perceive Coventry to be,” he tells me. 

For 20-year-old Laila, a student at the University of Leeds currently living in the city’s Hyde Park neighbourhood, hearing the voiceover also inspired her to make a video. “I just remember first coming to uni in Leeds and questioning why everyone loves rollies, as that wasn’t the norm for me and my friends at home in London,” she says. “Hyde Park is also known for having quite a few drug addicts or homeless people around the area, so I thought it was quite fitting to the sound.”

When asked if she thinks the video could be hurtful to local residents, Laila acknowledges that the voiceover is potentially problematic. “I get how some people could be offended by the syringe reference, especially if it was shown [to] local families,” she says. 

Jane, 55, has been a local Hyde Park resident for over 30 years. When I show her a TikTok using the voiceover, she says: “If that’s the worst she’s seen in her life, she’s doing well.”

Professor Hubbard believes that sharing information about student housing on social media can give prospective students “a better understanding of what is on offer where”, but finds this recent TikTok trend largely reductive. “Perpetuating stereotypes of local areas as undesirable or drug-ridden does little to help ‘town vs. gown’ relations,” he says.

Like Laila, Liv also acknowledges that videos using the Zoella voiceover could be construed as hurtful to local residents in Selly Oak. “I do think it could come across as a bit insensitive if the video is taken in the wrong way,” she admits. “My intentions were never to offend or hurt any resident’s feelings.”

It’s complicated – Liv feels very much a part of the local community in Selly Oak, and has fond memories of her friendship with her elderly neighbours there. “I would consider Selly Oak home,” she says. But the line between playful satire and outright classism is very thin. Under Liv’s video, one comment reads, “wouldn’t want to live anywhere other than Selly”. A few comments below this, another proclaims: “Selly is MANK”.

How long do you have to live somewhere before you earn the right to call it “mank” – a semester, or a decade? Most will see the issue with someone distinctly middle class deriding an area that has been historically inhabited by people with less money than them. Clearly, the Zoella TikTok trend is meant as a joke, as Liv, Will, and Laila all keenly emphasise. But a joke at whose expense?

Ultimately though, students aren’t the real problem here. They can’t regulate house prices, nor are they personally responsible for shoddy landlords. These TikTok videos merely reflect the gaping social chasm between certain students and local residents, rather than significantly worsen or widen it.

Professor Hubbard believes that universities could be doing a lot more to ease frictions between students and locals, but concedes that there are “no clear cut answers” when it comes to addressing studentification. That’s not to say students can’t do anything to alleviate the tensions between themselves and non-student residents. They can support independent businesses, donate to local food banks, and get to know their neighbours like Liv did. 

And, maybe: resist the urge to call a nondescript street of terraced houses a “shit hole”. If you say it’s your home, treat it as such.