There’s a man I only know as “Papa,” who I watch on TikTok at the end of a long day, when I need something to settle my mind. Sometimes, it’s footage of Papa telling stories about nothing much in particular, drawing words out in his patient, almost whisper-hued voice. Other times, he shares useful recipes for favorite foods like peanut brittle or margaritas. In idiosyncratic fashion, there’s usually a little shakiness from recording hand-held video — no tripods or ring lights to be found here.
No matter the content, the vibe remains the same: Each video starts with him gently greeting the audience with, “Hello, it’s Papa.” And nowadays, it’s obvious that the 18-to-35 demographic that dominates TikTok is beginning to fall in love with Papa, too, aka @80years1. Since posting his first video in March, his fandom has grown to nearly 200,000 followers and two million likes.
Do any of his fans care that the entire margarita tutorial was filmed and posted upside down? No, of course not. In fact, it’s half the charm, and Papa’s fans aren’t shy about expressing their appreciation:
- “I watched the whole video upside down, and I can confidently say I would die for this man!”
- “It’s okay, Papa! We can adapt to watch it however it’s posted ?”
- “Hey Papa. I’m going to bed, just wanted to say good night and we love you. ❤️ – your internet grandkids”
It’s a beautifully wholesome universe on an app that’s often stereotyped as a symbol of Gen Z frivolity. That’s more myth than reality, of course, given the sheer breadth of what you can find on TikTok, but the saga of Papa’s rise reminds me how much young people crave meaningful relationships and feelings, as simple as the content may be.
Our pop-cultural references to senior citizens can often feel a little like we’re laughing at them — as with talk-show bits delving into, say, the sex lives of people in their golden years as a source of inherent comedy. Other scenes from popular media portray senior citizens as hapless and behind-the-times, yelling at clouds and basically being miserable for no reason.
But the hyperactive nature of TikTok, and the stereotypes around it, seem to make content from unpretentious old folks a sort of counterculture unto itself. Consider it the “Slow Food” equivalent of social media. Maybe some of it has to do with us being impressed that they’re on TikTok at all; frankly, I can’t imagine my own grandmother even knowing how to install the app. Yet I’m also convinced that young audiences genuinely love the energy that Extremely Not Online® senior citizens bring to their screens — especially with many of us missing our grandparents and lamenting the impact of COVID on family visits.
Papa’s far from the only TikTok creator racking up views for their elderly vibes, stories and wisdom. I love hearing, “Come on in!” every time I open a video from Ms. Grandma’s Garden (@missgrandmasgarden), who infuses me with a sense of hope around the act of growing things and eating well. (Oh, to taste-test a garden yellow tomato alongside her.)
And these elder accounts aren’t just featuring happy bits of everyday life, either — there’s commentary, shitposts and criticism on everything from their upbringing to the modern sins of white supremacy, given with the gravitas of people who have seen some shit in their 65-plus years of life. It’s not like there’s a dearth of smart people on the app talking about racial injustice and the excruciatingly slow wheel of change. But it feels more meaningful to hear it from someone like Marsha Warfield, the former Night Court actor and comedian who delivers critical musings on the world with zero histrionics and no sales pitch for her brand.
The fandom for such creators suggests the deep appreciation is more than a temporary meme. Maybe it’s because, as psychologist Juan Pascual-Leone posits, people in their 70s and beyond have lived through “ultimate limit situations” that “cannot be undone and are nonetheless faced with consciousness and resolve.” Getting weak, fighting illness, seeing oppression, confronting failures and regrets — all of these factors influence how elders see the world, and us. Even when they’re making a goofy post about being gay and growing old. Perhaps especially when they’re making a goofy post about being gay and growing old.
I certainly sense the weight of life in every video Papa posts, from the gentle interactions with his cats to the songs he sings about his wife and own grandparents. I don’t have memories of my own grandfathers, who both passed when I was a toddler. But watching these TikToks during a time of mass existential crises makes me feel strangely at ease about things like the inevitability of time and the wear it puts on our bodies and minds. They make me think about how we’re left seeking truth in simple pleasures, like fruit grown in a backyard. Or how some things don’t change, even after a lifetime of waiting.
Maybe most of all, these videos give me hope that when I grow old and lonely, I’ll also be able to find companionship in a digital sea of strangers, too — even if I post drink recipes upside down. “Not sure how close you are to your kids and great grandkids. But I want you to know you are loved, even if by a bunch of strangers,” one commenter wrote on a video of Papa singing a song.
To which another replied, “So true! For those of us who no longer have our grandparents, Papa is all of ours now.”