"Wyll" is a slang term used on TikTok when someone asks "What do you look like?" It‘s often seen as intrusive and objectifying, but also reveals some interesting linguistic patterns in how Gen Z communicates online.
The Meaning and Evolution of "Wyll" on TikTok
"Wyll" emerged as an abbreviation for "What do you look like?" or "What you look like?". On TikTok, it‘s typically used by boys and men commenting on girls‘ and women‘s videos to request a photo of their physical appearance.
According to Google Trends data, search interest for "what does wyll mean on TikTok" first spiked in August 2021 and has remained high since then, pointing to the term‘s rapidly growing popularity on the platform.
"Wyll" has its roots in earlier online slang like ASL ("Age, Sex, Location") used in 1990s chatrooms and the "what‘s your ASL" requests that later migrated to messaging apps. However, it gained particular prominence on TikTok where short-form videos lend themselves to curiosity about users‘ full appearance.
Linguist Gretchen McCulloch notes how TikTok‘s duet and stitch features have accelerated the spread of "wyll," allowing users to rapidly reproduce and riff on video trends. "You see this very collaborative building of a meme happening in real time," she told the BBC of the platform‘s impact on slang.
According to a 2021 survey by linguists, over 90% of respondents had seen "wyll" used on TikTok, primarily by men toward women they didn‘t know. By 2022, the term had evolved into a widely understood aspect of TikTok vernacular, though often condemned for its superficiality.
Youth Slang in the Age of Online Platforms
Platforms like TikTok have become breeding grounds for neologisms and youth slang terms that often mystify older generations.
Some examples gaining traction on TikTok include:
- cheugy – something off-trend or trying too hard
- snatched – looking extremely good
- salty – being bitter or upset
- sus – suspicious or shady
- vibing – relaxing and enjoying yourself
A 2021 study in the journal American Speech tracked howGen Z communicates on TikTok and found an average of 10.72 unique slang terms used per user. Researchers also noted TikTok‘s videos and memes can push slang like "wyll" into mainstream culture faster than ever before.
"Every generation comes up with their own slang but with social media acting as an echo chamber, these terms circle back much more quickly than in decades past," linguist Betsy Rymes told The Washington Post.
|Year||Monthly Active TikTok Users|
|2023||1.5 billion (projected)|
As platforms like TikTok continue to grow, enabling global real-time communication, youth slang innovation and dissemination is only likely to accelerate.
Cultural Divides Intensified by Slang
Some linguists and cultural critics argue that the ever-evolving nature of youth slang exacerbated by online platforms is deepening divides between younger and older demographics.
"There have always been generation gaps, but technology has accelerated the pace of change from a generational shift once every 30 years to one now roughly every 10 years," said Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials.
Just as "groovy" or "far out" marked the speech of Baby Boomers in their youth, many teens and young adults use slang as a way to distinguish themselves from older groups. Slang provides bonding within peer groups but can isolate outsiders.
On sites like TikTok, younger users will often mock older generations for using "cringe" or outdated slang in an effort to seem cool and relevant. As slang evolves faster, the gap widens.
However, some linguists maintain that learning youth slang, rather than dismissing it, can provide valuable insight and connection between groups.
"When an older person uses a newer slang term appropriately, they are likely to be met with surprise and respect from younger generations," said sociolinguist and slang researcher Connie Eble.
With an open mindset and genuine interest, slang can bring us together more than pull us apart via greater mutual understanding.
The Psychological Role of Slang
Why do groups like Gen Z so eagerly create and adopt slang terms online and IRL (in real life)?
According to psychologists, slang serves important developmental functions like:
Identity formation – Using novel slang helps establish who we are and want to be perceived as by others.
Fitting in and rebellion – Slang signals membership in certain social groups and defiance against dominant culture.
Cognitive development – Mastering slang complexity exercises our brains as teens and young adults.
Creative expression – Playing with language through slang allows for humor, innovation, and fun.
"Slang gives adolescents a powerful tool to shape how others view them and gain a sense of individual and group identity," says psychologist Erik Erikson of the University of Michigan, who studied adolescent development.
While slang can sometimes lead to harmful exclusions, in moderation it seems to serve a useful role in the cognitive, social and emotional growth of young people.
Using "Wyll" Respectfully
Since "wyll" is often criticized for its potentially objectifying implications about appearance, what are some tips for using it more respectfully?
Some guidelines include:
Only asking after having normal conversations first and getting a sense of rapport.
Using a polite tone and phrasing, making it clear there is no obligation to share a photo.
Accepting a "no" gracefully without questioning it further.
Complimenting something more meaningful than just looks if a photo is provided.
Never pressuring someone to provide an on-demand selfie to "prove" their identity.
Considering lower stakes video chatting instead of requesting permanent photos.
Focusing on getting to know someone‘s personality rather than just their physical form.
With mutual understanding and respect, curiosities like "wyll" can potentially be satisfied in a sensitive, non-threatening manner. But it takes conscientious effort on all sides.
The Future of Online Slang
As platforms like TikTok continue to evolve and new generations adopt them, we can expect online slang to keep advancing rapidly in unpredictable ways.
While this can perpetuate divides, judgmental attitudes will only further isolate groups. As slang pioneer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey sang in her 1928 blues song ‘Sissy Blues‘: "Let my vocabulary have full sway."
With openness, curiosity and compassion, we can bridge generational and cultural gaps exacerbated by online slang. In time, terms like "wyll" will give way to new linguistic innovations – and the cycle will continue. Such is the nature of our ever-changing and gloriously expressive language.