You are reading Understanding TikTok. 100% conceived and written by a human being. My name is Marcus. I am a research fellow at HAW Hamburg. In the last couple of weeks i have given an input on TikTok and Recommendations for Progressive Actors at the 2nd Berlin Forum on Political Communication, consulted a TikTok project by an NGO, and got accepted for a panel on #WarTok: Networked Soundscapes of Memetic Warfare by the Association of Internet Researchers together with a bunch of amazing colleagues.
Today i will not be talking about TikTok’s tracking (WSJ) and censorship (Forbes). And there will be no Wes Anderson challenge (Rolling Stone). Instead i will be present my latest version of TikTok’s platform specifics. After numerous workshops, countless hours on the platform and sleepless nights this is my distilled knowledge after running this newsletter for nearly three years. All these 💎🍰🧃🐸 ✨ are basic ingredients for good TikTok videos. You just need to figure out how to combine the right amount for your personal approach.
💎 High Density
🍰 Layered Storytelling
💎 High Density
In August 2020 Josh Constine, former Techcrunch editor, published a Substack on Content density: Why TikToks trounce Stories, defining Content Density as “the entertainment value of a piece of content divided by its length — how many oohs, ahhs, huhs, or hahas per second”.
I think this concept still holds true. Instead of tapping through endless boring Instagram Story slides, a TikTok video aims for thumb stoppers. A hook at the beginning to drag you in is not enough. Keep your audience engaged by a high amount of transitions and additional audiovisual stimuli. Example 1. Example 2.
🍰 Layered Storytelling
You are familiar with the concept if you have ever added text to an image or video. You are layering content. TikTok stepped up the game here with green screen video filters that can be applied again and again and again. Apart from visual layering as masterfully applied over at Planet Money, you can layer audio and video too.
Like the Korean Vegan or to evade censorship by layering make-up tutorials with activism. Layering gives your audience something to unwrap and increase chances that your videos will be watched several times, increasing the rewachability that the algorithms seem to like.
Every new platform claims that it is more real than the platform before. Realness or authenticity are a crucial currency. The audience is constantly checking who is talking to them, if they are worthwhile and real enough to care. Emmanuel Macron for example has managed to appear authentic on the platform.
Why is that? Because he is filming himself in a Lacoste polo-shirt that is a bit too big, doing a Selfie in millenial-mode (from above), waiting a couple of moments after tapping record before he starts speaking while standing in what appears to be his living room. Real. “These televisual stimuli do … communicate the social position of the creator” as Guinaudeau et al. write. The result: Political authenticity – ”a multimodal social construct that is performed, mediated and perceived based upon aspects of intimacy, ordinariness, immediacy and consistency” Luebke.
TikTok has stepped up the memes game by introducing audio-memes: units of sound as a cultural currency as strong as — if not stronger than — images and text (New York Times). My research has shown that the knowledge about sound based memes is still lacking among e.g. leading figures in traditional media and companies. Yet audio-memes are already used for disinformation (Media Matters).
It can as well be used to spread successful democratic political messages as this example by the Irish Labour Party shows. A dense 18 second long video that not only plays with codes of the platform like the “Slay” in “Slabour” – the slang term means “‘to do something spectacularly well,’ especially when it comes to fashion, artistic performance, or self-confidence” and the usage of the clapping hand emoji to convey the point (Emojipedia). It includes two timely memes: Finn Wolfhard Snapping and Denial Is A River in Egypt, Your Husband Is Gay.
In April 2021 New Yorker author Kyle Chayka has written a great article on TikTok and the vibes revival, arguing that “increasingly, what we’re after on social media is not narrative or personality but moments of audiovisual eloquence.” I could not agree more.
The term that has been used several times in history has become a catch-all phrase to signal a shared and experienced feeling or mood that is hard to pin down in a couple of words. What a haiku is to language, a vibe is to sensory perception: a concise assemblage of image, sound, and movement. To get the right vibe as a TikTok creator means being able to communicate on eye-level – not necessarily explicit but yet understood as an accomplice.
As on all platforms phenomena on TikTok are timely and under constant change. What felt right, feels wrong pretty soon. Trends come and go. Niches branch out, die or are contained and commodified before they come back revived, renewed and remixed. What stays the same is the need to acquire a basic form of literacy to be able to understand in order to criticize or help shape a platform. Because platforms are just as useful and good as the content produced and provided by its users. I hope this newsletter has helped you to better understand TikTok. Thanks for reading.
Before i forget: I am in Toronto next week for ICA 2023 to present The Sound of Disinformation: TikTok, Computational Propaganda and the Invasion of Ukraine – my paper together with Tom Divon. Very happy to discuss TikTok with you. Well we can have an awkward coffee in utter silence as well. Just ping me m AT marcus-boesch.de
Good read. The high density example is unavailable. Do you have another?