How TikTok, a new video-sharing platform, is changing the way we communicate

Calum Marsh: A TikTok, unlike a YouTube video or a Vine, hardly ever becomes popular on its own. Instead, a format will take flight

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TikTok currently has over 500 million monthly active users. In the last year alone, over a billion videos were watched on the app worldwide, every day.

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For anyone over the age of around 30, however, exactly what users do on the Chinese video-sharing platform (around an hour a day, according to a recent report) remains utterly baffling. Is it a lip sync app? A dance competition? Does Snapchat meet YouTube? Instagram meets Vine?

And here’s the bad news: To really understand what TikTok is — and why it’s become nearly ubiquitous among teens and 20-somethings — you have to immerse yourself in it. The videos have a language and a comprehensive cultural exchange program is required to gain fluency.

Take this video, favorite by almost a million users and shared over 49,000 times. It is less than 10 seconds long and consists of two shots: a close-up of a teenager drinking from a glass with the caption “Take the smallest sip of water in a restaurant”, followed by a reverse shot of the same child , sprinting towards the camera in slow motion, holding a jug of water, under which is another caption, “The kid whose only job is to pour water.”

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The videos have a language and a comprehensive cultural exchange program is required to gain fluency.

On the one hand, it’s a pretty straightforward joke about the tendency for restaurants to fill water glasses with near-manic intensity. On the other hand, there’s the score, an odd mix of propulsive house and seemingly random movie dialogue.

It turns out to be a punchy remix of another mashup of the electronic dance track “Let Me Think About It” by Fedde Le Grand and Ida Corre with an out-of-context snippet from the Nickelodeon show. Victorious, with Ariana Grande and Victoria Justice. I have no idea who originally recorded this mash-up or why they combined a mid-2000s club banger with dialogue from a children’s sitcom; I’m not even sure a full version of the mash-up exists, beyond the 10 second pass. Either way, it’s all over TikTok: this song has been used in over 600,000 videos, almost all in the same format — someone running towards the camera in slow motion. In one, it’s a grandma with a pan who hears you’re hungry. In another, a dog hears its owner accidentally picking up his leash.

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But lest you think you’ve got TikTok figured out, dig deeper. Before this song became the idle race soundtrack, a slightly different version leaked out across the app. This one was the backdrop for the teenagers in a triple split-screen, mimicking robots with a staccato pantomime from side to side of the frame, while sticking their tongues out or hitting other exaggerated facial expressions. Oh, and wearing heavy makeup or in a costume. It has been copied 600,000 times.

Here’s how all these videos are made: the app allows users to record or upload audio-visual content up to 15 or 60 seconds long. Users can either create their own original audio – talking to the camera, telling a funny situation, doing skits – or tapping into TikTok’s database of pre-recorded sounds, which are comprehensive and include both licensed music and any audio recording previously uploaded to the app.

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It’s this latter feature that produces TikTok’s most peculiar and enduring content – and complicates what might otherwise be a simple short-form video app. A TikTok, unlike a YouTube video or a Vine, hardly ever becomes popular on its own. Instead, a format will take off. Late last month, a clip from a live Q&A with Nicki Minaj in which the rapper and pop star is briefly distracted by a user comment regarding her bust was suddenly all over TikTok, as teenagers mimed Minaj for making jokes about their own bodies, their first glimpses of child pornography, and rude remarks from older men, among a million other uses.

Politically engaged, technologically savvy, and very, very funny, these kids handled the news mess better than most news pundits.

Like an Internet meme – for example, that viral image of an indignant woman staring at her boyfriend in disbelief as he stares at another woman – it’s the pattern that lodges itself in the public consciousness rather than a particular case. What’s funny are the clever tweaks to the formula that we’ve all seen to death.

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Of course, TikTok’s critical iteration also makes it impossible to understand at a glance. Many people discovered the app through “Kombucha Girl” Brittany Broski, whose reaction to tasting a drink for the first time went viral across all platforms. The problem is that his video alone is not at all representative of the content on TikTok. The one thing about TikTok’s truly typical video is the thousands of videos made in its wake, using its audio.

But wait, you might ask, what about all the dancing? It doesn’t take long, scrolling through TikTok, to stumble upon an enthusiastic 15-year-old girl performing an elaborate routine in her bedroom after school. Keep going and you’ll find thousands of other girls performing virtually indistinguishable moves.

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Viral dance challenges have been around much longer than TikTok. Think Harlem Shake or, before the Internet, the Macarena. Now, however, a dance craze can start with almost anyone and spread at breakneck speed. Late last year, 10 seconds of amateur choreography performed to Madcon’s 2007 song “Beggin” was covered by tens of thousands of teenagers. A fast routine to a dark beat by K Camp, mostly involving hand gestures, has been copied in clips from places such as the Louvre, in front of the Mona Lisa.

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TikTok loves all challenges, really. And perhaps because its core demographic is high school students, stunts often involve doing something provocative in front of parents or teachers. Last fall, teenagers poured water into a glass until it overflowed in an effort to catch anyone watching in panic. Another common prank involves shaking a two-liter bottle of pop and tossing it into the air, with the results as outrageous as you’d imagine. Because that impulse inherently veers towards the dangerous – teenagers are notorious for treating TikTok as their own version of Donkey – the app recently revised its community guidelines, prohibiting content that exhibits “minor delinquent behavior”.

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My own favorite TikToks defy categorization, even by the app’s already nebulous standards. One of the funniest users, in my opinion, is Sally Darr, a film student from Tennessee who does hilarious, weird, and totally unclassifiable one-woman shows. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you appreciate the unique intersection of comedy, music, and DIY film that TikTok offers teens everywhere. It was a bit surreal earlier this month watching what seemed like the entire platform collectively on the prospect of war with Iran: politically engaged, technologically savvy and very, very funny, these kids were dealing with the mess of news better than most mainstream news pundits, and doing so in a vernacular that seems entirely sui generis.

Anything enjoyed almost exclusively by teenagers and college students will inevitably be dismissed out of hand by some adults. TikTok can certainly sound silly, and as a fan of the app in my thirties, it has a habit of making me feel ridiculously old. But the complexity of its memes, jokes, and dance craziness speaks to the commitment and sophistication of users. If we want to stay in touch, we also have to use Tiktok.

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Shirley K. Rosa