TikTok Is the Latest Reason Teens Are Addicted To Their Phones (#GotBitcoin?)
The app is perfect for spreading memes, but good luck deciphering things like the ‘microwave challenge’ if you’re not in on the joke. TikTok Is the Latest Reason Teens Are Addicted To Their Phones (#GotBitcoin?)
When Holly Grace, a 23-year-old part-time singer and full-time nurse in Nashville, Tenn., first started making videos for the app TikTok, she had no idea she was any good at creating memes—those viral bits of content that have been the internet’s raison d’être since millions discovered a moronic website called “Hampster Dance” 20 years ago.
As Ms. Grace soon discovered, people love her shtick—a real, working nurse who can lip-sync to whatever 15-second snippet of pop music is trending on TikTok that week.
The app, owned by Chinese startup Bytedance, is growing in popularity with young people at a rate that could make it the next Snapchat. User videos on the site are grouped by the songs they use and ranked according to popularity, so Ms. Grace figured the best way to rack up followers—she now has more than 390,000 of them—was to embrace the format. She would put her own twist on some viral TikTok video or another, usually referencing topics relatable to other medical professionals.
Before she knew it, TikTok reached out to her and gave her a “manager” within the company, to help make her videos even more viral by flagging trending songs and discussing what had and hadn’t worked in her past videos.
“It was completely unexpected—at the beginning I wanted to be a medical missionary,” says Ms. Grace, who says her faith informs her desire to reach people on TikTok. “But now I’ve realized that nursing could be a really cool platform to impact people, and I’ve developed a passion for being a nurse influencer.”
The word “meme” was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins well before the internet was being used by anyone other than a few far-flung computer nerds. He defined it as “a unit of cultural transmission,” and intended that the word sound like “gene.”
Modern-day memes have become the lingua franca of our digital world, allowing people to communicate in an often humorous kind of shorthand. Even if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ve perhaps heard of Grumpy Cat, or that dress that was either blue or white, or the “Gangnam Style” video that forced YouTube to add more digits to its view counter. All of them went viral, and then became memes as people appropriated them for their own uses, taking the picture of Grumpy Cat, for example, and adding a couple lines of text about one way or another that people are annoying.
Brad Kim, editor in chief at Know Your Meme, a website devoted to the obsessive, even academic, study of memes, says they are best understood as a cluster of ideas that people reproduce and iterate on, altering their meaning as they go. Originally just widely shared pictures or videos, memes have become something anyone can easily create and exchange. For Generation Z and younger Millennials, they’re a way to get beyond the limits of plain text.
“One of the problems of text is you lose the tone,” says Chris Slowe, chief technology officer of Reddit. “But if the meme is well known, you get a certain kind of tone and way of reading it that either helps the joke or helps get across what you’re trying to say.”
In other words, they’re a language of sorts, often laden with coded references or sentiments that are inscrutable to anyone born before the first Bush presidency. And certainly, being in on a joke that’s lost on older generations can be part of the allure.
Can You Dance to It?
Meme generator sites make it easy to drop text over a recognizable image, like Grumpy Cat, the “Most Interesting Man” from the Dos Equis ads, or a stock photo of a boyfriend who’s staring at an attractive stranger. These can be shared across image boards and forums, from Tumblr and Reddit to Twitter , Facebook and Instagram.
But picture memes—often known as snowclones, for reasons too complicated to go into here—are now old hat, says Mr. Kim. As young people move on to sites where the native language is video, like YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram’s stories feature, the content of memes has changed, and music and visual gags like those created by Ms. Grace predominate.
Sophisticated in-app editing tools also dramatically increase the speed with which memes rise and fall. Kids are creating new memes without waiting for them to develop a broader meaning or deep history, and just communicating with what’s essentially a homegrown visual language, says Mr. Kim.
Fans of shows like “Game of Thrones” are creating memes about individual episodes almost as fast as they’re shown, says Reddit’s Mr. Slowe. The result is layers upon layers of in-jokes that feel highly relatable to dedicated, connected fans of the show, and no one else.
Sally Kuchar, a 36-year-old self-described “meme explainer” who works in communications for a nonprofit, has developed a reputation for deciphering TikTok memes for fellow Millennials on Twitter. One of her recent explainers unpacked the origins and spread of the “microwave challenge,” which has all the hallmarks of a TikTok meme: a catchy tune, a reproducible visual trope and, most important, a hilarious twist. (I mean “twist” literally, as the challenge involves finding inventive ways to very slowly rotate your body like food on a microwave tray.)
All Fun and Games Until…
Like all modes of communication, memes are neither good or bad. Mostly they’re about self-expression—relating with people and amusing them—but occasionally they’re used for darker purposes.
As memes become a new way of communicating on digital platforms, they’re used for every sort of communication and dissemination, including communicating hate speech and extremist ideologies, as we saw with the meme-soaked writings and visual signals of New Zealand’s Christchurch shooter.
Ms. Grace experienced the dark side of memes when one of her videos—an otherwise innocent clip about kids’ famous disdain for vegetables—was reappropriated. Accounts primarily devoted to mocking and degrading internet micro-celebrities (such as Ms. Grace) spread her video on Twitter, YouTube and Instagram as an example of vegan gloating.
This being the internet, Ms. Grace received weeks of harassing messages, and even death threats, both in the comments on the video on TikTok and through direct messages on Instagram, where anyone can message her.
“People were making memes like, ‘Why do vegans have to be so outward about eating vegetables?’” says Ms. Grace. Only thing: Ms. Grace isn’t a vegan, or even a vegetarian.
“Thankfully I have friends who are YouTubers and influencers and they were able to help me,” she adds. Everyone who becomes famous on the internet, they explained, is going to be harassed at some point or another.
As with other social networks that gain popularity, TikTok is inevitably becoming a place where people attempt to spread misinformation and hate speech. TikTok says its staff aggressively monitors content on the site, quickly removing or hiding videos that might raise alarms with parents or the media.
This month, a state court in India ordered an interim ban of TikTok, over concern that it encouraged the dissemination of pornography and could allow children to be targeted by sexual predators. The government has since lifted the ban.
“We are glad about this decision and we believe it is also greatly welcomed by our thriving community in India,” says a TikTok spokeswoman. “We are committed to continuously enhancing our safety features as a testament to our ongoing commitment to our users in India,” she adds.
Still, the company appears as if it wants avoid further rankling India’s politicians or courts. As elections in the country approach, TikTok is preemptively warning users there not to “share unlawful content” and to “guard against fake news by always referring to verified news sources.”
Meanwhile, being memed for meming hasn’t broken Ms. Grace’s stride. While TikTok doesn’t yet have the same culture of sponsored content as Instagram, the up-and-coming nurse influencer says her favorite brand of scrubs just reached out to make her their social-media brand ambassador.Go back