TikTok has become a ‘major cultural force’

The highest form of flattery: TikTok has more active monthly users than Twitter and Snapchat.

Is TikTok reinventing creativity? On the viral app, users upload funny, weird and clever 15-second videos. Is the new format creating a new short art form, akin to the sonnet or the haiku?

Back in 2008, when Barack Obama was just a senator from Illinois, British singer Jay Sean released a song called Ride It. The catchy tune peaked at 11 in the UK singles chart, then faded into obscurity.

That was until DJ Regard posted his 20-second remix of Ride It on TikTok, a wildly popular micro-video sharing app. The clip went viral, TikTok users created four million videos of their own featuring the song, and DJ Regard was quickly signed by Sony Music.

Eleven years on from its original release, Ride It is climbing the charts and wracking up millions of streams on Spotify. DJ Regard can’t believe his luck.

“Everyone can be successful on TikTok,” he says.

It’s not the first time the app has sparked a phenomenon. When rapper Lil Nas X released his original song Old Town Road, TikTok users began filming themselves dancing to the song in cowboy boots. He too got a record deal and, last year, Old Town Road became the longest-running number one in US chart history.

TikTok lets users upload and share short videos from their smartphones. The app is a smorgasbord of lip-syncs, comedy sketches, dog tricks and much, much more.

Beloved of teenagers across the world, the app has been downloaded over one billion times in 150 countries. Over 66% of its members are aged below 30, but many are much younger than that.

TikTok’s boom has heralded “the rise of creative social media”, but the app’s greatest emphasis is on collaboration and copying. You can “duet” with another user by replying to their video, and the app offers prompts of viral songs and repeated jokes, inspiring its users to riff on existing content.

But can the videos be called “creative” if they are not original?

Quentin Tarantino is hailed as an innovator of cinema, but his distinct style is heavily influenced by directors like Jean-Pierre Melville and Alfred Hitchcock. Some scenes are copied almost frame-for-frame.

Shakespeare ⁠— the most celebrated writer in the English language⁠ — drew his stories from earlier plays, poems and chronicles. In the tradition of his 16th-century humanist education, originality was viewed with suspicion.

“Translating, reworking, and rewriting existing texts was the sign of the artist,” writes Shakespeare scholar Emma Smith.

Is TikTok reinventing creativity?

Innovate, imitate

Don’t be ridiculous, say some. After five minutes, wrote John Herrman in an essay, “the app had sandblasted my cognitive matter with twenty TikToks that had the legibility and logic of a narcoleptic dream”. This is hollow, regurgitated, mind-numbing, quick-fire entertainment. It is not creative: it is the troubling end-point of growing up with a smartphone in your hand from infancy.

But invention isn’t just about being original. It’s about taking what has been done before and building something surprising from it. The most successful TikToks incorporate unusual video effects, great comic timing and the inspired reinvention of established jokes. We should celebrate that so many young people are committing themselves to creating something, whatever it is.

You Decide

  1. Why is TikTok so popular?
  2. Does something need to be original to be creative?

Activities

  1. Define “creativity”. Compare you definition with your friends’.
  2. Make your own TikTok-style video. It should be no more than 20 seconds long.

Some People Say...

“Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Spanish artist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
TikTok uses artificial intelligence to predict what videos a user will enjoy, based on what they have watched previously. The app is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance. Valued at more than $75 billion, it is the first Chinese internet company with a “significant, genuinely engaged following around the world”, wrote The Verge.
What do we not know?
If TikTok is here to stay. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg clearly sees it as a serious competitor to his social network. According to a leaked conversation, Facebook is working on its own similar app called Lasso to challenge TikTok, as well as developing Instagram’s Explore function to make it focus more on short videos.

Word Watch

Micro-video
TikTok videos can only be up to 15 seconds long, although creators can mash together clips from different footage.
Phenomenon
Originally meaning anything that is seen to exist, the word has come to refer to something remarkable or particularly influential.
Smorgasbord
A buffet-style meal with lots of different types of food. Often used metaphorically.
Lip-syncs
When someone mimes the words of a song without singing. The term was popularised by RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Innovator
Someone who introduces new ideas or methods.
Humanist
Renaissance humanism was a school of thought that sought to create model, active citizens, educated in grammar, history, poetry and moral philosophy.
Suspicion
Something entirely fictional was considered untruthful, and therefore morally questionable.
Emma Smith
Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford. This line is taken from her recent book, This Is Shakespeare.
Legibility
Readable, or understandable.
Narcoleptic
An illness that causes someone to stop breathing in their sleep. It is linked with vivid dreams.

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