TikTok, and the Evolution of Meme Culture

This article was co-written with 

What was an obscure term up until the early 2010s is now a ubiquitous one; memes are everywhere. It's difficult to open up any form of social media without coming across at least a handful of memes.

Despite their prevalence, the history of memes is a contentious one. The first examples appear to date back to the early 1920s. One of the first recorded memes was the one below, from the University of Iowa's satirical magazine, The Judge, printed in 1921.

What's most interesting about this early meme is just how closely it resembles what we consider a meme to be today. It employs a particular format, of expectation vs reality, and fills in the format with two images.

This is essentially all it takes for something to be a meme, in the sense in which we use the word today. It makes use of a particular format which can be repurposed for any number of contexts or situations. The format is publicly shareable and instantly understandable, which allows others to create their own variations on the original meme. An image doesn't need anything more than this to be a meme.

It's a testament to this early meme that the expectation vs reality format is still in use today, and even has a whole subreddit dedicated to it.

Comparing the two examples above, created nearly a century apart, it looks like nothing has really changed. The exact same format is still in use; juxtapose two images which represent someone's expectation while having their photograph taken versus the reality of that photograph.

The only slight difference is that, in the recent meme example, there isn't even a need to use text to set a context. Perhaps because we're far more familiar with the idea of a meme nowadays, we don't even need the text below the image to explain that the two photographs represent the expectation and reality of having a photograph taken. We're familiar enough with how memes work that we just need the titles "Expectation" and "Reality". Aside from this difference though, the two memes are almost identical.

From 1921 up until more recent years, this was the formula for almost all memes; an image format which can easily be copied, repurposed, and shared. The meme itself was a combination of the image format, and the understanding of the format which we build up by repeated exposure to the meme.

In more recent years, we've seen the first major evolution in terms of what's considered a meme. The term meme is no longer confined to still images, but also commonly to videos. Instead of just consisting of images constructed according to particular format, many mainstream memes are now video-based.

Vine was one of the first platforms which allowed for mainstream sharing of video memes, with recognisable examples like the damn Daniel meme.

What you have in this meme is something which isn't fundamentally different to image-based memes. Damn Daniel consists of a video format in which Daniel (or someone in his place) is filmed minding their own business, while the person behind the camera speaks the phrase "damn Daniel", or some close variant.

Video-based memes are slightly more complex in that the format of meme now consists of the format in which the video is shot, and the sound that accompanies it. Still though, the basic idea holds all the same, the meme format can be easily copied, repurposed, and shared.

What I think we've seen more recently, with the rise of TikTok, is another evolution in mainstream meme culture. Whereas memes up to this point had most commonly consisted of image or videos formats, TikTok has brought popularity to music-first memes. These are memes whose format contains two essential parts:

Firstly, these memes all revolve around a shortened piece of a musical track. Usually this is a 5 to 15 second cut of a popular song. Each song has its own format, and references a particular meme.

Secondly, users add their own touches to the meme, either through how they act along to the song, or in some cases by using on-screen text.

If you haven't used TikTok, or this sounds overly abstract, consider the example in this link.

The video is part of a meme which uses the song Chinese New Year, by the band SALES. The meme to which this video belongs has a fairly simple format. The video starts near the end of the pre-chorus, and while chorus approached the subject runs away from the camera, or in this case up a series of poles. When the chorus starts, they perform a specific dance.

Almost all TikTok memes use a format similar to the one above. The song of the meme provides a particular structure, and the users build a video around that structure.

What's interesting about these memes is that is that it's the first mainstream example of a class of memes which are defined by their music. Image memes are defined by the image formats that are used to create them, video memes are defined by the the actions and sounds that take place in a video, and musical memes are defined by how the actions in a video sync up with a particular song.

Because of the unique nature of its content, it's a mistake to think of TikTok as just another platform.

This is the way many have seen it so far, including Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, as evidenced by his response to questions about TikTok in the recently leaked Facebook all-hands. If you think of TikTok as just another vertical video platform, it ignores the fact that it hosts a very different type of content to Snapchat and Instagram, two platforms which appear similar to TikTok on a surface level.

By building its platform around a whole different type of content, videos and memes which are inseparable from audio content, TikTok has made itself fairly inimitable. Instagram and Snapchat could replicate all of the features which got TikTok to this point—its video creator, effects, and audio library—but it still won't come close to replicating the community that TikTok has. Because this community has grown up around this entirely different brand of content, it's become the norm for its users.

For pre-existing social media networks like Instagram and Snapchat, it'll take more than just video creation tools to get users making and sharing the sort of content we see on TikTok. A platform needs to have grown up around this kind of content, it can't simply be forced on users. This is perhaps why Zuckerberg, in his response to a question about the threat of TikTok, points to Lasso, a new standalone app owned by Facebook.

Facebook are right not to assume that they can control the threat of TikTok just through their stories formats alone. They'll need to start from the ground up, and build a community that appreciates, and knows how to create this type of content. With TikTok at already over a billion downloads though, it may be too late for Facebook to catch up.

This piece was co-written with 

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