By Eugene Wei
TikTok has gone the farthest out of any social media app in building creative network effects. They have built a superior video editor and remixing functionality to make it frictionless to post new content. It’s “for you” page means that everything that goes viral is pushed to everyone, rather than just friends of friends. So there’s a huge darwinian battle going on with rapid evolutionary loops and intense competition, acting as a great filter for providing good creative content.
Network Effects of Creativity
Every additional user on TikTok makes each additional user more creative. It’s a reference to the typical network effects that make social media companies worth billions, except focused on creative not communication. “On Instagram, you can get away with proof of wealth, but the TikTok aesthetic is proof of creative labor.”
You can’t copy any one feature of TikTok and succeed, or do as Reels is doing and stuff half of the features into a difference ecosystem. They have various flywheels which interconnect, a series of features that feed each other. Technology is a winner take all industry thanks to preferential attachment. Often you have to build all parts of the flywheel at once to really test it, which runs counter to MVP. The returns of getting it to work are so great it’s worth the risk. The alternative is being default dead.
The remixability that’s possible on TikTok is a glimpse at the potential for the Metaverse, and will be table stakes for future creative networks. It feels odd to go back into Instagram and not being able to grab someone else’s photo and remix it in some way.
FYP is like the interest rate on meme distribution. Discover page acts as the Federal Reserve, directing creators to what hashtags to create for to get distribution. Price signals are the prominently shown views on videos. “Bytedance as a company has built its products around pitiless algorithms enforcing a high Gini coefficient economy of entertainment. It's a marketplace in which the supply side—the TikTok videos from creators—can be shown to an unlimited number of viewers.”
The comments are always ranked so that the top five that encapsulate the video show up at the top. Reading the comments on TikTok serves a communal function. It's like hearing the laughter of the crowd at a comedy show.
TikTok creates shared viewing spaces through cultural avoidance of spatial or geographic language. Instead it’s interest based, so for example Premium TikTok, carpet cleaning tok, music theory tok, Sportstok, Liberaltok, etc. Tok has come to mean neighborhood or community, almost like Disney uses -land to describe themed areas of its park like Frontierland and Tomorrowland.
TikTok is an extreme experiment in creative network effects. Almost everything in the app is a replicable chunk of bits that you can combine into a larger configuration of bits, and the resulting creation becomes, itself, a chunk that anyone can take and splice or mutate or combine however they want.
Old media, most of whom have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to lock up their content behind copyright law, DRM, and any number of other mechanisms meant to slow the rate of reproduction and iteration of their work. TikTok's "OODA loop" is collective and distributed, and it spins thousands of times faster than that of big media.
“When Charli and other TikTokers formed the Hype House in Los Angeles, they were experimenting with IRL creative network effects. They created what was efffectively a commune to produce the D'Amelio TikTok Universe with Charli at the center as, I don't know, Tony Stark or something.”
“every piece of entertainment is its own social network… The more people watch Star Wars, the more people I can talk to about particular scenes or compare costumes with at a convention. The more people that watch Game of Thrones, the more my Game of Thrones memes will land.”
Frictionless Meme Creation
Twitter and Instagram you have to create your memes from scratch, typically off platform, which adds friction. The TikTok app has a wealth of features that make it simple to grab any element from another TikTok and incorporate it in a new post.
For example the Duet button which makes reaction videos easy. It’s built as a primitive so that users can use it in unexpected ways, for example video mosaics (one duet on top of another), for example Wellerman. “The reason to design your primitives with the utmost elegance is to maximize combinatorial optionality.”
The Stitch feature makes it easier to set up prompts, for other users to answer and feature your video in theirs. Another feedback loop is excepted comments as text overlays on responses, allowing nested feedback loops which increase the payoff from making and responsing to comments. This is real innovation akin to the Like button, Photo tagging, the Newsfeed, disappearing Messages.
The barrier to entry in video is normally very high: without TikTok you have to pay for and learn Adobe video editing software. Analogy to Snapchat and Instagram one click filter, but TikTok is way out ahead with the tools they provide. YouTube provides practically no creator tools.
Imagine doing this in Adobe Premier:
- Copies the original file
- Inserts a new video track and a new audio track on top of the originals
- Allows you to lay down a new video on those new tracks
- Performs a whole series of steps to arrange the videos side-by-side on screen
In TikTok that’s one function, and you can do it on your phone.
The hardest part of creation is the cold start problem. On TikTok you don’t have to go 0 to 1, there’s no shame in going 1 to N. Many TikTokkers get success from riffing off existing memes. Memes can start from anything: lyrics, vibe, question, challenge, music, dance. There’s no barrier to sampling and remixing like there was in the past. No time or legal costs to remix video now - it’s easier and safer because it always references the original by default.
Because it’s a global community, you can assume viewers are already in on the joke. So you can make your videos compact, rather than explaining the context of the meme you’re referencing. This makes everything feel fast (manic) and brings down the cost of production further. It also gives that hit of dopamine for recognising a meme you knew. You feel like part of the ‘in crowd’. Expectation is you’ll Google it if you really don’t know, and if you still don’t get it, you weren’t meant to.
Comedy requires creating a gap the audience is then relieved to cross when they get the punchline. Louis C.K. highlighted something you were embarrassed to acknowledge. Chris Rock shows social truth of real life. This gap was compressed by the age of Trump, who is a satire of himself. TikTok restores the comedic gap by making references that flatter you if you recognize them, and puzzle you if you don’t.
One part that still adds friction is “Like for Part 2” - there needs to be a concept of a pointer to a second video in a playlist. Right now it involves checking the comments or finding it in the thumbnails of a creator’s profile. You often have to click on every video with the same ‘visual grammar’ to find it. Same user, same outfit, same room, same lighting.
“Much of the pain of creating memes is gathering all the components, like images, from the web. In the modern networked age, though, the media bin should really just be the entirety of the internet. Anything you want should just be a short search away. We're starting to get closer, though the library of material is still sparse, and many pieces, especially video, still require chasing down.”
Everything is a Remix
Musica.ly pioneered many of these features but TikTok remixed them and popularized them, and got the timing right. Ideas that failed before ten times suddenly breaks out. Most of the best ideas in tech first appeared in science fiction books in the 1960s. One of the most revolutionary aspects of TikTok is how effortless it makes it to sample or interpolate any other TikTok video.
“The kismet shoe transition, for example, causes you to anticipate the pleasure of that exact moment when the performer will go from looking plain to looking EXPENSIVE. There are only so many plots in Hollywood, but we go see genre films precisely for the story beats we know are coming.”
Dawkins shows that memes evolve via natural selection, the same way as genes, via variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance. The internet is a fertile ground for accelerated breeding of memes (chain emails). TikTok is the most evolved meme ecosystem to date.
Assisted evolution is when humans intervene to accelerate the pace of natural evolution. FYP algorithm is TikTok’s version of selection pressure, aided by test audiences for new TikToks. Intense selection pressure in the feed (all memes compete against all others) makes survivors have uncommon fitness. Tools like Duet and Stitch ramp up mutation and inheritence. Marked decrease in the half-life of memes → cycle time increases.
It’s easy to trace memetic ancestry on TikTok if you don’t know the meme or references it’s making. You can click through to the sound to see other uses of it. Hashtags show you similar videos. Users in comments often explain the context. TikTok comments are a form of distributed annotation like Know Your Meme or RapGenius.
“TikTok is the modern MTV because (1) it increases consumption of music tracks that go viral on its platform as sounds and (2) any number of songs will forever summon the accompanying meme and visual choreography from my memory.”