A Stitch in Time:
TikTok's dynamics of collaboration
By Chloe Lizotte
Many descriptions of TikTok frame it in near-cosmic terms, as something incomprehensibly vast. The purpose of the app, first developed by the Chinese tech company ByteDance in 2016, is straightforward enough: users produce, edit, and share videos with a base length of 15 seconds and an upper limit of three minutes. But the enigma of the TikTok experience comes from its home screen, the â€śFor Youâ€ť page: an endless scroll of videos that TikTokâ€™s AI algorithm thinks a given user will like based on the way they engage with various posts. Although users can follow different accounts, TikTok is defined by the unpredictability of the scrollâ€™s curationâ€”the more you use it, the more the algorithm might decide that something within you is yearning to experience videos of frogs in dollhouses on the niche world of #FrogTok. Now that the app is eclipsing Facebook in American user growth, this hyper-curation obscures the scope of all that lies beyond and unseen.
Along these lines, Sarah Ullman, who curated Museum of the Moving Imageâ€™s current TikTokâ€“focused Infinite Duets exhibit, described the app to me as â€śsome sort of idâ€”something thatâ€™s alive.â€ť Her show, co-curated with TikTok, focuses on the invigorating, collaborative qualities of the platform, which connects people as they participate in memes and trends. This creative interactivity distinguishes TikTok from image-based social networks like Instagram, and also explains its dominance as a short-form video app, a larger trend in China. Vine, which folded in 2016, is the most notable American comparison: the platformâ€™s six-second clips were easy to share via Twitter or text, but TikTok incorporates socializing into the app, which makes it easy for users to riff on each otherâ€™s posts. The closest comparison might be Snapchatâ€™s focus on direct-messaging, but unlike an evaporating Snap, a TikTok is publicâ€”and the algorithm can quickly beam your face to a responsive audience.
On TikTok, users can create their own â€śduetâ€ť responses to popular videos, which play alongside each other in split-screen. The juxtaposition, also called a â€śstitch,â€ť can be funny or artisticâ€”anything the original creator wants; itâ€™s the video-art version of a quote-tweet. This practice, called â€śco-creating,â€ť was Ullmanâ€™s path into structuring Infinite Duets. TikTok handpicked six of the most â€śculturally significantâ€ť videos on their platformâ€”all of which are represented in their debut collection of NFTs, â€śTikTok Top Momentsâ€ťâ€”and Ullman curated dozens of duets with each root video. The fleets of duets are displayed at the center of the gallery on branching, tree-like structures; Ullman compares them to circuitry and veins, representative of a lifeforce that connects the TikTokers. â€śI wanted to take [museum visitors] away from the walls and turn toward the interior,â€ť Ullman told me. â€śTikTok is an experience where people collide and meet each other on the Internet, so I was trying to replicate that.â€ť
Through â€ścultural significance,â€ť the exhibit comments obliquely on TikTok popularityâ€”what is it about these six videos that sparked a co-creating sensation? As you enter the gallery, the sound might precede the space: a bouncy 15-second loop of Blackpool grime rapper Millie Bâ€™s â€śSoph Aspin Send,â€ť the backdrop of TikTok superstar Bella Poarchâ€™s â€śM to the B.â€ť Poarchâ€™s breakout video is one of the most-liked posts on the app (currently at 53.6 million), and it is all about Poarchâ€™s face. As she repeatedly lip-syncs the refrain â€śM to the B,â€ť she applies a FaceZoom effect, now Poarchâ€™s trademark, that centers her face as she headbangs to the beat. Itâ€™s incredibly simple, but something about the catchiness of the audio and Poarchâ€™s expressive, photogenic face made TikTokers want to imitate it; many of the duets are users who mime her gestures to the T, down to her concluding twee eyebrow-raise. If the audio loops like an earworm, so does the collective visual pantomime of Poarchâ€™s movementsâ€”including one TikToker (@wtfcalvin) using a Shrek face filter, a time-honored tradition of meme culture.
â€śM to the Bâ€ť is about the suddenness of TikTok success: it made Poarch, who previously posted videos of herself gaming or her stuffed alpaca on a longboard, an overnight sensation. But two â€śM to the Bâ€ť stitches comment on the larger implications of TikTok virality. In @_marieroseâ€™s duet, she lip-syncs along with Poarch below the caption: â€śif 150,000 people watch this video 15 times, i could finally buy a car and be safe at night.â€ť Thereâ€™s an unspoken cashflow to the influencer economy, which often favors fun and fluffy personalities: Poarch has made the most of her newfound visibility by starting her own clothing line, collaborating with Tyga, and signing a contract with Warner Records. If success on TikTok can open the door to sponsorships or NFTs, @_marieroseâ€™s duet with this viral video combats that disparity.
Another stitch was created by the original rapper behind â€śSoph Aspin Send,â€ť Millie B (short for Bracewell). The full song was a diss track Bracewell recorded at age 16, but â€śM to the Bâ€ť has transcended this: the premise of â€śco-creatingâ€ť is antithetical to fĂŞting the original author, especially since the second or third link of a creative chain may be the one that goes viral. This creates a generation-transcending soup of pop culture: â€śBig Ironâ€ť by country singer Marty Robbins set off an improbable dance craze after contemporary audiences heard it in the video game Fallout: New Vegas, and TikTokers began lip-syncing to spooky songs from Cecelia Conditâ€™s 1985 short Possibly in Michigan after one user discovered it in a YouTube supercut of â€ścreepyâ€ť videos popular on Reddit. The effects of this phenomenon are disparateâ€”spiking Robbinsâ€™s Spotify numbers, encouraging a new wave of interest in Conditâ€™s films, compelling Millie B to interact with her secondhand viralityâ€”but within TikTok, the original context is replaced by a wispier version of the public domain. Yet meme-ing a song poses less harm to musicians than something like Spotifyâ€™s revenue flow, which signals a need for artist-support infrastructures outside of these apps.
Authorship and celebrity also come up in the â€śKombucha Girlâ€ť video. In this 2019 reaction video, then-22-year-old Brittany Broski (aka Tomlinson) tastes kombucha for the first time. She inhales a whiff of the liquid and exclaims twice, with increasing alarm, that it â€śsmells like a public restroom!â€ť When she finally takes a sip, she makes a faceâ€”not sure if she likes itâ€”and then grimaces in definite disgust; anyone who has logged on to social media at any point within the past two years has almost certainly seen her final two expressions, now a popular meme. Part of TikTokâ€™s appeal is that people like Tomlinson, who was otherwise living an ordinary life working at a bank in Texas, seem to go viral democratically. The AI algorithm can â€śdiscoverâ€ť your self-produced video and deliver your face to thousands of viewers who, struck by some je ne sais quoi, press the â€ślikeâ€ť button. But that initial viral video can also be a curse. Tomlinson has tried to sustain the success of the meme by posting SNL-friendly comedic bits, but nothing has stuck in the same way.
The stitches surrounding â€śKombucha Girlâ€ť showcase the limits of a meme cycle. The most satisfying duets are more complicated than Poarch-ish lip syncs: the user @lucifersairpods tiled videos of different body parts around the source video in order to mime what Tomlinsonâ€™s movements might have been out of the frame. TikToker @mrjei hand-drew a storyboard that moved Tomlinsonâ€™s expressions through the stages of grief. As these duets loop simultaneously in the exhibit, each 20-second cycle seems a reminder of the breakneck pace of â€śtrendsâ€ť on social media. Thereâ€™s an initial, collective delight in the discovery of a new meme format, then a few truly funny responses to it, before the cycle quickly exhausts itself. Something like â€śKombucha Girlâ€ť lends itself to more creative collaborations, but Tomlinsonâ€™s original performance is so evergreenâ€”a full narrative plays out on her face in 20 secondsâ€”that it overshadows its duets. Although Tomlinson is still producing new TikToks, sheâ€™s cemented a legacy thatâ€™s hard to outrun: her face is now contemporary communicational shorthand.
Lil Nas X, also represented in the show, may be the most popular artist on TikTok by conventional standards: his inescapable 2019 single â€śOld Town Roadâ€ť made him the most-nominated male artist at the 2020 Grammys. The song was also the first major hit to take off on TikTok, and it emblematizes the sort of music that plays well on the app: itâ€™s catchy, itâ€™s shorter than two minutes, and, most importantly, its cowboy premise is meme-able, inspiring a dance challenge where TikTokers would jump-cut at the drop and reappear with a Western makeover. Personal transformation is the premise of the Lil Nas Xâ€“centric piece in Infinite Duets, â€śLil Nas X Pride Monthâ€ť: Seattle-based artist Rudy Willingham creates an impressive stop-motion animation from 81 rainbow-colored cutout prints of Lil Nas X, all filmed against different outdoor backdrops. The video is a kaleidoscopic spectacle, and the duets that surround it are inspired by the queer themes of the shared source audio, Lil Nas Xâ€™s â€śMontero (Call Me by Your Name).â€ť Through gender-bending face filters and outfit changes, TikTokers experiment with the fluidity of their identities on camera. For younger people who may not be able to safely express themselves in real life, the ephemerality of the TikTok scroll can be freeing; itâ€™s easier to escape the scrutiny of family or classmates who use other platforms that are more tethered to real life. Filters can also digitally demo a transformation, whether for fun or to explore something deeper within oneself (or both).
If the audio of the Lil Nas X piece is a jumping-off point for TikTokers, itâ€™s possible to think of it as a non-literal â€śaudio prompt,â€ť another style of collaboration on the app. Infinite Duetsâ€™ template of this idea is Curtis Roachâ€™s â€śBored in the House.â€ť An aspiring musician, Roach was struggling to make ends meet when the first wave of U.S. stay-at-home orders hit. So, he filmed himself in March 2020 rapping â€śIâ€™m bored in the house / Yeah, Iâ€™m in the house boredâ€¦â€ť in a loop while drumming on the tableâ€”a simple collision of the right app and the right time. The song became the go-to soundtrack for TikToks of what people were doing while they, too, were bored in the house: dancing and (literally) climbing up the walls, pranking parents and significant others through the Cheese Challenge, creating a wooden craft to hang their houseplants.
The TikTokersâ€™ pent-up energy has an uncanny, flattened effect in aggregate, all playing out within generic American interiors. The backdrops call to mind those present in video artist Jacob Ciocciâ€™s â€śThe Urgencyâ€ť: a found-footage montage of tweensâ€™ mid-â€™00s YouTube vlogs, where the kids carve out angst-ridden digital spaces within bleakly ordinary suburbia. The millions of responses to Roachâ€™s song are different from vlogs since they are not self-contained. Instead, they spin off of a hyper-relatable meme, a middlebrow glimpse of the mundanity of isolation. Also in Infinite Duets, Jess Marcianteâ€™s â€śWhatâ€™s a Video That Lives in Your Head Rent Free?â€ť is likewise about the way we communicate when we are bored. In the videoâ€”currently the most-stitched TikTokâ€”Marciante poses the titular question, and TikTokers reply by uploading their own bizarre, funny, or sentimental video of choice. Itâ€™s a visual version of the quote-tweet-prompt phenomenon on Twitter; people tend to pick up their phones when seeking a quick distraction and the serotonin of metrics, and a prompt simulates that kind of interaction.
Questions about mainstream appeal coalesce in Infinite Duetsâ€™ sixth TikToker. FNMeka is a computer-animated â€śvirtual influencerâ€ť: a robot rapper with pastel-green hair, gold-armored hands, and ten million followers on TikTok. In his â€śCan You Guess What Iâ€™m Cooking?â€ť, he appears in a kitchen, chopping a cucumber at lightning speed until his arm begins to glitch. The surrounding duets link FNMeka back to a high-speed chopping trend on TikTokâ€™s cooking nicheâ€”including @thesalguerofamâ€™s video of one dad who elegantly chopped a full cucumber in 30 seconds like it was nothingâ€”but his presence seems discordant with these human dramas. The website for Virtual Humans, the firm that created FNMeka and dozens of other virtual influencers, argues that it shouldnâ€™t appear that way. â€śThe tiniest fraction of those who consume a celebrityâ€™s content actually see the celebrity with their own eyes in real life,â€ť an article on their website observes, adding that a virtual influencerâ€™s stream can â€śsupplement real human interaction well enough for fans to accept them as role models and leaders in their lives.â€ť The success of these characters depends on engagement, and FNMekaâ€™s feed is designed for tween boys: there are animated videos of sportscars, crocodiles swarming his backyard, and even a watch with Bella Poarchâ€™s face on it, moving through her â€śM to the Bâ€ť routine.
The dynamics of co-creation on TikTok may clearly mark the ways that internet culture has evolvedâ€”it seems helplessly out-of-touch to posit original authorship as the defining quality of a meme, for exampleâ€”but it does feel like a reach to interact with virtual influencers as though they are human. (There are plenty of lonelygirl15â€“style, scripted-narrative human influencers on TikTok as well.) In a way, that idea contradicts Infinite Duetsâ€™ thesis about why people like TikTok: the forces that lead to popularity are more amorphous than individual or algorithmic control. This may be why TikTok often resembles an enormous talent show; if youâ€™re able to strike a nerve at the best possible moment, you can be â€śseenâ€ť for something deeper than the contexts that usually define you. That dynamic creates a lot of pressure, as though youâ€™re asked to enter a party for an instant and perform immaculately, sharing 15 seconds of your own, unfiltered energy. Even with the benefit of Facetuning or re-takes, it seems daunting to recapture that initial high. FNMeka suggests that this process could be crafted beyond human error, but without the actual dynamics of human error, heâ€™ll always be closer to an animated series.
Of course, not everyone uses TikTok to achieve viral fame, and the algorithm can serve up moments of striking, inexplicable beauty. In the past, it has delivered to me: a) an endless pile of bread, and b) a fever dream of a McDonaldâ€™s-ified iPhone, an astounding capsule of one personâ€™s unhinged vision. But as the scroll continues, isnâ€™t the ultimate dream to be seenâ€”even by the group of people who enjoy vaguely threatening shots of endless bread loavesâ€”since on TikTok, to be visible is to communicate? If TikTok is about conversation, Infinite Duets supposes that co-creating is a way of proving to ourselves and others, for 15 idealized seconds, that we are worth seeing.
The exhibition Infinite Duets: Co-Creating on TikTok runs through November 7, 2021 at Museum of the Moving Image.
Image credit: Thanassi Karageorgiou / Museum of the Moving Image