ZEITLINES | 02.15.19
Warning! Before you start reading this, find a comfy chair and grab your S’well bottle (or maybe your favourite adult beverage). You might be with us for a while. This week, Zeitlines explores the communication norms of Gen Z and the incredible universe of apps that fuel their social existence. First, our President Kathy Murphy shares that ‘aha moment’ when she realized that Helicopter Parenting is now a thing of the past and takes us on a tour of the many ways her teen daughter socializes virtually. Then, our Head of Strategy, Brian Tod takes us on a journey waaaaay down one of the most entertaining social media rabbit holes we’ve been through – TikTok. What is TikTok you ask? Find out here and prepare to be highly entertained!
Navigating (or trying to) Multi-App Communications
Kathy Murphy, President
I’m a mother so I’m a Facebook voyeur. That’s what we do. Like all mothers, I use it as a source for news and information about friends and family. Going through it is something I enjoy at the end of the day as a way to wind down. Perusing the latest photos of Meghan Markle proudly showing off her baby bump, a blog-like post from an artist friend and an update in a community forum about traffic calming initiatives. But late one night last week, a post came through that had quite the opposite effect. It was a jarring alert from the Burlington Police Department – NC (okay admittedly I don't even know who they are) that a friend had shared – highlighting the 10 apps teens are using today that their parents should know about.
Now, I’m a parent who prides myself on my ability to stay up-to-speed on what my teen and pre-teen children are doing, both online and off. I’m well aware that they are on their phones ALL. OF. THE. TIME. According to a recent Pew Research report, 95% of teens have smartphones and 45% say their usage is like my kids’. The report also reveals that they aren’t on Facebook - like their mothers - but rather they’re spending their time on YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat.
But seeing this post tapped into a fear that runs deep for me even though I don't acknowledge it. Something that I feel no control over. That is the explosive growth of communication tools that Generation Z have at their disposal. Tools I have no idea about. I simply don’t know what I don’t know and that’s scary.
At the same time, I’m fascinated by it. Will there ever again be a point where a parent actually knows where their children are and who they are with? Because today, “being with someone” may mean having a Snapchat streak with them. And very possibly it will be someone they’ve never met in-person but have established a "relationship" with through social media. This is their reality. That same Pew Report showed that a plurality of teens (45%) don’t think social media has either a positive or a negative impact on them. It’s just a part of their life.
After seeing the Facebook post, I sat down with my oldest daughter and asked her point-blank about these apps. I also asked how as parents we can help our kids navigate through all of these emerging channels.
Here’s what she said:
She uses Instagram and Snapchat. She used to use Wishbone but that was last year, and she never actually kept it on her phone. The others on the list she hadn’t heard of. She has her ‘go-to’ apps on her phone. Her regular means of communication: VSCO, Instagram, Snapchat, Houseparty and TikTok. She categorizes these differently because she has "added" them to her phone. Then there are those that, in her words “are just on my phone”: FaceTime, iMessage/Text and YouTube.
So, net net, while that late-night crisis caused by a Facebook post created by someone I don’t know has been averted, I continue to be amazed and intrigued by Gen Z’s ability to use so many different tools to communicate and engage with each other. I can’t even imagine managing eight different channels that I’m expected to stay on top of all of the time. And believe me, I’m a multi-tasker.
But this is their reality. This is my daughter’s norm. And, the fact is, it’s quickly becoming the new norm.
Down the TikTok Rabbit Hole
Brian Tod, Head of Strategy
Ever heard of TikTok? Unless you are in your teens or have one in your house, it’s likely that you have zero idea who, what or why TikTok. That was me a week ago, when I happened upon this Twitter thread that blew my mind.
Before reading further you absolutely need to know what is TikTok, so you absolutely need to go, right now, and experience that Twitter thread. I’ll wait…
You’re back? Seriously odd, but also really fun video memes, right? That’s basically TikTok, and it is instantly addictive.
Technically TikTok is a social media app that lets users record, share and view short videos. The twist here is that the fundamental structure of the app is oriented around the audio clips that are the basis for each video. These tracks get used and reinterpreted by the community, and that’s what makes the platform a viral microcosm of the internet.
The simplest form of this is lip-syncing to a song, but there are many different ways that audio clips get used and reused.
And they’re all either odd, funny, inspiring, impressive, heartwarming or cringe-worthy. I love it (although, my wife thinks I’m a bit insane). If you’re thinking this all seems quite frivolous – think again. TikTok is not even 2.5 years old but has well over 500 million monthly active users.
So, why are we old folks just hearing about it now? Well, it was created by the $75 billion Chinese startup ByteDance, and only got to North America last year via the reportedly $1 billion-dollar acquisition of the US-based lip-syncing app, Musical.ly – which it subsequently merged with TikTok late last summer. TikTok is now growing so fast that in the month of December alone it had 75 million downloads, a +275% increase over last December.
When you open the app, you are instantly thrown into the “for you” feed, which is an algorithmic feed about what’s popular that the app thinks you’ll like. It’s an endless vertical scroll of videos for you to enjoy, react to and interact with. There’s a different feed of people you follow, but since the app is primarily about discovery, most of the experience is in this algorithmic feed.
A reasonable amount of the interaction is pretty standard, there’s the endless scrolling feed; the ability to heart and comment on videos, of course; to view the profile of the person who created a video (and then follow them); and also explore hashtags that are mentioned in videos (or on the Instagram-like search panel).
But here is where the organizational structure gets interesting. If, say, you enjoyed a video, you can explore the profile of the audio clip that was used. This page shows you what the audio clip is, what the original video it was used in was, and the long list of other videos that people have created with that same audio file. You can simply scroll through and enjoy thousands more versions of the same audio clip (which is way more entertaining than it sounds – trust me), or you can make your own video with the same audio clip.
Ultimately by way of its structure this app is creating something special: a vibrant community of people who enjoy creating, sharing and viewing a perpetual stream of video memes. TikTok has its own society and cultural norms that are impressively fast moving and completely community driven – all of which seem to be anchored in the combination of hashtags and audio-clip orientation.
Much of what happens on TikTok is as follows:
-Video memes – this is exactly what it sounds like, just oriented around audio clips getting reused and reinterpreted instead of the same happening for images or GIFs. Take, for instance, the massively used clip of Adele singing at one of her concerts: she sings one line, and then has her entire audience sing the next couple. Well, someone took that and made a video that showed a gummy bear Adele sing to an impressively large crowd of gummy bears. The community loved it, and responded with many of their own here, here, and here.
-Responses / duets – TikTok has a feature where you can respond to someone’s video with your own, resulting in a new video that shows both beside each other. This has been taken up and used for a myriad of duets here, here, and here.
-Challenges – this is an open call to the community to create their video version of a challenge. One such has become a real-world call for other TikTok users here, while others are challenges that are about doing some action along with an audio clip like the pillow challenge seen here. This is something that Jimmy Fallon recently went all in on, issuing challenges to his audience.
I’ve found TikTok to be immensely fun and entertaining. I think that, broadly speaking, it’s a very positive experience that leaves users in a good mood – in stark contrast to the depression-inducing platforms of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like.
This is my absolute favourite TikTok experience so far:
That said, it’s not all sunshine and roses on TikTok. There are dark corners on the platform, which it is being publicly called out on, and (theoretically) it is working hard to fix. It’s really important these issues are being acknowledged, and they need to get fixed. This is a young-persons’ platform, and frankly our society needs to ensure these kids are protected.
So, as a new (old) fan, I’m hopeful these issues are growing pains that get sorted, because the platform has such potential to create a fun, engaged, supportive and creative community.
For those who don't want to commit, here’s a rabbit hole for you.
-Your own version of a specific dance to a specific song - foot dance routine with 112 thousand versions one way and here another, and shuffle-dancing up the stairs here one way, here and here, or even both dances put together here. There are over 3.2 million versions of that shuffle dance.
-Acting out your version what happens in a song - Mr Sandman by The Chordettes with 1.1 million versions here one way and here another… and even here with dinosaur toys; and Em Em Dance by Keezy with 1.8 million versions shown here one way and here.
-Acting out your version of what is said in a spoken-word audio clip “I don’t do the fist-bump” with five thousand versions, the original here and another here, or one of my favourite scenes from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, with 3.6 thousand versions that has spawned from the original here over the past few days, or this just lovely joke about our collective obsession with social media, with 88 thousand versions.
If you have a story of your own to share, reach out to Fiona at firstname.lastname@example.org! #FreeYourStory