Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Everyone Is Trying to Make This TikTok Go Viral—and It Never Will

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It would be easy to put this down to stan armies—established fans of these creators, clashing over the video in a kind of proxy war to glorify their community—but it’s not along such rigid lines. “Whenever there’s a way to quantify popularity online, there’s a group mentality that emerges,” says Kat Tenbarge, a reporter for NBC News who covers internet culture. “It’s something to be a part of.”

Indeed, this isn’t the first time a relatively innocuous post has become the most popular on a platform. In January 2019, an Instagram post with a stock photo of an egg received over 45 million likes in less than two weeks. It shattered Kylie Jenner’s record for the most-liked post in Instagram’s history thanks to a campaign from thousands of users sharing hashtags like #EggGang and #EggSoldiers.

WIRED deemed the egg “the last of a dying breed,” predicting that popularity campaigns from ordinary users, rather than professional influencers or brands, would get less and less traction “as social networks mature and develop more stringent business models.” Just two months later, in a milestone for corporate social media, the Indian music conglomerate T-Series definitively beat the streamer PewDiePie to become YouTube’s most-subscribed channel, despite a campaign from PewDiePie’s fans involving everything from hacking printers to marching in the streets.

Simply put, since viral popularity can be directly translated into money, there’s much less opportunity for it to happen for free. “Mainstream social media platforms have been solidified as global community spaces with outsized cultural impact,” says Tenbarge. “There’s clear value in dominating the metrics on these platforms, which creates an incentive for people to invest their time and care in such accomplishments, even if they don’t personally benefit from it.” Halton has an actual financial investment in her engagement numbers, but the campaign to boost them has already given the more casual users who started it what they wanted: a sense of community.

Beyond that, there’s the issue of how ephemeral TikTok can be. The algorithm that powers the app’s For You page is so good at finding engaging content that China has passed laws against selling it to potential US buyers, who are seeking to purchase the app after lawmakers passed legislation in April forcing its parent company ByteDance to divest from owning it or face a ban in America. The flip side of that algorithm’s power and intensity is that it blocks the more direct and organic forms of community that were the initial appeal of social networks to begin with.

With vanishingly few exceptions, every product, community, or figure with popularity credited to TikTok needs to establish a presence outside of the app to stick around and stay popular, or the relentless algorithm will drive it off people’s feeds. Stanley Quencher water bottles had huge success last year credited to the app, but this was years after they first took off thanks to a prominent review blog. Abigail Barlow, whose Bridgerton fan musical written on TikTok won a Grammy in 2022, had already released a successful single in 2020.

Poarch presumably understood this, quickly parlaying her proverbial 15 minutes of TikTok fame into a line of merchandise, a music career, and more. Halton is already following suit with a reality show appearance. Despite this, Halton’s video will never be able to catch up to Poarch’s without some major element outside TikTok, because it’s just that: a video. Unlike its creator, it can’t transcend the app.

For Halton’s video to break the record, there would need to be some massive, directed interest beyond the shallow sensory appeal that got the video so popular in the first place, which is next to impossible given how much emphasis TikTok places on algorithmic feeds over searching for specific content. The commenters on Halton’s video, who dutifully boost the clip and keep track of the numbers every day, are swimming against the currents that carry every single TikTok to their feeds.

With TikTok reportedly developing a new version of its algorithm to skirt the ban in the US, it’s worth keeping track of how that algorithm shapes what users see, especially how hard it is to work against. The thousands of comments keeping track of the most-liked videos on the platform show that people don’t always just want what the algorithm gives them, and the fact that they come back every day shows they want something that stays in their lives longer than the next swipe up.





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