What brands need to know about the meme factory and the unbundling of social media

Richard Yao
May 30 · 11 min read
Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

There is no denying that TikTok is the hottest social platform at the moment. The short video app, created by Chinese software company ByteDance, has been downloaded over 1 billion times globally, stayed on top of the “most downloaded iOS app” chart for five consecutive quarters, and become a window into contemporary youth culture. It has proven to be more than a fad or fluke, and its sustained popularity reveals a few interesting things about the direction in which social media is evolving: meme-driven, highly personalized by algorithms, and untethered from real-life connections or social graph.

This evolution is partly propelled by the retreat of social media users from the increasingly toxic open online spaces into the dark forest of private social channels, thus leaving UGC-driven social platforms like TikTok and Instagram to become the public domain where people can earn social capital by participating in meme culture. Responding to the current social media environment, there is even a growing online sector that denounces social media completely and questions why we even need it in the first place.

While it is true that we don’t necessarily need social media, its global popularity has proved that, by and large, we want the social capital and meaningful connections that social media promises to offer. (Even if you’re more of a lurker rather than a creator, there is still social capital to be gained from staying up-to-date with pop culture and being the first in your social group to discover and share interesting content.) Increasingly, however, these two distinct social desires, and the different social interactions they entail, are starting to seem too incompatible to be accommodated on the same platform.

Thus, the future of social media will likely be one of bifurcation, with performative, algorithm-driven platforms like TikTok on one side to satisfy our insatiable need for social capital and interstitial media, and messaging platforms like WhatsApp on another for handling interpersonal communication and deepening our social connections. This dual set of social functions, conventionally housed under one roof in most social media today, can no longer withstand the changing user preference, and therefore must become unbundled.

The Meme Factory

The TikTok app, which allows users to create 15-second videos soundtracked by music clips, started out as Douyin in China in September 2016. In the following year, ByteDance acquired a popular-among-U.S.-teens lip-syncing app called Musical.ly, merged it with Douyin, and rebranded the new app as “TikTok” for all markets outside China.

Part of TikTok’s growing popularity can be attributed to its simple, user-friendly interface and the wide appeal of snackable, fun content that goes beyond the Gen Z crowd. But make no mistake, TikTok is very much centered around memes, which are propelled by the fun and user-friendly editing tools it offers that empower users to create memes.

The impact of TikTok’s memes reverberates throughout pop culture today, particularly in music. The recent chart success of “Old Town Road” proved TikTok memes can launch a mainstream hit song. Billie Eilish, an up-and-comer in the pop music scene, partially owes her success to a makeover meme challenge set to her song “You Should See Me in A Crown.Then there is “Baby Shark,” an annoyingly infectious earworm of a nursery tune that also broke into mainstream consciousness following, you guessed it, a TikTok meme. And that’s just a small sample of the hit-making power of TikTok memes. In China, the app’s influence extends far beyond pop culture and into the realm of commerce. Brands and shops gladly put “as seen on TikTok” labels and signs on their products and storefronts to jolt shoppers’ memory and signal its viral popularity to non-TikTok users.

Granted, meme culture is a big part of social platforms like Twitter and Instagram, too. It is by no means a feature exclusive to TikTok. The Baby Shark meme, in particular, originated on YouTube before getting on TikTok. However, compared to those established social players, TikTok stands out because it has a very narrow range of content, both in terms of style and topics, and the tools it offers significantly lowers the entry barrier for content creation. 15 seconds is way too short for any serious discussion, and the app’s music-centric creation tools inevitably nudge users towards the kind of low-stake, often comedic, lip-sync videos that dominates the site. Unlike Twitter or Instagram, there is much less work to be done on TikTok to create “good enough” content that will earn social capital. As Eugene Wei writes in his brilliant blog post deconstructing the multifaceted functions that social media serves, “people seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital.” And for many people today, that path is TikTok.

Another big difference about how memes work on TikTok is that they are usually framed as challenges to encourage user participation through either imitation or recreation. Coupled with the aforementioned editing tools, those “dare-like” challenges function as a shorthand for popular topics that heavily influence what most users end up posting — originality be damned. On TikTok, it is much more important to be clever than being original. Performity is baked into the DNA of the platform, and everyone is expected to put on a good show following the templates of memes, all in 15 seconds or less. ByteDance recently launched a talent-competition show inside TikTok to further encourage user creativity. In Wei’s words, this is all about lowering the barrier for people to produce creative “proof of work” and gain social capital, and TikTok is doing it remarkably well.

It is all about lowering the barrier for people to produce creative “proof of work” and gain social capital, and TikTok is doing it remarkably well.

Even better, because most content on TikTok are just remixed memes, the algorithms powering its recommendation engine can easily categorize the content and push it out to people based on the level of engagement. Thus the labor of promoting your creative work is handed off completely to the all-mighty algorithms. Sure, you can pull some common hashtag maneuvering to make sure your video shows up for the small fraction of users who search for it, but for the most part, TikTok users stay on the homepage, consuming videos served up by the conveyor belt of algorithms one after another. If your content is engaging enough, inspiring loops and sharing, then the algorithm will find an audience for that piece of content, but not necessarily you.

Less Social, More Content

Another thing that sets TikTok apart from the other social platforms is how frictionless its user experience is. Designed to be less reliant on social graph and focuses instead more on driving engagement and content discovery, ByteDance applied what it learned about algorithmic recommendation from Doutiao, the hit news and online article aggregator app it made for Chinese consumers, and created a powerful social video platform where you can instantly get a personalized feed as soon as you start using it for 5 minutes. For ByteDance, AI is the core product it relies on, and the algorithm-driven app is also reshaping how we consume social content.

Unlike social graph-driven apps like Facebook or Twitter, TikTok’s onboarding process is extremely streamlined and optimized for mobile. Users don’t even need to sign up for an account to start swiping down an endless stream of full-screen vertical videos and, in the process, teaching the algorithm what they’d like to see more. There is no burden placed on the new users to find people they’d like to follow and build up their feed — the meme-centric content of TikTok means that algorithms can handle most of the curating and thus offer users a more lean-back, ‘just show me something fun’ experience. TikTok content may still percolate through other aggregating channels such as YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, but the bulk of consumption is happening on its own app, controlled by its own algorithms.

The meme-centric content of TikTok means that algorithms can handle most of the curating and thus offer users a more lean-back, ‘just show me something fun’ experience.

This algorithm-driven nature of content suggestion prioritize user engagement, and TikTok’s one-at-a-time feed works great for the kind of punchy, short videos it specializes in. If a video doesn’t work for you, simply swipe to the next one, and TikTok’s algorithm will remember your dismissal and show you less content like that. This set-up provides a level playing field for all users, allowing the best (aka most engaging) content to acquire a snowball effect and rack up views. When everyone is stuck in Discover mode by default, it is far easier for content from smaller creators to pop up.

Interestingly, because the overall app experience is not designed to rely on following the right people, each content creator becomes modularized in a way that few other social media sites do. The interface encourages users to discover new videos based on the content they’ve liked before, which leads them into a Tinder-like swiping mode instead of seeking out their favorite video creators. Each video is judged on its own merits, and while there is a way to amass a sizeable following on TikTok, the status game here is more about keeping up with the latest memes and putting your own clever spin on it, rather than building an influencer brand based on the strength of personality. The algorithmic-driven nature of its user experience also means it is always content-first; social interactions come second, or merely stay an afterthought to many.

The algorithmic-driven nature of its user experience also means it is always content first, and social interactions second

Last week, Instagram revamped its social video app IGTV to mimic the laid-back, algorithm-driven viewing experience that TikTok popularized. The new design for IGTV ditched its category-based navigation system’s tabs like “For You”, “Following”, “Popular”, and “Continue Watching” for just one central feed of curated videos, which will leverage its algorithms to analyze your behavior and recommend content instead of putting the burden of choice on the users.

The public-facing side of social media has always been a popularity contest, played at different scales for different users. It doesn’t matter if you are an aspiring influencer looking to amass 10,000 followers, or just someone that wants to share something cool with your 100 real-life friends and acquaintances, the innate need for social capital that drives people to social media is one and the same. The algorithm acts as an egalitarian judge of quality that promises a windfall of social capital to everyone. Perhaps appropriate for an app that has its roots in lip-syncing videos, talking is overrated on TikTok, especially considering how language barriers hinder talk-heavy content to spread effectively on a global network. At the end of the day, the algorithms demand a little less conversation and a little more action.

Unbundling Social Media

We have always led a life bifurcated between the public self and the private self. The way we conduct ourselves is always in context to the company that we are in, and we often have distinctly different goals in mind in regards to our social interactions in different contexts. For far too long, social media have somehow believed in a one-size-fits-both solution, but over the last few years, we have come to face the downsides of social media and sharing our lives online in an open, public manner, and start to recalibrate our online social behaviors accordingly.

Privacy issues aside, it also created psychological pressure for users, as people struggle to keep up the perfect facade and manage their online reputation. As a result, Snapchat gained momentum with ephemeral, private messages, before Facebook successfully copied the Stories format to its own properties. While TikTok and Instagram aim to satisfy our need for self-expression and social capital, other kinds of social interactions are quickly retreating into private messaging channels. Even ByteDance recognized this growing need for separate social platforms by launching a messaging app called Flipchat which encourages users to create forums and chat groups centered around their hobbies and passions.

It is no coincidence that Facebook is also turning its attention to messaging to not only step away from the many issues plaguing its public platforms, but also to amplify one of its biggest advantages — the real-life social graphs it owns. To be precise, Facebook is trying to have its cake and eat it too. The way it incorporated direct messages and Stories into Instagram is a clever way of adding a more private, ephemeral dimension to the platform. Still, adding those options for private communications do little to negate the public-oriented characteristics of Instagram, which remain the primary focus of the platforms. Similar arguments can be made for Facebook proper as the company doubles down on interest-based groups and local events, but Facebook is obviously not going to do away with its main moneymaker, the News Feed, anytime soon. In trying to do everything, Facebook gave apps like TikTok an opening to grab attention with a separate, controlled environment to fulfill people’s need for status-oriented, non-private social interactions.

Of course, the unbundling of social media goes way beyond just TikTok, exemplary as it may be. Reddit is driving a lot of niche, community-based online discussion that Facebook is hoping to capture; local apps like Nextdoor are reinventing the community centers online; Amazon-owned Twitch is becoming ESPN for a generation who grew up on video games and esports; and massive multiplayer online (MMO) games like Fortnite are creating a dynamic virtual world where some players simply log on to explore and socialize with each other, instead of focusing on the gameplay. As we noted in our 2019 Outlook report, we’re beginning to see the emergence of an archipelago of niche communities, each one deeply specialized and highly engaged.

The unbundling of social media goes way beyond just TikTok, exemplary as it may be.

Brand Takeaways

For brands, this unbundled future of social media points to a bifurcated social strategy for reaching online consumers. On the mass communication side, brands need to learn the rhythm of meme culture, game the algorithm-driven system with both organic content and sponsored challenges, and develop a distinct personality that is both entertaining and well aligned with the brand messages you are trying to get across. On the more private social platforms, however, customer service is the key to successful one-on-one and one-to-few interactions. Adopt an attentive, friendly communication style would be more suitable for brand-customer interactions on messaging apps.

Customer data is useful to both sides of social, but no doubt far more useful when it comes to personalizing the customer service you offer on the private messaging side. And despite the bifurcation, content will still travel between both sides of social media, because most people will still use both kinds of social media. This means that the shift towards private messaging won’t necessarily undermine the meme culture, the engagement data gathered from either side can be applied to inform the content strategy on the other side as well.

More importantly, the unbundling of social media will also lead to a fragmented social landscape, forcing brands to stop pouring all their social budgets into one or two biggest platforms and explore all the new platforms. As social media continues to evolve, brands will have to be agile and adaptable in their approach to various emerging social platforms. In the early stages, they may not have the robust ad products or the kind of massive reach that the market incumbents can offer, but that should not hold brands back from experimenting with new social platforms. As part of the first-mover advantage, getting on a burgeoning platform usually means fewer competitors and lower cost for your brand to stand out. Sure, the scale may be limited in comparison, but the value of engagement and learning gained from such experimentation should never be underestimated.

IPG Media Lab

The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

Richard Yao

Written by

Manager of Strategy & Content, IPG Media Lab

IPG Media Lab

The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

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