Case Study: Tiktok & The 6R’s of Viral Content
Leveraging Collaborative Internet Culture by Design
In the latest episode of United We Stan, I’m breaking down the features that help Tiktok engineer viral content.
Disclaimer: Yes, there are many complex issues around privacy, algorithmic ethics, and geopolitical considerations that I will explore in a later piece. This post focuses exclusively on the cultural impact of the app and how it contributes to our digital ecosystem.
Leveraging Internet Culture for Maximum Impact
Tiktok is quickly becoming my favorite place to spend time on the web. I’ve learned how to revive a dying plant, fix my back pain, use email funnels, cook a new pasta dish, improved my Japanese vocabulary, and a ton of facts about history, psychology, business, literature, and more. All delivered in snappy 60 second increments. It’s also one of the few apps that truly understands the nuances and dynamics of modern meme culture.
The Musical.ly Impact :
To understand Tiktok’s community, you need to look to its origins: an app called Musical.ly that was acquired by Tiktok’s parent company, Byte Dance, and merged to form the app we all know today.
Musical.ly was designed to integrate music and video content easily with social networks, and gave rise to a user-base that would upload themselves singing, dancing, and duet-ing each other. The result is an engaged community that actively participates in creating content and where remixing and responding are encouraged behaviors.
It’s these very features, originally designed for a musical community, that have created an interactive, creator-focused content ecosystem. For those of you wondering why much of TikTok’s content looks the way that it does: the lip-synchs, the dancing, the music — it’s inherited cultural norms from Musical.ly’s original users.
Today, Tiktok’s content verticals have expanded beyond music into expertise, advice, art, and so much more. And with a presence in 150 markets and 30 languages, the app’s impact on digital culture continues to grow.
Serendipity also played a part in its growth, as the timing of the global pandemic created an unexpected demographic shift. With teens being the major user-base, quarantines, lockdowns, and layoffs saw an influx of millennials, X’ers and Boomers who joined the platform, adding new types of content and creating new sub-cultures.
The 5 R’s of Viral Content:
Nearly a decade ago, I created the 5 R’s of Viral Content, documenting the the ways people interacted with online that contributes to something spreading at scale. (the olds will remember I used David After Dentist as an example)
The 5Rs are:
With the exception of reposting, the other Rs traditionally required some technical and editing knowledge in order to be able to participate. For example, the ability to extract a specific clip or sound, to edit it, alter it, and then re-upload it.
And the reason Tiktok shines, is because the app is built with specific features aimed at helping users engage in the 5Rs without needing technical skills or even having to leave the app at all. It’s an app designed with interactive collaboration in mind, the features are designed to support the virality of the content.
This is what so many people miss about Tiktok. The real magic isn’t in the individual posts, it’s in the broader ecosystem of how content interacts within a digital collective. If you’re only getting glimpses of the app based on one or two individual clips, you’re overlooking the brilliance of this collaborative digital infrastructure.
Let’s take a look at the 5r’s with a specific example, the saga of Jackie Weaver and the zoom Parish meeting that went horribly wrong.
Here’s the original clip:
1. Reposting: Beyond the Walled Garden
Reposting is the easiest and most common activity linked to viral because it involves sharing someone else’s content on your channels, a low effort activity. As you can see from the above example, this clip was shared nearly 24,000 times. (On Twitter the video has nearly five million views).
Unlike other platforms that use a walled garden approach, Tiktok lets you easily share content outside of the app, letting you both download a version on your phone and post directly to a dozen social networks including Telegram and Whatsapp. Tiktok recognizes that traction outside of the platform will drive traffic back towards the creator’s page. When you export something, it always includes the screen name of the creator and it’s watermarked. This means: this content has been optimized to be shared and reposted all over the web.
2. Remixing: Adding Your Own Spin
Tiktok gives you access to several features within the app that enable you to easily edit, add filters and engage with both the audio and video aspects of the content.
Remixing is a central tenet of meme-culture in general, and TikTok’s text features allow you to remix content either through changing or editing the clips, or reframing the content with text. Again, you can do this with features built into the app itself.
Tiktok’s musical.ly roots was built for duets, which turns out to be the perfect mechanism to respond to other user’s content. Reaction videos are some of the oldest form of content interaction, and Tiktok facilitates this perfectly. Again, with a click of a button, the app instantly creates a split screen enabling you to upload your reaction without needing any technical knowledge.
Re-enacting is another way to interact with content. Users simply record themselves re-enacting the original clip with their own styles and flair. This is an easy way to gain more viewers, because since Tiktok lets you anyone who uses a particular sound, when something goes viral, it’s very easy for viewers to discover related content. The ease of this behavior also amplifies the reach of the overall trend, which encourages even more participation.
Re-inventing is about taking the content and extending it or modifying, in a way that expands it beyond the original creators vision. The best examples of this become micro-story universes, complete with supporting characters, drama, and of course, the fans. In this example, Tiktok user Jackidson, take’s a user on the original zoom call who didn’t have their camera turned on and was simply known as Julie’s iPad. He interprets what must have been happening behind the scenes.
As you can see, these viral activities have been around since the early days of social media but TikTok is the first social platform to have all of these features embedded into the native app itself, facilitating activities that result in the mass creation and sharing of content.
Tell me this isn’t brilliant:
I’ve added a sixth R, because I think Tiktok has cracked the code of mass virality by using randomness in their favor. Unlike other platforms, the Tiktok algorithm shows you content in your feeds from accounts that you don’t follow but who match your interests. This has removed one of the largest barriers of viral content: the need to build a large audience. On Tiktok, even accounts with small followings can have clips that hit it big, racking up millions of views.
This makes going viral within reach to most creators and so people are more willing to create posts because they have a shot at millions of views. It’s a great incentive to encourage creators to keep pumping out material.
The Interconnectedness of the Web
Tiktok takes what we’ve always known about the web, how content jumps from one platform to another and builds that assumption directly into the features made available for users. Just like we can watch compilations of Tiktok accounts on YouTube, we’re also seeing the migration of TikTok content onto Instagram and Twitter, further boosting awareness into the mainstream.
As global digital cultures continue to evolve and emerge, I’ll be interested to see how the next generation of social media platforms will apply Tiktok’s strategies.
This post is a part of my on-going analysis of emerging digital culture. To see other similar pieces, click here. And if culture and technology are your jam, consider subscribing to my newsletter, the foush reports, it’s a weekly deep-dive into how the web is changing the way we live.