TikTok, Explained

NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro asks writer Brittany Spanos of Rolling Stone to explain the new video sharing app TikTok.


These are the social media rankings according to my millennial niece Alex Uriarte. Facebook…

ALEX URIARTE: Where I go to find, like, what my grandma’s doing. What is Mema (ph) up to?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ouch. Snapchat – over it.

URIARTE: It’s the app that I open, like, every month or so to see if there’s anything – and usually nothing anymore. I get a snapchat from, like, Team Snapchat on the holiday.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yikes. But there is something keeping her tethered to her phone.

URIARTE: I have a new app addiction.


URIARTE: So this is TikTok. And the first thing is this…

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, my God. What is this?

URIARTE: …Cosplay – Minzy Dog (ph), a thing I’ve never heard of. But she’s doing what is called the meow dance. And it’s this – it’s like a…

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) It’s ridiculous. I don’t even know how to describe this. It is, like, so truly scary.

URIARTE: But I find it hysterical.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: TikTok is taking the younger generations by storm. I’m not going to have Alex explain TikTok. For that, I’m bringing in Brittany Spanos. She’s a writer for Rolling Stone. She spent a week on the app, and she wrote about it. And she joins us now to explain.


BRITTANY SPANOS: Hi. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. I saw TikTok. I have trouble explaining TikTok. Help me explain TikTok (laughter).

SPANOS: Well, TikTok is kind of a culmination of every viral video app that’s existed in the last five, maybe even 10 years – kind of going back to early YouTube. And it’s comedy. It’s music. It’s sometimes makeup and sometimes monologuing. And it’s a weird hodgepodge of every sort of viral thing that could happen in a short-form video app.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And they’re really surreal. They’re these psychedelic videos, a lot of cosplay. What’s the appeal?

SPANOS: It’s really a meme incubator. There’s a lot of trends happening, a lot of trends around maybe songs or maybe specific styles of comedic video or different forms of making the videos. For example…

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The meow dance.

SPANOS: Yeah. And it’s just very easily digestible. I kind of like the weirdness of it. It was just very eclectic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As we heard from my niece there, social media is going through a massive transformation. Facebook can be used by everyone, even Grandma. But when I showed TikTok to my 20-something producers, they thought that they were too old for it. It feels distinctly for the very young.

SPANOS: Yeah. It moves so quickly. And especially with the way that memes move now, the way that Internet content moves now, it moves just as fast as that does – for the user that is high school age that’s kind of going through three to four to five different social media platforms at once and absorbing many different viral moments concurrently. And that’s what TikTok is.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does that say about the social media future we will inhabit? I mean, do you think different generations will not be able to even understand each other and will be in these kind of completely different social media universes?

SPANOS: Absolutely. I mean, that’s been happening for years now. I mean, we’re seeing so much stuff that’s very aimed for a younger audience that’s meant to appeal to them, that’s meant to kind of give them this coded language of their own and reflect their certain interests. And so I definitely think it’s going to only get bigger. And things like that are going to exist tenfold in the future.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which was your favorite TikTok?

SPANOS: My favorite TikTok was one that was set to Adele’s “Someone Like You.” There was a goldfish in a bowl. And then as the camera panned out, it was a live version of “Someone Like You.” So the entire audience was singing the chorus. And then there was hundreds of goldfish crackers surrounding the alone, live goldfish in a bowl.


SPANOS: And it was great (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brittany Spanos, a writer for Rolling Stone, thank you very much.

SPANOS: Thank you.


ADELE: (Singing) Never mind, I’ll find someone like you. I wish nothing but the best for you too. Don’t forget me…

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