Meme Speak : Understanding TikTok Memes
In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene famed author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term meme. Understood as a “unit of culture”, Dawkins postulated that memes were propagated through a process of rapid mental kinesis, moving from one mind to the next in a game of cranial leapfrog. Fast forward to 2020 and memes are funny pictures that we send to each other on the internet.
The science of Memes
But dig below the surface of ad-hoc Photoshop and Impact font and we see that memes represent the ability to succinctly encapsulate an idea or emotion and quickly convey that information to a receptive audience; an audience that is primed to understand that content through their contact with other instances of that meme. This pre-cognitive work, the alpha data that is sown through contact and comprehension with previous versions of a meme is the key to understanding memetic power. And being able to ‘speak’ in memes is crucial on any social media platform as we all vie for that ultimate mark of new media success: relevance.
In this respect, TikTok is no different from any other internet community. TikTok has its own language of unique and contextualized memes and understanding what those memes mean and how to employ them is crucial to creating an impact on the site. To that end, let’s explore some of the flavors of TikTok memes so that we can put them to better use in disseminating our messages.
If, in your travels, you’ve seen a person under the age of 18 performing silent choreography, arms and feet moving to an internalized rhythm, mouth wordlessly forming unspoken lyrics (What is she saying? WTF is ‘Renegade’?), all while standing in line at a Target, than you’ve experienced TikTok’s most influential addendum to the meme canon, the dance meme. Popularized by the site’s biggest stars and propagated by countless imitators and would-be influencers, dance memes are perhaps TikTok’s most valuable currency.
While the message of any given dance meme is often unclear, their ability to spread across the site (and often IRL) is unquestionable and their power, at least for now, not fully harnessed. As a case study, take the viral dance meme created by TikTok user @thexhan:
pls do my dance🥺♬ Don't Start Now - Dua Lipa
This video, at the time of writing, has been viewed more than 37.3 million times and amassed an impressive 5.4 million likes on the app. Originally released on 17/01/2020, this video found immediate success on the platform and spawned a legion of copy-cats that undoubtedly helped propel the video’s backing track, Dua Lipa’s bouncing bass bop “Don’t Start Now”, back to the top of streaming charts everywhere. It’s not clear if having your music attached to a popular dance meme is essential for pop music success, but we do know that it doesn’t hurt.
TikTok, undoubtedly inspired by the pioneering work of Snapchat, comes packaged with a rotating set of effects to add to user video content. What’s unique is how the community has been able to meme-ify these effects and uses them to communicate certain ideas.
Take for example the ‘Long Face’ filter, seen here from user @joshuawitucki:
While the effect’s original purpose in unclear, amongst TikTok creators this filter, with its distorted nose and shaky voice, is used to denote the often strange encounters we have with children. Spend any time on the For You Page and you’ll surly find an example of someone using the filter to setup a premise and quickly deliver a punchline.
Though often quoted, the idea that “TikTok is basically Vine for GenZ”, misses one of the key differences between the platforms: TikTok has songs! And with those songs comes yet another opportunity for meme making. The Song Meme is one that relies on an audio clip as a vehicle for delivering semantic meaning. To put it another way, the song is the inside joke and the video that features that song is going to put their own spin on it. A wonderful example of a Song Meme is Ashniko’s “Working Bitch. Song Memes make use of the tracks viral hook of “I’m just workin’ bitch…” to telegraph a variety of punchlines. Take for example this gem from user @Livsellaro:
As soon as we hear the first notes of the song, we are keyed into the bit, the way a recurring joke with a friend is still funny. This familiarity inspires immediate engagement with the content, because who doesn’t want to be part of an inside joke?
Why Memes Are Essential to Success on TikTok
As we’ve seen, a skilled understanding and use of memes is crucial for creating an impression on TikTok. Whether the meme is physical, functional, or foundational, each provides a way to quickly connect with the viewer and introduce a message. TikTok isn’t Medium.com or Adweek (or a long winded blog post…); it’s short form video. On TikTok you’ve got at most 60 seconds to make your case; if you can say something with a meme, you should. The most successful brands understand this and will continue to make use of that knowledge in the future.
How to find TikTok Trends ?
Identifying these trends early and aligning your message accordingly is crucial to having an impact on TikTok. With the ability to track TikTok data points like songs, users, and hashtags, Pentos is the perfect platform to validate if any given meme is the right one for you and your brand. Because on TikTok, brevity isn’t always wit, but it is an inexorable part of success.