Charli D’Amelio—the most-followed person on TikTok—made her debut on the platform in 2019 with a video of a popular dance she saw everyone else posting. How and why she became so famous can be revealed only by the mechanics of the algorithm, but partaking in trends, posting consistently and being charming and likable certainly gets you a leg up. As an early TikTok adopter, D’Amelio mastered the nuances of the app—and now knows what it takes to go viral and stay relevant.
Popular TikTok creators have cultivated their followings largely because they’ve gamed the algorithm by reproducing the type of content best suited to the platform’s parameters: engaging videos with a big reveal or “wait for it” punchline clocking in at a minute or less. Some, like Khaby Lame, exploited the format with an infinitely repeatable schtick (in his case, funny reactions to other creators’ content) that harnessed the way the app worked and what performed well—to incredible effect. But what happens when a creator shifts their content onto more mainstream channels?
“I do see nearly every major creator trying to find a business niche outside of just posting on social media,” says BuzzFeed News reporter and writer behind the newsletter Okay Zoomer, Kelsey Weekman, "which is what probably every social media-focused creator wants to do, because they know [their fame] won’t last forever and they have incredible influence to sell stuff right now.”
TikTok stars with massive audiences are being minted before they’re tested on their abilities to entertain in other formats—a three-minute song, say, or a half-hour Netflix series. While they possess the celebrity and net worth equal to actors and pop stars, their talent can often fall flat when removed from their native platform.
Take the Netflix series Hype House. The premise: a gaggle of TikTokers are cloistered in a five million dollar mansion, navigating fame and their relationships while living and creating content with each other. The trailer promises compelling personalities and interpersonal drama, but upon watching the show, many viewers found it lifeless, boring and, at times, depressing. The producers believed that training cameras on these star creators living together under one roof would make them more dynamic, leverage their obsessive following and lend a level of high-low prestige akin to the streamer’s other must-watch, bingeable reality shows. But these content creators couldn’t make the jump to television. With more airtime to fill, plot points were exaggerated or even fabricated, and major storylines were overdramatized and drawn out. The biggest story arc in the series centered around Chase Hudson (aka Lil Huddy) being chastised by the rest of the Hype House members for not participating in enough group content creation. (He was in the process of pivoting to a fledgling music career as an emo pop spectacle.) Packaged in a new format, what made these creators so compelling on TikTok simply wasn’t translating when presented in a new context.
The reverse can happen with other forms of content. As news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine broke in late February, much of Gen Z was receiving their information about it from apps like TikTok. Information on this deeply nuanced topic was adapted to a channel not optimally designed for longform, and much context was lost as complex details were compressed into bite-size synopses. Disturbing bomb shelter videos were followed by Shein fashion hauls or restaurant reviews by The VIP List.
We need to start questioning what talking points we’re repeating in conversations when the source is a TikTok.- Kelsey Weekman, BuzzFeed News
Typically, broadcast news formats and longform reportage act as vehicles for context, nuance and expert opinions. But, as attention spans shrink, our patience for content delivery is wearing thin. “Social media activates our brains’ reward systems and are designed to be addictive,” Weekman explains. “It makes us want to take the quickest route to the information we want all the time, which makes us impatient. We also crave algorithms that really know us and serve us what is tailored to our particular interests, but that can create dangerous echo chambers, isolation and radicalization."
Some Gen Z-ers recognize the harm being done by the endless scroll and have turned to “dopamine detoxing” to rectify their broken attention spans by limiting screen time in the hopes of deconditioning their habits and cravings for instant gratification. It remains to be seen if there will be an eventual backlash against quick-hit short form content. TikTok will now allow videos up to 10 minutes long on their platform—perhaps to compete with YouTube and other streaming services, and it will be interesting to see how creators will leverage this extra spotlight time. Additionally, #client Meta has tweaked the algorithm of its platform Instagram to make it easier for platform-native content to be seen and shared. The new Enhanced tags ensure creators are properly credited for their content, and posts will be ranked to prioritize original content. These new features are making sure we see content in the way the creator intended.
According to a recent study, Gen Z spends half of their waking day behind a screen, and 48% of video watched by them was made by content creators outside of traditional entertainment and news institutions. Meeting Gen Z where they are on TikTok, but changing the format parameters may deeply affect how and what content finds success on the app. But we need to start questioning what talking points we’re repeating in conversations when the source is a TikTok.
The intrinsic parameters of different platforms make it difficult for content to live across them in a one-size-fits-all approach—whether it’s TikTok creators leveraging their clout on larger platforms like Netflix to longform news condensing itself to bullet point explainers. To preserve its quality, brands and creators should tailor their content specifically to the channel they activate on. Don’t take my word for it: just look at the reviews of The D’Amelio Show on Hulu and you’ll see what I mean.