A brief typology of Tiktok (that made me question my own assumptions)

By Jerome Turner on February 22nd, 2023

When we teach journalism, we sometimes stress the importance of original content. Go out, interview someone, make sense and use of that interview and work it into a story. Do your research, maybe a Freedom of Information request too, and compile your data. We talk about the value of that enterprise to the audience. The flipside is journalism that recognises the need to respond to a trend, breaking news event or immediate situation and might tell the story through curation or compilation of existing content. Who needs vox pop videos filmed ‘on the street’, when we can pull together quotes from tweets?

When we ask students to create journalistic Tiktok content, the exercise is to include original content in order to be informative and set itself apart from the majority of videos there…

…and until today, this was grounded in my own idea that most Tiktok content is somehow a remix of previous content, whether that’s people responding to or ‘doing’ a meme, challenge or dance, creating ‘duet’ videos that respond to other Tiktoks, or somehow stealing or re-editing videos. I do use Tiktok quite regularly in teaching and my own leisure time, and that was the lasting impression.

But I wanted to check. So, in the world’s leakiest and least rigorous content analysis exercise ever, I spent an hour on Tiktok, and present a very incomplete typology of Tiktok videos (as I experience them – notes on method below!).

  • Original content / remixes
    New content that creatively makes use of existing content, typically through editing. Actually one of my favourite accounts, and one of only a few that I follow, Nial McMillan edits himself into other people’s videos for comedic effect – but is perhaps most stereotypical of the idea of a remix, and one of the accounts that set me off on this line of thinking.
  • Clips used to trail, tease or promote television or films
    Where the account is set up by the channel, show or production, and they have rights to be sharing clips. Such as this clip from Ellen Degeneres’ show. It draws us to view. more of their Tiktok content and/or wonder where we might see more in its full length format.
  • Clips lifted from television or films; no permissions
    Or we can at least assume there are no rights or permissions to do so. Sometimes channels will create content like this because those videos fit with the theme or ethos of the channel. Sometimes the creator seems to just recognise there will be an audienc for the content, and that sharing the video will generate engagement and internet points. Videos I encountered included Alan Partridge comedy, and clips from Good Morning Britain.
  • Source unclear + editing
    In some cases, the source of a video is unclear, but it has been edited or ‘remixed’ in some other way. An example here is of a basketball game video that I judged could have been filmed by the crowd (as opposed to professional footage), but was then slowed down, with other effects applied, to somehow elevate it.
  • Reposts
    Videos that, often in their entirety, have been wholesale stolen by download from one source and then reposted, typically because the reposter recognises that video went viral, and would like to replicate that virality for themselves.
  • Original content, self promotion of brand
    A brand, band, television show, comedy act or other creative enterprise is promoting itself, but not through use of their existing content (e.g. a clip of their latest music video) but by creation of new content tailored and recognising their Tiktok audience. Of course this isn’t always entirely ‘original’ in its creativity because it often taps into Tiktok memes and tropes, eg: bands covering a song, but with all the members swapping instruments; all the members miming along to a song, but only one of them is really singing it. The content isn’t necessarily about directly ‘selling’ the product, but about building audience engagement and a following.
  • Original content Tiktok channels
    Sometimes of course, the content is the ‘meat’ itself. Some of these are familiar in their professionalism, feeling like an evolution of Youtubers with slick production values, or perhaps a slickness of authenticity that doesn’t always scream professionalism, such as way the f0urbr0thers comedy channel makes use of tea towels as wigs, to play the role of women in their sketches. Other examples I came across were: music aficionados playing records; a dissection of General Levy’s ‘Incredible, showing how it was made; a 77-year-old Tiktoker telling his followers he’s about to be interviewed on television; videos of children depicting ‘everyday’ family life (I have separate issues with this I could go into at length).
  • Original content but ‘why were they filming’?
    Content that intends to appear authentic, possibly ‘capturing an incredible moment’, but on reflection is clearly constructed in some way, either through setting up the entire premise, camera positioning and using actors, or by at least priming members of the public to respond in a particular way.
  • Original content, paid advertising
    At first glance, these can be hard to spot when they take on stylistic tropes of other Tiktok videos, but these are paid adverts by companies and brands, e.g. investment specialists, travel companies.
  • Invitation to collaborate
    The functionality of Tiktok means musicians can play music with one instrument, and invite others to collaborate or ‘duet’ with other instruments. This can be carried on to extremis, building up a whole band. While I would have welcomed more of these invitations to ‘remix’, only one of these videos cropped up.
  • Responses to audience
    Another way that channels directly interact with their audience is by using another feature of Tiktok that allows them to single out a comment on any of their videos, and use that as the starting point for a new video response. This is sometimes done with some level of snarkiness, if the content creator’s authenticity, accuracy or originally is being challenged.
  • Curated content on a subject
    Videos that speak to the particular theme of a channel, where the sourcing is unclear, but we can understand the content as relevant user-generated content. Typical of these are football accounts that re-present sideline clips of Sunday league football games (dirty tackles, fights, amazing goals and celebrations, etc) or, as I also saw during my hour, fans at Premier League games filming furious away fans.

To round this off, I was surprised to find that a lot of the videos I saw during my ‘Tiktok hour’ weren’t quite as derivative as expected. This was potentially steered by the curatorial aspects of my prior use of Tiktok, where I probably quickly flicked through dance videos, memes, or challenges – meaning the algorithm feeds me less of that content now. Each user will have a different experience of the app.

Notes on method: I recognise the videos I saw during that hour on Tiktok will differ from someone else’s experience, being fed to be based on the algorithm and Tiktik’s ‘learning’ about the kind of content I want to see. I also came up with these categories on the fly, without extensive research to determine who might / might not have permissions to share the content.

This post is my response to the February ‘Remix’ prompt we addressed in the Media and Place Research Cluster – each month a member provides a prompt for writing, research or other creative responses. A roundup of this February response and others can be found here