Motherboard

This Meme Explains Why TikTok Isn't Like Any Other Social Media

Point-of-view or POV videos are TikTok’s chameleon genre that give creators room to express themselves, and give TikTok room to come into its own.

by Caroline Haskins
Jul 23 2019, 1:45pm

Image: Collage from TikTok. 

People think that TikTok is a black hole where teens jump in and memes pop out. To be sure, TikTok has both teens and memes. But the reality is much more structured than it seems.

TikTok is dominated by videos with a very rigid, formulaic structure: a song, a dance. “You Need to Calm Down” by Taylor Swift plays, and the person sets up a social scenario that ends with them lip-synching “You need to calm down, you’re being too loud.”

Most of TikTok is like Mad Libs: the specifics of the joke differ, but the punchline is always the same. At any given moment, there’s maybe five to ten sound bites—which could be songs, or original audio recorded by users—that are accumulating the majority of the views, sometimes hundreds of thousands in just hours.

Enter TikTok's latest genre: point-of-view videos, or POVs. They create scenarios that range from horror, to historical fiction, to teenage fantasies, to the completely absurd. These videos often have little in common aside from the significant role that they assign to the viewer.

The traditional TikTok POV is shot from a first-person perspective, making the viewers the main character of the video. TikToker @porrinate, who identified himself as Adam, told Motherboard, “I think it makes it very personal to the viewer, because the video is through their eyes.”

Adam made a POV captioned “#pov you dont have a lunch at school and i offer you my entire lunch because i want you to be okay.” In this video, the viewer is a student that doesn’t have lunch. Adam speaks directly to them.

“I took it from my own experience, which was like, I didn’t get to eat that much in high school—and if I did, it was from somebody else,” Adam said. “So I would always feel like, people need to be more generous, especially towards those who are really struggling.”

The structure of an app helps decide what kind of posts are more likely to succeed. On Twitter, a blank slate of 280 characters, it’s attention-grabbing, ratio-inviting shit posts. On YouTube, where ad revenue can be low or unreliable, it’s lengthy, vlogger-style videos that are cheap to produce.

Meanwhile, TikTok encourages recycling sound bites which are used by sometimes thousands of videos. This has spawned a culture where people use familiar joke formats, and gently add a little bit of themselves.

By making viewers a part of the video, POVs uniquely allow creators to engage with viewers, and by extension, connect with their peers. POVs leverage TikTok to appeal to shared human experiences of joy, despair, embarrassment, and laughter. For now, at least, it's something that sets TikTok apart from other social media apps.

Why POVs Could Only Happen on TikTok

People can post videos on Twitter or Facebook, but since users only see content from users they follow, those videos have a limited ability to spread. People who aren’t following you, most often, will simply miss the video you share. TikTok is different because of the app's For You page, which pushes users to view videos from wide-reaching pool of users (even ones that you don't follow).

The For You page surfaces posts from across the platform. It’s an algorithmically-generated recommendation feed, catered to each user. Unlike Twitter's Moments tab or Instagram's Discover page, which also surface posts from users you don't follow, the For You opens automatically when a user launches the app. But we don’t know the specifics of how the For You page works. According to TikTok's listing in the iOS App Store, some opaque mix of app engagementlikes, shares, and comments—dictates what users see.

Most TikToks only have 15 seconds to engage a viewer and maximize their reach on people’s For You pages. That’s a large part of why POVs are successful: they grab the viewer’s attention by pulling them into the plot of the video. The impact is immediate.

“Across different platforms, you think of the different types of cultures that have emerged,” Becca Lewis, an internet culture researcher with Data and Society, said in a phone call. “A lot of that is due to these artificial constraints platforms place on the type of content that gets created.”

The opacity of the For You algorithm has a huge impact on TikTok. If you’re trying to make a popular video, it makes sense to stick to one of the Mad Libs formulas that dominate the For You page on a given day. It’s the act of reaching for the biggest-common-content-denominator in a vast pool of videos whose logic you can’t see.

Here are some memes that are popular at the time of writing:

  • “Wasabi” by Little Mix plays and people lip sync the lyrics while using TikTok’s “face-tracking” filter, which identifies and zooms in on your face.
  • One Jump Ahead” from Aladdin plays and people lip sync the line “Let's not be too hasty,” and the reply “Still I think he's rather tasty,” usually while the user pretends to be two different characters.
  • "No Reason" by YunggTez plays and people act out a situation in which they convey confidence, attitude, and a lack of regard for others.

Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, said in a phone call that users won’t make a habit out of an app unless there’s a “variable reward”—or, a variety of entertaining content. Without that variety, users get bored.

“The problem I think that TikTok is struggling with is that they depend on the meme model,” Eyal said. “Because if everybody does the meme the same way, what happens to the variability? It becomes predictable. The predictability makes it boring. Nobody wants to see the meme because they already saw it.”

But POVs are anything but predictable. Instead of appealing to a common meme formula, POVs appeal to a common humanity. They put the viewer into the messy center of an emotional situation.

Take this TikTok by Olivia Giordano, for example. The caption is, “there’s not enough seats at the lunch table today, so you have nowhere to sit.” In this video, the viewer is the person who can’t get a seat at the lunch table. It’s like exposure therapy, violently bringing viewers face-to-face with the shame, humiliation, and sadness of living through this particular situation. But the viewer experiences these feelings in a safe setting: TikTok.

A similar video is captioned, “ur teacher lets u pick partners but u have 2 friends in ur class who partnered up.” In this video, you’re watching yourself try to team up with a friend for a group project, but quickly realize that your friends both chose one another before you.

By acknowledging that these uncomfortable experiences exist, these POV videos lend significance to experiences that young people often have to dismiss in order to get by.

A lot of POVs focus on acting out a true-to-reality situation. For instance, TikTok user @yazdemand made a POV captioned, “#pov your my mirror after My family say that ‘you will always be a boy.’” Viewers watch the private, vulnerable moments of this teenager getting ready. There’s a tension, and you can feel her confidence and apprehension playing out simultaneously. People going through a similar situation can find community.

A Yeet into the Spectrum of POVs

Not all POVs are exposure therapy for the cruelty of being a teenager, or heartfelt experience confessionals. A pillar of the POV genre is the massive selection of videos that rely on humor and sometimes absurdity.

A great example of this is a TikTok captioned, “i’m ur dumb jock crush. you tell me you’re feeling depressed. i try to make it better.” In it, user @idrinkvapejuice acts out the crush’s reply to her admission of depression.

Other videos, like “POV: what my birth control sees when i remember i have to take it” and “POV: im checking ur head for lice (and u have it)” are pretty self explanatory. There's also videos like "Pov. our eyes meet at the Area 51 raid" (which is a poking fun at a POV formula that starts with "our eyes meet").

But the POV genre, and TikTok in general, isn’t immune to harassment and hate speech problems that plague social media. Jess Fisher, TikTok user @jess.fisher5 has a recurring TikTok series where she pretends to be the personification of each astrological sign. In her POV video, captioned “#wholesome TAURUS POV,” Fisher acts like the personification of Tauruses, who are generally defined as compassionate, loyal, and sometimes parental.

Fisher said that this POV got an unexpected response: a flood of duets—or new videos that are displayed directly alongside an original video—and comments from old men.

“Not all of them, but a lot of [the comments] were like, ‘I’m gonna rip that shirt off of you,’ and things like that,” Fisher said.

The duets for Fisher’s video exist in a grey area: most of them don’t violate TikTok’s terms of use. It’s not against the rules to duet a video with a suggestive smile and comment. But the response was somewhat violating, she said. (A TikTok spokesperson encouraged users to visit its Safety Center for information about responding to misuse.)

“[The video] did make me think that maybe POV just strikes a chord in people,” Fisher said. “It hits them in a different way than normal videos do."

POVs Make TikTok Feel Human

Fisher said that POVs make sense in the larger history of TikTok. TikTok, in its original form, was called musical.ly, and musical.ly was dedicated almost entirely to lip-sync videos. Fisher said that the foundation of these lip-sync videos probably lent itself to the creation of the POV genre.

“They could just be lip synching a song with intention, but it’s also like making the viewer feel like they’re being looked at, or being seen,” Fisher said. “The only difference between that type of thing and the POV genre is putting their own dialogue to it and writing it themselves. Like content creation rather than just lip synch.”

Platforms like Facebook often talk about how they want to “bring the world closer together.” But this isn’t easy for any social media platform to accomplish. Often, it seems, meaningful online experiences are built on finding communities with shared experiences.

This is what’s happened with POVs on TikTok. There’s countless different iterations of POVs: there’s humor, fiction, cosplay, fantasy, historical skits, and realistic ones, and there’s innumerable niches that have grown out of these subgroups.

This phenomenon seems to defy the odds: the TikTok For You page, in its seeming randomness, connects people with obscure mutual experiences. The result is something that feels fundamentally human.