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Forget TikTok trends; the scene is TikTok itself

Cover image for Forget TikTok trends; the scene is TikTok itself

Photo: Drew Dizzy Graham

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

Much of marketing today focuses on chasing the latest TikTok trend. Catching the ‘next big thing’ just as it is taking off, then watching the cultural clout dissolve as the trend disappears as quickly as it appeared, is an exhausting enterprise. It often has creators struggling to keep up and marketing teams, particularly of bigger brands, publishing outdated meme formats days too late. 

The reason for this is a widespread mindset that TikTok is a tool. One with which to reach consumers through marketing, sponsorships, and ads; to track their engagement; to discover new artists; and for audiences to communicate with each other. Yet this fast-growing, trend-setting, and sometimes controversial platform is much more than that. Viewing it as such misses the forest for the trees. 

As the digital content marketplace fragments into ever-tinier niches, the goal is to reconcile the default demand for personalisation with long-lasting, widespread brand recognition and cultural clout that can deliver long-term value. This balance is best achieved through scenes, which extend beyond content itself – merging the demands of nichification with the clout value of mainstream. Scenes are subcultures and / or movements, incorporating music, TV shows, games, aesthetics, lifestyle choices, and unique linguistic trends within the associated group. They have fandom attributes of bonding similar-minded people and giving them a community space where they can ‘be themselves’. Their value spreads through name recognition and the feedback loop with other scenes and mainstream discourse. 

Trending aesthetics like cottagecore, or music like sea shanties, are often mistaken for scenes on their own – before disappearing just as quickly as they arose in the first place. However, they lack the true roots of a scene that go far deeper than just the content often associated with it. This is because they are all subgenres of a larger scene: TikTok itself. 

TikTok has many subgenres, but they all follow the same pattern. A trend appears on the app. Participants brand themselves as the latest iteration of “goblincore” or “cabincore” or “adventurecore”. Viral remixes play in clubs and crowds join in with the dances they learned on the app. The ‘sounds’ of the app tend to possess similar qualities; a strong hook, with roughly 30 seconds of highly emotive lyrics intended to go viral. Visually, videos are high contrast, rapid-paced, and often use popular filters, giving them all a similar aesthetic. The most ardent participants own ring lamps to use in videos, follow certain video formats to get views, and will buy and post videos about trending products on the app, be they the TikTok leggings, Stanley cups, or whatever else is new and big that week. Even language is changing, with the app having its own linguistic culture shaped by what performs well on – and what is punished by – the algorithm. Rather than referring to any particular trend in isolation, people talk about “TikTok teens”, “TikTok dances”, or “TikTok music”; the specific trend is the manifestation, but the common denominator is the platform itself.

In other words, TikTok has  the trappings of what we would anywhere else call a scene. So, why does this matter? 

If TikTok is a scene, then it inherently becomes competitive for other scenes to use the app to build their profile. Building a scene requires going beyond TikTok, if for no other reason than to monetise. It means getting followers onto more direct-to-fan platforms, to other streaming services, or out to live events. That is  a click away from the app, and away from the advertising that drives its revenues. No wonder, then, that creators are finding it hard to actually build fan bases on the app; if TikTok is aware of its position as a scene, it would naturally follow to try and keep creators as merely single faces among thousands, all contributing semi-anonymously to the bigger picture that is TikTok itself. 

This also has big implications for A&R and other types of scouting, which look for the figures behind the latest trends, but tend to falter once they try to bring them out of the app. If the artist was a part of the scene that is TikTok, transplanting them into another scene – or trying to make that shallow-rooted trend a scene of its own – is a much harder ask than simply shifting platforms.

There are exceptions, of course. Just as any scene has its relatives, YouTube and Instagram have their own cultures. Creators can figure out how to use the app to their advantage and then expand, moving beyond the original scene – just as many artists have outgrown genres in the past. But chasing the latest trend will not necessarily add value to the brand chasing it – it just lends value to TikTok, the scene they’re chasing it in. 

Of course, should TikTok be banned in the US, it could disrupt much of this existing dynamic. Additionally, recent moves, like Universal removing its music catalogue from the app, are calling the overall dynamic into question, in a real-time case study on who is giving more value to who. Yet, with these negotiations still playing out, it is worth it for everyone – from artists to brands – to ask: is TikTok working for you, or are you working for TikTok?

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