MANILA, Philippines – In Jordan Peele’s film, “Nope”, brother and sister OJ and Emerald Haywood, played by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer respectively, go through arduous lengths to capture the Oprah shot — Merriam-Webster added the cultural phenomenon of the “Oprah aha moment” to its dictionary and defined it as a “moment of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, or comprehension.” The siblings’ target was the big floating blob of a spaceship in their far-flung farm and its outer world passengers that posed a clear and present danger to earth. Simply put, they wanted to cash in the “aha moment” and live to tell the tale before raising alarms on the security threat that the foreign flying monsters pose to mankind. They were determined to be the ones who successfully captured a UFO in high definition, never mind whatever the consequences. As Peele’s film aptly illustrates it: here is a farce; that turns into tragedy.
By now everyone has heard of TikTok, the newest kid in the social media big leagues which has smashed records set by its predecessors. It is a medium that seemed to be best suited for that coveted Oprah moment where anyone who has a smart phone and a creative gumption could vie for their 15 seconds of fame. The irresistible pull of TikTok among its billions of viewers worldwide is deeply rooted in the human psyche of “to see is to believe”; there are no doubting Thomases here as it were in Jesus Christ’s time. In the last few years, the unwritten social media rules have become more complex, our consumption habits redefined, and the line between viewer and creator demolished by the day.
Chris Stokel-Walker in his book, “TikTok Boom”, wrote why Alex Zhu, former CEO of TikTok and co-founder of Musical.ly, used the obsession for fame and popularity, in attracting users:
“In the old countries of Facebook and Instagram, the social class was already entrenched, and there was little chance of progression for the average person. It’s an issue YouTube has long struggled with: research shows that 96.5% of those posting videos on the Google-owned video sharing platform won’t make enough money from advertising revenue against their videos alone to reach the poverty line. ‘They have almost zero opportunity to go up in the social class,’ as Zhu explained. But in a new land, you can run a centralised economy – channelling most wealth to a small percentage of the population, to enrich those people first. They then become role models, showing that the grass is greener on the other side, encouraging more people to migrate from other apps to Musical.ly. It’s a model that continued through to TikTok.”
In 2022, according to company reports, TikTok has one billion monthly active users, a feat YouTube and Facebook only achieved after a decade of existence. Almost 50% of its users are under 30, attesting to the cultural zeitgeist of trendsetting Gen Zs who could make or break a brand; every marketer’s dream and nightmare whichever way you look at it. Walker’s book furthered:
“However, at some point the wealth must trickle down. ‘Having an American Dream is good, but if it’s only a dream, people will wake up eventually.’ That also extends to the upper classes and the founding fathers and mothers of a new app economy too. Fame alone is enough to get people to embrace a new platform, certainly – but at some point, they’ll wonder where the money is coming from. ‘Once they have the fame, it’s not enough; They have to monetize.”
TikTok has made instantaneous spread or virality on its platform and transforming how we see and recognize today’s celebrity. It has broken taboos and any person or any subject, no matter how insignificant or ordinary, could gain notoriety or fame, though ephemeral it may be. In the two years since I joined, I have followed the lives of random people whose niche interests have been the crux of their online personality and content that have catapulted them into internet superstardom: a trainspotter, a girl who lives in a castle, a pharmacist who can give the Department of Health a run for their money, and most recently, Corn Boy, who, well, just really loves corn.
Such trends, though driven more by voyeuristic impulse more than anything else, is also a double edged sword for those celebrities who are caught in its grip. In the same vein as success comes to some people, there are those whose virality has caused them instant cancelations; i.e.: the likes of Maroon 5 front man Adam Levine, whose former paramour broke the news on the app, and Couch Guy, a normal college student accused of cheating by the internet jury. Indeed, it is a jungle out there with attention as the currency yet limitless possibilities abound. Josh Constine in his newsletter explained:
“Micro-entertainment has such high content density that it overrides another key factor that determines our preferences: the principle of familiarity. This design tenet states that we like things more if we’re familiar with them. Familiarity, along with alignment with our interests and timeliness, combine to determine a piece of content’s relevance.”
The manipulations of our senses through the hard-wired channels in our brains is what seasoned creators have decoded; mastering the science to capturing the audience’s short attention span in 15 seconds or less through high content density. My immersion on the platform the last few years have seen waves of influencers hit and mostly miss trends; watched current events broken down live by strangers with no street credibility; sat through horoscope readings because skipping the video will break my luck (says the self-taught astrologer); and impulse buying on Shop because the sellers’ livestreams were amusing. Hungering for a piece of the TikTok audience share, competitors have tried hard to mimic its hyper-personalized algorithm and have failed. Instagram’s Reels have not shared the same success even after incentivizing their pool of influencers to support the format’s push. Twitter, in a sign of catching up with the times, recently announced a more video-centric experience focusing on standalone videos absent of the tweet.
Social media with TikTok at its leading edge has transformed not only the mass media environment but more so in how we generate, process, disseminate and make use of information. Isaac Deutsch in his classic book, The Nerves of Government (1963), looked at governments like a human nervous system, where the individual receives, stores, processes, and sends out information. Deutsch’s model looks at myriad layers of feedback loops between the person and their environment, types of information, and the functions of screening and memory that produce human-like ‘learning’, ‘consciousness’, ‘will’, and ‘autonomy’. TLDR; information that obfuscates our decision-making process and makes us vulnerable to the threats that confront us and our society. The false promise of fame and monetization through social media may drive many to strive for those “aha moments” – eventually leading to impaired judgements at the prohibitive cost of performative and self-conscious actions, as the film Nope so vividly dramatized, that chip away at one’s soul and expose the monsters within.