Rise of the TextTok

Why Instagram and Twitter are now littered with screenshots of TikToks.

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Another reason screenshots may be the most powerful social media tool of the past decade. —Kate


TikTok's algorithms are even more notoriously opaque than those on other platforms, but the app’s creators have at least figured out that the more users they can get to watch their videos to the very end, the more widely those videos seem to spread. That’s why TikToks became so drawn out, with creators imploring users to “like for a part 2” or not delivering a punch line until the last second. 

But TikTok's trendsetters are now tossing out those strategies, and focusing instead on making memes that will transcend the app and spread on other platforms. Like this TikTok, these are videos that mainly serve as a backdrop for a single block of text. They are videos that tell, don't show. But because the language is typically observational or opinionated, they're more like tweets than stories.

I didn’t discover this trend on TikTok itself. I saw it everywhere else first. My Twitter feed and Instagram Stories were suddenly glutted with it, and not because TikTok makes it easy to share full videos on other platforms—people I knew were sharing screenshots of the TikToks, because the videos could be captured in single frames.

A few weeks back, Taylor Lorenz reported on the rise of text-based memes. But there’s something next-level about TextToks. The fact that it’s a stolen moment from a longer TikTok—that there was more video before and after the screenshot—is part of it. Sharing these screenshots is also a savvy acknowledgment of the snake-eating-its-tail nature of online content. The rise of text on TikTok followed the rise of text-based memes in general—and now those TikToks are fueling the text-based memes that they were inspired by.

The original memes were, of course, text-based. As Amanda Brennan, senior director of trends and the meme librarian at social media agency XX Artists, told Lorenz, “Gen Z is rediscovering the old internet and updating it.” This trend, though, is a cocktail of 2021 internet culture, combining the syntax of Twitter, the chaotic images of late-era Instagram, and the look and feel—and often, Gen Z vibe—of a TikTok. 

It has also, ironically, arrived just as TikTok is taking on YouTube, having extended its videos to three minutes and begun testing them at five. As the app devotes more tools to storytelling, a faction of its users are instead prioritizing the moment of a video that gets screenshotted, and are banking on its spread off the platform as much as they're hoping it goes viral on it. The examples above? They've been retweeted anywhere from 7,000 to 71,000 times. 

It took 10 years for Instagram users to upend the platform's ideal, perfectly manicured content with chaos edits. But TikTok's text overload has arrived just three years after the current version of the app replaced Musical.ly, which pioneered the lip-sync videos that are now passé (at least among the trendsetters). It’s a testament to how quickly we now digest content, and how effectively we’ve been trained to to pioneer whatever comes next.