Trendspotting with Tall Neil of ‘shoppy shop’ fame
“It took me a while to figure out that most people aren't listening.”
Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, written by Kate Lindsay and edited by Nick Catucci.
We don’t touch on it in the interview, but as a public service I would like to share Neil’s video about how to get the usernames you want from people who are squatting on them. — Kate
Get the trends I’m too scared to make TikTok videos about:
As a culture writer, scrolling TikTok feels a little bit like a cheat code. I lay on my couch, barely lifting a finger (literally), watching trends unfold in real time on my For You page. The app even includes its own cultural commentators who name and analyze the cultural moments users are in the midst of, maybe unknowingly. In many ways, it’s the job of a journalist, reinvented for the video media generation.
Neil Shankar, who goes by Tall Neil on TikTok, doesn’t identify as a reporter or writer, but we do many of the same things, which is why we initially connected over Twitter DM. He’s coined “Shoppy Shop,” a term, later written up by Grub Street, for all those cute, expensive stores that sell tinned fish and fancy olive oil. As someone on the other side of that equation—a reporter who wrote up the “millennial pause” after @nisipisa coined it—I quickly realized we had a lot to talk about.
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We hopped on Zoom to chat about trends on TikTok, and the ensuing conversation has become one of my favorites. We talk digital versus physical identities, media literacy on the internet, and engaging with online feedback. Neil has a lot of great insight to share for anyone in the writing, culture, or digital trends space—or anyone who has simply been told to touch grass.
How would you describe the content you make on TikTok?
Starting with the hard questions. I think it's easier for niche creators to answer this question, cause it’s like “I make cooking videos.” But for me, it started with kind of broad discussions of branding, marketing, direct-to-consumer, and the CPG [Consumer Packaged Goods] industry. Like, what's happening with fun snacks and fun brands and why do they all look the same, that kind of thing. Now I would just broadly call myself a content creator in the brand space. And most of my followers I think at this point know that. There was some early confusion where ... I mean, one of my early hit videos was about dupes. And then for months afterward I was getting comments like, “What does this have to do with dupes?” And it's like, that's not just what I talk about.
That's such a TikTok thing. I don't think there’s anywhere else that you would follow someone and then be like, why am I not getting the exact same thing again?
Exactly. Like, “You’re the dupes guy.”
I think a lot of us use technology and social media—and I would put myself in this category—very passively. The algorithm serves us content, we get whatever the new iPhone is, that kind of thing. But you seem to have a very proactive relationship with tech. How did that come about?
It reminds me of when Reply All started—I think their tagline was “A podcast about the internet.” And they would talk about it on the show, PJ and Alex, they would be like, it’s a really bad categorization ‘cause the internet is everything. And I feel that way. My TikTok is sometimes just talking about the internet very broadly, but I do feel that way. I put an extra amount of attention into whatever I do online. Like going back now a year or two, when the concept of a Metaverse started getting talked about before Facebook co-opted it, it was being discussed in digital spaces from a critical way of like, we have our physical selves and our digital selves. And when I first read about that, I was like, “Oh yeah, I totally have a digital self.” I'm Neil Shankar in real life, but I'm totally Tall Neil online.
In terms of having those two distinct selves, is the pandemic responsible for that? Or do you think it’s something that would exist regardless as technology became more integrated in our lives?
The pandemic probably accelerated a lot of it. I mean, the fact that we're on a Zoom call right now and that just feels normal is ... I think there's a world where this wouldn't feel normal and it’s like, “What do I do with my hands?” But I would say the pandemic probably accelerated it. It definitely did for me. Like my screen time obviously shot way up. I was aware of TikTok before the pandemic, but I never started using it until March of 2020. And at that point it was like a totally different ballgame. It was like dances.
I was just having a discussion with someone about how in the pandemic and, even just on Zoom, you're confronted with yourself more than you are in real life. And so I think that made me hyperconscious about how I portrayed myself online in a way that I'm not about how I present myself in real life. I felt like my relationship with myself really changed. Is that something you grapple with?
That’s something that I think about a lot. There was probably a point around this time last year where those realities started to converge, where I started getting recognized in real life as the guy from TikTok for the first time. That was definitely a big, I would say, inflection point in just the way that I process my real self and my digital self, and they had never collided before. The only way that I would say it had collided prior is going all the way back to when I first started using social media, which was like Facebook. I had friends who I was cool with in real life, but I hated the way that they posted on Facebook.
That’s a huge thing I run into. I've written a little bit about it, but I have friends who I love and who I’ve muted online because their performance and the way that they express themselves on the internet ... to me, I couldn't square it with the person I knew.
I think that’s fine. I mean there are people who you follow online who obviously that’s your only touchpoint with them, but with friends, you have all of these other ways that you stay connected with them. You don’t have to get that tweet from them. Like, you’ll get it in other ways.
Conversely, I follow a lot of people and I enjoy their content but I don't think we would be friends.
Well it’s a lot easier to follow someone than to actually be friends with them, but also just the scale of it. My girlfriend makes filters, like TikTok filters, and we were at a bar with her uncle and we were telling him just how many millions of people have used and seen these filters. And he just held up his hand like this [Neil holds up four fingers]. We were like, “Four. What’s that?” And he's like, “When I was at school I had four friends.” And now the concept of a follower exists and what does that mean for your actual life?
We connected initially talking about this idea of trends, but also how to go about translating them. I’ve mentioned that my ethos is just, two is a trend. Because if you wait till three you’re too late. But I'm curious in terms of your content, especially because you have such a nebulous brand, how do you go about sourcing things like “shoppy shop”?
That threshold of when to identify something as a trend I think is important, and because it’s TikTok I think it will always go past two. It might not always go viral, but it’ll always go past two. The shoppy shop thing is interesting ‘cause I'm happy about the way that it progressed, but it wasn’t the original motivation. The motivation was about how to find shops like that, it was almost a tutorial kind of video. But what stuck was the name. And it’s always a little weird when the thing that people are clinging to is not what I wanted people to cling to. It almost feels like a failure in a way. ‘Cause it's like, “Oh, why did I not know that that's the reason that this would become popular?” But I think about that in the context of the millennial pause, too. It’s like, is it the behavior that people are clinging to or is it the name and being able to point to it?
I’ve found that when I point out a trend on TikTok, because I’m putting my face to something, what viewers get from it is—it's me. I'm doing the trend. Because the big reaction to the millennial pause was like, “Why are you making fun of millennials?” And it's like, “I’m not. I’m telling you that people are.” I made a more recent TikTok about how humans are being accused of being AI and I cited some examples from TikTok of people who I'd interviewed, and so many of the comments were like, “Why would you think they were robots?” And it's like, “I don’t. I literally interviewed them.” But I'm like, why does this keep happening?
It happens on a number of levels. I saw [a video] yesterday or the day before where, so apparently Coke, like Coca-Cola, is doing a partnership with Rosalía and they have pink cans. This girl was in Walmart or something and she was talking about the brand strategy of like, “Ooh, look at this cool Coke partnership” and what this means for the Coke brand. And it has millions of views. And I’m thinking, “I don’t know if she knows that nobody’s listening because 95% of people watching this are like, ‘Ooh, pink can.’” And it took me a while to figure that out too, that most people aren't listening. They don't care what I have to say about brand strategy.
They’re just like, Sweetgreen doesn't have bowls, or whatever.
Yeah. So now I try to do a little bit of both where it's almost like the second half is optional. Like you can keep listening if you want to. I mean I did a video on Jessica Hische, who’s a logo designer. She redesigned a number of logos and I did kind of a technical design video on her redesigns. And it was a very serious—I mean, not very serious, but there were no jokes in the video. And there were a lot of comments like, “Is this satire?” I'm like, what gave you the impression that it is satire?
How much do you participate in a discussion with those comments? Because I used to, and then honestly after the millennial pause, I don’t engage because that was just so overwhelming.
Basically not at all. I go back and forth on this. I don't really engage with comments much at all. Like even positive ones. I always find it’s a turn-off. Almost every video, I at least glance at the comments and it's always a turn-off to me when the creator’s in there just pumping the numbers. And I also feel like when I'm going to the comments, I wanna see what people think about the video and get their reactions and I already know what the creator thinks. I don’t need to hear more from the creator. So I kind of let my comment space just be a place where people can give their opinions and I’ll just stay out of it. Even if there’s negative comments, I don’t want to accidentally amplify it so I just leave it alone.
That's how I kind of view it. I'm like, “All right, I've made the video. This is what you're getting from me, and then you guys can talk about it.” For millennial pause, so many commenters were like, “You need to make a response video.” And it was really tricky because it was like, I agree with some of this feedback and I want to talk about it and I want to acknowledge it, but there’s so many ways that I could accidentally open up a next phase of discourse about this that I don't want in terms of my own sanity.
I've had my fair share of things where I really wanted to make a response to it. There was one time that I actually went live. I needed an outlet and I didn't want to save to TikTok. You totally just open yourself up for more unpleasant comments. I've watched so many, over the years, YouTube creators do apology videos and response videos and like, has it ever made anything better?
There's a very specific way that content is consumed on the internet that now journalism is colliding with. And there’s just some growing pains and learning curves for both sides. In terms of how to package something for a TikTok, when I'm sharing an article I wrote, I have to really just pick the key things from it. So how do you go about figuring out what is important to say?
I've tried to give myself criteria, but it mostly ends up being things that I’m curious about and that I think my audience will be curious about too. Before I was posting on TikTok, I was taking whatever observations and thoughts that I had and just trying to put them elsewhere. What I would now create as a TikTok video because I have this outlet maybe before I would try to turn it into a Twitter thread or post it on Medium or put it on Reddit. So I still try to think of it that way. If I post this on TikTok, are people going to care or is this just something that I need to get off my chest because I have a busy mind and I need an outlet for things?
We’re so conditioned, especially on TikTok, to create content in pursuit of something. But yours is more like, you just need an outlet for these thoughts. Do you have any grander hopes for what TikTok could be for you?
I think that that's probably the best way of summing it up, is that it is an outlet and it started as an outlet. I think a lot of creators get into it because they want to serve their audience in a way. And it’s all about the numbers and growing their audience and responding to audience feedback. And while I do care about those things, I also care about pursuing my own curiosities, which is where the whole impetus came from. I've also gotten that feedback a lot on videos, that don't really have a strong thesis, that it’s just a collection of notes and sprawling thoughts. I did one video, this was like almost a year ago now, on spirulina. The point of the video was like, “Brands are obsessed with spirulina and these new cereal brands have spirulina cereal and spirulina kombucha and all these things.” But the way I started the video was like, “Let's talk about spirulina.” And all the comments were like, “You didn't tell me anything about spirulina.” I was just talking around spirulina. ‘Cause that’s kinda how I treat the outlet. I was like, I just looked at a hundred tabs of spirulina and so now I wanna talk about it.
I have to make that productive somehow.
Exactly. I need to justify the hour I just spent.
I love Neil's Tiktoks! Very cool to see this conversation here. Cheers!!