Since launching in the U.S. in 2018, TikTok has cemented itself in viral culture. It has given birth to dance crazes, popular catchphrases and food trends. It has also jump-started the careers of a generation of young influencers.
Now, TikTok is being embraced by a new group of internet wizards: memers.
Multiplatform meme brands like @Daquan, @Betch and @Memezar have begun investing heavily in TikTok in recent months. They’ve already amassed millions of followers, surpassing many influencers. Midlevel independent Instagram memers, many who create memes in specific genres such as gaming, are also pivoting toward TikTok. And more teens are using the platform to build meme brands from the ground up.
“I can’t overstate just how much TikTok has taken hold in the meme space,” said Don Caldwell, the editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme, a website that documents memes. “A lot of people associate TikTok with Charli D’Amelio and these dance trends. It’s actually a platform where all kinds of viral content can proliferate and thrive.”
Memers act as small media companies that reshare trending videos, images and jokes in order to amass large audiences on social platforms, which they monetize by selling products or posting ads.
“TikTok was very individual-focused for so long, but people are finding other ways to aggregate and grow now,” said Samir Mezrahi, the founder of @KaleSalad, a meme media brand. “The amount of growth you get on TikTok from one viral video is so much compared to other platforms, it compels more people to start these meme accounts.”
Growing fast can involve shady behavior. Meme pages have been notorious for their scrappy nature and dubious growth hacks on Instagram and YouTube, and many have begun replicating that on TikTok.
Meme accounts can be found in the comment sections of popular TikTok stars’ videos posting things like “follow for follow” or “follow for a big reveal.” Many also grow by starting off as joke pages, designed to troll users who ask for the handles of women featured in videos.
“Let’s say there’s a TikTok account that posted a video of a girl dancing. Everyone in the comments is like, ‘She’s so hot, what’s her @?’” said Graham Heavenrich, founder of Cowbelly Studios, a meme publishing company. “People will be like, ‘Oh it’s this,’ and tag one of those meme pages. Then they click it and it’s like it’s like, ‘psych.’”
There is a point in every social media platform’s life when it is forced to grapple with the community of memers bending the limits of the platform to go viral. Most platforms have responded by banning them.
Twitter deactivated a slew of high-profile meme accounts in 2018. YouTube regularly issues copyright strikes to accounts that repost videos they don’t own. Instagram, after deactivating several waves of meme accounts, attempted to repair its relationship with the meme community earlier this year by hiring its first partnerships manager to work specifically with memers.
TikTok, however, has shown a willingness to work with the community. “I have a rep at TikTok already who helps me with things,” said Sal Patel, a meme account administrator. “They helped me get the username @Betch; they helped me attach my YouTube channel. The support at Instagram isn’t as good.”
While memers are notorious for failing to give credit, many large meme brands on TikTok say they work with licensing companies or reach out to creators to ensure they have the right to reshare content to the app.
They’re also using the platform’s design to their advantage. While most meme pages simply post viral videos and mashups, some intersperse YouTube style commentary or feature innovative formats. A current trend in the teenage TikTok meme world is to use the app’s profile layout to create a giant image out of several videos.
“People are recognizing they can use the layout of how TikTok shows content to make these giant photos, and people are getting super-creative with it,” Heavenrich said. Some TikTok users are even creating giant memes across their grids.
Joey Ruben, 17, ran several Instagram meme accounts, but since quarantine began, he has refocused all of his energy on TikTok. He currently runs @Funny, with 1.1 million followers and @Gods, with 530,000 followers.
“I find videos off YouTube, Insta and Twitter. I usually download the video to my camera roll and repost it with credit,” he said. “In the beginning of 2020, that’s when I started to see meme content rise on the app. Now, I’ve noticed everyone is posting memes. Half of my For You page is reposted content as opposed to people making their own content.”
A viral media brand called @PizzaSlime has amassed more than 712,000 followers on TikTok posting the way they feel many users do: sharing a mix of funny videos, images and sometimes their own creations.
“I don’t necessarily know if it will or won’t work, but it reminds me of the early days of Instagram where everyone is just figuring it out,” said Nicholas Santiago, a co-founder of PizzaSlime who is known online as Stove. “I don’t think in the beginning of Instagram we knew that the influencer was going to be what it’s going to be today, and that’s what excites us about TikTok. Right now it’s just very free and open.”
Caldwell of Know Your Meme said that the dancing Ghanaian pallbearers meme that went viral on TikTok in April is a good example of how the platform is evolving. TikTok users began appending clips of the dapper pallbearers to create “fail” videos. For instance, a video of a girl sending a text message and getting no response cuts to the pallbearers. “That meme had much of its early spread on TikTok by smaller meme accounts that dedicate themselves to posting remix and joke videos,” said Caldwell. “This is something the platform has proved to be good at.”
Most meme accounts on TikTok aren’t monetizing yet. But as they continue to share a deluge of messy, reposted and remixed content, they are slowly changing the nature of the platform. Especially for younger users, TikTok is no longer synonymous with dance challenges and skits; it’s where they go to consume news, commentary and the most viral videos on the internet. And teenagers hope to dominate this new landscape.
“There’s a new generation of people who see TikTok as an opportunity to get their start,” Ruben said. He considers himself part of that class and has already started his own company, Bull Media.
“My goal is to build a large media company across all platforms,” Ruben said. “We’ll not only have our own brand partnership deals, but we’ll work with a bunch of influencers. On TikTok, there’s so many influencers with no idea how to run ads. I want to help young kids profit. I want them to make money off their platform.”