Where cultural trends start: how ideas born on TikTok spread through mainstream culture

TikTok: trends spread to other social platforms quickly
TikTok: trends spread to other social platforms quickly

Trends that kick off on TikTok quickly spread to other social platforms but marketers must take note of how the preferences of different communities vary.

From dance moves to viral dinners (baked feta pasta, we’re looking at you), ideas born on TikTok are travelling out of the platform and filtering into the mainstream.

Brands have been taking note of this and TikTok recently joined Google, Facebook, Alibaba and Amazon as one of the five companies accounting for nearly half the world’s advertising revenue.

It’s clear why. TikTok was the most downloaded app in 2020 and is topping the charts in 2021. The channel has the power to grow an idea and catapult it into the mainstream, whether it be a product or a trend.

Maybelline experienced this first hand when its Sky High mascara went viral on TikTok, becoming a bestseller on Amazon and selling out across beauty sites. Everything from investing to autonomous cars to recruitment has generated its own TikTok-native subculture, with thriving audiences.

Inception tends to happen in one of two ways: top down or bottom-up. Take the top-down initiative #LearnonTikTok, a space for TikTok educational creators to help diversify the content on the platform.

Thanks to TikTok’s initiative, the hashtag took on a life of its own, resulting in a crowd-sourced syllabus of all the topics TikTokers want to learn about: from medical and science (the joint most popular topics, according to our research) to cooking, workout, finance and more.


I’M BACK!!! �� #math #hack #MyHobby #algebra #learnontiktok #tiktokpartner

♬ Aesthetic Girl - Yusei

Fandoms can also come together to bring a trend or subculture to life, best evidenced by the #BookTok phenomenon. To date, videos created under the hashtag have received 18.1 billion views, with content ranging from reviews, recommendations, readings, comedic skits and more.

And sales of books have surged right alongside it, with fiction sales (young adult is the dominant genre for content on TikTok) rising 21.4% in 2020. Book publishers and budding authors have been quick to captalise on the rapidly growing trend, releasing content through the platform and helping to shape conversation.


anyone else try to act out the dialogue when they read?? (ib: @dustreads ) #booktok #yafantasy #reading #shadowandbone #kristiesbooks

♬ No Roots - Alice Merton

Individual creators can also launch trends into the limelight by embracing TikTok’s format and the predilections of its audience. Take the AirPod Shotty meme as an example of what happens at the intersection of TikTok, virtual influencers, gaming, luxury, brand advertising and a brand itself.

Virtual influencer fnmeka created a mixed-reality video in which he fires an AirPod-case-meets-shotgun – complete with individual AirPod bullets – at a survivor from the wildly popular game Among Us, decked out in Louis Vuitton.

This video has racked up 99.3 million views, nine million likes and 60,000 comments since last November. It’s a great example of how brands can be adopted by users in ways that stretch far beyond what marketers think is possible.


Found the suspect ��. I’m gonna use my apods on this dude. #amongus #airpods #suspect

♬ AirPods Shotty - FNMeka

To Twitter and beyond

So what happens once a trend has become fully fledged on TikTok?

Let’s look first at BookTok. The conversation that was born on TikTok has moved downstream to Twitter, and an older user base that’s quick to both support and critique the nascent community.

It’s interesting to note how little actual TikTok content is resposted on Twitter, with only 3% of all BookTok-aligned tweets containing videos. The move across platforms gives authors and creators new ways of interacting with deeply familiar topics on their own terms and can be welcoming to brands, as long as they understand and appreciate how different social communities are approaching a trend.

Let’s also revisit AirPod Shotty for evidence of just how quickly hit memes can evolve. A remix meme bringing together different parts of culture, like Airpod Shotty, is a natural fit for these kinds of evolutions – especially since it’s native to TikTok, where the Duet functionality encourages users to build on viral videos by weaving them into their own reports.

Airpod Shotty mutated and penetrated different layers of culture in just a few months, after spreading rapidly across platforms in the first day of its creation. It’s an example of just how deeply a trend can resonate with certain communities, on different platforms and how receptive users are to inserting memes into different subcultures and media types – if they strike the right chord.

Below you can see the progression of the AirPod Shotty meme across social channels, represented by the features of Soundcloud-rapper-cum-cyborg fnmeka.

For marketers, TikTok holds huge amounts of potential to reach an engaged and creative user base. However, it is vital that brands understand just how trends and content are thriving in their subcultures and audiences are evolving across platforms, in order to create content that resonates and complements, rather than awkwardly sticks out. Not everything can be AirPod Shotty, but for those willing to take creative risks, the rewards are many.

Alex Bryson is content lead at Pulsar Platform


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