What is Ownership on TikTok?

An introduction to the TikTok platform, and a case study in how the modern video sharing platform views ownership

wow this bload up

In between my last post about TikTok and this post about TikTok, I had another one of my short films blow up, this one about the fact that a lot of people think I look like one of the children from Stranger Things. The joke there is that I pick the one whom I think I resemble the least, which is the kid who comes from a different racial background from myself. The second joke there is that I subvert expectations and I state that I do resemble him, despite the fact that I do not.

This is a simple joke befitting the platform, all of which works in about a ten second video format. I’m not super-proud of it, like it’s not going on any resumé or sizzle reel or anything, but it was a decent joke and the TikTok public apparently really liked it. At time of writing it has somewhere in the range of 82k views, 14k likes, and 173 comments. Many of those are people playing along with the joke, many of them are people telling me I look like an assortment of other people, and many of them are people telling me that another person used my video without directly crediting me and rose to much higher successes than I did.

For the uninitiated, TikTok originally flourished as a lip-sync video sharing platform known as Musical.ly back in 2017. The residue from the app’s lip-syncing roots is present everywhere. Built into the TikTok video editor is the option for users to add background music to their videos. The audio from videos which don’t use background music gets added to a repository of background audios from which others can build. There’s also the ability to “duet”, wherein a user puts another user’s TikTok video on half of the screen and does their own thing, like, singing along or dancing or something on the other half. It’s weird if I try to explain it but if you watch a compilation video it becomes pretty simple to understand.

Anyway, I think the most interesting thing about this is the fact that the recyclability of audios and the duet feature, which were implemented for the purpose of creating engaging lip-sync videos, have been a boon for TikTok’s comedy as well. A lot of this rises from subversion of the expectations of established uses of the platform’s mechanics – Duetters might act out roles that the original poster didn’t expect, lip-sync to auxiliary background audio, that sort of thing. It’s why so many TikTok compilations on YouTube feature the word “Ironic” or “Trolls” somewhere in the title. Of course there’s also a lot of the typical variation on a comedic theme which you see all over the place in modern internet meme culture (the sort of thing that sprung up around Valee’s “Womp Womp”)

Now, it’s not like this wasn’t around on Vine, Instagram, or YouTube beforehand, but none of those apps built the adaptation and reuse of others’ videos and audio so explicitly into the app. Back on Vine, the process of using someone else’s video was arduous, one had to download a Vine from a third party, edit the video in a third party editor, and then upload the new video back to Vine. On TikTok, it’s as simple as choosing an audio from a list of favorites and filming your own take on it.

Effectively, the fact that building upon the works of others is an explicit function of the TikTok application changes the idea of authorship on the TikTok platform from the understanding of authorship on other social media sites. This brings me back to the video which caused some controversy in the comments of my video which I mentioned earlier:

What this girl, who goes by beep.beeplettuce did was a pretty common thing on the platform. People duet others’ videos with their own reaction to them. However, I think there was something odd here in the fact that TikTok’s algorithm or whatever pushed her video to more people than the original. It’s not hard to find mine from there (videos which use the same audio sample are always grouped together), but the video of her reacting and my original serve basically the same purpose, so a significant chunk of people probably felt no need to track down the original. Comparably, her video received about 25,000 more likes than mine did.

Here in the story is where I find it necessary to say this:
I am not upset about this. I do not really care about whether or not I got all the TikTok stats for this. Please don’t put it in the newspaper that I got mad about this. ‘Likes’ or ‘clout’ or whatever on any social platform are ultimately like, pretend currency. Like MeowMeowBeanz or Itchy and Scratchy Money. I get as confused when people get upset on my behalf that this girl got more TikTok likes than I did as I did when people accuse others of chasing upvotes on Reddit. It is a value system on a niche website of which most people have a vague understanding at best.

People do not respect me any more for having a significant number of likes and views on TikTok. In fact, I assume that most people respect me significantly less, and they’re absolutely right to do so. If I were to get upset that someone got more points than me via a pretend internet value system, it would be an incredibly shameful thing, and I apparently still have a sense of shame. Less shame than I did before I began posting on TikTok, but some shame still. Also, I have had jokes stolen before, and I have put far more effort into far funnier things before, the majority of which did not see even a sliver of the audience that my eight second video where I pretend to think I look like Caleb McLaughlin did.


The last guy is partially mistaken, as she did tag me in a comment

Anyway. The above is a sample of the comments upon the video of the person who made a duet of mine. Many other comments reflect this same mindset. The TikTok commentariat has spoken, and they disapprove with her video seeing as much success as it did, seemingly because of the perceived low effort which went into her video.

This is kind of the most interesting thing about this to me – The commenters are not upset that she used my video or my joke. That is an expectation of the platform – jokes and videos are open game. This is not quite like prior instances where video sharing site users would get criticized for ‘stealing’ videos – A user named Piques, on Vine, was disdained by people because the heavy comedic lifting in his Vines was done via clips he’d taken from other videos. Instagram user scotterly got shit because he’d basically act out Vines in his own voice A YouTube guy named Jinx was routinely made fun of because his videos were, basically, him watching a video and loosely commentating it, effectively putting others’ videos on his channel.


But on TikTok, it’s a little different. The problem that people seem to have was not with the idea that the video was “stolen”, because it clearly wasn’t – It’s my voice, my face, my video, featured prominently in her video, and it takes two taps on the screen to reach my video if one so chooses. It seems that they’re upset because she wasn’t transformative enough for their liking and she didn’t declare my authorship directly in the video description. This is an effort judgement, not a judgement of theft.

This is fascinating to me as a one-time child of early YouTube communities, where the harsh punishments for the use of copyrighted material led people to shirk using anything that wasn’t specifically theirs. Even Vine back when it was around had a community of creators who specifically took note of when Vine jokes and ideas were used by others. The TikTok community’s expectation that a creation will be riffed upon, redone, lip-synced over, et cetera, et cetera, runs counter to the expectations of prior video sharing communities.

So, effectively, the TikTok community has diminished the role of original authorship in favor of the authorship of the adaptor. This is atypical, kind of weird, and part of the reason why I keep coming back to the app. It really reminds me of that highly creative and adaptive period of YouTube Poop from like 2007-2011, or YTMND during its best years. Joke structures arise over the course of one video and a couple of duets, and they blow up into these hilarious and varied comedic ecologies. It all moves so quickly, but when you catch on to a wave, it’s a great ride.

This does kind of diminish the role of influential TikTok creators, though. Since TikTok is barely two years old at this point, we’ll have to wait and see if any successful people flourish out of the app. People like electrolemon, Connor O’Malley, and Gabe Gundacker made it out to bigger and better things from their success on Vine. Time will tell if that stunted idea of authorship diminishes the role of successful TikTok comedians.

As it stands, dumb motherfuckers like myself sometimes get a day in the sun on this app. It reflects that Warhol quote. It is very weird to think, though, that like 40,000 people saw and laughed at my joke without even looking at my name attached to it. It’s strange, as I am both an author and a mere vessel for comedy to them. At the same time, I am a creator, and yet to many of them, I am nothing.

In conclusion… This Clout Shit is Funny

This Clout Shit is Funny

Jesus that turned out longer than I though it could. Anyway, here’s the Facebook, the Twitter, the Ko-Fi, and I guess here is the TikTok. If you do not respect me because of my TikTok use, I completely understand

About Joe Bush

The guy behind JoeBush.net and a lot of other things
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