Sometime in the first half of 2019, if memory serves, a horrible new trend took over Twitter: the prompts. The prompts are terrible, I hate them so much. The prompts are slightly elaborate phrasings of mundane questions. Instead of, "What is a thing you know a lot about?", people who desperately want empty engagement ask stuff like, “A reputable university asks you to teach a class starting tomorrow. You get paid $1 million a year, but you have to be an expert. What can you teach?” It’s very tedious.
One of the worst prompts I’ve seen recently is “reply w a baby pic that exudes the energy you have now” and it’s just people posting baby pics. Yeah, I would hope that someone posting a younger version of their own face might have some aesthetic consistency. It’s the same face! Yeesh.
Prompt Twitter is a perpetual motion machine of everyone asking everyone else to smell each others' farts. The obvious allure of it is that all parties gets what they want out of it. The prompter gets to seem authentic and interested in their audience (they are not) and the promptee gets permission to make the conversation all about themselves – “I wasn’t going to say it but someone asked!” Twitter famously prompts users with a generic “What’s happening?” but its users pick up the slack by creating specific activities for each other.
I guess what bugs me about Prompt Twitter is the brazen way in which it happens. Most memes require at least a bit of creativity, shoehorning a normal thought or story into an odd rhetorical device. Imagine how much more fun it is to parse a Drake No/Drake Yes image macro instead of just reading someone’s answer to “What’s a thing you prefer over something else?” With prompts, there’s no creative work. It’s just answering a question.
Understanding the dynamics of Prompt Twitter is useful as a way of understanding TikTok, which is not an engine for original video content as much as it is Prompt Twitter on steroids. The structure of TikTok is that users can take audio from another post, and lay it under their own footage. This means that most videos using the same audio have the same visual structure, format, and objective, as well.
Scroll through the For You page enough times and it becomes easy to make some clear assumptions about how its algorithmic recommendations works. Like a post and you’ll see more from that user, or the soundbite they’re using. Click on a soundbite and you’ll see more that use the sound. Eventually, you’ll become well acquainted with these sounds after hearing them over and over again, all used in the same way.
I’m rambling, so let me use an example. There’s a popular sound on TikTok taken from a Disney Channel movie, and people use it to make videos about medical mishaps they’ve had. Every time I hear that sound start playing, I immediately flip to the next thing because I know that if I don’t, I’ll waste a minute of my precious life hearing about some random person tell an underwhelming, drawn-out story about their trip to the hospital.
But is this format a meme? I guess, but something feels off. It feels more like Prompt Twitter than like a standard meme; more like users answering a question posed by someone else than trying to make a free-standing statement. It feels less like users playing around with form and more like users doing the same thing as everyone else because that’s what the platform rewards.
The more compelling aspect of TikTok, to my mind, is not any of these individual sounds – which quickly grow stale once everyone starts using them for the same ends – but how users play them off each other.
Consider the TikToks set to Coldplay’s “Paradise,” which users lay under their videos to depict cute stories. They start out with a text message conversation, and then cut to a bunch of photos of happy people. Sure, fine.
Eventually, once you hear “Paradise” enough times, you develop expectations. The best experiences I’ve had flipping through TikTok play on those expectations. I hear Paradise, and yet the text messages depicted on-screen are not cutesy. Something’s off. As the clip proceeds, instead of “Paradise” continuing into its swelling chorus, the track abruptly cuts to Drake’s “Marvin’s Room” as some very funny pictures appear on-screen. Now this is good content.
It’s this aspect of TikTok is the most compelling to me, seeing how people use trending sounds to mess with expectations rather than play into them. There’s not really a good way to subvert Prompt Twitter, because it’s impossible to change the prompt. But on TikTok, the emphasis on sound gives users the ability to flip the script halfway through or add motifs people are already familiar with. That’s more interesting than any singular trend.
hey, I need a new Winamp skin and I was wondering which you’d prefer
or Nelly Furtado?
Let me know in the comments!
YouTube getting rid of its crowdsourced captioning system seems bad and dumb, imo
thinking about the scooby-doo blog that Tumblr repeatedly flagged as porn
an extended Facebook discussion about pirates and privateers kicked off by… a Gavin meme?
extremely troubling that people are now talking about “being on the internet since 2007”