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What is TikTok, how historically significant is the popular app, and—most importantly—should museums be collecting TikToks? Emily Coulthard investigates.

A friend sends you a video of someone you don’t know completing a skincare routine—but the screen is split vertically down the middle, with a certified dermatologist on the other half nodding along. Captions hover over the image while a well-known pop song plays in the background, and the whole time a vibrating watermark pulsates over the content. You have just been sent a TikTok.

But what is ‘TikTok’? How historically significant is this popular app? And, most importantly, should museums be collecting them?

The last year or so has seen us adopt many changes to our routine: working from home, staying in on a Friday, and, if you’re like me, scrolling through TikTok for at least three hours every night. If you’ve managed to escape being sent ten videos a day by friends and family until you eventually give in and download the app, you deserve both a medal and an explanation.

TikTok is an incredibly popular video app that lets users create and share videos up to a minute long (known as TikToks). TikTok (or Douyin in China) was created by the Chinese company Bytedance and was made available worldwide in 2018 after merging with another popular Chinese social media service, Muscial.ly. The app not only allows you to create videos using filters and music, but also to ‘stitch’ other users’ videos.

As of April 2021, there are over 689 million TikTok users worldwide. The total doesn’t just include individual users and personal accounts—companies such as the airline Ryanair and smoothie brand Innocent have joined TikTok, making popular content and gaining thousands of followers. Many museums have also embraced TikTok, creating historical and site-specific content. Since joining in August 2020, the Black Country Museum in Dudley has swiftly gained hundreds of thousands of followers for its content, which combines TikTok trends with historical references.

@blackcountrymuseumtheir style is ✨immaculate✨ #fyp #streetfashion #vintage #foryou #blackcountry #dudley #blackcountrylivingmuseum♬ How You Like That – BLACKPINK

Black Country Museum on TikTok, Chinese Street Fashion (Part 1). Credit: Black Country Museum

So, are TikToks an important example of social media museums should collect? Do they have value as a historical source? And if so, how so?

I caught up with Arran Rees, PhD researcher on all things museums, memes, and social media collecting, to see if he can answer our burning questions…

How important is TikTok as a form of social media?

Arran: TikTok is really interesting as there is a history to this video form of social media, such as Vine. Vine revolutionised this 6-second video format, mainly focusing on comedy edits with short snappy video editing, and this content mostly moved over to TikTok which expanded on this content and added lots of different features. My research looks specifically at memes (spreadable media which then gets remixed) and TikTok is essentially video meme.

[TikTok] is rapidly becoming the biggest social media platform, bar Facebook, and being able to capture that early creativity is vitally important as [TikTok] is a new entryway into social media for a lot of people.

So TikTok is an important social media platform—but do you think the videos have value as a historical source?

As historical sources, there are two strong social and technology elements to the value of TikToks.

TikToks are a form of creativity. There is a whole new generation who are using TikTok to explore different methods of responding to the culture around them, like humour and art. In terms of creativity, the value as a historical source is there.

If we are thinking in terms of technology, the way that TikTok can work is intriguing. For instance, how you can quote video and replay videos on top of one another—we have essentially moved from pasting images on top of each other to pasting videos on top of each other. It is a development in the use of media which has links with cutting and pasting physical film and with long-form video editing, yet this is the most accessible format we have seen it in.

TikTok is like a democratisation of short form video creation. It is an app which has a simple user interface that allows you to experiment with really creative forms of video editing.

@museumoflondonUgh, remember not to pick up any 0121 numbers again @blackcountrymuseum ##museum ##fyp ##history ##duet♬ original sound – Jae

Museum of London stitches video with Black Country Museum. Credit: Museum of London

Do you think the content or format is the most important aspect of a TikTok, and is one more important than the other to collect and preserve?

This is one of the points I keep coming back to in my PhD and it really depends upon the museum who is collecting the TikTok. Format and content are equally valuable, but the museum’s collecting policy will determine whether or not the TikTok is worth collecting and whether or not the format or the content is the most important.

For example, if you are a museum of medicine you may find that the editing style of a TikTok posted by a medical professional is not as important as the content where a doctor or dentist shares their knowledge. The format is an interesting supplement to the narrative, as part of the object’s story is that TikTok has allowed a more accessible way for doctors to talk about medicine, but it is not the main reason for collecting.

However, to a museum of technology, such as the National Science and Media Museum, it may well be that the content of a TikTok is a supplement to the important narrative of technological advancement.

Say you are a museum and have found a TikTok you would like to collect—can that TikTok have value out of the context of social media (e.g., removed from the context of comments, further edits, video stitches etc.)?

I would argue that removing a TikTok from the original context does reduce the overall value.

The content can stand on its own but if what you are trying to represent is the form of social media, then some value is lost. For instance, I have conducted research on collecting memes from Twitter and if you just collect the image, then you are not capturing what it means to interact with a meme on Twitter. You miss the comical replies and ‘re-memeing’, which is what makes the experience interesting.

So, if you need the context of a TikTok to ensure you have recorded the social media experience, then how would you capture that?

There are many ways you can do this; one such method is using the tool Webrecorder. The tool creates a web archive which is interactable. You capture all the links and comments on the original post and then Webrecorder recreates the interface and environment. Artificial boundaries are created around an internet browsing experience that you can then replay and interact with in any direction, as long as you have recorded it during the capture session.

Platforms on social media are always changing their look: for instance, the Instagram interface from five years ago would be very different to how it looks now, and the interface will keep on changing. It’s the same with TikTok; new features will be added as they try and keep up with emerging platforms.

So, when collecting posts in context, museums have to be transparent and clearly say this is a snapshot of the post at this time. They cannot control the original post or own it properly, and outside of the organisation the post may continue to evolve.

If you had to collect a TikTok right now, what type would be important to collect in your opinion?

It would be interesting to do a wide-ranging capture of around fifty TikToks that are creating new genres in video formatting, like comedy animals, magic tricks, transitions, emerging categories of video meme, and collect one of each to show and describe what that is.

If I were a museum, I would collect a TikTok as a starting point and then put it out to the public and say, we are going to do this again in six months’ time, which direction should we go in?


@metmuseumPresenting William: An adorable Egyptian hippo made ca. 1961–1878 B.C.—and The Met’s unofficial mascot. Learn more about him on #WorldHippoDay 🦛✨♬ original sound – The Met

The Met presents ‘William’, demonstrating the editing capabilities of TikTok. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the last few years, more and more museums have become aware that social media collecting is incredibly important and is something they should be doing despite challenges like digital preservation and ethical concerns. This has been exacerbated by the pandemic where, with the restriction on physical meetings, social media is a major form of communication and how people choose to express themselves.

It is clear both the content and the technological form of TikToks do have value as a historical source, and thanks to developments in technology and researchers like Arran, collecting not only the content but the experience of using the platform is possible.

Potentially in the future there may be a ‘Museum of Social Media’ consisting mostly of digital-born objects and interactive web archives. However, until that glorious day, only one question remains: Which TikTok should we collect first?

Huge thanks to Arran Rees for giving up his time for me to pick his brain.

Further reading and viewing

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