why TikTok’s next big idea is hiding in plain sight
You are cordially invited to this week’s brew of High Tea, your dispatch of 🔥 internet culture served piping hot. This week: why TikTok comments remain without rivals in the battle of the platforms.
On TikTok, time stops for no one. The intoxicating pull of the FYP transforms an innocent “I’ll just take a quick look”, into holding the weight of the platform’s creators (and their delicious storytelling) onto an iPhone-indented pinky finger…at 2am.
But if you get your TikTok fix via IG meme pages or repurposed Reels (worthy of jail time tbh,) there’s one specific draw of 2021’s most downloaded app that is easily missed: the comments. Real ones know that once the dust of TikTok’s pandemic popularity had settled, the true joy of the platform was not front and centre, but lurking behind the veil of its comments section. TL;DR Come for the content, stay for the comments.
Forgive the grandeur, but such is the significance of TikTok comments to the zeitgeist, that there’s even a Twitter account dedicated to curating the best. Memorialised in screenshot form, an audience of 176,000 has grown to keep up with the fleeting chaos of TikTok’s wordsmiths who specialise in one liners.
The cultural capital of TikTok comments is palpable for consumers, creators, and brands (more on that later.) If comment-writing credentials are measured in fluency of the TikTok lexicon, then they are earned by the community co-sign of upvoting (❤️), which cuts through the noise to push the best* (*pls also read: most popular) commentary to the top of an already crowded conversation.
There’s no better example of this than the day Ellie Zeiler practically broke TikTok during the iconic March 2020 era, by sharing a video that bears an uncanny resemblance to the platform’s most-notable creator, Charli D’Amelio. While the 7 million likes Ellie gained for her viral video are certainly not to be sniffed at, it's the 1.7 million comments (possibly TikTok’s most-commented video of all time) that reveal a far more interesting story.
If we’re talking about a “you just had to be there moment” – this was it. The world as we knew it was hurtling towards a total shut down, a (then) 15-year-old from Connecticut was gaining 10 million new followers a month, Hype Houses were….well, still full of hype. If you thought it was only going down in the DMs – think again – it’s courtside seats in the comments for the many public facades of discourse on TikTok.
scotch & vodka
No one knows the value of comments more so than Maia Knight, who joined TikTok in June 2021 to chronicle her daily life as a single mum to twins, Violet and Scout. Maia cemented her place in TikTok’s popular culture with her now trademark morning bottle routine (aka “babas”, iykyk), with both babies squished under one arm. As with all platform success stories, Maia’s narrative consistency inspired a series of imitation videos, forming their very own niche trend based on recognisable visual cues for those in the know. 👇
By October, Maia had amassed an impressive following of 2.2 million, thanks to the consistency of daily posting, and the recent explosion of one of TikTok’s favourite genres: routine-based vlogs. Since then, she’s been adding one million new followers a month, and recently surpassed the 8 million milestone. Over the past 30 days, she has earned more than 118 million likes for her content.
It’s safe to say that TikTok has found a star in Maia and her twins, who celebrated their first birthdays three weeks ago. But the real heroes of this story are the thousands of fans who populate Maia’s comment section with self-perpetuating in-jokes, all revolving around increasingly complex nicknames for Scout and Violet.
Legend has it that TikTok’s automated video captions may have had a hand in correcting “Violet” to “Violence”, meanwhile “Scout” found her “Scotch” moniker. While etymology remains up for debate, its influence on Maia’s brand is no mystery on the platform. One of the most popular pairings, “Scotch and Vodka”, has been used to hashtag videos with more than 20 million collective views.
Maia has indulged this playfulness many times in her content, incorporating the nicknames into her narrative. This acknowledgement has created a powerful fan feedback loop, so much so that Maia’s debut merch collection (launched March 31) pays tribute to this comment section in-joke.
To be synonymous with such platform-wide saturation is something most creators spend years trying to build; yearning for a hook that speaks to stan culture with staying power – and commercial potential. Who needs to try and make fetch happen, when TikTok’s commenters are doing it for you?
ma’am, this is a Wendy’s
If you were part of the TikTok class of 2020, then you might remember the first era of brands getting involved in the platform’s comment exchange. If you need a recap, TikToker @ripkekenkenz provides a perfect example with her viral video captioned: “I will shave my head if the detroit lions comments”. Kenzie’s video earned more than 30,000 comments – Detroit Lions included – and marked a moment in TikTok’s history where creators were pandering to brands to drive their own engagement for one-off viral moments.
In 2021, that “I’ll do X if X comments” seamlessly graduated into “brand accounts should comment on this for no reason” trend which, albeit vacuous, provided prime digital real estate opportunities for brands on TikTok to showcase their Gen Z credentials. Now, brands on TikTok had a seemingly infinite number of low-lift opportunities to insert themselves into platform wide conversations…simply by showing up.
This ~moment~ reached an all-time peak with the Emily Zugay era of brand hysteria, featuring billion dollar companies throwing “bestie” and “girlboss” comments into the ring, while riding the coattails of relevancy. And boy, did we eat it up.
One of the most notorious and consistent facilitators of this shifting dynamic between consumer and brand is Duolingo (3.5 million followers). Truly, there is no place more unhinged on TikTok than the comment section of any Duolingo video – and you can quote me on that. Beyond executing the mission of humanising the brand, Duolingo, run by Zaria Parvez, is a masterclass in participation that remains without rivals. It’s giving “move fast and break things”, but with less evil billionaire energy.
So, what’s the takeaway here? When it comes to connecting with your audience – for creators and brands alike – it’s about meeting them where they are. IMHO: TikTok comment sections are the unsung gifts of the consumer, in real-ish time, with the accountability of thousands (if not millions) of eyeballs vouching for creators and their content.
If content is the low-hanging fruit of the FYP, then the stickiness and staying power of your brand is harvested in the comments. For brand accounts, this is a timely reminder of the talented social teams who are in the eye of the zeitgeist tornado, thanks to countless hours of inserting themselves into the heart of emerging culture and thoughtfully curated social listening.
When the appetite for participation on TikTok is so high, showing up for your audience without being performative or disingenuous is truly the golden ticket to securing a slice of the social pie in 2022. So, beware of hubris (*cough* Amazon *cough*), know your Duolingo from your dula peep, and you might just find your next meal ticket waiting for you in the comments.
Okay, you made it. Til next time…