About two years ago, in October 2019, I asked my students what social networking site they spend most of their time on. I assumed they’d say Instagram or Snapchat (I already knew that in their minds, Facebook was mostly good for keeping up with their parents and grandparents). Their response surprised me.
“What?” I responded.
“Have you heard of TikTok?” Reader, I had not heard of TikTok. I had to have them slowly spell it for me. I then proceeded to investigate this new media social space.
Over the past two years, I’ve enjoyed watching my fair share of TikTok videos, including the viral dances, the faddish memes, and, of course, that one guy skateboarding to Fleetwood Mac, while drinking fruit juice. As I watched these clips, I noticed a common characteristic that separated many TikToks from similar forms of media, such as YouTube videos, television shows, or films. What struck me was how many of these videos focused on visual communication and how few relied on auditory dialogue.
There are any number of TikTok memes that are structured around a song, a set of dance moves, facial expressions, and hand gestures. These videos also often include text superimposed on the screen. The one cinematic aspect absent seems to be spoken dialogue, at least from the people being filmed. Once I noticed this trend, it’s presence on the website became increasingly apparent to me.
In numerous TikTok challenges — especially those that feature a popular song — the people in the video would rarely, if ever, speak themselves. (A brief side note: I can only assume these are popular songs. I’ve never been “with it,” but I used to at least know what the “it” I wasn’t with was. Alas, dear Reader, no more).
In the academic field of film studies, there’s a term, diegesis, that I think can help me articulate my thoughts about what’s going on with TikTok videos. When writers refer to the diegetic elements of the film, they are talking about all the things within the world of the story that the characters can experience, hear, or know. The non-diegetic elements are those things outside the world of the story that only the audience experiences. So, in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” when Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed sing “Buffalo Gals,” that’s a song within the diegesis. In the movie “Rocky,” when Sylvester Stallone is training and we hear, “Gonna Fly Now,” that’s non-diegetic.
What strikes me, to put it another way, is how the sound employed in TikTok videos seems to be mostly non-diegetic. We don’t hear the voices of the people in the clip. We don’t hear any sounds made by them or by anything within the diegesis of the TikTok. The sound of the pop-music songs is superimposed on the video as well, as opposed to coming from a source inside the shot.
Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, TikTokers are fond of using superimposed written text. That’s another example of a non-diegetic element. Of course, it’s not all non-diegetic. There’s their dance moves, gestures, facial expressions, and lip-synching.
This is all very odd. There just is not a lot of media genres that fit this description: most of the sound being non-diegetic and most of the visuals being diegetic. I can think of at least two examples that are similar, though. One example would be music videos, the kind that used to be on VH1 and MTV, back in the before time. Of course, music videos often begin with some kind of backstory that has plenty of spoken dialogue, and the musicians aren’t lip-synching, or if they are, it’s still their voice on the recording. So this comparison doesn’t really fit.
The other example I can think of are silent films. And the more I think about it, the more striking the similarities between silent films and TikToks are. Consider the intertitles in silent films as a predecessor to the superimposed text on TikTok clips. Or consider the expressiveness in the face of Charlie Chaplin and compare that to the astonishing creativity with which some TikTokers use their face to express their emotions.
Chaplin was a virtuoso with his face — he could show drama, comedy, and everything in between. I see similar inventiveness among TikTokers. I’m still sorting through the implications of this connection between silent film and TikTok. But the echoes of silent film emerging in social networking videos today should remind us that there’s nothing new under the sun.
Quentin Vieregge is an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire — Barron County.