TikTok’s joy-miners created one of my favourite places on the internet

During Melbourne’s first lockdown, Jeanette Nkrumah started spending a lot of time on TikTok.

At first the videos she saw on her “For You” page – the personalised home screen that appears whenever a user opens the app – weren’t particularly compelling. But as she started spending more time there, the recommendations improved.

“The content just got really good. I started texting it to my friends and housemates. Eventually I started posting it on my Instagram stories for everyone to watch.”

Unlike other social media apps, TikTok allows users to easily save videos directly to their phones, with a watermark. Dr Belinda Barnet, a senior lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology, says this feature helps “lead to their content going viral and bleeding onto other platforms”.

“It’s not just a basic feature of TikTok,” she says, but rather a design decision to make “content … more readily shareable”.

When Nkrumah started watching and saving videos, her mental health was worse than it had been in a long time. Her first set of videos posted to Instagram resulted in a flood of positive messages from friends. Initially, she feared her friends would skip right past them, so the reactions felt particularly affirming.

Screenshots showing Nkrumah's Top of the Toks curation.
Jeanette Nkrumah’s Monday night ritual, Top of the Toks. Photograph: Jeanette Nkrumah

Nkrumah kept the uploads going. “A friend messaged me saying I should call it Top of the Toks, and it’s just grown from there. Now I post my curated, themed dumps every Monday night.”

Nkrumah doesn’t make her own TikToks. Instead, she curates them based on her mood or world events. Her Monday night Instagram uploads aren’t just a ritual for her – her account has become one of my favourite places on the internet.

Sharing moments

Like Nkrumah, I downloaded TikTok after about a year of watching its videos on other platforms. Unlike her, I never made it past the initial stage of training my algorithm.

I found it difficult to sustain myself on the app. The reward of eventually getting fed the right content, versus the time I was spending watching things that weren’t interesting, just didn’t add up. It made more sense to me to go back to where I’d first started watching TikToks: other people’s Instagram stories.

I valued the taste and sense of humour of people I already followed more than the algorithm’s experiments on me. Plus, when I watched the videos friends posted, I got a deeper insight into who they were. It made me feel more connected to them.

Barnet has noticed this trend. She says TikTok videos are “extremely good at capturing a moment”, and can compel others to “share that feeling or moment on another platform.”

Content aggregators on social media are nothing new. New media empires have been built on finding and surfacing viral content. It can even be a profitable endeavour. On YouTube, you’ll find compilations of Vines, Snapchats and TikToks with millions of views, with money changing hands with every advertisement that plays alongside them.

Sophia Smith Galer, Vice World News reporter and TikTok content creator, says while content aggregators should be seeking permission from original creators to re-share, aggregation isn’t always done by the books. “If you don’t care about rights or anything, you can grab a whole bunch of videos and upload them onto a monetisable channel and create ads.”

YouTube has a takedown process for copyrighted work, and state “short videos you compiled from other social media websites” are not eligible for monetisation. Smith Galer – who has been approached by aggregators seeking to license her content – says “some people do obey the laws of the internet”, but infringements still happen. “I’ve seen my videos up on other people’s YouTube channels and I haven’t given them permission to use it.”

She says TikTok compilations, in particular, are everywhere at the moment because that is the video platform setting the most trends right now. It offers “meme culture done in an extremely engaging way”. “[TikTok] has high content density. Every second is full of so many different things – audio, visuals, captions – that are trying to get all these different emotions out of you.”

A screenshot from one of Amber Akilla’s Tiktok dumps, captioned 'Me finding couples public collaborative playlists and adding toxic songs to them'.
One of Amber Akilla’s Tiktok dumps. Photograph: TikTok

Amber Akilla, a DJ and creative director who also curates Tiktok “dumps” on Instagram, agrees. “The amount creativity I see on TikTok never ceases to amaze me,” she says. On her TikTok page, she mostly posts original videos, while on Instagram, she mostly shares content from her For You page. Akilla sees Instagram as geared more towards “aspirational” content, while TikTok is more “relatable”.

“I didn’t see people talking about how we relate to one another, friendships, relationships – things that I’ve always been interested in – on Instagram, so when I saw it on TikTok it was really validating.”

Her own videos are simple – she holds up her phone and talks straight to camera about her interests. But the TikToks she shares to her Instagram audience are absurd, chaotic, and often – in internet parlance – “cursed”. She posts them not because she agrees with the videos, but to get a reaction. “I still think Instagram is a better tool for communicating directly with people,” Akilla says.

While Akilla shares her curations to thousands of people, Nkrumah shares it on a private account, that only her real-life friends follow.

Sharing TikToks that other people have made, but that nonetheless feel personal to her, has been a safe way of expressing how she feels. “It’s nice to be able to share these things in a public space and make others feel less alone,” she says.