TikTok and the economics of attention

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Nathan Apodaca Vibes

TikTok continues to have a transformative effect on our culture and the media industry. The latest great example of this, is the story of Nathan Apodaca a/k/a 420doggface208 and his lip sync of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams.

(I still can’t embed TikTok’s in this newsletter, so will have to rely upon youtube and tweets).

The above short video was posted by Nathan on September 25th. It blew up almost immediately, as people were into his vibe. Less than two weeks later and the original video has over 20 million views and counting. That doesn’t count all the times people have copied, re-shared, or remixed it. The tweet above for example shows another 20 million plus views.

The word vibe strikes me as a key sentiment of 2020. In a difficult year people are in search of good vibes, and seek out those who have them. This may be why Nathan has struck such a chord with people.

It used to be that if you wanted to achieve media success you had to be in a major media centre, like LA, NYC, or maybe Chicago. Now any dude from Idaho Falls has a chance for his 15 minutes.

Here’s a video from one of the local news stations providing a bit of background on how the video came about.

For many people, Nathan is the hero this world needs right now. A working class man who’s car just broke down, and rather than be bummed, he pulls out his long board to skate work and enjoy his morning juice. Like many, he had the good sense to record and share it.

Who is Nathan? He’s the best of us.

When Apodaca, 37, isn’t introducing old-school jams to a younger audience on the popular social video app TikTok, he works as a laborer at a potato warehouse in his native Idaho. (He was born and raised there, though his dad is of Mexican descent and his mom hails from the Northern Arapaho tribe in Wyoming.)

“We’ve been working ever since the pandemic, getting potatoes out to whoever needs them,” Apodaca told the Los Angeles Times Thursday via Zoom.

There’s a combined random and democratizing element to TikTok that helps someone like Nathan blow up as a result of a 22 second video. Like many people, Nathan enjoys making media, and TikTok makes it really easy to make them. In this case enabling a spontaneous moment that has captured a zeitgeist.

It’s also helped revive a classic rock song:

Which was appreciated by one of the founding members of the original band:

One can also assume that Ocean Spray has seen a surge in sales.

While such cynicism is entirely understandable in the conspiracy and commercial culture we live in, the appeal of this story is in it’s authenticity, which is of course increasingly rare.

“I don’t have to worry about my phone getting shut off now, you know what I mean?” he said. “It’s crazy, like I had bills on bills and I’m finally getting caught up.”

Aside from finally getting his own spot and a new car, according to him, the biggest upside of his recent celebrity has been the ability to help out his family — including gifting his mom $5,000 and his dad a used truck that he’s always wanted.

“The biggest thing to me is being able to show my mom and my dad that I love them. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right?” he said, before joking that he now feels like Mr. Beast, a YouTuber who’s known for his philanthropic gift videos. “Why sit there and guard this money when I can make my family smile?”

I find it fascinating that not only is media incredibly easy to produce, but access to the means of distribution are either entirely random or genuinely within reach of the average Nathan.

To strike a hit that reaches tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of viewers is an incredible but perhaps increasingly common occurrence. Large companies used to spend outrageous sums trying to do the same, and now seemingly anyone can do it?

Part of the explanation lies in flexible copyright. In this case the soundtrack made the video, and in many situations the price of licensing such a song is incredibly prohibitive. Yet not in the land of TikTok, which due to the lead it has in our cultural industries, sees successful content ripple throughout the culture as a whole.

And speaking of copyright, let us not forget the remixes or inspired takes. Again, this is where I lament the inability to embed TikTok videos, although I suppose that has kept this newsletter from becoming dominated by the content from the platform.

Nonetheless, check out some of these that were inspired by the original:

Jagmeet Singh

Farmer harvest vibes

Chef Boyardee

Cocktail hour

Warehouse workers

Crass Canadian version

Inappropriate comedy version

This guy did a different one each day

US military:

As with any of these episodes involving instant fame, the concept of “15 minutes” is evoked, and we wonder whether this attention will last.

I think Nathan gets that, and is enjoying his moment. However I have a sense that his attention will last. Probably not at the current levels, but once again, this is why TikTok is kind of different.

Throughout my journeys on the platform, I keep encountering people, who like Nathan, have had their moment. On the one hand, this leads to a surge in followers, who stay on for the long haul. Yet on the other hand, it also acts as a surge of confidence in the creator, and gives them the courage to make more media, which with practice, they steadily improve on.

TikTok is transforming the talent development process as we know it. By providing easy access to a global audience, they’re bypassing traditional gatekeepers and enabling a new cohort of creators to emerge, sometimes by accident.

All as a result of a different algorithm, that is configured to focus on different priorities, namely attention over engagement.

Finally it’s worth noting that as I write this issue, another TikTok incident is trending, although this time it’s about Kellyanne Conway’s daughter using the app to subvert her mother.

Claudia Conway speaks in code to say “I’m on live right now cause I’m scared of my mom.” Translation in comments
October 6th 2020

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