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Explore the role of audio memes on TikTok and how they contribute to ‘imitation publics’ (Zulli
& Zulli, 2020), a concept from your reading for Week 3. Use the walkthrough method to
understand how TikTok works and the function of audio in the app.
Your answer should include the following kinds of evidence to support your claims
Examples of at least 3 TikTok audio memes
Explanations of the design features of TikTok which support the creation and
proliferation of these audio memes
Structure of your essay
Please note that this essay should not be a step-by-step walkthrough of the app. You should
use the walkthrough method to help you understand the app so that you can answer the
question about audio memes and imitation publics.
Your essay should use the following structure:
1. Introduction:
• Explain the main roles of audio memes in TikTok and how these constribution
to imitation publics. These are the ideas which you will explore in the essay.
2. Body
Explain the roles of audio memes that you uncovered and what they tell us
about how imitation publics operate. Each paragraph should deal with a
specific idea and use examples of at least one audio meme to justify your
Be sure to refer to dimensions of the app’s design (use diagrams, annotated
screen captures etc. to help the reader understand your analysis) or to the
logic behind the app (e.g. as related to its governance) in your exploration of
how the memes work.
Do not simply narrate the flow of the app.
Be sure that your paragraphs contain a topic sentence that indicates to the
reader the idea you are going to deal with in that paragraph. The rest of the
paragraph must apply sufficient analysis of specific examples to justify your
3. Conclusion
• Summarise your claims about the role of audio memes in the creation of
imitation publics. The conclusion is different to the introduction in the sense
that you can now leverage the outcomes of your analysis (as opposed to
simply introducing what you will explore).
How to include a screen capture or diagram in your essay
In order to explain your analysis, you will need to include diagrams and/or screen captures
in your essay. You should present these as figures with captions as follows:
Figure 1: Example of a screen capture of the Paprika recipe management app recipe page.
Depending on what you are explaining to the reader, you may like to annotate the screen
capture (e.g. with arrows and labels).
Use figures only when you are making a substantial point in your essay. You should limit this
to 3-4 figures maximum.
Please support your arguments using references from outside the course readings. Include
at least 4 references from the course material (academic references from the readings,
lectures or tutorials). You should cite this material using Harvard referencing.
NMS0010.1177/1461444820983603new media & societyZulli and Zulli
Extending the Internet meme:
Conceptualizing technological
mimesis and imitation publics
on the TikTok platform
new media & society
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1461444820983603
Diana Zulli
Purdue University, USA
David James Zulli
University of Texas at Austin, USA
Scholars have long been interested in how social media platforms shape user
communication and behavior. We add to this literature by critically analyzing the TikTok
platform. We argue that the principles of mimesis—imitation and replication—are
encouraged by the platform’s logic and design and can be observed in the (1) user signup process and default page, (2) icons and video-editing features, and (3) user and video
creation norms. These memetic features alter modes of sociality, contributing to what
we theorize as imitation publics on TikTok. This analysis extends the meme’s theoretical
and methodological utility by conceptualizing the TikTok platform as a memetic text in
and of itself and illustrates a novel type of networked public.
Imitation, memes, memetics, mimesis, networked publics, replication, TikTok,
walkthrough analysis
“I’m a savage (yeah). Classy, bougie, ratchet (yeah). Sassy, moody, nasty (hey, hey,
yeah). Acting stupid, what’s happening? What’s happening? I’m a savage” (Megan
Thee Stallion, 2020). Odds are, you are familiar with this song. You likely sang the tune
Corresponding author:
Diana Zulli, Brian Lamb School of Communication, Purdue University, Beering Hall of Liberal Arts and
Education, Room 2115, 100 North University Street, West Lafayette, IN 47907, USA.
Email: dzulli@purdue.edu; @diana_zulli
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and visualized the associated dance as you read the lyrics. If so, you have the social
media platform TikTok to thank. Launched in China as Douyin in 2016 and internationally as TikTok in 2017, TikTok has rapidly become one of the most widely used social
media platforms in the world and the subject of much conversation. TikTok became
accessible in the United States in 2018 after the company merged with Musical.ly,
another lip-syncing application. Currently, TikTok is the seventh most-used platform of
the 2010s, boasting 100 million monthly active US users and 800 million monthly
active world-wide users (Iqbal, 2020; Sherman, 2020). However, TikTok is not without
controversy. TikTok was briefly banned in India for problematic content (e.g. pornography, predatory behavior; Iqbal, 2020), then permanently banned after a clash with the
Chinese government (Petersen, 2020). Scholars have identified hate speech on the platform (Weimann and Masri, 2020). In 2019, the United States launched a national security investigation into TikTok, citing concern over if and how the Chinese company was
collecting and using US data, censoring content, and spreading misinformation
(Roumeliotis et al., 2019). And, at the time of this writing, President Donald Trump has
announced plans to ban TikTok in the United States unless ByteDance, the parent company, sells off TikTok’s US portion (BBC, 2020b). Despite these controversies, TikTok’s
cultural impact is undeniable.
TikTok is unlike any other social media platform. Described as a “lip-syncing” application (Perez, 2020: para. 3), the platform is most similar to the now-defunct Vine, where
users act out scenes from their favorite television show, movie, or cultural moment (e.g.
impersonating Kourtney Kardashian saying “Working is just not my top priority”).
Unlike Vine, TikTok allows videos up to 60 seconds (compared to 6 seconds), enables
video editing to occur within the site, provides hundreds of sounds and effects to aid in
video creation, and prompts users to engage content, not creators or friends. Although
TikTok does enable users to create profiles, follow friends, and send direct messages,
interpersonal connections are downplayed on the platform. Creative interaction is also
prioritized over discursive interaction. Thus, while TikTok has some markers of the
standard and more popular social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, and
Twitter (e.g. profiles, friend lists, shareable posts, network formation; see boyd, 2011;
Papacharissi, 2014), its emphasis on video creation uniquely affects how sociality
unfolds and networks develop on the platform.
TikTok’s distinctive technical structure and unparalleled user adoption provide a warrant to theorize if and how the platform redefines the nature of online networks. To do so,
this study adopts a grounded theory approach and follows the walkthrough method to
critically analyze how TikTok’s digital structure influences communicative and interactive processes. Through this process, we observed that imitation and replication are digitally and socially encouraged by the TikTok platform, positioning mimesis as the basis
of sociality on the site. We thus argue that TikTok extends the Internet meme to the level
of platform infrastructure (see Shifman, 2013) and helps us theorize imitation publics on
TikTok, wherein networks form through processes of imitation and replication, not interpersonal connections, expressions of sentiment, or lived experiences. Collectively, this
analysis extends our understanding of networked publics (e.g. boyd, 2011; Bruns and
Burgess, 2011, 2015; Jenkins et al., 2015; Papacharissi, 2014), contributes to the growing interest in memetics (e.g. Shifman, 2013; Tuters and Hagen, 2020; Wiggins, 2019),
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and is one of the first to critically analyze the social media platform TikTok, providing
one explanation for TikTok’s rapid success.
Digital affordances and networked publics
The theorization of sociality and networked publics on TikTok necessarily requires
the consideration of digital affordances and the relationship between technological
objects and social/behavioral outcomes (boyd, 2011; Davis, 2020). Van Dijck (2013)
explained that sociality, or the ability to be social online, is not simply “rendered
technological” by moving to an online space (p. 20). Rather, communication and
interaction are both enabled by and constrained to the coded structures of each mediated platform. That is, although social media platforms do not make people communicate or engage in specific ways, platform design can “request, demand, encourage,
discourage, refuse, and allow particular lines of action and social dynamics” through
including or excluding certain digital features (Davis, 2020: 11). For example,
Twitter’s 280-character limit encourages discursive brevity whereas Facebook allows
more detailed posts; Instagram requires visual communication in posts whereas
Twitter allows posts that are just text.
Accordingly, scholars have long been interested in how digital technology affords the
possibility of a networked public sphere (Benkler, 2006; Bruns and Burgess, 2011, 2015;
Papacharissi, 2010, 2014; Zulli et al., 2020). boyd (2011) provided a foundational reference for understanding networked publics, suggesting that social networking sites
(SNSs), such as Facebook and Twitter, are central mechanisms for articulating these
networks online. Social media serve many of the same functions as offline networks,
such as allowing people to gather for social, cultural, and political purposes, while also
expanding interactive possibilities by connecting individuals who have similar interests
and beliefs but who may be geographically dispersed (boyd, 2011; boyd and Ellison,
2007). In particular, boyd (2011) identified user profiles, friend lists, public commenting
tools, and stream-based updates inherent to most social media sites as salient components to the construction of networked publics.
Adding to boyd’s (2011) research, scholars have sought to compare and contrast digital features across social media platforms to determine how they afford different modes
of sociality. Papacharissi (2009) examined community development and user identity
formation across Facebook, LinkedIn, and ASmallWorld. Van Dijck (2013) similarly
assessed the similarities and differences of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and
Wikipedia to see how users adapted to each platform’s technological evolution. Research
has also paid considerable attention to how specific digital features, like the hashtag,
facilitate and mobilize publics. The hashtag was initially designed to filter discussions
and contextualize conversations that occur in the online context (Bruns and Burgess,
2011). Importantly, scholars argue that the hashtag serves as a conduit for distributed
individuals to locate, self-organize, and collectively contribute to the information streams
on many SNSs resulting in issue and affective publics that converge around a topic or
event, such as the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements (Bruns and Burgess,
2015; Bruns et al., 2016; Papacharissi, 2014; Segerberg and Bennett, 2011).
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Although much is known about how SNSs enable and shape networked publics in
conjunction with user practices, the rapid transformation of digital technology and the
creation of entirely new SNSs necessitate that scholars reexamine the nature of these
publics—the technology that enables/constrains them and the form they now take. Thus,
we offer TikTok as an illustrative example of how techno-social configurations continue
to influence sociality in new and impactful ways.
TikTok is currently one of the most influential and widely used social media platforms in
the world (Iqbal, 2020). TikTok is available in 154 countries and 39 languages. TikTok
was the second most popular free application download in 2019, with its usage only
increasing in 2020; TikTok was downloaded 113 million times in February 2020 alone
and has surpassed the engagement rate of Instagram and Twitter (Marketing Hub, 2020).
Although TikTok enjoys a wide user demographic, the platform is the most popular
among women aged 18–24. Indeed, at the time of this writing, the two most followed
TikTok users are Addison Rae, a 20-year-old female with 71.7 million followers, and
Charli D’Amelio, a 16-year-old female with 103.2 million followers.
Scholarship on TikTok is still in its infancy. Through a critical analysis of TikTok’s
media coverage, Kennedy (2020) suggested that the platform can be read as a celebration
of girlhood. Zhang (2020) argued that TikTok should be perceived as a video encyclopedia, similar to Wikipedia, where anyone can contribute to content creation but a centralized service provider and algorithm still control the flow of information on the site.
Through a content analysis of TikTok accounts run by Chinese provincial health committees, Zhu et al. (2019) found that the platform functions as an important but underused
method for disseminating health content. Finally, Weimann and Masri (2020) exposed
TikTok’s darker side by content analyzing posts from far-right extremist groups. We add
to this literature by considering how TikTok’s digital structure influences user behavior
and shapes networked publics.
We frame our analysis and discussion of TikTok using a grounded theory approach and
the walkthrough method. Grounded theory is an inductive qualitative research approach
aimed at theory development (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Grounded theory works from
the perspective that knowledge emerges from symbolic interactions (such as the dynamic
relationship between SNS design and user behavior) and contextually bound truths.
Theoretical insights are inductively driven by the empirical data collected for analysis
rather than deductively applied to and tested through data. Grounded theory thus blurs
the lines between “generating theory and doing social research [as] two parts of the same
process” (Glaser, 1987: 2).
We followed the walkthrough method to systematically examine and theorize how the
TikTok platform shapes user behavior and networked publics. The walkthrough method
combines critical technology and cultural studies and involves “engaging with an app’s
interface to examine its technological mechanisms and embedded cultural references to
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understand how it guides users and shapes experiences” (Light et al., 2018: 882). This
approach recognizes that technical systems implicitly and sometimes explicitly configure content production and consumption in specific ways (Davis, 2020). Although users
often adapt or extend the features of social media to fit their needs, they are still directed
toward certain types of engagement depending on a platform’s interface design, layout,
features, and overall flow.
The walkthrough method involves three general stages: registration and entry, everyday use, and suspension, closure, and leaving (Light et al., 2018). Consistent with this
method, we worked through TikTok’s sign-up process and explored TikTok’s interface
and design, paying particular attention to page layouts, features, and video creation
options. Because TikTok algorithmically filters content based on user patterns (see Marr,
2018), the two authors created different profiles to engage this walkthrough process. The
second author created a TikTok account in January 2020 and became a “regular user” of
the site to experience the video-editing process and content tailoring based on active
participation. The first author created an account in June 2020 and avoided specific platform engagement (to the best of her ability) to observe the general platform design, user
and platform patterns, and activity flows. For example, when prompted to select content
genres as part of the sign-up process, the second author identified specific genres to
receive tailored videos; the first author selected all the genres to receive the broadest
selection of videos. The second author liked, commented, and shared videos to activate
personalization; the first author did not engage in any of those activities during the analysis period. Observations of TikTok’s everyday use primarily occurred between 29 June
and 10 August 2020, and took the form of noting (1) the content being posted to the
platform, including which video types or styles appeared to be common, if any (2) how
users interacted and communicated on the site, (3) if and how networks were formed on
TikTok, and (4) how the algorithms filtered content based on different engagement patterns (Light et al., 2018).
TikTok as a memetic text
The goal of this project was to assess if and how TikTok’s design influences user behavior and public formation. Through this walkthrough analysis, we observed that imitation
and replication—the driving forces of mimesis—are latent in TikTok’s platform design.
Accordingly, we argue that TikTok can be read as a mimetic text in and of itself, extending Shifman’s (2012, 2013) Internet meme to the level of platform infrastructure. To
provide a theoretical foundation for our analysis, we briefly review the meme concept.
Richard Dawkins introduced the meme in his 1976 publication The Selfish Gene.
Signifying “that which is imitated” and likened to biological evolution, Dawkins (1976)
conceptualized cultural memes as units of information—music, ideas, catchphrases, fashions, slogans, religions, and so on—that are stored in the brain, transmitted from human
to human, and passed down from one generation to another, contributing to the creation
and propagation of cultural phenomenon. Shifman (2012, 2013) extended Dawkins’
(1976) cultural meme to include the digital context, noting that theorizing memes as an
Internet phenomenon is both appropriate and useful. The Internet distinctively facilitates
the spread and scale of social and cultural content as images, videos, jokes, trends, and
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movements can gain unparalleled cultural significance in a matter of minutes online (e.g.
#BlackLivesMatter, YouTube videos; Shifman, 2012). Digital technology also better enables researchers to track the spread of memes through network analyses and timestamps
on posts, which addresses, in part, a chief criticism that memes are an ill-defined unit of
analysis (see Heylighen and Chielens, 2009; Johnson, 2007). For Shifman (2013), then,
memes and digital culture are a “match made in heaven” (p. 365).
Internet memes are defined as “units of popular culture that are circulated, imitated,
and transformed by individual Internet users, creating a shared cultural experience” and
as “groups of content items that were created with an awareness of each other and share
common characteristics” (Shifman, 2013: 367). With this definition, Shifman usefully
provides some concreteness to the meme—what the meme is and how it survives online
(e.g. repacking, remixing, mimicking). Importantly, and perhaps inadvertently, Shifman
is also suggesting that memetic processes, defined as the “the mechanisms by which
memes propagate” (Yoon, 2008: 903), can support online networks, a point substantiated
by other scholars as well (Tuters and Hagen, 2020). Indeed, publics can further constitute
themselves as a collective when they (1) identify noteworthy content items and (2) participate in their transmission through imitation (e.g. creating an iteration) or circulation
(e.g. spreading the content item through likes and shares). Moreover, because many
memes in the vernacular sense (e.g. images with overlaying text) function enthymematically where individuals fill in the meaning based on shared knowledge or beliefs (see
Wiggins, 2019), memes require users to be culturally, socially, and politically in the
know, which situates publics as an important contributor to mimesis (e.g. a group of
people must understand the joke for it to be humorous and spreadable).
With this baseline discussion in mind, we now turn our attention to how imitation and
replication were observed in TikTok’s digital structure, thus influencing user behavior
and initiating what we theorize as imitation publics. In particular, TikTok’s sign-up process and default page, icons and features, and user/video norms all illustrate how imitation and replication can be encouraged at the platform level. With this analysis, we flip
the focus from how specific texts become memes through imitation and replication (e.g.
YouTube videos, Shifman, 2013) and how subcultures enthymematically use memes as
argumentative tools (e.g. political memes; Tuters and Hagen, 2020; Wiggins, 2019), and
instead, interrogate the digital mechanisms and processes that uniquely engender mimetic
TikTok sign-up process and default page
TikTok’s set-up process and default page prompt users to engage with content conducive
for imitation and for the purpose of imitation. As users join TikTok, they are first directed
to indicate their topical interests to receive “personalized video recommendations” from
TikTok’s complex machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithm (see Marr,
2018). A few examples of the content areas that are suggested include animals, comedy,
travel, food, sports, beauty and style, and art. This initial query sets the technological
stage for users to encounter video content they find particularly appealing, and presumably, more replicable. After selecting content genres, users are directed toward TikTok’s
default page with no further prompts to set up a profile. User profiles are included on
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TikTok; however, they are not a dominant feature nor are they particularly informative.
Users only have 80 characters to construct a discursive identity on TikTok and that information is only accessible insofar as users are motivated to click on a profile after viewing
a video. Moreover, we observed that many users merely linked their other social media
accounts in their bios (e.g. Instagram, YouTube) rather than note actual identity markers,
such as age, relationship status, or profession, presumably to extend any social capital
they garner on TikTok to other online platforms (e.g. spreadability of content; Shifman,
Particularly noteworthy is that TikTok’s sign-up process and default page do not
instruct users to follow friends or transfer their offline publics to the platform. In fact,
following any particular person for interpersonal connection is structurally downplayed
on TikTok altogether, which is a sharp departure from how other popular SNSs facilitate
networked publics (see boyd, 2011). For example, the default pages on Facebook and
Twitter feature the content posted by users’ selected “friends.” When users log into
Instagram, they are initially shown images and stories from people they follow. Facebook,
Twitter, and Instagram also actively recommend additional connections based on the
makeup of users’ online network (i.e. friends of friends). Comparatively, on TikTok, the
default page is titled “For You” and features videos that have been algorithmically
curated to correspond with each user’s interests and engagement habits, not videos
posted by friends. Through liking, commenting, and sharing videos, in addition to the
sign-up prompt where users select preferred content genres, TikTok begins to filter and
promote content tailored to user engagement (Marr, 2018). Users can certainly follow
their friends on TikTok, and many do, but viewing that content requires additional navigation through the platform.
At this foundational level, we observed that user sociality and engagement on
TikTok are initially structured around memetic processes, rather than interpersonal
connections, which necessarily begins with “memetic selection through content selection bias” (Yoon, 2008: 904). According to Shifman (2013), the selection of content
genres or items in the digital era is “increasingly becoming a visible part of the
[memetic] process itself” (p. 365), which TikTok’s sign-up process and content filtering algorithms explicitly facilitate. By being prompted to select content genres as the
basis for platform participation, and then receiving tailored video content based on
engagement patterns, users are more likely to encounter content they find appealing,
which can spur mimesis, either sharing or remixing a video. Moreover, by not suggesting that users follow friends or readily showing content from a user’s connections, networks on TikTok are initially being configured at the content genre rather
than interpersonal level.
TikTok icons and features
TikTok’s icons and video-editing features also demonstrate how platform design can
promote an ethos of memetic transmission (see Figure 1). First, on the right side of the
“For You” screen are the follow, like, comment, and share icons common on most SNSs.
However, we observed during our analysis that if users watched or engaged with a video
multiple times, indicating that some element of the video—content, music,
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Figure 1. Example of TikTok’s “For You” page.
effects—resonated with them, the share icon transformed from a white arrow into a
green message button prompting users to share the video. By changing the share icon’s
color and form, the user’s attention is immediately drawn to the possibility of distributing the video. And, options to share videos are plentiful. TikTok includes options to send
videos through text, direct message, and email, in addition to sharing directly to Snapchat,
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Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Through this sharing feature, TikTok videos can be transmitted much farther much faster (e.g. content transmission, Dawkins,
Another TikTok icon that encourages uses to engage in imitation and replication is the
“sound” icon. Sounds are incorporated with every TikTok video and can include songs,
words from a movie/television show, political/cultural moment, or an original sound created by the user. These sounds are highlighted in two ways on the “For You” page: a
rotating record-player icon with musical notes cascading up the right side of the screen
and the sound’s name rolling across the bottom of the screen. The sound icons are the
only moving icons on TikTok videos and they similarly draw users’ attention to this feature. By clicking on either of the two sound icons, users are taken to a page that houses
every video made with that sound. That is, engaging the sound icon connects users to a
network of people who have identified with and replicated the sound in their videos. A
pulsing suggestion to “Use This Sound” is also located at the bottom of the screen. If a
user adopts a sound, their video will automatically be included in the sound collection.
In this way, TikTok’s digital structure facilitates “groupings of content items” (Shifman,
2013: 367) that are similar in sound but different in terms of uses and iterations, or, put
another way, video mutations (Dawkins, 1976). TikTok promotes sound imitation by
digitally suggesting that users contribute to a sound grouping. And, by promoting videos
with the same sound by engagement or popularity, TikTok extends memetic “competition” (see Dawkins, 1976; Hofstadter, 1983) to the platform level. Users are likely to
click on the first video in a content grouping, which simultaneously boosts the video’s
view count and further promotes its imitation and replication by other users.
Video “effects” on TikTok also position imitation as the basis for participation and
sociality on the platform. A main feature, and thus the appeal of TikTok, is that video
editing occurs within the site. Indeed, TikTok has hundreds of video effects (e.g. green
screen, sparkle, hair tint, nose-painting, face-stretch) that aid users in video creation.
However, none of the effects are labeled on the application. Effects are loosely categorized under the headings “Trending,” “New,” “Green Screen,” “Interactive,” “Editing,”
“Beauty,” “Funny,” “World,” and “Animal,” but TikTok provides no detail as to what
each effect entails and there are dozens of effects within each category. Users thus have
two options for determining the scope of an effect: click on different ones to ascertain
their properties or copy an effect that another user has applied to their videos where they
are labeled, which is the more efficient route to take. Much like how TikTok notes
sounds, the platform also names the effects if they are used in a video. If a user finds an
effect appealing after viewing a video, they can save the effect as a “favorite” for future
use (same with sounds). Effects thus become popular or trending as users replicate the
effects, promoting their use even more. Linking effects to specific videos rather than
labeling them in the effects library also positions video engagement as the basis for video
creation. By watching videos, users are provided with a template for how an effect should
or could be used, which incidentally promotes imitative behaviors; copying a video that
used an effect because the video showed the user how an effect can be used.
TikTok’s sharing, sounds, and effects features illustrate how mimesis can be encouraged at the platform level. Memes must be transmitted for them to gain cultural significance (Dawkins, 1976; Shifman, 2013). TikTok provides a plethora of sharing options
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and noticeably prompts users to disseminate content by changing the share icon’s color
and shape. The many sharing options extend the reach of TikTok videos, contributing to
unparalleled video/cultural dissemination. In addition, video creation on TikTok is
geared toward imitation and replication as both sounds and effects are (1) included with
and explicitly named on videos, (2) automatically linked on the platform, which contributes to the content groupings necessary for cultural phenomenon to become memes, and
are thus, (3) an influential means through which users develop their videos, encouraging
imitative behaviors.
Users and video creation norms
Through its digital structure (i.e. sign-up process, default page, video-editing features), we
observed that TikTok promotes user behavior and video creation in accordance to the principles of mimesis. In particular, mimesis can be observed in the logic behind video creation
and the content of videos. First, users presumably create TikTok videos to gain visibility
(among other reasons) and can do so through one of two means. On one hand, it appeared
to be particularly advantageous for users to merely remix popular videos rather than create
their own, as evident by the saturation of similar videos on TikTok. Because TikTok links
sounds and effects on the platform, copying similar features and video concepts automatically puts users in conversation with those who have obtained widespread attention. Thus,
there is a greater chance for an average user’s video to be found, liked, and then shared if
the sounds and effects are replicated from and linked to an already popular video. On the
other hand, there is still value in creating original video content if it starts a series of imitation and replication. If one develops an imitable dance to a catchy song, there is a good
chance that it will eventually grab the attention of someone who has a large TikTok following (e.g. Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae). In that situation, we observed that influencers
often gave credit to the originator of a sound or dance, which, for lay users, can boost their
follower count, engagement rate, and encourage others to replicate the content (e.g. a series
of imitations). Accordingly, we observed that the logic of video creation on TikTok is both
based in and geared toward the memetic process.
The most common TikTok videos that were observed also illustrated mimesis at work.
On any given day, we observed users replicating the same type of video or similar video
concepts using a sound or effect over and over again. These videos primarily took the
form of “challenge” videos, whether that be dancing or “check” videos where users
described and projected identities in a roll-call fashion (e.g. “Texas check,” where users
perform their Texas identity as a means of competition and acknowledgment; see Moore
and Haasch, 2020). Also common were duet or chain videos, where people reacted or
added to other users’ TikTok videos, and experience videos, where users described similar experiences applying the same sound. These videos illustrate physical imitation—
copying dance moves— reactive imitation—capitalizing and expanding on someone
else’s video—and narrative imitation—describing the same type of experiences. There
are two likely explanations for the popularity of these challenge videos, both of which
are based in memetic logic. First, many of the most followed TikTok users, such as
Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae, and celebrities, start or participate in these challenges,
effectively establishing their significance on TikTok and in mainstream culture (e.g.
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TikTokers being featured on television shows; Gemmill, 2020). These videos receive a
great amount of visibility, which increases the likelihood that average TikTok users will
see them and want to replicate the content.
A second explanation for the prevalence of challenge TikTok videos is “liveness,”
defined as the “live transmission” that “guarantees a potential connection to our shared
social realities as they are happening” (Couldry, 2003: 7). Most social media code into
their infrastructure opportunities for “live” engagement (Zulli, 2020). TikTok actualizes
liveness by housing editing capabilities within the platform, making video creation userfriendly and relatively “immediate.” Because users can always post and access content,
digital liveness generates a sense of “unpredictable flow and potential eventfulness”
(Lupinacci, 2020: 2) as if something could always be happening. Liveness also represents the perception that through social media “we achieve a shared attention to the realities that matter to us as a society” (Deller, 2011: 223). In the context of TikTok, challenge
participation is likely predicated on a desire to be relevant during “live” cultural moments
as “everyone” is doing them. Through challenge imitation and replication, users can
announce “here I am” to the TikTok world, simultaneously propelling the trend and
marking their place in a socio-cultural moment. Due to liveness and the fear of missing
out, in addition to their imitable nature (e.g. users do not have to be too creative to copy
dance moves), challenge videos on TikTok can perhaps be considered the more “fit”
memes that exist on the platform (see Aunger, 2001).
Imitation publics
The above analysis illustrates how a social media platform can be read as a memetic
text—one that encourages imitation and replication at the platform level. Although interpersonal connections are downplayed, users still interact with each other as they view
and share content, replicate TikTok challenges, and create duet videos with strangers.
Accordingly, TikTok helps us conceptualize imitation publics, which we broadly define
as a collection of people whose digital connectivity is constituted through the shared
ritual of content imitation and replication.
Imitation publics on TikTok can form in two ways: through specific video imitation
and replication or more general memetic engagement, both of which engender user connectivity and community. First, imitation publics can digitally form as users initiate the
video creation process, which includes using sounds and effects promoted and linked on
TikTok (i.e. moving icons, a pulsing suggestion to use a sound, only naming effects on
videos). Such features prompt imitative behaviors as experiencing sounds and effects
through videos provides a template for how these features could/should be used by subsequent creators. Importantly, when users replicate a sound or effect in their TikTok
videos, they are automatically connected to other users who have done the same. Thus,
it is the process of imitating sounds and effects, regardless of how these features are
ultimately used within a video, that creates the shared experience through which publics
are digitally and automatically constituted on TikTok (i.e. sound and effect collections).
Second, imitation publics can form through the more general memetic processes that
TikTok encourages, such as selecting, liking, and spreading content (see Shifman, 2013).
Due to TikTok’s sign-up process and personalization algorithm, such memetic behaviors
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contribute to video curation and content/user groupings, which TikTok users have begun
to unofficially label on the platform. Such imitation publics include Straight TikTok (for
mainstream users), Alt TikTok (for users looking for more edgy content; also termed
Elite TikTok), Deep TikTok (described as “if deep-fried memes came to life,” see Lorenz,
2020: para. 20), and many more. These communities could be both content (e.g. topic or
interest) or visually oriented (e.g. a certain aesthetic). We observed that users referred to
themselves as “being on” a particular community in their videos and captions (e.g.
“Being on Fashion TikTok check,” #LesbianTikTok), developing videos that aligned
with and were imitable by that community. Importantly, we observed that offline identity
did not always correspond to engagement with or participation on an imitation public
(e.g. straight women identifying as “being on” “Lesbian TikTok”). TikTok users could be
on more than one imitation public depending on which content, sounds, and effects they
engaged. And, the scope of imitation publics could morph as users develop new content
or interests (e.g. memetic mutation, see Dawkins, 1976; Hofstadter, 1983). In these ways,
imitation publics on TikTok result from ongoing memetic processes related to selecting
and spreading content.
This theorization of imitation publics on TikTok is similar to conceptualizations of networked publics (e.g. affective, issue; see Bruns and Burgess, 2011; Papacharissi, 2014;
Segerberg and Bennett, 2011) and participatory cultures, both digital and non-digital (e.g.
fan groups; Jenkins et al., 2015), in that they rely on a shared experience. However, due to
TikTok’s memetic properties—the digital grouping of content and prompting users to
select content genres as the basis for sociality—the energy that drives this collective experience is largely and initially processual, compared to interpersonal (e.g. public formation
through disclosure or close ties), discursive (e.g. public formation through talk), affective
(e.g. public formation through shared sentiment), or experiential (e.g. public formation
through lived experiences). TikTok downplays interpersonal connectivity through the “For
You” default page. Users do not need to discursively communicate or express sentiment to
find themselves on a TikTok “community.” And, imitation publics are not necessarily
issue-bound; they could merely reflect a certain aesthetic. This is not to say that imitation
publics are devoid of larger narratives or affective ties, or that users cannot coalesce around
interests, issues, or affective intensities on TikTok; we observed that users do share personal information and participate in socially oriented messaging through TikTok videos
(e.g. videos where LGBTQ+ users share coming out stories). However, it was also common for the use of effects/songs or engagement with a content/visual genre to be the only
thing that connected users as a result of TikTok’s digital features. Therefore, because videos are the main form of communication on TikTok, we argue that it is through the memetic
processes inherent to engaging with and creating these videos—selecting interest areas,
liking/sharing videos, bookmarking sounds and effects, creating video iterations, replicating challenges, extending videos through duets—that TikTok publics, and simultaneously,
user identity vis-à-vis the replication of content/visuals/effects/sounds, begin to form.
This analysis demonstrated how imitation and replication can be observed at the level of
platform infrastructure, making the process of mimesis the basis of sociality. TikTok
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users are algorithmically, digitally, and socially encouraged to consume content conducive for imitation and for the purpose of imitation. Given this analysis, several points
warrant discussion.
If we accept that TikTok promotes mimesis through its digital features, layout, and
platform logic, then we must consider why this mode of communication has been pushed
by the platform. The recent infrastructuralization of platforms lends insight into why and
how mimesis might be a beneficial communicative and interactive strategy. Social media
platforms, once characterized by small-scale connectivity, now reflect large-scale sociopolitical and economic infrastructures that have become indispensable to human life.
Indeed, platforms like Facebook and Instagram have parlayed the ubiquity, ease, appeal,
and critical use of their services “to gain footholds as the modern-day equivalents of the
railroad, telephone, and electric utility monopolies” (Plantin et al., 2018: 306–307), now
providing news and political services, facilitating commercial transactions, partnering
with telecommunication companies, and so on. Because social media function as profitdriven eco-systems, platforms often “bind pre-defined communicative acts,” such as
naming effects on videos, “to an economic logic,” recognizing that user engagement is
first needed to secure economic capital (Plantin et al., 2018: 297). Importantly, and to
this end, TikTok has also tied imitation and replication to user profitability. TikTok
explicitly informs users of how many followers, videos, and video likes they need to
qualify for their brand partnering service (see Figure 2). Such specificity encourages
users to create content with the hopes that they too can profit from their videos. From this
platformization perspective, mimesis is a particularly advantageous strategy for both the
platform and users as imitation and replication engender content production and spreadability in unparalleled ways.
TikTok’s memetic properties have also made a significant impact on the music industry, further illustrating how platform design is embedded in and can influence sociocultural norms/systems. Over the last 2 years, TikTok has staged the ground for obscure
artists such as Lil Nas X, Doja Cat, and Megan Thee Stallion, among others, to achieve
mass visibility and record-breaking hits (Leight, 2019). Because TikTok is an extension
of Musical.ly, popular culture songs are an essential component of the platform and
included in most videos, especially dance challenges. Hearing or reading the lyrics of
certain songs now conjure up dance moves to the extent that artists are developing songs
with TikTok challenges and imitation in mind (e.g. Justin Bieber’s “Yummy” was said to
be written for TikTok; Thompson, 2020). Bridges and choruses of popular music are
being shortened to accommodate TikTok’s 15- to 60-second video limits. Lyrics and
tunes are being designed with corresponding movements with hopes that TikTok users
will attach a song to a dance challenge. Although the digital context has always been
conducive for grassroots artists, TikTok uniquely promotes artists through mimesis, and,
in turn, artists are tailoring their songs to become more replicable.
There is also vast potential for other sectors, such as health, non-profit, or political, to
capitalize on TikTok’s memetic properties (see Zhu et al., 2019). For example, during the
COVID-19 pandemic, Vietnamese officials created a TikTok dance demonstrating the
proper way to wash hands and engage in social distancing (BBC, 2020a). The dance
launched a “challenge” where users imitated the hand-washing procedure, presumably
for increased visibility, but incidentally promoting/spreading safe behaviors. During the
Figure 2. TikTok instructions for brand partnerships.
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2020 US presidential election, TikTok users claimed to have dismantled attendance at
President Donald Trump’s Tulsa, Oklahoma rally using the platform to falsely register
for tickets (Lorenz et al., 2020). Due to imitation publics on TikTok, public service or
activist messages through this platform could be much more persuasive than in other
formats. Indeed, scholars examining Facebook use and social interaction have found that
people who observe their social networks posting about political behaviors are more
likely to engage in political activities offline so they too can share on social media (Bond
et al., 2012). Follow this work, TikTok users may be more inclined to adopt behaviors or
participate in civic activities if they are packaged as “challenges” or “checks” that they
can replicate. If “liveness” does indeed drive some of the challenge participation on
TikTok, then users will be looking for videos to imitate, regardless of the content, so they
too can be relevant in whatever challenge is circulating on the platform (see Lupinacci,
2020). TikTok videos could thus be a novel format for health, public service, and political messages insofar as they draw on imitation and replication.
Beyond the strategic messaging implications of this analysis, theorizing TikTok as a
memetic text has both theoretical and methodological value. Many meme theorizations
focus on the specific texts that are remixed and circulated in digital and non-digital contexts (e.g. one video or image; Shifman, 2013; Tuters and Hagen, 2020; Wiggins, 2019).
Consequently, even the Internet meme as a unit of analysis was still relatively murky.
What can be a meme? How/when do we know if an artifact is a meme? To answers these
questions, scholars typically needed to wait until after a text was widely circulated to
categorize it as a meme. Positioning TikTok as a memetic text means that the videos
produced on the platform or specific features like effects and sounds all have memetic
potential, either by spurring imitation or being imitated, lending much more concreteness to the nature, form, and location of memes in the digital context (i.e. TikTok videos
on TikTok). At the very least, memetic tracing becomes more efficient as TikTok marks
the originator of sounds and categorizes video sounds and effects by their engagement
metrics. Such TikTok metrics are particularly useful for determining when and how a
meme began and its level of cultural significance.
Moreover, conceptualizing memetic networks based on how digital and non-digital
subcultures circulate singular texts is limiting as it does not take into consideration how
memetic processes in general, such as imitating effects or sounds but applying them to
different content, in different ways, and for potentially different purposes, incidentally,
and in TikTok’s case, digitally contributes to public formation. Previous theorizations of
memetic networks positioned memes and memetic literacy as an enthymematic mode of
speech used by publics or subcultures with shared values or ideologies; publics circulating a meme to collectively express dissent or further a political argument (e.g. graffiti
during the World Wars, the triple parentheses meme on 4chan; Tuters and Hagen, 2020;
Wiggins, 2019). Imitation publics on TikTok are much broader and start from the shared
experience of engaging in mimesis, not necessarily from an enthymematic, argumentative, or ideologically laden position, although that is certainly possible.
This examination is an initial step in understanding the TikTok platform. We recognize our reading of TikTok as a memetic text as just that: one reading. TikTok’s design
and user adoption are evolutionary, thus the continued examination of TikTok as a sociocultural, economic, and political phenomenon is warranted. Given the nuanced, but
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subjective nature of walkthrough analyses, our understanding of TikTok would greatly
benefit from more generalizable methodological approaches. Topically, future scholars
should examine the specific content of and user motivations for creating TikTok videos
(e.g. entertainment, artistic expression, political dissent). Scholars will do well to consider how imitation publics on TikTok are used for collective action and the types of
imitative behaviors/videos deployed in service of social and political goals. Future
research should also be probative of TikTok’s strategic messaging potential, assessing if/
how imitation and replication are being adopted by politicians, news organizations,
health and educational systems, commercial businesses, and to what effects. And, scholars should interrogate how users understand, interact with, or push back against TikTok’s
machine learning and content sorting algorithm that can lead to users “being on” an
imitation public. For now, this analysis usefully adds to the literature on mimesis and the
processes driving networked publics, further illustrating how technology affects
Authors’ Note
The authors agree to this submission, and this article is not currently being considered for publication by any other print or electronic journal.
The authors would like to thank Victoria Nonnon for sparking their interest in TikTok.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
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Author biographies
Diana Zulli (PhD, University of Utah) is an assistant professor of Public Relations and Political
Communication in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University. Her research
interests include communication theory, digital technology, and political discourse.
David James Zulli is an undergraduate student in the International Relations and Global Studies and
Anthropology programs at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include NGO
advocacy and social media.

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