The case for ‘highbrow shitposting’: A missing link between journalism and TikTok

A couple of summers ago, I kept seeing videos about a bunk science app, Randonautica, on my For You page on TikTok. The app claimed to send people to interesting nearby places based on their thoughts. I published an investigation into the app that found that such technology does not actually exist. Then I promoted my article on TikTok, while wearing a T-shirt that read pay for the news.

“I really wish this wasn’t behind a pay wall ):” one commenter wrote. “It gatekeeps info from poor people.” It was not the first time a TikTok user had tussled with me over the idea that journalism is worth money.

On TikTok, I have roughly 127,400 followers. As I write this, that’s on par with Wired, NPR, and NYT Cooking. My most popular TikTok to date is a roundup of my top ten films of 2021 (No. 1: The Green Knight), in reference to an article I wrote for the film and television site The Playlist. The video has some two million views, yet the link to my written coverage on my profile has only been clicked about six thousand times. 

Media outlets of all stripes struggle to cover internet subcultures well, but that ignorance appears to flow both ways. In the world of TikTok, the title “journalist” lends me some mystical cachet, but plenty of commenters will never actually read my work. In the world of journalism, my following is little more than a fun fact. On TikTok, individual personalities are taken at face value, their versions of events accepted without any editorial oversight or even citation. In journo-world, TikTok is woefully underused as a platform for spreading information, despite its formidable reach. And as we all know, audiences are increasingly turning to social media—not journalistic outlets themselves—for their news.

For some commenters, it feels like the only information that exists is on their hypnotic For You pages. I am regularly asked for my opinions on films I have already made TikToks about. And forget about Googling anything to find my articles. When I cite my own work, I usually get at least one comment asking something that could be answered by visiting the—say it with me now—link in my bio.

Some TikTok users seem offended by the very notion that they should engage with journalism at all. I’ve had more than a few other commenters outright refuse to cross paywalls for my work. In one video, after a BuzzFeed News article about YouTuber drama upset a certain online crowd (“If we’re going to BuzzFeed for great journalism,” one YouTuber said, “then I think we’re already lost”), I pointed out that BuzzFeed News had just won a Pulitzer Prize, and explained the distinction between its community-written quizzes and its newsroom. I also tried to dispel the idea that a YouTuber’s PR team had paid the New York Times for flattering coverage. 

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“They’re still a business and they still have to make money by getting clicks,” someone wrote, speaking about the media generally. “They do that through fear mongering a lot. I see why people don’t trust.” 

TikTok and journalism understand each other about as well as I understand the plot of Elden Ring. This is in part, I think, because many institutions don’t find it worthwhile to engage with TikTok’s audience. But given that TikTok users are overwhelmingly young, it’s imperative that we take them seriously. Who benefits from the continually degrading media literacy of incoming generations? Certainly not the media, and certainly not young people.

The Washington Post is one legacy newsroom attempting to bridge this gap with bite-size meme-ifications of the news, broadcast to its 1.4 million followers. NPR’s Planet Money (about 686,900 followers) offers more comprehensive—and stylistically avant-garde—videos. The Los Angeles Times, for its part (about 247,200 followers), mostly shares straightforward news.

But the Times’ TikTok host, V. Spehar, has roughly ten times as many followers on their main account, where they gained a following for their daily roundups of major events. While journalism becomes an increasingly personality-based industry, and users seem more keen to get their news from personalities than reporters, many other major newsrooms fail to take advantage of this opportunity. 

Of course, it’s good to encourage TikTok users to get their news, no matter how brief, from newsrooms. But as people engage with actual reporting less and less, should we just meet them where they’re at, or can we try to hide some vegetables in their food? Perhaps something in between the Post and the Times approaches would do the trick: a cocktail of personality, citation, and the occasional highbrow shitposting. 

I’m not saying it’s easy. Despite my constant attempts to draw my viewers to my written work, I think most of them would rather snack on my TikToks, which, by dint of the fact that I have no editorial oversight and nobody is paying me to make them, are often simplistic and glib. As a journalist, I don’t love the idea that someone might know me better as “the woman who went viral for an off-the-dome rave about Jennifer’s Body” than “the woman who wrote a 1,200-word article eloquently praising Jennifer’s Body in the New York Times.” 

TikTok can seem screwy and intimidatingly sprawling, but it’s also an untapped resource. I’m certainly not about to delete my profile. I often feel misunderstood by commenters, but the exposure has helped me as an early-career freelancer. If I can build a six-figure following from a rickety foundation of dog videos and rants, imagine what newsroom social media teams could do to inject good journalism where it’s sorely needed.

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Lena Wilson is a project manager at the New York Times and a freelance writer covering film, TV, technology, and lesbian culture.

TOP IMAGE: Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via AP