We’re seeing a metamorphosis in the media landscape. If the 2010s were all about photo-sharing, the 2020s are all about short-form video.

More and more people are enticed by the personal, curated experiences of short form video content. Gen Z’s go-to destinations for content are now creator-driven. For 13-19 Year Olds, YouTube is beating out Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ … and TikTok is rapidly growing in popularity (having reached 700 Million Users since launch!)

We’re entering a battleground for 15 second uploads – TikTok, YouTube Shorts, and Instagram Reels: the latest thing to cater to the producer/consumer demo that is Gen Z.

But why is this happening, and how will it impact other sectors of media?

15 SECONDS OF FAME

Artist Andy Wahrol famously said, “In the Future, everyone in the world will be famous for fifteen minutes.” But I imagine he’d be surprised that fifteen minutes would be a gross exaggeration – the reality is closer to fifteen seconds: a short-form video, uploaded to nearly a billion mobile users in the world. Of course, we live in a world where the mobile phone is the “go-to” destination for mobile web-browsing and how we interact and engage with content.

Launching in 2016, TikTok has since blown up in popularity. Not only has it captivated the mobile usage of 11 – 25-year-olds, but it’s transforming how we interact with music and has even launched some notable careers.

Charlie D’Amelio has built a following of over 100M fans (116.3M TikTok followers at the time of writing) and has shown up in Super Bowl commercials and even landed a Hulu reality series called “The D’Amelio Show” – all through content of her dancing.

a

Music has also been greatly impacted by this mobile shift – songs like Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road and the Wellerman sea shanty (of all things) saw great success on music charts across the world after becoming a TikTok meme. This led to the ability to easily appropriate and rapidly distribute music across the platform. In fact, if you’re in the UK you’ve probably seen this commercial by TikTok – “It starts with you: It starts on TikTok.”

The ease with which it takes to edit, produce, and distribute has greatly shaken things up across the industry. Even the “Kombucha Girl” saw success used in ad campaigns across Twitter following the virality of the meme – 15 seconds of fame to a global marketing campaign.

The question is, what comes next?

NICHE, UNIVERSAL … AND SUSTAINABLE?

There’s a lot being written on the success of TikTok. What goes viral? How do brands reach the kids today? How has the competition grown? etc.

These are certainly questions felt in the tech industry as well. Both YouTube and Instagram are trying to lure Gen Z to their platforms with promises of creator funds and support for producing short vids for them. YouTube is currently testing out their “YouTube Shorts” – currently in Beta, with a couple making the trending page each day. A recent report confirmed that they’re already preferred by Gen Z to paid streaming services like Netflix, so offering #Shorts is a logical step.

But I believe it’s Instagram with a greater uphill battle – given their audience is predominantly Millennial, and Gen Z is far more engaged with YouTube and TikTok – Not to mention Facebook’s already bad reputation with consumers (currently, they’re offering universally-disliked ideas like “Instagram for Kids”).

But the question boils down to monetisation. On YouTube videos, for example, creators get paid a percentage of ad revenue based on video view, whereas Instagram is built more to partner influencers with brands seeking representation.

TikTok is still figuring out their strategy, but creator funds look like the way forward to attracting and maintaining talent. The real interesting questions are how sustainable this model will prove, and will we get to the stage where creators exclusively “sign” with services offering these shorts? After all, Instagram has confirmed that they won’t promote TikTok videos on their platform.

No doubt we’ll get more clarity in time.

NEW MODELS OF DISRUPTION

Attracting Gen Z eyeballs to a service makes sense for tech, but the bigger questions surround disruption around other industries. We’ve already seen how TikTok has impacted music, but what about streaming services, video games, and marketing?

When iTunes launched over 20 years ago it reshaped the music industry overnight. Users could purchase, download, build playlists, and play music from the comfort of their own home. Then, with the iPod releasing soon after, they could travel and play MP3s on the go.

It transformed the music industry within a year. It combatted piracy and gave consumers total control over their favourite tracks. It wasn’t long before CDs and cassette tapes felt totally obsolete.

Of course, music was easy enough to download – the file sizes were smaller, and a 5GB 1st gen iPod could hold 1000 songs. It would be another few years before film and television would experience the same level of disruption and we’d see the same patterns repeat. With the ability to download and stream film on demand, the DVD and VHS (like the CD and cassette before) became rapidly obsolete.

We’re seeing the same patterns today with TikTok – first music being disrupted, but no doubt film and television will be soon to follow. But how?

FROM INFLUENCER TO MOVIE STAR

The path from YouTube to film has rarely been a successful one – as evidenced by the myriad of truly awful movies.

It doesn’t take long to go down the list of YouTuber movies and series which were critically and commercially panned. Airplane Mode, SMOSH: The Movie, Fred: The Movie, Liza on Demand – each one more reliable on star power than narrative, story, or plot. Rarely do these movies ever make an impact on the industry – if anything, they’re oddities for other YouTubers to critique and make fun of.

Of course, from a financial/marketing standpoint it makes total sense (in theory). Influencers already have large followings, so putting them in a movie/TV series will bolster ratings and draw in their pre-established audiences. Simple, right?

The reality it more complicated, and it’s to do with how audiences engage with different mediums. The appeal of YouTube and social media comes down to a sense of authenticity. The very nature of platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram capitalise off a parasocial relationship between fans and influencers – essentially, a one-sided affection.

Given the sheer volume of exposure YouTubers can amass, fans invest emotional energy and attachment into regular, ritualistic views. Moreover, this relationship is paramount for the success of an influencer – transforming an online persona into a sense of community.

But that doesn’t make them actors – and it certainly doesn’t make for good movies – e.g. Airplane Mode.

Still, Hollywood has taken notice.

Creator Plus is a new startup that’s just raised $12 Million to turn TikTok stars into movie stars, following in the same logic as YouTuber movies … already large following, put ‘em in a picture … minimise risk … maximise profit (in theory).

Similarly, Netflix and Adobe are actively scouring TikTok for future content creators in hopes of transferring some of those Gen Z eyeballs to their paid streaming service. Of course, it’s too early to say how successful this will be.

But perhaps the biggest significance of this disruption is that SAG-AFTRA (The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) have started accepting Instagrammers, YouTubers, and TikTokers in their ranks.

There is undoubtedly a shift happening, and modernisation for the industry means seeing who has the most followers and mitigating risk through a devoted audience base.

The question is, is there a future for storytelling from a social-first platform?

CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

I believe like-to-dislike ratio of YouTuber Logan Paul’s Airplane Mode best exemplifies the challenges translating a social media star to a film.

Bridging the gap between short 15-second videos to feature films, TV series, and even graphic novels – as in Ninja’s case – can seem boarder line impossible. Influencer appeal does not come from crafting a compelling narrative.

There’s no doubt that’s it’s easier to transition from Influencer to reality TV – as with Charli D’Amelio – it’s just a progression of the parasocial relationship between fan and influencer.

But the biggest challenge is how do you make the most with scripted content? This is where I believe the solution lies more in the platform, and less in the influencer.

TikTok is like a perpetual marketing campaign – videos are recommended all the time on the “For You” page, and it can be a great place to test and launch an IP. Some of my favourite videos are animations, things like @nobody_sausage – who, at the time of writing, has 7.7M followers! But despite not being designed to be realistic, he still racks up high levels of engagement and immersion.

Perhaps that’s the solution. Instead of focusing on real people, we should turn to the virtual. Investors are increasingly looking to virtual influencers to attract interest, so perhaps launching a virtual character is a solution for bridging the real with the scripted.

A TRANSMEDIA FUTURE

I can’t argue 15-sec videos is a good tool for crafting a narrative. Over time, you may see shifts in content style – but typically not by design, and certainly not in-line with crafting a larger story. No, we should treat this medium for what it is – a great way to explore character and personality.

For those familiar with this blog, you’ll know that transmedia is my bread and butter – using multi-platform storytelling to explore narratives and build fictional universes (i.e. the MCU or Star Wars strategy). In using mediums like video games, film, and television/streaming, it’s possible to craft more immersive and engaging concepts for audiences.

So, what does TikTok bring to the table?

The answer is character. For every successful profile, at its core there’s an element of character – even for real-life human influencers. You feel like you know them, you get a sense of their personality – their likes, their motivations, their passions. Although it may not be an epic “Hero’s Journey” it fulfils the role of creating an engaging “character” to follow and connect with … even Nobody_Sausage achieves this.

I think this is what streaming services need to be aware of. TikTok presents the opportunity to build a character, but film and television present the opportunity to put that character on a quest – to challenge them and throw them in an unknown and unfamiliar scenario: a Hero’s Journey.

That’s what Netflix should be looking for with their new approach – characters they can throw into an epic or unknown scenario, which have already built a following and have an engaged audience.

Adaptation isn’t the solution: transmedia is.

I think back to the mid-2000s where even the multi-platinum-selling Crazy Frog began as a goofy under-a-minute long clip before being transformed into a myriad of video games, merchandise, and music videos.

After all, an IP has infinitely greater potential than a real-life person …