The President has joined TikTok rival Triller, but to what end?
Triller doesn’t like to be described as a ‘TikTok rival’, but that’s exactly what it is. Their short videos of pranks, singalongs, micro-skits, life-hacks and nano-celebrities are very much in the same ballpark as the Chinese-owned Zoomer favourite.
Triller now claims 250 million downloads, which feels more like a press release fib. But what can’t be doubted is that the app hit number one on the iTunes store in over fifty countries this month, as, following Trump’s intended ban, the social media lifeboats went out for a post-TikTok world. Both Instagram and Snapchat have also launched their own extensions, aiming to hoover up some of the app’s expiring glory.
Now, Triller have done what Twitter’s Right-wing rival Parler hasn’t yet managed: securing the buy-in of Donald J. Trump. Lately Triller’s owners have been plying various TikTok influencers with venture capital cash to lock them into exclusive deals. Whether or not they consider the President an influencer, he’s definitely a scalp.
But what stands out in the six videos posted under his tag so far is how incongruous they feel on a site designed for apolitical larks.
The most recent is Trump pumping his arms, under which someone has dubbed The Village People’s YMCA. It’s not clear quite what the message is, except that it feels as though it has been beamed down from, well, a man in his mid-70s trying to drum up Big Meme Energy.
It’s easy to forget that, for all his mastery of Twitter’s capacity to channel the tectonic plates of controversy as a form of natural energy, all of Trump’s best memes on there were artefacts that others had created in his honour, and he merely re-tweeted.
Every election since 2008 has billed itself as the biggest social media election ever. With TikTok-style video clips in the ascendant and Facebook increasingly confined to the olds, you’d think it might be the turn of the video meme apps.
But so far, these spaces seem to naturally repel these kinds of conversations. Indeed, one of the key appeals of TikTok is quite how walled-off it is from the personal-is-political world of adult-oriented social media. Its private garden of daftness offers a hopeful view of a Zoomer generation who don’t seem to care quite so much for being angry online.
Historically, the short video has been delivered to US voters in the form of the political attack ad. These won’t stop: Biden has already made hay with ads attacking Trump’s pandemic response. But these are increasingly reserved for the same over-60s who watch Fox: they come wrapped in the same starchy grammar of US television, with its endless run-on sentences of prescription drug contra-indications.
In 2016, Trump’s Pepe Army definitively won the meme wars. But most of those Pepe Twitter accounts are defunct now, frozen in internet ammonite. Whether he can find that same energy twice will depend on whether he can again galvanise his own followers, to the extent that they make the content that amplifies the message. It’s a subtle challenge, one that involves trusting the broiling soup at the bottom of the internet to crowd-source some sticky genius.
The opposite is what Mike Bloomberg did in his short flail for the Democratic nomination: employing a brains trust of paid meme-makers. That’s the Harvard MBA solution. It failed, dismally. And if there’s one key insight that Trump has over his rivals, it’s that the social class that comprises Harvard MBAs are generally terrible at their jobs. Keep it simple, stupid.