Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 October 2020

What makes a TikTok video go viral?

Nathan Apodaca holding his skateboard while standing in the back of a truck in Idaho Falls, Idaho, US, on October 6. Mr Apodaca is enjoying fame from a 22-second TikTok video that has racked up over 28 million views since he posted it last month. Wesley White/Ocean Spray via AP
Nathan Apodaca holding his skateboard while standing in the back of a truck in Idaho Falls, Idaho, US, on October 6. Mr Apodaca is enjoying fame from a 22-second TikTok video that has racked up over 28 million views since he posted it last month. Wesley White/Ocean Spray via AP

When Nathan Apodaca’s car broke down last month, he reached for his smartphone, a bottle of cranberry juice and his long-board, flicked open a popular social media app and rolled his way into history.

Even if you are familiar with the viral TikTok clip of him skateboarding down a US slip road lipsyncing to a popular song from the '70s, it is worth unpacking it a little to work out why those few seconds of footage have gone viral.

Perhaps it is the knowing nod Mr Apodaca gives to the camera in its opening frames or the grey asphalt, silver silos and white pick-up trucks that filled his corner of Idaho on that crisp September morning? Or maybe it was his choice of song, Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, which was such a perfect example of soft rock to set against the cloudy blue morning sky behind him. Taken together and viewed from afar, this is a familiar version of America, as seen in popular culture.

But the real magic happens as Mr Apodaca slides down the road on an unseen skateboard, slugging fitfully from an oversized plastic bottle of fruit juice, and Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks begins to sing, “You say you want your freedom, well who am I to keep you down,” before Mr Apodaca mimes: “It’s only right that you should play the way you feel it.”

Like the best art, everything seems to balance perfectly: intrigue, humour, light and despair. There is what we know in this small vignette and then there is the great chasm of the unknown that has been progressively filled by the many interviews Mr Apodaca has given since posting his work on TikTok.

What happened next also seems to embody a version of the old-fashioned American Dream, with his rise from anonymity and adversity to possibility and prominence.

Mr Apodaca’s moment of fame, compressed into a clip a few seconds long and unwound on loop in our digital world, has prompted tribute videos honouring his art, including one by Mick Fleetwood himself, and has pushed Rumours, the best-selling album from which the song is drawn, back to the top of one of the many Billboard charts that now map every possible genre of music.

Mr Apodaca’s TikTok back catalogue has been given a boost too, with many seeking out the clips he posted before he started troubling the zeitgeist. Last week, Ocean Spray, the brand of juice he was drinking on that September morning, delivered a new vehicle to his doorstep to replace his unreliable old one. Media reports say he’s found himself an agent and has taken time away from work to make sense of the world he now lives in.

He told NPR that he thinks the clip struck a chord because it gives viewers the chance to “vibe out” in what might be deemed this strangest of all years. He’s right, of course.

Of the daily avalanche of content delivered to our social media feeds that is posted with phrases like “this clip is exactly what we need right now” and “how it started vs how it’s going”, it turns out that what we really needed was a pause to consider that someone might be having a worse day than any one of us, and that a knowing nod to camera was the best way to express how it’s going.

The trend in viral clips has moved on from the irrepressible spirit of banging pots

In a year marked by staying put and sheltering at home, the trend in viral clips has moved from the irrepressible spirit of banging pots to honour frontline workers in the spring to the look-at-me-I’m-great world of “your last move is their first move” and “between art and quarantine” of the summer.

To some degree, viral social media always used to be rooted in community. Even the often criticised ice bucket challenge, which dominated social media feeds six years ago this autumn and is recognised as one of the defining viral campaigns of the past decade, raised awareness and money for ALS and motor neuron charities around the world. A 2019 report found that funding increased dramatically in the period when the campaign’s social media fire burnt most brightly.

That same year, the viral 2014 Twitter campaign “put out your bats” which began following the death of Australian international cricketer Phillip Hughes after being struck by a cricket ball, served to be one of the ways that communities bound themselves together in their collective sadness and incomprehension at what had just happened.

Both examples seem several places removed from the show-off viral social media moments of the summer. If 2020 is the year when so many dreams have dissolved into nightmares and communities have been torn apart by the unfolding tragedy of the pandemic, then his clip is a timely correction at the very least.

No one really knows why certain clips or stories catch fire in the deep forest of social media. Maybe the reason this one did is that it exudes both a sense of loss and a feeling of hope. Later in the song, Nicks sings about “have you any dreams you’d like to sell”. It turns out Mr Apodaca did – and we were only happy to buy them.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National

Updated: October 15, 2020 06:07 PM

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