TikTok sludge content, explained – Polygon
A person is cutting up kinetic sand to make neat cubes right beside a clip. Family Guy. Jumping and coin-collecting is the essence of Subway SurfersThis video is played alongside an excerpt from a Twitch stream. Slime is being coiled and stretched next to a reupload of someone else’s POV sketch.
These kinds of collaged videos — sometimes called “sludge content” — that play completely different footage side by side are proliferating on TikTok. But they’ve also been shared on other platforms, where they’ve become a meme in and of themselves. That attention can be negative especially when it comes to the attention spans of young internet users.
“Am I old or is something very wrong here,” reads oneTweet showing the video divided in three directions between Subway SurfersA game, an episode Family GuySomeone scooping, cutting and distributing sensory sand. “This is what your little cousin watches 14 hours a day,” says anotherCaptioning video clips that are spliced with another Family GuyVideo clip with footage taken from the appearance of Jump girlThe absurd endless runner game sees the protagonist jumping off various things, such as men or giant eggplants. The audio clip for this video is borderline unlistenable, layering a robot reading a (potentially fake) Reddit post with multiple sound effects and “Cat’s in the Cradle”Harry Chapin
However, neither the video shown in these tweets looks as simple as it seems. Perhaps the latter parody is more apparent of this trend. The official posted the first. Subway Surfers TikTok account, capitalizing on the 10-year-old endless runner mobile game’s sudden surge in popularity by posting a TikTok collage that exaggerated the style to include three video clips versus the usual two. This trend is so popular that prominent streamers and companies have taken to the internet, sometimes laughing at it. But it’s not always easy to tell whether the collages are intended ironically or not — and they appear to be a successful strategy to boost engagement regardless.
For example, streamer and political commentator Hasan Piker’s account, run by editor Ostonox, posted a video in January split into four. Below is a video of Piker responding to a stream. The video displayed brightly colored cylinders made of kinetic sand. Subway Surfers gameplay. “It was both satirizing the current trend and it actually allowed viewers to watch something visually stimulating while still listening,” says Ostonox.
Ostonox describes multitasking as doing chores, while simultaneously listening to a podcast. And anecdotal evidence suggests that the trend does hold people’s attention. Despite the broadly negative reaction to the parody tweets above, there’s no reason to doubt the commenters who report that their little cousins and other young relatives really are watching this sort of content. In the replies to Piker’s video, viewers have left comments like “you were right, this format really makes me watch the entire video” and “I hate to say it but I’m a lot more engaged this way.”
“It definitely led to much higher engagement than normal,” says Ostonox. Part of the increased reach may have been due to more comments — people wanted to talk about the meme and their experiences of its effects. Ostonox saw an increase in his watch time. “I definitely have to test the method more.”
They’re taking it slowly, though, because both Piker and Ostonox were banned for the post. They believe its virality led to trolls mass reporting the account, with TikTok ultimately citing “hate speech” as the reason for the ban. After contacting the platform, Piker was able restore his account.
It’s ultimately not surprising that collage-style videos have taken off on TikTok, a platform that can already serve two videos at once, thanks to the built-in “duet” feature. Multitasking is something that audiences are already used to. The precedent exists for similar editing methods on other platforms.
Although TikTok is the most well-known creator of dual-video formats, YouTube has been using third-party clips to create a variety of videos. These clips are from Family Guy in particular have thrived in the form of “best of” and “funniest moment” compilations thanks to editing workarounds like sharp cuts, unrelated clips, and zoomed crops that seem to have helped such videos avoid getting caught in copyright claims. It’s plausible that TikTok’s collaging trend, with its similar techniques and even similar reliance on the cartoon, also helps these videos dodge being picked up by flagging algorithms.
There’s also an element of clout-chasing to the format. Many of these videos feature viral TikToks that have been reuploaded, which allows creators the opportunity to take advantage of their popularity to get more views. People can create these collages quickly and easily by simply connecting clips, which makes it an easy way to claim a portion of the creator fund payout. This not only encourages people to make as many collages as they can, but it also incentivizes them.
But it’s easier to point to the supposed “reduction in attention span” as a reason for these TikToks to have grown in popularity, rather than these alternative motivations for creators. Without the wider context, these videos appear to be a symptom of a population who can’t stick to watching one thing at a time. Yet, it is difficult to find studies that examine the impact of this kind of content on attention span and other aspects of the human brain. The attention studies that are so popular can be weak and require more research. Smartphones have allowed multitasking to be common. For example, many of us use our smartphones to scroll social media and listen to podcasts while we watch TV.
Given this, digital media researcher Dr. Bjørn Nansen calls the collage videos “an interesting and important, but also not unexpected, phenomenon.” Where once a child might have played a game on one screen and watched TikTok on another, it makes sense to Nansen that creators would try collapsing these borders.
The fact that these collages often include video clips that are sensory or tactile, like repetitive mobile gameplay or satisfying slime clips, is also “understandable” to Nansen. “This type of content easily slips into the background […]So and so [is] well suited to accompanying other, more attention-demanding content,” he says.
This appears to have been the experience of many viewers as well. “Many of the comments [on the collage video]They discuss how multiple videos make it easy for viewers to see and absorb the information. [Piker] was saying about the meaning of the phrase ‘Black lives matter’ versus the reactionary counter of ‘all lives matter,’” says Ostonox.
It’s also not totally clear how this sort of multitasking impacts attention and retention of information. Some studies suggest that we’re less likely to remember specifics of what we watched while multitasking. But a viewer who doesn’t retain all the nuances of Piker’s argument may still know more than one who got impatient, scrolled away, and didn’t hear his point at all. And for most TikToks, the subject matter isn’t so serious — it doesn’t exactly matter how well somebody scrolling for fun recalls the details of the Family GuyClip they saw just now.
Nansen explains that collages are an art medium. Combining different images creates new experiences. “Maybe we could see these digital media collages as […]Media products are being rethought as singles, or contained. [and] differentiated,” he says. The ultimate reality is that media multitasking is a widespread practice, making our experiences “much more open-ended, unfinished, undifferentiated, [and] ongoing.” The collaging trend could be one way of expressing that artistically, as well as functionally.
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