Educational content: An unexpected TikTok trend

Published August 28, 2021, 8:00 PM

by Pao Vergara

Beyond trendy and pa-bebe dances, some users and communities have turned TikTok into a geeky, nerdy, #wholesome space

TikTok Photo from kapersky

Given its reputation, TikTok may be one of the social media apps you are trying to avoid. Our relationships with other apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube are already ambivalent at best, as anyone, based on use habits, can use these apps to help calamity victims or stalk celebrities.

But TikTok? What can it offer that the others don’t already do?

For one, it surpassed three of the four aforementioned apps in terms of downloads. More and more celebrities and organizations are taking to it as a marketing platform. The more cynical could say it’s just a routine part of expanding marketing operations, but there is a reason people, “the market,” gravitate to the app.
But is it worth moving there for me? For you? Will it just take away more cognitive space, already clogged as it is? Will five-minute breaks devolve into two-hour scrolls, leaving me feeling like I’ve wasted my morning? Will it, like many social media apps, capitalize on my oh-too-human penchant for instant gratification and distraction, limiting my already limited attention?

Yes, but not if one tailors one’s feed right.

But oh! That’s been said so many times about other apps. Use it well, use it for good. But every few months or so, social media developers roll out new features that bring back the monkey mind.

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Hashtag wholesome

These days, a TikTok trend I’ve been witnessing is friends sharing that they’re using the app to learn more about things like coffee crafting, home repairs and improvement, feminism, bonsai, origami, new books to read, astronomy, all as med and law students quiz themselves through accounts dedicated to their fields. They explain that if you disengage from “trashy content,” the algorithm will eventually figure out what you’re looking for.

People often talk about the like button, but few talk about the power of the “not interested” button.

A few journalists, scientists, and authors have inched away from traditional institutions to tell stories they wanted in ways they wanted on YouTube, and now these storytellers have opened TikTok accounts as well. Adam Ragusea, Neil de Grasse Tyson, and Hank Green are some names already established in traditional media who’ve moved to TikTok.
Perhaps there’s something that the app can do better than others?

Assuming that the goal is to get people to delve deeper into topics, here are some ways TikTok can be used as an educational tool, not just for students, but for the general public, and that includes hesitant dinosaurs like you and me.

People often talk about the like button, but few talk about the power of the “not interested” button and variants thereof.

1.  Getting you to read. “Link in bio” is a buzz phrase but how many people writing essays in the comments sections of Facebook or Instagram read the damn article first? It seems, enticing people by “acting out the article” with some spice (filters and music snippets) works better in making a digitally-saturated generation engage more genuinely with primary texts.
While TikTok is not a substitute for actual reading, think of it as Wikipedia list of readings and sources on a topic but with cool visuals and sounds.

2. User collaboration. Ever since TikTok merged with, it became easier for users to build on content made by other users. With Facebook and Twitter, you can only add your own caption when sharing a post. Instagram stories allow for some leeway.

But with TikTok’s “duet” feature coupled with the ability to upload snippets of music and filters, one person can expound the energy of another, think of retweeting, but on crack. Instead of things trending based simply on the number of shares, things trend based on how people reinvent something.

3. Content curation. Perhaps, what TikTok does better than its competitors is take your dislikes more seriously.
While the robots that run the systems are tailored to give users more of what they want, more of what they click, more of what their eyes linger on, and, if you gave the app access to your microphone, more of what you talk about, the example of educational TikTok shows that this seemingly manipulative feature can be used for good things, too.
People often talk about the like button, but few talk about the power of the “not interested” button and variants thereof.

It’s also notable how that features such as the Like button have been criticized as one potential factor that shapes our behavior, making us needy for validation, thus, less mindful in what we post and say, likely contributing to the rise in mental health disorders among people whose most formative years were shaped by this feature.

A new logic

The logic of surveillance capitalism operates by giving you more of what you want, hoping you’ll spend more time on the app, be exposed to more advertising, and be swayed to eventually give your money. But perhaps this is now backfiring as more and more users see how they’re being used.

It seems that the bigger picture, regardless of platform, is that users, people, want the algorithms to give them more diverse, more meaningful content, not necessarily more of what’s instinctually pleasurable. Often, this can mean content from fields and communities that they’re not often exposed to.

Tech ethicists have long talked about how designers should not just think about how to create experiences that keep users hooked on their apps and thus more vulnerable to advertising, but on user well-being and community health, emphasizing that people are not merely products to sell.

Like in other cases where the inaction of those in power leads average folks to take matters into their own hands thus exposing workarounds in the system, it seems that this TikTok trend of educational content is a manifestation of that community effort.