Unlike other social media apps, in which users’ feeds are primarily comprised of posts shared by accounts they follow, TikTok features an algorithmic feed (the For-You Page) populated with video clips from a wide array of creators based on the user’s interest. Savvy science communicators can use this model to raise awareness of a topic beyond their usual audience. Below are some tips to get you started on the app, even with no social media experience.
1. Decide whether TikTok would benefit your science communication
Determining the value that TikTok adds to your science communication practice depends on an understanding of the app’s strengths and limitations. Along with the aforementioned algorithmic feed, one strength of TikTok is the platform’s quickly growing user base. Boasting over one billion monthly users, TikTok was the most-downloaded app in 2021. The app’s active users tend to be young and female. While this represents an exciting opportunity to engage these demographics with science outreach, the skewed user base is also one of TikTok’s weaknesses. Creators can target their content to a different demographic using the app’s promotion features, but if you hope to reach a broad swath of older adults, you may have more success using other outlets.
TikTok’s other drawbacks stem from the app’s own policies. The platform is notorious for its stringent community guidelines, which limit discussion of drug use, self-harm, sexual activity, violence, and more. While science communicators ranging from gynecologists to cannabis advocates get creative on the app to convey their message without violating these guidelines, those who prefer a more frank approach may find these rules stifling.
2. Determine which sort of TikTok account best suits your needs
When creating your TikTok account, you will be prompted to choose between a “personal” or a “business” profile. Users with business accounts can access analytics to evaluate content performance and identify their audience. Business accounts are also immediately able to add a URL in their bio, making it a good option if your account will be associated with a website. However, as much popular music is not licensed for commercial use on the app, your music choices will be limited on a business profile.
Personal accounts can utilize all music on TikTok, but they have fewer features. For example, users with personal accounts cannot put a URL in their bio until they gain at least one thousand followers. These accounts are best for science communicators who are representing themselves rather than a website or organization.
3. Familiarize yourself with the app’s features and culture
If you have never used TikTok, spend some time navigating the app before creating your own videos. Like other social media sites, TikTok has its own culture, and understanding these dynamics will enhance your experience on the platform.
Following a wide variety of science-focused accounts can be a great source for inspiration. Some of the best that #scitok has to offer include:
- The Institute of Human Anatomy: This Utah-based research and educational facility uses real cadavers to educate users about human biology. Think the Bodies exhibit, but on your phone.
- Kyne: The former Canada’s Drag Race contestant makes abstract mathematical concepts simple to understand- all while donning a lace-front wig and a flawless cut crease.
- Dr. Andre Isaacs: The Associate Professor of Chemistry at the College of the Holy Cross shows the silly side of laboratory life.
4. Try incorporating popular sounds
Hashtags still exist on TikTok, but trends on the app are mostly mediated through sounds, audio clips that creators can add to their videos. Spend any amount of time scrolling your TikTok feed, and you will start to notice how many videos use the same sounds. Using one of these sounds won’t guarantee that your videos will go viral, but participating in these trends is a good way to increase engagement.
Before using a sound, take the time to understand the trend. If the audio clip has an unsavory origin or usage, that could undermine your credibility as a science communicator. You should also be mindful of a sound’s cultural context. For example, in a 2020 piece in Wired magazine, Black creators described discomfort with how non-Black TikTok users knowingly or unknowingly perpetuated racist stereotypes through their use of certain audios. TikTok sounds are a large part of the app’s playful, collaborative culture, and should be used in a spirit of fun, but they should not distract from your scientific message.
5. Enjoy yourself!
TikTok videos are at most ten minutes long, so they likely won’t be the end-all, be-all of your science communication practice. Don’t sweat if your account doesn’t take off immediately. If your goal is to go mega-viral, you’ll want to keep up with the changing styles of posts that are rewarded by the algorithm. Resources like the r/Tiktokhelp subreddit can help you read the tea leaves. Otherwise, with well-lit videos uploaded consistently, and a little bit of luck, you’ll gradually find your audience.