In Defense of Gimmicks
Can a gimmicky TikTok or YouTube channel be remarkable? Can it even help us think in new ways? I think so!
There is a lot of derivative crap on social media. Lots of selfies taken for the purpose of recycling cliche advice. Plenty of formulaic stories told for the purpose of performing vulnerability. Oodles of trend-jacking videos posted for the purpose of getting some small slice of the attention pie.
It's repetitive. And boring.
And I have nothing but compassion for 99% of it. Considering I've done these same things, I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't.
But the proliferation of bad copies on various social media platforms begs the question:
Is it possible to make a TikTok video, Instagram post, or LinkedIn update that's remarkable?
Is it possible for repetition to be an asset? For repetition to even be remarkable?
When I first started thinking about 'remarkable content,' one of the objections I wanted to be sure to overcome right out of the gate was the idea that 'remarkable' would necessarily mean long, complex, or fancy. I wanted the concept of 'remarkable content' to encompass any kind of content that sought to do something more than attract a fleeting moment of attention. 'Remarkable content' shouldn't have some ridiculously high barrier to entry. There's no reason for remarkability to be inaccessible to the high schooler who has an idea, or the person between jobs with a story to tell, or the adjunct professor who has an interesting take but absolutely no extra money.
This is the 3rd installment of What Makes This Remarkable, a series exploring creative work I find remarkable. My goal is to uncover ways you can think about your own work and how to make it more compelling—whether you work with data, code, words, pictures, or people.
Normally, I release this series for premium What Works subscribers with a meaty excerpt for free subscribers. This week, I'm going to try something a bit different. The whole piece is available for free. Then tomorrow, I'm sharing Remarkable Homework and welcoming comments & discussion for premium subscribers on a separate post.
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What does remarkable content look like on social media? I think one way it can look is like a gimmick. Let me explain...
Observing Culture on TikTok
Frankie McNamara is the remarkable creator behind Frankie's Cultural Observations, a series of short videos on TikTok and YouTube. Frankie is Irish and in his late twenties, right on the cusp of the Millennial and Gen Z generations. He's made videos about Swifties, people who talk in elevators, lads who do ice baths, and girls who believe in crystals.
When Sean first introduced me to Frankie, I'll admit that I totally didn't get it. Frankie's videos look like classic "man on the street" fare—think Billy on the Street with Billy Eichner. The humor of the "man on the street" format often comes at the expense of the person being ambushed by a celebrity with a camera crew. Unfortunately, I get really terrible second-hand embarrassment (just like my momma), so the "humor" (if you can call it that) is hard for me to take.
But, despite initial appearances, Frankie's videos are not "man on the street" style. The strangers he stands beside with a conspicuous microphone rarely talk—they're set pieces.
No, not set pieces—more like the subjects of sociological observation. Because, well, that's exactly what they are. I'll get back to that soon.
Once I saw a few of Frankie's videos and could trust he wasn't ambushing anyone for laughs, I started to listen to his monologues. They were smart! And funny! And, wait—was that a Foucault reference? Wild! Frankie doesn't just describe cultural phenomena for laughs; he offers searing critique with an Irish brogue and "unwaveringly flat affect."
Frankie explained to Paper Magazine's Brandon Tauszik that he is indeed studying to become a sociologist—and he's currently enrolled in a Master's program. His first "Cultural Observations" video was about a particular look he saw many of his male college classmates sporting—a look he dubbed descriptively: "skinfade northface jacket combo." "I used some of the social theory I learned in my sociology course," he told Tauszik, "to critically analyze the 'skinfade northface jacket combo' through the lens of the Frankfurt school."
Now look, I'm a total theory nerd. Frankie's approach seems tailor-made for me. But he's garnered a huge following with millions of views across the series. He's a veritable celebrity in Ireland. There's something about Frankie's Cultural Observations that appeals to people who've never read Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, or Fromm—which is the vast majority of people. So, I want to think about why that is and how we might apply it to our own work.
What exactly is going on here?
When I first began to consider Frankie's videos critically, I was drawn to the idea of the TikTok video as a distinct medium. However, Frankie's videos aren't only TikTok videos—they also work on YouTube, which is where I watch them (because I am a geriatric Millennial). And while his YouTube views aren't as high as his TikTok views, his channel has a wide viewership.
Next, I considered other creators who make videos of similar length and consistency but whose content is completely different from Frankie's. Two channels I watch came to mind: Sandwiches of History and Girl with the Dogs. Sandwiches of History is the brainchild of Barry Enderwick and features a different sandwich "recipe" from vintage cookbooks each day. Girl with the Dogs, aka Vanessa De Prophetis, showcases pet grooming sessions with an extra dose of cute and a side of useful information.
For those who are keeping track, Frankie has 436k followers on TikTok and 228k YouTube subscribers. Sandwiches of History has 308k TikTok followers and 28k YouTube subscribers. Girl with the Dogs has 6.6m TikTok followers and 2.6m YouTube subscribers.
Each of these three series features videos between two and five minutes in length. They use roughly the same structure in each video. They are literally repetitive. And something about that repetitiveness transcends any one platform.
The medium these creators work in is the gimmick.
I don't mean that derogatorily. There's no judgment from me in that word, at least in this case. And yes, now I'm going to do the whole 'consult a dictionary' thing.
A 'gimmick,' according to Merriam-Webster's second definition, can be an "important feature that is not immediately apparent," "an ingenious new scheme or angle," or a "trick or device used to attract attention or business." All three versions are apt for our purposes.
So here's a working definition for the gimmick as a medium:
A gimmick is a nonsequential series of works that utilize a novel scheme, angle, or device to explore a network of ideas.
I freaking love a gimmick. I love a formula. I love a conceit that acts as a creative constraint. I love social media accounts that have committed to one thing and stuck with it in an almost rigidly consistent way.
The consistency itself is an important feature that is not immediately apparent. Upon viewing one or two videos in a series, you won't notice the pattern. For instance, Girl with the Dogs uses the repetition of certain phrases in a way that makes viewers feel like they're in on the joke—or, maybe, the cuteness. Especially in her earlier videos, each grooming session was completed by her saying she "tidied up [the dog's] grinch feet."
The ingenious scheme or angle is inherent in the form. For Sandwiches of History, that means choosing an odd sandwich recipe from an old cookbook every day, preparing it, eating it, and "plussing it up" with other ingredients. For Frankie, it's the juxtaposition of socially awkward reportage with incisive cultural commentary.
And as for a trick or device designed to attract attention? I don't think I need to elaborate on the success of each of these three creators—we're talking huge platforms, here.
Exploring the Gimmick as a Medium
Frankie's Cultural Observations have a very simple form: Cultural subject, plus social theory, plus deadpan delivery next to the assumed subject. Girl with the Dogs also has a simple form: introduce cute pet, give pet a bath, share information about process or breed, groom pet. Sandwiches of History's form is also simple: identify sandwich, identify its origin, make it, taste it, plus it up, rate it.
To me, the consistency of the form is reminiscent of formal poetic verse such as sonnets and haiku.
And I'll admit that I find formal verse puzzling. For that matter, I find all poetry vexing—something I'm not proud of as an aspiring public intellectual. What's the point of limiting yourself to a particular form? So I asked Google—which pointed me to an excellent explanation by poet Rebecca Hazelton on the Poetry Foundation website.
Hazelton argues that writing in formal verse is a critical practice for poets, even for poets whose main work is free verse. Well, that certainly caught my attention. Practice, she explains, is more than repetition. In fact, it has two complementary purposes: "isolat[ing] a technique for study" and "engag[ing] with difficulty."
The gimmick can be a practice with those ends, as well. By keeping the form consistent, Frankie is able to practice social theory as a technique. He isolates his application to a tiny cultural subject and applies social critique to phenomena that the founders of the Frankfurt school couldn't dream of. Further, Frankie wrestles with difficulty by finding a way to squeeze big ideas into a small mass media package.
The gimmick gives us a way of isolating a node in the constellation of thoughts we might have on a topic. It gives us a formula—like a rhyme scheme or prescribed meter—to explore that node with.
With the gimmick, as with formal verse, repetition leads to something remarkable. Honing a technique leads to something remarkable. Challenging oneself as a creator, writer, or artist leads to something remarkable.
Gimmicks: A Theory
Although gimmicks are often derided as cheap or contentless, the gimmick as a medium has real communication value. I think it's safe to say that Neil Postman, a highly influential media theorist who died in 2003, would abhor the gimmick. But Postman's theories are useful for thinking about the value of the gimmick. Hopefully, he isn’t rolling over in his grave too hard...
Postman argues that as a new medium develops, it introduces a "new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility."
From oral traditions to printed writing, from print to radio and television, from broadcast media to social media, new forms of conveyance have changed how we think, feel, and express ourselves.
Postman argues that the ubiquitous presence of television disrupted centuries of thought based on printed writing. Instead of the logical, linear, and rational thinking installed in our brains by reading and writing, television ushered in an era in which we could only "think" if information or ideas were presented as entertainment.1 He believed that the vocabulary of the television medium began to dominate all other media and forms of thought—think bestselling books, college courses, and magazines.
It's hard to disagree with Postman here. What he feared has come to pass. But I'm not entirely willing to write off what we might gain through image-oriented media like television. We're quite familiar with the cultural (and democratic) limitations of image-oriented communication. We know what social media has done to public discourse. But I'm curious what the benefits of these media are. Are we able to express ideas today that we weren't able to express in the '80s when Postman was writing, let alone in the 18th century?
My answer is yes.
The gimmick represents expression in the mode of networked thought.
Print communication reinforces linear and mechanistic forms of thought. Television is episodic, which might not be rational, but it's still linear. The gimmick, though, allows us to poke at broader truths from various angles.
Philosopher Byung-Chul Han describes today's culture as a constellation. Instead of a solar system that has a gravitational center holding it together in predictable patterns, today's hyperculture is full of "possibilities and events, which, instead of gravitating towards each other, only whizz around." There is no central narrative, no steady hand or guiding force. This is "felt as a painful void" but, at the same time, "also makes possible a new practice of freedom."
There's a lot to be gained from linear, rational, or narrative sensemaking. Clearly. But I think there's also something to be gained in the freedom from rationality and narrative. This freedom may even allow us to describe the global, networked world we live in today more accurately.
Gimmicks play at "intertwingularity"—or the inherent interconnectedness of everything.
Ted Nelson, who coined the terms "intertwingularity" and "hypertext," wrote that "Everything is deeply intertwingled." He observed that "hierarchical and sequential structures" are typically forced. These rational ways of arranging information don't reflect reality—even if they're useful in their own way. Nelson also notes that our preference for hierarchical and sequential structure took off after the invention of the printing press.
But the web, which itself invokes intertwingularity, finally allows us to embed the links between ideas, sources, and data in infinite ways. That's hypertext. And we tend to think in hypertextual ways, even if our communication is linear and rational.
"Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy," observed the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Hyperlinks or hypertext give us a way to present connections without reducing them to a sequential structure. "Hyperlinks," they explain, "are the connections made by real individuals based on what they care about and what they know, the paths that emerge because that’s where the feet are walking, as opposed to the highways bulldozed into existence according to a centralized plan."
Hypertext, therefore, also implies a hyper-rationality.
Hyper-rational, in this case, is not excessively rational but beyond rational—transcending rationality.
The gimmick is a hyper-rational medium. It explores an idea in a multitude of variations and iterations. It doesn't try to reconcile those iterations or produce a grand theory. The gimmick has no gravitational center. It acknowledges the connections between subjects without binding those connections to mechanical logic.
Postman argued that our modes of communication "have the strongest possible influence on what ideas we can conveniently express." That is, the modes of communication we use make some ideas inconvenient and others convenient in terms of our ability to share them with others. Further, Postman believed that "what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture."
It is true that printed texts make rational, linear thought convenient to express. One word after another. One argument after another. Very convenient.
However, printed texts do not make it convenient to express the nature of networks. In a network of ideas, ideas are connected to other ideas, not by logic but by metaphor. By inference rather than coherence.
Social media, on the other hand, makes it very convenient to express ideas in a network. And gimmicks, specifically, make engaging with a network of ideas more convenient. Their brevity and consistency offer a way into a thought network that might be otherwise overwhelming. And gimmicks can teach us about connections we might not have otherwise made.
Social media—really social media, not just the platforms that came to define the term—is worth reclaiming and discovering, and worth working towards, rather than simply letting the more unidirectional broadcast model simply take over.
— Edward Ongweso, Jr.
I don't know if the gimmick as a medium is here to stay.
Probably not. And even if it lasts, any instance of gimmick will naturally come to an end sooner than later. I don't know what the gimmick's influence on how we think will be. It's much too early to even guess. But I do believe there is something to be gained from seriously engaging with gimmicks—even when they're hilarious or awwww-inducing.
Because for as silly or unserious as any individual gimmick may be, the gimmick gives us, if not a language yet, a form for thinking in networks. Getting better at networked thinking—whether we call it abstract thinking, creative thinking, design thinking, or systems thinking—is a key skill in the 21st-century economy.
So, long live the gimmick. And may your work be as remarkable as Frankie's.
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