It’s a TikTok world – Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog
The most popular site in 2021 was not Google, Amazon, Facebook or YouTube.
It was TikTok.
If you’re unfamiliar with TikTok, it’s a Chinese video-sharing platform similar to YouTube that allows users to post videos of up to a minute or less. TikTok stars now earn more than most of America’s top CEOs, such as Charli D’Amelio’s $17.5 million in 2021; and not too far behind her was her sister Dixie who made $10 million.
The demographics of TikTok users are young. Almost a quarter of its users in 2021 were between the ages of 10 and 19. This helps explain the number of viral TikTok videos that have been dangerous or, in many people’s minds, just plain stupid, coining phrases such as a TikTok video that has gone “tok-bottom” or “a- tok-alyptic”.
Two dynamics fuel the popularity of TikTok content: it’s short and it’s visual. I talked about the importance of both dynamics in my book Meet Generation Z.
What has been the conventional wisdom is true: attention spans have dramatically decreased in recent years; more dramatically than most realized. According to research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to just 8.25 seconds in 2015. That’s down about 25% in just over a decade. So what does this mean for, say, a church trying to reach an internet-based generation? Here are some internet browsing stats that may make you rethink everything:
- Average length watched of a single internet video: 2.7 minutes
- Percentage of page views that last less than 4 seconds: 17%
- Percentage of pageviews that lasted more than 10 minutes: 4%
- Percentage of words read on web pages of 111 words or less: 49%
- Percentage of words read on an average web page (593 words): 28%
At the end of the line ? Everything we try to convey, let alone explain, will need to be communicated more frequently in shorter bursts of “nibble content – at least early in the engagement phase.”
Some have suggested that what really works are highly evolved “eight second filters”. Generation Z, for example, grew up in a world where options and information are virtually limitless; time, of course, is not. So they developed, almost out of necessity, the ability to quickly sort through huge amounts of data. Or they rely on sources that do it for them, like trending information in apps.
The good news is that once something Is it that catch their attention, and is deemed worthy of their time, they can become intensely engaged and focused. The very internet that forced them to develop “eight-second filters” is the same internet that allows them to delve into any topic they want and learn from a community of other interested parties. This means you can still engage people on a very deep level with the truth. The bad news? You have eight seconds to pass their filters. As one 18-year-old UCLA student put it, “Gen Z instantly absorbs information and loses interest just as quickly.” That’s why Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Millennial Branding, a New York-based consulting firm, tells his advertising partners “that if they don’t communicate in five words and the big picture, they won’t achieve that generation”.
This leads to what might be the most needed overhaul of all: this “big picture”. In other words, the importance of being visual.
The importance of the visual
As I wrote in The rise of the nuns, a lesson from history could be in order as to the importance of the visual. The Lindisfarne Gospels, a 1,300 year old manuscript, are revered to this day as the oldest English version of the Gospels. Lindisfarne is a small island located just off the English coast of Northumberland. It is often called Holy Island. Tidal waters cut it off from the rest of the world for several hours each day, adding to its mystique as a spiritual pilgrimage.
Produced around AD 715 in honor of St Cuthbert, largely by a man named Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, the Lindisfarne Gospels feature a copy of all four New Testament Gospels. But he is not revered simply for his age. Its pages reveal curved and embellished letters, strange creatures and spiraling symbols of exquisite precision and beauty. In the 8th century, pilgrims flocked to St Cuthbert’s shrine where he was housed, making the Lindisfarne manuscript one of the most visited and viewed books of its day. His artwork and symbols helped convey his message to those who could not read.
Professor Richard Gameson of Durham University considers it a precursor to modern multimedia because it was designed to be a visual, sensual and artistic experience for its audience. Michelle Brown of the University of London notes that the book’s impact was similar to today’s film and electronic media. As Gameson adds, “the focus was on reaching as many people as possible.”
I have written elsewhere that there are striking parallels between our time and that of the Middle Ages. If Western society enters a new era akin to the earlier medieval era, what Umberto Eco called the neomedieval, What does it mean? One thing is certain: there will be a profound need for communication of a visual nature. Over the past 20 years, we have moved decisively to a visually-based world. The most formative influences aren’t books, theater or even music, it’s video.
Consider the suggested parallel with the Middle Ages. In medieval times, there was widespread spiritual illiteracy, as well as actual illiteracy. People couldn’t read. This is why pilgrimages were so important to pilgrims. Beyond the relics and holy places they thought could bestow grace, the cathedrals they visited usually told the story of faith through a medium they could understand: stained glass. In other words, pictures. Thus, even if people could not (or could not) read, they could not help seeing, and seeing, understanding.
It’s no different today.
We are spiritually illiterate and visually oriented and visually informed. Only now, instead of stained glass, we have TikTok.
An entire subgenre known as “Christian TikTok” exists where Christian TikTok influencers post everything from sermonettes to Bible study best practices. And many young content creators “are on a mission to spark a revival among Gen Z.”
But that’s of course what any church can do too.
James Emery White
Ben Cost, “The 12 TikTok Trends That Defined 2021: From Hilarious to Terrifying”, New York Post, 21 December 2021, read online.
Joseph Pisani and Theo Francis, “These TikTok Stars Made More Money Than Most of America’s Top CEOs”, The Wall Street Journal, 13 January 2022, read online.
James Emery White, Meet Generation Z (baker), order on Amazon.
“Meet Generation Z: Forget Everything You Learned About Generation Y” Sparks and honey, June 17, 2014, read online.
On attention spans, see the National Center for Biotechnology Information, as well as the US National Library of Medicine, as reported by the Statistic Brain Research Institute online here.
For Internet browsing statistics, see Harald Weinreich, Hartmut Obendorf, Elco Herder and Matthias Mayer, “Not Quite Average: An Empirical Study of Web Usage”, in the ACM Transactions on the Web, flight. 2, no. 1, February 2008, article n° 5.
On “Eight-Second Filters”, see Jeremy Finch, “What Is Generation Z, and What Does It Want?” fast business, 4 May 2015, read online.
James Emery White, The rise of the nuns (baker), order on Amazon.
Alex Williams, “Move on Millennials: Meet Gen Z,” The New York Time, September 20, 2015, read online.
Flavia Di Consiglio, “Lindisfarne Gospels: Why is this book so special?” » BBC Religion and Ethics, March 20, 2013, read online.
Umberto Eco, Journeys in Hyper Reality: Essays, trans. William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986).
Rachel Seo, “Meet the TikTok Generation of Televangelists”, Christianity today, October 20, 2020, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His last book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.
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