Akili Moree loves a good mystery. Nothing triggers his curiosity more than the social media presence of celebrities, influencers, and major brands. What, he wonders, are these posts and their aesthetics trying to subtly (or not so subtly) convey? What do these online personas reveal? Under the username @cozyakili, Moree, a Northwestern University junior, has cultivated a budding reputation on TikTok as a shrewd commentator on culture and celebrity.
One of Moree’s most-viewed videos explores the notion of “poverty cosplay,” or wealthy people’s adoption of working-class aesthetics and attitudes. He points to Kim Kardashian’s post of Ye and her son Saint in a dark, sparsely decorated apartment; Timothée Chalamet’s photo of a Cup Noodles meal; and Golden Goose’s new-but-dirty shoe design as examples.
These TikToks are akin to an informal crash course on Instagram semiotics. They typically abide by an analogous visual format: screenshots of posts from recognizable figures, overlaid with a line of bold sans-serif text and Moree’s talking head. It’s his ability to concisely define enigmatic online phenomena, from “casual Instagram” to “vibe shifts,” that captivates viewers. Moree tries to offer what he calls “an objective opinion” in his videos, while fully acknowledging that the notion of objectivity is contrary to personal opinion.
This style of commentary is gaining prominence among TikTok creators — influencers, trend forecasters, armchair media pundits, and celebrity analysts, to name a few. These “analysis creators” are a marked departure from the earliest days of the app when content was short, simple, and straightforward. Dance challenges, theatrical lip-syncs, and quippy comedy bits were once all condensed into 15-second clips. There was literally no time for theorizing. As TikTok allowed users to upload lengthier videos (now up to 10 minutes long), its algorithmic preferences have also shifted.
“We’re starting to see a distinction between the creators who know how to edit and keep their audience engaged, versus those who got lucky off of TikTok’s algorithm,” said Alessandro Bogliari, CEO of the Influencer Marketing Factory, an agency that connects brands to creators. “It used to be that you just had to dance or lip-sync really well for 30 seconds. That’s no longer enough.”
My For You page has of late become a conveyor belt of analysis and commentary videos seeking to summarize, predict, or investigate the zeitgeist. They are a fraction of the length of YouTube video essays but constructed with a similar critical and intellectual bent. These ideas are not always groundbreaking or original, and the quippy and digestible presentation style is uniquely suitable for an audience with a limited attention span. This content is not limited to TikTok, of course. Analysis creators have expanded to podcasts, newsletters, and even video essays. Consider it the opposite of pathos-posting, or posting solely based on the emotional resonance of a topic. Instead, these formulated theories are crafted with a careful analytical approach and delivered with some removed authority from the subject matter.
Take, for example, the West Elm Caleb debacle in late January that led to a viral blitz of social media outrage. The incident involved a 25-year-old man named Caleb, who was accused by various TikTok users of serially dating multiple women in New York City — which, mind you, is not a crime, but a romantically dubious and shady endeavor. While many people hopped on the Caleb cancellation train, some saw the opportunity to provide level-headed commentary on the unfolding mess. Rayne Fisher-Quann, a 20-year-old culture critic and writer, outlined the viral condemnation of Caleb and its feminist implications in a 2,000-word newsletter, while documenting her brainstorm and writing process via TikTok.
This type of meta-commentary allows creators to engage with — and reap the benefits of — online discourse without setting off opinion-laden landmines. The ideological crux of such content is logic (or the guise of it, at least) and evidence-based observation, rather than unfiltered hot takes. Depending on the topic at hand, creators also don’t have to divulge much detail about their personal lives or moral beliefs. It instead becomes an avenue to demonstrate one’s intellectual authenticity or observational authority. It is an unofficial pipeline to thought-influencing that has given rise to a cottage industry of informal TikTok commentators and influencer-like analysts. The platform’s interface already encourages this participatory exchange, wherein users riff off existing theories and observations to form their own conclusions.
“When you’re on TikTok, you don’t want to see news anchors or expert sources explaining a situation,” said Sam Ayele, an internet meme researcher and PhD student at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca in Italy. “You want to hear different opinions from sources you can trust and relate to. I think TikTok users like to live vicariously through the perspectives and experiences of others.”
Many factors may have contributed to this pivot: an adverse reaction to the mindless doom-scroll, the urge to make sense of current events, and the ever-increasing, muddied pace of the news cycle and online discourse that powers the attention economy. Ayele points to the drama-laden breakdown of beauty YouTube as a case study for this shift in audience interest, which coincided with the rise of skin care influencer Hyram Yarbro, whose approach is entertaining, relatively noncontroversial, and informational.
Social norms have also shifted. Compulsive, self-entitled posting sprees are now more widely frowned upon, even as a coping mechanism to global disaster and tragedy. (See: a recent Atlantic article with the headline “You Don’t Need To Post About Every Tragedy.”) Audiences seem to expect a value-add to what they consume — content that doesn’t singularly revolve around the creator, but engages with and elucidates the world writ large.
Analysis videos satisfy that itch on an intellectual and potentially neurological level. Humans’ brains, some more so than others, have a tendency to derive meaning or see connections and patterns in events where there may be none. We are, as Katy Waldman has written in Slate, “keen to organize jumbled sensory inputs into meaningful data.”
As the public grows more attuned to the kayfabe of celebrity and fame, pop culture and media commentators have naturally thrived in this space. “There is a seductive quality to making connections about things, especially with topics or celebrities that people already care about,” said MJ Corey, the psychotherapist behind Kardashian Kolloquium, a digital compendium on the Kardashians. “Making connections feels really good. It can give you a dopamine rush.”
Corey began synthesizing her Kardashian-related research and observations on Instagram in 2018. She maintains that she was never a fan, but became an engrossed observer of the show and the family’s uncanny behaviors. When she joined TikTok in 2021, her accounts started to gain a shocking amount of traction. Her timing coincided with the Kardashians’ heightened media activity, stemming from the show’s final season and the divorce proceedings between Kim and Kanye West.
“People want to find meaning in the runoff that mass media throws at us, and this trend of intellectual analysis is important,” Corey said. “bell hooks taught us that with her cultural criticism. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that analysis can masquerade as a seemingly more moral or righteous way to engage with pop culture.”
When discussing pop culture, fashion, or social media, the stakes seem much lower for entry and even error. Some creators attempt to detach themselves from their analyses while limiting how much they share about their offline lives. “It’s a means of cultivating a personal brand without having to go the typical influencer route with sharing your outfit or meals of the day,” said Biz Sherbert, a writer and host of Nymphet Alumni, a podcast that analyzes internet-based aesthetics. For Sherbert, who has created fashion TikToks as @bimbotheory, the format allowed her to identify and riff on trends without centering her personality or style.
These topics have also long been disregarded as frivolous and feminized, and assumed to have less direct bearing on people’s lives than, say, politics or personal finance. To that end, the application of academic language and highbrow concepts helps elevate the pop culture discourse, imbuing it with seemingly greater significance.
Corey often references published academic studies, media theory, and criticism to validate her assertions, like works by Jean Baudrillard, Marshall McLuhan, and other contemporary researchers and critics. Her goal, she said, “is to proceed with intellectual integrity” and prioritize a research-oriented approach. “It can be empowering and fun to reclaim academic language, but it’s important to recognize that certain words have context, history, and meaning,” Corey said. “We should be wary of undermining that cultural authority.”
With more creators producing this type of content, Corey has seen more “camp interpretations of theory,” wherein users and creators are casually deploying academic phrases in all sorts of contexts, even fashioning their own buzzwords. These terms aren’t always academic; some are borrowed from advertisers, marketers, and even therapists (which is uniquely concerning).
“There’s something very attractive about these exotic-sounding terms that creators use when talking about pop culture,” Sherbert said. “These words are fun and smart to toss around. They add to that visual picture in your head of an idea or a trend.”
Phrases like “hyperreality” and “domestic cozy” offer textual specificity to vague, previously nameless phenomena that users have experienced or witnessed online. This practice is more common among consumer-oriented trend forecasters and fashion analysts, who are in the habit of identifying new fads and styles. Still, Corey is wary of the potential for over-interpretation — the tendency to inject meaning or narrative into events where there are none. Creators are constantly under pressure to churn out content, and that impulse can beget theories that are not well-researched, thoughtfully produced, or factual.
“There is a fine line between critical thinking and conspiratorial thinking,” Corey said. “I try to be mindful of that.” In reality, it’s more of a slippery slope, as certain analytical skills or traits are often deployed to give backbone to unsubstantiated theories and opinions. This sort of thinking is common within fandoms and insular online communities who blindly “stan,” or support, certain figures. Taylor Swift fans, for example, are notorious for concocting theories about hidden messages and clues in her lyrics, music videos, and promotional materials, but these conspiratorial observations are rarely considered nefarious.
Moree thinks that’s an important distinction. “There is actual misinformation that can cause direct violence against a group of people, or lead people to do or believe things that are unhealthy or harmful,” he said. “With celebrities, most of the things I discuss are my own personal theories, even though I try to back them up with facts or evidence. Sometimes I’m wrong, and I’m not afraid to admit that.”
Analysis creators straddle the boundaries of an expert figure with the bedside manner of a trusted friend. Their work is a lo-fi performance of knowingness that has newfound relevance in an oversaturated media environment. Some of the best creators are informational synthesizers, able “to stylishly cut through an infinite and rambling internet freighted with big ideas,” as Safy-Hallan Farah wrote in TechCrunch, turning “this abundance of information into something generative rather than overwhelming.”
This ability can be commercially beneficial, especially for creators who are established in a subculture or niche. For example, Luke Meagher of Haute le Mode, who is known for his well-informed and highly opinionated high-fashion roasts, was sponsored by Valentino last July to create a TikTok explainer on its haute couture collection. Meagher, whose main platform is YouTube, often presents his opinions alongside tidbits of fashion history, so the informative nature of the Valentino ad didn’t seem as jarring.
Still, an inherent tension remains. Detachment from the subject at hand becomes nearly impossible when a creator’s face is superimposed onto the corner of a video. The creator, as a result, is perceived as a personality, no matter how objective they try to appear. Moree says he wants to sound as “nonjudgmental and precise as possible” with his tone and words, and uses the common “we” so as to not alienate his viewers. Corey withholds any personal opinions she might have about the Kardashians from her audience, and attempts to maintain a journalistic-like neutrality toward the family. But not all creators abide by Moree’s and Corey’s self-imposed ethics: Some videos are word-for-word recitations of published articles without clear citations or neatly paraphrased summaries of Wikipedia entries.
“We’re starting to see creators copy this style of content without doing in-depth research or fact checks,” said Bogliari, the Influencer Marketing Factory CEO. “Even though they are coming across as more objective, the impulse is still there for creators to feed into the discourse. Ultimately, it becomes just another trend.”
Such is the mimetic nature of TikTok, which replicates a once-novel thing over and over until it devolves into a farcical fad. There is no shortage of events for users to opine about online when “the entire universe comes to unfold arbitrarily on your domestic screen,” to quote Baudrillard. And so, any engaged user can easily don the hat of an amateur commentator to profess their ideas and interpretations. As more people hop onto the commentary bandwagon, analysis videos might soon follow the tired trajectory of all TikTok trends. The space could become saturated by all kinds of creators, clamoring to be heard above the noise. “Speech is free perhaps,” wrote Baudrillard, “but I am less free than before.”
We claim to dread the discourse, but we still tune in anyway. Maybe all that can be done, to maintain a modicum of sanity on the internet, is to derive meaning from this never-ending content mill. What that meaning is will be up for analysis.