So You Want to Make a TikTok
What happens on the other side of the screen.
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I would say it’s embarrassing how much time I spent on TikTok, but honestly, I’m not that ashamed. Everything about the app is designed to hypnotize us into an endless scroll. Who can blame me when I look up from just one video of someone eating a pomelo (it’s real; get into it) and suddenly it’s 1 a.m.?
I know, I know. Every second I spend scrolling takes away from my other hobbies like reading and knitting, which undeniably are better for my mental health. But somehow, I still can’t get myself to delete this damn app. There are a lot of reasons for this. Staring at videos is both deeply passive and rewarding, the ultimate low effort/high reward activity. But also, the harvest is heady:
A NYC sanitation worker flinging fat garbage bags into the back of a truck with the grace and accuracy of Steph Curry.
A former curator from the Royal Academy of Arts breaking down Picasso’s Guernica, knowing that her audience is witnessing war in Ukraine.
A frighteningly accurate Yubaba from Spirited Away lip synching to Lady Gaga, the aesthetic transformation made entirely with makeup (not the app’s rampant filters).
I don’t think I would have said that I was interested in any of this content before TikTok’s seemingly all-knowing algorithm served it up on my screen. But wow, I am.
Unlike Instagram, where I at least attempt to contribute to the content ecosystem with quesadilla pics, I exist on TikTok solely to others’ content. I don’t even watch the videos of people I follow! I prefer to pinball through the dizzying, algorithmic For You page. Some of the most popular videos on the app are beautiful in their simplicity—filmed in one take without any editing or seemingly any planning. But others require an obviously significant amount of effort.
As someone on the other side of the screen, I’m fascinated by the thought process that goes into making TikToks of any kind. So this time on Amateur Hours, I’m running a Q&A with one of my favorite creators on the app: Annika Hansteen-Izora.
Each one of Annika’s videos is a miniature, pearlescent ode to a niche topic somehow rendered tender and relatable. Think: Otherworldly sea creatures. Repurposing tiny jam jars. Watching the clouds. In addition to making videos for fun, Annika is a multi-talented designer, poet, and art director (among other things). They’re uniquely talented at making digital content that resonates with people without capitalizing on trends, whether it’s a graphic or a video. Here’s how they do it:
Let’s start by rewinding since before TikTok was even a thing. When did you first start making content?
Annika Hansteen-Izora: In middle school, I started using Microsoft Word to make zines to share with my friends. One was called Our Generation, and it was pretty much a zine of the things I loved. I went to middle school in Portland, Oregon so I’d go around the city with my friends and do reviews, like, what’s the best hot chocolate in the city? I’d also do band interviews. Ra Ra Riot responded to me, which was a big deal to my middle school self. I’m sure those bands were all pretty entertained that an 11-year-old was cold emailing from their Yahoo account.
How would you define your niche? To me, there’s a tenderness that people seem to relate to.
AHI: I don’t know what the niche is called. Like a lot of people, I'm a multimodal person. It’s hard for me to pin down the types of things I make and who I'm making it for, but I definitely think there’s interaction between different types of people. Definitely folks into nature, definitely folks that are into music, culture, weird shit, and queer shit.
How do you normally get your ideas?
AHI: I really like researching things and connecting things. I’ve always had my head in a book; I go on Wikipedia spirals for fun. Just the other day, I read Whitney Houston's Wikipedia page top to bottom, just because I wanted to.
There’s this interview with [the comedian] Zack Fox where he says, “I just think of shit and then I'll be writing it,” and that’s kind of the way that I follow. Nature is probably one of my biggest sources of inspiration because there’s always something to stumble upon. I really did find the leaf sheep just because I like looking at sea creatures. I legitimately was like, “I need other people that may not know that it exists to know that it exists.”
Do you usually know if something is going to blow up ahead of time? Has there been anything that really surprised you?
AHI: I have no idea if it will resonate with people at all. Seeing the response to those videos, I was so surprised. Because I've been making digital media for so much of my life, the primary objective has always been: This just needs to entertain my damn self. If it happens to resonate with other people that’s amazing and cool, but as soon as I start making shit for other people then it gets boring. That’s happened to me before with different forms of art, so I’m always just making it to entertain myself.
How does making videos and memes fit into your larger digital presence? Do you consider it part of your career?
AHI: For me, it is definitely a part of my professional career as well. I feel like every single one of the things I do ends up informing the other. I’ve gotten clients through TikTok because somebody saw my ‘what bird would you be if you met a witch’ video and then saw my website linked in my bio. A lot of the time when I'm working with clients, they’re looking for a specific energy. They can feel that vibe, whether it’s on a TikTok, a graphic, or a website.
What content creators do you enjoy following?
From Plague to Delicacy — Reconsidering the Purple Sea Urchin (Los Angeles Times). I spent a long time reporting this story about how aquaculture farmers, divers, and chefs are working together to eat the urchins decimating California’s kelp forests. I hope you’ll give it a read!
8 Ways To Maximize Your Oven Energy Efficiency (King Arthur Baking). Inside what happens when you hit “preheat,”and how to maximize that energy.
Also, I’ve been working hard on a new project: Sexy Cake. It’s a zine with existential baker Tanya Bush about how cake has captured our hedonistic imaginations since the dawn of dessert. If you’re interested in learning more, sign up here.