Creators use overstimulation memes as 'retention bait' to keep TikTok users watching, but psychologists are concerned
As if bingeing on TikTok videos for hours wasn’t enough, the bombardment of overstimulation memes on people’s For You Pages indicates that viewers want more — all at once.
Overstimulation videos showcase at least two or three videos that are mostly unrelated, the most popular being from the Subway Surfers video game, ASMR clips or a scene from Family Guy.
The trend seems to fall under the category of “corecore” videos — both everything and nothing at the same time, a subversion of the various “-core” trends that dominate the platform. But while most corecore videos are rapid-fire unrelated clips playing back to back, overstimulation videos are playing the clips simultaneously on the same split screen.
Most of the elements of overstimulation memes aren’t new. Family Guy, for example, has been airing episodes since 1999. Subway Surfers, the endless Temple Run-style runner game, has been out for over 10 years. ASMR videos featuring soap or sand cutting took off in popularity around 2013.
Why include them alongside other videos in an almost chaotic viewing fashion? According to tech writer Trung Phan, it started out as a way for creators to evade DMCA (aka Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedowns.
The evolution of “hacking” platforms to post full episodes of Family Guy, for example, goes way back to 2016, when YouTubers would upload full-length episodes but titled the videos as “clip compilations” to avoid copyright claims. As YouTube began to crack down on users, the videos became weirder, with unnecessary edits and unrelated clips between scenes.
As TikTok increased in popularity, the same practices carried over. Now it’s evolved into these overstimulation memes that have a larger purpose than avoiding copyright claims.
Psychologists call the phenomenon perceptual fluency. When revisiting something you’ve already watched or processed, your brain doesn’t have to work to figure out what’s going on or what’s about to happen. TikTok users coming across a Family Guy or Subway Surfers clip will immediately recognize the content and, as psychologist Dr. Natalie Coyle told Kotaku, this can help hold viewers’ attention for longer.
By adding a new clip alongside familiar content, overstimulation meme creators, as Phan writes, turn the videos into a “multi-sensory dopamine drip that colonizes attention.”
Phan also noted that the original intention of overstimulation memes was to get TikTok users to stop and listen to people reading Reddit stories. Now anyone can use it to attempt to “colonize” users’ attention.
Ostonox, a video editor for popular Twitch streamer Hasanabi, has implemented the overstimulation tactic in several videos and told Kotaku he called it “retention bait.”
“Pairing up three different videos split-screened in the same TikTok works really well on a shorts-based platform because TikTok incentivizes users to swipe away from a video the second they get bored,” Ostonox explained to the outlet. “When your attention starts drifting on one of these ‘retention bait’ videos, your eyes can just flick to another panel with someone cutting colorful kinetic sand or some mobile game footage where a character collects coins.”
He compared the success of the format to the fidget spinner trend in 2017, which was thought to have helped students learn better by occupying their hands at the same time. Even in 2017, experts were skeptical that there was enough evidence to prove fidget toys help with attention issues.
Some psychologists also suspect the success of overstimulation memes is indicative of the ever-growing problem of young people’s diminishing attention spans.
“Research suggests that overstimulation can negatively impact a person’s cognitive functioning, particularly in the area of attention and concentration,” therapist Tammer Malaty told In The Know. “When a person is exposed to multiple stimuli at once, their brain may struggle to filter and process the information effectively, leading to decreased attention and difficulty focusing on tasks.”
me trying to watch a 2-hour movie after consuming nothing but TikTok and YouTube shorts for the past month pic.twitter.com/jyxfMwAods
— Trung Phan (@TrungTPhan) January 19, 2023
One TikTok creator, Joel Timms, asked a similar question in a video that, ironically, barely showed his face and instead had a game of Subway Surfers dominating the screen.
“What’s going on with this?” he asked. “Our attention span is so low we have to be distracted from the 30-second video we’re watching by another 30-second video in the video?”
Timms has a point. In a study conducted by the University of Amsterdam, teenage subjects who watched overstimulation videos found it more difficult to concentrate than subjects who watched single-clip videos. The study also found that too much visual information at once was overwhelming to younger users and made them feel more anxious and uncomfortable watching one clip at a time after.
But the negative aftereffects may not be enough to persuade young users. Psychiatrist Dr. Ketan Parmar told In The Know that there’s a similar dopamine surge from watching overstimulation memes to the dopamine surge associated with addiction.
“This dopamine rush causes youth to become addicted to such videos,” Parmar explained, further contributing to the attention-loss cycle.
Creators added another layer to the meme by bringing it into in-person interactions/social situations, for example, with videos of them trying to keep someone’s attention by showing a clip of Subway Surfers on their phone or laptop while they continue talking.
While trends may fade, there is an underlying implication of just how powerful and influential TikTok truly is.
“If it isn’t banned, the app will only get better at the attention game,” Phan wrote in January. ” It won’t be long until generative AI tools for text, image and video can instantly create unique pieces of content tailored for one person. TikTok already has the best video creator tools and the best way to deliver individualized content.”
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