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The left half of the screen shows off the father from Family Guy smiling. The right half shows off gameplay from Subway Surfers.

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TikTok’s sludge content isn’t just for short attention spans

The trend has only grown in popularity

Image composition: Nicole Clark/Polygon | Source images: Fox, SYBO, Kiloo

Someone is chopping kinetic sand into neat, even cubes next to a clip from Family Guy. The jumping, coin-collecting gameplay of Subway Surfers plays alongside a segment of a Twitch stream. Slime is being coiled and stretched next to a reupload of someone else’s POV sketch.

These kinds of collaged videos — sometimes called “sludge content” — that play completely different footage side by side are proliferating on TikTok. But they’ve also been shared on other platforms, where they’ve become a meme in and of themselves. Often, that attention is negative, particularly about the perceived attention spans of younger internet users.

“Am I old or is something very wrong here,” reads one tweet, showing a video split three ways between Subway Surfers gameplay, an episode of Family Guy, and someone scooping and cutting sensory sand. “This is what your little cousin watches 14 hours a day,” says another, captioning a video that splices another Family Guy clip with footage from what appears to be Jump Girl, a silly endless runner game that sees the protagonist bouncing off various items, including men and giant eggplants. The audio clip for this video is borderline unlistenable, layering a robot reading a (potentially fake) Reddit post with multiple sound effects and “Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin.

But neither video in these tweets is quite as straightforward as it appears. The latter is perhaps a more obvious parody of the trend. But the former was posted by the official Subway Surfers TikTok account, capitalizing on the 10-year-old endless runner mobile game’s sudden surge in popularity by posting a TikTok collage that exaggerated the style to include three video clips versus the usual two. The trend has hit the point of saturation where prominent streamers and brands have played along, often willfully poking fun at the trend. But it’s not always easy to tell whether the collages are intended ironically or not — and they appear to be a successful strategy to boost engagement regardless.

For example, streamer and political commentator Hasan Piker’s account, run by editor Ostonox, posted a video in January split into four. On the left, a clip of Piker and the video he was responding to on stream played. On the right, the video showed brightly colored cylinders of kinetic sand over Subway Surfers gameplay. “It was both satirizing the current trend and it actually allowed viewers to watch something visually stimulating while still listening,” says Ostonox.

Ostonox likens this multitasking to something like doing chores while listening to a podcast. And anecdotal evidence suggests that the trend does hold people’s attention. Despite the broadly negative reaction to the parody tweets above, there’s no reason to doubt the commenters who report that their little cousins and other young relatives really are watching this sort of content. In the replies to Piker’s video, viewers have left comments like “you were right, this format really makes me watch the entire video” and “I hate to say it but I’m a lot more engaged this way.”

“It definitely led to much higher engagement than normal,” says Ostonox. Part of the increased reach may have been due to more comments — people wanted to talk about the meme and their experiences of its effects. But Ostonox also saw an increased watch time. “I definitely have to test the method more.”

They’re taking it slowly, though, because both Piker and Ostonox were banned for the post. They believe its virality led to trolls mass reporting the account, with TikTok ultimately citing “hate speech” as the reason for the ban. Piker was able to restore his account after getting in touch with the platform.

It’s ultimately not surprising that collage-style videos have taken off on TikTok, a platform that can already serve two videos at once, thanks to the built-in “duet” feature. The audience is already primed to multitask in this way. And the precedent for the style of editing techniques used in these collage videos already exists on other video platforms.

Though TikTok has popularized the dual-video format, splicing third-party footage together has long been a staple on YouTube. Clips from Family Guy in particular have thrived in the form of “best of” and “funniest moment” compilations thanks to editing workarounds like sharp cuts, unrelated clips, and zoomed crops that seem to have helped such videos avoid getting caught in copyright claims. It’s plausible that TikTok’s collaging trend, with its similar techniques and even similar reliance on the cartoon, also helps these videos dodge being picked up by flagging algorithms.

There’s also an element of clout-chasing to the format. Some of these collage videos often feature reuploaded viral TikToks, which allows creators to capitalize on their popularity to gain more views. And people can make these collages fairly easily and quickly by simply splicing clips together, making it a relatively low-effort way to grab a slice of the creator fund payout. That not only incentivizes the format itself, but also encourages making as many as possible.

But it’s easier to point to the supposed “reduction in attention span” as a reason for these TikToks to have grown in popularity, rather than these alternative motivations for creators. Without the wider context, these videos appear to be a symptom of a population who can’t stick to watching one thing at a time. And yet studies on the truth of attention span, and the impacts of these kinds of internet content, are hard to come by. Oft-cited attention studies can turn out to be flimsy, and more research is necessary. Still, smartphones have made media multitasking common. Many of us scroll through social media while watching TV or listen to a podcast while gaming, for example.

Given this, digital media researcher Dr. Bjørn Nansen calls the collage videos “an interesting and important, but also not unexpected, phenomenon.” Where once a child might have played a game on one screen and watched TikTok on another, it makes sense to Nansen that creators would try collapsing these borders.

The fact that these collages often include video clips that are sensory or tactile, like repetitive mobile gameplay or satisfying slime clips, is also “understandable” to Nansen. “This type of content easily slips into the background […] and so [is] well suited to accompanying other, more attention-demanding content,” he says.

This seems to be the experience of many viewers, too. “Many of the comments [on the collage video] are about how the multiple videos made it easier for them to watch and absorb what [Piker] was saying about the meaning of the phrase ‘Black lives matter’ versus the reactionary counter of ‘all lives matter,’” says Ostonox.

It’s also not totally clear how this sort of multitasking impacts attention and retention of information. Some studies suggest that we’re less likely to remember specifics of what we watched while multitasking. But a viewer who doesn’t retain all the nuances of Piker’s argument may still know more than one who got impatient, scrolled away, and didn’t hear his point at all. And for most TikToks, the subject matter isn’t so serious — it doesn’t exactly matter how well somebody scrolling for fun recalls the details of the Family Guy clip they just saw.

And as Nansen points out, collages are an artistic medium in their own right. The juxtaposition of different images leads to new experiences for the viewer. “Maybe we could see these digital media collages as […] reshaping notions of media products as contained, single, [and] differentiated,” he says. The ultimate reality is that media multitasking is a widespread practice, making our experiences “much more open-ended, unfinished, undifferentiated, [and] ongoing.” The collaging trend could be one way of expressing that artistically, as well as functionally.