Robert Reich makes TikTok famous.
join half a million followers, the 75-year-old Clinton-era Labor secretary and current Berkeley professor, is an unlikely figure on the short-attention-span video platform that’s designed for younger users and thrives on trends, memes, inside jokes, and dance moves every day. And that’s one of the reasons it works for Reich. He embraces the platform and all of its quirks. He dances. He makes clowns. He duets with other TikTok users. The effect is often funny, and the funny seems to pave the way for the more serious political and political messages to be delivered through the mouth of a truly authoritative figure.
I follow Reich on TikTok myself, and after watching some of his videos, I began to wonder how a 75-year-old ex-lab secretary could seem so natural on this 21st-century platform. So I asked him.
How did your interest in making TikTok videos come about?
The context here is that my son Sam runs a company called college humor, so he got me on social media years ago. He said, “Dad, I don’t want you to take this critically or personally, but nobody reads your books.” After recovering from the trauma of that realization that people don’t read books—predictably, young people. . . I think he meant that if he wanted to reach young people with serious ideas, books were a very inefficient way to do it. So I started making videos.
This was some years ago. I see myself as an educator, you know, I’ve been teaching in classrooms for 40 years. I do it with pleasure. But I’m also very interested in politics and in politics and in history and in economics. So social media really does offer a vehicle to reach people, especially young people, who have otherwise been very difficult to reach.
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When was the idea of making TikTok videos suggested to you and by whom?
Honestly, I didn’t know what TikTok was. It was completely alien to me, and I can’t quite remember if it was Sam or someone I worked with at Inequality Media who said you should try it. And I still don’t know what I’m doing, to be honest.
Every social media platform has its own quirks. Instagram appeals to certain people in certain ways, and I and my colleagues have experimented a lot with Instagram and Facebook and Twitter. But what I became very aware of while teaching is that TikTok was becoming more and more of a focus [students]; it was becoming more and more influential. They were still online reading newspapers and everything else. But it reached many of them. So I figured this is at least worth a try.
Are both sides really more extreme?
I remember when The daily News with comedian Jon Stewart came out years ago and I was like, wow, this is where people get their messages now. Do you think it’s that same mix of comedy and real news that makes your TikToks popular?
You know, a spoonful of sugar helps all kinds of medicine come down. TikTok is essentially a fun medium. I mean because there’s music, there’s movement, there’s opportunities for all sorts of things [humor]. Some of them are inside jokes, some are memes. This is a part of TikTok that I found the hardest to understand. The young people following it very quickly came up with these inside jokes that only they get.
I’m working with a young guy who’s fresh out of college and he’s really good at picking up these memes and he’s basically saying, ‘Well, let’s try this’ and I follow his lead and sometimes it works. Sometimes not, but it’s clearly a way of conveying information as well. It’s a way of formulating problems. It is a tool to help young people understand what is actually happening in the world. And even though they may laugh, dance and sing along, it’s an opportunity to open your mind for just a moment.
I can see that. And yet, at the risk of sounding like an old fuddy, I have to say that this trend towards shorter and shorter communication pieces for shorter attention spans is giving me pause for a little.
In general I’m concerned about this and I hope to whet the appetite of young people – that if I can meet someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing with inflation or windfall profits, taxes or voting rights or anyone else Topic – if I can just use this window to pique their interest then I hope they will want to know more and follow up. If they want to know more I try to have a longer video where they can learn more. But they obviously don’t have to rely on me. You can go a million places, but interest is what counts.
When you go to class at Berkeley, do students want to talk to you about your TikTok videos?
The casual college student will tell me I’ve seen this or that, or ask how long I’ve been doing TikToks. There is obviously an interest. But I try to keep my formal class attendance and speaking very separate from social media. On the one hand, it is my job in class not to take sides and not to represent a particular point of view. It aims to make them question their prejudices and think more deeply about a range of subjects.
There was a little overlap [between TikTok and classwork] last week because I was back in the classroom for the first time, in the real classroom [after Covid-19]. And I was so excited to be back there. In fact, even before class started, I was playing “9 to 5,” the Dolly Parton song, when people came in. And I was so excited to see these 700 or 800 young people come in that I just kind of just start dancing on stage. And one of the students filmed me and made a TikTok that went viral:
It makes me think part of it is just your personality because not every buttoned-up professor would do something like that.
I take the issues very seriously, but no, I don’t take myself seriously and use humor. Humor is the universal solvent.
Do you have any advice for people, maybe older people, who want to communicate via TikTok?
I definitely want to educate and I certainly have thoughts and facts I want to convey to young people but my suspicion is very strong that if young viewers just think you are trying to sell a product or have an ulterior motive , which is not a turnoff. A quality of it [social] Medium – especially TikTok – is that it has to be authentic. It has to feel real. It has to feel spontaneous and be fun.
In fact, just an hour ago I was on the phone with some of the staff at a Senate office. We were talking about something else entirely, and then at the end of the conversation they added, “My boss is wondering how you’re getting these ideas across on social media and TikTok.” I warned her about that. I just don’t think it’s a good medium for corporations or politicians selling their particular wares. [Younger people] smell it. You smell it immediately. They like to smell hypocrisy and they [use] a scathing approach to someone else’s hypocrisy. But I think it also has to do with authenticity at the root.
The reason I don’t like Snark is that it leads to cynicism. And I think one of the great dangers we face in our society right now is not just short attention spans, but also the cynicism of being able to do anything.
https://www.fastcompany.com/90731525/how-former-labor-secretary-robert-reich-got-tiktok-famous?partner=feedburner&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=feedburner+fastcompany&utm_content=feedburner How former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich made TikTok famous