The Language of the TikTok Challenge

What words - and emojis - are linked to the Challenge and Dance trends?


TikTok is a cultural melting pot, not only a destination for pop culture snippets and edited videos, but also a place where ideas, moments and terminologies are formed and then trickle into the rest of the culture.


The beer challenge we’ve all been waiting for 😂 FailArmy beer challenge lol

♬ original sound – FailArmy

And so, we see phrases coined to reflect the platforms’ mechanics, such as fyp (an initialism of ‘for you page’, the first page a user lands on when opening the TikTok app) or dc (dance credit). These sit alongside terms like cheugy (lame), Heather (a type of unrequited love), and ‘CEO of…’ ( essentially, being exceptionally talented at something), all cultural ephemera that have achieved a new cultural resonance thanks to their usage on the platform.

Naturally, this language coheres around certain topics and trends – so we decided to take a look at one of the original formats which brought the platform into the mainstream: the TikTok challenge. At the time of writing, the tag has clocked an enormous 191.1B views on the platform. Benchmarking the trend against the TikTok dance craze for perspective, we investigated over 1.25 Million posts made around the world, using Pulsar TRAC to gather and analyze the data.

First we chose to measure how often the most popular emojis occurred in relation to each trend. After all, even if isn’t an emoji isn’t quite worth the proverbial thousand words, it nonetheless distills meaning into a single character.

The greatest disparities occur at the upper end of the table, with the laughing emoji – and its cousin, ROFL – far more likely to be associated with challenges than dances. It reoccurs regardless of whether the person, animal or thing being ‘challenged’ is within the frame of the video, or the viewer themself.


If you skipped/fast forward, you lose 😂 Good luck 🙂 #challenge #popunderpressure #game #games #fyp #foryou #viral @whatdoyoumeme

♬ original sound – The Cardboard King 📦👑

While the #dance trend contains within it numerous novelty and humorous routines designed only to entertain, it also includes a number of posters using the medium as a means of expressing themselves and asserting individuality. This is reflected in the relative popularity of the heart and fire emojis, which constitute messages of support or emotion directed towards other participants within the video, friends and collaborators outside the frame, or the wider community they are a part of.

It can also demonstrate a great affinity for the music or routine featured. By definition, challenges tend to be transient trends, while dances can result from a lifetime’s interest in a particular song.

We also see evidence of it when subdividing the ‘types’ of language within these conversations into categories.



Celine Dion at dance competitions hit different 😭❤️🙌 #dance #dancemoms #dancecomp

♬ It’s All Coming Back To Me Now – Céline Dion

Platform-based terminologies, such as #fyp and others unique to TikTok, top the chart as users attempt to drive eyeballs and shares. This is echoed in less platform-specific virality words, such as ‘share’, coming in fourth. 

Additionally, posters regularly impel the viewer to perform some kind of action, either to follow a separate social account (Other Platforms) or else to click, donate or interact in some comparative way (CTA). 

Genuine reactions, meanwhile, are in second place. It appears likely that the popularity of emojis has reduced the number of words that might be categorised as pure reaction, with the heart or laughing emoji more succinctly able to embody the meaning of ‘love’ of ‘funny’.

Both the #challenge and #dance trends both peaked in 2020. This is seen in volume, with most of our 1.25 million posts clustering around this initial period, and also in the hashtags relevance and coherence. While user behavior seems more closely related to the trend in the early days, it later decays into a kind of default hashtag used for views, in which the content could very rarely be described as a ‘challenge’.

This underlines how brands need to not only speak in the language of the communities they’re talking to, but also ensure that trends they look to engage with are still relevant to users, and not simply platform detritus.


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Where next?

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