TikTok takes a turn toward horizontal video

If you’ve ever lost yourself in your TikTok feed, you know the feeling. Thumbing through a  seemingly endless scroll of short-form videos. All of them algorithmically on-point, and unapologetically vertical in nature. Typically, the only time TikTok is horizontal is when you are too, at which point maybe it’s time to put the phone down and go to sleep.

This experience is now taking an unexpected turn. Surprisingly, TikTok is nudging creators towards horizontal content, with the promise of greater visibility for such posts. This shift, which The Verge describes as “going full YouTube”, aligns itself with TikTok’s other recent initiatives, like testing longer video uploads.

The change primarily targets content creators, both those on TikTok, known for their snappy vertical content, and potential YouTube converts accustomed to working with longer, horizontal formats. 

This new direction isn’t universally welcomed among TikTok creators. Noah Jennings, a TikTok influencer, told The Washington Post about his preference for quick, vertical videos that offer instant entertainment. He fears TikTok might lose its unique charm in trying to be everything to everyone.

Popular content creator Sid Raskind expressed to The Washington Post what a lot of creators are no doubt thinking, noting “It’s interesting that a platform that reinvented how we consume content is now asking people to go back to the ‘legacy’ way of thinking. Obviously, the only reason is ad dollars, but this means overall short-form vertical content may fizzle out… I hope that people can still grow with vertical and not be shoehorned into only making horizontal.”

Reportedly, almost half of YouTube viewership happens on TV now. And just as YouTube launched Reels to compete in the vertical video space, TikTok is likely eying YouTube’s place as a go-to connected TV app, and considering its own streaming strategy.

TikTok’s TV app, currently ad-free, offers a less cluttered experience, potentially more appealing to an older demographic compared to the mobile app’s hectic interface. Incorporating horizontal videos could further attract viewers and eventually advertisers to TikTok’s TV platform.


A brief history of vertical video

YouTube launched in 2005, offering people a straightforward way to upload and share their own content. Within a few years, the ability to shoot video on your cell phone was increasingly common. The result? Videos shot vertically, then uploaded to YouTube where they’d be shown in a landscape-orientation video player with thick black letterbox blocks on either side. 

How you orient your phone when trying to capture a funny animal trick might have been the last thing on someone’s mind in the late 2000s. But at the time, as one commentator put it, “vertical video was the hallmark of a digital dolt”. There was even a viral parody PSA warning about the dangers of Vertical Video Syndrome.

Launched in 2011, Snapchat pioneered the vertical visuals trend, initially with still “snaps” sent between users. A year later, they added video capabilities, and in 2013 their much-imitated Stories format launched. 

By 2013 founder and CEO Evan Spiegel pointed out that his platform started on mobile, so “it’s a blank canvas … Our baseline was [we want] full screen. And in order to get full screen, you’ve got to do vertical video.”

Like Snapchat before it, TikTok captured the eyeballs and imagination of a younger audience. Where Gen Z goes, advertisers follow, and the creative they use needs to look like it belongs.

When TikTok launched their ad offering, TikTok for Business, they put it bluntly. “Don’t make ads. Make TikToks.” While that’s a little more nuanced than simply “shoot vertically”, when you’re thinking about mobile audiences, you’re likely not relying on them to turn their phones 90 degrees just to watch your latest ad.

Since then, Instagram added Snapchat-style Stories, YouTube launched Shorts, and mobile phones were held proudly upright when capturing some of the hundreds of hours of video that are uploaded every minute. 

Did TikTok turn 180 degrees by hoping to get users to turn their phones 90? Only time will tell. For now, let all video formats live together in relative harmony. 

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