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How former Labor Secretary Robert Reich got TikTok-famous

The 75-year-old Berkeley professor says the platform helps him reach younger audiences. “If their minds open for even just an instant, it’s an opportunity.”

How former Labor Secretary Robert Reich got TikTok-famous
[Photo: Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images]

Robert Reich is getting TikTok famous.

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Closing in on 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, which is designed for younger users and thrives on trends, memes, inside jokes, and dance moves du jour. And that’s part of the reason it works for Reich. He embraces the platform and all its quirks. He dances. He clowns. He duets with other TikTok-ers. The effect is often funny, and the funny seems to smooth the way for the more serious political and policy messages being delivered through the mouth of a truly authoritative figure.

I follow Reich on TikTok myself, and after seeing a number of his videos I began to wonder how a 75-year-old ex-Labor secretary could seem like such a natural on this very 21st-century platform. So I asked him.

How did you get interested in doing TikTok videos?

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The context here is that my son Sam runs a company called CollegeHumor, so he got me into social media years ago. He said, “Dad I don’t want you to take this critically or personally, but nobody reads your books.” After I recovered from the trauma of that realization that people are not reading books–predictably young people . . . I think his point was that if he wanted to reach young people with serious ideas, books are a very inefficient way of doing it. So I began doing videos.

This was a number of years ago. I think of myself as an educator, you know, I’ve been teaching in classrooms for 40 years. That’s what I love to do. But I’m also intensely interested in policy and in politics and in history and in economics. So social media really provides a vehicle for reaching people, particularly young people, who were otherwise very difficult to reach.

@rbreich

PSA: Billionaires don’t need to have their collective fortunes grow by $1 trillion to be innovative. Tax the rich already.

♬ Apple bitten jeans beach boys 1964 – done4dayz

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When was the idea of making TikTok videos proposed to you, and by whom?

I didn’t know what TikTok was, frankly. It was completely foreign to me, and I can’t recall exactly whether it was Sam or somebody I worked with at Inequality Media who said you ought to try it. And I still don’t know what I’m doing, quite honestly.

Each platform in social media has its own quirks. Instagram appeals to certain people in certain ways, and I and my colleagues have done a lot of experimentation on Instagram and Facebook for that matter, and Twitter. But what I became very aware of in teaching is that TikTok was becoming more and more central to [students]; it was having more and more influence. They were still online reading newspapers and everything else. But it was reaching a lot of them. So, I thought, this is at least worth trying.

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@rbreich

Are both sides really more extreme?

♬ original sound – Robert Reich

I remember when The Daily Show with comedian Jon Stewart first came on years ago, and I thought wow this is where people are getting their news now. Do you think it’s the same mixture of comedy and real news that makes your TikToks popular?

You know, a spoonful of sugar helps all kinds of medicine go down. TikTok is essentially a funny medium. I mean, it’s because there’s music, there’s movement, and there are opportunities for all kinds of [humor]. Some of them are inside jokes, some of them are memes. This is a part of TikTok that I’ve had the hardest time understanding. The young people who follow it very quickly developed these inside jokes that only they understand.

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I work with a young man fresh out of college who’s very good at picking up these memes, and he essentially says “well, let’s try this,” and I follow his direction and sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, but it is clearly a way of conveying information as well. It’s a way of framing issues. It’s a means of helping young people understand what’s actually happening in world. And even though they may laugh, and they may dance along, and they may sing along, if their minds open for even just an instant, it’s an opportunity.

I can see that. And yet, at the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, I’ve got to say that this trend toward shorter and shorter pieces of communication for shorter attention spans gives me a little bit of pause.

Generally, I do worry about that, and my hope is that I whet the appetites of young people–that if I can get into a somebody who is not spending a great deal of time looking at inflation, or at windfall profits, taxes, or voting rights, or at any other issue—if I can just use that window to get them interested, then my hope is that they will want to know more and pursue it. If they want to know more I try to have a longer form video where they can learn more. But they don’t have to rely on me obviously. They can go to a million places, but it’s the interest that’s the critical thing.

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When you go to class at Berkeley do students want to talk to you about your TikTok videos?
The occasional undergraduate will tell me I saw this or I saw that, or ask how long I’ve been doing TikToks. There’s obviously interest there. But I try to keep my formal classroom participation and lecture very separate from social media. For one thing, my job in the classroom is not to take sides and not to present a particular point of view. It’s to get them to examine their preconceptions and think more deeply about a set of issues.

There was a little bit of an 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 thrilled to be back there. In fact, even before the class started, as people were coming in, I played “9 to 5,” the Dolly Parton song. And I was so thrilled to see these 700 or 800 young people coming in that I begin kind of involuntarily just dancing on the stage. And one of the undergraduates filmed me and made a TikTok, which went viral:

@theveronicalpz

we love it here @Robert Reich #ucberkeley #wealthandpoverty

♬ original sound – Veronica Lopez

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It makes me think that part of this is just your personality, because not every buttoned-up professor would do something like that.

I take the issues extremely seriously, but no, I don’t take myself seriously, and I use humor. Humor is the universal solvent.

Do you have any advice for people, maybe older people, who want to communicate via TikTok?

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I certainly want to educate, and I certainly have thoughts and facts that I want to get through to young people, but my suspicion is very strong that if young viewers just think you’re trying to sell a product or have an ulterior motive, that’s a turnoff. One quality of this [social] medium–TikTok in particular–is that it’s got to be authentic. It’s got to feel real. It’s got to feel spontaneous and fun.

In fact, I was just on the phone an hour ago with some staffers from a Senate office. We were talking about something entirely different, and then they added at the end of the conversation, “My boss wonders how you get across these ideas on social media and on TikTok.” I warned them against it. I just don’t think it’s a good medium for corporations or for politicians selling their particular wares. [Younger people] smell it. They smell it right away. They like smelling out hypocrisy and they [use] a snarky approach to somebody else’s hypocrisy. But I think that that also has to do with authenticity, at its root.

The reason I don’t like snark is that it leads to cynicism. And I think one of the big perils that we face in our society right now is not only short attention spans, but also cynicism about the possibility of doing anything.

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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