Angie Hong first heard of TikTok’s existence during spring break 2020. While vacationing in Florida, her stepbrother demonstrated the app to the rest of the family, eliciting mild amusement. Then, as we’re sure you remember, the novel coronavirus arrived.
“Fast-forward a few weeks, and all of my in-person programming was shut down—I was looking for new ways to engage with the public,” says Hong, who has worked with the East Metro Water Resource Education Program for 15 years.
TikTok afforded Hong the opportunity to take her IRL lessons outside the classroom and into Minnesota's lakes, rivers, prairies, and forests. She’d show off pebble-sized toads, record first-person mountain biking descents, and demonstrate how to turn blades of grass into makeshift kazoos. The audience at @mnnature_awesomeness was, at first, almost non-existent.
“It felt like a semi-failure until May,” Hong says with a laugh. “I was honestly getting to the point of: Is this a good use of my time?”
But the mysterious algorithm suddenly took hold, catapulting a video about Maplewood’s Living Streets Policy toward 100,000 views. In it, Hong simply takes a stroll and explains how the suburb’s narrowed streets, rain gardens, and planted trees aid the environment through public policy and civic planning.
Things “picked up steam” from there, Hong reports, and the account has since attracted 57,000 followers. The feedback is overwhelmingly positive. “Which is nice because social media can be a scary place,” she says, quite accurately.
Hong brings a fun, energetic, Bill Nye-ian approach to her videos, which alternate from goofy (what an exploding 1,411-pound pumpkin sounds like) to eat-your-veggies educational (parsing Minnesota’s four distinct biomes). The Stillwater-based educator says clips that skew negative tend to perform best, a realization that’s at odds with her bright, cheery demeanor.
For example, a recent video about Minnesota removing 54 lakes from the impaired waters list barely moved the needle, while another about PFOS chemicals contaminating the once-pristine St. Croix River clocked around 250,000 views.
Hong says some followers try to nudge her toward activism, whether about 3M’s PFOS poisoning or the Line 3 pipeline, though she views the account as an extension of her career in environmental education—not advocacy. (We’ll jump in and note that Maplewood-based 3M is a monstrous polluter that knowingly hurt people and the environment with PFOS.)
The popularity of her content makes demographic sense, as the younger generations that use TikTok happen to be the most passionate about climate-change activism, according to Pew polling.
“I try not to make it only about environmental issues,” Hong says, noting favorites about how to use a compass and ID’ing edible mushrooms. “It’s so fun to teach people about local nature; I love posting videos that get people excited to go outside and explore.”