Natural History Museum Curator Becomes ‘Shell-Ebrity’ With Mollusk Tik Toks

Feb 17, 2020

Tim Pearce knows a lot about mollusks. But, he says, he knows very little about social media.

To his surprise, his pun-filled videos shared on a fairly new social media platform, TikTok, have gone viral in the last month, making him what he calls a “shell-ebrity.”

About a year ago, the newly-appointed marketing director for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History asked Pearce, the head of the mollusks section at the museum, to record a series of jokes and fun facts about snails to share on social media. That garnered a sort of cult following on other social network platforms, but didn’t really take off according to Marketing Director Sloan MacRae.

Then they put the videos on TikTok. Pearce’s most popular snail joke has more than 1.2 million likes.

@carnegiemnh

#fyp #naturalhistorymuseum #pittsburgh #obama #michelleobama #snail

♬ original sound - carnegiemnh

The video sharing platform’s content is mostly consumed and created by Gen Z users: people born between the late 1990s and the early 2010s. The interface is similar to Instagram, with a comment section and hashtags. Most videos are less than a minute long, and the most liked and viewed content involves humor or dubbed music videos.

Pearce’s following reflects what TikTok users want: lighthearted content.

He recently filmed a prom-posal -- an often elaborate way to ask someone to prom -- video requested by a fan that was then posted to the page on Valentine’s Day. The top comments on most of his videos are along the lines of “these videos are the best part of my day”, “protect him” and “I would take a bullet for you”.

“And to that I say ‘no don’t take a bullet, you should take a slug,” he responded, jokingly.

At 65 years old, Pearce is an unlikely TikTok phenomenon. A recent blog post from Pittsburgh-based digital marketing agency Responsival, titled "What the Hell is TikTok?", notes that "of all social media platforms that are popular today, TikTok is perhaps the one that perplexes older generations most."

Responsival's Katie Visco said, because advertising campaigns on the app are so expensive, it's best used to promote brand awareness. However, she doesn’t necessarily recommend every company or organization invest time and resources into making content for the platform.  

“If their goal is to reach an 18-year-old audience and they want to be growing their brands awareness, then of course they should start a TikTok,” she said. “That’s where their audience is living. They’re living on TikTok. But if their primary target audience is 35-year-old females, and they don’t make a lot of video content, maybe Pinterest or Instagram is a better resource. That’s where that audience is going to live.”

The museum's Sloan MacRae said he thinks the content the museum is creating has been successful because of its authenticity and Pearce’s personality.

“If this could drive some visitation and translates ticket sales, wonderful. What it will probably be more successful at is basically [public relations] for our science and research, which is kind of one of the untold stories of this place at least regionally,” he said.

MacRae said he’s also interested in showcasing scientists as real people.

For Pearce, he's just "pleased that the snails are in the ‘slime-light.'"