Haley Sharpe is a little bit famous. This is true for more people right now than ever before in the history of the world, but when you are a 16-year-old in Huntsville, Alabama, it is a very big deal.
Being a little bit famous is different from being famous-famous, but it is not that different, because when you’re a little bit famous it still feels like you are the center of the world. “A little bit famous” is the domain of Instagram influencers, reality TV contestants, YouTube creators, pageant queens, and mid-roster athletes who you yourself might not recognize on the street, but someone would.
Over the past year, another group have entered this category: TikTok stars. These people, most visibly teenagers, have found huge audiences on the nascent app known for short video posts, and Haley is one of them. Back in April, under the username @yodeling.karen — Karen is her middle name; “yodeling” references an old meme page she used to follow, but she’s since changed it to @yodelinghaley — Haley uploaded a video of herself dancing that went viral. A few weeks later, she made a video about celebrities who look like her and that went viral, too. After that, the hits came easier, and today she has just over 100,000 followers.
No, 100,000 followers is not a million followers. On TikTok, where followers are amassed at warp speed, it doesn’t even put Haley close to the top 50 accounts, which all boast followers into the multiple millions, despite most adults having zero clue who any of these people making silly, seconds-long videos are. But this summer Haley got recognized at dance camp, twice. Another time a girl came up to her at the snack shack at the pool where she lifeguards and asked if she was that girl from TikTok. Haley said “Yeah” and handed her her ice cream, and the girl said “Okay, thanks.” Now she has a journalist who flew all the way to Alabama from New York to find out what it’s like to be her.
Haley is on her way to getting the thing she wants, the thing all of her friends want. To be a very online young person in 2019 is to share the same goal: have the kind of social media following wherein performing your life online becomes a paying job. Haley and her friends, and their friends, and their friends, want to be stars in the constellation of professionally watchable influencers who rack up millions of views and considerable livelihoods by simply hanging out on their couch. They don’t want a boring day job, because who does? Why would you choose to eat sad desk salads when you could meet screaming fans and get paid by brands just for being yourself?
Haley has gotten a small taste of this, and like everybody else who has, she wants more.
I first meet Haley over fried chicken at an upscale restaurant in downtown Huntsville. In person she’s tall and lanky, with a long heap of light brown hair behind her, a three-sizes-too-big T-shirt, and clunky white sneakers on her feet, which makes her sound like a geek in an ’80s movie but really means she’s a 2019 cool girl. She is shy and darkly funny and has a habit of sitting with one leg pulled to her chest as if to fold herself away. She is the owner of what she calls a “resting angry face” that she uses to humorous effect in her TikToks, which are at once joyous and surreal, and filtered through several layers of irony. Her constant deadpan gives the sense that everything she says isn’t totally serious, but you can never quite be sure.
An example: She recently made a solemn-seeming TikTok in which she revealed that a couple of people she used to be friends with were trying to damage her reputation by outing her, and so she was just going to go ahead and tell the truth, that yes, she’s a scientologist. It wasn’t until my fourth day in Huntsville that I found out it was a joke. She’s Lutheran.
That winking, subversive humor is on display in the very first video that made Haley TikTok famous. On April 28, she filmed herself mimicking the dance moves from the Wii video game Michael Jackson: The Experience. It was just one of many Michael Jackson memes that proliferated on TikTok last spring, around the same time that allegations of sexual assault against the musician resurfaced in the documentary Leaving Neverland. It’s not that she’s making light of the situation — Haley has been a big Michael Jackson fan since she was a child, and the documentary devastated her. Her deadpan, miserable expression in the video nods to that discomfort; it’s what makes the video funny.
Haley found out the clip had blown up when, the next day, someone sent her a link to her video on an Instagram meme page known for stealing the most popular TikToks. Its virality was confirmed when someone shouted Jackson’s signature “HEE HEE!” squeal at her in the hallway at school.
“I didn’t really like that people were finding out, since I never asked for everyone to know about it,” she says of her TikTok account. But beneath her outward shyness is a natural performer, and she’s since learned to embrace the attention. “It’s cool, but it’s also weird to think I’m sitting here and somebody out there — more than somebody — is watching my videos right now. Constantly somebody is watching one. That’s so weird for me.”
We’re at the restaurant with her mother Leslie, a petite blonde lawyer who, like any mother of a teenager who recently became kind of a celebrity, has some concerns. Who are all these people watching videos taken in her daughter’s bedroom? What if a crazy person comes and finds her?
When Haley was a baby, Leslie tells me, she had these ringlets and enormous round eyes, the kind that would make strangers stop her in the mall or at the grocery store. “People have always noticed Haley,” she says. “It kind of makes me nervous.” At the same time, she’s proud of her: She thinks Haley’s videos are genuinely creative and funny. “There are worse things she could be doing,” she adds, and she is correct.
TikTok was supposed to be bad. In August 2018, the app that was once called Musical.ly relaunched under the umbrella of Chinese internet company ByteDance, and even before the first video was uploaded to the platform, the world wanted it to fail. After the cultishly beloved Vine was shut down in 2016, fans of weirdo happenstance comedy waited impatiently for another short-form social video app to act as its second coming. But in the four years Musical.ly was around, it never shook its reputation for being a place where 12-year-olds tried to look hot while lip-synching to C-grade pop music. Surely TikTok, which looked nearly identical to Musical.ly and similarly limited videos to 60 seconds, would be more of the same.
For a little while, it basically was. Early TikTok memes went viral because they were embarrassing, not because they were good, and often featured aging emo kids trying to thirst trap or teenage gamers lobbing sexist insults. At best, they were lazy ways to show off a poster’s money or looks. Influencers further up the video creator food chain — established YouTubers like PewDiePie and Denzel Dion — delighted in dunking on the most embarrassing trends with titles like “TikTok Must Be Stopped.”
But last fall, I found myself regularly opening the TikTok app and closing it only to realize several hours had passed. Videos that had once been pretenses to show off how attractive or talented or wealthy users were, were now making fun of the very tropes with which TikTok had initially been associated. TikTok had quickly become everything Vine was and Musical.ly wasn’t: clever, surprising, and truly fun to watch.
Mainstream media started paying attention not just to the app’s content but to its astounding growth. In September 2018 — the month after it launched — TikTok surpassed Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat in monthly installs, and by February 2019 it had been downloaded more than a billion times globally. Though TikTok is secretive about its user demographics and mysterious algorithm (the company declined to speak on the record for this story), one analysis showed that its user base is young: 40 percent are under 20 and another 26 percent are under 30. This isn’t surprising, considering young people watch 2.5 times more internet video than they do TV. All of this success allowed TikTok’s parent company ByteDance to become the world’s most highly valued startup in October 2018. It’s now estimated to be worth $75 billion.
It was months later that a video of Haley, set to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s theme song “Meet Rebecca,” appeared on my For You page, TikTok’s home feed that surfaces popular content and is personalized to each user. Like her Michael Jackson dancing videos, this one was an exercise in self-deprecation: The joke was that she looks like Post Malone, or the tween Musical.ly star Jacob Sartorius, or The Room director Tommy Wiseau. Her other TikToks share a similar tone; instead of making fun of herself, sometimes she’ll direct her sharp wit at homophobes or Ted Bundy sympathizers or a culture that demands women’s nails be constantly perfect.
With no real sharing function, making it to the For You page is essentially the only way a TikTok goes viral; users can spend hours scrolling through the infinite feed of vertical videos, favoriting or commenting as the algorithm learns to queue up ones similar to those they interact with. Though view counts are only visible to the poster, what matters is how many favorites it gets: A hundred thousand faves? That’s viral. A million? Massive.
There are lots of ways to get famous on TikTok, and one of the main ones is exploiting one’s own hotness. Angel-faced boys with steel cheekbones and forebodingly blue eyes abound on the platform, as do shiny-haired girls with winged liner and pouty lips. Some of the more alternative-looking users can be classified as e-boys or e-girls, mugging for their own cameras in chains and pink hair dye in their bedrooms. But regardless, the appeal is the same: People like to look at beautiful people. You don’t really have to do much else.
Haley, despite being undoubtedly pretty, does do much else. Like all the users that give TikTok its true TikTokness, her videos are dry and weird and textured, yet feel as though they were given no more than 10 seconds’ thought. The best TikToks are the work of people who are inherently funny but who take themselves far less seriously than professional comedians, which makes them even funnier. I later find out that Haley, for instance, is quite a talented dancer and even hopes to dance professionally after she graduates high school — if being internet famous doesn’t become her job. When she dances on TikTok, though, it isn’t to show off. It is, like all of her videos, a joke.
On the first Monday of the school year, Haley and her two friends Bridgett and Lauren are hanging out in the school cafeteria talking about how much Instagram sucks now. This is a common feeling among their peers; the painstakingly curated aesthetic synonymous with the app is losing resonance with young people, and Gen Z is more interested in video content anyway. All the posts in their feeds, they complain, are either stolen tweets or TikToks or memes they’ve already seen, and Haley only checks it for her DMs. “It’s all the same pictures,” she says. “Once it’s prom and fall break, all of it is just …” To explain what she means, she throws a hand on her hips and turns to the side like a sorority girl.
Lauren, meanwhile, used to post lots of artsy photos to her page, but kids she knew would leave mean comments on them. “People will criticize anyone who posts stuff that’s out of the norm of like, beach pics or prom pics,” she says. Lauren — with her curly bangs, plaid pants, and heeled boots — looks more like a graphic designer in Bushwick than a teen in Alabama. “I’d love to be a big TikToker like Haley but then I feel like, oh, someone’s gonna say something and make fun of me. I wish I could get past that.”
Lauren and Haley and most people they know have been on social media since they were kids; they idolize the stars they’ve grown up with. They rattle off a list of names and their relationships to each other: lo-fi YouTube cool kids Drew Phillips and his ex-girlfriend Enya, who are friends with former Viners Josh and Lucas Ovalle and character comedian Casey Frey, who’s friends with Viner-turned-standup comic Nick Colletti, who was in a show with Cody Ko, who co-hosts the series “That’s Cringe” with Noel Miller, who’s buds with talking-head YouTuber Danny Gonzalez. All of them are attractive and mostly white floppy-haired 20-somethings who wear big sweatshirts and built their followings less by shock value tactics of the Logan Paul variety and more by being genuinely funny and likable. Haley and her friends have filmed themselves being funny and likeable online for years; couldn’t they be next?
“Those are just my people, my people right there,” says Haley, although she’s never met any of them.
They’re the popular kids who trade in irony and internet in-jokes and make money simply by having more fun than everybody else. That money is far easier to make on YouTube than it is on TikTok thanks to YouTube’s monetization platform AdSense, through which video creators generate revenue through pre-roll advertisements. Vine, meanwhile, never built tools for users to monetize their followings, and so the most industrious Viners defected to YouTube even before the service shut down. The most common way to make money on TikTok, meanwhile, remains livestreaming, during which viewers can purchase and send to their favorite creators digital coins that can then be cashed out for real money. This isn’t something people are really doing, though, and thus has not translated into a meaningful source of revenue; not even users with millions of fans are seeing real returns. So far, Haley has collected $17.
Brands are only just beginning to harness the massively lucrative potential of the app — Haley’s been contacted by a few companies in the hopes that she’d hawk products like contacts or jewelry in her videos in exchange for freebies (she hasn’t agreed to do so), but unlike Instagram, sponsored content isn’t part of TikTok’s DNA. For now, it’s difficult to make real money on the platform unless you happen to be one of the artists with a song that becomes a TikTok meme. A handful of them have scored record deals with major labels based on viral hits on the app alone, most famously “Old Town Road” rapper Lil Nas X, who broke the record for the all-time longest-running No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 this summer.
Which is why for Haley and for many TikTokers, YouTube, not TV or movies or music videos, is where they hope to end up — that’s what they’ve grown up watching, after all. “I just want to get to YouTube, that’s the goal,” Haley says.
When you go on TikTok, she explains, you’re looking for short videos to make you laugh. On YouTube, there’s variety and, crucially, prestige. “I feel like everyone has always wanted to be a YouTuber,” she says. “If you ask like little kids, they say they want to be a YouTuber.” It makes sense, she explains, considering one of the primary qualities of being a YouTuber is documenting how much fun they’re having.
Thanks to her following on TikTok, she now feels like she can actually start a successful YouTube channel of her own. She would follow the vlogging-slash-commentary format popular with her favorite creators. A month after I visited Huntsville, she tells me she’s currently working on a vlog of her school’s homecoming week. She’s not sure whether she’ll post it or not, though.
“TikTok feels temporary and a little unpredictable about how long it’ll last,” she says. “If they want people to stay on TikTok, they have to get paid.”
Yet due to YouTube’s years-long crackdown on monetization and the so-called “adpocalypse,” the period beginning in 2017 when advertisers grew increasingly skittish to invest in a platform that always seemed to be mired in controversy, the gold rush is slowing down. These days, a career making money via AdSense dollars alone is increasingly implausible, and now YouTubers often aim to transition into more traditional forms of entertainment, or supplement their incomes through merch, sponsored content, or crowdsourcing tools like Patreon. Going viral and building a following are difficult enough, but when not even the most popular talents are guaranteed a paycheck, the dream becomes even less achievable.
Those are problems to be figured out later, though. Haley is still in high school, and studying combined with a rigorous dance schedule that includes near-daily rehearsals to prepare for weekend-long competitions, plus twice-weekly high school dance team practices that culminate in performances at football games, she hardly has the time required to conceptualize, shoot, edit, and promote videos longer than a minute. TikTok is the medium that works for her life right now, and the ultimate value of the fame she’s achieved there may end up being the ability to promote her work on other platforms in the future. For the time being, though, her 100,000 followers are enough to keep her creatively fulfilled — and sometimes inspire envy from her friends.
“I get jealous of Haley but I don’t let her know that,” Lauren laughs. “You already have a big ego.”
“People will downplay it. They’ll be like, ‘Oh, she’s just famous on TikTok. It’s just TikTok,’” Bridgett says.
Meanwhile, Lauren says, “They’ll post something and get like, three likes.”
The internet has made it such that almost everyone under 30 knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone, who has through some mechanism of virality achieved a non-insignificant amount of public attention, for better or for worse, intentionally or otherwise. Young people are used to it now. Bridgett recalls how just the other day, a video of a boy they know jumping into a lake and rising out of the water with a fish in his hands got reposted on the controversial viral content farm Barstool Sports. Most of the time, kids will go viral for a day or two and then they’re old news. The ones who want it bad enough stick around, stretching their 15 minutes as long as digitally possible.
The next day in the cafeteria, Haley’s friends Shiva and Ridley pore over the TikTok of another guy they know who’s “literally famous” now but decide that he isn’t that cute. Ridley mentions that she’s pretty good friends with Mitchell, as in Mitchell Crawford, the TikToker with 1.3 million followers who now lives in LA.
And then there is Aly White, an 18-year-old TikToker with 242,000 followers who lives in Huntsville and went to high school with some of Haley’s dance friends. None of the girls at Haley’s school know her but they all know of her. She’s pretty and blonde and kind of looks like Disney Channel star Dove Cameron and knows it. She makes earnest TikToks that show off her singing voice or acting chops or how much being on your period or having crushes sucks, and is essentially the kind of TikToker that Haley is not. “I try to do as much relatable, original content as I possibly can, whether it’s just telling original stories about what happened in my day or making it funny,” Aly tells me over the phone.
They’ve never met, and neither of them have anything personal against each other. But a few months ago Haley, as a joke, took one of Aly’s singing videos and did a fake Irish jig to it, and then some other people started doing it too. Haley also dueted a few videos of Aly’s in a way Aly felt was mocking — dueting is when you make a side-by-side video reply and upload it to your own profile — so Aly blocked her.
Like Haley, Aly wants to make this her career: She hopes to work the meet-and-greet circuit as a full-time social media influencer, the kind who’s big on TikTok and also YouTube and also Instagram and also whatever platform gets big next. Also like Haley, she has a backup: early childhood education, which she’s currently studying at a local college. Despite their differences, they have plenty in common. They can both relay stories of getting recognized around Huntsville, or a stranger hurling a TikTok joke at them on their way to class, or the pressure that comes with knowing that younger girls look up to them.
Like everyone else on the app, they use TikTok to have fun, even though there is a big invisible asterisk next to the word “fun” when being good at TikTok could potentially be a ticket to the life they’ve always dreamed of. Every TikTok video, even the most slapdash and offhand, is calculated to some degree.
After school, Haley and a half dozen of her lifeguard friends drive an hour to a local swimming hole to go cliff jumping.
Standing over the slippery edge of a waterfall, she asks, “Caleb, should I make a TikTok of me jumping?”
“Can I be in it?” asks another boy.
“What’s something funny I should say before I jump? I’m thinking of saying, ‘Period!’”
A few minutes later, from behind the trees, she yells “PERIOD!” and a splash.
When Haley got back from dance camp in July, she started caring too much about numbers: “I used to just stare and refresh and wait and see if a video did well, and if it didn’t, then I’d have to take it down.” She’s always compared herself to other TikTokers with more followers or whose videos constantly blow up, but after a month of obsessing she came to realize, “It’s because they’re funny. I can’t be so mad about it.”
You do not have to be TikTok famous to understand what Haley is talking about. Anyone with so much as an Instagram account has likely experienced those same anxieties. The platforms that offer constant attention and affirmation have the same capacity to warp the brains of regular people just as much as the famous among us.
The study of fame is a relatively new field. In 2006, a peak in the era of reality TV and tabloid snark, the New York Times wrote, “For most of its existence, the field of psychology has ignored fame as a primary motivator of human behavior: it was considered too shallow, too culturally variable, too often mingled with other motives to be taken seriously.” But that was changing during a time when the newest generation of celebrities were simply “famous for being famous,” or as we would ultimately come to know them, influencers. Fame had never seemed to be quite so randomly distributed, nor so possible.
But as far back as 1996, research showed that fame was a precarious aspiration. A University of Rochester study at the time showed that adults whose goals were tied to the approval of others and fame “reported significantly higher levels of distress than those interested primarily in self-acceptance and friendship.”
In an essay on celebrity culture, Timothy Caulfield, a law professor at the University of Alberta, takes an even bleaker view on celebrity culture, arguing that the countries most obsessed with it (the US, UK, and South Korea, for instance), do not score particularly well on world happiness reports, nor are they countries with high social mobility. Fame, therefore, is likened to a get-rich-quick fantasy, a shortcut to circumvent societal stagnation.
In her book Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, Karen Sternheimer paints a similarly dark portrait: “Getting enough attention, be it positive or negative, could yield a new career as a celebrity during a time when the gap between the wealthy and everyone else has widened,” she writes. Meanwhile, “the truly rich and powerful do not need to sell their private lives or endure the volatility of fame.”
In 2009, psychologists Donna Rockwell and David C. Giles conducted a study with the participation of 15 well-known but anonymous celebrities, finding that fame forced the famous to undergo a psychological process in which they experienced depersonalization, a mistrust of others, and the idea that they were two people: their public self and their authentic self.
Today, Rockwell says that pretty much all of us go through that process to some degree. “All of a sudden you have to take care of these two parts of you,” she says. “It’s changing our psychology collectively because we have to worry about social media platforms on a daily basis and keep up this celebrated entity of oneself, the part that has been depersonalized by a fan base. That has to be considered.”
Those who’ve accrued enough notoriety for their online presence to become a potential career have more at stake. To the famous person, the level of fame is irrelevant. “You can be a 13-year-old and have 100,000 followers or be Taylor Swift, but the 13-year-old is going to feel the same,” she says. After all, their self-worth is just as quantifiable, and once you’re even a little bit famous, there’s nowhere to go but down. “The only thing you can become after famous, unfortunately, is a has-been,” Rockwell says. “Then you have to deal with the depression, the anxiety, and the after-effects of having lost something.”
Even Haley’s AP US history teacher has a theory about all this. After giving a lecture on the Salem witch trials, he tells the class that the Puritans’ belief in predetermination didn’t comfort them. In fact, it made them even more anxious because they felt as though they had to spend their entire lives signalling to their community that they were indeed virtuous enough to enter heaven. He thinks that on social media we do the same thing: “We’re so scared of not belonging.”
TikTok-famous teens, the envy of their generation, are all too aware that their fame could go away at any moment. What goes unspoken is that there is always someone funnier or prettier or more likable or who works harder, and that soon their own face may show up less and less on strangers’ screens. That so many people will become TikTok-famous or Instagram-famous or Twitter-famous that it will cease to mean quite so much; that someday there will be simply too many influencers and not enough eyeballs and money. That if everyone is a little bit famous, no one is.
Haley has made TikTok friends she can talk to about the peculiarities and uncertainty of her position. Sam, a 15-year-old in Los Angeles who goes by the username @sugarramen and asked that his last name not be used, was the first person to upload a “Meet Rebecca” video and was the inspiration for Haley’s version. After both their videos went viral, they started DMing and eventually FaceTiming each other from across the country. Sam later added Haley to an Instagram DM started by a couple of fans who gathered all their favorite TikTokers in the same place, and now there’s a group of about 15 famous TikTokers chatting about what’s going on on the app.
Sam’s videos are goofy like Haley’s, if a bit more blatantly bizarre. He often appears to be sobbing, though he achieves this effect by putting Carmex in his eyes; in one video, Sufjan Stevens’ “Mystery of Love,” the pensive love song written for Call Me By Your Name, plays while a weeping Sam pleads for help because he can’t spell the word “cocanut.”
Sam has 166,000 followers now, and he says hitting the 100,000 mark was like a rite of passage: “People on TikTok start to see you differently. They’re looking for that consistent thing from you, and you have to focus on posting that consistent thing.”
“But,” he adds, “you can’t talk about your numbers with regular friends because then you just sound like a dick.”
TikTok teens outside Haley’s circle share the same concerns. Emma, a 17-year-old TikToker based in South Carolina who goes by the username @graytulip and has 246,000 followers, got famous on the app by posting POVs, point-of-view videos satirizing popular high school typecasts like VSCO girls and K-pop obsessives. She says that after a while the commenters begging for more POV videos got frustrating, as if they only liked her for one specific type of content. “If I was constantly thinking over and over, like, ‘I need to make this next video pronto,’” she says, “I think I would make myself go crazy.”
The younger kids at school, she says, regard YouTubers like PewDiePie and other hugely popular creators as having simply stumbled upon their success, as though they were always destined for fame. “I’ve seen a lot more kids even a year younger than me being like, ‘I want to be a YouTuber.’ ‘I want to be an Instagram model.’ And people a few years older than me already have set career paths.”
Emma sees herself stuck somewhere in the middle. On the prospect of a high-paying career as a content creator, she’s more in the “if it happens, it happens” camp. “We’re smart enough to know that that’s not how it’s going to work out for everybody,” she says. After all, she’s not even the only TikTok famous student at her school — the two of them posed for a photo in the yearbook this spring.
Like Haley and Aly, she has a more traditional career path lined up, just in case: She wants to attend school for broadcast journalism, because, she says, “I obviously would not use TikTok as my only income, even at the follower rate I’m at now. It’s so random and sporadic the way you get an income from there. I would never quit my job.”
These kids know the platforms are not their friends. This is why Haley is worrying about the health of a multibillion dollar Chinese corporation as we’re sitting in her bedroom, with its lilac walls and slanted ceiling I’ve seen dozens of times on my phone in my own bedroom 1,000 miles away. She knows that TikTok could shut down or fizzle out — look what happened to Vine. Even minor changes to the mysterious TikTok algorithm feel like they carry career-altering consequences. She thinks about what time of day she should post and how best to get on the For You page, even though nobody knows the precise answers or probably ever will.
Haley’s mom Leslie is cautiously supportive of her daughter’s burgeoning career. “I wouldn’t mind it, I guess,” she says of Haley becoming a household name, “as long as she stays focused on school and just regular teenage stuff.” She wants Haley to go to college instead of diving full force into influencerdom. Like many parents of natural performers, she could see Haley ending up on Saturday Night Live, and considering SNL now regularly hires internet-famous comedians, the first TikTok cast member may not be far off.
There is pressure in this path, but Haley means it when she says her life is generally better after becoming TikTok-famous. “Honestly, this sounds so weird, but I’m happier now. I just, I like making TikToks. It’s fun and it makes me feel creative. I like that I reached out to people and that people watch them and like them.”
“I don’t even mean this in a bad way, but a lot of people are nicer to me,” she says. “I don’t know how to put it, but I’ve become friends with more people because they’re interested. Not even in a clout-chasing way, but they’re interested in what it’s like.” What it’s like to be her, that is.
“I feel like my biggest fear,” she says, unprompted, “is just fading into like, nobody remembers me on TikTok.”
On Tuesday morning, Haley and Bridgett go to Advisory, a small class that operates as part homeroom and part group therapy session. They sit in a quartet of giggling girls in oversized T-shirts, long, straight hair, and scrunchies on their wrists while Haley sips from a Chick-fil-A cup that’s bigger than her face. On the projector at the front of the room is a quote from Plato: “The beginning is the most important part of the work.”
“You guys know who Plato is, right?” asks their teacher Mr. Green, who in fact looks like the Platonic ideal of an English professor.
“A planet,” says Haley so that only Bridgett, who is Snapchatting, can hear.
They’re learning about how junior year is the important one, and Mr. Green wants to make sure that they can handle the expectations that come with being an upperclassman at their private school.
“Perception is reality,” he says. “Straight facts,” murmurs a sleepy-looking kid. “Tea,” adds one of Haley’s friends. Quietly, Haley says, “We’re all living in a simulation anyway.”
He’s talking about what it means to be successful. They’re supposed to go to college, make connections and money and become doctors or lawyers. But whose expectations are those, anyway, he asks.
“This year is about wresting away your goals from other peoples’ wants,” Mr. Green says. “You want to have the year that you want, not what the school wants or your parents want.” I’d forgotten how stressful junior year was and how much worse it was because everyone kept on telling you how stressful it was going to be. I imagine it is not made any less stressful by the fact that even theoretically stable industries aren’t necessarily tickets to financial success anymore.
Like any high school kid would, the students mostly use Advisory as an opportunity to zone out or check their phones, but the weight of the discussion feels heavy for the two adults in the room. Every generation has its own specific anxieties, which means no one has faced precisely the same ones American teenagers do today. Dystopian concerns like whether the earth will still be habitable by the time they enter middle age or whether someone with a gun will prevent them from even making it that far are now just another part of growing up. And these are the well-off kids, burdened by high expectations, sure, but sheltered from the obstacles that put the most vulnerable among them in an even worse position.
“Do you all believe there’s a place you’re meant to go? A future for you that’s meant to be?” As if they’re supposed to be sure of anything besides the fact that all they want is the same thing that all of us want, which is to be liked, and it just so happens that now it’s possible that you can be liked so much that being liked becomes your entire identity, and that well-liked identity can be a lucrative career if you try hard and are also very lucky.
At the end of the class, he asks if they think they have control over their lives right now. The kids, of course, all say no.
Listen to Today, Explained
TikTok’s hottest meme is pitting the Youths against the Olds, but the truth about this generational standoff can be found in its shades of gray.
Subscribe to Today, Explained, Vox’s daily explainer podcast, wherever you get your podcasts, including: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and ART19.