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This week in TikTok: The only election that mattered

The TikTok Room awards might be the future of celebrity fandom.

Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Hello from The Goods’ twice-weekly newsletter! On Tuesdays, internet culture reporter Rebecca Jennings uses this space to update you all on what’s been going on in the world of TikTok. Is there something you want to see more of? Less of? Different of? Email, and subscribe to The Goods’ newsletter here.

The only awards show that mattered this year went down over the weekend, but you couldn’t watch it on TV. It happened on Instagram, on the most important account for Gen Z social media stars and their followers: TikTok Room.

It’s hard to overstate the influence of TikTok Room to the growing world of the micro-famous (and now, some actually famous) TikTokers who comprise the most followed users on the app. Like the Shade Room, which it is directly modeled after, the account posts gossip and other hard-to-find morsels of drama, like deleted tweets, recordings of livestreams, or screenshots of comments, replies, and likes between popular creators.

During the pandemic, when kids and teens are living their lives online and spending less time with classmates and friends, digital dirt is more essential than ever. When I wrote about TikTok Room in February, the account had nearly 300,000 followers; now it has almost 2 million.

Most importantly, TikTok Room is run by two regular fans who are anonymous outside of their first names: Elasia, a 19-year-old college student in New Jersey, and Nat, a 17-year-old high schooler in Texas. Its graphic design and branding may seem slightly amateurish, but that’s also what makes it feel so authentic: Nat and Elasia are just genuinely so obsessed with creator culture that the account posts dozens of times a day, often within minutes of major drama occurring. (I asked Elasia if she considers herself a journalist; she said, “We don’t post fake tea.”)

All this is to say that when TikTok Room announced that it would be holding its first awards show in November, it was a pretty big deal. Nominees such as Charli D’Amelio, Bryce Hall, and Loren Gray encouraged their fans to vote for them in categories like “Best Dance Creator,” “Best Clapback,” “Least Problematic Female,” and “Best Ship” (for creators who haven’t confirmed their relationship status but whom fans love to see together). Voting took place last week via Google Form, and the results, which were rolled out in a series of timed Instagram posts on Saturday night, included pie chart breakdowns of the voting results for transparency.

The winners were not particularly surprising. Beauty YouTuber James Charles won “Best Makeup.” “Best Role Model” went to body-positive creator Sienna Gomez (as did “Least Problematic”). Charli won “Most Achieved Female,” and “Best Dance Creator” went to “Say So” choreographer (and Vox profile subject) Haley Sharpe. These are the users TikTok is synonymous with, and that says volumes about the future of social media stardom: These users are, for the most part, white, cis, thin, and primed to make hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars from their followings.

Maybe more pressingly, the TikTok Room awards prove how little “real” awards shows matter anymore, and how much mainstream celebrity culture has to catch up on. According to the awards’ results, nearly 500,000 votes were cast, which would illustrate an enormous rate of user engagement for the account’s 1.9 million followers. There are rapidly expanding and increasingly niche fandoms for more and more TikTok creators, and the power rankings are constantly in flux. We already know how overnight fame can affect young people’s lives and mental health — especially when it goes away. These mechanisms are already in hyperdrive, and they’re getting faster.

Whatever this sort of attention does to the influencers themselves, TikTok Room and its marquee awards are a wildly impressive feat for two regular teenagers who might be the future of entertainment media. Though kids under 18 may not have been able to vote in that other election last month, to some of them, the TikTok Room awards might have been the one that mattered more.

TikTok in the news

  • ByteDance has been given yet another deadline extension to sell TikTok to US ownership. (It’s now December 4.) An amazing holiday present would be to give up the whole charade and let us TikTok in peace.
  • “How did I end up on Cartel TikTok?” is a question you’ll see asked a lot on social media, as videos of dozens of bags containing what are assumed to be illegal drugs or exotic pets and luxury cars have popped up on hundreds of thousands of TikTok users’ feeds. Yet according to experts on organized crime, it’s all just “narco-marketing” — that is, “the latest propaganda campaign designed to mask the bloodbath and use the promise of infinite wealth to attract expendable young recruits.”
  • Relatedly, many TikTok users, including me, have been served videos that appear to be filmed in North Korea. Some appear to be staged; for instance, one video shows people waiting at the top of a staircase seeming to wait for a cue. The account describes itself as “North Korean residents sharing their current daily life” and says it is produced in the Chinese city of Dandong, next to the North Korean border. But like all media that purports to come from North Korea, where citizens are subject to some of the world’s most extreme censorship measures, its origins and intentions are suspect.
  • Former Target employees are claiming on TikTok that Target will “let” you steal from stores, all the while tracking everything you take over time until the total is more than enough to prosecute people for grand larceny. Current Target employees, DM me!
  • Here’s a cool mini-doc on how LGBTQ Muslims are building a community on TikTok.
  • Megan Thee Stallion remains Thee queen of TikTok trends.

One Last Thing

Sick of seeing everyone’s perfectly color-coordinated Christmas trees on Instagram Stories? Here is a TikTok for those who appreciate a tree with, uh, “character.”