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Tikked off: What happens when TikTok fame fades

A social media app has never turned kids into celebrities — or has-beens — faster.

An AFP collaborator poses for a picture using the TikTok app on December 14, 2018, in Paris.
AFP via Getty Images
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.

As he was entering his junior year of high school last August, 16-year-old Sam had about 166,000 followers on TikTok. It wasn’t the sort of following that regularly turned heads in public, but it was enough to feel special, like what he created mattered to people.

Back then, Sam was having fun. He was making the kind of videos where you laughed even when it wasn’t clear that there was a joke to get. The videos were weird — like, really weird; he’d put Carmex under his eyes so that it’d look like he was crying over not being able to spell the word “coconut.” He’d stack a bunch of Perrier cans on top of each other and make a little poem about it. He also invented one of TikTok’s biggest memes last spring, “Meet Rebecca.” He had hopes of turning his nascent fame into a career as a comedian, like how Bo Burnham had gone from a popular Viner to a highly respected filmmaker.

Six months later, when I meet him at a coffee shop near his home in Los Angeles and ask if he still wants to work in entertainment, he laughs. “I feel like when I said that I might have been high on TikTok. Like, ‘Everybody finds me so funny!’ Now I’m reconsidering that.”

Sam, who went by the username @sugarramen, doesn’t use TikTok anymore. He took a break a few months ago that has become more or less permanent, and he no longer DMs with his TikTok friends because it gives him too much anxiety.

It wasn’t negative comments that drove him away — everyone had been perfectly nice! It was what happened when the views and “likes,” which he’d amassed over the course of nearly a year thanks to a few viral video hits, started to stagnate. “Not getting the numbers that you want is so harmful,” he says. “It’s scary because it’s this spiral of not ever feeling like you’re enough, and that leaves this mental scarring. It’s contributed to my mental health not being the best lately. I definitely had to get some therapy because of this.”

TikTok has created a celebrity manufacturing machine that operates faster and more powerfully than any social media platform that has come before it, turning average teenagers into international stars in a matter of weeks, sometimes days. For many kids who’ve experienced it, it’s exhilarating — until it isn’t. TikTok fatigue is real, and it’s not only limited to those who get swept up in the hype. Now, even users who downloaded TikTok as a joke are saying they don’t know how to escape it.

Here’s a pretty good example of how addictive and important TikTok is in the hierarchy of its most ardent fans’ smartphone apps: TikTok launched in the US in August of 2018, was downloaded 1.5 billion times worldwide in 2019, and is now so popular that it has to actively beg its users to log off. Through an account called @TikTokTips, the company has partnered with popular creators to share videos that remind viewers to drink water, talk to their friends, or go outside instead of spending another hour mindlessly scrolling through the app’s personalized For You page. Meanwhile, it’s also recently announced a new Family Safety Mode that allows parents to control their child’s screen time.

In a statement to Vox, a TikTok spokesperson said, “For some people, learning from and laughing at the TikTok community’s creative content can be so engaging that it is easy to forget the time — so we created some fun reminders to help. Our new in-feed screen time reminders are the latest addition to our ‘You’re in Control’ safety video series which can be found in-app @TikTokTips and in our Safety Center.”

TikTok isn’t only a rabbit hole of content; it’s also a gateway to large amounts of attention and (possible) riches. The ability of TikTok, more so than any other network, to catapult its users to international stardom is among its most compelling qualities. Its algorithm serves trending content to a wide audience, so even accounts with a handful of followers can go hugely viral within the span of a few hours. Followers are racked up far more quickly than on other platforms, so having tens of thousands of them is relatively standard for anyone who’s had even a minor hit.

TikTok fame is now a common and increasingly attainable goal for kids, teens, and young adults; more than half of Americans between the ages of 13 and 38 say they’d like to be an influencer if given the opportunity, according to a survey by the data research firm Morning Consult. Many high schools have at least one TikTok-famous student. That’s the thrill of it: Anyone — even you! — could be next.

Until relatively recently, though, that fame was mostly limited to the confines of the app itself. Popular users I spoke to a few months ago were primarily using their followings to promote their YouTube or Instagram accounts because barely anyone was making actual money on TikTok. Then the brands came, and with them came splashy advertising campaigns and sponsorship opportunities that allowed at least one TikToker with about 4 million followers (they chose to remain anonymous to protect the confidentiality of their contracts) to charge between $5,000 and $10,000 per post. The highest echelon of TikTokers can now charge up to $200,000, and that number is rising.

Last fall, a certain kind of TikToker began to emerge as the most popular, and therefore bankable, and it wasn’t altogether a surprising one. Users were seeing more dance challenges and lip-syncing on their For You pages; suddenly, you were supposed to know the names of certain totally normal (albeit thin, white, and traditionally attractive) teenagers. Regular high schoolers like a 15-year-old in Connecticut named Charli D’Amelio and Texas-based 16-year-old Alex French saw their followings spike virtually overnight due to mechanisms that even they didn’t truly understand. One week the hype would be trained on one lucky user, and the next week it’d move to another. Some of them moved out to LA for a chance at an entertainment career and got lucrative talent deals. Most didn’t.

Sam didn’t. His content didn’t match the new cool-kid standard of dancing and winking to the hottest new hip-hop songs, and watching peers rise to stardom when he’d already had a taste of what it was like was difficult. “I see how big people are getting, and obviously I want to be big too, but I don’t think the platform is for me anymore,” he says. When he began posting in October of 2018, he says, most of the content on TikTok was “goofy and cringe,” and the culture of virality as a gateway to brand deals and fame didn’t exist yet.

It’s a familiar narrative for any social media app: In the early days, there’s a golden period where people are supposedly there for the “right” reasons, where the community feels authentic and pure to the people who are part of it. As more people join and brands follow, hoping for new customers and cash, the platform can start to feel tainted and mainstream, losing its edge. What is happening to TikTok happens to all digital platforms once they become important enough, like when Facebook was for sharing bumper stickers with your classmates instead of threatening democracy.

Sam isn’t the only one feeling this shift. In what appears to be the first known “Why I’m leaving TikTok” essay, Cornell sophomore Niko Nguyen published a tirade against the addictive nature of the app that begins with the sentence, “This is getting out of hand. I can’t let this consume my life.” Nguyen downloaded TikTok mostly as a joke, despite feeling like he was too old for its base of impressionable middle and high school kids. Now, he argues, it’s “produced a legion of wannabe entertainers and influencers, giving the average high school student the illusion of a personal platform capable of launching them to TikTok fame.”

Even the kids who do achieve the dream of so many others — the ones who get really, truly TikTok famous — must then be ready to reorient their entire lives. Mitchell Crawford, known under his username @mitchell, graduated from his Atlanta high school last year with about 15,000 TikTok followers. By the time he arrived at college that fall, he had 1.2 million, and he now has double that.

Mitchell’s TikTok fame was the direct result of effort: He’d hop on different meme challenges for months before finally landing a viral hit with a video about how sophomores act when they get their driver’s license. As a longtime theater kid, Mitchell was always a bit of a ham, but it was on TikTok where he found validation as a performer. “It was so rewarding to find a space where I could be recognized for something, whether you want to call it ‘talent,’ ‘entertaining’ — whatever that thing is that I’ve always had and I’ve never been able to express,” he says. “Maybe I was funny in a friend group, but I never could fully express myself in the way I do on TikTok.”

For kids who grew up knowing they were funny and creative but felt like few people acknowledged their talent, TikTok provides a feedback loop of endless possible rewards. The attention offers a window into a life where if they try hard enough, they, too, could land six-figure deals and avoid the slog of a 9-to-5 job by simply hanging out with their friends. If that’s the standard for a successful career or a good life — when it seems like that’s what everyone else is achieving — most will be left disappointed.

Mitchell, however, is among the lucky TikTokers for whom things really are working out: He’s signed to Fullscreen, a management company that’s helping him land auditions for network TV shows, and he genuinely still enjoys creating content on TikTok. The fame part is what’s less fun.

“It’s very isolating and separating,” he says of being the “TikTok kid” on his college campus. “It’s definitely the worst experience of my life to have people look at me so differently.” It’s affected his trust in people, too. He says that a girl he considered a best friend in high school, but who never reciprocated the sentiment, suddenly became more possessive once he got TikTok famous. “I was like, ‘Yikes.’ Then she texted me and commented on my Instagram that we’re best friends forever. To see this change in [my friends from back home] and to see this different way they were looking at me just killed me.”

This is what happens to people when they get famous: In a 2009 study, celebrities were shown to experience mistrust toward others and a sense of depersonalization, leading them to separate themselves into two people: their true self and their public self. One of the study’s authors, psychologist Donna Rockwell, told me in October that the effects are worse when the fame doesn’t last. “The only thing you can become after famous, unfortunately, is a has-been,” she says. “Then you have to deal with the depression, the anxiety, and the aftereffects of having lost something.”

TikTok’s fickle nature and mysterious, ever-changing algorithm means there is an ocean of users whose fame and clout are fluctuating at every moment, and that new faces are always rising as others fall away. For the majority of kids who use TikTok for fun, that isn’t a problem. But for the growing number who get caught up in a wave of attention only to watch it drift away, it can be devastating.

“I wish I never got this sort of fame,” says Sam. “It turned into a job for me and it was a lot of pressure. When anything gets big like this, it becomes less for fun and more of an opportunity to grow a business and create a platform.”

There’s no question that TikTok is now a viable place to grow a business; whether it can remain a place where kids like Sam can still have fun without feeling like the stakes have life-altering consequences is less certain. As long as TikTok exists, it will be full of people making bizarre, goofy content, but for it to truly stay weird it would have to deprioritize the corporations that are willing to spend lots of money to advertise there, and that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

TikTok is not the first social media platform to emphasize monetization over maintaining its supposed “authenticity,” nor will it be the last. If the company wants to avoid the mistakes made by predecessors like the now-defunct Vine, it has to be a place where full-time creators can make a living, and with money comes brands that want to capitalize on it. It’s easy to argue that this is a necessary evil (nobody’s making money if there aren’t any ads!) and a natural growing pain of any sustainable social media network.

It’s a turning point for TikTok, which a year ago was heralded by the paper of record as a “refreshing outlier,” free of ads, news, and aspiring models hawking sponcon. TikTok has all of those things now, but it is still an outlier in the power it has to take talented kids and give them an audience.

Like so many funny, creative people who take a risk only to end up disappointed, however, Sam has career goals now that don’t include Hollywood. “Before I did TikTok, I wanted to be in marketing,” he says, “and after this whole experience, I think that that would be a good field for me.”

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