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This week in TikTok: What happens after viral fame?

Hello from The Goods’ twice-weekly newsletter! For the next few Tuesdays, internet culture reporter Rebecca Jennings will be using 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 me at rebecca.jennings@vox.com, and subscribe to The Goods’ newsletter here.

I’ve been talking to TikTokers for pretty much as long as the app has existed, and I’ve noticed a pattern. In the first few months, creators loved to talk about how supportive the community was. They’d note how much nicer people were in the comments than on Instagram or Youtube, for instance, and how people seemed to be on TikTok truly just to have fun. No one was in it to get rich or famous.

Then, about six months ago, the brands and celebrities came and now, some people say, it sucks.

If this pattern sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s basically what happens to every social media app once it becomes important enough. TikTok is no longer just a place where culture and comedy thrive, it’s where careers are born and brands are built. So on the heels of the first known “why I’m leaving TikTok” essay, last week I took a look at a different kind of discontent: how the fickle nature of TikTok fame is affecting kids’ mental health.

Part of the reason TikTok is so much fun in the first place is how anything — truly the silliest, least-thought-about videos ever made in history — can go viral in a matter of days or weeks. But as good as its algorithm is for creating hype, it can go away just as fast.

It was a piece that I was somewhat hesitant to write, because I think for the vast majority of TikTokers, the app is still something goofy to do at sleepovers or a fun way to bond with their families. I don’t think TikTok is creating a huge mental health crisis that we all need to get incredibly worked up over, and I certainly don’t want to be the news anchor yelling about whatever supposedly terrifying thing your teen is doing.

But I do think it’s important to focus on how the places we spend time on online and invest meaning into make us feel. If you’re an innately funny and creative kid, and suddenly you’re given this huge audience, of course it confirms the belief that you were always destined for fame. And when that goes away, you’re left wondering what you did wrong.

TikTok in the news

  • Everyone who’s spent more than five minutes on TikTok knows how scarily good the algorithm is at identifying exactly what you want to watch next, but one AI researcher claimed to find a possible reason why. Marc Faddoul conducted an experiment in which he’d follow TikTok users of a certain demographic, then found that the app recommended exclusively users with similar profile pictures. Following a black woman would show accounts featuring other black women; following a bearded white man resulted in the same. TikTok has pushed back against these claims, and at least one other person wasn’t able to replicate the results, but in my own experience that’s … exactly what happens. Faddoul told Recode that he suspects it’s the result of “automatic featurization,” which takes signals from profile pictures to serve similar ones. Like most social media apps, TikTok’s algorithm is a black box, but this offered a rare look inside at the mysterious system — taken with a grain of salt, of course.
  • TikTok held its first Black Creator Summit last weekend, flying out dozens of creators to LA to attend panels and hear from celebs like Tracee Ellis Ross, Terry Crews, and a performance by Doja Cat. It’s part of the company’s ongoing efforts to support the diversity of creators that aren’t the (thin, wealthy, and white) stereotype that many people have of the app. Paper Mag has some very fun photos.
  • YouPorn now has a “web-based app” that’s basically TikTok for porn. It’s called SWYP, which is very funny, and it is also very funny that because Apple and Google don’t allow explicit content on their respective app stores, users have to follow a clunky workaround that involves manually creating an app on their home screens. I did not try it for myself, as I am in an office in the middle of the day, but PCMag has the story.

Meme watch

Another day, another scary-sounding supposed TikTok trend designed to terrify concerned parents. This time it’s called the “Skull Breaker Challenge.”

Here’s the gist: Three people stand in a line, and the middle person jumps while the other two kick their legs out from under them. Spoiler: The person falls down. It is not a particularly kind thing to do to a friend, but that hasn’t stopped at least some TikTokkers from making videos out of it.

Unlike most of the maybe-fake challenges, however, this one does actually seem to be having some pretty bad consequences: One 13-year-old in New Jersey suffered a concussion and subsequent seizure. Moms on Facebook have posted about their kids ending up in the hospital with stitches and broken bones, and there’s been reports of injured kids in several states.

While I’ve never seen the “Skull Breaker Challenge” on my feed and am inclined to be skeptical about these things (remember the Momo challenge?) one thing is clear: Do not kick people when they are in midair. It’s dangerous!

Chart check

  • We have officially entered the age of TikTokers in music videos: Haley Sharpe, whom I profiled back in October, was featured in the video for Doja Cat’s “Say So” after creating a viral dance to the song’s chorus. Yet another reason why it’s so important to credit creators: They might get to hang out with pop stars!
  • Speaking of viral dances, Ke$ha finally christened “Cannibal” with her very own iteration. She created a side-by-side video of herself alongside Charli D’Amelio (dueting, as it’s called on TikTok), but some pointed out that a better choice may have been the dance’s original choreographer, Briana Hantsch. (For what it’s worth, Briana seems thrilled regardless. Also, did you know it’s impossible to Google “Ke$ha TikTok” to find Ke$ha’s actual TikTok account?)
  • Over at the New Yorker, Carrie Battan covered Beach Bunny’s new album and the artist’s connection to TikTok, most famously in the song “Prom Queen.” I can’t scroll through my For You page for more than 20 minutes without hearing the first verse at least once: “Shut up, count your calories, I never looked good in mom jeans / Wish I was like you, blue-eyed blondie, perfect body.” The song feels like teenagehood, as does the rest of Beach Bunny’s music, and I like how this piece touches on how hearing a song repeatedly — like, say, as a TikTok meme — affects our relationship to it.

One last thing

Because it’s flu season, and also now possibly coronavirus season, here is a pitch-perfect impression of an urgent care receptionist.