Earlier this month, the writer and English professor Barrett Swanson published a story in Harper’s about his five days at Clubhouse, the collective of dozens of college-aged social media hopefuls living in a smattering of content mansions in Los Angeles. He emerged with the sneaking suspicion that maybe all of this is bad, not only for the world but for the influencers themselves.
“For a moment, I cannot remember who I am or why I am sitting here amid this sea of beautiful young people, all of them desperate for recognition, their whole lives ahead of them, empty at the absolute center,” he writes in the closing paragraph. “TikTok is a sign of the future, which already feels like a thing of the past. It is the clock counting down our fifteen seconds of fame, the sound the world makes as time is running out.”
It’s easily the best and most depressing piece of journalism about famous TikTokers I’ve ever read, a “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” for influencers. Here are some things Swanson witnesses on his visit: a 19-year-old who just made $60,000 by filming a Lady and the Tramp-style kiss with his girlfriend as sponcon for a chicken-fingers joint; a list of video ideas which includes “pranks” and “tuxedos”; a kid who, out of nowhere, claimed that “Hitler invented sex dolls” based on a TikTok he just watched; an influencer manager who appears to be in the thrall of QAnon; pervasive neglect for the influencers on the part of their managers; and repeated offers to help Swanson become a TikTok influencer himself, as though the only reason for visiting at all was, of course, to take a little piece of their celebrity for his own.
Mostly, though, he sees the extreme precarity that courses through every person, every thought, every action that occurs in the house. “Several times throughout my trip, I think I can see the toll this takes on them, a kind of pallid desperation that flickers across their faces,” he writes. “At one point, Brandon [one of the influencers] comes over and says, ‘The scary thing is you never know how long this is going to last, and I think that’s what eats a lot of us at night. It’s like, What’s next? How long can we entertain everyone for? How long before no one cares, and what if your life was worth nothing?’”
It’s a topic I’ve discussed with almost every big TikToker I’ve interviewed, the question of what happens if and when it goes away. It’s a tough question to ask, but I’m always struck by the thoughtfulness of their answers: Whether they have 100,000 followers or a few million, all the TikTokers know that their fame will likely fade unless they work very, very hard to cultivate themselves into something solidly monetizable. They seamlessly toggle between their two identities — the real person and the online persona — and speak with a kind of cynicism about tying their livelihoods to a platform that could disappear in an instant. It all feels like stuff they shouldn’t have to think about, not yet.
What the piece doesn’t include are the other things that come with being a famous TikToker. Namely, that operations such as Clubhouse are often run by people who either have no clue what they’re doing thanks to the extremely low barrier to entry into such a field, or are actively harming the influencers they claim to help.
Clubhouse’s founder, Amir Ben-Yohanan, has been accused of bullying, sexism, and creating volatile atmospheres. Chase Zwernemann, the manager in Swanson’s story who shows him a QAnon video, has allegedly scammed other TikTokers at a previous content house. Many TikTokers are taken in by sketchy managers who sign them to predatory contracts because of the nature of how TikTok fame operates: When you get famous overnight, you’re not given time to learn the ropes.
And that’s only if you become famous enough to get lucrative brand deals. For the majority of kids who go viral on TikTok, the attention doesn’t last. “I wish I never got this sort of fame,” a 16-year-old former TikToker named Sam told me last year. He’d been creating delightfully bizarre videos that earned him a following of nearly 200,000, until suddenly the view counts started to drop and it felt like the audience didn’t like him anymore. He left the platform and sought therapy for the anxiety he’d developed due to TikTok.
Lots of TikTokers bring this up. They’re afraid of branching out from whatever the algorithm decides it likes for fear of becoming a has-been, and they’re burned out by the churn of endlessly creating content they barely even like. Some have public meltdowns, others quit for good, while even the app’s biggest star Charli D’Amelio said she often feels overwhelmed by the constant negative attention.
A few days ago, the 19-year-old TikToker Spencewuah tearfully announced he was taking a break from TikTok after backlash from a perceived gaffe. He has more than 9 million followers, but as Kate Lindsay pointed out on her Substack Embedded, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s navigating fame alone. “Tons of midsize creators burn out or take breaks or disappear completely because they’re popular enough to amass giant followings but not to earn the kind of money it takes to insulate themselves from those followings. TikTok, of course, relies on these midsize creators,” she wrote. Yet besides making them famous, TikTok the company doesn’t seem to do much to help them with its consequences.
What’s happening to influencers is a microcosm of what’s happening to everyone. At Clubhouse, Swanson connects the stars to his own university students, kids who write increasingly about their anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation, kids who appear in his office “sad in a way they cannot explain, desperate for something they don’t know how to have.”
Several of them, he says, dropped out to move to LA to chase the influencer dream for themselves, hoping to become famous in the same way all the other kids got famous: By getting their face to appear on millions of other people’s screens. Left unsaid is what happens when they do win the TikTok lottery, and how the unexplainable sadness doesn’t really go away.
We’re seeing this in workplaces, too, most visibly in media. Journalists are leaving staff positions to start their own Substacks or Patreons, hoping to cash in their followings on the creator economy, the professional adult version of dropping out of college and moving to LA. Low-wage workers, disillusioned by the failures of bosses and owners to treat them fairly, aren’t returning to traditional jobs, and many are surely turning to the gig or creator economies. The influencer industry is simply the logical endpoint of American individualism, which leaves all of us jostling for identity and attention but never getting enough.
What these anxious influencers need is help, help from people who are not also trying to squeeze every last dollar out of them. Lindsay proposed that TikTok and other social media platforms provide therapy for struggling creators, which seems like a viable and promising possibility, however dystopian the idea of a company creating so many mental health problems that they then must directly fix them.
They need community, and not the kind of faux community promised by toxic content houses or publicity-designed friendships. They need meaning beyond the numbers on the screen, and they need to find ways to make content that is meaningful to them outside of the oppressive blandness that the algorithm rewards. These are things we all aren’t getting in our current social and economic systems. Influencers, who for better or for worse are increasingly society’s role models, are only the most public examples.
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