Fame is a mixed bag any way you look at it. Celebrities trade privacy and anonymity for financial and professional success. But what happens when the very reason for your success is just your being you? The rise of the social media influencer is a modern trajectory that is, by nature, exhibitionistic. Therein lies the beauty of TikTok fame: if one is willing to live life in a fishbowl as an unknown, is there a downside to exponential exposure? It’s more complicated than one might think.
TikTok stars have near-unlimited earning potential, but it is not without risk — both personal and professional. Concerns about the video-sharing app run the gamut from cybersecurity to deteriorating mental health to potentially harmful over-sharing, but the benefits seem to outweigh the cons for most TikTok users. The platform’s popularity began skyrocketing shortly after its American release in 2017. Sensor Tower reports that the app had 20 million worldwide users that December, but Wallaroo notes the number of active users in January 2021 had grown to a whopping 1 billion!
With an expansive worldwide audience eager to view an entertaining clip showing a slice of life or personalized take on a pop culture phenom — like Megan Thee Stallion’s hit song, “Savage” — some TikTok stars have become as much of a phenom as the works they depict in their 15- to 60-second videos. Here’s the dirty truth behind the trappings and pitfalls of TikTok fame.
You can make some serious coin on TikTok
One beauty of social media is the free exposure. The better your content, depending on the algorithm, the higher the exposure. The diversity of TikTok users, speaking 75 languages in 154 countries, provides an opportunity to create both localized and global content. It did not take long for brands to tap into their potential reach on TikTok. While the app doesn’t have a revenue sharing program (at least not yet, though TikTok director of creator community Kudzi Chikumbu told The Hollywood Reporter they are “exploring” the option), it does help connect brands with influencers to facilitate collaboration for advertising and sponsored posts.
From obscurity to fame in a matter of months — all for dancing around her (parents’) house — one of the app’s sensations, then-15-year-old twinkle-toed Charli D’Amelio, parlayed the popularity of her first viral clip into mainstream legitimacy in 2019. The Hollywood Reporter describes D’Amelio as having “the potential to earn millions and a team of agents, managers and lawyers working tirelessly behind the scenes.” Not to mention, her entire family is now enjoying TikTok fame. D’Amelio’s agent, co-head of digital talent at UTA Ali Berman, told the outlet that TikTok is “definitely a place to discover new talent,” adding how she has penned six-figure endorsement deals for the TikTokers she represents.
Mining for TikTok talent also works in reverse. The app reportedly offered six-figure payouts of its own for established Instagrammers and YouTubers to direct their followers to TikTok from other platforms, bringing many active users to TikTok.
TikTok's viral challenges are fun, but can sometimes be dangerous
Social media challenges bond us in both humiliation and valor. The infamous Ice Bucket Challenge to raise money (and awareness) for ALS research provided glee to loved ones and frenemies as they watched their associates suffer for a good cause. Even though many TikTok challenges are designed for brand engagement, rather than a charitable cause, they’re still a fun way to bond across cyberspace. And TikTok stars are famous for giving these challenges traction.
However, from the Outlet Challenge (sliding a penny between a phone charger and an electrical outlet), which started many fires, to the Bright Eye Challenge — whereby people put bleach (among other chemicals) into a bag and place it on their eye for a minute — some TikTokers are willing to set common sense aside for a sense of belonging (via Distractify).
On the lighter side of TikTok challenges, when Jennifer Lopez launched her Super Bowl Dance Challenge, she enlisted a TikTok star who has 40 million followers more than her: Charli D’Amelio, who told ET one of her main goals in life “is to dance with J. Lo.” When Lopez includes you in her dance video to elevate the profile of her endeavors, you know you’ve made the big time!
The pressure to keep producing high-quality content regularly is real
Trends come and go in a flash, making yesterday’s TikTok content seem so … yesterday. With posts typically driven by of-the-moment pop culture trends, users need to stay on top of trending topics to keep their content fresh. The difference between success and failure for TikTok stars is less about production value and more about the data. While some sites provide analytics — likes, shares, views, etc. — for years, TikTok users are only able to view 28 days’ worth of analytics (via Social Insider), rendering all engagement older than 28 days no longer demonstrably relevant.
Maintaining a high level of engagement matters less for one’s personal satisfaction (which we’ll cover later) than for one’s earning potential. As Pentos notes, due to the nature of the short-video-clip format, sponsored content on TikTok is more suited for building and maintaining “brand awareness” than for counting clicks and leads. TikTok isn’t designed for link sharing, so directing fans to an external site isn’t a realistic goal for the app’s users. Producers of highly-visible content must upload their content directly to TikTok to engage with their followers.
To keep the revenue generated from brand partnerships coming, TikTok stars need to not only keep their recent user stats stellar, they also must continue to drive positive, plentiful engagement around the sponsored content. The burden falls on the influencer to keep things fresh while staying congruent with their sponsor’s reputation.
Living in the TikTok fishbowl has its drawbacks
It doesn’t take much to be “canceled” these days, especially when the public’s only point of reference for a person is on their phone or tablet. The two degrees of separation between TikTok stars and their fans — the camera recording the video and the device playing it — makes it much easier to “dehumanize” TikTokers. When someone with a high profile on the internet messes up, the response from fans and foes alike is often brutal.
Just as career prospects for actors and musicians who fall out of public favor disappear following accusations of misdeeds, the rug can be pulled from under a TikTok star in a split second should their reputation be tarnished. The public often threatens to boycott a tarnished celeb’s sponsors as the first line of offense in today’s so-called “cancel culture,” and a public relations nightmare can be the kiss of death for sponsorships and mainstream gigs.
A gaggle of TikTok stars — including Charli D’Amelio and sister Dixie, Chase Hudson, Noah Beck, and Madi Monroe — received a lashing online when they were spotted at the Atlantis Bahamas resort amid the coronavirus spike in late 2020, according to BuzzFeed News. None of them were “canceled” for taking this controversial pandemic vacation, but it certainly served as a warning that fans can be fickle and unforgiving.
The desire for constant online validation adversely affects your self-esteem
It’s easy to become fixated on engagement analytics when they are the only measurable barometer of success. Negative feedback, or a decline in positive feedback, can be a blow to the ego. It’s hard not to take things personally when interaction between TikTokers and their fans is direct. Statistics become a source of external validation, and dwindling engagement often translates to a dwindling sense of self-worth.
Creating content for TikTok, then, can easily become the singular focus for influencers. Several TikTok stars got together and rented a mansion, which they termed the “Hype House,” for the sole purpose of collaborating on the creation of TikTok videos. Resident Chase Hudson told The Hollywood Reporter, “We just wanted to put out a lot of good content as a family and make it feel like the fans were connected to something.”
By all accounts, they indeed create copious quality content. TV producer and digital marketer Brent Montgomery told Variety‘s Strictly Business podcast, “This type of content can go directly to an audience … a group like Hype House brings 200 million [followers].” Engagement on that level is mind-bogglingly impressive, but it still frequently affects influencers when feedback is negative or dwindling. Psychology Today advises, “When you start craving that feedback more and more, it may be time to reassess how reliant you are on the like button for your happiness.”
Your TikTok data might end up in the hands of bad actors
TikTok became under investigation as a potential national security risk to the United States in 2019, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Owned by ByteDance, a Bejing-based conglomerate, TikTok has had access to a mountain of valuable data. In response to concerns, ByteDance announced the addition of a “transparency center” near its North American headquarters in Los Angeles.
BBC News reports that TikTok was fined $5.7 million by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2019 over the collection of data from children by TikTok’s precursor, ByteDance-owned Musical.ly. In July 2020, Forbes reported on accusations of inappropriate data collection by TikTok. The Trump Administration even threatened to ban the app in the United States due to security concerns, and the video-sharing site subsequently sued them.
Former American TikTok employees previously told The Washington Post that they were directed to limit “political content” on the site, claiming that the Corporate headquarters in China often overruled them on what content should (or should not) be removed. TikTok moved content moderators out of China as a response to accusations of political censorship. Cybersecurity giant Proton Mail tweeted in July 2020, in part, that TikTok “collects troves of personal data on you (sometimes without your consent),” with a link to a post on its website, highlighting the text, “We find TikTok to be a grave privacy threat that likely shares data with the Chinese government.”
The FCC has shared a helpful phone security checklist, and Computer World has posted phone security suggestions for Android and Apple devices.
Predators are lurking on TikTok, and there's no verification system for age and identity
Child predators are lurking in every dark corner of the internet, and TikTok is unfortunately no exception. A 2019 BBC News investigation found “sexually explicit comments” under posts from nine-year-old children. TikTok removed most of the detected content within 24 hours of its being reported, but it did not ban all of the users who made the inappropriate comments.
A subsequent Investigation by the BBC’s Panorama in November 2020 determined that a known child predator communicating with what he thought was a 14-year-old girl was similarly not banned from the site. In response, TikTok added parental safety controls that allow parents to choose the information their child sees, “prevent” their account from showing up in suggestions for “strangers” to follow, and limit what others can see about the child’s account.
The UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has shared some great guidelines about keeping children safe online and explaining the risks of talking to strangers on the internet.
TikTok stars must think before they post, because the internet is forever
A byproduct of our culture of instant gratification is the perpetual need for something new and interesting. This increases pressure on TikTokers to push the envelope, which can have negative repercussions. A popular TikTok paint mixer was fired from his job at Sherwin Williams when the company discovered his TikTok activity (however, his newfound fame helped him find another gig quickly). Meanwhile, a nurse was fired for bragging on TikTok about breaking COVID-19 rules.
More than 20 percent of TikTok users fall into the influential 18- to 24-year-old female demographic, according to Comscore (via The Hollywood Reporter). This group is a notoriously successful social media kingmaker, having elevated Instagram and Snapchat to the top of the social media food chain. TikTok is rising in the way of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat — but there’s always something new in the works.
All that said, TikTok and its users will surely capitalize on their immense popularity while they’re on top, and their videos will remain in the annals of video-clip history forever. Here’s hoping nobody makes any boneheaded moves that will come back to haunt them.
TikTok stars get bullied
In 2019, TikTok had to implement a reporting system to report bullies, because harassment was so frequent and algorithms weren’t cutting it. The app’s community guidelines say, “We do not tolerate members of our community being shamed, bullied, or harassed. Abusive content or behavior can cause severe psychological distress and will be removed from our platform. We remove all expressions of abuse, including threats or degrading statements intended to mock, humiliate, embarrass, intimidate, or hurt an individual.” It’s difficult for TikTok to flag all of the above, so reporting bullying is the best tool users have to stop it from continuing.
Of course, there is overt bullying, and then there are dangerous pranks seemingly meant to poke fun at people. For instance, the “Skull Breaker Challenge” has landed many people in the hospital. The challenge involves kicking the legs out from under someone while they’re jumping in the air. Some people did this willingly, but many unsuspecting “participants” were seriously injured, Fox News reports.
Still, even TikTok’s biggest stars have been on the receiving end of hatefulness. A UNICEF video features Charli and Dixie D’Amelio discussing the bullying they have experienced online. Charli said she’s received a lot of negative comments about her appearance, understandably admitting, “Getting hundreds of thousands of hate comments per week is a lot to handle.” The time-tested retort, “They’re just jealous,” might still apply, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.
TikTok stars are dependent on the art of others
Rising to fame on the heels of other artists’ work is a cornerstone of TikTok stardom, be it lip-synching, dancing, imitating, mocking, or otherwise incorporating a song or other audio track into their videos.
Comedian Sarah Cooper, for example, gained notoriety after lip-synching nonsensical and comical phrases Donald Trump spoke at press conferences and during interviews. She made a name for herself in mainstream media and even got a Netflix special out of it in October 2020! The integral importance of external inspiration to the success of TikTokers, then, is perhaps what most separates it from its closest online cousin, YouTube. What would these stars produce in the absence of external inspiration?
But while most TikTok stars appear to be piggybacking fame to some extent, others are merely living their best lives. Take Jennifer Lopez and baseball legend beau Alex Rodriguez. This celebrity couple frequently posts their fun, private moments for the world to see. And the world just can’t get enough of them — and everyone else — on TikTok.
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