Analyzing how to become a TikTok superstar

Viral stars like Charli d'Amelio prove success on the app is unpredictable

TikTok is an app where users upload short videos.
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On Super Bowl Sunday,Sabra Hummus aired the most underwhelming commercial to grace 99.9 million screens.

The supposedly star-studded commercial featured B-list celebrities like rapper T.I. and Teresa Giudice of The Real Housewives of New Jersey. There were also newer faces, like Megan Thee Stallion and viral sensation Britany “Kombucha Girl” Tomlinson. However, most notably, they were all joined by Charli d’Amelio, a 15-year-old TikTok superstar.

For those of you still scrolling through Facebook, TikTok is an app where users (who are mostly teenagers) upload videos that end up in an endless stream curated through what individuals “like,” using an AI algorithm.

D’Amelio’s inclusion in the commercial might not be surprising to the people who have followed her meteoric rise, but for someone who isn’t particularly tuned into the TikTok scene, I was astonished. 

Connecticut native Charli d’Amelio started her TikTok account in June 2019, and by Aug. 29, she’d already gained 100,000 followers by making dance videos to hip-hop songs. By November, she reached 5 million followers. Today, she boasts 24.9 million followers. She’s appeared in a Super Bowl commercial and made a TikTok with Jennifer Lopez.

As I started to look deeper into how she became famous, it all boiled down to one answer: nobody really knows. Charli’s own biography on TikTok reads, “don’t worry i don’t get the hype either.” So, to find out, I began my search in the most basic, Generation-Z way possible: I googled “How to become a TikTok star?” to see what recipe for viral success the Internet had concocted.

It seems like the easiest way, allegedly, is to participate in promoted hashtags, hoping that if enough teenagers scroll through the main “For You” page and happen upon yours, they’ll like it, and you’ll become famous.

The Financial Times profiled a TikTok duo from Columbia University who go by the username @waterpong. In the article, the two discuss how they tried using these traditional methods to become an overnight sensation and failed. When I searched for their username, nothing came up, despite a video the two posted where they claim they’ve had more than 1.4 million views.

My fascination with d’Amelio’s success is because, even at the start, she never hopped on the hashtag bandwagon that so many other users are preoccupied with—and now she’s in a Super Bowl ad. Unlike other industries, success on TikTok seems impossible to quantify, and the biggest stars have defied any method that would make reasonable sense. Most of her videos are on trend with what most other users also post, which are lip-sync or dance videos.

However, Jia Tolentino, a staff writer for The New Yorker, pointed out that when she first started using TikTok, she noticed how many users were “young white people [who] lip-synch to audio of non-white people in ways that range from innocently racist to overtly racist.” So, is whiteness a factor in becoming TikTok famous?

The biggest success story to emerge from TikTok is that of Lil Nas X, whose song “Old Town Road” earned him two Grammy awards last month. He used TikTok to promote his own song by making it into a meme, and soon millions of people did the same, propelling him to stardom. “Old Town Road” is now the longest-running song at the top of the Billboard charts—an astonishing feat on its own, but especially so for a Black, gay man to do in a genre like country where gatekeepers have, according to writer Taylor Crumpton, “shifted the genre toward whiteness to produce a revisionist history aligned with Old Southern values.”

In terms of longevity, we have to ask ourselves whether the inexplicable success stories of Lil Nas X and Charli d’Amelio are repeatable. Although ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, has shut down rumors of potentially going public, it’s one of the highest-valuated private start-ups of all time, currently valued at $75 billion. This question is important for potential investors, because at the end of the day, TikTok needs to generate a profit. Churning out several more stars seems like an easy way to do so. 

These hordes of teenagers who have miraculously gained massive followings on TikTok don’t seem to have a contingency plan if, or maybe more accurately, when, TikTok is inevitably shut down like its predecessor Vine—they’re just teenagers. They always have the option to transition to YouTube, like countless Vine stars did and who found moderate success there. Or, they could merely disappear like the countless other individuals who thought the Internet was their ticket to fame, only to silently fade away.

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