‘Every social media has its peak. Right now, it’s TikTok’s peak.’

Frannie DiBona (first year), whose TikTok is @franniedibona, at Occidental College. The Occidental/Nancy Zhou

Over summer of 2019, Zoe Campbell (sophomore) was working as a camp counselor when she heard her middle school-aged campers talking about TikTok being “the new Vine.” Vine, the six-second video app, shut down in 2017, but Campbell said she can still quote many iconic Vines. She said she was skeptical because no one can beat Vine, but she soon downloaded TikTok as a joke.

“[TikTok] just came out of nowhere and everyone was kind of patting it on the head like, ‘Okay, sure, you’re doing great,’” Campbell said. “And all of a sudden everyone has it and you’re like, ‘Oh, shoot.’”

TikTok is a short-form video-sharing app known for its viral dance trends and lip-sync videos such as the Renegade, a dance to the song “Lottery” by K CAMP which was originally choreographed by 14-year-old Jalaiah Harmon. ByteDance launched TikTok in China in 2016, and it hit U.S. markets soon after.

During the Fall 2019 semester, Ellie McKinney’s (first year) 15-year-old sister sent  her TikToks frequently. Instead of downloading the app, McKinney would watch them on the internet. She finally downloaded TikTok and started making videos of her own over winter break, and since then her follower count has kept growing. As of April 8, her account @ellieisselly has approximately 75,500 followers.

“It’s ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous,” McKinney said. “I think it’s so funny, like I haven’t done anything interesting.”

@ellieissellyif it’s what your looking for…hmu ##gay ##lgbt ##lesbian ##gayngels ##fy ##fyp ##foryou♬ Indigo – 88rising & NIKI

In November 2019, TikTok surpassed 1.5 billion downloads on the App Store and Google Play to become one of the world’s most popular apps. Both McKinney and Campbell said they cannot put the app down.

“Every social media has its peak. Right now, it’s TikTok’s peak,” Campbell said.

The elusive TikTok algorithm

McKinney’s most-viewed TikTok is of her voicing over someone talking about how she gets notifications when people follow her. It currently has around 622,200 views. She does not know how or why it went viral. Her viral TikTok strategy, she said, is nonexistent.

Frannie DiBona (first year), has approximately 18,000 followers, as of April 8, on her account @franniedibona. She has experience with social media management and runs social media for La Encina and Oxy TV. She has been analyzing TikTok’s metrics to try to understand the app’s algorithm that causes some videos to go viral. She describes the TikTok algorithm as “random.” Unlike on Instagram, according to DiBona, likes on videos are not valuable in gaining more viewers. She said her TikToks have a one-in-five success rate, which she describes as getting more than 10,000 views.

According to DiBona, TikTok pushes new users, or moves their videos higher on your “For You” feed, to encourage them to create more content. TikTok curates your “For You” page based on what you like, who you follow and your location. She said TikTok also tends to sporadically push content to viral levels — regardless of how much effort someone put into a video or how many followers they have. It is a coincidence, she said, that two of her most popular videos involve stickers.

“It convinces people that they can still get that high of getting likes and views,” DiBona said. “But also they’re like, ‘Maybe if I make higher quality content or make more content like this, I’ll keep getting views,’ which almost never works.”

@franniedibonathis place makes me happy 🥰♬ original sound – kamalugoo

Unlike on other social media apps, DiBona said, on TikTok there is no direct correlation between follower counts across platforms. According to DiBona, for example, if someone had 100,000 YouTube followers, then they would likely have 20,000–60,000 Instagram followers. On TikTok, she said she has seen people with millions of TikTok followers, but only tens of thousands (or fewer) on Instagram.

Shirying Tay (sophomore) made her TikTok account @sh1ryinyin last summer and has about 63,600 followers as of April 8. Tay is not a social media newcomer: her fashion and dance Instagram @sh1rying has 118,000 followers, and her main photography Instagram @shiryinyin has 15,600 followers.

Courtesy of Shirying Tay

She links her Instagram @shiryinyin in her TikTok bio, and said she has gained more Instagram followers from it. On other social media platforms, Tay said, using hashtags is a good way to increase views. On TikTok, she is not too sure.

“I don’t know how TikTok works, I just try and hope that it does well,” Tay said. “It’s not as stable as Instagram.”

Maayan Gordon ’12 is a TikTok consultant and coach. She works with brands and businesses to develop social media strategies, specifically on TikTok. Her TikTok @worldofglass has 1.7 million followers, and every day she posts multiple glassblowing videos. Gordon said she first became fascinated with TikTok when one of her videos first went viral even though she did not yet have a large following. She said on other social media platforms, it is not possible to go viral without a large following already.

Gordon said she has been using social media for business marketing for the past eight years. With TikTok, she has gained success by using the same techniques she learned on other platforms like Instagram.

For Gordon, colors play a large role in marketing. In her glass art business, she noticed pendants with bright colors tended to sell more, and TikToks that used bright colors like pink, orange and purple tended to get more engagement.

Gordon’s other advice for going viral is to frequently post short videos — 10 seconds is the “sweet spot” — and to integrate the video with the rhythm of a trending song. In a video of glassblowers making a bowl, she sped up their movements so it matched the beat of “U Got That” by Halogen in the background. The video has 3 million views as of April 7.

@worldofglassENTIRE PROCESS of making of Glass Bowl with inside pattern 😍 Tag someone if this was awesome! 🙌 ##worldofglass ##art by joshbernbaum_glass♬ U Got That – Halogen

One of the most important principles, according to Gordon, is to make a video that people want to watch and that holds their attention.

“That’s the cool thing about [TikTok] — there’s so many ways to go viral as long as your video is interesting to watch,” Gordon said.

Why are people on TikTok?

Molly Knopf (first year) said she downloaded TikTok the summer of 2019 and has not been able to put it down since. She said sending each other funny TikToks is one of the main ways she and her friends communicate. On the app, she said, it is difficult to tell how much time has passed — Knopf estimates she spends around four hours a day on TikTok.

“What really gets me are how short the videos are. They’re anywhere between 15 to 60 seconds — that’s a lot you can pack into one feed,” Knopf said.

Knopf’s “For You” page suggests new places to explore in LA. Knopf said her friend sent her a TikTok featuring a cool restaurant in Pasadena, and then they went there a few days later.

“That’s how much [TikTok] can influence my life, which is scary to say,” Knopf said.

Knopf also uses TikTok to record events, such as the time she and her friends were making sourdough in the Braun Hall kitchen and accidentally locked the door. The Los Angeles Police Department had to come break down the door and rescue their bread.

@socalsunsetjust college things! ##rosa ##SnickersFixTheWorld ##favoritefit ##xyzbca ##fyp ##college ##collegelife ##dormlife ##foryou ##foryoupage ##poweryourstyle♬ original sound – misocolorful

Dion Holden (sophomore) was drawn to TikTok for its creative video features, such as the green screen. He said he has the same philosophy for all of his social media platforms: use it to preserve memories, not to get likes.

“I want to look back at the stuff I’m creating and in 10 years show my kids, like even with Snapchat memories, that this is what I was doing when I was in high school or college,” Holden said.

He said he tries not to get too embarrassed when looking through his old content.

“I love showing people my old, random videos because I’m like, ‘I did that,’” Holden said. “It’s funny and weird, but that’s also my personality. Why would I not want to share that with you?”

Holden also uses TikTok to find new music. Songs like “Say So” by Doja Cat rose to fame with the help of viral dance trends (which Doja Cat featured in the song’s music video).

Unlike YouTubers, TikTokers cannot make money through the app itself. Gordon said the main way she makes money — about $3,000 a month — is through music promotions.

“Music is one of the biggest parts of the app, and tons of music artists have realized that it’s the best place to put their money for their own promotion,” Gordon said.

McKinney tags most of her videos with #gayliens. She is part of a group of LGBTQ+ creators that share an account and also have a group chat. Groups are a popular trend on TikTok to promote each other’s content, but she said the gayliens group is also just a fun group of people to talk to.

“There’s now a ‘mini gayliens’ which is like 13- or 16-year-old girls, and we all have our mini person,” McKinney said. “It’s sort of developing into this funny mentor thing with us and these children who are also on TikTok.”

McKinney said she met another gayliens member when she visited San Diego State University for a rugby match. She said the Womxn’s Rugby team thought it was funny when she got to meet one of her “TikTok friends.”

“It’s like a different level, it’s a totally different kind of friendship than what I’ve had,” McKinney said.

@ellieissellyi wish i could say these weren’t actually words my mom said ##rugby ##gay ##lgbt ##gayliens ##fy ##fyp ##lgbtq ##howtoadult ##toonme ##foryoupage♬ Thats the whole point – damn_it_cas

McKinney, Holden, Knopf, Gordon, DiBona and Ellen McDermott (senior) said that they put little to no effort into making their TikToks.

For her sticker shop TikTok, which was not planned, DiBona said she recorded about 30 seconds of video in the shop. Then, she said she spent another minute making a sound to play in the background — putting the total production time at around one minute and 30 seconds.

“If I’m not feeling happy after three takes of TikTok, I give up. Like, this isn’t going to do well enough for this time to be worth it,” DiBona said.

Feeling old on TikTok

In the U.S., 60 percent of TikTok users are 16–24 years old. For Holden, there is still a lot of divide between that age group.

“I think TikTok is like, not a generational thing, but when you think about people who are closer in age, it’s definitely the younger people within that group that are using TikTok,” Holden said.

The minimum age to be on TikTok is 13 years old. Knopf said she feels old on the app.

“I see 14 or 15 year olds, and I literally scream, ‘What are you doing on here?’” Knopf said.

McDermott downloaded TikTok during the Fall 2019 semester before she started writing her cognitive science comps. On the app, she is frequently aware of her age.

“There was this one [TikTok] that was like, ‘Older men are so attractive,’ and it cuts to this picture of this guy who is 22,” McDermott said. “I was like, ‘Oh no.’ It was horrifying.”

Through TikTok, McDermott said she has been able to make friends with underclassmen on campus. She said younger people are trying to become influencers on TikTok, while she is just having a good time.

Campbell said she feels like she is TikTok’s new target age.

“In August, it was middle school and later elementary school. I think that was [TikTok’s] original target audience,” Campbell said. “I think college students just took it over like, ‘No, this is our thing.’”

Backlash and controversy

Tay said during the peak of her Instagram influence, people would recognize her when she went to malls. Her large social media presence across platforms has impacted how people see her, she said.

“People think I come off as arrogant because, ‘You have so many followers, I’m not cool enough to talk to you,’ and some people become friends with you because of your followers, which is not the best,” Tay said.

Tay has been popular on social media since she was a sophomore in high school and said she has grown up on social media. She said people have left hateful online comments about her appearance over the years, and she has received backlash for some of the products she has promoted on her accounts.

Tay said social media always makes its way into the conversation when she is with friends, as much as she tries not to talk about it. She said she does not want to be defined only by her social media following/presence.

McKinney avoids talking about TikTok as much as she can, and says her friends, who have significantly fewer followers, are the ones who are more obsessed with the app.

In February, McKinney was banned from TikTok for a week over age restrictions. To do a livestream, you have to prove you are 18 years old or older, and McKinney did not want to send TikTok a photo of her ID to prove her age. She said LGBTQ+ creators also tend to be banned more frequently.

TikTok has come under fire for privacy and security concerns, which McKinney said is one of the reasons she put off downloading it. In 2019, U.S. politicians became concerned about TikTok’s censorship of topics the Chinese government deemed sensitive, such as the Hong Kong protests or the Tiananmen Square massacre.

“I don’t want the Chinese government spying on me,” McKinney said.

DiBona said TikTok has flagged her account, which has prevented around half of her videos from being posted or getting views. In one of her TikToks, she did not realize her nipple was visible through her shirt, and another user reported her. Now, she tries to dress more conservatively and wears more sweatshirts in her videos.

“It’s so frustrating because women are in a way expected to push our assets, push being pretty, push having a nice body,” DiBona said. “And when that’s getting you taken down, it’s like ‘What am I supposed to do?’”

She said that while people on the internet are becoming more feminist, platforms are not.

The future of TikTok

Campbell said she is trying to enjoy TikTok in the moment before it starts to become negative like she said all social media tends to do. She said she has seen this happen on YouTube — creators become popular and their content begins to suffer because they care more about making a profit than about making content because they enjoy it. Holden said Vine’s downfall came from its commercialization, and TikTok, with its ads, may succumb to the same fate. But as long as TikTok keeps updating and adding new features, he said it could become the next Instagram. 

According to Campbell, however, TikTok’s demise may be coming soon.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to be knowing TikTok references in three years,” Campbell said.

Gordon said she sees TikTok as the future of e-commerce and thinks it will become like the app WeChat used in China.

“We’re going to buy things through TikTok, I think we’re going to listen to our music through TikTok, we’re going to do our chats through TikTok,” Gordon said. “I think it’s going to become a very widespread platform that people use for a lot of different parts of their daily life.”

Courtesy of Shirying Tay

For Tay, being on social media like Instagram and TikTok has helped her become more confident. Through social media, she said she has gotten more opportunities — like teaching a dance class at the 2019 KCon LA, which highlights Korean culture. Instead of wanting to be a doctor, she now wants to try and pursue a career in social media.

“I’m scared of doing social media full-time because there is still that kind of stigma around it, or it’s not as stable as if you were employed,” Tay said. “But if I can take my social media and do something in that industry, then I would.”

DiBona said she does not know what route she will take with her TikTok, as she is still trying to develop her personal brand.

“I don’t know what my brand is yet, but I feel like it’d be more fun to do whatever I want. I’m a multifaceted person and my presence should reflect that,” DiBona said.

@franniedibonai did a things♬ Acid Dreams – MAX & Felly

She was offered a job through her sticker store TikTok when owners of Sticker Planet messaged her on Instagram asking if she could run their social media. She declined their offer. For DiBona, social media is more of a hobby.

McKinney said she will keep making TikToks as long as it is not a burden. So far, she has made $40 on TikTok by doing livestreams, but she said she cannot access the money until she makes $50. She said she feels like she already used all of her good ideas early in her TikTok career, but she continues to post frequently, and her follower count is still rising. She said she does not want to become famous.

“One of the things I tell my friends is that if at any point, anyone who doesn’t know me from any other context recognizes me on the street from TikTok, I have to delete it,” McKinney said. “To be fair, I also agreed that once I made a dollar, I was going to quit. I didn’t really stick to that one.”