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Haley downloaded the app for fun. Now millions of people watch her videos.
If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement. Haley Sharpe is a little bit famous.
This is true for more people right now than ever before in the history of the world, but when you are a year-old in Huntsville, Alabama, it is a very big deal. Over the past year, another group have entered this category: TikTok stars. These people, most visibly teenagers, have found huge audiences on the nascent app known for short video posts, and Haley is one of them.
Back in April, under the username yodeling. A few weeks later, she made a video about celebrities who look like her and that went viral, too. After that, the hits came easier, and today she has just overfollowers. No,followers is not a million followers.
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But this summer Haley got recognized at dance camp, twice. Another time a girl came up to her at the snack shack at the pool where she lifeguards and asked if she was that girl from TikTok. Haley is on her way to getting the thing she wants, the thing all of her friends want. To be a very online young person in is to share the same goal: have the kind of social media following wherein performing your life online becomes a paying job. Haley and her friends, and their friends, and their friends, want to be stars in the constellation of professionally watchable influencers who rack up millions of views and considerable livelihoods by simply hanging out on their couch.
Why would you choose to eat sad desk sal when you could meet screaming fans and get paid by brands just for being yourself?
Haley has gotten a small taste of this, and like everybody else who has, she wants more. I first meet Haley over fried chicken at an upscale restaurant in downtown Huntsville. She is shy and darkly funny and has a habit of sitting with one leg pulled to her chest as if to fold herself away.
That winking, subversive humor is on display in the very first video that made Haley TikTok famous. It was just one of many Michael Jackson memes that proliferated on TikTok last spring, around the same time that allegations of sexual assault against the musician resurfaced in the documentary Leaving Neverland.
Haley found out the clip had blown up when, the next day, someone sent her a link to her video on an Instagram meme known for stealing the most popular TikToks. Constantly somebody is watching one. What if a crazy person comes and finds her? When Haley was a baby, Leslie tells me, she had these ringlets and enormous round eyes, the kind that would make strangers stop her in the mall or at the grocery store.
TikTok was supposed to be bad.
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In Augustthe app that was once called Musical. After the cultishly beloved Vine was shut down infans of weirdo happenstance comedy waited impatiently for another short-form social video app to act as its second coming. But in the four years Musical. Surely TikTok, which looked nearly identical to Musical.
For a little while, it basically was. Early TikTok memes went viral because they were embarrassing, not because they were good, and often featured aging emo kids trying to thirst trap or teenage gamers lobbing sexist insults.
But last fall, I found myself regularly opening the TikTok app and closing it only to realize several hours had passed. Videos that had once been pretenses to show off how attractive or talented or wealthy users were, were now making fun of the very tropes with which TikTok had initially been associated.
TikTok had quickly become everything Vine was and Musical.
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In September — the month after it launched — TikTok surpassed Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat in monthly installs, and by February it had been downloaded more than a billion times globally. Though TikTok is secretive about its user demographics and mysterious algorithm the company declined to speak on the record for this storyone analysis showed that its user base is young: 40 percent are under 20 and another 26 percent are under Like her Michael Jackson dancing videos, this one was an exercise in self-deprecation: The joke was that she looks like Post Malone, or the tween Musical.
With no real sharing function, making it to the For You is essentially the only way a TikTok goes viral; users can spend hours scrolling through the infinite feed of vertical videos, favoriting or commenting as the algorithm learns to queue up ones similar to those they interact with.
Though view counts are only visible to the poster, what matters is how many favorites it gets: A hundred thousand faves? A million?
The not-so-secret life of a tiktok-famous teen
Angel-faced boys with steel cheekbones and forebodingly blue eyes abound on the platform, as do shiny-haired girls with winged liner and pouty lips. Some of the more alternative-looking users can be classified as e-boys or e-girlsmugging for their own cameras in chains and pink hair dye in their bedrooms. But regardless, the appeal is the same: People like to look at beautiful people.
Haley, despite being undoubtedly pretty, does do much else. The best TikToks are the work of people who are inherently funny but who take themselves far less seriously than professional comedians, which makes them even funnier. It is, like all of her videos, a joke. On the first Monday of the school year, Haley and her two friends Bridgett and Lauren are hanging out in the school cafeteria talking about how much Instagram sucks now.
This is a common feeling among their peers; the painstakingly curated aesthetic synonymous with the app is losing resonance with young peopleand Gen Z is more interested in video content anyway. Lauren, meanwhile, used to post lots of artsy photos to herbut kids she knew would leave mean comments on them.
Lauren — with her curly bangs, plaid pants, and heeled boots — looks more like a graphic deer in Bushwick than a teen in Alabama. I wish I could get past that.
All of them are attractive and mostly white floppy-haired somethings who wear big sweatshirts and built their followings less by shock value tactics of the Logan Paul variety and more by being genuinely funny and likable. Vine, meanwhile, never built tools for users to monetize their followingsand so the most industrious Viners defected to YouTube even before the service shut down. The most common way to make money on TikTok, meanwhile, remains livestreaming, during which viewers can purchase and send to their favorite creators digital coins that can then be cashed out for real money.
Thanks to her following on TikTok, she now feels like she can actually start a successful YouTube channel of her own. She would follow the vlogging-slash-commentary format popular with her favorite creators. These days, a career making money via ense dollars alone is increasingly implausible, and now YouTubers often aim to transition into more traditional forms of entertainment, or supplement their incomes through merch, sponsored content, or crowdsourcing tools like Patreon.
Going viral and building a following are difficult enough, but when not even the most popular talents are guaranteed a paycheck, the dream becomes even less achievable. Those are problems to be figured out later, though.
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Haley is still in high school, and studying combined with a rigorous dance schedule that includes near-daily rehearsals to prepare for weekend-long competitions, plus twice-weekly high school dance team practices that culminate in performances at football games, she hardly has the time required to conceptualize, shoot, edit, and promote videos longer than a minute. For the time being, though, herfollowers are enough to keep her creatively fulfilled — and sometimes inspire envy from her friends. The internet has made it such that almost everyone under 30 knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone, who has through some mechanism of virality achieved a non-inificant amount of public attention, for better or for worse, intentionally or otherwise.
Young people are used to it now. Bridgett recalls how just the other day, a video of a boy they know jumping into a lake and rising out of the water with a fish in his hands got reposted on the controversial viral content farm Barstool Sports. The ones who want it bad enough stick around, stretching their 15 minutes as long as digitally possible. She makes earnest TikToks that show off her singing voice or acting chops or how much being on your period or having crushes sucks, and is essentially the kind of TikToker that Haley is not. Despite their differences, they have plenty in common.
They can both relay stories of getting recognized around Huntsville, or a stranger hurling a TikTok joke at them on their way to class, or the pressure that comes with knowing that younger girls look up to them.
Every TikTok video, even the most slapdash and offhand, is calculated to some degree. After school, Haley and a half dozen of her lifeguard friends drive an hour to a local swimming hole to go cliff jumping.
You do not have to be TikTok famous to understand what Haley is talking about. Anyone with so much as an Instagram has likely experienced those same anxieties. The platforms that offer constant attention and affirmation have the same capacity to warp the brains of regular people just as much as the famous among us. The study of fame is a relatively new field. Fame had never seemed to be quite so randomly distributed, nor so possible.
But as far back asresearch showed that fame was a precarious aspiration.
In an essay on celebrity cultureTimothy Caulfield, a law professor at the University of Alberta, takes an even bleaker view on celebrity culture, arguing that the countries most obsessed with it the US, UK, and South Korea, for instancedo not score particularly well on world happiness reports, nor are they countries with high social mobility.
Fame, therefore, is likened to a get-rich-quick fantasy, a shortcut to circumvent societal stagnation. Inpsychologists Donna Rockwell and David C. Giles conducted a study with the participation of 15 well-known but anonymous celebrities, finding that fame forced the famous to undergo a psychological process in which they experienced depersonalization, a mistrust of others, and the idea that they were two people: their public self and their authentic self.
Today, Rockwell says that pretty much all of us go through that process to some degree. That has to be considered. To the famous person, the level of fame is irrelevant.
In fact, it made them even more anxious because they felt as though they had to spend their entire lives alling to their community that they were indeed virtuous enough to enter heaven. TikTok-famous teens, the envy of their generation, are all too aware that their fame could go away at any moment. That so many people will become TikTok-famous or Instagram-famous or Twitter-famous that it will cease to mean quite so much; that someday there will be simply too many influencers and not enough eyeballs and money.
That if everyone is a little bit famous, no one is. Haley has made TikTok friends she can talk to about the peculiarities and uncertainty of her position. After both their videos went viral, they started DMing and eventually FaceTiming each other from across the country. Emma, a year-old TikToker based in South Carolina who goes by the username graytulip and hasfollowers, got famous on the app by posting POVs, point-of-view videos satirizing popular high school typecasts like VSCO girls and K-pop obsessives.
She says that after a while the commenters begging for more POV videos got frustrating, as if they only liked her for one specific type of content.