The rise of TikTok and the “For You Page” placed #relatablecontent at the forefront of the internet. The TikTok algorithm is unique to the user, and the endless “For You” feed constantly refines itself based on interactions with content. Each feed turns into a never-ending amalgam of tailor-made content that somehow resonates with a user’s every interest, experience and emotion.
With a large plurality of TikTok users between 16 and 24, “college TikTok” forms a community of young people with shared yet diverse collegiate experiences. With help from the algorithm, which is entirely user-based (rather than popularity-based), college creators quickly gain fame by posting a simple and relatable 15-second clip. Regular students turn into campus microcelebrities.
Business sophomore Mark Plunkett curates his lifestyle for 10,600 followers. He started recording daily vlogs to remember his days at the University of Michigan. Upon vlogging his first-year move-in day, which he called “raw” and “hectic” in an interview with The Michigan Daily, he gained an instant following. Rishika Vinnakota, a relatable content creator and Business freshman with over 8,000 followers, first gained millions of views with a video on using LinkedIn to find the best date in college.
Plunkett’s content has a college wellness and lifestyle focus, with aesthetically pleasing daily videos of Ross’s architecture, gym workouts, homemade brunches and late nights out with friends. On the other side of college TikTok is Rishika. Her videos, often set to ironic audios, focus on the struggles of a first-year student: studying, interviewing for clubs, maintaining a busy social life, networking and discovering who you are all by yourself. Rishika has a large following of students who “want to feel like they’re having a normal (college) experience,” she told The Michigan Daily. While nearly opposite in their approaches, both Mark and Rishika use TikTok as an outlet to share their days and provide others a candid look into their lives at the University.
A New York Times article on social media crazes finds that “relatability is the chief psychological lubricant that glides you thoughtlessly down the curated, endless scroll of your feed.” The creators’ connections to strangers around the world prove that we all crave the relatable.
Upon gaining recognition on campus, both creators quickly became Yik Yak (in)famous. On Yik Yak, where gossip flows freely and anonymously, “relatable” content is controversial. People take self-deprecating as cloying and aesthetically pleasing as obnoxious, and gossip turns to threats.
Both the student creators face overwhelming hate, threatening messages and even stalking. They face harassment that goes against their messages of inclusivity and relatability nearly every day. But neither creator plans on stopping — when Rishika’s parents asked her to stop creating content amidst a storm of cyberbullying, she simply told them: “I don’t want to, thank you.”
As a first-year student and young woman of Color in business, Rishika finds it is easy to feel isolated without a large community. “The reason I keep posting and why I want to keep posting is just finding other people like me,” Rishika said. “Not because they (need) it, (but) because I also really need it.” TikTok provides a platform to discuss daily struggles with people who relate, benefitting both creators and viewers. Rishika’s content removes taboos from topics ranging from oft-mocked business classes to difficult first-semester loneliness.
Similarly, as a mixed-race gay man, Mark hopes his account can show a look into his life “beyond stereotypes.” He hopes his day in the life videos inspire others to focus on physical, mental and intellectual health while at school. He finds inspiration from wellness-related social media content and recently picked up cooking, which he now features in his vlogs. Committing to making daily videos, in turn, motivates him to continue living a healthy lifestyle.
We love celebrities for every slightly relatable thing they showcase on social media. Oprah walking her dog! A Kardashian ordering fast food! Marketers, magazines and websites take advantage of our inclination towards relatable content to attract clicks and hits. We desire to see ourselves in everything we consume. But when we expect the relatable, as we do from college creators, we lash out when we do not find it.
It is easiest to compare ourselves to fellow students, who we hope to view as peers. Social media increases our upward social comparisons: measurements of ourselves with those we perceive as better off or more skilled. We think because we cannot relate to Mark’s fitness and fashion and Rishika’s career focus, we are somehow worse off or they are somehow showing off — the hate for college content creators may just be jealousy.
Mark, who hopes to create an inclusive and inspiring community through his content, calls those who ridicule him “embarrassing.” He and Rishika find that not responding is the most powerful way to rise above hate. As their accounts grow in popularity and gain them brand deals and networking connections, they appear to rise far above it.
While I can not relate to all of Rishika’s or Mark’s content, I still find joy in seeing them on campus: outside of Ross, at a party, in SoulCycle and on the Diag. The campus microcelebrities can be “just like me,” and for me, that is enough reason to love their content.
Daily Arts Writer Kaya Ginsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.