The life of an influencer is an aspiration for so many of us. Jetting off to new countries, multimillion-dollar brand deals, photos on beaches and floor seats at NBA games sound like a pretty sweet deal, right? Until recently, this was a life only afforded to the exceptionally beautiful Instagram influencer with the perfect hourglass bikini body and the gorgeous boyfriend to boot. Then, in 2016, TikTok appeared, offering an easy way to tap into your own personal influencer. Changing our own fantasies of influencer fame is crucial to developing healthy relationships with influencers and with social media apps like TikTok that promise that charmed life to those who want it badly enough.
Since its infancy, TikTok has been applauded for its low barriers to entry, allowing nearly anyone to tap into “influencer status” with only the right audience and the right content. For example, 17-year-old Charli D’Amelio, famous for her dance videos, splashed onto the scene in October 2019, yet she is now the most followed person on TikTok. Moreover, the infamous TikTok algorithm makes it so that any video can end up on the top of the “For You Page,” not just the videos of already-famous influencers. This incentive structure, along with the endless stream of new content, attracts young people — particularly teenagers — to the app.
I was no exception. In February 2020, I decided to give in to the TikTok craze and finally make an account. When the world shut down a few weeks later, TikTok proved to be the perfect way for me to pass time in quarantine. Eventually, I gave in to my impulses and decided to make a few TikToks myself. At first, they were just random things: a few videos of me putting on makeup to make myself feel better, one of my dogs eating watermelon because I thought it was funny — nothing particularly special.
After all, nobody important was going to see it, right?
Then, on March 24, my first TikTok video went viral. Within the first week of posting, it had amassed over a million views and over 100,000 likes.
As I gained followers, I started to become obsessed with the idea of being “TikTok famous.” I curated my content more carefully and started to post videos that were more on trend. I added trending hashtags to my captions, researched the best times to post, used insights on my posts and curated the perfectly self-deprecating online persona. Meanwhile, my video was reaching more than 4.5 million views and over half a million likes.
And just as I had begun to feel like a true member of the community, the negative comments began to flood in — mostly about how rude or disrespectful I was, but on the occasion that I was fortunate enough to be told I was a disgrace to my race. I tried to fight back, particularly using TikTok’s video reply feature, where a user can respond to a comment with a video, but it only made me look worse. It seemed that people had already made their judgments of me from an eight-second video. I had no choice but to start deleting and ignoring the comments instead. My public presence was starting to take a toll.
Psychologists have been discussing the psycho-social impacts of reaching “micro-influencer” status for as long as the term has been used. The ever-present spotlight of social media has been shown to have harmful effects on people, especially teens and young adults who are already struggling with their own identities. Metrics such as likes and follower counts make it simple to quantify our social success, and allow teens to look to strangers for social validation as opposed to their friends and families. This not only leaves them vulnerable to the whims of fame, but alters their sense of empathy, making it more difficult for them to relate to people in the long term. Furthermore, the anonymity present online allows viewers to dehumanize people online, resulting in what is effectively cyberbullying through comment sections. Reading these negative comments provides a severe contrast to the validation received from likes, causing warped dopamine functionality.
Eventually, my temporary fame withered. I spent a few months desperately trying to win it back but was met with only a few cursory likes from the middle schoolers who had followed me from my viral post. I gave up on posting for the consumption of many and let go of my potential fame.
I’m not trying to bash TikTok or any other form of social media. In fact, I think that TikTok is an amazing way to connect people across distance, socioeconomic status and more. It has also proved to be a vehicle for activism during the pandemic and has led to protests against racial and gender inequality, economic blackouts and creators of color being given a platform to speak about their experiences with racial injustice.
However, TikTok offers a gamble that, if played correctly, can lead to an invitation to the Met Gala. It democratizes fame, keeping it just out of everyone’s grasp; the fruit that our inner Tantalus can never have. But we as TikTok users (and possibly future famous people) need to ask ourselves why we really want it. I’m never going to be TikTok famous. I’ve been doomed to a life of scrolling through other peoples’ success stories broadcast all over the app. I couldn’t be more grateful. But, for others, the sidelines could not possibly compare to the spotlight.
To those people, I wish you well. To everyone else, check out Gordon Ramsey’s account.
Mrinalini Iyer is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.