In early April, I screenshotted a picture I saw on Wikipedia of a cow lying on the ground captioned “a sleeping cow laying on her side is not immobilized; she can rise whenever she chooses.” It epitomized early-quarantine lethargy, and I thought it was really funny. I kept collecting obscure and amusing Wikipedia excerpts and posting screenshots of them to an Instagram page I titled @depthsofwikipedia. Nine months later, my once-frivolous hobby has changed my life: The account has over 120,000 followers, a merch line and an ongoing collaboration with Wikipedia to fundraise and recruit editors. Since August, I’ve devoted almost all of my free time to the project. 

The account exposes the most curious corners of Wikipedia, such as a page on the “sweater curse,” a documented suspicion that hand-knitting a sweater for a lover will lead them to break up with the knitter. Another is the page “Umarell” which describes elderly men in Bologna, Italy who watch construction sites, often with hands clasped behind their backs and offering unwanted advice. Other good ones are “List of Animals with Fraudulent Diplomas” and “Lawsuits against God.” The posts are short enough to be shareable but substantial enough to teach you something, and the following has grown organically through Instagram story posts. 

I’m not the only University of Michigan student who has recently encountered the dizzying exhilaration of accumulating more followers than could fit in the Big House. Between classes and clubs, some U-M undergrads are pouring their time into maintaining large internet followings in various corners of the web, building communities far larger than the glowing rectangle of an iPhone. I called some of them to chat about navigating midterms, merch deals and spinning ephemeral internet clout into a bona fide platform.

Lucy Carpenter is a senior in LSA studying communication and media who started posting on her TikTok @carpenlu while studying abroad in Australia in January 2020. After her return to Michigan for the March shutdown, she pivoted to posting colorful montages that unveil the process of photography, amassing 105,000 followers. Over a Zoom call, she told me that between classes, a marketing internship and social media, different pursuits take priority at different times. 

“Sometimes when I’m studying and I get a really cool idea for a TikTok, I’ll choose to follow it even if I know I should be getting ahead on an assignment,” Carpenter said. “In a lot of ways, TikTok is more fun than school.” 

Other times, social media gets sent to the back burner. In the middle of a busy summer internship, she made fewer posts and her follower growth slowed markedly. “I was okay with it because I loved my internship,” Carpenter explained. 

For Carpenter, whose professional interests of photography and social media align closely with her online niche, both her degree and TikTok are vehicles to the same post-graduation goals. Though she’s seen creators with similar backgrounds find successful careers after dropping out, she’s set on finishing her degree both to build business skills and because, as a senior, she’s so close to finishing. After graduating, she’s not sure where she’ll end up but hopes to continue creative pursuits. 

“Because of Tiktok, it feels more possible to pursue photography full time,” Carpenter said. “I now have a network of people all over the world.”

Carpenter isn’t the only student using TikTok to build a professional network. Nick Daly is an Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore studying musical theatre whose TikTok account @nick_t_daly, which approaches 175,000 followers, has grown steadily since Spring 2020. In a Zoom call from his rented Kerrytown room, he told me about the account’s start. 

“I got really sad at the beginning of quarantine. Maybe that was the key,” Daly said. “There were no opportunities over the summer, so as a Musical Theatre major I didn’t know what to do, and I was inspired by the spirit of the quote ‘If you don’t have work, make work.’” 

And that’s exactly what he did. Over the summer, Daly posted several videos per day highlighting his stunning vocals and accumulating a steady stream of followers. Despite his success, he’s found that he now can’t keep up with posting at that pace due to piling obligations.  

“(I’m) super busy working on a play for Playfest, sending in auditions for TV and movies and putting in 20 hours a week at Chipotle,” he said. It took a few seconds for him to add, “And I’m still a musical theatre major.” 

After winning the prestigious Playbill’s Search for a Star award in the fall, he spent the first few weeks of the school year engulfed in tasks related to the prize. School took a back seat at the start of the semester, and Daly felt like he never really caught up. 

“I’ve always been of the mind that education is more important than a degree. I’d rather be skilled than have a piece of paper hanging on my wall that says I’m skilled,” he said. “If I graduate, it would be cool, but I ultimately just want to work in theatre and it doesn’t matter whether it’s school or social media that gets me there.” 

His agent, who found him through Instagram, messaged him while we were talking to ask for another TV show audition to send in. 

Daly doesn’t know what exactly is next for him, but he’s grateful to have a platform to communicate his passions, such as the importance of using art for social change. He’s also excited by how much TikTok has expanded his professional opportunities in the performing arts. 

Social media can advance the business side of music endeavors as well. Ari Elkins is a junior in LSA studying political science and minoring in performing arts management who posts TikToks of niche playlists (think “POV: its BID Day 2021 and you just accepted your bid to your favorite sorority” and “Songs that will make you want to go on an adventure”) characterized by impossibly enthusiastic dances, bouncy hair and a blithe California coolness.

When his summer 2020 internship with Warner Music got canceled, he spent more time posting videos, such as one titled “Songs that will take you back to your favorite frat basement,” which catapulted him into prominence and entrenched his current niche as a Generation-Z music curator. 600,000 TikTok followers later, he has a team of managers, growing Youtube and Spotify platforms and a slew of brand sponsorship deals. 

He’s taking a full course load at the University, but he estimates a time breakdown of 70% music and Tiktok work compared to 30% school. He told me more about balancing music and TikTok with school on a Zoom call. 

“I would only drop out of school if it were prohibiting my success and, right now, I’m able to balance school and TikTok,” Elkins said. “College is important in that it makes you a more well-rounded citizen, but if I really think about it, I don’t think that a college diploma will be directly useful for my current career trajectory.” 

This summer, he’s not doing an organized internship but instead focusing on personal music and TikTok pursuits.

While Elkins has always been interested in the music industry, social media success has given him resounding encouragement to further pursue a career as a music personality. Being a front-facing figure in the same category as Zane Lowe or Ryan Seacrest is within reach for Elkins all because of TikTok.

However, not all students are using their kernels of fame to directly advance their careers. Ryan Tippy, an LSA freshman who plans to major in public health on a pre-med track, struck algorithm gold on a video he posted on his TikTok @ryant6969 two days after his SATs about looking like the Riverdale character Kevin Keller. After the post went viral, he continued posting witty TikToks in his free time, accruing 65,000 followers. Unlike other student creators, he’s never considered pursuing TikTok as more than a hobby.

“I’m very school-driven,” he said. “Being a full-on influencer is not my personality. I’m just doing this because it makes me laugh.”

A number of other students boast mind-bogglingly large account stats, and many come from vastly different corners of the internet. Business freshman Simon Kim has built a TikTok community of 1.2 million followers on @wholesomesimon, where he promotes mental health efforts with colorful graphics and clear-eyed sincerity. On the anime and manga side of TikTok, Rackham student Jeffery Zhang boasts 900,000 followers. Front-camera clips of comedic musings brought LSA senior Demetrius Fields to 1.7 million TikTok followers, and varsity basketball player and LSA junior Adrien Nunez has amassed nearly a million followers on TikTok making couple videos with his girlfriend Carson Roney, who plays basketball for Shawnee State University.

University of Michigan student creators are part of a broader cultural rise of relatable online creators, a grand convergence between restless, quarantined young people and hungry algorithms engineered to manufacture the illusion of fame. Subject to the opaque mechanisms of algorithm-based content viewing, the beginning of a popular page often comes down to luck. It’s that tantalizing first taste of virality that can bring about a pivotal, if subtle, decision: to keep pursuing internet fame or not. 

The creators I spoke to decided to run with it, albeit with varying levels of commitment — some treating online creation like a stepping stone to their career and others using it to pass the time. However, to varying degrees, their college experiences are fundamentally altered: paid posts informing their schedules, ring lights in dorm rooms, private Zoom chats in class asking “Are you from TikTok?” and an inescapable sense that if they don’t keep up an endless stream of content, their fleeting homegrown fame will dissolve just as quickly as it appeared. 

Each student creator echoed familiar sentiments of gratitude for their platforms. We agreed that working on social media feels, for the most part, like an exciting antidote to monotonous online classes. 

Personally, it’s running @depthsofwikipedia the best part of my year, offering bright moments of novelty amidst the monotony of quarantine. Amidst Canvas notifications and club emails are notifications of follows from celebrity crushes (like John Mayer) and interesting messages from strangers. I’ve also gotten more involved with the workings of Wikipedia, learning to edit and organizing an edit-a-thon in January. 

One of my greatest takeaways from online classes is how much agency I have over what I learn. Digital learning has, in many ways, challenged traditional models of learning in which a teacher presents information in front of a class. When I’m learning class material online, I’ve found myself more likely to seek out independent education resources, opting for Youtube explainers over clogged Zoom office hours and skipping asynchronous lecture videos to make notes from a textbook. Viewing classes as education guides, not necessarily essential manuals, empowers me to broaden the activities considered to be educational. Through this lens, some of the lessons I’m learning from social media feel just as vital as those from schoolwork.