TikTok is no longer just for your thirteen-year-old cousin. It’s on the minds of pop culture’s heaviest hitters, even the Queen Bee, Beyoncé.
When the video sharing app launched in 2018, its main appeal was a quick cycle of virality which rewarded original content from no-name creators. Everyone got their fifteen seconds of fame. But over the past two years, the app has gained almost exponential traction. Oberlo reported that TikTok now has over 800 million active users. This means that if a musician can get their song trending on the app, it’s like striking gold. But it’s not a simple formula to crack.
The biggest winners of the TikTok game haven’t tended to be the most mainstream artists. What reaches TikTok’s main channel, the “For You” page, is not merely what’s newest or topping the charts, but whatever happens to strike a particular chord with the audience at that moment. It could be an obscure girl group form the early 60’s, or a 1988 hit from near-forgotten rap duo L’Trimm. And it’s almost always a bottom-up process: small users find audios from the recesses of the internet, create trends around them, and they trickle up to the most popular creators. It starts to go wrong when artists and agents attempt to operate outside of this system.
In early April, Drake released “Toosie Slide,” the lyrics of which (“right foot up, left foot slide, left foot up, right foot slide”) play shamelessly into the viral dance culture for which TikTok is so famous. Though the song hit an initial streaming boost after its release on the app, the trend around it was never quite solidified. In fact, nobody could quite figure out what the dance was supposed to be. Drake’s top-down direction didn’t mesh with the app’s independent spirit.
What mainstream celebrities often fail to understand as they attempt to cross over is that they don’t naturally fit into TikTok’s ever-changing ecosystem. They’re outsiders, used to traditional media platforms, and expect too much stability. Most of them can’t speak the language. And when they manage to, it’s because they don’t expect anything out of it. Tyga is respected as a genuine member of the culture because he’s just goofing around, clearly getting sucked into the same trends that all the app’s users do. It’s clear he actually watches TikTok, and not that his PR manager just encouraged him to capitalize on the platform. Beyoncé recently released a remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s TikTok hit “Savage,” and it’s full of TikTok in-jokes and references. Though she doesn’t have a presence on the app herself, her verse meets TikTok culture on its own terms, and fans have taken notice.
Another symptom of TikTok’s ever-expanding influence is the sudden flood of influencer content houses. In the past few months, The Hype House, Sway House, The Club House, and more have sprouted up: rented houses in the Los Angeles area populated by teenage digital influencers with millions of followers. The promise of these houses is a chance to live and work with like-minded creatives in hopes of creating a larger brand, but it seems that almost as soon as these collectives are founded, drama erupts, and the dream collapses. One of the most popular of these ventures, The Hype House, has four million followers on Instagram, and includes TikTok’s biggest creator, Charli D’Amelio, a dancer who recently surpassed the fifty million follower mark on TikTok.
These content houses seem like something a twelve-year-old might dream up. They get to live in mansions with all their friends and all they have to do is post on social media (something that normal teenagers do anyway.) They have gigantic pools, and what seems like unlimited funds for Postmates and indoor trampolines. Their YouTube vlogs reflect the sitcom-rooted fantasy of a revolving door of wacky characters, a contemporary answer to Eric Foreman’s basement or Rachel and Monica’s apartment. But anyone who has ever been in a friend group full of young people knows, drama is always looming. Members start coupling off (of course, that’s part of the appeal), people get excluded, personalities clash, and the illusion starts to crack.
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But when these houses do fall apart, the ramifications are much larger than a normal teen friend group collapse. Because they’re not normal teens, they make hundreds of thousands of dollars from their content, and have public followings in the millions. When they’re beefing with a friend, they’re beefing with them on the internet, each of them backed by armies of fans– worker bees who will harass their rival in their comments section if they command it. In late March, former Hype House member Daisy Keech posted a YouTube video entitled “Truth about the Hype House,” detailing why she severed ties with the group. She cites house manager Thomas Petrou’s abuse of power, and his exclusion of Keech from house business ventures despite the fact that she put up much of the cash required for their down payment. Keech then went on to co-found the Club House, an identical venture with different creators. The whole arc occurred over the span of six months. Almost as soon as these houses are established, they fall, and another one sprouts up in its space.
The boom and bust nature of these content houses, though, reflects the fleeting nature of TikTok, their platform of choice. Creators on the app are rarely famous for more than a couple months, until the “hype” is passed along to someone else. It’s almost impossible to build a tactile brand around trends that are moving at breakneck speed. The concept of a physical house, an immovable asset, goes against almost every instinct on which TikTok operates.
Lurking behind all these trend cycles, though, is the high-level scrutiny TikTok has come under in the past few months in regards to its security policies. Two Republican senators brought a bill to the floor in early March proposing to ban the app from all government cellphones, citing the app’s parent company ByteDance’s ties with the Chinese Communist Party. What exactly they’re worried about: the app gathering user data from American citizens and wielding it for political malice. What this means for the future of TikTok in the United States is still unclear. It’s hard to say if the app will be affected, and TikTok fans don’t seem to care. Who knows how long that app’s popularity will last even without this scare, considering the short-lived histories of Vine and YikYak, viral apps that survived only a couple years until tastes changed and users flocked to the next platform. For now, though, TikTok remains a majorly populated hub for culture, and as the app’s user base continues to grow, who knows, maybe Drake will actually download it.