In November 2017, the Chinese company ByteDance bought Musical.ly—a popular social media app that allowed users to create and upload fifteen-second-long lip-syncing videos. Less than a year later, in August of 2018, ByteDance absorbed Musical.ly into its own app, which they renamed TikTok. Despite its somewhat tumultuous start, TikTok’s popularity quickly began to rise. With the demise of Vine’s seven-second-long comedy videos in 2017—and the promised “Vine 2” seeming far off—TikTok became a new video-making haven for the displaced users of both Vine and Musical.ly. This, in a way, allowed the app to become more multifaceted than both of its predecessors: it gave all users the opportunity to become popular, whether they were creating Musical.ly-era lip-syncing videos, Vine-esque comedy skits, or even branching off into genres that hadn’t been prominent on either app, such as cosplay.
This multifacetedness has been a crucial factor in TikTok’s swift rise to popularity. In 2019, TikTok became the fastest growing app for American youth. Meanwhile, many adults could hardly understand why their children were flocking to the app in droves—they found its short, repetitive videos to be extremely simple and mind-numbing. To teens, however, TikTok’s appeal was clear: everyone had a shot to become “TikTok famous.” While many of the former Musical.ly stars still dominated the platform, with their millions of likes and legions of adoring fans, TikTok’s interface allowed the average user to rise to fame as well. Unlike Instagram, where building a platform is notoriously difficult, TikTok’s algorithm places nearly all videos on the “For You” page, which is a somewhat-personalized never-ending scroll of videos. In order to stay on the For You page, a video must get likes from the users who see it. The more likes it gets, the more For You pages it appears on. While this algorithm is undeniably finicky, it appealed—and still appeals—to teens because it holds the promise that anyone can become popular, so long as they make the right video.
While there were some previously-famous creators on TikTok in 2018 and 2019, the app was mostly known for the popular videos made by its average users. The vast majority of people who became “TikTok famous” were not at all famous in the traditional sense. They may have had hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of followers, but the vast majority only retained that fame within the app—their daily lives remained mostly intact, as they were still able to attend school and walk down the street unrecognized. In late 2019, however, this all changed.
Charli D’Amelio, a fifteen-year-old dancer from Connecticut, began creating dancing videos. By November, Charli—who had only begun making videos a few months earlier—started rapidly gaining millions of likes and followers. This phenomenon quickly became known as “the hype,” which was generally used to describe someone’s rapid catapult into fame (usually because of their good looks). For a few months, TikTok users believed that the hype was something that
Charli and her older sister, Dixie, continued to gain millions of followers and became well-known figures to nearly every member of Gen Z. Many people began to see the sisters’ fame as an opportunity that existed beyond TikTok: an opportunity to create long-lasting, real-life fame. Marc D’Amelio—their father—had previously run campaigns for both the Connecticut State Senate and the Norwalk Public School Board of Education, and must have easily been able to recognize the politics of TikTok fame. He and his wife, Heidi, quickly made their own accounts, which allowed the D’Amelio family to dominate the app. Additionally, he allowed his daughters to temporarily leave school and travel across the country to the “Hype House” in LA, a decision which would change the D’Amelio’s lives—and TikTok itself—forever.
The Hype House was formulated by creators such as Chase Hudson, Addison Easterling, Daisy Keech, and Thomas Petrou. The idea was to buy a house big enough for numerous creators to live in, allowing them to make near-constant content with one another. This idea had been tried and true with the Team 10 House, which had been created by YouTuber Jake Paul in 2017, so it was no surprise that the Hype House became massively popular (though it was mostly due to the D’Amelio sisters presence). In response, several other content houses, such as the Sway House and the Clubhouse, have also begun taking over LA mansions.
Image from @thehypehousela on Instagram
These houses have completely changed what being “TikTok famous” is all about. In the beginning, TikTok fame was considered to be somewhat embarrassing and was usually kept strictly within the confines of the app. Creators still lived with their parents, attended school, and hung out with their non-famous friends. However, with the creation of the Hype House and its subsequent knockoffs, TikTok fame has become coveted. The creators who live in these houses are usually famous for their looks and occasionally their dancing skills. They appear in Super Bowl commercials, hang out with the Kardashians, and have their drama documented by paparazzi. They wear designer clothing, go on expensive tropical vacations, and throw huge, heavily-documented parties (even in the midst of a pandemic).
Many of these TikTok stars have come to be viewed as egotistical and problematic. However, Charli—who remains the most followed user on TikTok, with a whopping 74 million followers—is able to remain popular because she is neither of those things. While she may attend parties thrown by her more problematic peers, she also donates to charity, FaceTimes with fans, and leaves kind comments on numerous posts. She is also able to bridge the gaps of TikTok—she remains beloved by both the dancers of “straight Tik Tok” and the comedy-creators of “alt Tik Tok.” Charli has been able to discover the formula for true TikTok fame, which seems to be good looks, kindness, and a whole lot of luck.
While the concept of TikTok fame has undeniably changed since the app’s beginnings, the appeal of anyone being able to gain it remains. It may not be as easy to become “Hype House” famous, but TikTok’s algorithm still allows hundreds of creators to become popular in their own right. The multifaceted “sides” of TikTok make it easy for users to become well known within their own genre. There is political TikTok, where creators preach their political views and hold live debates with one another, and POV TikTok, where they create elaborate point-of-view stories. There is BookTok, which is home to book reviews and recommendations, and even One Direction TikTok, where fans show their love for their favorite band. Creators on all of these “sides” have been able to gain thousands, and sometimes even millions, of followers.
TikTok fame has been a coveted possession for today’s youth. For many teenagers, the only question is: which of their friends will gain it first?
Writer, editor, poet
Alli Lowe is a rising junior from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is passionate about writing, politics, and making the world a better place. Her writing has previously been published in Polyphony Lit, The Loud Journal, and Same Faces Collective.