I copped two senior superlatives in my 2018 high school yearbook: “Most Likely to Save the Planet” and “Most Likely to Become Internet Famous.”
Two years later, I haven’t rescued the planet. News stories of ravaging flames on the West Coast have well-nigh extinguished my environmental optimism.
I haven’t struck internet fame, either. Having three Instagram posts to my name might be hurting my chances of getting a blue verified check mark anytime soon or offers to jet off to Fiji or Bora Bora on the next major influencer trip.
But TikTok might change that for me — okay, probably not, but keep reading!
Don’t be mistaken by my simple feed: I love social media. I always have. I was the eighth grader who impersonated Miranda Sings at summer camp and finished work early in materials science class so I could binge episodes of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” I even followed Olivia Jade before the world discovered her parents’ role in the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal.
Keeping abreast of pop culture keeps me sane. There’s no case of the blues that can’t be cured by watching Noah Beck gush about Dixie D’Amelio to The Hollywood Fix outside of BOA Steakhouse. I’ve just never really seen myself joining the upper echelons of digital influence.
Unlike its long-established competitors, TikTok has created a new kind of social media stardom that generously gives small creators the chance to blow up at any moment. I find it interesting that despite its overwhelming data collection, Instagram doesn’t acknowledge how much I might enjoy watching an obscure e-boy perform an appendectomy on a slice of pumpkin pie or a Swiftie’s Among Us parody where a song from Reputation plays upon each crewmate’s death. TikTok does.
When ads for TikTok flooded my phone in mid-2019, I quickly tapped through, still mortified by my friends’ discovery of my Musical.ly account filled with awkward lip-syncs in braces and a make-do beanie — a thick winter hat with the pom pom cut off that I rolled up to fit like a yarmulke. I produced sped-up lip-syncs to Bruno Mars and Ariana Grande songs in the mirror in front of a toilet where a ceiling light washed out my facial features, just as I liked. I’d occasionally lip sync to comedy tracks, too — such as a confused woman who groans that kids are bullies, “always hitting Quan, always whipping Nae Nae.” When I’m 100 and asked if I have any regrets, I may have one.
When I redownloaded the app, which had become TikTok, in December 2019, I vowed to myself that my lip-syncing days were over. I mainly danced to viral songs with my friends.
During the start of Yale’s two-week quarantine, a friend proposed I recreate a trend of NYU students showing off their quarantine meals, which she insisted would go viral. I’d never seen the trend. When I watched an NYU student chuck a sandwich across their room, it became clear she and I were on different sides of TikTok.
I learned NYU meals were so bizarre and inedible that the administration eventually transferred meal responsibility to Grubhub, for which students received credit in the amount of $30 per day for the duration of quarantine. I was proud of Yale for doing it better, so I decided to post.
I recorded a brief unbagging of reduced fat milk, marble pound cake and a sweet potato burger. My friend had been right. My video amassed a few hundred thousand views, so the next day I shared my dinner, but with more intention, slipping on a Yale crewneck, lanyard and hat and lengthening my video, which a trending song preluded — “Ice Cream” by Blackpink and Selena Gomez.
By no means was I a content creator. I forgot to turn off my noisy fan, which can be heard throughout my 50-second clip. But TikTok didn’t care. It became the most liked video under #nyuquarantine, a hashtag I probably shouldn’t have used as it didn’t apply to me.
An hour after posting, I’d hit the followers threshold to go live. So, I did. If I’d known that a WTNH News 8 video editor was watching me, I might have skipped asking for name suggestions for my new succulent or dubbing my followers the Cob Squad.
The editor works on nightside, which I suppose is why my late night rigmarole didn’t faze her. She eventually joined the chat and later DMed me to propose a story on my TikToks for the local news, promising me Ashley’s Ice Cream on her Saturday break if I said yes.
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
You’d think a level of professionalism comes from a scoop of cookies ’n cream in the offing, but when the reporter asked for location recommendations, I confused the similar-sounding names of two parks and suggested one I’d never actually visited. I stepped out of my Lyft seven minutes late in TikToker style: black skinny jeans, Vans and a silver chain. I considered parting my hair, but figured it was too much.
I can’t say that teaching an Emmy-nominated journalist a viral dance to “What You Know Bout Love” by Pop Smoke was ever on my bucket list, but it should have been. When the story aired that night, I decided that my life was complete. Graduating from Yale would be a bonus.
But days later, after I’d procured my ice cream and the story had circulated among my family and friends and even earned a shoutout in class from one of my professors, I began to question resting on my laurels. Could I, with my 20.6k followers, really be happy?
Well, thankfully, I already was — I didn’t need followers to tell me that I’m a cool kid. But I had a small platform — why not see where it could go?
So, I slid into the DMs of the TikTokers who I knew could help me grow: Harvard College students. Frankly, Harvard students were far more popular on TikTok than any Yalie, and I knew I could count on them to give me honest and matter-of-fact advice.
I first reached out to Harvard sophomore Jordan Sanchez (@happiejordan), who has amassed 91,000 followers by giving college application advice, responding to questions like, “Is it hard getting into Harvard?” Apparently TikTok users don’t already know the answer, as that style of content has driven 2.4 million likes to their account.
Although discussing my high school stats and study habits on social media horrifies me, I respect the hustle and figured Jordan could help me discern if there was something about Yale that might be curbing our growth. After all, why were there no viral Yale TikTokers?
“There’s only one reason why Yalies haven’t gone viral yet. They’re not Harvard students. F in the chat for y’all,” Jordan said in a DM.
I doubted Jordan’s suggestion that using the Yale name in my TikToks would not augur well for me, so I consulted Brad Wolf (@thebigbradwolf), a Harvard first year who transitioned from high school to college while on the app. His most popular content includes a side aerial tutorial for non-gymnasts and a three-part harmony with friends to “She Used to Be Mine” that Sarah Bareilles noticed and shared to her Instagram story.
Wolf assured me I could go viral even as a Yale student, DMing, “Yale could have had a viral tiktoker if u didn’t reject my early action application,” a response he later shared in jest with his 287,000 TikTok followers.
“U coulda had a bad bitch ^ you can quote that too,” he added.
While I appreciated the commitment to the Yale-Harvard rivalry, tongue-in-cheek mockery wouldn’t help me navigate TikTok. I needed true mentorship, which I found in Claira Janover.
Claira is a viral sensation. A verified TikToker with 453,000 followers, she made national headlines when she revealed that Deloitte had rescinded her full-time job offer, contingent upon graduation, after she posted a TikTok denouncing anyone with “the nerve, the sheer entitled caucasity to say, ‘all lives matter.’”
On a leave of absence in Los Angeles, Claira expects to complete her final semester at Harvard this spring. She plans to continue making TikToks casually for her followers and advised me that finding a niche is necessary to build an audience on the platform.
“When I first started, I was making jokes and being petulant or ironic or sarcastic, and that was the niche I wanted to go into,” she said. “But also, if you want to be a pretty boy or pretty girl who winks at the camera, those can blow up, too. … So look at accounts that (have a niche) and make it authentic to you.”
Over the summer, I’ll admit: I made loads of now-deleted “pretty boy” content, and it was fun. I hoped I wouldn’t be trapped in the niche of quarantine food videos, but Claira assured me that using the Yale name could help.
“At the beginning, I definitely clout-chased with the Harvard name,” she said. “I don’t really know if people at Yale felt cultivated artistically or maybe if people at Yale tried to go viral and just didn’t because they didn’t care as much about using the Yale name, but I don’t think there’s a single person on TikTok at Harvard who didn’t throw in the Harvard name to go viral, and it has worked for all of them, essentially.”
She also shared that rapid growth on TikTok can be a lot to handle, particularly the hate comments, and that I should be prepared.
”[TikTok users] wouldn’t just harass me,” she said. “They’d comment and start harassing the people who watched my videos, so I felt a responsibility to turn off my comments section because my friends and the people who were supporting me were getting harassed.”
So far, my comments sections have carried less malice; instead, I’ve received hundreds of comments questioning why I had two cartons of 1-percent milk in one of my dinners and pronounce “fork” with two syllables. Claira advised not to respond reactively to hate comments, or better, not to read them.
When I showed her my viral video, she exclaimed that I had started the quarantine food trend — which I certainly had not, but I was thrilled she’d seen my video — and encouraged me by telling me I already had a platform.
I was feeling my oats. Heeding her advice, I changed my username to @yalejacob, vowed to never react to hate and pulled in the reins on my content. I’d never really thought twice about sharing an attempt at the splits or rhythmically sipping chocolate milk, but perhaps I should. I decided I’d share whatever made me happy on any given day I felt like posting, as a sort of college lifestyle video diary.
You should know — my knowledge and my faith diverge at the point of sponsored content. I loathe insincere advertising, but it fills me with awe, too. Would anyone really be drinking Bang energy drinks if not for the influencers promoting them?
After posting a few high-performing videos, I received an offer from a college counseling service to partner on two videos. I knew that to not accept would be going against what I’ve learned from all of my favorite influencers. So, I reneged on my creative decision for my account and agreed to post for the experience.
I wanted it to be good. I wrote lyrics, taught myself how to produce music on GarageBand and recorded and edited a 30-second video containing an outfit change and a call-to-action to check out the affiliate link in my bio.
It took me six hours. Needless to say, I probably won’t consider doing another brand partnership anytime soon. I’m enjoying posting content that I’m excited about as I please and not worrying about what I “should” be doing as a TikToker.
I probably won’t be getting offers to attend crowded Hype House parties during the middle of a pandemic, but that’s okay. Really, that’s okay. I’m currently at 70,000 followers. On a bad day, I can rewatch my news segment or check my balance in the TikTok Creator Fund, money earned primarily from TikTok views that I now measure in how many pairs of Air Force 1s it could buy me.
I’ve always loved social media. Thanks to TikTok, I love it a little more. Oh, God.
Jacob Cramer | firstname.lastname@example.org