“TikTok Killed the Internet Star” — Three 17 Year Olds Weigh in
A TikTok star talks internet fame, the pressure of virality, and app censorship, while two teenage TikTok users reflect on their relationship to the app—attention span, internet niches, and the endless dopamine hit.
BY DORIAN PARK WANG
Arlo Hazzard smiles at the camera, bare-faced and washed in the glow of a sunset lamp as he lip-syncs to a sped-up version of Save Your Tears by The Weeknd.
Hazzard began using TikTok in 2020 as a source of entertainment and social connection when COVID-19 restrictions kept people in their homes. As of August 2022, Hazzard has amassed a following of over 421,200, with 16.6 million total likes and averaging thousands of views per post. While he initially posted art, Hazzard transitioned to primarily posting their face, their cosplay, and generally, “really random stuff…just for funsies,” he said.
“It was just a few videos [at first]. Then eventually, I started posting stuff on friends only [mode],” Hazard said. “Then, I started doing art publicly, because I had a pretty big platform on Instagram for a different account that was art-related…Then I posted my face, and people started liking that more than the art, so I started doing that instead.”
A look through Hazzard’s art Instagram and early TikTok content reveals a cache of mediums and subject matter. He enjoys rendering stylized anime figures in bold, sharp lines. Videos of Hazzard at their piano or cradling a ukulele make occasional appearances, and so does intermittent current events commentary, particularly during 2020 and 2021. Hazzard has also several distinctly TikTokish vlogs, featuring his family and pets—most recently, his new cat, Miso.
Yet as Hazzard shot up in popularity, he began feeling pressure to produce new content constantly. On his art Instagram, @aidekari, with over 5,800 followers, Hazzard has felt the need to post daily, a routine that has become both time-consuming and stressful, he said. In the midst of his burgeoning TikTok fame, Hazzard felt the same pressure — create, post, stay popular, go viral.
“The stressful part was once I started blowing up,” Hazzard said. “I was like, ‘this is my 10 minutes of fame. I want to milk this as much as possible. What if my followers aren’t interested in me anymore?’ So I had to continuously post content, and it was really hard, because I would stay in my room and just think for long periods of time…‘What are people going to like? How do I need to do my makeup and make my hair look right so people don’t think I look ugly?’ I have to keep my appearances up, use filters. The other stressful part was definitely what posts I should make and how to not be judged, because TikTok is brutal.”
In 2021, his posts often reached anywhere from 10 thousand to 3 million views, but as he kept posting, Hazzard noticed that his videos weren’t showing up on the app’s For You Page — the hallmark of a process known as “shadowbanning.” An unofficial ban from the app, TikTok’s shadowbanning action removes creators’ videos from its discoverability pages without notifying them, resulting in less reach, views, and overall engagement.
Hazzard’s videos have also received frequent guideline violations from TikTok’s censors, racking up thirty violations so far. In one video, he was flagged for nudity because he wore a tank top. Hazzard’s engagement has begun to stagnate under the weight of his multiple shadowbans and violations.
“I mean, I know views shouldn’t mean everything,” Hazzard said. “But when you’re on Tiktok for a long time, and you’re used to getting all those views and stuff, it kind of hurts your ego a little bit and makes you think, what am I doing wrong? Like, am I not interesting anymore?…The algorithm, it just makes me worry all the time.”
Hazzard’s experience echoes that of many TikTok influencers who have come forward about the stress of constant posting, the pressure to go viral repeatedly, and the precarious popularity creators find themselves in once their accounts have garnered fame.
These days, many an influencer-hopeful can be found moving out west, to Los Angeles, in search of internet stardom. A 2019 poll by Morning Consult reports that 54 percent of Americans aged 13-38 would, if given the chance, become an influencer. Of this 54 percent, 26 percent “strongly agree that they would take the opportunity to become an influencer.” Yet though 12 percent of young Americans already consider themselves influencers, the “influencer lifestyle” comes with no shortage of anxieties.
“The scary thing is you never know how long this is going to last,” TikTok star Brandon Westernebrg is quoted saying in Barrett Swanson’s Harper’s Bazaar article, The Anxiety of Influencers. “It’s like, What’s next? How long can we entertain everyone for? How long before no one cares, and what if your life was worth nothing?”
TikTok’s anxieties are not limited to creators. A quick Google under “TikTok” will return countless articles on data privacy concerns, users lamenting the app’s effect on their attention spans, cultural commentary, and the future of the digital world.
In particular, TikTok is notorious for its addictive algorithm and format. Anecdotes of shortened attention spans as a result of app overuse are common among users, such as Fae Ross, a 17-year-old from North Carolina.
“Before, if I was watching things, it would be a TV show or a YouTube video — something much longer,” said Ross. “During lockdown, I just spent all day scrolling through these tiny little videos. And that made me kind of jittery. I think it did wreck my attention span because I didn’t really do much else in the way of watching things over lockdown. I’ve gotten better, and I’ve tried to regulate my TikTok usage, but for a while, it was really addicting.”
This sentiment is echoed by 17-year-old Min Beharry from New York City, who attributes TikTok’s format to a wider internet phenomenon that began with the now-defunct micro-video sharing site, Vine. According to Beharry, this short format, combined with the relative passivity of TikTok use, amplifies the app’s addictive qualities.
“It’s a constant shock of dopamine,” Beharry said. “You have something new every 15 seconds. When you’re tired or don’t have the emotional energy for anything, it’s really easy to just sit down, and you don’t have to do anything other than scroll…you start training yourself to focus on one thing for 15 seconds and then your brain gets ready for something new after that.”
Yet one sentiment that is consistent across all three teens, despite the differences in their video tastes, is that finding your “TikTok niche” is key to enjoying the app. For Beharry, this looks like the following: art, social justice content centered around gender, race, and neurodivergence. For Ross, this means watching fashion content for inspiration or following arts and crafts, and tuning out discourse and controversy. And for Hazzard, this looks like engaging with his audience in the comments under his videos, staying close to the TikTokers whose cosplay inspires him, and being discerning when it comes to consuming political content on the app.
“Whenever I see people talking about TikTok, it’s [as if] it’s just shallow dances and stuff’ said Ross. ‘A lot of it is, but I also think you can find useful things on there. You can find inspiration, and you can even find glimpses of something you want to be, ways to improve yourself.”
TikTok was launched in September 2016.