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Life

The Business of Mimicry Is Thriving on TikTok

Posting on the app is an open invitation for commenters to demand every material detail of a person’s life, down to their eyelash routine and pants size.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
OL
illustrated by Ohni Lisle
Brooklyn, US
March 29, 2021, 11:55am

This is part of a special series, The Future of Fame Is the Fan, which dissects how celebrity became so slippery. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here

At just 25, Louise Snodgrass was one of the youngest candidates for a seat in the South Dakota house of representatives the state had ever seen. They were also the first nonbinary candidate for any statewide legislature race in South Dakota and collected a key endorsement from the progressive group Run for Something. As a young, nonheteronormative candidate running in a conservative state, Snodgrass got used to being forthcoming and generous with the details of their life and personal politics.

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But nothing about their state office campaign compares to the demands they now field on TikTok, all coming from strangers who are hungry for details about everything from Snodgrass’s pants size to personal money management practices.

The line between fans and creators on TikTok is drawn in the sand and constantly blowing away. It’s normal for teens and young people to aspire to and mimic cool people and spaces online: Instagram provides an endless feed of lifestyles to yearn for; Tumblr was once filled with gauzy-filtered bedrooms and flower-adorned curly hair; Xanga was an ever-changing mood board; and the allure of every lifestyle and food blog is the tantalizing possibility that, with a DIY-attitude and the ability to cook a fluffy quiche lorraine, you, too, could live a life that’s constantly bathed in a flattering light. For decades—for as long as magazines and blogs and social media have existed—people have been striving to copy and paste the lifestyles of strangers.

But on TikTok, the demands are loud, incessant, and unforgiving. The young, primarily Gen Z audience on the app has an unquenchable thirst for every arcane detail about a creator’s life, treating TikTok as their personal magazine: skin care routine, hair care routine, eyelash routine, clothing brand, clothing size, shoe brand, Amazon lists, Pinterest boards, home decor brands, thrift store recommendations, et cetera. (There are almost certainly additional lifestyle categories I’m missing here.) While some creators make content that directly addresses these questions, showing off their bedrooms and dropping the name and price of each item of decor, others, like Snodgrass, find themselves bombarded with increasingly personal questions on totally unrelated videos.

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For Snodgrass, it started when they decided, on a whim, to show off another of their personal achievements: a perfect rendition of the “Rasputin” dance from 2010’s Just Dance 2. “Yes, I ran for state office at the age of 25,” Snodgrass says in the TikTok, which has more than half a million likes. “But my biggest flex is that I have had the ‘Rasputin’ Just Dance 2 routine memorized for 10 years.” Using the TikTok account they’d used to spread information about and fundraise for their state house campaign, Snodgrass filmed and posted a video of a stunning performance of “Rasputin” from a corner of their bedroom.

Posted on January 11, the video made its way onto my For You Page—and the For You Pages of countless others—within days. By the time I saw it, the second most liked comment on the TikTok came from a user with a generic, TikTok-given username, asking, “what kinds of jeans are those??” (As of this writing, that comment has more than 3,000 likes.) Snodgrass responded with a second TikTok, showing off a pair of well-fitting Levi’s ribcage jeans (“the jeans that can stand my Rasputin squats”), plus a few pairs of their other favorite pants from Carhartt and Big Bud Press.

Things spiraled from there. One of the top comments on the squatting-jeans TikTok asked for Snodgrass to break down which size, exactly, they buy in the Carhartt pants, and another criticized their spending habits and willingness to spend $100 on a pair of jeans.

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Snodgrass said they feel obligated to respond to comments. “When you create content, you’re setting yourself up for having a conversation with a bunch of people; it’s like herding cats a little bit.”

Snodgrass is just a regular person, but teens and young adults have long been groomed by capitalism, working hand-in-hand with celebrity, to expect answers to every question they have about certain lifestyle details. The advent of branded skin care routines, posted by celebrities and influencers on YouTube and Instagram (and then copied by major media brands), seems to have prompted new generations to want the same from everyone they see online.

But unlike Instagram and YouTube, where people can easily tag or link the brands directly, TikTok creators have to take extra steps—like posting additional videos or commenting—to disclose where everything they put on their face and on their body is from. Snodgrass described the vibe of the comment section as something more like a forum, its own little community. Rather than interacting with the creator, commenters make conversation among themselves, which is how a single demand to know where the “Rasputin” jeans came from can quickly bubble up to become the primary concern among the rambunctious commenters on a viral TikTok.

Not wanting to disappoint anyone in the comments, Snodgrass ultimately made a third pants video, this time breaking down their exact body measurements and explaining how to size yourself for Carhartt pants from the “little boys’ section.” The people had more demands: “where do you shop for boys clothes,” “how tall are you,” “could you show the ankle area with boots or mocs on,” and “r these the same sizes that r on amazon?”

“I made that whole follow-up video about boys’ pants, and then the Carhartt boys’ pants sold out in the sizes I mentioned when that video ended up going viral, too,” Snodgrass said, summarizing an extremely common trend on TikTok. The incessant demand to know where a creator’s workout leggings are from or what face moisturizer they use has repeatedly led to said stuff selling out—TikTok users don’t just want to know where something is from, they want to have it, in an effort to look or be more like the creator they’re trying to emulate.

According to existing psychology on social development (and anyone who is one or was one), teens—the primary demo on TikTok—stray from their families and begin spending more time with their peers, whether that’s in person or online. Numerous studies have emphasized the importance that friends and peer groups hold in adolescence; it’s prime time for figuring out who you are, what you like, what you dislike, who you want to be. That same drive has pushed teens to emulate things they see online since online began. I remember putting curlers in my hair and taking black-and-white photos on my mom’s Canon PowerShot in middle school, hoping to re-create a Tumblr photoshoot that slid across my feed (my mom found the pictures “cute,” a reaction that absolutely killed my vibe). My friends and I used to spend hours reading proto fashion blogs, bookmarking pages bedecked in Hollister graphic tees, flowy ModCloth dresses, grommet belts, and custom Nike Shox. We would print out full-size pictures of certain outfits and bring them with us to the mall, inspired by The Look for Less, hoping to be just like the breezy women we admired online.

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And before these things could be scrolled through, they existed in magazines. Teen Vogue used to—and still does—list outfit, makeup, and jewelry credits for its fashion shoots, offering up a fleeting feeling that a designer dress might actually be attainable on a weekly allowance. Growing up, we did the same thing with magazines that we did with the fashion blogs: rip out pages and take them withus to the mall or Marshall’s, inching closer to the glamorous lives we were sure we needed.

TikTok has democratized the process. The curtain that once existed between Teen Vogue readers and Jamie Lynn Spears’s skin care routine (something TikTok users would refer to as “gatekeeping,” or the looked-down-upon practice of keeping anything a secret) no longer exists. TikTok users have direct access to creators, and creators, as Snodgrass said, often feel compelled to respond, especially when a comment is liked dozens of times.

Skincare is of particular interest; teens going through puberty are combating acne, adults lurking on the app are constantly trying to figure
out retinol. TikTokkers with nice skin are essentially waving a flag that says, ASK ME ABOUT MY SKIN CARE. Taryn Lamb, a 22-year-old self-described micro-influencer, posted a TikTok in early February in which she’s doing her skin care routine and telling an unrelated story about the time her college sorority nearly dropped her because she posted a picture of herself drinking a mimosa on her 21st birthday. The top comment predictably reads: “ok but could we get a skincare routine.” “Yes coming soon queen,” Lamb replied and posted a follow-up later that same day.

commenter watching the video on their phone

“I get a lot of like, what’s the skin care routine, what’s the lash routine—I use a lash serum—and they’re usually under videos that aren’t related,” Lamb said. “For the skin care routine on the one video, I worked with one of my friends who owns a small business making her own skin care products, mentioned her stuff, and she got all these sales from it. She wanted to give me 10 percent but I said no.”

Most of the comments I’ve witnessed asking for lash routines and pants sizes are from lurkers on the app, or users who seem to have created accounts primarily for consuming content rather than posting it themselves. As a result, they’re virtually unreachable and anonymous, little more than a linked handle with an empty bio.

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Lamb said she likes comments like these because they give her something else to film. She’s been on TikTok since mid-2019—“back when everyone was ashamed to use TikTok, and the only people on the app were like, Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae”—and still feels a little awkward and embarrassed posting videos that she knows her college classmates and friends will inevitably see. The comments function as an invitation to post.

“I love them, I love them,” Lamb said. “Even if the comment doesn’t get a lot of likes. Like, somebody asked for a room tour and it got seven likes, and I was like, That sounds fun! Maybe I’d be embarrassed to do a room tour unprompted, but when someone asks, it’s like, OK, someone wants to know, so I can make a video about it. I’m still struggling with not being ashamed of everything.”

Lamb also said the videos she posts in response to certain comments end up getting loads more views, on average, than a standard post. “If I were to post that video of me doing my skin care routine, it probably would’ve gotten maybe 1,200 views, but because I did it under a video that was doing so well, it got 14,000– 15,000.” Another video she posted in response to a comment on one of her viral TikToks—a simple post talking about a heat protectant she uses on her hair—ended up getting almost 100,000 views.

Both Lamb and Snodgrass said the comments asking for skin care, lash routine, and pants details often come from nonfollowers; people who probably came across their well-performing TikToks on the app’s For You page, which has the power to skyrocket seemingly random posts into virality. The stranger aspect is motivating for Lamb, but Snodgrass has felt the burn of the distance between their posts and the comment section.

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“Somebody recently called me a ‘rookie’ because I had to repurchase a used copy of Just Dance 2—the copy that I owned in 2010 was destroyed by my siblings, which I forgot to mention in the caption,” Snodgrass said. “Now all the comments under that video are like, ‘Oh I’m better than you because I have my original copy.’ I’m now bombarded with comments from people who have a superiority complex because of Just Dance 2.”

Snodgrass also took it hard when a commenter called them out for owning the Levi’s, which ring up around $100. “They don’t know that I’m a low-income person who saves money for months,” Snodgrass said, feeling burned—the Levi’s video exists only because other commenters asked for it. “I did not expect that. I felt really defensive.”

Snodgrass works in social media marketing and cannot wrap their mind around how the TikTok algorithm works—why videos about Carhartt youth pants skyrocket while others of their posts, for example about trans-discriminatory legislation and gender pronouns, flop. “I want to make my life easier as a creator and figure out a strategy, but it’s all chaos,” they said. “I’d have to keep pumping out bizarre, crazy content, or have some niche if I ever wanted to hit a million followers.”

For now, replying to the comments asking increasingly personal questions is an effective way for creators to play the algorithm’s game and assuage the demands of strangers. It’s an endless feedback loop. The teenage appetite for mimicry can’t be satisfied—entire industries exist thanks to this—and Snodgrass, Lamb, and countless other creators on the app remain caught up in the fray.

Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.