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Illustration by Hunter French

The Promise—and Risk—of a Career in TikTok

For many young people, being a paid content creator on social media is the dream job. But it's not as easy as it may look.
May 4, 2020, 10:00am

This story is part of the VICE guide to 2030. Reach more here.

Keondra is 20 years old, lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and until the coronavirus pandemic hit, worked as a cashier at the Midwestern hardware chain Menards. She also has more than 770,000 followers on TikTok as @Keondra.K.

In the fall of 2018, after graduating from high school, Keondra downloaded TikTok on her iPhone and started filming short videos of herself dancing, lip-syncing, and cosplaying alone in her bedroom, which is covered in posters, one of the Japanese woodblock print The Wave and others of the K-pop band BTS.

For months, her videos received little attention. Then one day, Keondra uploaded a video of herself dancing in a short black wig. When she woke up the next morning, the video had gone viral. Fans said she looked just like Edna Mode—the fashion designer from The Incredibles. Eventually, other videos of hers began appearing on TikTok’s “for you” page, sending them viral too. On some, she has received more than 600,000 likes and more than a million views. And that’s not just on the videos of her dancing (although those often receive the most views), but also on instructional videos about makeup and hair and photo editing, and rants about her favorite anime characters and racism in America.

Soon, teenagers started approaching Keondra at the mall, on the Twin Cities metro, and on the streets of her own neighborhood. Friends of her mother, who works at a prison in the area and doesn’t know much about her daughter’s online presence, would say, “You know your daughter’s kind of famous?” One time, three young children called her out by name at the hardware store where she used to work. Gifts from cosplay brands began arriving on her front doorstep along with requests to promote them in her videos.

Basically overnight, Keondra had become a TikTok celebrity. “People tell me I’ve gotten them into cosplay and makeup,” she said. “Other people only follow me for my rants.” Eventually, her following spilled over to Instagram and Twitter. She would have liked to start a YouTube channel as well, she said, but can’t afford a computer or filming equipment.

"At some point, I’d like to make videos and be paid for it.”

Despite her success on TikTok, Keondra has earned almost no money through her content. She’s spent countless hours planning, filming, preparing costumes, and doing her makeup and hair for her videos. But with the exception of a few donations that she’s received from fans while doing TikTok live streams, and the few product promo gifts she’s received from brands, she’s had to pay for her cosplay costumes, makeup, and dozens of wigs out of her paycheck from the hardware store, where she earned $12 an hour. In fact, she said she viewed her job primarily as a way to fund her TikTok videos. (She lives at home with her mom, who covers her rent.)

“I feel like I’m brokest when I have to pay my phone bill,” she said. “Obviously, there are days when I don’t want to go to work and check people out at the store. At some point, I’d like to make videos and be paid for it.”

To a Boomer, or even a Millennial, Keondra’s goal of making money off TikTok might seem unrealistic. But to someone younger, it likely makes a lot more sense. Large followings on Instagram and TikTok have increasingly become a requisite for cultural, economic, and even political capital. There’s loads of money to be made: Over the last few years, the influencer marketing industry has exploded from $1.7 billion in 2016 to $6.6 billion in 2019—with some influencers earning up to $200,000 per post. For businesses, the incentive is there too; they can earn up to $18 in media value for every dollar spent on influencer marketing.

In recent years, brands have begun to shift their focus from mega influencers (those with more than a million followers), to “micro-influencers” with less than 100,000 followers, who cost a lot less and tend to specialize in a particular subject. In other words, it’s become a lot easier—and accordingly, much more common—to become a paid influencer, but you likely won’t be making big bucks doing it.

While it’s difficult to quantify how many young people earn an income as influencers, the appeal of doing it is certainly growing. When VidCon, a convention for content creators held annually in Southern California, launched in 2010, roughly 1,400 social media influencers and fans attended. Last year, that number had ballooned to 75,000. According to a 2019 Morning Consult poll, 54 percent of Americans between the ages of 13 to 38 would be influencers given the opportunity, and 86 percent want to be paid to post sponsored content.

Academics say that this could be part of a larger shift around what success looks like to young people.

Academics say that this could be part of a larger shift around what success looks like to young people. Since the 2008 recession, wages have remained stagnant—while social media platforms and gig economy jobs on apps like Uber and DoorDash, which tout flexibility and often provide no benefits and little job security, have flourished. In fact, the Workforce Institute by Kronos found in a 2019 poll that roughly a third of Gen Z would never tolerate an employer who told them when to work or who gave them no control over their work schedule.

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley’s worship of the individualist entrepreneur has spilled over into mainstream work culture. When VICE surveyed a group of its Gen Z readers in 2019, the majority of respondents said that self-expression and creativity was of utmost importance for leading a healthy and happy life. That survey also found that significantly more of the Gen Z respondents, compared to older respondents, felt that creativity would be necessary to career success in the coming decade. And roughly half of the Gen Z respondents predicted that in a decade, one’s job will become increasingly important for expressing one’s personal identity.

“The rise of creative careers and fetishization surrounding those careers has intensified because of social media for technological reasons and economic ones,” said Brooke Erin Duffy, a digital media expert at Cornell University and the author of (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work. “With the rise of internet culture and Silicon Valley, we were surrounded by the stories of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, who built tech out of their parents’ basements. During the economic downturn of the late aughts, as Silicon Valley gained prominence, a lot of the euphoria surrounding traditional careers with benefits was supplanted by a ‘bootstraps’ ethos, a celebration of working all the time, and the ability to be your own boss.”

Yet, despite the influencer pool expanding, there’s still a significant disconnect between the dream and reality of making a living on social media or many aspiring influencers. The catch is that few influencers actually earn enough to live on, and the likelihood of someone like Keondra earning a sustainable income is extremely low. And while influencers might not have a real-life boss, most people who rely on social media platforms for sharing their work find themselves at the whims of an algorithm that determines who and how many people see it, and whether content can remain on the platform. Late last year, TikTok even admitted that its algorithm suppresses the content of queer, disabled, and fat creators.

“Because of the myth of democratization of social media, people aren’t as aware of how deeply unequal it is."

“There’s so much popular attention to those who have made it and succeeded, but that conceals attention to the workforce that is trying to make it,” said Duffy. “Because of the myth of democratization of social media, people aren’t as aware of how deeply unequal it is. Long standing hierarchies persist. There are age, gender, and race disparities.”

Just as the coronavirus pandemic has brought to the fore how badly gig workers need basic labor rights like healthcare and paid time off, it has also proven how unreliable the work of influencers has always been. In recent weeks, brands have dropped sponsored content, ended payment for links, and cancelled the production and delivery of sponsored goods, leaving the influencers who are lucky enough to get paid to sponsor content without any income.

“The truth is that both traditional legacy media and social media careers are extremely difficult,” said David Craig, a digital media expert and professor of communications at the University of Southern California. “With social media, we’ve reverted back to the traditional roles people had in creative industries before the internet. There’s still tremendous precarity and pressure, complications and upheaval on these platforms, and constant pressure to adapt to new strategies and rethink your creative output. It’s relentless.”

Last year, after a $3 billion infusion of cash from SoftBank, TikTok was valued at $75 billion, the highest of any startup in the world. But unlike other social media apps, such as Instagram and YouTube, TikTok hasn’t developed a profit model for its influencers.

“Influencers are producing free content for a commercial platform that is making money off them. The platform is extracting the value of their labor,” said Alice Marwick, a professor of communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “As someone putting out content, you might get lots of validation and positive feelings out of it, but that’s true of any work, and people should be compensated for it. There’s an idea that creative labor should be fueled by passion, but in the end, we all need to pay rent and eat.”

"Living in [New York City] and being broke in the projects is the hardest thing ever, so I would like it if TikTok actually paid me or sponsored me.”

Chelsea, a 20-year-old aspiring comedian and singer on TikTok with more than 328,000 fans on the app under the handle @nymphetteamine, said that at first, it didn’t bother her that she didn’t make money off her videos. “At the end of the day, I don’t think I’m some Kim Kardashian that deserves money, but it would be completely wrong of me to lie and say money wouldn’t be great, because of course it is. Living in [New York City] and being broke in the projects is the hardest thing ever, so I would like it if TikTok actually paid me or sponsored me.”

When we spoke in October, Chelsea was working at a hardware store in Harlem, where she lives, and said that with the long hours at work, she wasn’t able to post on TikTok as often as she’d have liked. “I used to post on TikTok all the time, but I’m a perfectionist and it’s really hard to put time in. I’m always tired when I get home from work and I have to do laundry and shit, but I find time. Most of my recent videos were filmed in a bathroom at work.”

In the spring of 2019, when Chelsea posted a video that went viral of her playing the relatively obscure phone game Scream Go Hero and cracking jokes, it turned into a trend: Other creators started posting similar videos of themselves playing the game. “My video would be trending and people would say, ‘you’re the reason I downloaded this game. They should sponsor you.’ That’s when I’d be kind of upset.”

Duffy calls this kind of unpaid promotion “aspirational labor.” “It’s time and energy and money people invest in a [creative] career where people promise to get paid to do what they love,” she said. “In the meantime, they are required to engage in invisible labor, and often promoting branded goods on a platform.”

As a solution to this problem, some scholars have envisioned worker-owned models for social media platforms, where social media giants like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube would allow influencers to be able to live off the labor they put into the platforms. One of them is Trebor Schulz, a professor at the New School, known for developing the idea of the platform cooperative model for the digital economy. But even Schulz himself says his vision probably will never come to fruition. “That’s very unlikely to happen. That’s the very business model of what these platforms run on,” Shulz said.

“It’s comforting to know that people follow and keep up with my posts.”

Beyond the scarcity of opportunities to make money on TikTok, the app has given Keondra trouble in other ways. She has been banned multiple times without explanation; creators with more fans have stolen Keondra’s content and claimed it as their own; she’s been harassed and trolled for speaking out about Black face and her opinions about the K-pop boy band BTS; and sometimes, fans tell her she’s too sensitive about racism and insult her appearance.

Yet, Keondra remains on the app because she loves seeing her videos resonate with her followers. “I like when something I’ve done becomes a trend, and other people start copying it,” she said. “It’s comforting to know that people follow and keep up with my posts.”

For Keondra, at least, her investment in TikTok is slowly starting to pay off. And despite the coronavirus pandemic, she’s making more income than she ever has before. In March, she got a new job as a janitor at a homeless shelter in St. Paul for adults with COVID-19 symptoms that pays her $17.60 an hour—a $5 raise over her previous job at the hardware store. And she’s recently started doing sponsored posts for a Zero Gravity iPhone case. Within the first 24 hours of posting about the case, she had earned around $160. (That’s $5 for each time one of her viewers purchased a Zero Gravity iPhone case and used the discount code KEONDRAK.)

“This job could last six months, or shorter, but I’m not too worried about it ending, since most everyone is laid off right now,” Keondra said. “I like that this job doesn’t limit what I can do. I can post whenever I’m not busy.”

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