Anika is a 20-year-old college sophomore whose most popular TikTok is… about TikTok. More specifically, it features her furiously “calculating” the number of TikTok views she’d need to pay off her student loan debt—she expects to accrue $80,000 of it by the time she finishes college. When she arrives at the number, using pen, paper, an equation she made up, and a graphing calculator, Anika turns to the camera, blue eyes wide in mock surprise at the figure: 24 million! Can the viewers at home make it happen?
Hypothetically speaking, yes: Because Anika is a member of TikTok’s Creator Fund, a program launched by the app in July 2020. The 200 million dollar fund is to be split among approved applicants who meet certain restrictions including a minimum of 10,000 followers. Anika told VICE that while the TikTok itself was a joke, when she first applied to be a Creator, she thought there was a chance the program could help her make a dent in her debt.
But in reality, not so much. With over six million views and more than a million likes, she said the video made her somewhere in the ballpark of $70, and that overall she’s made a little more than $200 over the course of five months. “I bought Christmas presents with the money this year,” Anika told VICE. “It’s not a lot. I think I make like… two cents a day, on average.”
Anika’s “formula” for converting TikTok views into cash was just a joke—but her expectations weren’t. TikTok never made specific promises about the money it’s possible to earn through the Creator Fund, and the way it calculates payouts seems to be just opaque enough to spark rumors of big money on the line. Those rumors have been enough to tempt users into taking a crack at going viral in search of funds, fast. This mismatch between expectations and the reality of what the Creator Fund can do to change the financial situation for its users has led to a series of videos where users ask each other for likes, comments, and interactions—and nothing else!—in order to crowdfund.
Some of these videos directly namecheck the Creator Fund, which others simply mention a pressing need—veterinary bills, medical debt, looming rent payments, housing instability—and request that viewers “help” by watching and interacting.
None of the TikTok users VICE spoke to, however, reported making anything close to what would be required to pay off these kinds of major expenses. “People were always posting about the TikTok Creator Fund,” Savannah said. “Like, ‘If you like this video, blah blah times, I can afford to get my pet surgery,’ random stuff like that. Plus, people commenting on other people's videos, like, ‘Interacting, interacting!’ That made me think, oh, maybe this does work. But then I found out there's a ton of hoops to jump through, so that’s not really beneficial or realistic.”
Danielle (a minor whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity) first turned to TikTok for emotional support, after receiving disapproval from friends and family when she became pregnant at age 16. Now a 17-year-old mother of a newborn, she told VICE the Creator Fund has provided her with a steady stream of assistance with her bills, and estimated that she has made around $1200 over the past five months, while regularly receiving tens and occasionally hundreds of thousands of views per post (her biggest video mentioning the Creator Fund received 500,000 views). The money has been especially crucial while she’s on unpaid maternity leave from her job at a sandwich chain. “It’s a lot, but it isn’t a lot at the same time,” Danielle said. “But obviously it has helped me so much.”
Towards the end of December, however, Danielle said she was able to monetize her TikTok following in a more indirect—but more lucrative—way. “Around Christmas, I made a post because I was super nervous about paying rent and paying my bills on time because I was on unpaid maternity leave,” Danielle said. “My followers stepped up to that, and in total they sent me about $1400 [via PayPal and Venmo].”
Savannah, a 21-year-old who wanted to help her sister out of medical bankruptcy, found the same to be true—crowdfunding from the TikTok community, rather than getting paid out from the app, was what worked for her. Savannah’s younger sister, Piper, was in a car accident that radically changed her mobility and landed her with serious medical bills that put her at risk for declaring bankruptcy at just 19 years old. When the GoFundMe for Piper failed to gain traction, Savannah decided to turn to TikTok to drum up funds. After a few failed attempts at virality, she came up with the magic formula.
“I was seriously just thinking and thinking and thinking, like how can I make this work?” she told VICE. “Finally I was like, all right, I think I'm gonna take a video with my sister. I think if she is in the video, people realize that this is something that really happens and they can see the effects of what happened to her. And then also, I'm gonna appeal to what works on TikTok and shake my butt. And that I think that combo was just killer.”
Savannah said she’s grateful that the video blew up, but that she wasn’t expecting the aftermath. “I was thinking I was gonna make more money just being a ‘TikTok Creator,’” Savannah said. “I was like, oh, it would be awesome if people would also go to this GoFundMe and donate, or even just share it, because all the money and stuff aside, I don't think that there's anything more powerful than positive thoughts and prayers, and just people thinking about her and sending their good energy to her to help heal her.”
Instead, she thinks she’s made around $200, mostly from her first video featuring Piper, which has garnered more than seven million views and around 1.7 million likes since January 6. Thanks to GoFundMe support and direct donations, however, she said she estimates the video has helped her raise around $6000.
None of the creators VICE spoke to had a firm understanding on how views, likes, and interactions translated into the money they receive for their content. When asked for comment, a spokesperson for TikTok pointed VICE to a company update from September 2020, which stated that payouts are calculated based on “video views, video engagement, authenticity of a view, region in which your video is viewed, total participants in the program, as well as adherence to the Community Guidelines and Terms of Service,” though there was no elaboration on how much these factors are weighted. TikTok declined to comment on the specific earnings that Anika, Danielle, and Savannah shared with VICE.
Notably, the creators did not and have not reported trouble accessing their earnings, which can only be withdrawn on a monthly basis into either a linked PayPal account or a bank account. The only real issue, they told VICE, was the gulf between their payouts and the expectations they’d formed based on seeing other people shill for TikTok engagement hoping to strike it rich; the Creator Fund’s sheer existence has created an echo chamber around its viability that is completely detached from the eventual, pretty paltry results.
Participating in the Creator Fund in a way that truly pays means spending serious time on the app for that reason alone—Danielle said she spends at least an hour a day on TikTok, filming and scheduling content, responding to comments on her posts, forming relationships with other users in here sphere and browsing for inspiration. “It was a lot easier when I was pregnant, because I didn’t have a baby to care for at that point,” she said (her daughter was born seven weeks ago). “Now, with a busier schedule and a newborn, it’s a bit harder, but I’m trying to motivate myself to keep up with it because I know the outcome will be good.”
Anika, who is less reliant on the app as a consistent income stream, said she doesn’t regret becoming a creator, because in her eyes, she feels happy to get paid for something she’d do for free. “When I made the $70 over two days with my biggest TikTok, I remember talking to my parents, like, ‘Oh my god, I literally just made $70 for making a video that took me three minutes to make,’” she said. “I wish it could be more, but I'm not going to complain. I made a video and I'm getting paid for it—so I’m not gonna be picky on how much I really make.”
Considering the fact that Snapchat recently unveiled a similar program, Snapchat Spotlight, in November, content creators might not maintain that kind of attitude of gratitude for long. The New York Times reported in mid-January that creators who uploaded videos to Spotlight have already earned tens of thousands, even millions of dollars for viral content—sums that users with the Creator Fund say they now believe would only be attainable for the platform’s most popular figures, like Charli D’Amelio or Addison Rae.
Some TikTok users have already shared financial concerns, and publicly “quit” the Creator Fund over the opaqueness of its operation, as Wired reported in September 2020. But for every influencer who opts out for greener pastures, it seems like another young person whose future has already been foreclosed on will be eager to take their place. This willingness to post for literal pennies is a window into how expensive the future already is for members of Gen Z—saddled with debt, cobbling together any possible side hustle to get out from under it.
That’s not TikTok’s fault, but also clearly not its problem. It’s found a way to play Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and replicate the five golden tickets scattered among millions of Wonka Bars, an incentive that keeps people churning on its platform hoping to strike it rich. Anything for a chance, no matter how miniscule, at a win that will change their lives forever.
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