A First-Timer's Guide to the World is our bid to make life in quarantine a little less monotonous. Every month, VICE Asia Editor Therese Reyes tries random challenges for the sake of content. Say what you want about TikTok, but it’s hard to deny that it’s the second most viral thing to come out of 2020. And with it comes a slew of viral challenges — like pretending to faint and dancing “The Renegade” — that can turn mere high schoolers into influencers. Something I know nothing about, but not for a lack of trying.
I might as well come clean. In my past life as a bored millennial teenager and twenty-something, I dreamed of becoming an influencer. I imagined people stumbling across my Tumblr (Or Xanga, LiveJournal, Blogspot) late at night, commenting that I was the best writer that they’d ever read. Back when OOTDs ruled the internet, I started a Lookbook.nu account even though I didn’t actually like dressing up every day. Then came YouTube, and with it the promise of getting famous just by sitting in my room talking about my “August Favorites.” To this day, I have a piggy bank with cash I saved so that I could one day quit my job and go to vlogger mecca VidCon.Obviously, my plans for internet stardom never panned out, as I currently don’t rake in hundreds of dollars per Instagram #sponcon. I don’t know exactly why I didn’t make it but all these years later, I’ve narrowed it down to two factors: consistency and personality. When I started, I just wasn’t committed enough to post regularly. I only wrote on my blogs when I felt like it and whenever I found my groove with YouTube videos, it would inevitably stop because of school, work, or a Mad Men marathon. What was harder to accept was that I just wasn’t very interesting, or at least my content wasn’t. I didn’t have a personality, aside from mimicking influencers I loved. So I have since taken down my makeup tutorial videos and buried memories of failed blogs deep in my brain. That was until my now-job as a writer-editor challenged me to do the impossible — to go viral on TikTok.
The challenge: Get 200,000 views, 2,000 likes, and 200 followers in just two weeks. Like many, I made a TikTok account early in the pandemic but had never posted a video. Before October, all I had in my drafts was an embarrassing attempt to look like Jessica Alba while dancing the #SavageChallenge. I hadn’t even changed my username and was simply known as @user05587625, with two followers who were likely just on a follow spree for their own internet fame.
I can’t dance. I don’t think I’m particularly funny, and I can’t make my dog jump over a stack of toilet paper. And yet I thought, how hard can it be?
I went in confident. After all, I had access to an in-house expert. My 22-year-old sister; my Gen Z whisperer, who gave me a crash course on The TikTok. She taught me how to use a ring light, find songs, and edit in-app. And then came the most crucial tip: the less you look like you’re trying, the better. For an over-planner like me, that was the real challenge. “You have to legit drop any cool and go all out,” my coworker told me, confirming that the TikTok life does not have room for my neurosis.
There were more practical tips too, like using trending songs. That means participating in dance challenges, but using them as background music for other videos work too. There are also trending filters and hashtags that help land you on other people’s feeds (aka For You page), like #foryoupage, #fyp, and all its other derivatives. Employing these strategies — people believe — can get you more views. Of course, no one actually knows for sure because TikTok’s algorithm is notoriously hard to understand. While the app has revealed clues about how recommendations are determined, it all still feels very random. You can still literally get famous for inventing pancake cereal but also for sharing SAT tips.
Armed with some advice and about an hour's worth of googling “How to go viral on TikTok,” I decided to throw everything against the wall and see what would stick. I’d do a dance, a viral challenge, some home hacks, and everything in between. Starting on a Saturday morning, I dove right into a weekend of filming.
My first attempt at TikToking was … interesting. I had set out to film 14 videos in the course of one day. I woke up bright and early, ready to get famous. Then ended up with a whopping two videos. Turns out making it look easy does not mean it is. Everything I thought of doing felt corny. Do people really need another mediocre nobody dancing “Savage Love?” I didn’t think so. So I went the self-aware route. Before filming, my sister said that the denim shorts and white shirt I was wearing just wasn’t ‘Tik-Tok enough.’ With my TikTok hat on, I thought: this could be a video. Some editing magic later, I changed into a crop top and joggers in 15 seconds. That didn’t get me many followers but it was viewed 972 times in two days. Exciting. I spent the rest of my Saturday morning lying in bed swiping up an endless feed of videos (I was hooked) and trying to get some ideas for Operation: Go Viral.
The ring light is a must. My sister got this online for $14 one night in quarantine and I thought, when will you ever need that? That day finally came for me. And it was so helpful.
I would switch the LED light from yellow to fluorescent and it changed the entire vibe of the video. It has an attachment in the middle that can hold phones so I practically filmed everything by myself. Ours was a cheap version that would bend down until the camera only captured our floor but it did the job. I sound like an old lady discovering this for the first time but really, two thumbs up. One popular challenge has people dressing up as characters from TV shows. Seeing as I now spend practically all my free time watching Korean dramas, I thought, why not? I had the hair for it too, having cut my bangs with kitchen scissors one drunken night three weeks before. I was Kim Bok-joo from Weightlifting Fairy, Choi Ae-ra from Fight for My Way, Yoon Se-ri from Crash Landing on You, and Sung Deok-sun from my favorite Reply 1988. I got my first comment on that video, someone suggesting another character for me to do, and so I promised a part deux. Is this what it feels like being an influencer?
It was raining in Manila the next day, so I tried my hand at food TikToks and prepared a bowl of champorado, Filipino chocolate rice usually served with dried fish. Good, weird, and divisive. Exactly what I needed to make a splash. It got four comments and 36 likes overnight. The morning after the first weekend, I had three posts, 2,509 views, 61 likes, and seven followers. Not bad. The rest of the week wasn’t as easy.
I learned a lot, mostly from failing. Like don’t start with a static image and don’t rely on your looks ever, unless you’re Hailey Bieber. In an attempt to capture a moment, I posted a “sweater weather” video in which I sat on my chair and magically changed through a succession of different sweaters. I tried to save my mediocre filming by going overboard with the effects. Rain! Transitions! Kawaii filter! And started the video with a screenshot of the weather forecast. It didn’t work and only got 26 views overnight. I knew I had to step up my game but big productions had to wait until Saturday. Instead, I filled the week with what I thought were surefire hits, like my first real attempt at a choreographed dance video. Blackpink’s Ice Cream Challenge is mostly just hand movements and looking cute but memorizing it took forever. I knew the steps but was two beats late every time I hit record and danced. The video still only has 50 views and five likes. I also tried learning the “Tap In” dance after watching the TikTok queen herself, Charli D'Amelio. Again waking up bright and early on a work day, I set up my tripod in the part of my house with the best lighting, channeling all the swag I had left from clubbing before the quarantine started.
My mind was telling me yes, but my body: my body was telling me nope, not happening.
But the attempt quickly became a rude awakening — or confirmation — of my lack of coordination.
I was unmotivated and ready to give up. Then I remembered one of the tips I got when this all started: ride on viral trends. One of the most popular at the time was the Scanner Challenge, which saw people getting creative with a filter that could freeze time, dislocate joints, and make glasses float mid-air. My video had me ‘watching’ BTS to the song “Dynamite” — another thing I’ve been doing on repeat — with one eye steady and the other moving. A viral challenge-viral song combo got me 11 likes and 592 views overnight. By the time the second weekend rolled around, I had a longer list of viral challenges to try. I went outside for the fourth time since quarantine to buy some strawberries for the “washing strawberries” challenge. TikTokers claim that washing strawberries in salt and water will release tiny bugs in the fruits but I’m telling you, it did not work. There were no worms in there, and I tried very hard to look. The garlic peeling hack — wherein you cut across a bulb and the cloves pop off — was also a bust. I got over 100 views for the strawberries video but the garlic one only has three to this day. I eventually got over my initial trauma from learning to dance and tried again. My coach came in the form of a TikTok account that breaks down steps with emojis. Following an afternoon of practicing, I managed to record a decent performance of “What You Know Bout Love.” It still only has 87 views but the sense of accomplishment was immeasurable.
With just a few days left, I knew I wasn’t going to get the 200,000 views I wanted. I felt silly thinking I could post a video and wake up the next day with thousands of followers — life is not Emily in Paris — but I also felt strangely proud of my achievements. By far my favorite video from the whole experience involved me trying to drink coffee with a mask and face shield on.I didn’t plan it at all and it was inspired by true events. It was personal, creative, and timely. It felt good to post and, honestly, I was ready to throw in the towel for that. Not even as a sign of surrender, but because I had got what I wanted out of the challenge. Not my old dream of becoming an influencer, but of disrupting my ho-hum life indoors. I had forced myself to do something else other than work and veg out and got a 26-second original skit out of it. Woot! Call me Ali Wong. I tried to bump up my numbers with a “Savage Love” video and another Scanner Challenge as a Hail Mary pass, but that didn’t do much, and it didn’t matter. After 13 posts, here’s where I stand now: 3,847 views, 92 likes, and nine followers.
If I were to guess, my strategy of trying anything and everything probably wasn’t the best. People get famous on TikTok for one thing, usually something very specific. Like recreating Starbucks drinks and giving financial advice. If I had a few more weeks, I would pick a niche and just go all out. Checking back with my sister confirmed this theory. “Probably because you just followed trends in a non-controversial or shocking way,” she said about my failed attempt. “Also, I think apart from frequency, there’s also a sense of ‘community’ in TikTok … [there’s] Christian TikTok, food TikTok … [you] were kinda all over the place.” You can always count on your siblings to throw you shade. Would I ever TikTok again? Sure. Probably not as often, but I do like the sense of release and escape I get out of it. Unlike Facebook or Instagram, posting on TikTok feels like screaming into the void. You have no idea who will see your videos and, for the most part, you don’t know any of the people on your main feed. For an app so popular, it surprisingly gives you a sense of anonymity so powerful, you wouldn’t mind acting foolish. Of course, only until you become an overnight viral sensation. Think I can handle more? Challenge me at firstname.lastname@example.org.