This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Imagine being fresh out of secondary school and getting offered a salary to move into a mansion with your best friends. You're no longer stuck in your childhood bedroom, sleeping on a mattress you've clearly outgrown, and your mum isn't nagging you to fix the router so she can do Zumba on Zoom. Now, your biggest concerns are deciding between putting your housemate's iPad into jelly or filling your brand new kitchen with a million Orbeez for a laugh.
This is the reality for six of Britain's biggest TikTokers, who all moved in together on the 23rd of March, four days before the UK announced a nationwide lockdown to slow the lethal spread of COVID-19.
Welcome to ByteHouse, the first "content" house to launch in the UK. Residents include 22-year-old Jake Sweet, who goes by SurfaceLdn; 19-year-old Katie Franklin, 17-year-old Monty Keates, 19-year-old Shauni Kibby, 20-year old Lily Rose and 20-year-old Sebby Wood. The housemates, otherwise known as the ByteSquad, have over 15 million followers between them. The aim of their stay is to produce videos together and grow their following by cross-pollinating audiences – and it’s worked. Since moving in, the housemates have seen an astronomical rise in followers and views across all platforms.
Content houses have been around for a while, originating in California and propagating like wildfire. The first sprung up in 2014 when a group of YouTubers moved into an LA mansion and launched a channel called Our Second Life. Shortly after, a group of Vine creators moved into a large apartment in Hollywood and stayed there until the app discontinued in 2016. Jake Paul formed the infamous Team 10 collective, ex-Vine star David Dobrik founded Vlog Squad, and from 2018 to 2020 we saw the rise and fall of The Clout House. The first TikTok house, The Hype House, arrived in January of 2020, with 16 TikTokers moving into a Spanish-style mansion in LA and immediately descending into chaos (an ex-member dramatically left to start her own content house).
London's ByteHouse follows The Hype House blueprint, but unlike their American counterparts it wasn't founded by the TikTokers themselves. ByteHouse was set up by a Gen-Z marketing agency called FanBytes (a division of the company, ByteSize Talent, manages 42 of the UK's biggest TikTokers, including the ByteSquad), whose focus is on long-term brand development rather than trying to make big stars even bigger. "If the foundation of the whole environment is just based on numbers, the only thing people are going to focus on are the numbers," Timothy Armoo, the 25-year-old founder and CEO of FanBytes, explains.
Before moving into the house, all six members of ByteSquad were living at home and working on their social media careers, with Monty finishing off Year 13 in lockdown and Jake studying Business Management at Nottingham University before dropping out to pursue a TikTok career. Most of the housemates have never lived in London before and only knew each other from events like VidCon and various other meet-ups. According to Timothy, the ByteHouse housemate selection process was based on how well everyone would gel with one another.
Four of the six housemates are currently in couples, and the other two housemates are best friends who used to date. "It's kind of like Love Island," says Katie. "I feel like we all do our own thing whenever anyone wants chill time. Monty and Seb will be together, Shauny and Jake will be together. Even me and Lily hang out together alone."
The TikTokers often have movie nights and play games, one of which is chasing each other around the house while wearing Momo masks. They also take turns cooking meals, with prawn stir-fry being a favourite. The house itself may not be as luxurious as some of the LA villas, but London rent prices can only allow so much. Initially they were put in a south London period property, before making the decision to move into an even bigger place in central London. The modern four-storey home has four bedrooms, four bathrooms, an open plan kitchen/living area, a pool room and a roof terrace.
Between frequent texts and calls keeping in touch with their families, the housemates spend most of their days making video content, vlogging and hosting live-streams to hit weekly social media targets set by FanBytes. With a boot camp-like regiment, they get up early and start filming from around 10AM to 7:30PM, only stopping for lunch.
"We have a chalkboard in our kitchen with a massive schedule on it, and we know exactly what we’re doing pretty much every single day," says Jake. ByteHouse also has a live-in manager named Lucy, who does the food shops and helps the housemates schedule their days effectively.
"We sit down every Friday and we all talk about what we want to hit, but it's definitely enforced by Lucy, to make sure we get it," Katie explains. "There are days when we’ll talk about how we want to get 300k or 200k next week, so we want to push more and make more content. But we all want that anyway – it's just something we've all put our energy into getting, so when we do hit those milestones it's great and a reward for all of us."
The housemates sometimes work on weekends, although they’re not expected to. "I like to put in an extra shift," says Jake. "A lot of the other guys do too, and we do videos for ourselves. The thing about social media is you’ve got to keep consistency up."
"Until I’m sleeping, I’m not going to stop filming content – I just enjoy it," Katie laughs.
Still, six 17 to 22-year-olds living together and creating viral content for an audience larger than Love Island and Big Brother at their peaks combined sounds like a lot of pressure. When I ask Timothy what kind of precautions FanBytes is taking when it comes to mental health and wellbeing, he says that's part of Lucy’s role. "She’s there to help with content, but really she’s there like the agony aunt of the house," he explains. "We do have the precautions and checks. If they need to speak to someone, we're able to facilitate that. Since we’ve started, there haven’t been any problems at all."
Katie agrees, and says she feels supported. "With Lucy here, we can always talk to someone within our management. So if we ever have a stressful day – which, to be honest, isn’t that much because we’re all friends – we could talk to her. If we do need anything, a day where we want to take time out, we can."
Plans to open ByteHouse were in motion long before COVID-19 hit the UK, but when talk of a lockdown began Timothy had a serious conversation with the group to make sure they still wanted to be involved. "They were like, 'We’re even more excited about it because we see that there’s a lot of younger people at home – we can almost be a thing they look forward to every day,'" he says. It's unclear whether the collective’s rise in followers and views is down to the house or because their audience is bored and hungry for content, but the pandemic has become a big motivational point for the collective either way. They’re currently partnered up with Rise Above, a project developed by Public Health England, to help promote positive mental health messages during the lockdown to a mainly teenage audience.
"Obviously there’s going to be a lot of questions raised because everyone thinks it’s not fair that they’re isolating and we’re together," says Jake. "We moved in before the lockdown happened so that we could target [the pandemic]. We've been doing a lot of work, helping to bring awareness to stay inside and following all the guidelines for coronavirus. It was definitely the right decision."
The original plan was to trial ByteHouse for three months, but its popularity has led Timothy to believe it'll be here to stay for the foreseeable future. There’s even talk of a reality TV show. "We already have a few music labels who want to get their bands and artists to come and visit the house," he says. "There’s no reason why, as the concept of the house gets bigger and stronger, we won’t have other people join as guests."
Combining elements of viral fame, reality TV stardom and hosting, the TikTok house model could become a new breeding ground for British talent, like a BRIT School for the Gen Z Ant & Dec. With so many other British TikTok stars witnessing ByteHouse's rapid rise to fame, it’s only a matter of time before more content houses start popping up to compete.