Last year, when a young girl spotted Holly H out in public with her family, she was so overwhelmed that she fainted. "She completely passed out... I just did not know what to do," says Holly, a 22-year-old social media star from West Sussex. This is not an especially unusual experience for the online influencer, who is sometimes unable to "make it to one side of the street from the other" when meeting fans.
Yet, not only have you probably never heard of Holly, you might not have even heard of the platform that made her famous. Holly H has 14.7 million fans on TikTok, where her posts have been liked over 285 million times.
On paper, TikTok is a short-form video app where creators film sketches, lip-syncing videos and #challenges that range from 15 seconds to a minute long. Yet, onscreen, TikTok is like nothing else on the internet. Beloved by Generation Z, TikTok clips are neither as polished as YouTube videos nor as thought-out as the six-second shots shared on its predecessor Vine. Creators perform dance routines, pull faces and dress up in costumes, but while TikTok videos are weirder than anything you generally see in real life, they rarely reach the true performative heights of "internet weird". Put simply: TikTok is every embarrassing thing you do alone in your bedroom, but broadcast for the whole world to see.
"I don't plan them. I know that sounds bad, but I make content that just comes to my mind," says Holly, whose recent videos feature her miming along to Billie Eilish's "Bad Guy", playing a frying pan like a guitar and lip-syncing a scene from Nickelodeon's Victorious (#ad). "If I'm in the mood to make something ridiculous, I'll just make it as and when."
TikTok is a baby in the social media world – it only launched in Europe nine months ago, when the two-year-old Chinese platform merged with musical.ly, a lip-syncing app popular with children. "We believe short-form videos are an effective format to lower the barrier for creation," says a TikTok spokeperson, who explains that the in-app editing tools (including filters and augmented-reality effects) mean "creators can focus on being creative with their content".
TikTok's most frequently used editing tool is, of course, the option to "Add a sound" – users search through songs and video clips so they can mime along. Yet who exactly wants to watch lip-syncing videos all day – and why? How do people become famous for lip-syncing, and what is this kind of fame like in practice?
"TikTok is in the moment; let's do something fun and silly," explains Holly H when asked how the app differs from YouTube or Vine (where she originally found fame before the platform was shut by Twitter in 2016). "YouTube is more of a thought-out thing, whereas TikTok is more fun and quick."
Being "fun and silly" isn’t just a hobby for Holly – she now makes a living as a social media star, and is managed by her mum. Yet, unlike other video apps, TikTok has no real in-house monetisation system where creators can earn cash via pre-roll advertisements or the number of views their content generates. "At this moment we are focusing on creating the best possible experience for our users," says the TikTok spokesperson, when asked why the development of these tools isn’t currently a priority.
However, like anyone with millions of followers online, TikTok’s A-list can make money by advertising to their audience. As well as the Nickelodeon advert, Holly H has recently created an ad for the children's movie How to Train Your Dragon 3. London’s first TikTok-only influencer agency, Influentially, opened last year to cater for the rising demand from brands.
"I think the straight down 'call to action' advertising is very saturated now; you've got to give something more unique," says Nico Cary, the COO of Influentially. "Younger audiences are very aware when they’re being sold to, so the key with our talent is they come up with very cool ideas." In an advert for Chupa Chups organised via Influentially, 21-year-old Sussex-based TikTok star and artist Vicky Banham (1.3 million followers) paints a lollipop on a woman’s back.
The majority of TikTok users are young – Rhia Official, another of Influentially’s stars, has 2.2 million followers, and says most of her viewers are aged between eight and 14. Although TikTok banned under-13s in America from the app in February (the company was found to have violated America’s Children's Online Privacy Protection App), the policy isn't as stringently enforced in the UK, where many young children still use the platform. Is it even ethical to advertise lollipops to kids?
"We've rejected a lot of brand deals from emerging brands who want us to push detox teas and stuff – we have no time for that," says Cary, when asked about the responsibility of dealing with young audiences. Rhia – who is 23 and lives in South Wales – keeps her content extremely PG and is careful with TikTok's "Virtual Items" system, via which young people can give money to a select few verified creators when they do live-streams.
"It’s awkward sometimes, because you always worry that they haven’t asked their parents," Rhia says. "At least with brand deals, you’re making the video, you’re doing a great job for them and the money feels more earned that way, rather than just worrying that people are sending it to you without permission." Banham is also cautious. "Sometimes a livestream makes £0, sometimes it makes £500," she says. "I never really asked for it because I didn’t feel comfortable asking for people’s money, but when I did get it, I screamed."
Banham says she earns roughly £1,000 per sponsored post, while Cary is quick to note that Influentially's influencers are not making Kim Kardashian or even Zoella money. "We have to be realistic, otherwise there’s too many illusions. Some of the deals we do are £100, £200 a post," he says. "We take 30 percent of that. Making £30 here and there is not keeping a business alive, but we’re in it because we see a longevity in it."
While Holly H makes her income solely from social media, Influentially’s stars often have other jobs. Banham does freelance social media work for a tutoring company, while Rhia works retail at the weekends and is a supply teaching assistant during the week. "Every single school I go in, the kids walk past me and do a double take. And then they start screaming," she says.
Because TikTok isn't yet extremely lucrative for UK stars (Rhia and Holly H both live with their parents) there is still an undeniable early-internet sense of authenticity on the app. The low profit margins, combined with TikTokers' genuine love of (as The Atlantic's Taylor Lorenz puts it) "posting strange content to the internet with zero self-awareness or shame", means TikTok is an unusual online space. There might not be much money – but, right now, there is very little artifice as a result.
It's easy to mock TikTok – and people frequently do. There’s an entire subreddit (with 36,000 subscribers) dedicated to watching cringy TikTok videos, while cringe compilations often go viral on YouTube. TikTok can certainly be a uniquely mortifying space – the combination of creators staring directly into the camera while miming or performing a dance routine can easily unnerve.
Holly H doesn't mind too much when people call her videos cringy, but many creators are frustrated by this reputation. "TikTok is probably one of the best apps I’ve ever used for creating and people positivity," says Adam Salisbury, a 30-year-old artist and father of two from Blackpool with 300,000 TikTok followers. Salisbury first went viral after filming himself painting a Harry Potter mural, and alongside his art he has since branched out into more traditional TikTok lip-syncing videos in order to build a personality on the platform.
"I can tell you straight away that [people who call it cringy are] people with no dreams, no aspirations," Salisbury says. "People that call it cringy are the people that won’t go out and do it… People that don’t have dreams, people that don’t want to aspire to be anything else than what they’re chained to do. It’s not cringy at all. It’s an amazing way to be unique in this world where everyone’s trying to be one thing."
While the internet at large may cringe at TikTokers, Holly H says its users are the "nicest community" online. "It's rarer to get negative comments on TikTok than any other platform," she says (a sample of recent comments on her videos: "Plese love me", "uu look like a strawberry", "I love your eyes 👀 and I love you so much 😍😍😭😭😭❤️❤️❤️💍🙈🙈"). In fact, TikTok’s estimated 500 million users are so addicted to the app that the company built in a digital wellbeing alert that warns people after they’ve spent more than two hours watching videos.
In many ways, TikTok stars are the UK's new children’s television presenters – sometimes literally. Max and Harvey Mills are 16-year-old twins from Berkshire who were offered a CBBC show after gaining fans on TikTok, back when it was musical.ly. Nearly 6 million fans now follow them on the platform, where they post their original music, as well as skit videos. I ask Harvey what fans say about why they like his videos so much.
"A lot of encounters we have often have few sentences that are properly formed, which is completely understandable, because I’ve met people that I’ve been in awe of and barely been able to make a sentence either," he says. "A lot of people say that we’ve helped them through tough points in their life, which is really nice and humbling for us – we’re just two random kids from a normal town in a normal place in England, and are able to do that."
When we speak, Max and Harvey are about to take their GCSE exams – "Education is great!" says Max – and both plan to continue onto college. They say that any profit they make (the twins will be touring from May to October of this year) goes directly back into making their music or into savings. "There's this whole illusion of being a social media star that everyone’s just suddenly rich. But we’re not the kind of people that will do a brand deal left, right and centre," says Harvey. The boys hope to become established musicians when they’re older, able to travel the world and "make sure that every song is always better than the last one".
It's tricky to see where TikTok fame is leading its young UK stars. While Max and Harvey have a traditional, marketable talent for music, videos like Holly H's and Rhia's are less obviously transferable to the mainstream media. Banham and Salisbury are artists, and both are able to find additional work via the recognition they’ve gained; Salisbury also hopes to become a motivational speaker. Yet Banham says she doesn’t necessarily want TikTok to be her full time job, as "being a content creator" is "a lonely way to live".
It is entirely possible, then, that TikTok remains a hobbyist app – recapturing the "normal person in their bedroom" vibes that dominated early YouTube. It's also possible that as more money is poured into the platform, scandals will follow, and not everyone will remain as squeaky clean as they once were.
Regardless of the future, right now TikTok is all about the internet’s favourite mantra: being yourself. "We are encouraged by the growing number of 'ordinary people' that are going on the platform… whether they are nurses, firefighters or grannies," says the TikTok spokesperson. "The essence of the platform [is] a place where you can be genuine and real and discover other people like you."
Holly H says people "sometimes attach the word 'cringy' to just being authentic", adding that her fans enjoy how real she is. "I just do what makes me happy, what makes me laugh, and I don’t let what people say affect me. I think that's something that people enjoy, because they want that, they want to be like that."
Overall, TikTok is home to a lot of the "do what makes you happy" and "be authentic" messages that YouTube stars have peddled alongside sponcon for years. Yet, somehow, the message on TikTok hits, if not quite home, in a nearby postcode. Saying "be yourself" while demonstrating the perfect cut crease using an eyeshadow palette you launched with a big brand (use code ME for 10% off!) can wear a little thin. Saying "be yourself" while pretending your mum’s frying pan is a guitar? That’s a message that millions of teenagers seem to already be on board with.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.