Over the weekend, TikTok saw its first creator reach 100 million followers. The creator is Charli D’Amelio, who hit that mark just 18 months after she created her account. That speaks to the broad appeal of her personality and her videos, which often feature popular dances of the moment. The mark also reflects the rapid growth of TikTok, whose shortform videos are rapidly taking over all social networks.
But in another way, D’Amelio’s achievement wasn’t remarkable at all. In fact, in many ways, it was textbook: a fast-growing new platform, a young and beautiful creator, and recommendation algorithms that drive more and more attention to the early winners over time. YouTube once had human editors choosing videos to go on its homepage; later, it added recommendation algorithms. Both contributed to the rise of early YouTube stars. Instagram often promoted new creators on its own Instagram account; later stars emerged through its recommendations-driven “explore” tab.
TikTok’s approach to promoting videos differs from its predecessors in notable ways. It opens to a feed of videos that have been chosen for you based on whatever the app has gleaned about you, whether you follow anyone or not. This following-optional model has meant that the app is as likely to make a star out of a dance or a snippet of audio as it is to make one out of a human being.
That’s a primary reason why TikTok now feels like a vital engine of culture in a way that other social networks don’t. Instagram mostly knows how to promote influencers; TikTok, on the other hand, spreads dances, sounds, and jokes.
All of this has had a democratizing effect on the kinds of videos that go viral. The app’s For You feed is one of the most delightfully unpredictable spaces in social networks — even as it learns your preferences, TikTok still manages to surface truly strange and compelling new things.
Yet, despite those differences, TikTok’s influencer economy looks much like any other platform’s. A handful of creators attract many millions of followers; those creators get sponsorship deals; and thus, the rewards to individual users follow a rich-get-richer distribution. Even TikTok’s plan to pay US creators $1 billion over the next three years seems designed more to retain top creators than to establish new ones.