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Campus creators talk TikTok culture, celebrity

Molly Chambers ’21, Ben Michals ’22 offer insight into the #FYP phenomenon

As many students sat down in their childhood bedrooms in early March, confronted with remote classes or omnipresent families, they began to give in and download TikTok — the short-form video content platform first created in September of 2016 under the original moniker of Though these downloads may have been under the guise of a joke at first, long, rote quarantined days were soon spent scrolling interminably through the prophetic #FYP (For You Page).  

The ByteDance-owned social media company describes its platform as “the leading destination for short-form mobile video,” according to its website. “Our mission is to inspire creativity and bring joy.” And this mission apparently resonated from March 16 to 22 — the first week Brown students were sent home from campus — as the app saw a national 18 percent increase in downloads from the week prior. Soon, no matter the intentions behind those initial downloads and account creations, many college students once averse to the assumed dance-video app saw their screen times skyrocket. 

Some took their TikTok-ing past scroll and spectacle, taking the initiative to make their own videos. The Herald spoke with two Brown students who grew TikTok followings under the stay-at-home orders. 

“During the quarantine, I had the time to sit down and say, ‘What do I want to invest my energy in doing, how do I want to come out of this time period and change as a person,’” said Ben Michals ’22, who started his account in May and has since amassed a following of 80.6k. “And that led me to needing to invest in my music more,” he said.

Michals, who started his account to further pursue his passion for music production and mixing, shifted his content to adapt to the time constraints of the platform. “My videos are now short, catchy jingles or songs, and I try to take relatable aspects of life in quarantine … and put it into this relatable format,” he said. This adaptability is what Michals accredits to his account’s burgeoning success.

Molly Chambers ’21, an international student from England, started her account after being sent home during her year ‘abroad’ at Oxford: “I started making videos because I thought if I was going to spend that much time scrolling, I should at least try to create some videos too,” she said.

In order to gain a following, Chambers thought it was important to find a niche. She started off her account, which now has almost 300k followers, making videos about the experience of being “a Brit studying in America, the experience at Brown and Oxford,” she described. Chambers’ comedic influence was also informed by her time in a sketch comedy group while at Oxford. “I was doing informational but jokey videos highlighting differences and their idiosyncrasies, but as soon as I built up a following, I decided to move into comedy,” she said. 

Chambers’ TikToks seem to have a spirit of comedic nostalgia that appeals to viewers, often gesturing towards what university social life was like prior to quarantine — both in the U.K. and the U.S. Sketches range from parodies on influencer culture to Ivy League stereotypes to party life.

Michals, who cites one of his influences as ex-Viner Bill Wurtz, had his first hit video in July, nearly six weeks after he started creating videos on the platform. The video, which now has roughly 4 million views, plays on the relatable quarantine concept of boredom and sibling relationships with the lyrics “I don’t have anything to do today / so I guess I’ll just go into my sibling’s room and stand there.” Michals says his jazz background informed the six-second tune, and he thinks “it worked especially well because the beginning was spoken in a meme type of way, and then it went into a catchy tune.”

“I think (the jingles) do especially well on the platform because they are something that, when you’re scrolling through, you want to share with your friends,” he added.

A unique element of the TikTok platform is the ability to duet videos or make videos using other users’ sounds, which has been great for the expansion of Michals’ following, he said. A song Michals’ calls “Future Me’s Problem” has now been used in over two thousand videos by other creators, and was even used by rapper Iggy Azalea in a video from September. “The coolest part is seeing other people have fun with the music I make, because I’ve been making music for years in my bedroom and never really putting it out there,” Michals said.

It is these community based aspects of TikTok, these opportunities for collaboration, that Michals and Chambers appreciate most about the platform. “They’re able to curate content and make the platform very community based because of how accurate their algorithm is,” Michals said. It’s the algorithm’s accuracy that makes TikTok “the easiest platform to grow on as a creative,” he said.×tamp=1601412810&tt_from=sms&u_code=d3f7e90090ic26&user_id=6632824631411621894&utm_campaign=client_share&utm_medium=ios&utm_source=sms&source=h5_m&sender_device=pc&sender_web_id=6881453474502264326&is_from_webapp=1

Chambers added that the communal-based nature of the platform, and the creators themselves, are integral to its enjoyability. “I mostly think it is special because of the creators on the app — the talent that TikTok has in terms of the sheer number of users is unlike anything else that has ever happened on a fad app,” she said.

It might even be considered that TikTok is more than a “fad,” and has rather pushed its way into becoming a cultural phenomenon that is critical in reshaping other media landscapes. Songs like ‘WAP’ by Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B, ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X and ‘Yummy’ by Justin Bieber have largely been informed by the succinct, catchy moment required to garner popularity on TikTok. 

“I also think that that is why it’s the future of the music industry, the marketing industry. Short-form content is really good, especially amongst people in our age demographic,” Michals said.

It is the adaptability to this new, shorter attention span that ostensibly points one towards TikTok success. Michals has even reconsidered his approach to his own personal musical pursuits, searching for that 15 second ‘moment’ of a song that will make people want to listen again and again, he said.

When Michals came across UCLA student Pavari Das’ cover of TikTok star Dixie D’amelio’s ‘Be Happy,’ he had an instinct for Das’ ability to achieve TikTok virality. Michals reached out to Das over Instagram DM, offering to mix and produce a 15 second TikTok song for her, so he was surprised when she sent back the audio file to a full length cover of BØRNS’ ‘Electric Love.’

This production experience emulated a professional one, and Michals elucidated how the mixing elements led to the song’s eventual success: “The reason that the song did so well, is that there’s this pre-chorus that builds up really well, then drops off...hits a super-chorus,” he said. The cover, which now has over 1 million streams on Spotify, boasts a surround sound best listened to through headphones, which Michals deliberately engineered. 

“It’s the first song I have ever produced that’s been put on Spotify,” he said. 

Michals’ and Chambers’ success on TikTok in the realms of music and comedy respectively have encouraged them to pursue entertainment-related career paths. “I always had performance tendencies but lacked the confidence growing up, but this last year was transformative in terms of confidence building,” Chambers said.

And, although geopolitical conversations about TikTok and its future in the US are at the forefront of many creators’ minds, there is also a sense that the cultural impact will be far greater than the app itself. “If TikTok goes away, I don’t believe that everything it stood for will be a flash in the pan,” Michals said. “Whether it be meme culture or otherwise, everything has been getting a lot more compact and a lot shorter — but none of that stuff will go away if for some reason TikTok does not exist in the U.S. in the same way,” he said.

It seems as if the anxieties around TikTok and cybersecurity are more hinged upon existential, creatorial ones. But in the panic surrounding TikTok’s future, Chambers’ and Michals’ experiences gesture towards the persistence of not only our digital footprints — but also our ability to mimic, dance, sing and produce meaningful content and community.


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