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From pandemic virality to building a brand: Seniors ride the next wave of social media

Content creators Kaiti Yoo ’22, Ben Michals ’22 talk candidly on building a career on social media, next projects, future of industry

<p>Kaiti Yoo ’22 and Ben Michals ’22 will move to New York after graduation to continue creating content and explore other career avenues.</p>

Kaiti Yoo ’22 and Ben Michals ’22 will move to New York after graduation to continue creating content and explore other career avenues.

During an afternoon in the Blue Room, Kaiti Yoo ’22 — current senior, former Herald senior staff writer and, since last month, YouTuber with over 500,000 subscribers — chatted about flying out to Coachella this year for her first brand-sponsored trip and chance to meet other content creators. Opportunities like these have been in the works, but surpassing the 500,000 subscriber milestone has given her the space to pursue bigger ideas and projects, Yoo said.

Yoo will be graduating this spring with a double concentration in Economics and Modern Culture and Media. Since starting her channel in 2020 during lockdown, she has devoted most of her time to a fast-growing platform on YouTube and Instagram, where she produces fashion and lifestyle content.

The pipeline from bored college student to viral internet figure to full-time creator, while possible before, was accelerated to unprecedented levels during the pandemic, Yoo said. At Coachella, Yoo said she was the youngest creator in terms of time since starting her channel, and she doesn’t shy away from describing the “nervous wreck” she was leading up to the event.

Yoo’s honesty and advice on topics like imposter syndrome, perfectionism — “done is better than perfect sometimes” is her motto — and the benefits of therapy arise naturally when speaking to her. As part of how she expresses herself off and on camera, Yoo has said in a video that she has drawn on the strengths of her personality and editing style in building her personal platform.

Two experiences at Brown were influential in her journey as a creator — taking VISA 0120: “Foundation Media,” which helped “light a fire” in her to work with editing software, and receiving encouragement from Executive Director of the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship Danny Warshay ’87 in his course ENGN 1010: “The Entrepreneurial Process” to pursue content creation full time.

Being a content creator is similar to an entrepreneur in that, for both, you “go out there and risk falling on your face every week by pitching this new product to people,” Yoo said on uploading videos weekly. A common pitfall in entrepreneurship is “creating a product that solves nobody’s needs,” she added. With social media platforms, she has found a uniquely “intimate” space to hear direct feedback from her audience about the problems they are going through.

These interactions can be impactful for both the fan and the creator during difficult times. Reflecting on what helps her continue making videos in the face of burnout, Yoo said she particularly remembers an anonymous comment she received on Discord that said her uploading a video that day made them decide not to take their life. 

Yoo feels she now has enough security to pursue a career as a content creator after graduation and has recently hired a team to support her as she prepares to move to New York. 

“I’m not sure if fashion is the end-all, be-all calling for me, … but I do feel like the dots are all being connected,” she said. Yoo hinted at upcoming design collaborations with brands and hopes in the long term to help address the need for clothing textiles that do not pose health concerns like the allergies and skin issues she personally has faced. 

“Fame is fleeting, and I don’t want to live off that for the rest of my life,” Yoo said. “I'm going to New York City because it's … an overflowing amalgamation of every industry, and I really want to go there to find out what I don't know.”

Though Ben Michals ’22 found his start in content creation on TikTok during the pandemic, in many ways his journey shares common threads with Yoo’s. 

A fan of the relatable jingle-style comedy skits of Bill Wurtz and Bo Burnham, Michals, a longtime musician, spent a few months sharing music on TikTok before gaining traction when he started using the jingle-style format in his TikToks. Over the past two years, he has amassed over 140,000 followers and released two singles. 

Michals said that seeing rapid growth and having the support of a fanbase even before officially releasing music is a phenomenon made possible by the new era of short-form content.

Michals is grateful that his jingles have resonated with such a large audience and helped make him and others feel less alone during the pandemic. But he noted a “side of being a creator that’s not talked a lot about — the unpredictability of all of it.” On TikTok, where the algorithm plays a large role in determining the views a video receives regardless of the effort put in, Michals opened up that “it’s been a journey for me personally of separating myself from my content in terms of validation.”

An important realization for him was that how a video performs numbers-wise “is not the true determinant of the value of that content.”

He has taken a step back from short-form content over the past few months to reflect on his larger goals with music and to work on his biggest project yet — a full-length album, which he hopes to release later this year. 

With a sound he describes as “lying somewhere in between Rex Orange County, Finneas and Jon Bellion,” the album is part of Michals’s thesis for his Music concentration, which he studied alongside Computer Science. Produced under the guidance of Professor of Music Todd Winkler and Lecturer and Technical Director James Moses MA’18, the album revolves around the theme “What’s the right path for me?” — a question Michals has come across frequently as a college student at Brown, observing other students following “cookie-cutter careers.” 

The search for the answer to this question does not end with college and is a process Michals is living through as he plans on exploring other careers while continuing work on music projects and content creation in New York after graduating. Part of the message from the album is “understanding and appreciating that you don’t have to have it all figured out,” he said.

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Having gained experience through business courses at Brown and through internships, Michals has been deeply interested and involved in the business side of media, including negotiating his first deal with a record label on his first single “The Internet Song.” He has also been part of an early creator program to support the launch of Instagram Reels, the platform’s version of short-form content, provide feedback to the product team and develop promotional content using Reels. Now, Michals has plans to work within the NFT space for music in his desire to “be part of an even greater democratization of who can enter the music industry and how they can finance that.”

In the era of TikTok, music and video production and distribution have never been more accessible and have helped “democratize content and media,” which Michals called “a really beautiful thing for the industry.” More artists are trying to stay independent and maintain more ownership of their music and, by building an audience on their own on TikTok, they “don’t necessarily need a label,” he said. 

“I strongly believe there is a lot of creativity out there that doesn’t ever see the light of day because of (the creator’s) background, where they came from,” he said. “Short-form content is step one of unlocking the total creative potential that our society has to offer.” 

Yoo agreed that new technologies will help enable the future of media, which she predicts will “go into immersive storytelling more and more.” The battle of our times is “spiritual and emotional, and, in order to make people feel like they're in a community, … I think we’re going to continue turning more and more toward (immersive forms of) media to connect with each other,” Yoo said.



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