The Year of TikTok is Coming to a Close, What's Next For the App and the Creators it Made Famous?

Carolyn Twersky
·11-min read

From Seventeen

I'm not going to mince words here: 2020 sucked. We all know it. But throughout the long months of quarantining, forest fires, and election stress, there was one thing by our side—an app with its endless scrolling, For You Page, Ratatouille musicals, and choreographed dances. Yes, I'm talking about TikTok.

TikTok, a short-form video app, did not emerge from the ashes of 2020 despite its surge in popularity this year. In fact, it had been around for almost two years by the time the pandemic hit in March. Back in November 2017, Chinese company Byte Dance acquired the lip syncing app Musical.ly. In August 2018, Musical.ly became TikTok, transferring all of its users over to the new interface. It wasn't until the first three months of this fated year, however, when TikTok saw more than 315 million downloads across the globe, making it the most downloaded app ever in one quarter.

Sarah Martin, 20, from Boca Raton, Florida, was one of those 315 million downloads, though she wasn't initially impressed by the short-form videos upon opening the app in February. "I just downloaded it because I knew a few people, including my 13-year-old sister, who enjoyed it and I wanted to see what it was all about," she said. "I probably went on it twice for a total of maybe five minutes combined. I was not into it at all." Then, quarantine hit, and Sarah left school at Florida Atlantic University, transitioning from an exciting college life to one at home, stuck inside with her family. At that point, TikTok became her primary form of entertainment, her connection to the outside world. "Next thing I know, I am obsessed with TikTok." Sarah admits to "falling in love" with the app. "It was a great way to pass the time since it was basically one of the only things I could do."

Sarah's experience with the app probably sounds familiar. It's similar to what millions of people experience when they first download TikTok. At first, you think you can do without it. The videos aren't captivating you right away, or you feel weird peeking into the lives of the strangers on your screen. Then, the algorithm starts picking up on the videos you interact with—those you like, comment on, and share with friends. As a result, it begins to serve you the videos you want to see. For Sarah, that was baking videos, recipes, and @annaxsitar, also known as the "Starbies Girl." As Sarah started engaging more and more with these videos, the TikTok algorithm kicked in, giving her more content around these themes. If it's not cooking, it might be astrology, or Disney, even celebrity conspiracy theories. Whatever niche type of video you're looking for, you can probably find it on TikTok. And when you do, the algorithm will personalize your scrolling experience unlike other social media platforms.

The stars

And that's really the key to TikTok's success: the algorithm, which serves you videos you'll like without having to even follow anyone on the app. Despite that, stars have been born from the platform after amassing millions upon millions of followers. Yes, I'm talking about Charli D'Amelio, who recently reached the milestone of becoming the first TikToker to gain 100 million followers. When Charli first started posting in May 2019, she was a high schooler from Connecticut who just so happened to know how to expertly recreate popular dances on the app thanks to her dance training. It was a video posted just two months later that first went viral, a simple duet with the account @move_with_joy. From there, Charli quickly gained followers. Many didn't understand why it was happening, but that became part of the joke. TikTok filled up with videos of Charli dancing or users asking why she was even popular in the first place. But even those questioning her newfound stardom still brought eyes back to her page. The influx of videos about Charli, plus her constant posting, allowed her to get on the For You Page with ease, meaning even more people could see her content without following her, though many people opted to hit that blue button as well. Before long, she became the unofficial face of the app.

Charli's not the only one to gain considerable fame through 15 to 60 second videos. Josh Richards got involved with TikTok back when it was still Musical.ly. In the beginning, he made a goal for himself. "I challenged myself to hit a certain number of followers by the end of Summer 2016. When I did that, I decided to continue doing social media." Now, Josh has over 23 million followers on TikTok and 7.4 million on Instagram. At 18-years-old, he is also the co-founder of Talent X Entertainment, the management company behind the popular content house, Sway House. These days, Sway House contains some of the biggest names on TikTok, including rising star Noah Beck, who is perhaps most known for his well-documented relationship with fellow TikTok starlet, Dixie D'Amelio.

In the beginning of this year, Noah Beck was a division-1 soccer player at the University of Portland with a couple hundreds of thousands of followers on the app. These days, he's a full-time content creator, living in LA, with over 22 million followers watching his videos everyday. It seems quick, but that's pretty much the path to TikTok stardom. One minute, you're a student at Louisiana State University getting rejected by the school's dance team, the next you move your whole family out to Los Angeles so you can spend your days hanging out at Kourtney Kardashian's pool a la Addison Rae.

The fans

Tatianna, a 20-year-old from Alberta, Canada who runs a Noah Beck fan account on Instagram, first discovered Noah in January 2020 on her For Your Page. Back then, he was still playing soccer at the University of Portland and had less than 100,000 followers to his name. Despite his relative lack of stardom, Tatianna immediately got hooked and started paying more and more attention to Noah's life. She admits she was going through a tough time when she started following Noah, but he unknowingly helped get her out of it.

"Honestly, he saved me," she said, explaining that it was his live videos on TikTok that drew her in initially. "He was this goofy, happy, genuine person and you could just really see his true personality. It was kind of like hanging out with a friend." From there, Tatianna decided to create her fan page, @winking.noah, where she posts photos, videos, and updates about the TikTok star. While Tatianna said the page started off slow, it now has 10.8K followers and, yes, Noah is one of them.

But @winking.noah reaches far beyond Instagram and TikTok. Tatianna has created a community with other Noah fans, forming tight bonds across the world. "There's eight of us and we FaceTime every night, sometimes multiple times a day." she said. They talk about Noah, of course, but also their personal lives. "We talk if we're having a bad day, if we've gotten bad news, if we get good news. Nothing is off limits. The bond is just insane. I talk to them more than I talk to my friends in real life."

Tatianna—who didn't want to give her last name as her friends back home don't know about her intense fandom—is one of the millions of fans out there who spend their days watching TikTok stars' every moves. Scroll through Charli's tagged photos on Instagram and you will see thousands of edits and reposts from fan accounts run by people across the globe. At first, most of these fans were young, around the age of the stars they idolized, but these days the fanbases are growing, surpassing just young TikTok users and moving more into the mainstream.

The future

Head to People or Entertainment Weekly (or Seventeen) and you will see headlines covering TikTok stars as more and more of them seep into popular culture. Everything is fair game these days; their relationships, business endeavors, scandals. In fact, they're starting to get covered as frequently as traditional celebrities.

The reality is, many people native to TikTok, who can thank the app for their fanbase, are now making moves off it. Josh, specifically, isn't too loyal to TikTok and he admitted he will go wherever the views go. "I will continue to use TikTok as long as it benefits all of the other career decisions I'm making," he said. Around the time of the news of the possible TikTok ban by the US government earlier this year, a rival app, Triller, entered the scene. Josh invested in the app and joined the team as Chief Strategy Officer, with some of his fellow Sway Boys hoping on as equity shareholders. Now, according to the New York Times, they live in a house paid for by Triller, and they drive around cars rented for them by the app. So, while Josh does still regularly post on TikTok, it's mostly to promote Triller, his energy drink, or his podcast with Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy.

Josh isn't alone when it comes to making moves off TikTok. Everywhere you look, these stars are growing their YouTube channels, launching brands, and taking on the podcasting business like Josh. Charli and Dixie—who are also on Triller—just announced their new reality show coming to Hulu next year. Addison, meanwhile, just finished filming her new movie, He's All That, a remake of the '90s classic rom-com, She's All That.

It's possible TikTok has noticed this theme of its biggest stars stepping back from the app. Just recently, they put a program into place in what seems to be an attempt to hold on to their creators. In June 2020, TikTok announced the Creator Fund, predicting they would commit over $1 billion over the next three years in order to reward creators for the views on their videos. Some have reported that they are able to pay their bills with this money, while others haven't even made enough to cash out their earnings (which they can't do until they make $50). Considering the views that people like Josh, Noah, and Charli get on the app, though, it seems like they are definitely in the former camp of money makers.

Despite the cash, many of these creators will continue to distance themselves more and more from TikTok as bigger opportunities come their way. The TikTok Class of 2020, helmed by Charli, Dixie, the Sway Boys and more, have gained their followers and used TikTok in a way that has benefited them. Now, as these creators move on to acting, singing, and reality shows, it will create room for the next batch of stars to come in.

TikTok isn't going anywhere. It is still growing immensely and while other rivals, like Triller, Instagram Reels, and Snapchat's recent Spotlight feature, have tried to take the short-form video crown, TikTok continues to win out. Everyday new creators on TikTok reach that one million followers mark. So the question is, who will be the next Charli D'Amelio, the next Josh Richards? Who will take that step from a few million followers to dozens of millions? Who will be the next person to leverage the followers gained on the app in order to enter the music industry and collab with Liam Payne like Dixie? The big names aren't going anywhere. You will still see them across social media and in the news. They will still post on TikTok, because the truth is, it's fun to make short videos dancing with friends. But as they step away, that will only make room for the next group of TikTok stars and as you can see from Charli, Noah, and Addison, it can happen very quickly.

As 2020—the Year of TikTok—comes to a close, there is no doubt the TikTok Class of 2021 is out there somewhere perfecting their lip syncing skills or learning the next viral dance. It's only a matter of time until the For You Page blows them up and we have a new group of creators taking center stage.

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