At the end of June in 2019, Mattie Vanhonsebrouck received a text message from a friend saying: “Hey, I think you should get this TikTok app. You would totally get famous from it.” Vanhonsebrouck disagreed, but after arguing back and forth, they decided to try it. One month after downloading the app, Vanhonsebrouck had gone viral.
TikTok is a wildly popular social media app where users can watch and post short videos that range from 15 to 60 seconds. TikTok was previously called Musical.ly, but changed its name in August 2018 after being bought by Chinese company ByteDance. Globally, Tiktok is one of the most popular social media apps out there, with over 2 billion total downloads and 100 million monthly users in the U.S. alone.
Tiktok gained even more popularity during quarantine, especially with college students. While some students scroll through the app for a fun distraction, others create content and have gained massive followings, granting them the title of “TikTokers.”
Twin junior biology majors at UP Mei and Jie Walters currently have 2 million followers on their account @thewalters2wins. Vanhonsebrouck, a junior nursing major, has 1.4 million followers on their account @westbrouck.
After steadily growing since 2019, Vanhonsebrouck hit 1 million followers over the summer, gaining almost 500,000 followers in a span of three months.
“It's never been something that I'm capable of processing,” Vanhonsebrouck said. “And I don't think I ever want to process how many people that is. Just because first of all, that's terrifying. I'm making my videos alone in my room. A million people aren't watching me make the videos, it’s just me.”
Vanhonsebrouck classifies their TikTok content as comedy, which ranges from acting out stories from their childhood, cracking jokes in their bathroom mirror or creating original skits. Their family and friends are Vanhonsebrouck’s biggest inspirations when it comes to creating content. One of their most popular TikToks involves a chaotic family visit to a local Walmart.
Mei and Jie Walters started posting daily on TikTok in January of 2020, hitting 1 million followers in mid August, then 2 million shortly after in September. They make content focused on trending TikTok dances, comedy skits or health and fitness.
They didn’t expect to gain a following. Both twins consider themselves to be the least likely to gain “fame”, but during the second month of posting, one of their videos took off. Soon enough, they signed with an influencer management team in May.
“I haven't wrapped my brain around how many people follow us,” Mei Walters said. “To get DM’s and just to get comments saying, ‘You're really inspirational, you've helped me get through a really hard time in my life,’ or like, ‘you encouraged me to start working out again.’ That has been really eye opening for me.”
Internet fame comes with its highs and lows, but for Vanhonsebrouck the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. Tiktok has allowed them to build genuine friendships with other creators on the app.
“We're best friends, essentially, over social media,” Vanhonsebrouck said. “And it's great knowing you have that support, you have people to be there for you.”
Other large creators like @howdyhowdyyall1 (1.2 Million followers), @gabschase (1.7 Million followers) and the illustrious @willywonkatiktok (14 Million followers) are people Vanhonsebrouck talk to everyday. The community feel of TikTok is one of Vanhonsebrouck’s favorite parts of creating.
The Walters twins also find engaging with their followers incredibly fulfilling. Their audience, unlike other creators their age, consists of younger girls in grade school and middle school. The ability to empower young girls and be role models that can “be themselves” is one of Jie Walters’ favorite parts of creating.
A significant moment for the twins was when they created the video with the song “You Got It.” The video, along with its empowering message quickly went viral, gaining over 26 million views.
“It's just a sound that is encouraging women and girls of this generation to take control of their own life, and they can do whatever they want,” said Jie. “And so we found this dance and song a few weeks ago, and we posted it once. And that just blew up. And we just really liked the idea of empowering women of all generations.”
Tiktok isn’t all dances and memes. Vanhonsebrouck and the Walters twins face similar challenges that come from the disconnect between the audience and creator. For the Walters twins, hate comments can definitely take their toll.
“I have to admit, we do have pretty tough skin,” Mei said. “But when you start to get hundreds and hundreds of comments daily, maybe about your physical features, or just literally anything, it can get to you.”
Vanhonsebrouck’s comment section is a pretty positive space, but they often get frustrated when their friends are spammed with hate comments or unrealistic expectations are placed on creators. At the end of the day, the audience has a limited view of Vanhonsebrouck’s life. The audience doesn’t see Vanhonsebrouck working two jobs while balancing family life, relationships and the challenges of online school.
Managing time is another common challenge. For Vanhonsebrouck and the Walters twins, TikTok is a job. They make income from their content through the TikTok Creator Fund as well as sponsored posts.
When large creators go viral, like former UP soccer player Noah Beck, they tend to pursue TikTok full time in lieu of finishing a degree. The Walters twins were set on finishing their degrees and going to medical school, but after their rise to fame, they are taking this year to be influencers as well as full time students. In January, they’ll reevaluate.
“I feel confident in where we are now,” said Jie. “And, that medical school could always come later in life, it doesn't have to come right after college. And I'm okay with that.”
Both of the twins are committed to finishing their degrees, but the timeline of that might change if greater opportunities to pursue TikTok influencing arise. Vanhonsebrouck is also committed to finishing their nursing degree, but sees TikTok as part of their life for the long haul.
“Social media at this point is something that I could pursue if I really wanted to, which is weird, because it's a very risky business to enter in,” Vanhonsebrouck said. “Because if it doesn't work, you're kind of screwed.”
After several scares of the app being banned, TikTok appears to be here to stay after a recent partner deal with Oracle went through. The ban threats were unsettling for Vanhonsebrouck and the Walters twins, who not only rely on TikTok for income but also have a support system of friendships and connections through the community. Luckily, TikTok isn’t going anywhere, so creators can continue making content while new users continue to join the platform.
For aspiring “TikTokers”, the Walters twins emphasize being true to oneself, because your audience can tell if you aren’t being genuine. Embracing the unknown is key.
“And if you can bring a smile, if you can say a fact, if you want to educate people on something it will be heard from at least one person,” said Jie. “And who knows, if that person is going to share, that can spread like wildfire, honestly. And so, just being consistent, and being yourself and having fun, I think, are the three major ones that Mei and I are still following to this day.”
Vanhonsebrouck echoes that same sentiment and emphasizes that on TikTok you never know what will strike a chord with your audience.
“So it's just the little things that you don't expect to do well do really well,” Vanhonsebrouck said. “And if you don't post it, you'll never know.”
Molly Lowney is a photographer for The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.