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A study in TikTok's hierarchy of hype

Apr. 7, 2020
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TikTok—the app that many have called “cringey” but are now downloading because they’ve got too much free time on their hands. Many have gone in blind, only knowing that the app was formerly known as Musical.ly; others have jumped on the bandwagon in pursuit of an easy route to fame. Whatever the reason, TikTok has become an intergenerational phenomenon, having been downloaded over 1.5 billion times and cemented itself into popular culture with over 800 million users around the world. 

Bizarre as it may seem, we live in a world where TikTok fame is normalized and embraced by the mainstream, especially in the United States. 15-year-old Charli D’Amelio, one of TikTok’s biggest creators, is considered celebrity-adjacent (if not a celebrity herself) with over 45 million followers on the app, going on 46 at the time of writing this. Not only has she been on The Tonight Show and in a Super Bowl commercial, but she’s had the opportunity to perform with celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Bebe Rexha—none of which would have been possible if she hadn’t downloaded the app one fateful day. 

D’Amelio’s story is like that of the carefully curated members of the Hype House, a group of TikTok’s most famous creators that live together and create content. TikTokers like Addison Rae, Avani Gregg, and Chase Hudson are just a few of the big names that reside there under manager Thomas Petrou who helps them build their brands. Many compare the Hype House to that of Jake Paul’s Team10 of YouTube, and the resemblance is uncanny—right down to their Los Angeles mansions. Shortly after the Hype House was born, the Sway House followed soon after, home to TikTok giants like Josh Richards and Griffin Johnson. The rise of TikTok has revived the concept of these “content houses,” where groups of a certain caliber of clout get together and collectively grow their followings.

If we’ve learned anything from Team10, though, it’s that content houses like these create a hierarchy, placing members in the top tier with a certain amount of power over their audiences. With great following comes great responsibility, especially when it comes to having a younger, more impressionable audience, but such a principle isn’t always followed. The app has already seen its fair share of drama, and many creators have made news for controversies of which they’ve been at the center. The fact of the matter is that the glory that comes with being so-called “TikTok famous” can quickly become problematic when popular creators misuse their platforms.

For starters, these content houses create an unrealistic picture of what fame looks like. The very concept of a “Hype House” is privileged. You have to ask yourself how 19 people can drop everything and move into an L.A. mansion to focus on their “TikTok careers,” spending entire days making 15 to 60-second videos and getting paid thousands of dollars for it. The unfortunate byproduct of rewarding little to no work via social media has arguably peaked with groups like the Hype House. Putting in little effort for huge gain isn’t something that many have the luxury of when making ends meet. It shouldn’t be surprising that most members of the house are white or white-passing. Many chase this kind of lifestyle and try so hard to get their 15 minutes but ultimately fail against these TikTok giants that generate most of the app’s traffic. TikTok’s top 1% has become almost impenetrable, keeping its best performers on the leaderboard where they have nothing to do but profit.

But the problem isn’t just how big these creators are—it’s their character. Many have been caught in countless scandals, often involving fellow creators, and dealt with the fallout publicly. Most notable is Hype House member Chase Hudson, who became the first of many TikTokers exposed for saying the n-word when an old video of him resurfaced. The same has happened to many other famous creators and some were caught imitating racist stereotypes of black people.

Hudson was also accused of cheating on Charli D’Amelio, alleged to have been pursuing fellow TikToker Nessa Barrett during their relationship. Sway House’s Josh Richards, Nessa’s current boyfriend, took to YouTube and made an entire diss track about the situation, even featuring Hudon’s ex in the music video. Richards and Sway housemate Bryce Hall dropped "Still Softish" in late March, an explicit song titled in reference to the size of Chase’s junk (despite Chase being underage). 

Speaking of underage, Kio Cyr of the Sway House was accused of pursuing underage girls. In a deleted Q&A video from the Sway House YouTube channel, Hall makes a comment about how the girls that Cyr, 19, brings back to the house are all “15 or 16” years old. People claiming to have gone to high school with Cyr spoke out, claiming that Cyr did have a pattern of going after younger girls.  

More recently, Sway House member Zachary Smith pretended to come out as bisexual on TikTok as a joke for April Fool’s Day, drawing backlash from the app’s LGBTQ+ community and ultimately forcing him to publicly apologize. The fiasco was so huge that even James Charles chimed in, calling for an end to queerbaiting from popular male creators on the app. Smith was also criticized earlier this year for a TikTok he made in which he pulled his eyes back to make them look thinner while lip-syncing the lyrics “Eyes look Asian, Ling-ling.”

While many creators who have faced criticism are of age and are capable of making their own decisions, their actions are no longer their own on TikTok. This isn’t to say that creators like these aren’t allowed to make any mistakes, but rather that when they inevitably do make mistakes that there are much bigger consequences, because unlike most, they have an audience. It’s worth reminding everyone that the minimum age requirement to be on TikTok is only thirteen and that the comment section of any viral video is always filled with undying praise for users’ favorite creators. 

In a post-Vine age, it’s true that TikTok has partially filled the void of short and sweet video content—but only at the expense of creating a warped idea of how celebrities and influencers should behave. As its members begin to part ways, the Hype House will fade into irrelevance and the Sway House will follow suit. We’ll watch the end of another era before finding a new platform over which to obsess. No matter what, the result is still the same: for every good creator that we give our attention to, there will always be creators who abuse it. 

As TikTok’s moment in the sun expires, we should ask ourselves: who do we give fame to and why? Why do we continue to make young people famous when they aren’t ready for that kind of responsibility? Or will we always create new generations of social media giants that only have a matter of time before they fall?