One of TikTok‘s biggest stars is in his early ’30s and has spent the last nine months racking up over three million followers.
Ricky Chainz* has been using the app since September, first picking it up when the Chinese app switched its branding over from its previous title, Musical.ly. He tells me he first downloaded the app while he was sitting at a train station trying to find something to pass the time.
“I knew about Vine,” he says. “I’d watched all of that sort of happen… so I had a look at TikTok and just made a video.”
TikTok, the video curation and social app made huge in China under the name Douyin, has been aggressively advertised internationally over the last 12 months under its new name. This year, it is fast becoming the Big Social Media Platform of 2019.
The app has done so on the back of a smart campaign based largely in advertising on the platforms its competing with. If you have Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook, chances are you’ve seen an ad for TikTok somewhere in your feed. A recent Wall Street Journal Report opens within the offices of Snap Inc. as executives realise their biggest advertising spender was its closest rising competitor. Likewise, if you’ve been reading the news, you’d know it has faced criticism and controversy for its security settings, data collection and young, vulnerable audience.
While TikTok’s longevity and future impact is still to be tested, the app has seen a huge influx in user growth, catapulting it into the internet lexicon and bringing forward a new approach to social media. It’s one that has jumped over traditional standards and quickly become the latest avenue for teens to express themselves online.
Ricky Chainz’ first video on TikTok was met with the same reaction most users get when jumping into the endless black hole of constant videos the app feeds you: a handful of likes and a spattering of views.
Fiddling with the apps functionality and checking out the videos other people had uploaded, Chainz said he left the app alone for a few weeks before returning and seeing that his first upload had picked up around 30 likes.
“I posted it and it only got a few likes,” he said, “but I was like ‘woah, I follow nobody, I have zero followers, but it reached people.”
A few weeks later, Chainz decided use a plan he had made earlier for YouTube content for his new TikTok account.
At first, his structured vides would only generate a small amount of interaction but that was enough to keep him going. It wasn’t until Chainz brought on some outside talent in the form of his grandma, Huijun, that things really took off.
“There’s popular and then there’s super viral,” says Ricky. “The grandma stuff was the series that really did it for me.”
Scrolling through his account now, you’d be forgiven for thinking Chainz’ grandma had always been involved in the video process. The elderly woman’s face is plastered across his profile and is now recognisable to hundreds of thousands of people as the “hip hop granny”, a video series Ricky constructed and published all at once earlier this year.
“Most people only have like one viral video right,” he said, “but I made this series with my grandma of around five videos and each one got over 500,000 views.”
By following Chainz on TikTok, people could catch up on his grandma rapping to Post Malone, or dancing to Lil Uzi. So far there’s more than nine videos in the ‘Hip Hop w/ Granny’ series, each one of them riddled with hundreds of comments and tens of thousands of engagements. Chainz says his grandma doesn’t fully understand TikTok other than that she’s quite possibly one of the most viral grandmas on the internet.
On TikTok, more than any other app, a creator can go through gargantuan audience growth off the back of just a few videos. If the life of social media is measured on a spectrum from one to ten, Facebook is at nine and TikTok is at four. There’s not just growth opportunities for the brand – there’s still space for a wide range of new creators.
After Chainz’ hip hop granny series, the Sydney-based creator watched his followers balloon out from 700 to 45,000, to hundreds of thousands, to millions. “It was just up and up and up,” he says.
Despite having millions of followers on the fastest growing social platform around, Chainz faces a challenge many of TikTok’s big creators are coming to terms with: how to turn views into a legitimate revenue stream. YouTubers and Instagram Influencers have revolutionised the way social media works for profit, driving brand partnerships and sponsored content into the front of the internet’s mindset.
Even Twitch streamers, livestreaming themselves playing video games and commentating, pull in huge amounts of cash. On TikTok, there’s a sense that no one is quite there yet.
Similarly, Chainz faces the reality that a huge majority of his followers are young teenagers. He says it’s something he thinks about a lot, refusing to do livestreams on the app which would allow his followers to donate financial “gifts” to him.
I would feel scummy getting those gifts from kids. There are other users who pay it no mind and livestream and take money… I’m probably overthinking it but from the beginning I just put the dots together and thought that if they’re young their Apple ID is probably their parents, and it’s linked to their parent’s credit card. I don’t feel good about that.
Chainz says there is going to be a shift in audience in the near future as the app continues its path to the mainstream, and he may be right. TikTok has captured the lucrative attention of teenagers (and younger) all over the world – but history is clear on how short-lived that attention can be. For now, he and a small handful of others are riding a wave they hope never crashes.
“If I had like 3.2 million followers on Instagram that would be it,” he says. “That would be my career. I’d be able to make enough doing that I would need to work a full time job.”
“But it’s coming. It’s not a substantial source of revenue. Yet.”