TikTok stars are trying to make it in mainstream entertainment. But that may not translate

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

Scrolling through TikTok is like hopping onto a nonstop carousel of meltdowns, cute animal videos, and catchy songs. Now social media users in the U.S. and U.K. are spending more time scrolling through the site than they are on YouTube, according to a new report from app monitoring group App Annie. And Hollywood is taking notice.

Some of TikTok’s most popular users are crossing over to mainstream platforms. Singer Addison Rae recently signed a multi-picture deal with Netflix, now starring in “He’s All That,” while the D’Amelio sisters (Charli and Dixie) have a new Hulu show. 

TikTok’s outperformance isn’t a surprise to Vox’s senior internet culture reporter Rebecca Jennings. That’s due in part to how well the platform can cater to the interests of its users. 

“You can open it up and right away, the algorithm will determine what to serve you. So you don't have to go looking for a video that you might want to watch, unlike YouTube or Netflix or really any other streaming platform,” she tells KCRW.

Its popularity can also be attributed to how short the content can be, as well as how personal each video feels.

“You feel like you're sort of FaceTiming with a friend when you get a TikTok of someone talking directly to the camera. It's very lo-fi. It's very intimate. You're sort of just like, ‘Oh, hi, this is like a friend that I'm seeing.’ And so you get very attached to these people.”

Similar to other platforms like Instagram, creators can get paid through brand sponsorship or creator funds, which are based on views. But Jennings points out that those opportunities aren’t as lucrative as traditional entertainment routes — unless creators can amass millions of followers. 

It’s still unclear whether Hollywood deals are successful, however. 

“A lot of creators, they're really, really good at this one thing, which is talking by themselves to their camera when they're totally in control. And then you sort of take that control away, and you need them to be a pop star all of a sudden or an actress. But when you enter that Hollywood machine, it's a whole new game.”

Some TikTokers, like vegan cook Tabitha Brown and comedian Sarah Cooper, have found success off the platform. But over the last 10 years, the success of creators who cross over to the mainstream have been mixed. For example, popular YouTuber Lily Singh landed a late night TV gig that ended after just two seasons. 

“That's a huge concern, I think, for both the creators themselves and for the wider Hollywood system, because you have someone who gets famous in like the span of a week or a month or something,” Jennings explains. “Then all of a sudden, you throw them into this pop stardom that they're probably not ready for — because who would be ready for that — and you never know what's going to come out.” 

Jenning says now it’s a matter of waiting and seeing how viral personalities acclimate to the ever-growing media landscape. 

“Right now we're in the period of throwing everything at the wall [and seeing what sticks. And I think that's going to leave a lot of people with these kinds of disappointing careers or these sad trajectories. I just hope that we can have the same kind of compassion for people on their way down, as we like to lift them up.”