In December, a video blazed through gay Twitter of a teen doing the popular “Say So” dance, pioneered by TikTok star Haley Sharpe. Halfway through the video, the teen is interrupted by Laura Dern, her mother, who proceeds to finish the dance (and badly.) To date, the video has over 200,000 likes and 2,300 comments. Jaya Harper, Dern’s daughter, soon faded from visibility, but since then, celebrities like Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Lopez, Will Smith, Justin Bieber, the Jonas Brothers, and Mariah Carey have only gotten more prominent on the app. Smelling blood in the water and with it the opportunity to remain relevant to younger and younger generations, celebrities have flocked to TikTok, where they are instantly verified and commended across People, Us Weekly, and every other tabloid imaginable.
Jaya Harper’s video foreshadowed this entrance of a new player in the short video space: Celebrities are coming and nowhere, not even TikTok’s seemingly sacred halls, are safe.
Of course, social media breeds its own sort of celebrities. Alongside the rise in its popularity as a platform, TikTok has, in the last year, ramped up its verification efforts, giving blue checkmarks to thin, white young people that make up the Hype House cohort, as well as other popular creators like “kombucha girl” Brittany Tomlinson and Adam Ray, also known as Rosa.
For a platform trying to figure out a revenue model, the increase in verified creators was not entirely unexpected. Besides advertising, TikTok also relies on its Creator’s Program—a setup where the platform connects its most popular users with prospective investors, managers, and advertisers. (Rolling Stone previously reported that creative agencies affiliated with TikTok will often pay users $400/month to make one post a day.) And celebrities, of course, come with instant appeal and a fanbase already engaged in their careers elsewhere. Advertisers and investors are, rather nakedly, already salivating over the social feeds of celebrities, now littered with Tide Detergent #TidePartner hashtags and Casper mattress referral codes. The sooner TikTok can show off its prize jewels, the better (for its advertisers and investors, at least.)
Because of this, I’m unsurprised that TikTok has already rolled out yet another unnecessary red carpet for the droves of Hollywood celebrities flocking to the app en massé, desperate to be seen as cool by both their kids and fans and even haters. But like their standings on other apps—chiefly, Instagram and Twitter—their ongoing takeover of the TikTok algorithm represents the worst that social media has to offer up.
Google “TikTok,” and one will likely find a plethora of breathless articles about Reese Witherspoon recreating a viral dance trend with her son. The platform encourages the sharing and mass dissemination of trends and sounds and dances, sure, and star power is greatly appealing to a company looking to widen its margins and broaden its investor base, but the creators of that dance are often unmentioned. With the spike in celebrities comes the erasure of amateur TikTokers and skewed engagement metrics for young creators who can’t possibly hope to compete against an Oscar-winning actress copying their video.
Glance through the early search results on a TikTok sound and you’ll find a group of verified users, disconnected from the average teens that are building and creating these memes. (TikTok did not respond to a request for comment on whether the app’s algorithm prioritized verified creators.) Verification only compounds
TikTok has shadow-banned fat, queer and disabled creators, who it claimed it was looking to “protect.” In November, the Washington Post reported that moderators on the platform routinely marked content from black Americans as objectionable and “urban content,” according to a former employee. These incidents highlight a contentious struggle at the heart of the app: Who is it for, and who gets to reap the profits from it. The creators making the most engaging, creative, and relatable videos for the platform aren’t always the easiest to sell to both advertisers and investors. Celebrities, meanwhile, waltz into the app verified, with the Hollywood press machine behind them.
It’s not all bad—Doja Cat invited Haley Sharpe to appear in the “Say So” music video after her dance helped popularize the song among millions and millions of TikTok Users. But, I truly believe that celebrities have no place on the app. They bring with them too much chaos and thievery to do any lasting good for TikTok. Nobody needs another place to endure celebrities’ futile attempts at cultivating social capital. They, and the investors they bring with them, already own every other corner of the internet. TikTok was likely never safe from these influences, but for a brief and futile moment, it appeared it would be.