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What It’s Like Going Viral On TikTok and How To Do It

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Yesterday I got a text from my friend from film school. She said, “I just had a TikTok get really good attention, and I don’t know what to do next!” The video was of her in clown makeup, smoking a cigarette, and doing an amusing, raspy-voiced character. The last shot was her Mom, who was condescendingly asking her what she was doing with her life. It was a really funny video that got 70k views and 16k likes. She went on to ask me, “Do I continue doing a clown character? If I have to dress up as a clown every day, I’m going to kill myself.” It made me laugh. Why would she have to dress up as a clown? Charli D'Amelio gets a deal with Dunkin Donuts, and my friend Rose is tying her own noose in shoes 5 sizes too big.

The First Time

Why would many people appreciate her video mean that she would have to make the same joke if she no longer wanted to tell it? She went on to tell me, in regards to her video’s success: “it's fun when the validation starts to roll in, and you don’t want the high to stop.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. My friend has just gone viral on TikTok for the first time. As someone who has gone viral quite a few times, I can attest that calling it a “high” is not at all an understatement though it is fun, it can leave a void in its wake if you don’t approach it with the right mindset.

What Kind of Person Wants to go Viral?

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Sean Millea

In my fifth grade yearbook, I had listed next to my photo that my favorite movie was Superbad (I snuck in a viewing at a sleepover) and that the occupation I one day hoped to attain was a comedian/ impersonator. The only impression I can do is Patrick Warburton (Joe from Family Guy, Kronk from Emperor's New Groove). I don’t foresee leading a particularly successful career impersonating Patrick Warburton. Considering I look nothing like him and he has no distinguishing features beyond his voice, only being able to give a convincing “hey Peter!”  would get old quick if you rented me for a party. So… sorry, fifth grade me, that dream has since passed.

However, I have had success making funny videos on the internet, specifically TikTok. If that classifies me as a comedian, I’m not sure, but it didn't stop me from putting it in my bio (I used to frequent stand-up but have since stopped). My whole life I liked being funny, and sometimes, I was! I have had several videos reach millions of views and amassed 650k+ followers on TikTok alone. For whatever reason, I have always daydreamed of being famous. Tons of us have. When you want to have a successful career in entertainment, a lot of the time, it requires fame, as shallow as it may seem. It’s the human condition. We want to be validated, and the more people doing it, the better. But what little sliver I’ve had of it, the microcosm of fame TikTok has granted me—and seeing the pursuit of it from others—has made me realize it can be an unhealthy obsession to have.

How I Went Viral

My first viral videos were me challenging kids on TikTok to guess Justin Bieber’s social media passwords and to message me “I got in” once someone did. I followed up with a video where I made it look like someone successfully got into Justin’s Instagram and DMed the code words to me (I just messaged Justin “I got in” on Instagram and marked it as unread, so it looked like he sent ME the message). 

That video got 7 million views. It was quite cool knowing that Justin probably saw the video. If he did, he might have absolutely hated it. But it made me laugh, and that’s really all that mattered. Plus, I know he must have double authentication - so who gives a damn! The thought of millions of kids trying to guess Justin’s password is hysterical to me.

And therein lies the key factor for me having gone viral many times: Making myself laugh.  

I did another series where I had a bunch of kids tag celebrities like Billie Eilish, David Dobrik, and Ellen in photos of me in a Teletubby costume on Halloween until they answered me. We successfully got David Dobrik and Ellen to acknowledge us. At one point, cults of children (and adults, I’d later find out) started tagging other celebrities. At a time, Former President Barack Obama, and every other celebrity I could think of had photos of me in their tagged photos. As fun as it was, it was also kind of scary — some kids started “revolting”, accusing me of using them for clout. Others were just demanding more “targets'' to “attack”. It made me laugh, watching children form governments inside Instagram group chats akin to Lord of The Flies. Even the photos of me being beheaded made me laugh.

But after a while, the virality made me anxious. Were these celebrities pissed? Was I going to be known as the Teletubby guy for the rest of the time? I once thought of myself as an artist, but am I now just destined to be a meme? Just like my friend in the clown costume, I was worried that the artistic integrity I thought I once had would be undermined by a juvenile joke in a costume.

What Virality Feels Like

The nature of the internet is such that people will tell you what they really think, and when millions of people are seeing something you’ve done, there are going to be people that don't like it. Even if it's great… even if it's the BEATLES… by nature of probability there will be people who will hate it… and they will tell you. Maybe you can have a higher percentage than most people. Fewer people hate the Beatles than they do, say, Lil Pump (no disrespect Pump), but the opposition will always exist. And that is what you have to be ready for when going viral. There’s not much you can do to stop it besides preventing yourself from reading all the comments.

The Tiktok “clout” I’ve received has definitely resulted in some experiences in the real world. I've been recognized twice in public beneath the mask—and it was pretty underwhelming. 

Girl at liquor store: Are you the teletubby guy? 

Me: Yeah.

Girl: Oh, cool. Your total is $15.98.

Me: Nice. 

Seeing people I know is cooler because they most certainly know about it already. But even that has gotten somewhat old. You get sick of telling the same story. They wanna know about the Teletubby thing! Forgive me if I seem ungrateful, but sometimes you just don’t feel like telling a story 1000 times. Now imagine being Paul Mccartney, where everyone knows and loves the Beatles. I bet it gets annoying talking about how the song "Yesterday" came to him in a dream or that the original words in place of “Yesterday” were "scrambled eggs” for the millionth time. Or maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know. I won’t pretend my Tiktok clout compares to being among the best songwriters to have ever lived. But it does make me wonder.

Don’t get me wrong. I love that people enjoyed the videos I have made so far. And I will always tell you about it if you wanna know. But you can only ride the high of that successful thing you did for so long before you think, “Well, what’s next?”. When you make the video, and tons of people like it and commenting on it, you feel like a legend. But a week, a month, a year later, you no longer feel like you did on the day it got a million views.

I hit 700 thousand followers on Tiktok. Then, over a few months, it dropped down to 660k. My first thought was, “wow, I could fill Madison Square Garden twice with the number of people that thought, “fuck this guy’.” A friend of mine pointed out that I could fill it 33 times with the people that stayed, which is a nice sentiment, but “a broken heart has never been mended through the ears.” I realize everyone is different; the nature of my relationship to going viral will be different from other peoples’. Some people post 20 times a day, anything that pops into their head, and they have no problem receiving hate, losing followers, etc. And some people cannot post at all. Everyone’s different! I can only tell you my own perspective. Additionally, getting a lot of followers made it harder to post because there was suddenly a guarantee that a ton of people would see my video, whereas before, it was contingent on the video doing well with the algorithm. 

Going viral is undeniably an amazing feeling. Tons of people enjoying what you’ve made, adding their own twists and observations in the comments, further amplifying the value of the video (and bringing you, the creator, a satisfaction with having collaborated with strangers). It's not going viral that makes you feel down, but the failed pursuit of getting it again can make you feel like shit. If you’re expecting a video to get a ton of views, or for people to just think it's funny/engaging, and it ends up tanking, It’s like that first sip of your hot coffee when you find out it's cold. It's waking up from the dream where you were married to that person. You can’t go into it with expectations. You have to make it for yourself and be okay with it not connecting like you thought it might have.

How to Go Viral (Understanding the Algorithm)

So how do you go viral on Tiktok? First of all, post a lot. I’d post one, and then watch as the algorithm would take my video away… first to 100 people, then, to 1000 (if the first 100 interacted with it positively)…. And when one would fall flat at 100, I’d delete it and try again. The nature of Tiktok’s algorithm (and art in general) is you really can’t be certain what is going to do well. Doggface said after going immensely viral with his cranberry juice video that he almost didn’t post it, he thought it was silly. 

That being said, there are still some things you can understand about the algorithm. The algorithm likes when you watch a video more than once. If you're stopping to pause throughout and reading things with text and going back to look at something else, it picks it up and determines, “well, this must be a pretty decent video,” and shows it to more people. It seems to understand how much the audience liked the video based on if they watched it to the end, if they watched it again, if they liked, commented, shared, paused, etc. To achieve these things, I believe it's similar to essay writing in high-school; you need to hook the viewer right away and keep them throughout. 

Sometimes, like in the case of the Teletubby video, I straight up asked them to watch the video over again. I said, “if you wanna be a part of the cause but don’t feel like tagging celebrities, watch this video multiple times so more people will see it”. And that worked! I think kids, or audiences in general, like to feel like they are a part of the video. Both in the case of Justin’s password, and in the case of the Teletubby thing, it wasn't just a funny video, but a call to action. 

Chris Rock said in “Talking Funny” that you need to have a clear premise for a stand-up bit to work. I think that is true for videos too. You need a clear premise or a clear thesis. In one video, I say we have to guess Justin Bieber's Password. In another, I’m showcasing how easy it is to flood celebrities' Instagram profiles or be seen by them. In another, I’m writing a prisoner. The rules of storytelling remain consistent across platforms, and the baseline rule there is you need to have a story to tell. 

Another thing I like to keep in mind is that there are a lot of kids on TikTok, so remembering that makes being funny, or at least knowing your audience, easier. Not that they laugh easier, because kids are smart (and based on what I see on TikTok, super funny too), but you can still cater to the adolescent humor they would appreciate. And for whatever reason, they seemed more likely to take part in the calls to action.

Some Final Words of Encouragement

So I told you about my friend in the clown costume. I specified she was a friend from film school because I know that she too is an artist. I know she wants to be appreciated for her hilarity and unique storytelling ability. And for the first time, on Tiktok, she was! But instead of feeling great about making tons of people laugh, she turned it into a negative thing. “I guess I have to be a clown for the rest of my career.” No. You have to be you for the rest of your career. That is what people enjoy. You brought life to the clown, and the clown didn't bring life to you. So untie the noose, take off the big shoes, and go make some people laugh. Or cry. Or whatever it is you want them to do as a result of your story.

And if they don’t, fuck ‘em.

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