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Meet Traverse City’s TikTok Star

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By Craig Manning
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Feb. 21, 2021

Local AT&T employee by day, global social media influencer by night? That’s more or less the resume of Shane Francis, a 24-year-old Traverse City resident whose following on TikTok, the buzzy social media network, is the size of a city.

In 2018, Francis started an account on Musical.ly, a social media app built around short-form lip-syncing videos. That app merged with TikTok and rebranded in August of that year, by which point Francis says he had about 400 followers.

In the years since, both Francis’s online platform and TikTok userbase have exploded. TikTok went from about 271 million global users in December 2018 to an estimated 1.2 billion today. Francis, meanwhile, now has more than 212,000 followers. To put that number in perspective, Michigan’s second largest city, Grand Rapids, had a population of about 198,000 people in 2020.

TikTok offers a grab-bag of content, ranging from musical performances to comedy skits to dance routines to parkour. The videos, which can be a maximum of 60 seconds in length, are wildly popular among teenagers, who make up approximately one-third of the TikTok user base. Francis, whose lane on TikTok is comedy, built his following by aiming squarely for a youthful audience.

“My original audience, most of my followers were 13 to 17,” Francis tells The Ticker. “So I had to think, ‘Okay, when I was 13 to 17 years old, what did I like?’ I liked Disney Channel; I liked [YouTuber] Jake Paul; and I liked all these silly, cringey videos. And so I said, ‘Well, cringey videos it is!”

Francis says his first video to go wildly viral – to the tune of 2.1 million views and 20,000-plus new followers – was “about how God made me,” which he describes as a lighthearted Saturday Night Live style comedy sketch.

“I took a bunch of empty cups and put them out on the table,” Francis says, recalling the video. “One said ‘Funny’; one said ‘Rich’; one said ‘Popular’; one said ‘Good Looking.’ And then I had this bowl in front of me. The idea was that it was God making me and these were the ingredients. So I said ‘Alright, he’s going to be funny,’ and I went to pour that cup into the bowl and nothing was in there. ‘Alright, well he can still be popular.’ Nothing in that cup either. And I kept grabbing all these cups, and there’s nothing in any of them. So I said, ‘Hey Peter! What have we got in the back? We’ve gotta give him something!’ And one of my buddies brings out this one-gallon jug of water that just says ‘Anxiety.’ I dumped that into the bowl, right down to the last drop, and then said, ‘Okay, he’s good! Send him down!’”

Francis says that mix – of self-deprecating humor and more serious subject matter – resonated with his young audience, ultimately setting the tone for his TikTok style.

The most surreal thing about becoming something of a social media star? How “normal” life continues to be outside of the internet. While Francis says that his friends, neighbors, and co-workers are all well aware of his social media persona – and sometimes tease him about it – he’s otherwise still just a regular guy.

“It’s actually really cool, because I have these kids who are telling me, ‘I look up to you; you’re my hero; you made me laugh today,’” Francis tells The Ticker. “And then my friends just think I’m their weird, kind of annoying friend. Nothing changed.”

When asked if he wants something to change in his day-to-day life, Francis isn’t quite sure how to answer. Over the course of its meteoric rise, TikTok has minted several genuine stars. Charli D’Amelio, for instance, is a 16-year-old dancer and voice actress who became the first TikTok personality to hit 100 million followers; she earns millions of dollars a year from sponsorship and merchandising deals. Lil Nas X and Olivia Rodrigo, meanwhile, are a pair of singers who became viral sensations on TikTok and rode that buzz to record-smashing success for their respective signature songs, “Old Town Road” and “Drivers License.”

Francis isn’t aiming for that level of fame and fortune, but he does want to build upon his success – particularly as his followers get older and start looking for a different kind of content. This year, Francis is hoping to secure a sponsor for a new podcast called “Frantic Thoughts,” which he describes as his way of highlighting knowledge or skills in unlikely or overlooked places.

“I want to be able to show that everybody has knowledge,” Francis says. “Everybody has something to give, everybody has something to learn, and we can learn from everybody, no matter what. So that’s what I want that podcast to show, and I want to move my audience from these silly videos to something that people can take away, and talk about, and learn life lessons from.”

As for TikTok? Even if the podcast blows up, Francis says he’ll stay on the platform – not just because it’s an effective place to build and grow a following, but also because he always wants to keep at least one foot in his comedy video roots.

“My biggest thing, if you ask my friends, is that I like to make people laugh,” Francis explains. “That’s my biggest motivation for this TikTok stuff. Because if I can make one person laugh, then I made somebody’s day.”


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Instagram’s TikTok clone Reels is now available in the Lite app in India

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Instagram’s TikTok clone, Reels, has officially launched last August, but so far it’s only been available in the main Instagram app. From today on, however, you can also find Reels inside Instagram Lite in India.

As with all of Facebook’s Lite apps, this one is designed to be less data intensive and also use less resources on your phone, so it’s perfect for people who either have lower-end devices or small data plans, or both.

Instagram's TikTok clone Reels is now available in the Lite app in India

Reels is a feature that lets you record and edit 15-second multi-clip videos with audio, effects, and a bunch of creative tools. If that sounds familiar to every TikTok user out there, it’s because it should. Facebook and its various properties have never been shy about wholesale aping of successful features from other competing apps – Snapchat in particular has been copied a lot, and because of the reach of Facebook’s apps, its copies may end up being more successful than the originals. It still remains to be seen if that will be the case in the Reels vs. TikTok battle, but Instagram sure seems serious about Reels.

Instagram Lite, while gaining the Reels feature, still doesn’t have IGTV or Shop. And while you’ll be able to watch Reels in Instagram Lite, you still can’t create them there – you need the main app for that. But maybe the company is betting that more people would be willing to switch to that after seeing all these Reels, if that gets them to want to make their own.

The addition was apparently expedited for India, because of the traction Reels is seeing there, as well as the early adoption of the new Instagram Lite app, which has been available since September.

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The beauty of TikTok’s secret, surprising, and eerily accurate recommendation algorithms

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  • Why it matters:

    It’s flipped the script on who gets famous online.

  • Key players:

    TikTok

  • Availability:

    Now

Deven Karpelman would never have joined TikTok if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. And she certainly never expected to be famous on it. But the app has a way of rewarding good content with views, dropping new creators in front of a broad spectrum of fans. That’s how Karpelman, a 57-year-old who works in special education and started making videos to stave off lockdown boredom, ended up with 327,000 followers, many of whom are a fraction of her age. 

In one of her breakthrough videos from July, Karpelman—known as @tequilaanddonuts—re-creates the makeup looks she used to wear in the late ’70s. Her wavy white hair, which normally falls around her face in a granny-like halo, is pinned and clipped into something like a faux-hawk. She’s covered her face in white powder, painted her eyelids black, and drawn a thin line of dark lipstick. The video cuts, and when Karpelman comes back, she shows off her “fancy going-out face.” The black eyeshadow has extended all the way across her face and both eyes, as if someone had made an angry swipe with a paintbrush.

In the hours after she shared this makeup experiment, it was shown to hundreds of thousands of people on their “For You” pages, the lifeblood of TikTok. It wasn’t obvious to her why this particular post was suddenly so visible, except that TikTok’s recommendation algorithms had made it so.  

Making it big

Since TikTok launched in China in 2016, it has become one of the most engaging and fastest-growing social media platforms in the world. It’s been downloaded more than 2.6 billion times globally and has 100 million users in the US. And the unique way it finds and serves up content is a big part of its appeal. 

The “For You” page is what most TikTok creators think makes the app different from other social media platforms, because anyone can get famous there. Good content is rewarded faster, supercharged by the algorithms that show users an endless stream of videos tailored to their tastes. While other social media platforms favor viral content with mass appeal, TikTok’s algorithms have proved especially adept at plugging creators into niche communities that share interests, hobbies, or a particular identity. 

A video’s chances of ending up on your “For You” page are determined by, among other things, the captions, sounds, and hashtags on it. And as with any other social media platform, what TikTok chooses to show you is based on how you use the app—which videos you’ve liked, what content you create. The difference is that TikTok is better at it. 

For Karpelman, TikTok has allowed her to connect with strangers during a difficult and lonely time, but the fame it bestowed on her has brought its own worries.

Already-popular creators do have an easier time getting attention, but TikTok doesn’t take a creator’s following or viral history directly into account when figuring out what content to seed where. That’s why “For You” pages mix viral hits with new videos from unknown creators, some of which have just a few views.

Over time, TikTok’s algorithms get better at guessing what users are interested in, not only connecting them to videos in their own areas of interest but bringing them into new spaces that have some overlap. (One viral video laid out TikTok’s communities like a treasure map: to get to the wholesome world of Frog TikTok, you had to leave Straight TikTok, find your way to Stoner Witch or Cottagecore, pass through Trans and Non-Binary, and “go through the portal to reach the promised land.”) 

Karpelman started doing makeup videos after teens on TikTok tried to correct her about an aesthetic that she lived at its peak. “[They were] trying to school me about being hardcore and, you know, being alternative. And I was like, ‘Oh, honey child, you did not invent sin,’” she told me when we spoke on Zoom in December. 

Now her videos appear a lot in communities devoted to LGBTQ+ and mental-­health issues and recently gained an audience of women around college age, she says. Followers say she has “grandma energy,” a distinction she has alternately leaned into and dodged.  

Speed bumps

Last year was an interesting one for TikTok: just as its cultural relevance exploded, it also faced challenges. India banned the app, and the Trump administration threatened to do the same unless TikTok’s Chinese parent company cut all ties. (The threat was not carried out.

TikTok has had to release more information about how its algorithms work, partially in response to security concerns about its ownership, and competitors like Instagram, Snapchat, and Triller have sped up attempts to copy what it is that makes their rival’s recommendations so good. 

At the same time, the platform has been forced to reckon with its increasing role in amplifying misinformation, and many Black creators have said that racism and harassment are disturbingly prevalent on it. 

For Karpelman, TikTok has allowed her to connect with strangers during a difficult and lonely time, but the fame it bestowed on her has brought its own worries. Fans have reached out to ask her for help with serious mental-health issues and interpersonal conflicts. Sometimes they want more from her than she feels she can give. 

Her experience working with students comes in handy: she sets boundaries and helps young fans learn to advocate for themselves. “Let’s do some Googling,” she says. “Let’s look at your [high school’s] admin. Oh, it looks like there is a district-wide psychologist. I will help you put together an email. You send it to me, I’ll proofread it and send it back to you, and then you send it to these people. Give it a try.” 

But Karpelman has found another way to connect with her young audience: by talking about what they have in common. In one video, she demonstrates how she pretends to be on the phone in order to dodge a particularly aggressive salesperson in a mall.  “There were a lot of kids that commented in there that said, ‘I had no idea that grownups had these social anxieties,’ and that kind of blew my mind,” she says. “Kids just have no idea that older people are human.”

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Yale TikTok: A potential market for Gen-Z students

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12:34 am, Feb 24, 2021

Contributing Reporter

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TikTok has become an increasingly popular social media outlet for many Yalies, with the top videos from Yale students averaging half a million views.

In today’s pandemic climate, social media has played a vital role in helping people feel connected, contributing to TikTok’s astronomical rise in popularity during the initial quarantine last year. Before we knew it, videos of whipped coffee and dances to “Supalonely” had consumed the teen media bubble, but this was only the beginning. The TikTok phenomenon took on a life of its own, branching into the affectionately dubbed “College TikTok,” where students shared videos of their high school stats and day in the life videos, acting as inspirations to high school seniors all across the world.

The success of NYU TikTok where students shared videos of dismal quarantine food options made national news in August 2020 and drew the eye of the public to this exponentially growing realm of the app. Yalies have made their own space on this social media platform, with “#yale” boasting a combined total of 124.2 million views.

I’ve actually never heard of NYU tiktok (possibly because I’m Australian),” Tia Chitty ’24, who runs a TikTok with 94.9k followers at the time of writing, wrote in an email to the News. “I started making TikTok content on the very same day that I downloaded the app, so my content wasn’t based on what anyone else was making. I would love for Yale tiktok to grow and create its own little community — I think that could be really fun and a great way to connect!”

Browsing the tag is bound to yield a host of familiar faces, due to the capability of TikTok’s algorithm to launch a video into the viral stratosphere overnight, inspiring wannabe creators to make content.

The popularity of college videos then leads to several questions: What is inspiring these students to create? Are they leveraging the Yale name for clout, or do they truly hope to offer insight? The News spoke to three TikTok creators about their thoughts.

“I’m inspired by creators who make me feel genuinely happy,” Chitty said. “I often feel a little bit down after scrolling through social media, but there are a few refreshing, genuine and positive creators who make me smile,” she said.

Chitty, who runs a YouTube channel as well, also cited the record of memories she has captured as an inspiration to keep filming.

Jasmine Oang ’24, who runs an account with 4,084 followers at the time of writing, shares a similar sentiment with regard to content creation, citing her desire to help people and make interesting content, as well as being inspired by the content that she herself enjoys watching, such as day in the life videos.

Dania Baig ’23 has 1,798 followers on TikTok. According to Baig, part of Yale TikTok’s draw is that potential applicants are looking for ways to vicariously experience college, and can only do it through social media due to the lack of Bulldog Days, which is traditionally a three-day-long event where accepted students can get a taste of life at Yale.

“I think there are certain creators who definitely have the potential to be shouted out on national news because of the nature of their content — Kahlil Greene, most notably, but also Noelle Mercer for her series where she covers a prominent black woman artist every day this month,” Baig wrote to the News.

Both Chitty and Oang detailed that their main audience are people in their teens and early 20s, with Chitty also referencing her status as an international student contributing to the large numbers of Australian teens following her for a glimpse into life at an American college.

According to Oang, though her most popular videos are ones detailing tips for the SAT, she enjoys making day in the life videos most.

“I love making SAT tip videos because in high school, there were a lot of resources that cost money and really reinforced the elitism in academic success, but as a first-generation student with a single mom, they weren’t as accessible for me,” Oang said. “I spent a lot of time looking into opportunities and I really wish I had someone to point me in the right direction through all of it, so I try to do that through TikTok.”

However, Oang cited the ease and fun of day in the life videos as reasons why they are her favorite to create.

Chitty also enjoys making “day in the life” content or videos detailing specific events in her life the most. 

Her most popular video to date, with 3.4 million views, was about her taking her first Yale economics midterm in Australia at 2 a.m.

“I enjoy sharing these experiences with people and also love capturing the moments so I can look back on them in the future,” Chitty said. “Most of my followers are Australian, and so they also enjoy my ‘skit’ videos where I act out conversations between an Australian and an American.”

Though the Yale name does give videos a certain boost, both Oang and Chitty believe that they would still be making TikToks whether they were at Yale or not.

Since its launch in September 2016, Tik Tok’s popularity has grown exponentially, and is reported to have 1 billion active users as of February 2021.

Mai Chen| mai.chen@yale.edu

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