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TikTok, the Fastest Way on Earth to Become a Food Star

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Eitan Bernath, a 19-year-old TikTok star with more than 1.6 million followers, began posting cooking content to the platform in 2019. Like many Generation Z TikTok chefs, he taught himself to cook by watching YouTube and the Food Network. He would share the things he made to Instagram, but never gained much traction.

Within 24 hours of posting his first TikTok, however, he had accrued tens of thousands of followers. Mr. Bernath, whose demeanor is bright, upbeat and approachable, began sharing short, easy-to-make recipes that other beginner cooks and his teenage peers could make at home. The videos took off.

“TikTok is the biggest thing that happened to me in my career, and honestly the reason why I am where I am today,” he said.

In 2018, when TikTok was officially introduced in America — it was already enormously popular elsewhere around the world — the app was synonymous with lip syncs and dance challenges. But food content exploded on the platform in early 2020, when millions of people were stuck at home during quarantine and cooking became a pastime. Videos with the hashtag #TikTokFood have collectively amassed 25.2 billion views, and the app regularly spawns viral food crazes, such as whipped coffee and a pasta dish with baked feta and tomatoes now known as the “TikTok pasta.” A video that shows you how to make a three-ingredient Oreo cake has gotten more than 42.1 million views.

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CreditCredit…By Eitan Bernath

TikTok has also birthed a new generation of cooking stars who didn’t put in years in a professional kitchen or at a glossy food magazine, and who are often showcasing recipes they find online rather than developing their own. They’ve become famous on the internet remarkably fast.

“The thing that makes TikTok outstanding compared to any other platform is the speed of scale,” said Eunice Shin, the head of media and entertainment at Prophet, a growth strategy firm. “If something goes viral, you can go from zero to millions of followers in a matter of months. That’s really hard to do if you take a traditional trajectory.”

No one has seized on this opportunity faster than members of Gen Z. “The trend we’re noticing is younger and younger talent making a name for themselves as a result of adopting the platform,” said Jad Dayeh, the head of digital media at Endeavor, a top talent agency.

Many Gen Z stars on FoodTok, as some call the food community on the app, wonder why anyone would pay their dues at a grueling restaurant job when they could be building their own brand online. Others are leaving the restaurant business to pursue full-time careers as content creators. And several are monetizing through TikTok’s creator fund, which pays content creators based on how many views their videos get, and through advertising deals and sponsorships.

Creators on TikTok can earn anywhere from a few bucks to millions of dollars. The TikTok star Addison Easterling, who produces lifestyle content, earned more than $5 million in 2020 alone, according to a Forbes report. Tabitha Brown, a vegan cook, has attracted more than 4.7 million followers on TikTok and just released her first book of inspiring personal stories. Christian Paul, an Atlanta-based baker with more than 1.3 million followers on TikTok, created his own line of chocolate bars.

Some up-and-coming food creators say they’re already making six figures. Ultimately, what they want is to build their own businesses, whether by launching a cookware line, publishing a cookbook or opening a restaurant. What they don’t want is to work for someone else.

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Eitan Bernath, a TikTok star who recently turned 19 years old, taught himself to cook by watching YouTube and Food Network.
Credit…Timothy O’Connell for The New York Times

Many say their lack of conventional training is a key part of their success.

“If you look at the primary people in traditional food media,” said Mr. Bernath, “they’re all classically trained or restaurant chefs. They have a ton to offer and a great amount of culinary knowledge, but I think what TikTok has done with Gen Z and teaching people how to cook, it’s just more relatable. The feedback I hear all the time is, ‘If this 18-year-old Eitan can cook this so effortlessly, then I can, too.’”

Every platform pioneers a new type of viral food content. Facebook and BuzzFeed Tasty ushered in an era of easy-to-follow recipes prepared by a pair of disembodied hands. YouTube offered a home for more complex recipes and 20-minute cooking vlogs. Instagram brought camera-ready viral treats to the masses with photos of Cronuts and ramen burgers.

If TikTok has a dominant food-video format, it’s a camera propped up on a counter as a person cooks in front of you. It’s almost as if you’re FaceTiming a friend while they make themselves dinner. The result is a casual, personality-driven cooking clip that feels easy to follow. Most TikTok cooks are people who are preparing food in their home kitchens, and it’s commonplace for friends or family members to pop into the frame.

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Credit…Emily Elconin for The New York Times

“Recipes that are going viral on other social platforms are just visually appealing, you drool over them, but you never make them,” said Ahmad Alzahabi, 24, a TikTok food star in Flint, Mich., with more than 3.7 million followers. “TikTok has allowed people to document their family gatherings, what they make at home. It doesn’t have to look as pretty.”

TikTok also makes it incredibly easy to create content. Users upload videos that are up to a minute long, and set those videos to sound. You can add title cards, captions and fun effects like zooming or face warping. While editing videos for YouTube requires knowledge of third-party editing software, you can shoot, edit and post videos easily to TikTok, all from your phone. TikTok also allows power users to organize their videos into collections, such as “pie recipes” or “dinner ideas,” and offers functions like livestreaming to keep fans engaged.

But it’s the app’s algorithm that makes it easier than ever to become an overnight food sensation. On TikTok, the primary way users consume videos is through the “For You” page, an algorithmically programmed feed of content delivered to users based on what they’ve watched or engaged with in the past. Once a user begins viewing and engaging with content, there’s a snowball effect in which that user is served more and more of that type of content. If the algorithm picks up that you like Mexican food, for instance, it will show you more cooking videos in that realm.

This algorithmic content distribution system allows users to go down deep rabbit holes and program their feeds full of niche cooking content. There are a seemingly endless number of videos dedicated to every dietary restriction, region or culture: vegan cooking, Keto-friendly recipes, North African street food, Midwestern cuisine.

For food creators, the resulting growth is explosive.

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Credit…Rinne Allen for The New York Times

Just as Food TikTok took off during the pandemic, many top TikTok cooks got their start when they were stuck at home in quarantine. Halle Burns, 19, a TikTok food creator in Atlanta with more than 1.8 million followers, began creating soothing vegan cooking videos last spring. “I didn’t have anything else to do, and so I started making food videos,” she said. A year later, her relaxing, rhythmic videos have caused fans to call her the “Bob Ross of cooking.”

Brandon Skier, 28, started his cooking channel on TikTok under the name “Sad Papi,” after the restaurant he worked at in Los Angeles closed down because of Covid-19. Unlike many of his younger peers, Mr. Skier did attend cooking school, and he uses his traditional culinary skills to teach people how to make five-star meals at home. In true TikTok fashion, though, he keeps the recipes approachable for beginners. “It’s fine-dining food and techniques, with the vibe that you’re just hanging out in your friend’s kitchen,” he said.

Mr. Skier also produces content for Hedley & Bennett, a popular apron brand. He has no plans to return to cooking in a restaurant kitchen.

Some TikTok cooks are already making the transition to Hollywood. Mr. Bernath signed with the power agency Endeavor last year, and in December he announced he would be joining “The Drew Barrymore Show” as the program’s resident culinary expert.

Mr. Bernath has also upgraded his kitchen since finding stardom. He recently rented a large loft in downtown Manhattan for video shoots, a big step up from his former home kitchen in New Jersey. “I own my production company, and it has expanded in the past six months, so I now have three full-time employees on staff who help facilitate and create all the content,” he said. He plans to continue hiring more staff every few months.

Newton Nguyen, a 22-year-old TikTok food creator with more than 6.9 million followers, recently moved to Los Angeles to pursue social media stardom full time. He said he hopes to create a food travel show of his own one day, or “maybe a cookbook,” he said. While hunting for his apartment, a good kitchen was key. “I had a list, and the number one thing was a very nice kitchen,” he said. “I don’t know if you saw my old TikToks, but I used to live in a mobile home. My kitchen was very small.”

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Credit…Adam Amengual for The New York Times

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Credit…Adam Amengual for The New York Times

Accessibility is important among young TikTok cooks. Food creators said they wanted to communicate to their audiences that anyone could cook good food, regardless of background or budget. “What TikTok has created a space for is food that’s extremely achievable,” said Bettina Makalintal, a food and culture staff writer at Vice.

Many find their recipes on social media and other websites, integrating cooking tips from platforms like Reddit and Snapchat into their videos. “A lot of my recipes are from the internet,” said Mr. Nguyen. “I’ll find something on a friend’s Instagram story that looks interesting.”

Mr. Alzahabi said Gen Z TikTok food stars are also “a little bit more creative in the kitchen,” routinely making food from different cultures, or fusing dishes together. (Some TikTok cooks — but not all — credit the cultural origins of their dishes in the comment section of their videos.)

“I think the older generation, they’re very cookie cutter,” he said. “If you want to make a recipe, they think there’s a certain way to make it. I think this younger generation, especially in America with all the cultures that are mixing together, I think there will be a new breed of insane foods that are combining all these cultures and ethnicities.”

As fans become better cooks, some start channels of their own. Mr. Skier said that new names in food are popping up every day because of TikTok.

“A couple people I’m friends with right now are in the process of blowing up, and they started a month ago,” he said. “If you make good content and good food, you can blow up too.”

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A TikTok trend where teenagers use tiny magnets as fake tongue piercings has prompted the NHS …

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A TikTok trend where teenagers use tiny magnets as fake tongue piercings has prompted the NHS to call for the metal balls to be banned.

The viral challenge involves people putting two magnetic balls on either side of their tongue to give the appearance of a tongue piercing.

But accidentally swallowing more than one magnet can be life-threatening and cause serious damage within hours.

The NHS said there has been a rise in hospital admissions among older children as many have taken part in the online craze, leading the NHS to issue a patient safety alert earlier this month.

An 11-year-old is among those who suffered serious complications after apparently swallowing several of the magnets, according to Worcester News.

Ellis Tripp was rushed to hospital and forced to undergo a six-hour operation to remove five inches of his bowel.

His mother, Amy Clarke, pleaded with other parents to watch out for the TikTok trend.

“I’m in a nightmare. This TikTok craze could/would have killed him if left any longer. Please talk to your children and tell them how DANGEROUS THESE ARE,” she wrote on Facebook.

A 13-year-old girl is also reported to have had major surgery after trying out the social media trend.

Her mother, Faye Elizabeth from Rainhill, said her daughter swallowed 15 of the magnetic beads, according to the Liverpool Echo.

The tiny balls are less than 6mm in diameter and can be easily swallowed.

Once ingested, they can become forced together in the intestines or bowels, squeezing the tissue and cutting off the blood supply.

At least 65 children have been admitted to hospital in England for urgent surgery after swallowing magnets in the last three years.

Professor Simon Kenny, paediatric surgeon and national clinical director for children and young people at NHS England, has called for the magnets to be banned.

He said: “There is nothing fun for children or their parents about surgery to remove magnets that have been swallowed and become stuck together through different parts of the intestines, or the long-term physical problems and internal scarring that can be left behind.

“I would urge parents to be aware of the dangers associated with magnetic toys but ultimately, the only way we can prevent future incidents is to stop these items being sold altogether.”

The NHS said anyone who has swallowed magnets should not wait to develop symptoms and should instead go to A&E immediately.

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TikTok Given EU Ultimatum Over Child Safety Concerns

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Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘SOUR,’ the onset of the TikTok Era of Music

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Courtesy of Stefan Kohli

Rodrigo’s first studio-length album, “Sour,” was released May 21 to widespread acceptance and popularity amongst Gen Z-ers.

Olivia Rodrigo has become a name that everybody recognizes — whether you’ve spent hours watching TikTok videos to her debut single ‘drivers license,’ released earlier this year, or you’ve heard the song playing on the radio. 

Her rise to fame seemed to happen overnight — Rodrigo went from being a Disney star that only pre-teens and some old-school ‘High School Musical’ loyalists would recognize from the Disney+ TV Series ‘High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,’ to being #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for 9 weeks straight in a matter of months. 

While she is not the first Disney actor-turned-popstar, it is undeniable that she had an advantage that Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus didn’t have in the early 2010s: TikTok.

‘drivers license’ quickly soundtracked several TikTok trends: from dance challenges and dramatic cry-singing, to videos decoding clues that suggested the song was about her HSMTMTS co-star and rumoured ex-boyfriend, Joshua Bassett. 

Gen Z’s obsession with Rodrigo’s relationship drama fueled the success of the song, but the raw emotion that seeps through relatable lyrics is what made the song a TikTok sensation. This relatability is characteristic of every track on her debut album, “Sour,” released May 21.

While the lyrical relatability and familiar radio-pop form of the song work well for 15 second TikTok videos, the problem arises with the TikTok Effect, which has spilled over into every corner of the music industry. For instance, ‘drivers license’ broke the record for most streams in a day on Spotify for a non-holiday song — even though it is arguably trite in its musical quality. 

‘drivers license’ is a typical, formulaic pop ballad, far from innovative. While this does not seem like it would be immediately advantageous, social media has rendered it commercially successful (if not artistically). The majority of pop music’s consumer base has already been so conditioned to consume art that conforms to a basic melodic formula that predictability is rewarded disproportionately — which inevitably means that innovation is penalized. 

This tendency for conformity is a problem that started before TikTok; a result of long-term conditioning by the most successful figures in music. But TikTok has catalyzed the process due to its increasing influence on the music industry, acting as a metric of success that disturbs the talent-reward ratio even more than before by increasing the incentive (and therefore, the pressure) to conform to the formula.

To gain fame through TikTok, the artist’s song has to become a trending sound, which usually happens through dance challenges, memes or even unrelated trends that use the song. This system is flawed in itself, because the success of music is now dependent on how danceable and ‘memeable’ it is — but it also further reinforces the formula, as the music most likely to conform to these standards is the familiar, cookie-cutter pop with catchy choruses and simplistic lyricism. This is the kind of music Olivia Rodrigo makes.  

 Another very obvious problem with TikTok — which also incidentally worked in Rodrigo’s favor — is the short-form video format of the platform. Videos can be up to a minute long, but the 15 second videos are the most popular. Again, only the very simplistic, very repetitive songs can conform to this reductive format without losing crucial elements of musicality.

In order to garner TikTok success, a song needs to instantly capture attention — something which familiarity helps achieve — but this leaves no scope for innovation. Just like the essence of a novel cannot truly be captured in a paragraph-long summary, the layers and complexities of a song that progresses beyond the monotonous radio standard simply cannot be captured in 15 seconds, and it should not have to. The fact that most mainstream music follows a similar pattern already inhibits listeners from actively engaging with a track, and shortening the length will reduce attention spans even further — making it that much harder for the non-conforming artist to get noticed.  

The reward for those who do conform, however, is so bloated that the TikTok Effect is also seeping into the production of music directly. Rodrigo said in a video explaining her songwriting process that she deliberately added a cue into ‘drivers license’ that could act as a transition for TikToks. “And people did make TikToks like that so I’m really happy about that,” she said. 

While 18-year-old Rodrigo used this strategy skillfully and successfully, others have attempted to do the same to little avail. Justin Bieber, for instance, went to great lengths to make his single ‘Yummy’ go viral on TikTok through its bubblegum-pop production, but listeners saw through his somewhat desperate attempt, some even condemning that the song was very clearly designed for TikTok. 

But unlike Bieber’s futile attempt at TikTok trendiness, Rodrigo’s song still seems to have some heart: Its saving grace is emotional — not musical — authenticity. The underlying fact, however, is that commercialism is invading the creative process, and the art is being tainted. If artists are keeping the TikTok market in mind while creating music, we can expect this era of music to be marked by a further increase in standardization, a further loss in innovation. And the artists who resist the allure of the formula’s ensured commercial success will have an even harsher, more indifferent world to contend with. 

Olivia Rodrigo, however, has merit to her success — she already had a Disney fanbase, and she is not without talent. She can be credited for a powerful voice and the smart business sense that allowed her to adeptly use TikTok and the formula to her advantage. But ultimately, it remains true that her immediate and unparalleled success in doing so has catalyzed the onset of a new era of the same, old music — robbing the music industry of the sanctity of the creative process. TikTok is the indicator of success in music now, and while it can be credited for lowering the barriers of entry in the music industry by giving musicians a platform to grow, the issue remains that it prefers homogeneity to originality, leaving many potentially talented artists disadvantaged. Like most systems that claim to be meritocratic, TikTok is anything but. It clings desperately to the familiar, and in doing so, actively hinders the progression of art.

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