“GRWM stories are getting better,” my teacher texted me one Friday night last semester.
For the past few months, these late-night academic comments have been the reality of my TikTok class at Duke. Yes, this is correct. officially called “Build global audiencesThe class, which is in the innovation and entrepreneurship program, is supposed to teach students to hack algorithm knowledge and increase their followers, in hopes of mastering the art of content creation (and eventually monetizing it). Every week, we design game plans for TikTok content, and participate in Socratic seminars. About the addictive magnetism of Alex Earle Story Videos, and came up with blaring editorials and steamy videos in hopes of cutting through the For You page clutter. It’s a bit like a diet version of Kris Jenner’s MasterClass, except our Kris is Aaron Dineen, a professor of social marketing with a Ph.D. 30,000 TikTok followers Based on what I can only call the strong content of the middle-aged white professor.
I took the class because (1) I wanted an easy A and (2) I’m a Leo and love attention. I really got into my inner Charli D’Amelio exploration when I made a satirical TikTok series last year and hinted at (completely fabricatedA love story between me and my roommate. About 800,000 likes and 12,000 followers later, I wanted to see what would happen if I actually applied some semblance of strategy and consistency to my TikToks. Perhaps this could turn into something real, like money or Luxury trip to Dubai.
Since its debut in 2022, the class has gained an infamous, somewhat humiliating reputation on campus as the “influencer class” — left to a group of investment bankers, soon-to-be burnt-outs, and software engineers to mock. But for Professor Dineen, effect is “just another means of artistic expression”. Similar to the Creative Writing Workshop, we just create, share and critique our work, only that work lives on social media, which is a relatively new and ever-evolving medium, he says. Just like how English students dissect Sylvia Plath line by line, we dissect TikToks, second by second. This category – and similar programs in University of Southern CaliforniaAnd East Carolina Universityand the University of Virginia—It also seems to validate content creation not only as a marketable skill but also as a viable career path.
On day one, Dineen showed off TikToks on a whiteboard and challenged us to answer the ultimate question – why did any of these videos go viral? Students in the class represent a diverse cross-section of fellow Duke attention-seekers: D1 basketball players, dancers-turned-sorority girls, vegan lifestyle vloggers, and even MBA students. We speculated that some of the videos did so well because they were easily designed into thirst traps; Others are because TikTok can’t get enough of Duke basketball. But they all took part in some kind of strategy. There was an intuitive understanding of consumer psychology beneath their checkered facade. We were just trying to distill it into tricky formulas: eye-catching hooks that grabbed the viewer’s attention in two seconds, hot shots that begged users to argue in the comments section (there’s no such thing as bad publicity, Deneen often reminds us), and captivating cliffhangers. We are ranked according to our engagement, weekly content plans and our video concepts – so it’s not necessarily how many likes and follows we get, but the effort, time and strategy spent to get those likes and followers.
Halfway through the semester, I entered the classroom to find my TikTok on display on the whiteboard, ready for public dissection. It was part of my “Types of Gays You’ll Meet in College” series I developed the previous week that was gaining traction. “The hook is quick and easy. A classmate said. “What’s going on in the video—the walking—is kind of distracting,” says another classmate. My teacher nodded in agreement, adding, “He put this up as a string, which means people want Seeing the second part, which means,” he said, pausing dramatically, “More followers! “
This new content was a stark contrast to my previous version of TikToks: the audio was clean of awkward silences, the text was irresistibly immersive, and the hook was as clickbait-y as can be. Rather than being off the cuff, this was very strategic, very personal, and focused on my audience’s interests rather than mine. In large part because of the TikTok rules we devised as a class, I reworked my content to please the algorithm and my allotment, adding 4,000 new followers to my account by the end of the semester. Upon more feedback, I eventually turned this concept into an eight-part series, chronicling gay sisters, the tote bag, gay granola, and so on.
When you’re scrolling without thinking, it’s easy to miss the hundreds of behind-the-scenes decisions that ultimately determine whether or not TikTok explodes. What I’ve learned is that there is a logic to Alex Earle’s (singular, so far) crazy success while similar creators struggle to reach Alix Earle’s levels of influence. “I don’t believe in luck,” Natalia Hauser, style influencer and undergraduate teaching assistant in the class, told me. “If it were to go viral, the algorithm would do its due diligence and let it go viral.” But as much as I want to believe in the fate of the algorithm, I remain skeptical: If there was an absolute formula for internet fame, wouldn’t we all already be influencers? There may be strategies for hacking the algorithm, but in the end, it’s part of it he have To be a little lucky. Allison Chen, a classmate who is a self-described “messy cook” and has over 450k followers Instagram And Tik TokIt’s a formula of 60 percent, 40 percent luck, he agrees.
But what comes after the spread? Chen started for Duke on the pre-track. After taking a break semester to attend French Pastry School and focus on content creation, she hasn’t ruled out becoming a full-time influencer. “I basically run my own business,” she says. “It’s an exciting risk that I’m willing to take.” Hauser, on the other hand, sees the effect not as a full-time rant but as a supplement to her marketing career: “It’s a professional asset… In behavioral interviews, my answer to the challenges I’ve overcome, the lessons I’ve learned, it’s always TikTok.” Meanwhile, she made just under $30,000 last year from brand collaborations and partnerships.
We each went into class with our own set of expectations, which we either met or exceeded. Athletes learn how to market Name, image and examplelifestyle vloggers have mastered the art of Get Ready With Me story time, and I’m writing for it Cosmo and getting paid to create TikTok content for another media company this summer. Last week, I realized how well I’d built my brand when a freshman came up to me at a party and innocently asked, “Aren’t you that twinkling from TikTok?”
Although, I don’t think the full-time effect is for me. I’m so grateful to have had the power of the platform, and as a journalist covering trends, understanding the creator economy is invaluable (the PR packages companies send me aren’t bad either). But what Hauser describes as “TikTok’s psychological warfare” can be very draining. When my content is doing well, I feel a flicker of satisfaction — there’s a wonderful validation that comes from the noise of notifications. But this algorithmic erection wears off in a matter of days, and when it does, I take it as a personal attack. what did I do wrong? Is my content boring…or worse, am I boring?
It is reassuring to know that I am not alone in this simultaneous state of terror and fatigue. After spring break, many students in the class said they were exhausted. When TikToking became our homework, it turned into hard work — if intermittently rewarding — along with research papers and internship applications. I found myself losing touch with the initial fun TikToking gave me, the adrenaline rush of shooting shit online and learning silly little dances. After all, isn’t that easy, refreshing, authentic enthusiasm supposed to be the allure of influencers? By turning it into a science, are we losing out on what drew us to social media in the first place?
However, I recently added “Content Creator” to my resume. I’m nowhere near becoming a twinkling version of Alix Earle, but give me 30 minutes, a common voice, and a throaty light, and I’m confident I can make something that has a good chance of exploding. Even if I don’t parlay that into lasting fame and riches, that’s something to be proud of. And if anyone is reading this and wants to send me on vacation to Dubai…well, let’s just say I’m available.
Derek Ding is a freelance beauty writer and content creator. Featured in NYLON Magazine, Popsugar, The LA Times, Madhappy, and The Duke Chronicle. When he’s not making or testing sunscreen, you’ll likely find him bashing his friends for not wearing enough sunscreen, making avocado toast, or coordinating the next Instagram photo. Keep up with his photodumps.