Social media apps like TikTok are a constant presence in the lives of today’s college students, for whom every moment is potential content. It’s a nearly universal experience—and, for a relative few, a path to a new sort of fame.
It’s a snowy day in late February, and Aaliyah Liaci’s chemistry class is reviewing material. She’s taking diligent notes when someone in her working group mentions an upcoming test in another class.
Liaci offers to share one of her old study guides—then, suddenly, she remembers. “Wait,” she says. “I’m doing a day-in-the-life! I need to film some of this.” She picks up her phone, slides over to the camera, and films a few seconds of the school supplies and notes spread out before her. Her classmates hardly react. This is all normal. This, in a way, is her job.
The “job” means capturing mundane footage of her day-to-day life as a college student to later edit and share as a video on TikTok, the social media platform that dominates the attention of today’s youth. The short-form video app first became available to American users in 2017, when the Chinese multinational company ByteDance bought Musical.ly, a lip-synching and video-editing app often used in tandem with Vine, the social media platform that first made short-form videos culturally relevant. At first, TikTok’s growth in the U.S. progressed slowly, but the demise of Vine—whose six-second-video format was briefly hugely popular—around the same time left an opening, and TikTok emerged as its logical successor.
Then COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, and the ensuing national lockdown—leaving many people homebound, bored, and spending more time than ever online—accelerated TikTok’s growth. By September 2021, TikTok had reached 1 billion active monthly users worldwide. Instagram—one of its few rivals for the attention of young eyes and ears—has influencers; TikTok has creators. In recent years, TikTok creators have appeared everywhere from late-night television to Netflix series and Super Bowl ads. Creators make videos about anything you can imagine: Dance videos are hugely popular, but so are short video essays, product reviews, memes, gossip, art, and the kind of personal vlogging and day-in-the-life videos Liaci makes. Like those of many popular creators—including her freshman-dorm roommate, Katie Feeney, whose 6.8 million followers make her the most followed Penn Stater on the app—Liaci tends to make videos with a minimalist feel; TikTok content tends to avoid the overedited photos and perfect framing that’s so prominent on Instagram. Most of her videos consist of uncomplicated footage of life on campus and simple voice-over narration: the food she eats, the clothes she wears, the products she likes, and anything else that could concern your average—or aspiring—college freshman. Sometimes, she shares montages of recent memories over sentimental music. Occasionally, she participates in platformwide trends inspired by viral songs or interactive filters. (TikTok offers a wide array of in-app editing tools, from green screen to augmented reality filters and interactive captions.)
Nearly 64,000 people follow Liaci’s account, which has garnered nearly 3 million likes. A following of that size demands its creator’s attention. It has the potential to be a career unto itself.
Liaci is on the pre-med track, with dreams of a career as a physician assistant. She says academics are her top priority: She estimates school takes up 90% of her time and energy. Her social life? A mere 1%—“I never go out,” she says—and just 2% for “self-care.” She says social media takes up 20% of her time, and yes, she knows that adds up to 113%—a testament to how much she’s juggling. Like most other 19-year-olds, she’s on her way to figuring it out: “I just haven’t been able to find the balance yet,” she says, “with taking care of myself and still getting good grades.”
She films on the fly, when she remembers to do it—“One take only,” she says. “I’m not spending a lot of time, because I don’t have a lot of time to spend.” She checks what’s trending as she walks from class to class, squeezing in emails and calls related to her account when she finds the time. She’d been a regular TikTok user since 2019—all her friends were on the platform—but she didn’t start thinking of it as a potential career path until last August. At first, she thought she could succeed on social media only by presenting her most “perfect” self—perfect hair and makeup, perfect lighting, perfect sound. But she soon learned that her followers seemed to enjoy her content just as much in videos where “in my opinion, I look horrible,” she says. She prioritizes engagement with her followers: following back, liking their posts, and leaving comments; she considers them friends and says she’s thankful for the online community she’s created. She posts a few times a day on both TikTok and on Instagram’s TikTok competitor, Reels. (It’s common for creators to post on multiple platforms, often reposting videos from one app to the other. For now, at least, TikTok offers the best opportunity to build followers, engagement, and revenue.) A few weeks before we met, she hired a manager to help her vet inquiries from brands interested in working with her. I spoke to her manager to secure our interview, and together they made sure everyone from her chemistry instructor to the brand representatives on the phone call she was about to join would be OK with my following her around for the day.
This kind of celebrity-scale talent management is ubiquitous in the world of TikTok creators big and small. People and companies with things to sell will approach those, like Liaci, with sizable followings, asking them to promote their products. As a result, an entire economy has sprung up around creators and those who want to sell things to their followers. Much like a traditional celebrity or athlete partnering with a brand, creators can capitalize on their following and image through brand deals and partnerships. During a call that February day with representatives of a beauty brand, Liaci shared ideas and discussed a timeline for her sponsored posts. Their conversation was peppered with words like “engagement” and “deliverables,” marketing terms that have infiltrated the lives of social-media-savvy members of Gen Z.
Before she had a manager, Liaci says, her social media presence earned a few hundred dollars here and there, limited to the few partnerships she felt equipped to handle on her own. Now, Liaci says, she’s making enough money as a creator to pay for some of her college expenses: “My parents do help me pay for college, but now I told them they don’t have to help me,” she says, “I just want to do it myself.” She is now using her TikTok earnings to get a head start on her student loan prepayments. Next year, she wants to live in a house with four friends, something she’ll also be able to pay for on her own. “Right now, I don’t make enough to support a whole family,” she says, “but I can support myself, which feels very relieving and nice.”
Liaci is one of dozens—if not hundreds, depending on how you measure it—of popular TikTokers at Penn State. Ryan Manderbach, with almost 152,000 followers, makes videos joking about the awkward and funny parts of school and dorm life. Jess Velez, who first gained popularity on Musical.ly, has about 225,000 followers. Tyler Fralin boasts more than 55,000 followers.
There are also recent grads, such as musician Joe Bertolino ’21 Com—better known by his stage name, Joey Valence—who has more than 700,000 followers and appeared last winter on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. And there are current student-athletes such as track standout Zoey Goldstein (nearly 25,000 followers), basketball player Anna Camden (236,000 followers), and gymnast Michael Jaroh, with more than 2 million followers. Jaroh, who earned All-America honors as a sophomore last season, joined the app on a whim four years ago and quickly grew a following with posts showing off his personality, athleticism, and physique. (He’s often shirtless in his posts.)
“It’s mostly just me being me, being goofy—I think that’s how everyone should do TikTok,” he says. “People want to see your authentic self. They’ll grow an attachment because they consistently see who you are.”
Then there’s Katie Feeney. A sophomore-to-be from Olney, Md., Feeney started building her social media audience as a high schooler; she told People magazine that, by the spring of her senior year in 2021, she had earned a million dollars largely on the strength of a deal with Snapchat, which featured her as one of its Spotlight creators. She has since worked with more than 100 brands, including Amazon, Disney, DreamWorks, Coach, and Spotify. (It was Feeney who encouraged Liaci, her then-roommate, to take TikTok seriously.) In February, YouTube Shorts (YouTube’s TikTok competitor) sent Feeney to Los Angeles to post content from Super Bowl LVI. And in April, an ESPN NFL reporter announced to his nearly 10 million followers that Feeney had been hired by the Washington Commanders as the NFL team’s first-ever “social media correspondent.” It’s believed to be the first such partnership in the league.
I caught a glimpse of Feeney as she was leaving her dorm room; I’d been communicating with not one but a team of managers to arrange an interview with her. She had just returned from the Super Bowl and wrapped up an appearance at THON. Spring break was around the corner, so midterms were revving up, and her representatives and I agreed to find a time to talk later in the spring. It’s a testament to how in-demand Feeney is that we were never able to connect.
On TikTok, where she has nearly 7 million followers, Feeney is a star. Around campus, she’s one of the few TikTokers that students I asked knew by name.
TikTok fame doesn’t necessarily translate to on-campus ubiquity. The app is known for its hyperspecific feed; it holds users’ attention by serving content catered to its algorithm’s understanding of the most personalized version of their interests. While difficult, it’s possible to attend Penn State and use TikTok without ever encountering Feeney or any of those other creators with large followings. As one student I spoke with in the HUB told me, “They could walk right past me, and I wouldn’t know.”
Anyone with a TikTok account can make and upload original content, and many students do. Others enjoy TikTok primarily as spectators, viewing content shared by others. But your average college-age user is roughly equal parts consumer and creator. It’s not uncommon for someone with a relatively small following consisting mostly of friends and peers to see a handful of their TikToks go viral, garnering thousands—and sometimes millions—of likes and views. Some creators try to replicate that success in the hopes of growing their following and building a career, but most people accept these brief flares of fame as part of life on the internet.
Tyler O’Connell ’22 Com, who worked with both Liaci and Feeney to promote THON 2022 in his role as a media relations captain, considers himself an “average” TikTok user, but even he can claim viral fame: Last winter, some younger creators shared a video of high school life in 2014—when O’Connell was a high school freshman—and romanticized it as some relic from a distant past. O’Connell posted a video reacting to that footage in shock and disbelief, with the caption “My freshman year of high school is not allowed to be a vintage aesthetic.” His post has been viewed more than 2 million times.
“It was just something I thought was funny and wanted my friends to see,” he says. “Next thing I know, it was viewed by over 2 million people and liked by over 300,000.”
TikTok’s algorithm has an impressive ability to show content to as many interested people as possible, which is why THON leadership took the initiative of partnering with Feeney and Liaci to promote this year’s event. O’Connell says Feeney’s involvement in particular had a huge impact: Her THON-related content earned more than 21 million views across various social platforms. “Our message and our story has been amplified tenfold by kids my age who are just posting things for fun and gain a massive following of people who love their content,” he says.
TikTok uses its algorithm to curate what kind of content audiences see, often grouping creators and audiences according to age, location, and shared interests. In that way, Penn State is virtually re-created on the app, a phenomenon some call “PennState-Tok.” Creators use hashtags to tag their work so that others can find it: As of late April, #PennState had more than 932.1 million views, ranking it among the top handful of colleges on the platform. The university’s size obviously has something to do with that, but Liaci says a lot of her followers are younger teenagers who are curious about life on campus. One student I spoke to in the HUB told me she followed several Penn State students on social media before becoming one herself.
For creators, the level of interest creates a world rife with opportunity. An entire industry of managers, publicists, and influencer marketing departments has popped up to capitalize on it. College-age users are a particularly hot commodity; they’re old enough to conduct business on their own while young enough to influence younger users. Still, some choose to manage their followings independently, sans managers and PR machines.
Ishaan Jagiasi had just started his TikTok account when he joined the Nittany Lion basketball team as a walk-on for the 2021–22 season. Jagiasi doesn’t see much court time—he appeared in just two games last season—but he’s still big on TikTok. The 21-year-old senior-to-be now has a verified account with nearly 310,000 followers. He’s aware of the potential benefits, particularly in the new world of NCAA-approved Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) rules that allow student-athletes to profit off their athletic fame.
“A following gives you leverage when it comes to exposure, brand deals—it’s another way for me as an athlete to get NIL money,” Jagiasi says. “I want my own shoe. I’ve always wanted a commercial with Gatorade—that would be a big one for me. I’ve always wanted to be in a Foot Locker commercial.” I ask which brand of cereal box he’d like to be on. “Lucky Charms,” he says, with a glance at the family-sized box sitting on his kitchen counter.
“Basketball and academics come first,” he says. “TikTok is just something I do when I have free time.” He says the longest he’s ever spent filming, editing, and posting a video is 15 minutes.
Like Liaci, Jagiasi is partial to the day-in-the-life format: preparing for practice, team meals, bus rides and charter flights. “I like to show people pretty much my whole day,” he says. “I don’t really leave anything out.” His second day-in-the-life video, posted last September, got more than 50,000 views; it showed warm-ups, his walk to the gym, his locker, a Subway lunch. His account offers an almost immersive experience of the life of a Division I athlete, which is exactly what his followers seem to want.
Because his second video was such a hit, Jagiasi didn’t have much time to tell his coaches about his account. “I don’t think they knew that I was on TikTok,” he says, “but a brand like Penn State is bound to get a ton of views.” People started sending his TikToks to his coaches, and when the team played a home game against Ohio State in December, he heard fans in the Penn State student section yelling, “Your TikToks are better than his!” in reference to Jimmy Sotos, an Ohio State guard who has more than a million followers on the platform.
Jagiasi worried how the coaching staff would take it, that he might’ve said something wrong or embarrassing, but he says, “They were cool about it.” He says he has since started to monetize his account; some of this revenue comes from the TikTok Creator fund, which the company uses to compensate some creators for their work. His favorite collaboration so far has been with singer-rapper Sleepy Hallow, after someone on the performer’s team reached out to Jagiasi with an offer to partner for a video featuring the artist’s new song. “Getting to do that partnership with him was pretty cool.”
Jagiasi doesn’t have a manager, but any work for compensation tied to his TikTok has to be approved by the Intercollegiate Athletics compliance office, which guides student-athletes through the uncertainties of still-developing NCAA regulations and the business of social media contracts, agreements, ad disclosures, and tax returns. Jagiasi says the office held a meeting ahead of the season “and explained to us what we can and can’t do.” Mostly, he says, “it’s been a cool transition from just a hobby to a business.”
Still, it can be a bit awkward to fold into a daily routine, especially when friends, teammates, and coaches start to wonder what you’re doing on your phone all the time. He says the coaching staff couldn’t understand why so many recruits knew who he was. “They didn’t realize how big the reach is on the platform,” Jagiasi says. “I had to explain to them how many views a million really is.”
Michelle Santiago Cortés is an internet and digital culture reporter and critic.