How TikTok Changed the Meaning of a Million Followers 

8 minute read

Alex Burriss and Roi Fabito, known online as Alex and Roi Wassabi, have been making videos for 17 years. As “O.G. YouTubers” who have amassed over 10 million subscribers since the platform’s early days, they’ve been attending VidCon, an annual convention for fans to connect with their favorite online personalities, for nearly a decade. Back in the day, they used to know the vast majority of the creator lineup at the conference. But when they attended the event in Anaheim, Calif., earlier this summer, that was far from the case. “Sometimes there’s a TikToker that’s apparently really popular, but I don’t know who they are,” says Burriss. “I’m sure they have great content, I just haven’t come across it.”

That’s in large part because as the event has shifted to include more TikTokers than YouTubers, it’s had to face a new reality: the meaning of a follow on TikTok is not what it is, or once was—on YouTube or any other social platform.

Yes, there are the Charli D’Amelios and Alix Earles of TikTok—a tier of creators that has transcended the app with ubiquitous mainstream opportunities like Super Bowl commercials, reality TV shows, and six-figure brand collaborations. But the structure of TikTok’s app has also weighted virality like no other app before it—introducing more creators with high follower counts than ever before.

In fact, more than 39,000 accounts on TikTok now have at least 1 million followers, according to data from social media analytics provider Social Blade. That’s about 6,200 more than on YouTube and nearly 16,000 more than on Instagram. This has created a “fascinating subculture of influence,” says Brendan Gahan, Chief Innovation Officer at creative agency Mekanism. “Many creators have a dedicated following within their niche, but they remain anonymous to the wider world,” says Gahan, who sits on VidCon’s advisory board and has attended the conference since it began in 2010. 

At this year’s VidCon, Colin Rosenblum, whose “Colin and Samir” YouTube channel analyzes other creators and their content, had encounters with fans who themselves had millions of followers on TikTok, and whose content he had never come across. “It's just interesting that you can have someone in your audience who has 10 million people who've said, ‘Yes, I would like to follow what they're doing,’ and we follow this space and we don't know who they are,” says Rosenblum.

How did TikTok so fundamentally change the meaning and value of a follower count? The answer has a lot to do with the rise of short-form content and the way the app has changed the nature of engagement, and it has major implications for the future of influencers and content creators.

The Impact of the TikTok “For You Page” 

Before 2022, TikTokers weren’t even on the lineup for VidCon, whose roots are squarely in the world of YouTube given its founding by YouTube “VlogBrothers” Hank and John Green. That year, after a two-year pandemic hiatus during which the popularity of TikTok sharply increased, TikTok also sponsored the event for the first (and, to date, only) time. But the arrival of TikTok creators has not been met with unanimous enthusiasm from attendees. Last year, TikToker Grace Africa, who has over 1 million followers, posted a TikTok in which she stood alone at a VidCon meet-and-greet, with not a single fan in sight.

Africa’s experience may reflect a side effect of changes wrought by TikTok’s “‘For You Page" (FYP), the app’s homepage that is hyper-curated to each individual. “On TikTok, who you follow hardly matters at all because of the default FYP comprised of algorithmically selected content versus a prioritization on follower count,” says Gahan. “Each piece of content has a chance to be seen and the best stuff can truly rise to the top.” That is different from other social platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, where “historically the big get bigger with newcomers left to pick up the scraps,” says Gahan. This is in part due to those platforms’ home page and algorithm formats tending to push already well-performing content, versus TikTok’s default FYP, which inundates users with newer content from creators they’ve never encountered, and often do not already follow.

“If you get rid of some of the creators on TikTok they're going to be filled with more content because there's just an influx,” says Rosenblum. “It makes the ‘For You Page’ the star of TikTok, oftentimes over the creators.”

This phenomenon has led to an oversaturation of successful creators coming from the TikTok platform, and simply too many creators for even the heaviest users of the app to be familiar with. “What it means to be a creator with a million followers means something very different than it used to four years ago,” says Gahan. “It's inevitable that it's less impactful just by the sheer number of creators since you've got your attention and the amount of eyeballs essentially split in half.”

Rosenblum and his partner Samir Chaudry, whose channel offers aspiring creators content about well-performing creators, have added two full-time writers and a Slack channel with dozens of contributors who keep track of the various parts of the internet for their newsletter The Publish Press.

For the VidCon team, it has meant having more creators on their radar than ever before. “The more platforms that come out and that have their own creator ecosystem, the more the creators that we just need to be aware of,” says Colin Hickey, Senior Vice President of Operations at VidCon. “Three or four years ago, we didn't have thousands of TikTok creators that we had to go through.”

At the conference, which is perhaps the best in-person reflection of what is happening with creators online, internet fame is not what it once was. “There are so many people that are quote-unquote famous and have large followings that when you put all of them in a room it can feel like no one is famous,” says Rosenblum.

A shift toward short-form content

But it’s not just the number of popular creators that has changed the meaning of a follow. The fast-paced, shorter-form content of TikTok, which tends to be consumed more passively as users scroll past it, has also contributed to a shift in creator-fan relationships. With the nature of YouTube’s long-form, often personable content, viewers tend to settle in to watch a video that may be as long as an episode of television.

YouTube viewers are also more inclined to experience a parasocial relationship, an intimate one-sided experience where the content makes them feel personally connected to the creator. Burriss recalls fans crying, shaking and not being able to speak when they met the duo at VidCon. “It’s a surreal connection because at first they know us, but we don’t really know them,” says Fabito.

Fans are just as eager to meet their favorite TikToker, says Sarah Tortoreti, SVP Marketing & Comms for VidCon, but the parasocial dynamic may be slightly different. “To them, they're like Hollywood celebrities, even though they might not feel as though they have a true one-to-one relationship in the way that a lot of fans of O.G. YouTube creators do,” she says.

Engagement over follower count

For Rosenblum and Chaudry, reaching the 1 million subscriber milestone on their channel was a feat that took over 10 years to reach and one that was “a weight off of our shoulders.”

But it isn't the end game. “The most important thing that we've come back to is building a brand over chasing follower count or over chasing views,” he says. “If we can make a consistent impact with a group of people, that's how we're going to build a long-term community and a long term business for ourselves.” Popular TikTokers may reach impressive numbers much faster than the duo did, but it doesn’t always translate into the same career prospects.

While follower count may open the door to opportunities, it is no longer the ultimate goal for creators. For those looking to partner with creators, such as social media marketers and conventions like VidCon, a creator’s engagement—a barometer of how much their followers interact with their content—is most significant. For many mid-tier and micro creators with followers in the thousands to hundreds of thousands, those engagement levels can be just as fruitful as large followings for more popular creators.

“Follower count alone does not show how rapid and engaged a community is,” says Gahan. “Somebody who's able to tap even half of their audience and get that level of engagement and participation can have a robust and healthy community.”

Although many of these TikTokers may not be filling up rooms like Mr. Beast did at the 2022 VidCon, they still have an audience that includes eager fans hoping to engage with them in person. “We’re looking for them to have a fanbase that goes to these people over and over again versus just mindlessly scrolling,” says Tortoreti.

To Burriss and Fabito, who recently launched a new collaborative YouTube channel called SPICY FRUIT, the ability to evolve is also the key to their decades-long success as content creators and why they’ve even started making TikToks themselves. Now, TikTok is having a moment. In a few years, it may be another platform. “I have a lot of YouTube friends from the past that are like, ‘I miss the old ways,” says Burriss. “But everything is going to change and nothing is forever. You’ve got to adapt.”

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