How it Feels to Go Viral on TikTok, and Why We Need to Stop Chasing It
Last updated on
September 29, 2023
It was a regular weekly meeting between myself and DonYe Taylor, our Director of Creator Initiatives at Fohr, and we got to talking about TikTok. She has a significant following on Instagram and recently joined TikTok to give it a try and learn more. I’m a pretty frequent user of the app, but as a consumer (I’ll admit, lurker), we shared different perspectives. That’s when she started telling me the story behind how she went viral.
Here she explains what that first hit of success feels like and why we need to stop chasing that high.
How DonYe went Viral on TikTok
One night DonYe was out with a group of her friends and fellow content creators overseas in Saint Martin. There were about nine of them seated around the table at the restaurant, enjoying their meal.
Like a Seinfeld bit, DonYe’s observation of social behaviors was piqued. She noticed that all of her friends, including her, were eating the same way, talking the same way, and making the same movements, expressions and mannerisms while dining out.
It spiraled into an overnight success. As of this writing, the video reached 238.1K views. DonYe told me she felt that first taste of virality on TikTok, with an engaged audience, commenting how much they related, and ultimately, asking for more of the same. And it was exciting. Her following grew to 14.5K quickly.
“It went viral, and it was so validating. But I’m not a comedian!” DonYe said. “It made me feel like I needed to create more of the same content to achieve that same success.” That brought on a ‘Things Black Girls Do, Part 2,’ which accrued 1.6M views.
“It made me feel like I needed to create more of the same content to achieve that same success.” - DonYe Taylor
You have to wonder—is this democratized way to achieve virality by design for newcomers? Is it the perfect hook to keep creators wanting to chase that success that they aren’t currently getting from Instagram or other platforms?
If you’re a frequent TikTok user, you’ve probably noticed these repetitive series, with a part 56, 57, 58, made into playlists that feature the same idea or bit over and over. It’s not surprising that once a creator finds a formula that works, it’s easiest to give viewers what they want to continue to gain followers and chase that initial success.
It makes sense that creators, once they’ve discovered ‘what works,’ keep going back to the same content formula. It buries one in a creative rabbit hole.
User Behavior: An Expectation of the Same
On the other side of the screen, the behavior learned from the user is that the niche content they’ve found and interacted with is what they can expect from this account.
It creates confusion and sometimes even backlash from followers. One creator, Alissa Ashley, experienced this reaction when trying to post about her other passions, perhaps not in the category, her followers are accustomed to seeing. In response to Alissa’s fitness content, a user tweeted, “Lmfao, one of the major makeup girls trying to rebrand as a fitness girl is funny to me.”
In response, Alissa posted, “I—ppl keep tagging me so uh word of advice to anyone: it is normal to discover new passions & it is okay to explore those passions! My content has always reflected what I am passionate about. From makeup, to photography, now health + fitness & this is the happiest I’ve been!”
“When new followers came to my profile, they looked for more of the same. People thought I was a comedian and that this was the only type of content I created,” DonYe explained.
This expectation from those new followers can leave creators feeling pressured to do what made them popular in the first place.
Chasing Virality Changes Behavior
As we’ve learned from documentaries like ‘The Social Dilemma,’ the algorithms learn what will make us as users come back for more content. Heightened emotions, usually negative, make us want to share with others, comment with opinions, and participate in the cultural moment.
From the creator’s perspective—the algorithm can feel just as addicting.
TikTok’s algorithm tests new content against a small audience to see what generates watch time and engagement, and then if it performs well, spreads it to the masses. You might see the first comments on a viral video exclaiming, “I was here first,” staking their claim as participants in the viral moment. It makes the discovery sweeter for both the consumer and the creator.
The virality of TikTok’s algorithm, for creators, in particular, is a new kind of dopamine hit.
In a recent episode of Negronis with Nord, Fohr’s CEO James Nord explains, “It changes the motivations. It changes the way we create content. It changes what becomes popular. We are no longer rooting our content in creating value for our followers. We are doing it in trying to go viral.”
No Finish Line
The reality of TikTok is that in chasing viewership, virality, and that short-term success, we’ll find ourselves in creative ruts with feelings of burnout.
The once anonymous creator behind the #SinkTok phenomenon and online community, Dean Peterson, shared his story of achieving virality in a YouTube video confessional. Though #SinkTok and the @sinkreviews account was a beautiful shared cultural moment of unique, unasked for weirdness, it also led down the same road of burnout. Peterson says in the video, “Once I stopped; I felt a kind of sense of relief.” The video then shows the #SinkTok community questioning his disappearance and asking for more.
DonYe found herself in the same boat. “I had to actively force myself to post other kinds of content, not caring about the viewers that liked the first viral posts I did,” DonYe shared.
DonYe is a creativity coach, a brand consultant, and an influencer. And she’s inarguably funny—but that’s one rabbit hole she made sure to crawl out of before it went too deep.
Three Ways to Avoid the Rabbit Hole
We'll leave you with a few reminders as you're creating content.
Know that all platforms are designed to keep you on the app as long as possible and to create as much content as possible. Actively remind yourself this when you start feeling pressure to create and consume more.
There are no hacks to building an engaged online audience. The trending audio and dance challenges on TikTok are fun to join, but they aren't a cheat code to success. The only way to have long-lasting success as an influencer is through consistent, valuable, and authentic content that you are passionate about.