As a writer, I’ve spent years trying to build a “platform.” You hear it time and again: if you want publishers to invest in you, they need to know that you can build and maintain an audience. They want to publish books by authors with a built-in fan base. Follower counts on Instagram and Twitter often equal dollar signs for them.
As a result, I invested a lot of time into Twitter. Twitter seems to be the place where other authors hang out, so I’ve been diligent about forging connections with other writers there. When I meet people at conferences I make sure to follow them. I try to tweet timely comments with relevant hashtags. I make sure to interact with authors I admire.
I have about 2,500 followers on Twitter, which isn’t big-time by any means but was something I was a bit proud of. It took me about five years to reach that number, and I get pretty good engagement on my tweets.
The only problem with Twitter is the platform itself. Like Facebook, using it has become a depressing slog. Like many others, I use Twitter to vent about my life in addition to making writing-related quips, and since 2020 has been a particularly awful year for most, my Twitter feed has matched that mentality. It’s hard for me to spend more than a couple minutes a day on the site anymore.
Throughout the pandemic, there’s one platform that I’d become increasingly reliant on for a daily serotonin boost: TikTok.
TikTok is hailed as being the social media of Gen Z, and as such, I didn’t actually download it until January 2020, after my teen volunteers at the library tried recording a group Renegade dance before storytime. I went home that day and downloaded it, and became instantly hooked on the customer service stories, D&D memes, and cat videos.
For months, TikTok was my ultimate escape. Where else could I get an endless stream of drag queen transitions, Doug Dimmadome hats, and Waluigi twerking to WAP? Somehow their algorithm pinpointed my exact sexuality and showed me videos of people who had the exact same experiences with anxiety that I did.
There’s a lot of criticisms of TikTok’s ownership and their algorithm, but that’s neither here nor there for the purposes of this post. TikTok is one of the things that kept me sane in 2020.
Backing up a little bit to trying to create a platform for writing purposes. One of the things I always meant to do but never really had the stamina or drive for was blogging. I have a few writer friends who are fairly successful bloggers with a steady readership, and it always seemed to be an appealing and appropriate way to build an audience. After all, what better way to showcase your writing ability than to have a long, regularly updated body of work exemplifying it?
My biggest issue was deciding what to blog about. I’ve always felt that blogging about writing was a bit overplayed, and I don’t think I have anything new to say on the topic. But something I’ve always enjoyed, as both a librarian and a writer, is learning new, random information. So on December 6th, 2020, I posited this question to my Twitter following.
This received a fairly warm reception from, well, three people. But my good friend Eddie Louise suggested this:
At first, I was hesitant. While there is educational content on TikTok, to be honest, I never really watch it. Furthermore, I was worried that I had too much to say than would fit in a one minute video. But after thinking on it and realizing that blogging has limited reach and YouTube editing takes way more time than I’m willing to invest, I decided to post my first video on December 7th.
I sent this video to about five people, and for the first twenty-four hours, I had a grand total of 20 likes. That seemed promising, however, so I decided that I’d make a few more videos and see how it went.
But something changed the day after I posted the video.
My notifications on TikTok started to climb. I was suddenly getting a lot of followers very, very quickly. In about two hours, I gained about 1200 followers.
Twenty minutes later, I had nearly 2000.
By 6:30pm, I had over 10,000 followers. It’d been just over twenty-four hours since I’d posted the video, and I already had five times the amount of followers I’d spent eleven years gaining on Twitter.
But this was just the beginning. I was going viral.
As I sat down to dinner, I was gaining about 100 followers per minute. By the time I went to bed, I had 40,000 followers. When I woke up the next morning, I had 65,000 followers.
It has been three weeks since that video went viral, and I continued to make videos in the same vein—random did-you-know facts based on Wikipedia articles or other various places on the internet. I now have 31 videos total (although some of them are responses to comments I received) and 185,000 followers. I haven’t been able to replicate the success of that first video. Some videos seem to get picked up and get over 100,000 views. Some that I thought would do well languish and die with under 10,000 views.
And the thing is, I have no idea what the difference is. Is it the color of my sweater? Is it the way I present the subject matter? Is it the subject itself? What causes the algorithm to pick up my videos and show them to a ton of people, or to let them lie there, ignored?
I haven’t figured it out and I am not sure I ever will. But there’s one thing that I know for certain, and this is what I want you to walk away with: my success was not connected to my effort.
After all, I’d spent years of effort trying to build a Twitter following and got very little for it. But a one minute video, in which I summarize a Wikipedia page, that only took me an hour to make, took off. Clearly, effort is not connected to success.
But I do think this success demonstrates a few key points.
There are more consumers on TikTok than producers, so it’s easier to viral than other places.
TikTok was the number one downloaded app in 2019 and is on track to hit the same record in 2020. Despite its political contention, it’s no secret that it’s the hottest social media around right now. But because it’s so new, there are a lot of opportunities to build a following there compared to other social media platforms that are already pretty saturated.
It’s okay to throw things at the wall until something sticks.
As I’d mentioned, I’d already tried Twitter. I’ve tried blogging, tried offering writing classes, tried Facebook groups, tried Instagram—I’ve tried a LOT of things. And what works for one person might not work for another. But what’s important is to keep trying, get your fingers in every pie, and spread as broad as you can until you hit the right nerve.
You don’t need to be perfect.
Don’t wait to have the right conditions, the right equipment, the right look. As long as you are passionate about what you’re making, that’s enough. That video that has 2.5 million views? I’m literally sitting in my bed, not wearing makeup, talking about Wikipedia. I don’t have a fancy mic or camera setup and I don’t have the “look” of some beautiful influencer. I’m just me, and my audience is okay with that.
And yeah, people have made comments about my appearance, both positive and negative. That’s not an easy pill to swallow, but I’m learning to ignore it. And my husband got me this great, thematically-appropriate mug for Christmas.
It is all completely out of your control.
I can’t control how many people see or comment on my videos. The only thing I can really do is keep making them and hope that the audience translates to my other presences online. There’s a lot of luck and hope involved, and I don’t think videos being unpopular means they are bad videos—it just means they didn’t check the ineffable boxes of The Algorithm.
So, what’s next? I’m going to keep making videos, and keep writing, and hope that a publisher sees nearly 200,000 followers as a “platform.” After all, the point of the “platform” is not to be TikTok famous, but to have a way to connect to potential readers and to have a clearer avenue to publication.
Have you found success on TikTok? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments.
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