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TikTok killed the Instagram star: How the shifting whim of platforms make star power fleeting for modern creators

This month saw VidCon return after a two year post Covid hiatus. Interestingly, the newest and freshest social media star platform TikTok — the once upstart platform that skyrocketed during the pandemic to more than 1 billion-plus active users — took over from YouTube’s spot as the conference’s title sponsor, promising the presence of top TikTok creators and an injection of new energy into the 12-year-old conference.

The creator economy has skyrocketed in the past few years, with the market size for consumers spending money on creators projected to grow from $9.8 billion to more than $18 billion, according to an October 2021 report from UTA. Furthermore, influencer marketing spend in the U.S. is forecasted to exceed $4 billion this year, according to Insider Intelligence, and major brands like Levi’s and Louis Vuitton have partnered with top talent like Emma Chamberlain, while the NFL and the energy drink Celsius have tapped rising stars like Katie Feeney for partnerships.

However, as much as the creator-driven industry has grown, this year’s VidCon offered an unshakeable reminder of how the career of a creator — and, by extension, their relevance and star power — can fade as quickly as it explodes.

Guests attended the Hyatt hotel near the Anaheim Convention Center to check out the aesthetically pleasing lounges of platforms like TikTok, YouTube and Meta, Khaby Lame — the hilarious Senegalese-Italian comedian best known for his deadpan, wordless videos and wide-eyed reactions — became the most followed creator on TikTok, nudging D’Amelio from the spot she held for roughly two years. (As of publication, Lame has 144.5 million followers to D’Amelio’s 142.9 million.) 

The presence of TikTok stars like D’Amelio and Lame at VidCon also highlighted the absence of other creators who were the main attractions at VidCons in years past, including YouTube creators like David Dobrik and his Vlog Squad, Jake and Logan Paul, Tyler Oakley, Jenna Marbles, Grace Helbig, Philip DeFranco and Casey Neistat. The conference also brought in a noticeably smaller crowd this year with 50,000 in-person attendees compared to the 75,000 participants at the 2019 conference, though COVID likely influenced the downturn in attendance.

The fervour around top talent of VidCons past, where ear-piercing screams from fans were the norm, felt notably subdued for a creator with a following as large as D’Amelio’s. And when asked about her advice to other creators during her onstage appearance, there was the sense that D’Amelio was, perhaps, getting tired of it all.

“Don’t tie yourself down to anything specific,” D’Amelio, who initially went viral on TikTok with videos of her dancing, said. “It’s not worth it to always be forced to do one thing. I feel like if you do that, you can only do that for so long until you get bored of it and you want to switch. And if you’re so used to only making one type of content, you can feel kind of trapped.”

Marques Brownlee, a tech reviewer who has more than 15 million subscribers on YouTube, describes the careers of creators as being akin to those of professional athletes. “A lot of people want to be a professional athlete. But when you look at it, the life cycle of a professional athlete in most sports is fleeting and small,” Brownlee, who led a creator keynote on the last day of VidCon, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “You get, like, five years of your prime. If you’re lucky, you play for eight, nine, 10 [years]. If you’re literally LeBron James, you play for 20 years. That’s a short career in most fields.”

It must be remembered that social media stardom really has only existed for about a decade and so the breadth of an influencer is not yet fully understood. Unlike musicians and actors who can grow in their career and develop new roles and sounds, social media isn’t ruled by real life producers and agents but by algorithms and a few heads at Meta. If an influencer diverges from a specific brand or trend that works for them it doesn’t always go down well. 

D’Amelio’s speech at VidCon interestingly gave light to this point with some fans sensing that D’Amelio was, perhaps, getting tired of it all.

“Don’t tie yourself down to anything specific,” D’Amelio, who initially went viral on TikTok with videos of her dancing, said. “It’s not worth it to always be forced to do one thing. I feel like if you do that, you can only do that for so long until you get bored of it and you want to switch. And if you’re so used to only making one type of content, you can feel kind of trapped.”

An example of a VidCon style influencer who has used her platform as a launchpad to go far and beyond the digital is Emma Chamberlain. Emma rose to fame on YouTube and now has 11.5 million subscribers, has begun posting less frequently on YouTube, where she recently returned from a six-month hiatus, to stem burnout. The creator, who runs a coffee company and has a successful podcast, is now in the midst of growing her career outside of YouTube through appearances hosting red carpet interviews at the Met Gala (we all saw that hilarious Jack Harlow clip) and on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.

Brittany Tomlinson, a TikTok creator and podcaster who goes by Brittany Broski, also noted during a panel discussion with fellow creator Kris Collins (aka Kallmekris) that the job of a content creator can be all-consuming. “I’ve hit burnout a few times — and that sounds so navel-gazing, like, ‘Oh, poor me.’ But when you think of it, this isn’t a nine to five,” Tomlinson said. “This is an ‘all the time.’”

Hank Green, the co-founder of VidCon, also pointed to the “struggle” that creators face when keeping up with changes in the industry. “I feel like the way that YouTube disrupted television, TikTok has disrupted all of these big incumbents, and it’s so weird to have had VidCon around for both of those events now, to some extent,” Green said in his opening remarks. “Things have changed a great deal and, for better or for worse, there’s a lot of struggle that comes along with a disruption of that size. But that also means there’s lots of opportunity. There’s lots of time to figure it out.”

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