José Ángel Patica’s TikTok celebrity began with a simple video of his lunch. In April 2021, the young man from Granada (southern Spain) made a 10-second, unscripted video with his cousin: “Potatoes with white gravy, a double-stuffed lamb wrap and a Fanta – I love fooood!”. He crams food in his mouth as he speaks, unconcerned about the off-putting display. His cousin cackles loudly in the background. Patica’s thing is eating with gusto and “I love food” is his motto. His videos celebrate good health, a joyful life and lots of eating with a blithe indifference to table manners. He’ll often down a large bite of food, a chunk of bread and a swig of Fanta all in one motion. He also likes eating spoonfuls of dry Cola-Cao chocolate drink mix.
It all happens on TikTok, the viral video platform that is taking over the world. It was the most downloaded app in 2021, and the fastest to reach one billion users. According to The Information, the average number of hours American users spend on TikTok grew 67% between 2018 and 2021, while YouTube and Facebook daily user hours rose less than 10%. TikTok is the “new digital crack,” says The Information – because it gives viewers instant gratification.
“TikTok has saturated the market,” said Maria Breton, who directs innovation and new business development at technology investment firm Jaguar Path Ventures. “It makes it easy for anyone to create content that can go viral even if the quality isn’t great. This encourages more content creation and gets people to spend more time on the platform.” It’s a virtuous circle that gets more users spending more time on the platform – the social media holy grail. “Fifteen Seconds of Fame: TikTok and the Supply Side of Social Video” explains that it doesn’t matter so much who makes video. The key to going viral on TikTok is the correlation between a creator’s follower counts and the view counts on their videos.
Patica was one of those bewitched by the thrill of going viral on TikTok. “When I woke up in the morning [after posting his first video], I had half a million views,” he told EL PAÍS. Patica gained 950,000 followers in just over a year and makes videos non-stop, uploading at least one a day. “The videos are about the food my mother makes me and my work as a farmer. People from the cities have no idea [about where their food comes from]. I’m in olive season right now.” Patica’s says he just wants to help people. “Things are very tough right now. The kids who watch my videos don’t feel bad when all they have to eat at home is a plate of lentils or beans. It’s not always going to be potatoes, eggs, sirloin steaks and sausages.”
TikTok is the only platform that makes money for Patica, but it’s not much. “They pay you per number of views. It’s not a lot – not enough to earn a living. In a good month, I can make €50 or €100,” he says. Once a month, he goes to Granada and buys food for the needy with his TikTok earnings. “I buy bread and cold cuts to make sandwiches. We put them in a bag with some fruit, juice and water to give to the homeless – about 20-30 people. They’ll tell you about their lives and problems, so I just listen.”
Patica hasn’t yet made it to the select TikTok million-follower club, which is a large and growing group. Although it preceded TikTok by six years, Instagram has fewer content creators with more than a million followers. Worldwide, TikTok has 39,000 million-follower accounts, 16,000 more than Instagram and 9,000 more than YouTube.
“Having a million followers isn’t so impressive anymore,” said 18-year-old Alfons Vidal. Known as Snoflaa on TikTok, Vidal’s tech tip videos have gained him 2.2 million followers. “I’m stuck at around two million. I thought that getting to a million would be phenomenal, that it could become a job,” said Vidal. People now know who he is, but that hasn’t translated into more followers.
But the disconnect between follower numbers and video virality is actually one of the advantages of TikTok. EL PAÍS talked to six content creators with a million or so followers. All of them had their first viral videos early in their TikTok careers, and they all remember the moment. Voonnie, who posts videos of herself dancing and singing, remembers that feeling. “It was a video where I was just walking along and singing. It got 12 million views – I couldn’t believe it. For the next month, I wondered, ‘What’s going on here?’ I couldn’t process what was happening. It went viral in the US, reaching millions of people in another part of the world,” she said.
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Christian Morales makes videos with his grandmother for his popular “Conbuenhumor” (“In good fun”) TikTok channel, which has 7.2 million followers. He also remembers the feeling of early success. “I remember posting a really popular video of my grandmother dancing around in a unicorn costume. Some of those early videos had more than 30 million views and went viral really quickly. Our success was very sudden,” he said.
For some TikTok creators, the money is just a nice perk, at least among those with fewer than 10 million followers. Voonniie hasn’t even signed up for TikTok’s fund to compensate its most successful content creators. She makes some money from one-off campaigns to make videos about a company’s product, which is what most creators do to monetize their followers.
“If you don’t have many viral videos, they pay you almost nothing,” said Fátima Martínez, a marketing expert with half a million TikTok followers. “I haven’t had made very much. It’s harder now for a video to go viral – you used to be able to watch it happen in 20 minutes,” she said. Even so, advertisers are paying more attention to TikTok. “They call me now more than ever to do advertising campaigns. Advertisers are savvier and focus more on your interaction with followers than on just the number.”
While everyone agrees that TikTok is getting saturated, there’s still plenty of room for newcomers. “There’s more competition, but it’s not a zero-sum game,” said Binfluencer founder, Jesús San Román. “Influencer marketing budgets have been growing annually by 50%.” Instagram is still the main focus of advertisers because it has a large audience, more purchasing power and better conversion of advertising campaigns into revenue. “More money flows through Instagram. The advertising industry has been slow to move marketing budgets to other social media networks,” said San Román. The viral power of TikTok sometimes makes it tough for companies seeking to target specific consumer segments. “TikTok users are spread out all over the world. For example, you can find creators on Instagram with a 70% Spanish audience. It’s harder to find TikTok creators with a majority of followers in the same country,” he said.
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The weak correlation between followers and virality has even made some creators doubt their strategies. “It’s annoying that some super random videos go viral while others that take hours to make don’t,” said Pablo Brotons, a dancer with 1.8 million followers. “Yeah, the random videos do make me laugh the most,” he admits. “But really, once you get to a certain number of followers, it’s hard to get more. It’s easy to get famous on TikTok, but it’s hard to keep climbing. “That’s why,” explains the TikTokker, “people might have millions of followers and only one-tenth of them will actually view their videos. Maybe they got a bunch of followers with a few viral videos, but those followers later stop viewing their content.”