To most of earth’s population, TikTok is a dance app. People who can move well, put on some tunes, upload themselves dancing to these tunes and get fans on the platform.
But for Gen Z- it is much, more than just ‘the dance app’. It’s the ‘find-your-kind-of-weird’ app. Niches have taken over TikTok and it has become Gen-Z’s premier social media platform to connect to relevant subcultures.
#BookTok #PlantTok #CleanTok(the TikTok community for cleaning) are just some of the more mainstream niches. The rabbit hole goes way deeper and to much weirder places.
But it wasn’t until May of 2020 that the first TikTok cult was formed. And what did it’s leader, Melissa Ong do before she started the first TikTok cult? She was a designer at Google.
Let’s back up and explain the whole story.
The Story of Melissa Ong, leader of The StepChickens
As a child growing up, Melissa was extremely creative. But growing up in a somewhat traditional Asian household, it was instilled in her by her parents that she had to choose a traditional path to success. One that would involve a job and a corporate ladder.
She watched a lot of YouTubers growing up. She thought it looked fun and wanted to try it. But her insecurities constantly talked herself out of uploading anything. The only way she expressed herself was through comedy. Since she constantly moved around while growing up, she was always the new kid in the class. And to fit in, she always tried to be ‘the funny one’ wherever she went. Over time, it became second nature to her.
When she graduated high school, she started college at UC Berkley. Most everyone there was pursuing engineering, business or medicine and she felt pressured to do the same. So she picked tech since she hated it the least.
Throughout her years in college, she participated in the rat race of getting good grades and doing as many prestigious internships as possible. And as soon as she graduated, she joined Yahoo. While working at Yahoo, she kept finding ways to rationalize the fact that she was working a job she hated. Her final lie to herself was that it wasn’t the job, it was the company that was the problem. She told herself that she would be happier working a job in a company like Google.
And so she worked hard to get to Google. But once she got there she was more miserable than ever. 3 months in, she had a mental breakdown. She realized that there was no way that she could do something she hated for the rest of her life. At 12:00 she got her bonus and at 12:01 she put down her papers. She had downloaded TikTok a couple of months prior in November and was inspired by the content on the app.
She decided to go all in on her love for comedy and post regularly on the app. She didn’t have much of a strategy. She just decided to post as much as possible until she hit 1M followers. Posting anywhere from 3 to 10 times a day, she got to 10k followers in 2 months. But what did she post?
“Dark, raunchy and satirical comedy” is how Melissa would describe her brand herself. Donning a yellow chicken suit and other wacky costumes, she made skit after skit for a small but growing who were stuck inside during a quarantine with nothing to do. And the fans voted with their attention.
After she hit the 10k mark, she kept getting 10k followers every week until she hit 100k. Then things got crazier. She started pulling in 100k followers every week until she hit the coveted 1M number. At 1M, she had a stoned 2 AM idea. She immediately took out her phone to start talking to her fans on the app. She asked her million followers – What if she started a cult?
Rise Up Step Chickens!
The cults name, the fans and Melissa decided, would be the ‘Step Chickens’. And Melissa would be the cult’s leader, aka ‘Mother Hen’. All you had to do to be a part of the Step Chickens cult was to change your profile picture to Melissa’s blue picture.
Several thousand of her followers immediately changed their TikTok profile to Ong’s blue profile picture to pledge allegiance to their cult and glorify their ‘Mother Hen’. Their first mission was to raid the comments of Phil Swift, a widely memed creator.
Hundreds of Ong’s fans began commenting on Mr. Swift’s videos and within 48 hours, he had changed his profile to Melissa’s signature blue face as well. There would be more changes to come.
Media organizations like The Washington Post and Adweek changed their pictures. So did Sports Teams like The Houston Rockets, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Kansas City Chiefs. Within a couple of weeks, she had gained more than a million new followers.
In the months since, Melissa’s star kept rising. She recorded a Step Chickens song; started a merch shop and even used her audience to popularize her friend’s social media app. The app was rebranded as the ‘Step Chickens’ app and over a period of a few weeks was downloaded more than one hundred thousand times. The company’s four-person team has struggled to keep up.
Why do people want to join TikTok cults?
After Melissa’s success, there have been other cults that have followed in her wake. The Murder Hornets, Gary Vee’s Fam, the Hamster Cult, the Goku cult and even a cult that branched off the Step Chickens called ‘Jeff’. Some of these cults have called out the Step Chickens to participate in TikTok ‘Cult Wars’ where the cults face off in battle Zones. Battle Zones are comment sections where the cults agree to go and make comments in favour of their cults.
So why did TikTok, which started off as a dance culture-led platform become a hotbed for the rise of cults? Part of it has to do with the timing. Since the Step Chickens and accompanying cults launched during the stay-at-home period of the pandemic they tapped into a bored audience of social media users who were looking for something to do.
And when the opportunity came to make a star of a relatively unknown creator, the fans responded with enthusiasm. To a fan, the knowledge that they in their own small ways helped in spreading the influence of their favorite influencer is empowering.*
But there’s more to it than that. According to one user of the app, the demographic that uses the app is tired of ‘perfect’ social media influencers that look like carbon copies of each other. They want to follow people like Melissa who aren’t afraid to show that she isn’t perfect and is ready to accept their quirks and individuality.
This spike in interest in cults and online communities is not only a pandemic thing, however. It’s an instinct that is older than platforms and social media- the human desire to belong. Gen Z is no longer ready to compromise their interests because of the physical limitations of a shared space. They are willing to opt out of this traditional mode of finding community and instead are choosing to form digital kinships. One that is based solely on shared interests and tastes.
*If you’d like to empower your fans to help grow your creative business, just like Melissa and her Step Chickens, you’ll want to look out for the Backstage app, releasing early 2022. With Backstage, you can make a private fan club with your most loyal fans and use their help to create the content you’ve always wanted!