Cat owners Hani and Ally Piperdy didn’t know they were Singapore’s third most popular TikTokers until February. Well, not them, exactly—their cats, Tuti and Yuki, are the real stars of the Piperdy sisters’ TikTok account. More than two million people follow them for wholesome content, where the felines wear funny hats and meow sweetly at the camera. Tuti and Yuki are still unaware of their skyrocketing online popularity, but their owners are no longer in the dark after a spate of curious Googling on Ally’s part one day revealed their bronze medal.
“We were quite shocked,” Ally says. It’s hard to believe they didn’t know, especially given that the sisters make their living tangentially off TikTok, running an online cat supply store and partnering on sponsored content with brands eager to have their toys and tinned food associated with Tuti and Yuki. But this kind of disconnect, incidentally humble but appreciated nonetheless, from the size of the little chunk of the Internet they’ve carved out for themselves? It’s typical of many young, popular users making videos on the platform, especially those from Singapore. They love what they do, are just beginning to hit their stride as creators and nascent entrepreneurs, and are a little confused about how they have a six-, seven- or eight-figure following.
The only thing to do is to have fun for as long as it lasts. And, if you feel like it, try and make a career (or at least a side hustle) out of your online reach. Wild, runaway success on social media, particularly on TikTok, is an imprecise and volatile alchemy, and there’s no playbook on how to parlay it into a livelihood. This is especially true outside cultural capitals like Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It just requires a little more finesse and creativity.
When you talk to Singapore’s biggest TikTok creators (not influencers as several of them are quick to stress; the word has a pejorative tilt to it, one that smacks of inauthenticity and Instagram), they’re modest about their platforms. But they’re also pragmatic. Forward-thinking. Business-minded. They are concerned with things like not selling out, dialoguing with their fellow creators and their audiences, and radical inclusivity. Everything that the market researchers frantically penning blog posts said they—the mysterious, prophesied, feared Gen Z—would be.
“TikTok is pervaded by a natural aura of the cool and the casual. It’s amateur, yes, but that’s what makes it fun”
Joseph Tan was part of the first generation of Singaporean TikTokers. When ByteDance set up a Singapore office for the app in 2018, Tan was one of the first users to whom they reached out. Now a final semester student, he began making street style and dance content for the platform in his first year at Nanyang Technological University, when it was still considered ‘cringey’ in local circles. Then the coronavirus pandemic happened and, as Tan puts it, “everybody joined up”.
TikTok was popular in other countries prior to March last year, but when everyone had to retreat indoors, the trend caught up to Singapore. “By the end of 2019, we were already seeing growth rates [on TikTok] that outpaced those on Facebook and Instagram,” Kylie Sng, who heads the creator development team at Hepmil Creators’ Network (HCN), says. HCN connects Gen Z creators to multinational brands that are sometimes slower to move on trends. The agency was founded as a division of Hepmil Media Group after Sng’s research team predicted that TikTok would be the next big thing. They were right, but not for the reason they expected. Adds Sng: “COVID was the black swan that nobody was expecting.”
It has taken Singapore a few belated years to wake up to TikTok’s potential as a source of entertainment and potential capital, but local creators are catching up fast to their counterparts in Los Angeles, “who are still ahead in terms of creativity and production quality”, notes Rachel Ong, who heads the Singapore team of Gushcloud International, an agency that connects audiences and brands with content creators. “We have seen creators who make comedic, entertainment and even educational content getting significant traction. Singaporean users tend to observe the language and possibilities of global creators, then tweak them to suit the tastes of local audiences.”
The app has been a gift to young creators who had their designs for 2020 dashed by the onset of a global crisis. Lee Yik Keat, a 25-year- old commercial and music photographer, was supposed to accompany an artist around the globe to document their world tour over eight months. When that was cancelled, he started a TikTok page to share his photography as well as tips and tricks for better shoots. His account is now followed by 1.5 million people, and clients for commercial work have begun finding him through his work there. “Like they say, when one door closes, another opens, right?” Lee says.
Using TikTok feels a little like rappelling down into a bottomless ravine. The storytelling is endless and seemingly random, though the platform’s democratic algorithm, which doesn’t prioritise what videos are shown to you based on follower count, quickly figures out what you’d most like to see. The app is a social media Frankenstein for the roaring twenties, an amalgamation and elevation of the best features of its older cousins, which have started to seem doddery in comparison. It combines “Tumblr-style tribal niches with the brevity and intimacy of Instagram stories and the scalability of YouTube, where mainstream fame is most possible”, according to art critic and writer Kyle Chayka.
The bite-sized bombardment of TikTok has been engineered to be perfect for Gen Z, with their seven-hours-a-day online habit and infamous eight-second attention span. It has a strangely utopic vibe, one that gives the carefully cultivated impression that the kids have unceremoniously ushered the adults out and locked the doors behind them.
They don’t have the millennial tendency to overshare nor the boomer penchant for commercialism. Instead, they distrust those who came before them, preferring to congregate in digital communal micro-spaces to communicate honestly and directly with one another, using language that is, ironically, impenetrable to outsiders. And due to the chaotic nature of the algorithm, the inefficacy of the direct messaging function, and the hit-or- miss quality of the Creator Marketplace search engine for brands, deliberate discoverability can be difficult.
That, combined with the fact that Gen Z’s perspicacity, deeply felt values and digital native status eschews understanding by their elders, makes it difficult to pin them down and therefore sell to them. “Early on, we realised that Gen Z, they’re unknown. It’s like a mystery to everybody. All the agency people who are millennials and older are scared of Gen Z and have no idea what they are,” says Cassi Yang, agency lead at HCN. “The agencies, the advertisers, the brands, they don’t know how to target them. But that’s a super-important space to figure out.”
Barkley, a research group, estimates that Gen Z, however many of them there are depending on when in the 1990s you draw the line between eras, already have a combined US$143 billion in buying power. They make up nearly 40 percent of global consumers. For a luxury company like Gucci, more than three in five sales were made to either millennial or Gen Z customers in 2018.
The stakes of cracking the Gen Z code, for brands, feel almost absurdly high. “How to ensure the future of your brand’s survival,” blare the headlines of articles professing to have sequenced the Gen Z buying habit genome. Not quite quaking in their boots, but certainly regarding the horizon with some degree of wariness, older people seem to be looking to Gen Z and their watering holes, like TikTok, and asking: “Who are you and what do you want from us?”
“The bite-sized bombardment of TikTok has been engineered to be perfect for Gen Z, with their seven-hours-a-day online habit and infamous eight-second attention span”
Tan makes a lot of outfit transition videos, where he’ll spin through four or five chic everyday looks he’s put together in under a minute. The clothes he features in these videos are items that he pulled out of thrift shops, or chain retailers like H&M or Uniqlo. The reason for the latter, he explains, is so that his audience, who are mainly children and teenagers, can afford the look. But it’s also possible he’s naturally drawn to thrifted clothes due to two of Gen Z’s core homing instincts: sustainability and originality.
Those qualities make it difficult for multinational companies to win over creators, as does Gen Z’s innate trip switch, highly attuned to any whiff of corporate insincerity. Much has been made of the new phenomena of ‘woke-washing’, where brands co-opt the language of social justice movements to appeal to socially conscious consumers. But woe betide the T-shirt company that thoughtlessly prints activist slogans or hashtags on its T-shirts, for much roasting and gnashing of teeth will inevitably follow.
What to a millennial or boomer is merely a calculated brand strategy is, to a Gen Z, a massive trust problem in the making. What makes a company tick? What is its mission and purpose? Where are the receipts to reflect that? If you can’t answer these riddles three, you’re not crossing the bridge.
Above all, though, what Gen Z is seeking on an existential quest is authenticity. TikTok provides a space for that. “One thing that’s quite unique about TikTok creators is the community,” Sng says. “I think it might be because many of them became famous in the last year, but they’re all a lot more friendly to each other [than they might be on other platforms].”
TikTok is pervaded by a natural aura of the cool and the casual. It’s amateur, yes, but that’s what makes it fun. When he uses his platform to teach photography, Lee speaks more simply and more directly to his younger, non- professional audience. In contrast, Instagram, where he has nearly 400,000 followers, “feels like a runway show. It’s so clean. You have to show the best of the best. Whereas TikTok, you want people to relate to your videos so it needs to be chill and unfiltered.”
That comfortable, informal vibe appealed immensely to a creator like Willabelle Ong, who started using TikTok during the circuit breaker period when most of her campaigns and collaborations were paused or cancelled. Already an influencer on Instagram, Ong is a fashion blogger who, at 27 years old, floats in the weird nebulous void between the labels ‘millennial’ and ‘Gen Z’. Her Instagram reflects an aspirational, highly curated existence; her TikTok showcases a different, perhaps more real, side of her life.“I’m not used to posing in smiley photos for my Instagram,” she says. “So it could be the case that some people may assume I’m unfriendly. I love that TikTok allows me to show another side of my personality that is more spontaneous, carefree and fun.”
Singapore’s most popular TikToker, Ng Ming Wei, doesn’t earn a cent from TikTok—not directly, anyways. Ng, a comedy creator, has a following more than three times the size of Singapore’s total population and racks up between six and 80 million views every time he hits the upload button. But the platform doesn’t pay him for it—not the way that Facebook or YouTube would pay, primarily through ad dollars. “There’s a common misconception that I must be earning tons of money from TikTok,” he says. “I don’t! I wish I was. It’d be great to be in the US getting the Creator Fund.”
In July 2020, TikTok announced the Creator Fund, which planned to parcel out more than US$200 million to US-based TikTokers with a sizable and active following. After an enthusiastic response from creators, the company has promised to grow the programme to over US$1 billion in the US in the next three years, and double that globally. For now and the foreseeable future, though, it isn’t available to creators in Singapore. A spokesperson for TikTok says it will be eventually, but that they weren’t sure exactly when.
In the meantime, there are ventures like the Piperdys’ cat store, or Ng’s Boom Digital Media, a company he set up to help monetise his content on Facebook and YouTube. And then, of course, there are the brand partnerships. Some companies have taken advantage of the sudden rise of influential Singaporean Gen Z creators on TikTok. Tan, for example, often gets approached by record companies to dance to and promote their newly released singles. Ng worked with the Singaporean government in 2020 to highlight social distancing campaigns. And Lee teamed up with McDonald’s recently, promoting its Shaker Fries.
Sng and Yang’s digital agency, HCN, made that last match. HCN is one of a handful of such agencies that caters to Gen Z creators in Singapore, but with more than 50 creators in its stable, it’s undoubtedly one of the largest. It’s excited about the possibilities of the platform for its creators. For Lee, TikTok is mainly a tool to further and promote his main career in photography, but, Yang says: “For us, we see it for its huge potential for him to explore content creation as a wholly separate, second career option. That’s what’s so great about TikTok: it can be whatever he wants it to be.”
Lee may not be so sure, though. TikTok is a great platform for him to teach his viewers about photography and its philosophy. But he just concluded a partnership with Louis Vuitton, shooting the massive red shipping containers outside Ion Orchard, and he wants to keep up that kind of work. “My goal is to keep creating on TikTok, to stay relevant,” he says, “but I want to move my work away from social media because I don’t want to have to depend as much on social media because it’s so fast-paced. The next day, I could be phased out. I might not be relevant anymore, so I want to build my career offline.”