“The GRWM storytimes are getting better,” my professor texted me one Friday night this past semester.
For the past few months, this late-night academic feedback has been the reality of my TikTok class at Duke. Yes, that’s right. Officially called “Building Global Audiences,” the class, housed within the Innovation & Entrepreneurship program, is supposed to teach students to hack the all-knowing algorithm and grow their followings, in hopes of mastering (and eventually monetizing) the art of content creation. Every week, we construct game plans for TikTok content, engage in Socratic seminars about the addictive magnetism of Alix Earle’s storytime videos, and come up with buzzy openers and hot takes in hopes of breaking through the chaos of the For You page. It’s kind of like a diet version of Kris Jenner’s MasterClass, except our Kris is Aaron Dinin, a social marketing professor with a PhD in English who has accrued 30,000 TikTok followers based on what I can only call robust white-middle-aged-professor content.
I enrolled in the class because (1) I wanted an easy A and (2) I’m a Leo and I love attention. I had already dabbled in exploring my inner Charli D’Amelio when I made a satirical TikTok series last year hinting at a (totally fabricated) love story between me and my gay roommate. About 800,000 Likes and 12,000 followers later, I wanted to see what would happen if I actually applied some semblance of strategy and consistency to my TikToks. Maybe this could spiral into something real, like money or a lavish trip to Dubai.
Since its debut in 2022, the class has garnered a notorious, somewhat derogatory reputation on campus as the “influencer class”—leave it to a bunch of burned-out, soon-to-be investment bankers and software engineers to sneer at it. But to Professor Dinin, influencing is “just another medium of artistic expression.” Similar to “a creative writing workshop,” we’re just creating, sharing, and critiquing our work, only that work lives on social media, a relatively new and constantly evolving medium, he says. Much like the way English students dissect Sylvia Plath line by line, we dissect TikToks, second by second. This class—and similar programs at the University of Southern California, East Carolina University, and the University of Virginia—also seems to validate content creation not just as a marketable skill but also a viable career path.
On the first day, Dinin projected our TikToks onto a whiteboard and challenged us to answer the ultimate question—why did any of these videos go viral? Students in the class represented a diverse cross section of fellow attention-seekers at Duke: D1 basketball players, dancers turned sorority girls, vegan lifestyle vloggers, even MBA students. We speculated that some videos did well because they were effortlessly engineered thirst traps; others because TikTok can’t get enough of Duke basketball. But they all involved some sort of strategy. Underneath their flippant facade was an intuitive understanding of consumer psychology. We were just trying to distill that into hard formulas: head-turning hooks that caught the viewer’s attention in 2 seconds, hot takes that begged users to argue in the comments section (there is no such thing as bad publicity, Dinin often reminds us), and captivating cliffhangers. We’re graded according to our participation, and our weekly content plans and video concepts—so not necessarily how many Likes and follows we get, but the effort and time and strategy spent getting those Likes and follows.
Midway through the semester, I walked into class to find my own TikTok projected on the whiteboard, ready for public dissection. It was part one of a “Types of Gays You’ll Meet in College” series I developed the week before that had gained traction. “The hook is quick and easy. I like it,” one classmate remarked. “What’s going on in the video—the walking—is kind of distracting,” another classmate chimed in. My professor nodded in agreement, adding, “He sets this up as a series, which means the people want to see a part two, which means,” he said, pausing dramatically, “More followers!”
This new content was a stark contrast from my previous storytelling TikToks: The audio was squeaked clean of awkward silences, the script was irresistibly immersive, and the hook was as clickbait-y as could be. Instead of being off the cuff, this was meticulously strategic and hyper-personalized, focused on my audience’s interests rather than my own. In large part because of the TikTok rules we devised as a class, I had reworked my content to appease the algorithm and my niche, adding 4,000 new followers to my account by the end of the semester. Based on further feedback, I eventually turned this concept into an eight-part series, chronicling the frat gay, the tote bag twink, the granola gay, and so on.
When you’re mindlessly scrolling, it’s easy to miss the hundreds of behind-the-scenes decisions that ultimately determine whether a TikTok blows up or not. What I’ve learned is that there is a logic to Alix Earle’s (singular, so far) insane success while similar creators struggle to reach Alix Earle levels of clout. “I don’t believe in luck,” Natalia Hauser, a style influencer and the class’s undergrad teaching assistant, tells me. “If it’s meant to go viral, the algorithm will do its due diligence and let it go viral.” But as much as I want to believe in algorithmic destiny, I’m still skeptical: If there is an absolute formula for internet fame, wouldn’t we all be influencers already? There may be strategies to hack the algo, but ultimately, part of it has to be a little luck. Allison Chen, one of my classmates and a self-described “chaotic cooking” creator with more than 450,000 followers across Instagram and TikTok, agrees that it’s “60 percent formula and 40 percent luck.”
But what comes after virality? Chen started at Duke on the premed track. After taking a gap semester to attend French pastry school and focus on content creation, she hasn’t ruled out becoming a full-time influencer. “I’m basically running my own business,” she says. “It’s an exciting risk that I’m willing to take.” Hauser, on the other hand, sees influencing not as a full-time hustle but as a supplement to her career in marketing: “It’s such an asset professionally….In behavioral interviews, my answer to the challenges I’ve overcome, lessons I’ve learned, it’s always TikTok.” In the meantime, she made just under $30,000 last year from brand collaborations and partnerships.
We each went into the class with our own set of expectations, many of which we met or exceeded. The athletes learned how to commercialize their name, image, and likeness, the lifestyle vloggers mastered the art of the Get Ready With Me storytime, and I’m writing for Cosmo and getting paid to make TikTok content for another media company this summer. Last week, I realized the extent to which I had built my brand when a freshman came up to me at a party and innocently asked, “Aren’t you that twink from TikTok?”
Despite that, I don’t think full-time influencing is for me. I’m immensely grateful to have had the power of the platform, and as a journalist who covers trends, having this grasp on the creator economy is invaluable (the PR packages that companies send me aren’t bad either). But what Hauser describes as the “psychological warfare of TikTok” can be really damn draining. When my content performs well, I feel a flicker of contentment—there’s an intoxicating validation that comes from the buzz of notifications. But that algorithmic erection fades in a matter of days, and when it does, I take it as a personal attack. What did I do wrong? Is my content boring…or worse, am I boring?
It is reassuring to know that I’m not alone in this state of simultaneous dread and fatigue. After spring break, several students in the class said they were burned out. When TikToking became our homework, it mutated into a tedious—albeit sporadically rewarding—chore, alongside research papers and internship applications. I found myself losing touch with the initial enjoyment that TikToking gave me, the adrenaline rush of shooting the shit online and learning silly little dances. After all, isn’t that easy, breezy, authentic enthusiasm supposed to be the appeal of influencers? By boiling it down to a science, are we losing what drew us to social media in the first place?
Still, I recently added “Content Creator” to my résumé. I am nowhere near becoming the twink version of Alix Earle, but give me 30 minutes, a trending audio, and a ring light, and I’m confident I can concoct something that has a good chance of blowing up. Even if I never parlay that into lasting fame and riches, it’s something to be proud of. And if anyone out there is reading this and wants to send me on a vacation to Dubai…well, let’s just say I’m available.
Derek Deng is a freelance beauty writer and content creator. His has appeared in NYLON Magazine, Popsugar, The LA Times, Madhappy, and The Duke Chronicle. When he's not making a or testing out sunscreens, you can probably find him attacking his friends for not wearing enough sunscreen, making avocado toast, or curating his next Instagram photodump. Keep up with his photodumps .