Young stars are not a recent phenomenon but in the new media environment, creativity is being driven by 20-somethings who now have a medium to match their energy. TikTok has created a model that accommodates the frenetic pace at which content moves through the palms of Gen Z.
Khaby Lame, at just 23, has surpassed the one-woman brand Charli D’Amelio to become the most popular user on TikTok at 150 million followers (and climbing) through his satirical videos mocking “life-hack” culture.
Lame grew up in northwest Italy by way of Senegal. Just like so many people during the pandemic, Lame was laid off, in his case losing his factory job in March of 2020. Holed up at home, he turned to TikTok.
We all remember (or choose to forget) this era well.
Lifehacks became strangely popular during quarantine, when we had time to rethink and over-analyze our household habits. These hacks range from new ways to clean fruits and vegetables to waterproofing your shoes. But they vary in usefulness. Many of these “hacks” are so convoluted that it’s hard to believe they make anything easier. Lame has capitalized on the irony.
Khaby’s Rise to Fame
One of Lame’s popular TikToks stitches together a video of someone finding a “solution” to drinking water by taping two paper cups together. Lame responds by simply pouring water into a glass, exposing the absurdity of the original creator’s idea.
“When I was a kid, I loved the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and just wanted to make people laugh like Will Smith,” Lame told TIME.
Lame’s viral videos could be best described as deadpan reaction to what are increasingly bizarre hacks that people have popularized on the app. Commenters often praise his facial expressions, and Lame’s choreographed restraint speaks volumes. “Body language is universal,” he said from the Milan apartment he shares with two friends. “By staying silent, I am understood. Everybody can laugh alongside me.”
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The Power of Memes
The rise of Khaby Lame and other young media personalities born in the 21st century is a testament to the power of new media platforms such as TikTok. The app’s memetic format, which allows for easy replication and reaction to content, has become a breeding ground for emerging stars and trends.
What Lame represents in the new media industry is yet another creator taking advantage of this collaborative format. This has meant that a lot of the content on TikTok is a replication of (or reaction to) a previous user’s original video.
Popular creators who have leveraged this technique include husband-and-wife duo h3h3Productions and left-wing commentator (“the revolution will not be televised”) HasanAbi, both of whom have grown their channels on YouTube with wild success. In fact, a massive portion of videos on YouTube are simply reaction videos. So much so that Netflix has directly approached creators for their reaction channels.
It makes sense. With the increasing amount of content to sort through, the average user craves content that is mediated through their favorite creator. In this way, curation has become a high-value skill.
What Instagram Is Missing
Thanks to TikTok’s format, which features “Stitches” (multiple videos spliced together ) and “Duets” (split-screen videos shown side by side), replicating and reacting has only gotten easier.
Aside from the “everyman” humor that Lame exudes, he also demonstrates why TikTok is doing so well in comparison to its counterparts. While Instagram has attempted to replicate TikTok’s success by adopting “Reels,” it’s still missing a key component: Replication and reaction. As a consequence, TikTok feels dynamic and alive in contrast to Instagram’s more sterile focus on brand deals and retail ads.
That’s not to say Lame’s presence isn’t profitable. In fact, it’s estimated he makes a whopping $400,000 per brand post. And that’s just for posting. Affiliate programs and deals with companies like Hugo Boss turned Lame’s job into a career by creating more lucrative opportunities for the creator, like walking on the runway in Boss’s Milan Fashion Week show.
Content by the People, for the People
The rise of new media platforms and the memetic format has led to a democratization of content creation and a new era of media personalities who are relatable and authentic. Unlike traditional media, which is controlled by a small group of gatekeepers, TikTok and YouTube allow anyone with an internet connection to create and share content with the world.
These social media personalities often come from global backgrounds and have unique perspectives that resonate with audiences. They are not polished or manufactured like traditional celebrities, but real people creating content that reflects their own experiences and interests. This is giving rise to a universality that Lame has tapped into by remaining silent. “Mr. Bean doesn’t speak,” he told mashable.com, “or Charlie Chaplin.” We’re more alike than different, and our content preferences are proof. As these platforms evolve and innovate, the new stars and emerging trends will continue to shape the media landscape of the future.