“My Tiktok is," Austin Maguire (C '21) pauses, "interesting. The whole thing really started out of nowhere.”
Austin is modest about his TikTok presence. Although this Penn junior didn’t set out to be a viral sensation, since starting his account last June, Austin has amassed nearly half a million followers and 21.5 million likes on TikTok, the new, widely popular video–sharing app.
Austin’s popularity on the app was rather unintentional.
“Over this summer, someone I follow on Instagram posted a link and said, ‘I just made a partnership with TikTok. I need people to download it from my link,’” he explains.
Feeling curious and willing to offer some help, Austin downloaded the app as it was just beginning to gain traction. He wasn't a big fan at first.
“I didn’t really like it," Austin says. "I wasn’t entertained by it.”
Despite his initial lack of enthusiasm for the app in its infancy, Austin saw the potential to create unique and entertaining content for himself.
“I was kind of overwhelmed at home because my home life is pretty chaotic and I just needed a space. Especially because I’m from middle–of–nowhere Ohio and they’re not super accepting there, and I identify as gender–fluid and queer and queer–sexually, so I don’t necessarily feel like I can be myself when I’m there. I needed a space where I could do, and say, and be whatever I wanted with no one’s influence put on to that with no expectations. It’s a way to entertain myself with my creative energy. So I just created the content that I would have wanted to see when I downloaded the app and other people liked it.”
Within just three days of downloading the app, Austin received over fifty thousand likes on the few videos that he had posted. Austin attributes this success to his timing in creating videos on the app.
“At this point it was like the end of June and it was super easy for anyone to grow really quickly on the app. It’s not easy anymore. But it sort of just started going. I would just scroll through the homepage and see all these trends and ironically imitate them or put my own spin on them and people immediately started liking it because I was making fun of TikTok culture on TikTok.”
Through the app, it’s easy for just about anyone to participate in the internet’s latest trends, challenges, and meme formats. Despite the app’s seemingly uniform nature, Austin has decided to do something different. Austin used the video’s 15–second standard format to act out short, often satirical character sketches.
"I play that Ivy League student who doesn’t actually know what they’re talking about, a lot. Or your English teacher going off on a tangent that no one really understands but sounds really philosophical," he explains. "Much of the time I’m just making fun of myself.”
Many young adults on the app have been able to relate to Austin’s renditions of the absurdities of his everyday experiences. One of his first videos to go viral was titled, “Theater Kid at a Birthday Party.”
“It’s like when everyone is starting to sing 'Happy Birthday,' and they’re singing off–key and they’re mimicking where they are. Just sort of directing people how to sing 'Happy Birthday.' Everyone in the comments is like going off on theater kids when the reality is with my family I will play middle C on my phone and make everyone [match] pitch before we’re singing happy birthday because I don’t like being out of key," he says. "But I made a joke out of it and people really liked that.”
When Austin went abroad to Barcelona in the fall, his TikTok pursuits followed. Although he did not plan for his TikTok to be involved with his abroad experience, it allowed him to form new connections that he never could have anticipated. While posting videos nearly daily, the app promoted his videos by geographic region.
“If I would speak in Spanish in the video, then it would only go to Spanish followers. So I had videos that my Spanish following knew, but followers who spoke English wouldn’t know. So I had like two different bases of people who knew different videos of mine and knew me for different reasons. I had Spanish people come up to me and we could connect over the videos. While being there, the other people who would see my videos were other Americans studying abroad in Spain," Austin says. "It was a cool sense of connection I didn’t know could happen.”
Now that Austin is back on campus this semester, his daily inspirations remain fresh.
“Classrooms are just a wonderful source of inspiration. People just say the weirdest, craziest, funniest of things,” he notes.
He often finds himself jotting down the humorous words or lines that he hears in the classroom in his notebook so that he can use them as inspiration for his videos.
Whether he’s joking about himself or the people he interacts with, Austin emphasizes that he creates content for humor, rather than to criticize or hurt others' feelings. He always asks permission from others if he intends to reference them.
“It’s not supposed to be making fun in a pessimistic or malicious way. It’s a joke about common human behaviors that we all do ourselves or interact with and I think it’s funny to comment on those,” he explains.
As Austin continues to find humor and light–heartedness in everyday life, he notes that, at times, his fame on the app is overwhelming. He’s recently had strangers come up to him because they know him from his videos.
“You lose a lot of privacy and there’s this crazy expectation on you that you always have to be performing," he says. “It’s dehumanizing in a sense when people only see you as the content that you create. They think they know you, but they only know [the] you that is online and there can be weird boundaries that people cross.”
He’s even received many obsessive messages from people wanting to be his friend. For these less glamorous trade–offs associated with being a well–known internet figure, Austin admits that he’s considered deleting the app at times in the past.
These complexities have also led Austin to consider his career goals more critically.
“I always wanted to go into entertainment when I was a kid, but when I went through high school I kind of suppressed those to be conventional because that’s what I thought everyone wanted from me. Then I came here and I realized that I wanted to do what I wanted to do: communications, creative writing, and music. I always wanted to be a musician and comedian," he explains.
"Now this experience has complicated that. I’ve dipped my toes into what fame is like and I don’t like it. At the same time, I can’t think of another way to make a living. If I must make a living I want to do it artistically.”
Despite these drawbacks, he continues to draw satisfaction from the creative process of making TikTok videos.
“I never intended for people to watch. I was just trying to entertain myself, but I’m always really happy that other people are entertained.”