What if an app amassed over 100 million users in two years, gaining about half of the American teen population? What if that same application in two years created an environment where anyone could gain one million followers and celebrity status by simply putting their face in front of a cell phone camera? And, what if all these nascent celebrities were all under the age of 17?
This is the secret of Musical.ly, the social media app that has gone viral unbeknownst to the average adult. The Shanghai-based application, which has offices in Silicon Valley, has created a platform to propel child celebrities like 14-year-old musician and internet personality Jacob Sartorious, who — thanks to Musical.ly — gained 14.4 million followers and signed to a major record label. The concept is simple: create your own 15-second music video and make it unique. Pick a song, do the shoot and edit and refine the video to your liking. Make it funny, make it sweet, even make it sexy, and the followers will come.
By the stats, this simple yet sleek user interface has captivated the youth market. With 40 million active monthly users, Musical.ly was ranked number one on the app store, and estimates boast that about half of teens nationwide use the application. (To put it in perspective, a promotion of Selena Gomez’s “Kill Em With Kindness” generated 1.3 million Muser clips, 34.6 million likes, and 564,500 comments, in comparison to its 254 million plays, 2 million likes, and 136,000 comments on Youtube.) The app has served as a creative outlet and platform for teens looking to share their gifts and has even helped kids gain confidence amidst bullying in the outside world. Interestingly, the app’s growth has leveled the playing field. Now, anyone has access to becoming a star.
However, despite this explosion in popularity, some concerns have trickled in. Exemplified by a recent example in a UK newspaper of a father shocked upon reading vile comments about his 8-year-old daughter on the app, concerns about pedophilia, privacy and security of youth have begun to emerge.
To me, though, the most shocking aspect about this new social media tool is its potential monetization. Take 16-year-old lip syncer Ariel Martin, who goes by “Baby Ariel.” Those who have an aptitude at creating these videos and branding their celebrity can make serious money off of their followers. Baby Ariel, for instance, markets her own lipstick brand as well as companies like Burger King on her platform. She will even be hosting a summer camp on becoming a social media influencer, where parents pay $2,000 for their children to get photographed with these celebrities and learn how to make their own Musical.ly videos shine.
Underlying Musical.ly, Instagram and Twitter is a simple truth. We live in a new age, the age of the “social media influencer.” It’s a fascinating but scary new world where one can make a living simply off of his or her popularity. The concept of a teenager being able to make an honest salary off advertising Calvin Klein V-Necks or Beats headphones would be unfathomable to baby boomers or our parents and grandparents. But, with brands looking to grab a share of this valuable screen time and willing to pay big money for it, we face a new question: What happens when a 13-year-old boy has the audience of three sold-out Madison Square Gardens?
In many ways, the growth of Musical.ly can be credited to the ingenuity and creativity of today’s youth. From the backseat of a mother’s Honda minivan or during middle school recess, today’s youth have created a new online community and a new economy, largely inaccessible to the average adult, where thousands or millions can view their videos. The truth is, this online revolution isn’t going away anytime soon. Teens and teen celebrities are flexible, ready to switch platforms to alternatives like YouNow or Vine the moment they encounter something better for their image or their followers.
Thus, upon opening up Musical.ly, I felt fear, something I had never felt around technology before. Finally, I was behind the curve. This app was not designed for me; its brands and its influencers not targeted at me. Celebrity is no longer prescribed by adults; it rest, perhaps for the first time, in the hands of kids.
Contact Kyle D’Souza at kvdsouza ‘at’ stanford.edu.