Educating the TikTok generation

Barrett Swanson:

That my students followed the accounts of these influencers made me curious about their manner of living. And as the enrollment numbers at my university continued to worsen and two of my former students emailed to say that they were dropping out of college and moving to L.A., I spent much of last summer cold-calling publicists, wanting to see where the nation’s young people were heading. I swiftly discovered that the influencer industry had become a piñata for COVID-related outrage, with a number of New York Times stories characterizing these creators as incorrigible Dionysians. The Clubhouse in particular had become a repeated target. Several of their neighbors in Beverly Hills had filed a report with the local police department claiming that, despite quarantine, Clubhouse BH had hosted a party of “over a hundred” people, with cars blocking both sides of the street and even parking in several neighbors’ driveways.

All of this led me to reasonably expect that publicists would be wary of press inquiries—let alone the kind of immersive, fly-on-the-wall piece I was proposing. So I was somewhat surprised to find, one morning in August, an email from the Clubhouse at the top of my inbox. For reasons I cannot explain, their publicists were strangely receptive to this idea. They wanted to know how long I’d stay and when I could come out. They seemed to be under the impression that I wanted to learn how to become an influencer myself. The kids would be more than happy to help me make an account, they said. “Plus, if you get three influencers to tag you in a post,” they said, “you could have half a million followers by the end of the week.”