These days, kids want to be social media influencers when they grow up. But is it a viable career? And what does our ever-growing social media obsession mean for society? In this episode of The Edge, we talk to TikTok star Talia Lichtstein about her day-to-day routine, how she makes money, and the future of work in the era of social media.
- Addison Rae’s spaghetti and vitamins video
- “The Influencer Report”
- Talia’s airport TikTok post
- Talia’s post about things she hates played in the podcast.
- Talia’s first mega-viral post about things she hates with 2.5 million likes, posted in June 2021.
- Talia’s rats in New York post
- Talia’s sponsored content post
This episode was written and hosted by Laura Smith, Leah Worthington, and Margie Cullen and produced by Coby McDonald.
Special thanks to Pat Joseph and Talia Lichtstein. Art by Michiko Toki and original music by Mogli Maureal.
LEAH WORTHINGTON: Laura, I’m curious, what did you want to be when you were little?
LAURA SMITH: A writer and a veterinarian.
LEAH: I wanted to be a veterinarian too! Or an ice skater. Honestly, I wanted to be Michelle Kwan.
LEAH: Well do you know what a lot of kids want to be now?
LAURA: Bitcoin miners? Landscape designers in the metaverse? Content creators?
LEAH: Well actually, yeah. According to a 2019 report from Morning Consult called “The Influencer Report see ex,” 86% of people ages 13 to 38 want to try out becoming an influencer. Apparently “Social media star” has even become the fourth-most popular career aspiration among kids.
LAURA: Oh my god. Does no one want to be anything that’s real? Like something out of a Richard Scary book, like a doctor or a baker?
LEAH: But what is real anyway? Is a podcaster real? If you think about it, we just make sounds that float around in the cloud and occasionally get transmitted into someone’s AirPods.
LAURA: Leah, don’t do this to me.
LEAH: Ok, to be fair, you’re not the only one a little disturbed by the rise of influencer…culture. What makes you feel that way?
LAURA: [reacts] I don’t really know, I guess my first instinct is to be deeply depressed.
LAURA: It just seems kind of icky to me, the idea of spending all that time on social media trying to get more followers in order to get more followers in order to…you get the idea. I think that’s actually what freaks me out the most—how this is an example of social media’s pernicious creep into every facet of our lives.
LEAH: Yeah, I hear you. And I share your pessimism around the endless churn and consumption of “content.” On the other hand, I think what we’re describing is just…capitalism. Replace the word “followers” with “money,” and I’m not sure how that’s different from what anyone else is doing.
LAURA: That’s a good point. But speaking specifically about social media, I’m worried about how people increasingly have to brand themselves to stay relevant. Like, bakers will still exist, but will they all also have to become internet personalities with thriving Instagram accounts?
LEAH: Right, yeah, I only go to bakeries promoting a healthy balance of wholesome cafe humor and pro-social justice content.
LEAH: But I also think there are a lot of misconceptions about what an influencer even is. Dare I say there’s something really intriguing—and maybe even a little subversive—about the world of social media personalities.
LAURA: Oh that’s very edgy.
LEAH: Yes, but first we need to clarify a few things, like what IS an influencer? What do they do? How do they make money? And, my favorite question, what does it all mean for the future of society?
LAURA: This is The Edge, a podcast produced by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. In this episode we’re going to make you feel really old and out of touch as we explore the world of social media influencers—how they do what they do and why.
LEAH: We’ll also discuss what this means for our approach to earning a living in the modern world.
LAURA: I’m your host, Laura Smith.
LEAH: And I’m your other host, Leah Worthington.
LEAH: So today, we have a special guest. We have Margie Cullen on the show.
LAURA: And no, she’s not an influencer, though she does handle the magazine’s social media accounts.
LEAH: Right. No, we’re bringing her on because she’s a real live young person. We do need to bring in some fresh blood to help us translate this episode.
LAURA: Welcome Margie, we’re here for your blood.
MARGIE CULLEN: Scary.
LEAH: So, Margie, as our resident Zoomer, can you introduce us to the world of social media influencers? Like, where are they all?
MARGIE: [intro] Yes, well I’d say that most of them were on Youtube and Instagram before, but now most of them are on Tiktok.
LAURA: And for our millenial and baby boomer listeners, what is Tik Tok?
MARGIE: It’s a social media platform where users can watch and make short form videos, anywhere from 15 seconds to 3 minutes. Similar to Vine if you remember that. It used to be kinda its own separate realm for normal people and normal people who became tik tok stars, but now has become so mainstream that almost all influencers use it and even celebrities like Selena Gomez and Jason Derulo have hopped on the bandwagon.
LAURA: I don’t even know who Jason Derulo is.
MARGIE AND LEAH: What???
LAURA: Ok, I guess Margie, the first thing I want to know is how do you define an influencer?
MARGIE: Well, really generally an influencer is someone who’s popular or famous online. They also have an “influence” over their audience. But this influence is super broad: basically, it’s someone to emulate, whether it’s their clothes, make up, lifestyle, personality, etc. For example, there are “beauty influencers” who do make-up looks and review make-up brands. Or there are “travel influencers” who just travel the world and people live vicariously through them. But there’s also a business element, because once an influencer gets big enough through whatever they do, they can also start using this influence to sell things. But anyways, if I had to give a number for an influencer… maybe over 50k followers on TikTok? But that number can be different for different social media platforms.
LEAH: And how do you become an influencer? I assume a viral video is involved somewhere?
MARGIE: Yeah, definitely. Sometimes someone just pops off right away with one hit video, but more often it’s a little more complicated than that because usually there’s some quasi-viral content before the viral video and the soon-to-be influencer has already amassed a pretty good following.
LEAH: So, Margie, you recently interviewed a real live influencer.
MARGIE: I did. She’s a 2021 Berkeley grad and TikTokker. And, well, I’ll let her introduce herself…
TALIA: 2:13 My name is Talia Lichstein.
TALIA: 2:27 I work as a full time content creator, podcast host, host in general, and internet personality.
LEAH: And Margie, I’m curious, there are a lot of influencers out there on the internet. So, what drew you to Talia?
MARGIE: She’s really funny and relatable! She’s just a year younger than me, and makes fun of things that I usually also find annoying.
TIKTOK CLIP [HERE]
LAURA: I mean…that was definitely funny and relatable. But so are a lot of things. How does that make her an influencer?
MARGIE: I’ll let Talia tell her story…
TALIA: 6:12 I downloaded the app in like February of 2020, like everybody else did, like right before the quarantine when it first became a thing and that I really was obsessed during COVID Like the big COVID outbreak, but I started making the videos like consistently in June of 2021 Right after I graduated from Berkeley, and that’s when I really like injected my personality into them. It just made it like stream of consciousness talking.
TALIA: 9:45 When I first started on TikTok, I had a zillion ideas and they were just flying out.
MARGIE: Since she’d always wanted to do something in comedy, for years she had been jotting down bits in her notes app. A lot of these bits were LA focused jokes, like questions for LA kids, what you’re like based on what LA high school you went to, etc. And for a while she was attracting some followers, but not a whole lot.
TALIA: 25:50 Most of my friends from Berkeley, like, I was the only one who wasn’t going into consulting, or going to business school or law school in the next couple of years. And in terms of I studied Media Studies at UC Berkeley, I was the only person in that major who didn’t go into marketing or in a mailroom in the entertainment industry.
TALIA: 2:57 I wanted to work in comedy. I wanted to be a host of some kind. I wanted to work in late night TV writing for late night TV, I want to be a political satirist. So I got started with the making videos basically, as a, you know, I wanted this to be a stepping stone to do that.
TALIA: 3:29 My thought was why get a nine to five that I’m really not passionate about when I can talk to my phone do what I love to share my opinions and my voice and make money from that. But that means that you’re an influencer.
MARGIE: She was actually applying to work as an intern or production assistant at publications like BuzzFeed and Refinery29.
TALIA: 11:18 And at that point, I have like 1,000 followers, and I would include the link to my TikTok in these job applications.
MARGIE: For reference, 1,000 followers isn’t that many.
TALIA: 11:23 I was also applying to be an emcee on cruise ships, I really wanted to go on a Royal Caribbean like cruise for two years and be the MC like be an entertainer. And I would do stand up or writing on the side and hope that I got noticed for that or could like hone my skills that way and build sort of a fan base that way over a couple of years, to the point where I could get like an agent and a manager.
MARGIE: But then, in July of 2021 she made a video that changed everything. It was basically just a list of all the things she hates…it’s called, appropriately, “RANDOM THINGS I HATE”
TIKTOK CLIP [HERE]
MARGIE: And it kind of blew up.
TALIA: 7:44 And that one went to like 3 Million Likes, which was like, by far the biggest video I’d ever had.
MARGIE: This was by far the biggest video she’d ever had. People seemed to really connect with her personality. She was getting a ton of traffic to her page and her following exploded. Basically, overnight, she had become an influencer.
LEAH: I’m sort of surprised that that was the video that went viral.
LAURA: Yeah, but I think I get it. It’s funny and kind of quotidian in terms of the relatability of her complaints.
MARGIE: Yeah, I would say that that’s what a lot of TikTok is like. Relatable content that makes people laugh or think, ‘hey, I have that experience too.’
LEAH: Which is I guess what a lot of standup comedy is too. So, what happened next?
MARGIE: Well, she realized she had an opportunity, so she seized it.
TALIA: 7:50 As that was climbing over the course of like two weeks, I was gaining followers really rapidly.
TALIA: 8:05 I continued making videos constantly, like it was very, very consistent. I was posting, I woke up at like 8am every day and posted until dark because I wanted people to see content constantly.
LEAH: So, one day Talia was just another Zoomer making TikToks and then one 70-second video later and she’s a full-time influencer?
MARGIE: Yeah, more or less. Talia has around 1.1 million followers, which is a lot, but kind of average for a TikTok celebrity. Charli D’Amelio is currently the biggest TikToker, with 140 million followers.
LEAH: Wow. So, do you think this is how all influencers are formed? Like, they’re eyeing a distant dream of being a celebrity, whether a comedian like Talia—or a makeup artist, videogamer, product reviewer—and then some video or post or tweet goes viral and suddenly they’re launched into internet fame?
MARGIE: Well maybe not all. Some influencers became famous by other means first. Take someone like Jaden Smith who was famous from birth because of his dad. But a lot of people have found success this way—basically using social media accounts to jump-start other careers like acting, singing, or comedy.
LAURA: In other words, becoming an influencer is a means to achieve some other, real world career goal?
MARGIE: Exactly. Addison Rae is a really famous example of this.
MARGIE: She’s a 22 year old from Louisiana who is the top earning person on TikTok. Basically, she had a bunch of dance videos and gained all these followers and her first year at Louisiana State University, she kind of looked around and was like, why am I here? And she left to be an influencer full time. Now she’s released a single, starred in a Netflix film, got a podcast, and launched her own cosmetics line. And, she’s besties with the Kardashians.
LAURA: Wow. That actually sounds like a lot of work. I guess I had this idea that influencers were just laying around uploading videos of themselves. So Margie, can you break it down for me. What does her day to day look like?
MARGIE: So, after college Talia moved to New York to get closer to all the action. Her days start pretty easy…
TALIA: 12:58 I usually don’t have a specific time I have to get up.
LEAH: That sounds nice.
MARGIE: Yeah, but things really ramp up from there….
TALIA: 13:11 I have to first film my snapchat show.
TALIA: 13:14 That’s usually my first thing I do in the day, I have a show with Doing Things Media.
TALIA: 14:05 So I wake up and I film that. Then I usually treat myself to a walk, I go out. I am still exploring New York City.
TALIA: 14:17 And during that time is when I usually make content. I like to walk around, film myself on my phone literally talking.
TALIA: 14:31 And I’ll take like two three hour walks and just make video after video after video.
TALIA: 15:41 It’s mostly just filming, filming, filming.
LAURA: Wow. That’s a lot of filming. What are these videos like?
MARGIE: So, she just kind of walks around New York commenting on the things she sees. Sometimes she’s in the subway talking about people. Other times she’s just walking around, talking about completely unrelated things.
TIKTOK CLIP [HERE]
LEAH: [explains video]
LEAH: So, it’s kind of like a portrait of a young person navigating New York, that’s part parody, part…authentic?
MARGIE: Yeah. And there’s a lot of pressure to keep the content flowing so she can grow her audience… or at least not lose it.
TALIA: 12:34 I have to maintain the platform, entertain the fans. What’s the next step? What’s the next iron in the fire? Like it’s a lot of work.
LAURA: So let’s talk about money. Certainly many people aspire to become influencers because they want to be internet famous. But for people like Talia this is her job. This is about making money. So she’s making all this content. And this is her primary job, right?
LAURA: And she’s living in Manhattan…where’s the money coming from to pay those Manhattan bills?
MARGIE: A few different places. First, there’s the TikTok Creator Fund, which you can join if you have more than 10,000 followers and are posting a certain number of times a month.
TALIA: 16:20 They throw a couple million dollars in there every month. And it’s basically a big pot. And depending on how many views you got that month, you get a portion of that pot. Addison Ray, I don’t know if she’s in the crater, fund, whatever, like they’re getting the biggest portion of the pot.
TALIA: 16:45 If you get, say, a video that hits a million likes one, one video per month that hits a million likes, you’re making around $1,000 from the creator fund a month, which is good money.
TALIA: 16:38 Unless you’re getting millions and millions and millions of views a month, you’re probably not going to be able to like live on that money.
LEAH: So where does the rest of it come from?
MARGIE: Brands, brands, brands.
LAURA: Oh god.
TALIA: 3:48 Essentially how I make money now on this road to becoming a comedian, I have to pay my rent, right? I have to support myself on the way so instead of working a nine to five I have to plug the brands in my content I have to collaborate with companies and wear their clothes and talk about their life-changing diet pill or whatever the fuck…Sorry, I can’t curse but you get it.
TALIA: 17:12 Brand collaborations are when either you reach out to a brand or they reach out to you. And you would set a price for how much is it going to cost to make a 30 to 60 second video for this brand.
TALIA: 17:48 I usually negotiate for a lot of creative freedom. I don’t like it to be super sponsored.
TIKTOK CLIP [HERE]
LAURA: So she’s just advertising for that clothes company…
LEAH: But that’s like embedded into just a funny conversation with her and this dude who clearly knows nothing about clothes.
MARGIE: Yeah it’s pretty tame, not too pushy.
LEAH: Yeah, that was actually pretty discreet, which freaks me out a little bit. Being discreetly fed advertising.
MARGIE: Ok, but check out this Addison Rae video.
TIKTOK CLIP [HERE]
LAURA: Ok, so that was very cringe. Also the hilarious thing about it is that she’s just boiling pasta and putting canned sauce on it. Did anyone need a video to know how to do that?
MARGIE: Yeah, I don’t think people are watching because they actually need to learn how to boil pasta.
LEAH: They just want a peek at her life. They want to see her and her mom bopping around the kitchen.
LAURA: And randomly eating some vitamins before they do! Because that’s what you do, you have to remember to take your vitamins before you boil the water. It’s the first step in every recipe. That happened totally organically.
LEAH: Totally organically.
MARGIE: Yeah she didn’t put much thought into incorporating that product plug. But this is the kind of thing that a lot of influencers do. And you don’t even have to be super big to do this. One of my old teammates at Cal is a “Nuun ambassador.” Basically, they send her free Nuun hydration products and she posts about it on her Instagram story.
LAURA: So we used to be the buyers, but now we’re the buyers and the sellers. I find that troubling, the way opportunities to sell people things have been woven into our ordinary lives. Will capitalism just never leave us alone? Can we not just watch banal videos of friends and strangers in peace?
LEAH: No we can’t, Laura, and I think that’s what freaks me out the most—the dissolution of the line between the market and our personal lives, and the fact that social media has made everything, everywhere commodifiable, including ourselves.
LAURA: Well, yes that’s true. But on the other hand, this is a version of something that has always happened. Celebrities have always sold us things. The difference is that before they might have been on TV ads selling us Frosted Flakes or Coors Light and now it’s on social media. And I guess I wonder, is it really that different?
MARGIE: There are just more celebrities now. Anyone can be a celebrity.
LEAH: Right, in some sense, it’s sort of a democratization of celebrity. That’s no longer a status only attained by birthright or beauty or wealth—though I’m sure that helps. I would be significantly less cute boiling pasta than Addison Rae.
LAURA: Don’t sell yourself short, Leah. But it makes me think, if anyone can be a celebrity, and profit off that status, then why can’t I?
LEAH: Yeah, that’s what those 98% of kids are thinking when they say they want to be influencers.
LAURA: Totally. But for every Talia, there are probably thousands of people trying to make it, spending hours every day on social media, and not really getting anywhere. Certainly not making a living.
LEAH: Yeah, remember that report I mentioned earlier that said 86% of young adults want to try out influencing? Well, only 12% of the people surveyed actually consider themselves influencers.
LAURA: And probably a fraction of those are really making it.
LAURA: As a parent, I know I’d be concerned if my daughter was spending hours and hours a day trying to become an influencer.
LEAH: Yeah, that makes me wonder, Margie, how do Talia’s parents feel about it?
MARGIE: Well, her grandma’s response is the best.
TALIA: 23:50 My grandma seems to think that my podcast is a radio show that she can tune into. And she keeps saying I’m sorry, I’m never in the car.
MARGIE: She’s trying to get her grandma to download TikTok on her iPad. She also said her mom gets it and is completely onboard.
TALIA: 22:18 Whereas my dad—
TALIA: 22:20 —he was extremely supportive the whole way. But he was like, more worried about this could affect your career long term. And it was sort of me and my mom who had to be like, ‘Just don’t worry, I know, it sounds crazy. But I don’t think I’m gonna have that type of career ever.’ Like, I don’t think that this is ever going to affect me because I don’t think I’ll ever once it started going viral, it was like, I don’t know if I’ll ever apply for a conventional job ever again.
LAURA: That’s interesting. Like she’s just coming at this from a completely different angle. Like why would she ever get an office job.
LEAH: I get that. But also having the flexibility to work anywhere, anytime sometimes means you end up working everywhere, all the time.
LAURA: Right, it allows that barrier between personal and professional life to dissolve.
MARGIE: That’s something influencers like Talia experience to the extreme. Is scrolling through TikTok pleasure or work?
TALIA: 29:33 I can never stop. I don’t take day off or vacation. Even if there was a time where I specifically designated seven days to go to Hawaii and I wanted to not do work, like not check my phone, it would be impossible. My whole life exists on that phone and you can’t log off like because even when you’re logged on, not for the purpose of work, what do people do in their free time nowadays in this in this day and age, they scroll TikTok. Like I have to participate in the world, I have to be part of like part of pop culture and like be plugged in, I want to have conversations with my friends and consume media just like the rest of us. But in order to do that, I’m kind of working. And I’m constantly thinking about how can I turn this into content?
TALIA: 30:27 People clock out of their nine to five jobs.
TALIA: 30:35 For me, it’s like, I don’t clock out ever. I’m constantly working.
LAURA: I’ve been thinking about how I really just want to view this whole thing as depressing and an important signal that culture is on the cusp of demise. Like there’s a little old lady inside of me who is wagging her finger, lamenting the state of the world and all the things that are being lost, like books, and literature, and art and and and….I don’t know. But if I’m really being honest about it, I don’t think this is the end of civilization as we know it.
LEAH: No, that will probably be done by climate change.
LAURA: True. But I guess what I’m saying is that culture and how we imbibe it has always been changing. And what I’m really feeling….is left out.
LEAH: Because you don’t have TikTok?
LAURA: Yeah. I feel like the world is passing me by and I don’t know how to get back in it. It’s honestly scary. I think it’s scary to feel left out of a social phenomenon, but it’s also scary from a job perspective, like what if this is a thing that everyone is doing and I don’t have the skills to do that.
LEAH: Even as a young journalist I feel that. It seems more and more like I need to be more than just a writer, reporter, photographer, videographer…I also have to be active on social media and have a—I hate to even say it—Twitter personality. And in the meantime, what impact will this have on our brains? From what I’ve read, social media and just online-ness in general doesn’t seem to have a great impact on our mental health. If kids are spending more and more time on social media for fun and to fulfill social and professional obligations…
LAURA: I guess there’s only one solution.
LEAH: To jump onboard and download TikTok and make millions off videos of us cooking mac ‘n cheese?
MARGIE: You probably couldn’t do that. It’s actually quite hard. I’ve tried…
LAURA: No, that’s not what I’m saying. I guess I don’t know what I’m saying other than it’s here and being scared won’t get us anywhere. There are good parts about it and bad parts about it and most of it is just sort of in between.
LEAH: That was profound. Ok, before we go, I just want to know: What does Talia plan for the future? Is she still hoping to turn her TikTok fame into something else?
TALIA: 34:18 The next step will definitely be I’m working on a TV show like I’m trying to write. I want to pitch long form content to TV networks, instead of keeping everything digital and conceivable in little bite sized pieces. I like the idea of like a 40 minute TV show. But I will always like keep my TikTok account.
TALIA: 34:13 I think that’s a big no, no—is abandoning your original audience.
TALIA: 35:23 But it’s, I’m trying to get to a point where it is not my only thing. And I’m less of a digital influencer and more of like a comedian. So that’s the next step.
LAURA: So see! Some of the old things remain! We will still have television! And comedians! She still wants the old things.
TALIA: 32:24 Like, is there anything better than getting to do what you like and not hate your job in a capitalist society? Like how amazing that I don’t have to walk into a job that I hate every day.
TALIA: 33:04 And I think that’s like, come on, like I can’t think of anything more lucky than that.
LAURA: This is The Edge, brought to you by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. I’m Laura Smith.
LEAH: And I’m Leah Worthington.
LAURA: This episode was produced by Coby McDonald, with support from Pat Joseph and Margie Cullen. Special thanks to Talia Lichtstein. Original music by Mogli Maureal.