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Step Chickens and the Rise of TikTok Cults

The picture has turn out to be practically ubiquitous on TikTook, as tens of 1000’s of customers have modified their avatars to point out their loyalty to its topic: Melissa Ong, the 27-year-old “mother hen” of the platform’s largest and strongest cult, the Step Chickens.

Cults on TikTook are open fandoms revolving round a single creator. Much just like the “stans” of pop figures and franchises, members of TikTook cults stream songs, purchase merch, create news update accounts and fervently defend their leaders within the remark sections of posts. The largest distinction is that TikTook’s cult leaders are usually not independently well-known. They’re upstart creators constructing a fan base on social media.

Ms. Ong represents a comparatively new sort of influencer, one who has seized a time of nice isolation and idleness to seize the curiosity of a rapt consumer base.

“I made this video where I was speaking into my phone camera like, ‘Hey guys I think we should start a religion,’” she mentioned in a telephone interview on Friday. “Then, I was like, ‘Let’s start a cult.’”

TikTook customers have been forming cults (of character) and armies (the nonviolent variety) for months now, borrowing ways from remark raid teams on different platforms. The Dum Dum gang, as an illustration, gained a following final 12 months by taking up the remark sections of public figures like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg.

The title comes from a video sequence Ms. Ong shared on TikTook referred to as “CornHub,” by which she parodies pornographic tropes together with one the place a stepbrother seduces a stepsister. Ms. Ong reenacted the plot wearing a chicken suit; the video racked up 1.1 million views.

As Ms. Ong started amassing followers, she implored them to alter their profile footage to her blue selfie. Their first mission was to raid the feedback of Phil Swift, the creator of the widely memed home-repair product Flex Tape. Hundreds of her followers started commenting on Mr. Swift’s movies; inside 48 hours, he modified his avatar to Ms. Ong’s face.

Within two weeks, Ms. Ong gained greater than one million new followers. The Houston Rockets, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Kansas City Chiefs and media organizations together with The Washington Post and Adweek all modified their profile pictures to Ms. Ong’s face. So did Kelly Rizzo, a meals and journey influencer who can also be Bob Saget’s spouse. Step Chickens was added to Famous Birthdays, a milestone in any influencer’s profession.

In the weeks since, Ms. Ong has continued to domesticate her fandom. She wrote and recorded a Step Chickens song, which is now on Spotify and Apple Music. She began a merch shop, promoting T-shirts, telephone circumstances, face masks and psychedelic yoga pants. She started negotiating model offers and planning her monetization technique. Now she is considering mobilizing her base to diversify the distribution of her content material.

“The next step forward is taking over YouTube as our main project and Instagram as our side project,” Ms. Ong mentioned.

Before Ms. Ong turned a full-time content material creator, she labored at Google and Yahoo, the place she befriended Sam Mueller, a technologist. Mr. Mueller left Yahoo to start out Blink Labs, a tech firm that just lately constructed a social networking app referred to as Blink (“if TikTok and Discord had a love child,” he mentioned).

Ms. Ong’s cult had requested her to create a devoted area for them to fulfill, corresponding to a Step Chickens Discord server. But Mr. Mueller had one other concept: What if he rebranded Blink round Step Chickens to capitalize on Ms. Ong’s recognition and provides her followers a spot to attach? “I was like, that would be hilarious if my TikTok cult had its own app,” Ms. Ong mentioned.

“I envisioned Melissa’s profile photo on millions of devices next to the social media giants,” Mr. Mueller mentioned. “We changed the Blink branding, and put her profile picture as the app icon. She announced it on TikTok and people went insane for it.”

Since the app rebranded as Stepchickens, it has been downloaded greater than 100 thousand instances. The firm’s four-person workforce has struggled to maintain up. “We’ve been scrambling to keep the servers stable and accept all the users registering. It continues to grow,” Mr. Mueller mentioned.

“I really believe Melissa has tapped into the zeitgeist of bored teens in quarantine and given them a purpose,” he mentioned. “As strange as it sounds, that’s what’s going on. It keeps getting bigger and bigger because it captures the moment.”

Other cults have fashioned with the goal of taking down the Step Chickens, or no less than being acknowledged by them. Adrian Ortiz, a consumer with 1.5 million followers, created a cult referred to as the Weenies and challenged the Step Chickens to a battle on YouTube. Other cults embrace the Murder Hornets, the Griswolds, the Babbages, Duck Sanctuary, the Flamingos, the Cardi Army (as in “cardigan”), the Beardians, Gary Vee’s Fam and a cult called Jeff, which recently pledged its allegiance to the Step Chickens.

“At least 50 big TikTokkers have started cults by now,” Ms. Ong mentioned. “They want me to officially announce them in the cult war. I did it for the first few, but I stopped because too many people were asking me.”

Ms. Ong’s followers mentioned that becoming a member of Step Chickens has helped them really feel much less remoted within the midst of widespread stay-at-home orders. “I think a lot of people want to be a part of something,” mentioned Sam Schmir, 20.

“With the pandemic, social media is very political and controversial,” Jiayang Li, 22, mentioned. “It’s nice to have a break from everything going on. It’s a break from it all and a fun way to interact with other people and have fun while everyone is quarantining.”

The rise of those cults is a pointy distinction to the dance star tradition that TikTook is greatest recognized for. The cults elevate up unlikely influencers and permit members to really feel complicit of their rise.

“I think that in this social media generation most youths struggle with low self-esteem. They see these seemingly perfect creators, carbon-copy after carbon-copy,” mentioned Danny Nguyen, 16, considered one of Ms. Ong’s followers. “The Step Chickens, to me, is the antithesis of that. Our community is based on embracing our individuality and quirks that make us truly unique and stand out.”

Fans discover Ms. Ong relatable and say that her success appears like their very own success. “Melissa, as our leader, is not afraid to show people that she is not perfect, and as followers that look up to her, we do not feel like we have to be. We are us, we are ourselves, we are the Step Chickens and we are special,” Danny mentioned.

This sort of bond is extremely highly effective. As the enterprise capitalist Josh Constine recently wrote: “Influencers don’t just want fans. They want a cult. They want loyalists willing to do as they command, withstanding the friction of leaving their favorite feed to take actions that benefit their glorious overlords.”

You not want “1,000 true fans,” as typical knowledge dictated a decade in the past. “Today, creators can effectively make more money off fewer fans,” wrote Li Jin, a former accomplice on the enterprise capital agency Andreessen Horowitz, in a weblog publish. If you’re in a position to domesticate a cult of simply 100 loyal followers, you may make an excellent residing in what Ms. Jin describes because the “passion economy.”

To date, Ms. Ong has amassed greater than 1.eight million followers. She just lately signed with a administration firm and desires to make use of her fan base to start out making content material on new platforms. Her final aim is to have her personal comedy present on HBO or Netflix, much like Nathan Fielder’s “Nathan for You,” the place she will construct out the persona she has spent a decade cultivating.

“Before TikTok I would spend all my free time looking at memes on Reddit or Instagram,” Ms. Ong mentioned. “It wasn’t like this came from nothing. It came from spending 10 years of my life in the deepest corners of Reddit, cultivating this personality.”

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