Military touts first sergeant on TikTok as ‘way forward for Military management’

They say there’s a first time for everything, but celebrating an army corporal as the “future of army leadership” for his TikTok videos is still something you probably never expected.

First Sgt. According to an Army press release in December, Joseph Starcher films “educational, motivational and hilarious videos” during his “rare downtime” for social media site TikTok. It adds that Starcher “had nearly nine thousand followers” as of December. In the videos on his account, he shows off his new Army Green Service uniform—“Sometimes you have to check your drip,” the video says—as well as videos with leadership tips and jokes about military culture.

According to the publication, Starcher was “chosen to serve as TikTok First Sgt.” from other TikTok users in November. The vote was conducted by another military TikTok account, a Sergeant Major who goes by the username @infantryguru.

The remarkable thing is not that a soldier posts videos – many of them do – but that the Army goes out of their way to single out a soldier for doing so. It’s even more interesting considering that in 2019 there were national security concerns about using TikTok because of its ties to China, and now soldiers everywhere are posting videos in and out of uniform.

The publication also provides insight into how the military is changing its perception of social media. Katherine Kuzminski, director of the military, veterans and community program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), pointed out that the military typically only looks at social media from a negative perspective. There’s no shortage of social media posts that have cast a negative light on the military — like the Fort Hood soldier who posted a video mocking sexual harassment, or the lieutenant who got a boot for Holocaust jokes – which usually get the most attention.

But over time, there has been “a little more experimentation with the positive side of social media,” Kuzminski said.

First Sgt. Joseph Starcher’s office. (US Army/Staff Sgt. Nicholas Brown-Bell)

“The news has always been about punishing people who use social media for nefarious reasons,” she said. “There was no strategic thought about how we could use social media to get involved?”

Even when the military dips its toe into the world of social media, that doesn’t mean it always runs smoothly. The generational gap is wide between senior executives, whose knee-jerk reaction can usually be summed up as “don’t post,” and the younger soldiers who grew up in an era when everything was hung everywhere. Part of that was seen in Starcher’s mention of the Army’s follower count. While the number rose to just over 10,000 on Friday, that’s a drop in the bucket by TikTok standards.

Indeed, there have been recent online efforts by the military to reach younger audiences, or try to “be hip,” as the kids might say. Two instances that stand out are when the Army embraced zodiac signs on Instagram and most recently tweeted an unverified quote from pop star Lana Del Rey.

“I think the kids see through it from a recruiting perspective… It’s like your grandparents saying to you, ‘We heard about this Facebook thing!'” laughed Kuzminski.

However, that doesn’t mean the military doesn’t have opportunities to use social media to their advantage — especially given how expensive and time-consuming recruiting campaigns are compared to posting a tweet or TikTok video.

Kuzminski said she believes the military thrives on social media when it’s used to show things like highly productive videos of tanks or howitzers firing — things that are “fundamentally different from life as a civilian.” There is also an opportunity to engage senior executives, which could benefit the services. “Having a more organic, accessible way of interacting with leaders also helps a lot,” Kuzminski said.

As for Starcher, is a TikTok-ing first sergeant the “future of army leadership”? Maybe, and he’s not the only one among Army leaders on social media, including General Paul Funk, head of Training and Doctrine Command; Lt. Gen. Ted Martin, commander of the Army Combined Arms Center; Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston; and retired General Robert Abrams, who even served as commander of US forces in Korea. As the younger generation moves up the ranks, the convenience of posting on social media is likely to change from the more traditional attitude leaders now have. But either way, the military is really just beginning to embrace social media. It’s tried “to reject social media for a really long time,” Kuzminski said, and is now starting to see that “something is working about social media platforms.”

“I think to a degree they track social media usage rather than setting a policy and then inviting people to it,” she said. “To an extent, that might actually be more effective… I think it opens the door for future engagement.”

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