Northwestern college students discover web success on TikTok, YouTube

Courtesy Ashley Xu

Xu’s most famous TikTok video has over 15 million views. She said the video had been shared on both TikTok and Instagram and had strengthened her presence on both platforms.

Nick Francis, Assistant Arts & Entertainment Editor

TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter all have their forms of viral personalities: some are overnight sensations stumbling into fame, while others are carefully crafting their online personalities.

Some are also Northwestern students.

Bees Senior Nicole Zhang started creating content on YouTube after one of her colleagues built a huge internet after vlogging. She first noticed her content grew in popularity when she posted a “Day in the Life” video that she has since removed.

“When I took it off, it got about 10,000 views that I wasn’t expecting,” she said. “I’ve received a lot of emails from prospective students asking them what majors and … which dorms to choose and what materials to bring.”

Over the next several years, Zhang started posting on TikTok. When a viral trend of students started to spread through their college campuses, she turned to Northwestern. It has had more than 40,000 views since then, and some of the more recent Zhang Northwest videos have surpassed 80,000 views.

While Zhang doesn’t consider herself a content creator, she said that some students recognized her from her online presence. She said she never expected to see so much attention for her content, both in person and online.

“I get Instagram direct messages all the time, but when I was older (in high school) I never thought I’d look up videos and ask current students what their experiences were,” Zhang said. “It’s definitely interesting for me to be on the other side of things now and to ask me questions.”

Medill newcomer Lauren Huttner takes a different and more calculated approach to her social media strategy. Huttner said she wants to pursue a career in social media marketing and learn how to gain a following by posting her own content.

Huttner’s most viral video “A Day in the Northwest” has over 35,000 views on TikTok. After seeing what and what didn’t excel on the platform, she tries to figure out how TikTok’s algorithm is promoting content so that it can be used for commercial branding strategies.

“I really like the Creator Economy – I think there are a lot of cool ways to write about it or take part in it,” said Huttner.

Huttner said many prospective students are now flocking to her page, considering how she can promote fun and innovative opportunities for her audience to stay engaged.

For communications newbie Ashley Xu, the COVID-19 shutdowns motivated her to open a TikTok account, which now has almost 350,000 followers and over 10 million likes.

Xu practiced videography and painting long before she started posting online. When she started reporting on her art on TikTok, like Huttner, she found ways to advance her career in ways she couldn’t before.

“There was an internship list from HBO Max on TikTok. . One of the application requirements was just submitting a TikTok we created explaining why we wanted to be an intern, ”she said. “I drew a few characters that were on the platform (HBO Max) and I was very lucky – I got the internship.”

Xu also met people at NU who she recognized from TikTok. Although she said she has become a little opaque to inappropriate messages from fans on social media, encountering fans in real life still gives her a sense of fear.

Since the beginning of the winter quarter, Xu has toned down its TikTok edition. She said that she would rather focus on long-term growth than short-term fame as her art takes a lot of time and commitment.

“School is definitely more of my priority – it’s more important in the long run,” said Xu. “If they ever compete against each other and have to choose one or the other, school comes first.”

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Twitter: @ nick24francis

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