Gil Croes used to work as a salesman in Aruba, but his heart wasn't in it. Instead, he dreamed of becoming a performing artist.
So Croes and his younger brother Jay began making videos and posting them on Musical.ly, a social media app that later became . The videos were short -- 15 seconds or less -- and featured the muscular and tatted Croes dancing or lip-syncing as he contorted his face and body.
Soon Croes was racking up followers. With 18 million fans, he's among TikTok's most popular creators. Croes' large following attracted sponsors interested in promoting their movies or music, and he now makes a living on the social media platform.
"We were just making a lot of videos, and the likes started going up and up," said Croes, 25, describing his sudden stardom. "Everything was happening so fast, and it's like you can't believe what is happening."
Croes and his brother are among the millions of acts whose short, off-beat videos, often featuring lip-syncing or dance-offs, have made TikTok one of the hottest apps in social media. Like YouTube and Instagram stars before them, a new crew of influencers is attracting the attention of audiences around the world and raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more.
The offbeat videos prompted users to download TikTok more than 660 million times last year, outperforming downloads of Facebook-owned Instagram during the period, according to SensorTower, an app analytics firm. TikTok has now surpassed themark. And while it's still far behind YouTube in terms of breadth of content or audience, it's become a platform that's drawn in millions of users.
Once they've seen the quirky videos, people are hooked. TikTok reportedly said in July it had over 500 million monthly active users across 150 countries and regions. That's more than Twitter's 321 million monthly active users, half of Instagram's base and a quarter of YouTube's users. The competition has taken note: Snapchat added TikTok to a list of competitors, and even Facebook, which has 2.3 billion monthly users, felt challenged enough to launch Lasso, a short-form video app.
"It's that same type of consumable, fun, quick-hitting medium, and I think that really works for younger people," said Joe Gagliese, co-founder and managing partner of influencer marketing agency Viral Nation. The average TikTok user is 28, and roughly 30% are below the age of 25, according to SensorTower.
ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, started as a news aggregator. Based in Beijing, ByteDance says its vision is to build "global creation and interaction platforms" that are powered by artificial intelligence and that take advantage of mobile technology.
The company, which is now the world's most valuable startup, launched TikTok in late 2016. In China, the app is known as Douyin, or vibrating sound, but it carries the familiar brand name everywhere else. The app lets you shoot and edit video. You can add music and other sounds along with Snapchat- and Instagram-like filters to brighten an image or add cat ears.
In November 2017, ByteDance acquired Musical.ly, a Chinese social video company with an office in Santa Monica, California, for around $1 billion. TikTok and Musical.y were combined, and growth quickly followed.
"TikTok has created a global community that connects through the language of short-form video content, and our mobile-first technology inspires millions of creative, fun, positive and inspirational videos daily," Stefan Heinrich Henriquez, TikTok's head of global marketing, said in a statement.
TikTok fosters budding stars with a range of services to help them reach a wider audience.
Its Next Level Program includes analytics and access to early features for its creators, and promises events at which they can meet each other. TikTok says its engineers will respond within 72 hours if they encounter a technical problem.
Zhang Yiming, the 36-year-old entrepreneur behind Bytedance, gives few interviews, and the company didn't make him available for this story. In a 2017 interview, however, Zhang said TikTok allowed people to share their lifestyles, a practice he took to heart.
"For a very long time, I was merely watching TikTok videos without making any myself," he told interviewer Hans Tung. After Zhang posted some of his own, the company made it "compulsory" for the management team to make videos too. If a video doesn't get enough "likes," the creator has to do pushups, he said.
The power of weird
Alaska resident Mychal Chapman, 22, found out about TikTok after seeing ads for the app on Instagram and Twitter. Then a friend texted her TikTok videos with comments about how funny they were.
One night, Chapman had trouble sleeping, so she downloaded the app. It didn't help with her insomnia; she spent four hours bewitched by TikTok's bizarre videos. By the time she put her phone down, it was 3 a.m.
"It's stupid entertaining," said Chapman, who opens the app when she's looking to kill time and particularly enjoys a user who rants about eveything from his high school life to crushed potato chips. "It will be like a quick five minutes at work when it's really slow."
It's hard to overstate the weirdness of TikTok videos. Open the app and you'll see a puppy leading a procession of ducklings, cucumbers sliced to a rhythm and a group of people pranked into resetting their iPhones. Background music is often essential to set the mood. Dialogue is limited or nonexistent. Some will have you laughing out loud, others will leave you cringing.
The off-the-wall nature of TikTok has attracted the attention of celebrities such as Jimmy Fallon, who challenged viewers of The Tonight Show to post videos of themselves rolling around like tumbleweeds to the strains of western music. Last month, actor and former California Governor posted a video of himself riding a mountain bike behind a miniature pony as a country tune twanged in the background.
The mainstream recognition has only reinforced TikTok's popularity, analysts say, giving people more reason to talk about the app, if they haven't already downloaded it. "That creates a viral moment as well where people start to see it and hear about it from their friends," said Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at eMarketer.
TikTok has also been compared to now defunct short-form video Vine, which Twitter bought and shut down. But ByteDance, valued at $78 billion, has more resources to pour into TikTok, Williamson said.
Kristen Hancher, who lip-syncs and dances on TikTok, hit paydirt when curators chose her first post as a featured video. The selection of the Canadian teen's video ensured she'd rope in followers fast.
At the time, Hancher was juggling high school and part-time jobs as a restaurant hostess and gymnastics coach. Now the 19-year-old has 22 million TikTok fans, making her one of the app's most popular performers. Hancher, who is also on Instagram, YouTube and other social media sites, said she's been able to ink deals with brands for between $50,000 and $300,000 each.
TikTok doesn't display paid advertising, but companies such as Universal Pictures, Guess and Sony Pictures have partnered with the app and its influencers. Sometimes music labels pay creators to use their music in order to promote it.
"I'm really grateful for the position I'm in right now," said Hancher, who moved to Los Angeles and is also pursuing a career in music and fashion. "I would be nowhere without my supporters and everyone who's helped me along the way."
TikTok's rise hasn't been without problems. Like other social media platforms, it faces questions about the data it collects from users. With a user base that skews young, that's already generated friction with regulators. In February, TikTok agreed to pay a $5.7 million fine to settle charges with the Federal Trade Commission that it illegally gathered personal information from children.
TikTok has also been criticized for hosting offensive, violent and hateful content, just like Facebook and Twitter. A state court in India asked the country's federal government to ban TikTok for "encouraging pornography" and the app was temporarily pulled down in Google and Apple app stores in that country, according to a Reuters report. Cyberbullying and the spread of neo-Nazi propaganda have also been problems for the app, according to media reports.
The company has rules against hate speech, nudity, harassment and other offensive content. Unlike some social media sites, whose community standards sections run for dozens of screens, TikTok's is just a few screens long. "If you wouldn't show this content to your parents or children," reads one line, "please don't post it here." TikTok also released a series of educational videos called "You're in Control" to teach users about topics such as its community standards.
Honing his style
It took Croes, the Aruban social media star, a little time to hone his TikTok style.
The aspiring performer and his brother posted early videos to Facebook and YouTube but they weren't well known outside of Aruba. Croes figures that's because his native language is Papiamento, a Dutch creole, and his English needed work.
As he and his brother experimented, Croes took inspiration from Jim Carrey, Charlie Chaplin and other comedians who use exaggerated expressions and over-the-top gestures to convey sentiment without relying on language. In 2016, Croes posted some videos to TikTok and found his comedy struck a nerve.
Like with Hancher, TikTok featured Croes' video, an endorsement that sent him more followers and money from sponsored content. The brothers started an online shop selling branded merchandise, including hoodies and beanies.
The success has also helped Croes refocus his dreams. He's now set his sights on becoming a film director.
Fans react with likes, follows and comments, rather than applause or cheers. But he says performing in front of a social media audience is like performing at a stadium.
"It's bigger than a stadium actually," Croes said.
The story originally published at 5 a.m. PT.
Update, 1 p.m. PT: With additional background.