What Exactly Is a ‘TikTok Cult’?

Photo: Melissa Ong, @chunkysdead/TikTok

From hair dye shortages to armies of rats, it seems like the list of strange and sinister things we have to worry about gets longer every day. And a new report in the New York Times details yet another ominous-sounding development: TikTok cults.

TikTok, Apple’s most downloaded app, is typically used to make and share short-form videos, many of which involve dancing. But the Times reports that “TikTok users have been forming cults (of personality) and armies (the nonviolent kind) for months now.” Thankfully, these “cults” seem to be less sinister than the term implies. There’s not even really an ideology behind them. Rather, they’re a fandom, focused on a single creator, who effectively functions as an influencer; their “cult” is their social-media fan base.

It’s worth mentioning that this kind of digital stan culture is tricky; we’ve seen celebrities weaponize their fan bases in ways that are ultimately harmful, and it’s hard to see the word “cult” and not think of online conspiracy groups whose online harassment has real-world — and sometimes violent — consequences.

That said, it seems that TikTok cults, at least in this early phase, are mostly innocuous. Their followers will do things like change their profile photos to their leader’s face, make absurdist videos praising them, and launch “comment raids” on famous people’s Instagram accounts. (Sometimes, this is as harmless as hundreds of people leaving the same cryptic emoji as a joke or as a way to get attention and gain followers. However, they can be mean-spirited, too, and occasionally devolve into bullying and harassment.)

According to the Times, Step Chickens is Tiktok’s largest cult, whose subject is 27-year-old Melissa Ong, a content creator. She gained popularity with a viral video, and as she gathered followers, she asked them to change their photos to match hers. In a few weeks, she’d gained millions of followers and has gone on to record a Step Chickens song, start a merch shop, create a YouTube channel, and is taking steps toward monetization. Her ultimate goal is to have her own comedy show. The Times spoke with a few of Ong’s fans, who said that being in Step Chickens helped them feel less isolated during lockdown.

For now, it doesn’t seem like TikTok cults are much cause for concern. It’s likely that a lot of teenagers are probably bored at home right now, and even if your kid is one, they’re probably just flooding the comment section of someone famous or pledging their allegiance to Mother Hen.

What Exactly Is a ‘TikTok Cult’?