Everyone Is Trying to Make This TikTok Go Viral—and It Never Will

Everyone Is Trying to Make This TikTok Go Viral—and It Never Will 1

The most-liked video in TikTok history shows a dark-haired woman making funny faces to her front-facing camera as she lip-syncs to a popular song. It’s held its position since 2020, but recently it’s encountered competition from another video, featuring … a dark-haired woman making funny faces to her front-facing camera as she lip-syncs to a popular song.

Australian influencer Leah Halton posted her simple, short video set to YG Marley’s “Praise Jah in the Moonlight” on February 5, nearly four years after the front-runner it’s trying to take down. Initially, it got a few million likes—not bad, but small potatoes by the standards of a platform with well over a billion monthly active users. Still, because TikTok’s algorithm doesn’t care how old a video is, it began to catch on, and soon its popularity skyrocketed. Over the month of April, it went from approximately 12 million likes to more than 49 million, making it one of the most popular videos in the app’s history.

Keeping track of the video’s growth is easy: Just look closely at its comment section. TikTok users have spent months posting its current metrics multiple times a day, comparing it to other popular videos as it makes its way up the list and exhorting people to spread it around so it can eventually become the most-liked TikTok ever.

At the moment, that goal seems unlikely. Since that enormous leap in April, growth has slowed, and as of July 1 it has gotten fewer than 3 million likes in the past two months. Those are still impressive numbers, but the current record-holder, a video by Bella Poarch, went from 64 million likes to 66 million likes in that same time frame, more than enough to keep her video at the top.

Poarch, an influencer and singer, set the record in 2020 with a video which has many similarities to Halton’s, from the hair and makeup style to the short, satisfying, and easy-to-mimic movements. At the time, Vox journalist Rebecca Jennings called the popularity of Poarch’s video “inexplicable,” but the success of her video and Halton’s—and the similarities between them both—provide indicators of what it takes to achieve virality on TikTok’s somewhat abstruse platform. Jennings concluded that “young people centering their conventional attractiveness in easily repeatable formats” was “the logical endpoint” of TikTok. Unfortunately for Halton, once you’ve reached the end, there’s nowhere further to go, and once the novelty has worn off she’ll have to settle for the silver medal.

It’s a little odd to apply the logic of a race to the popularity of two very similar videos. Poarch and Halton (neither of whom responded to requests for comment) haven’t treated it as a rivalry, but in the comment sections of both videos, there’s a loose but fiercely devoted community formed around getting Halton’s video past Poarch’s. “Anyone here on July 1st?” read comments on Halton’s clip in at least six languages, each with a line of users replying “me!” “REMIND ME WHEN THIS HITS 67M!” says a user on Poarch’s video.

It would be easy to put this down to stan armies—established fans of these creators, clashing over the video in a kind of proxy war to glorify their community—but it’s not along such rigid lines. “Whenever there’s a way to quantify popularity online, there’s a group mentality that emerges,” says Kat Tenbarge, a reporter for NBC News who covers internet culture. “It’s something to be a part of.”

Indeed, this isn’t the first time a relatively innocuous post has become the most popular on a platform. In January 2019, an Instagram post with a stock photo of an egg received over 45 million likes in less than two weeks. It shattered Kylie Jenner’s record for the most-liked post in Instagram’s history thanks to a campaign from thousands of users sharing hashtags like #EggGang and #EggSoldiers.

WIRED deemed the egg “the last of a dying breed,” predicting that popularity campaigns from ordinary users, rather than professional influencers or brands, would get less and less traction “as social networks mature and develop more stringent business models.” Just two months later, in a milestone for corporate social media, the Indian music conglomerate T-Series definitively beat the streamer PewDiePie to become YouTube’s most-subscribed channel, despite a campaign from PewDiePie’s fans involving everything from hacking printers to marching in the streets.

Simply put, since viral popularity can be directly translated into money, there’s much less opportunity for it to happen for free. “Mainstream social media platforms have been solidified as global community spaces with outsized cultural impact,” says Tenbarge. “There’s clear value in dominating the metrics on these platforms, which creates an incentive for people to invest their time and care in such accomplishments, even if they don’t personally benefit from it.” Halton has an actual financial investment in her engagement numbers, but the campaign to boost them has already given the more casual users who started it what they wanted: a sense of community.

Beyond that, there’s the issue of how ephemeral TikTok can be. The algorithm that powers the app’s For You page is so good at finding engaging content that China has passed laws against selling it to potential US buyers, who are seeking to purchase the app after lawmakers passed legislation in April forcing its parent company ByteDance to divest from owning it or face a ban in America. The flip side of that algorithm’s power and intensity is that it blocks the more direct and organic forms of community that were the initial appeal of social networks to begin with.

With vanishingly few exceptions, every product, community, or figure with popularity credited to TikTok needs to establish a presence outside of the app to stick around and stay popular, or the relentless algorithm will drive it off people’s feeds. Stanley Quencher water bottles had huge success last year credited to the app, but this was years after they first took off thanks to a prominent review blog. Abigail Barlow, whose Bridgerton fan musical written on TikTok won a Grammy in 2022, had already released a successful single in 2020.

Poarch presumably understood this, quickly parlaying her proverbial 15 minutes of TikTok fame into a line of merchandise, a music career, and more. Halton is already following suit with a reality show appearance. Despite this, Halton’s video will never be able to catch up to Poarch’s without some major element outside TikTok, because it’s just that: a video. Unlike its creator, it can’t transcend the app.

For Halton’s video to break the record, there would need to be some massive, directed interest beyond the shallow sensory appeal that got the video so popular in the first place, which is next to impossible given how much emphasis TikTok places on algorithmic feeds over searching for specific content. The commenters on Halton’s video, who dutifully boost the clip and keep track of the numbers every day, are swimming against the currents that carry every single TikTok to their feeds.

With TikTok reportedly developing a new version of its algorithm to skirt the ban in the US, it’s worth keeping track of how that algorithm shapes what users see, especially how hard it is to work against. The thousands of comments keeping track of the most-liked videos on the platform show that people don’t always just want what the algorithm gives them, and the fact that they come back every day shows they want something that stays in their lives longer than the next swipe up.