Viral During the Virus

TikTok creators find global fame from home

Written by Celia Golod

When 31-year-old Geo Rutherford moved into her parents’ Madison basement in March, she knew this meant one thing: lots of burritos.

Four years ago, Rutherford and her family started a tradition of getting burritos every Sunday from their favorite burrito shop, El Rancho. “We don’t order a lot of food out,” Rutherford says. “But that was one of the things that we always do.” So, when Rutherford saw the Park Street restaurant’s “open” sign, to signify they were back in business during the coronavirus outbreak, she knew she wanted to take action to preserve her family tradition.

The plastic sandwich board sign bore neon green poster paper, duct-taped thoroughly, with “We R Open” scribbled across the front in black Sharpie. “As an artist, it hurt my soul a bit,” Rutherford says.

Rutherford had 100,000 followers on TikTok at the time and wanted to use her platform to help. 

Like many other Wisconsin residents, Rutherford turned to social media during Wisconsin’s mandatory quarantine in March. And for successful TikTok users like Rutherford, what was initially an entertaining, endless content stream, became an influential platform for spreading messages and educational information to their follower base.

“It was also thinking about, ‘How can I motivate my audience to do something good for the world?’” she says.

She enlisted her two sisters, who got to work building the restaurant a more eye-catching sign. The three sisters spent a month and a half sawing, screwing, nailing and painting. All the while, Rutherford recorded the process for a new video on her TikTok account.

When Rutherford finished the sign in mid-September, she dropped it off and uploaded the video. 

“I wasn’t sure if [the video] would work. So I didn’t tell [the owner],” Rutherford says.“I just decided to do it. And I knew that if it did well, then his business might do better.”

By 3 p.m. dozens of new customers who watched Rutherford’s video on TikTok flooded the store. In the days that followed, the video reached 1 million views, gained thousands of likes and continued to bring customers into the store.

 “We still have people coming in, even people from Milwaukee and Eau Claire have driven all the way here just because of that,” store owner Jose Torres says.

Chinese co-founders Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang created TikTok in 2014. The app was marketed as a lip-synching platform under the name until 2017, when Tech Company Bytedance acquired the app and renamed it TikTok. TikTok has been downloaded over 2 billion times and amassed more than 800 million active users.

TikTok’s visitor count nearly doubled during the first three months of 2020, driven largely by a surge of new visitors in March following the coronavirus lockdown. Social media experts studying emerging technologies cite many reasons for the app’s growth during the quarantine.

“In a pandemic with the social and political unrest, you need things that are lighthearted,” says UW–Madison faculty associate Don Stanley, who teaches courses on social media in the Department of Life Sciences Communications. “I think that TikTok provides that, an opportunity just for little bursts of silly, goofy content that’s quick and clever.”

Lakes get likes

While Rutherford is known in the Madison area for her viral burrito video, she is known around the globe for her educational lake videos.

“I do research for every video. I spend about a half an hour to an hour doing research, and then it only takes me about 30 minutes to film the video because I have all the research done. I kind of memorize it. And then I do the video and I double check stuff.”
– Geo Rutherford, @Geodesaurus

At first, Rutherford spent months watching TikToks and doing research. “I loved the idea of it. I saw all of this potential in it for what it could be,” Rutherford says. “I made a couple of TikToks that were just goofy. I think I made them for me.”

Rutherford, @Geodesaurus to her followers, downloaded TikTok right before the pandemic but started to use it more right when the lockdown hit. While teenagers and young people are the primary users of TikTok, Rutherford began to find a lot of Millennials on the app. “I was like, ‘Hey guys, we’re here together. This means we’re allowed to be here now,’” Rutherford says.

A scroll through Rutherford’s Tik Tok feed leads to her original, “goofy” content. There are videos of her papermaking, a tour of her parents’ living room aand footage of her dog playing in the snow. A quick swipe up reveals a collection of videos Rutherford posted in July focused on her artist book, a work of art that artists use to challenge traditional ideas of a book. The book features items she has collected over the last year on the shores of the Great Lakes. 

Viewers seemed to like what she had to share. Her first artist book video collected over 1 million views and almost 300,000 likes. Rutherford continued to share more about artist books, with each video raking in thousands of views. 

But Rutherford knew she needed to prepare for when she ran out of content. She transitioned her feed to educate her growing follower base on the Great Lakes and other important lakes across the globe.

 “There’s a gap in people’s education when it comes to lakes, but everybody has a relationship with lakes,” Rutherford says. “This is what’s so funny about this as a topic.” 

For months, Rutherford continued to post educational lake content, ranging from lakes as close to home as the Isthmus to those as far as Mars. Today, Rutherford’s page features dozens of lake videos, each with hundreds of thousands of likes.

For Rutherford, her TikTok page has become more than a quarantine hobby –– it’s a call to action. “You need to worry about the lakes in your neighborhood,” Rutherford says. “You need to worry about the lakes in your region. And you need to vote to try to protect those lakes.”

Small town star 

Sam Vicchiollo, a UW–Madison student who goes by @Samvicchillo to his 1.9 million followers, was no stranger to TikTok by the time Wisconsin entered a mandatory quarantine in March. By then, he already had 950,000 followers under his belt.

“Most of the time if I’m just making a random video, I’ll just scroll through Tik Tok for a little bit, find a sound that I like and just instantly think of an idea for it and make it. Depending on the content, whether it’s like a short 15-second video, sometimes it takes 10, 15 minutes to make. But, for example, like the most recent video I made, that took like two hours to make. So that can range kind of from anything depending on what I’m making.”
– Sam Vicchiollo, @Samvicchillo
1.9 million followers

Vicchiollo joined TikTok a year earlier as a joke when he was still a student at Hortonville High School. He downloaded the app while sitting with his friends during lunchtime in the cafeteria.

 “We thought it was stupid,” he says.

But Vicchiollo went home that night and experimented with the app. He filmed a few clips of himself walking around his bedroom, added a few comical captions and hit upload. Overnight he went viral.

“That first video that I made ended up getting 1.8 million views, and ever since then, I continued making videos, and it just spiraled into what it is today,” Vicchiollo says.

In the months leading up to quarantine, he felt unmotivated to post on TikTok and got into a pattern of making videos that were not doing well.

“My follower count was at 950,000 followers for four straight months, and I remember thinking I could not get to a million, I cannot grow anymore,” Vicchiollo says. “I was struggling, and I just couldn’t figure out why I was stuck at that number.”

When Vicchiollo returned home from school in mid-March, he turned to his built-up platform TikTok as an outlet to distract himself from reality.

“I was like, f— it,” he says.

Vicchiollo says he began posting what he wanted to post. And when he finally did that, he got the boost he needed to hit the 1 million follower milestone.

On May 15, Vicchiollo set out to film the app’s latest comedy trend. He grabbed his phone, got dressed and began filming. When he pressed upload, the video blew up, compiling over 18 million likes and taking Vicchiollo beyond 1 million followers.

Lockdown not only brought the resurgence Vicchiollo’s account needed, but also smiles and laughter for his fans coping with quarantine.

“If I have the power of making someone’s day better, I’m going to do everything I can to do that,” Vicchiollo says. “To think that I can have such a big impact on so many people ––not just in Wisconsin, not just in the country, but across the world –– is insane to me.”

Famous for her fast feet

When Mary Papageorge walks around the UW–Madison campus this semester, she might not be recognized by her followers on the street. But there is a good chance they have seen her feet.

Papageorge, @Marypapageorge to her 645,000 followers, became a TikTok sensation this June when a video of her Irish step dancing to Fergie’s  “Fergalicious” exploded on the app.

Mary Papageorge, an Irish dancer who became viral on Tik Tok, dances at James Madison Park in Madison on Nov. 2, 2020. Photo by Brian Huynh

Celebrities ranging from Jason Derulo to Diplo to Will Smith used TikTok’s “duet” feature to photoshop the top half of their bodies onto Papageorge’s legs. The video, the most famous of Papageorge’s many Irish Step dance choreography videos on her account, now boasts 34.6 million views and 4.7 million likes.

Papageorge hung up her Irish step shoes in August 2019 as she prepared for college. A back injury led to surgery in January and, ultimately, bed rest. While she recovered, she turned to the app for entertainment, sometimes uploading an old dancing video.

In April, Papageorge started to feel better and began uploading new content.

“Having coronavirus hit and the boredom of that just really sparked my interest in [dancing] again,” Papageorge says. “I never expected to get back into it to the point that I’m at right now, especially physically, and at the rate I was going this summer, considering my back surgery as well, I never would have expected it.”

Since returning to Irish step, Papageorge has shared the sport with followers across the globe. “It’s really not that big of a sport, like it’s growing, but it’s just pretty unknown for the most part,” Papageorge says.

 “Since this whole Tik Tok thing blew up, people in the industry alone have started reaching out to me and saying how cool it is that what I’m doing is giving Irish dance more attention,” Papageorge says. 

Papageorge, who once thought she had retired from dancing, plans to keep bringing attention to the Irish dance community through new dances, songs and choreographies.

 “When people say that they enjoy my videos and it brings them entertainment — no matter if it’s 5 seconds to 20 seconds — if that can make someone’s day, that means the world to me,” says Papageorge. “Because of all this attention, it’s made me think bigger to what could come from this, so I definitely have plans to take this much farther than just TikTok.”

Wisconsin TikTok creators like Rutherford, Vicchiollo and Papageorge connected with individuals across the globe during the pandemic. Social media experts like Stanley say that’s a testament to the app’s ability to connect people and allow them to share laughs over little things like jokes, dance moves and music.

“In this day and age, with all the heaviness and the way algorithms pummel us with heavy content and stuff that often makes us feel disempowered and at the mercy of what’s going on in the world,” Stanley says. “I think things like Tik Tok are more important than ever before.” 

“If I have an idea for a sound, I just kind of post and see where it goes. And if people like my content, then, they’ll like it and follow. And if not, then they don’t. But I just kind of have fun with it and do my own thing.”
– Kaylee Artrip, @Whatitdokayleeee
Co-owner of @Badgerbarstool
“I’ll usually have choreography come straight to my head, and I’ll know that’s the song I should do. And then from there, once I get that done, it’s pretty smooth sailing. I just naturally have choreography come that fits with the rhythm of the music.”
– Mary Papageorge, @Marypapageorge
“I honestly was posting it for my friend because a lot of my friends asked me questions about what I wrote my thesis on. And I was like ‘instead of having them read my 35-page thesis, I’ll just make little videos of basically what I’ve learned.’ And I didn’t expect [to go viral] at all. It was so weird.”
– Adi Dina, @Plasticsurveillance