Something surprising is happening on the video app best known for silly dance moves: users are finding inspiration for adventure. There are some fundamental differences in the way TikTok works that make it stand out from other social media platforms, and those differences may make it a space that’s more prone to bringing different kinds of people together to try new things. Camping. Hiking. International travel. It’s no utopia—like other social apps, TikTok has been called out for causing harm to younger users and spreading misinformation—but there’s a unique energy here that can be a force of good.
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Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.
Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is The Outside Podcast.
According to my decidedly unscientific analysis, if you're reading about social media in traditional media these days, 92 percent of the time it's because a reporter has something bad to say about one of the major social platforms.
Ok, so I made that number up, but you know what I mean, right?
I'm Michael Roberts and I will say that it sure feels like every news report I read on Facebook or Twitter is about how they spread misinformation or amplify outrage. If the story is about Instagram, it's probably about how all those perfect selfies make us feel bad about ourselves.
And then there's TikTok, which, like the other apps, has been called out for causing harm to younger users and distributing misinformation. Honestly, until very recently, I thought TikTok was just where people, mostly teenagers, did stupid dances. And while there's truth to that, TikTok is very important. Consider the sheer scale of it: In 2021, it was the most downloaded app in the world and in the United States, according to apptopia. Today, there are around 50 million daily users in the U.S. and more than a billion worldwide monthly users.
Beyond the numbers, things get even more interesting: there are some fundamental differences in the way TikTok works that make it stand out from other social media platforms. And, those differences may make it a space that's more prone to bringing different kinds of people together. And, to fostering community. Maybe. Hopefully.
At least that's the optimistic take producer Paddy O'Connell presents in this week's episode, which makes the case that TikTok is inspiring a whole lot of folks to embrace outdoor adventure.
Monet Izabeth: the first time I went viral, I was peeing in a video.
Paddy O’Connell: What's the key to your internet success? Urine.
Monet: Urine for a surprise.
Paddy: Oh, yes. Yes, there it is. Internet. You're welcome.
That bathroom humor loving human is Monet Izabeth. She is a lot of things: a docu-series creator, a solo travel expert, and a pretty damn famous TikToker. She has over 445 thousand followers. And that all started with a really smart, pretty gross first video.
Monet: It's a beautiful scene in Greenland.
And I had texts going over it that said, ‘are you tired of picture-perfect travel videos?’ And then it cut to me squatting. You don't see anything. You can just see that I'm squatting next to her rock. And, and then I say, I'm peeing and you hear me peeing. Then it said, and I was like, me too.
I'm also sick of perfect travel videos. That was the, that, that was it.
Paddy: That's really smart
Monet: I no longer pee on TikTok because TikToK doesn't really like it when I do that.
So, if you're looking at my content, you're going to probably have a smile on your face, be laughing along with me as I, like, go on adventures, but I get so much enjoyment and fulfillment out of doing something and sharing the story of it.
Paddy: At its essence, that is what TikTok is: a storytelling platform. Users create and share videos using in-app music, filters, and sound effects. There's lip syncing videos, comedy sketches, and yes those goofy dances are there too.
There are also documentary style shorts, which is where Monet shines. Her account is filled with them: she narrates videos of her adventures traveling across the country and the world, like this recent TikTok of a trip to El Salvador, which includes a map, scenes of Monet driving the shore line, traveling by boat, and hiking.
Monet: And then he took us to the island of Conchaguita. So we started climbing up to the top of the island. Um, oh. And these shells are apparently over 400 years old. And then at the very top, there is this incredible spot where in the 16th century,
Paddy: Four days after she posted the video, it had more than 5,000 likes. A Lot of her videos have hundreds of thousands of likes, some have over a million views. Which brings up a funny thing about Monet. Though she's approaching half a million followers, she didn't start out seeking social media fame. When she graduated in 2013 from New York City's Barnard College with a degree in film studies, her goal was to create a TV travel series focused on her down-to-earth tell-it-like-it-is adventurous attitude. In 2018, after 5 years freelancing with media companies, a client asked Monet to film herself hiking to the Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal for an episode of a travel show.
Monet: It’s like I got to do everything I wanted to do. I talked about getting my period and trying to find tampons on the trail. I talked about not showering. I talked about how hard it was and like all the drama behind the scenes that was unfolding.
Paddy: Unfortunately, the series never ended up going anywhere. But still, for Monet, it was the start of something big
Monet: I was like, you know, I have never felt so wonderful as when I was working on this one episode of a travel series. I'm just gonna move out of New York. I'm going to move into my mom's house and all the money that I was spending on rent in Brooklyn. I'm going to put towards making my own travel show. And I was like, maybe I won't need social media for that.
And so 2020 was my year of putting all the money I'd saved into making a travel show.
And in March of 2020, I was on a dog sled in Greenland. I got off the dog sled and turned my phone on, and the messages started coming in from my dad and friends. And, you know, it was a range of my dad being like, ‘Monet don't freak out, but you're gonna want to call me as soon as you see this.’
And my friends being like, ‘the world is burning.’
Paddy: Oh my God.
Monet: When I got off the dog sled, Trump had issued the European travel ban. Italy was on lock down. Denmark had just closed its borders, and Greenland is connected to Denmark. So I was like, you know what, I'm just going to not get on a plane right now. And I'm going to go to the capital of Greenland, Nuuk. And I'm gonna just like, wait it out for a little bit. Like maybe it'll be a week. Maybe it'll be two weeks.
Paddy: It was not two weeks. It was four months. Monet used the money she'd been saving for her travel series to stay at an AirBnB in Nuuk, which had strict stay at home quarantine orders. She couldn't go anywhere, she was alone in a foreign country, and so she did what any of us would do in that situation...if we were losing our minds.
Monet: I decided why don't I just publicly broadcast my mental decline on Instagram.
I threw a party for my one month anniversary of being in Greenland, and it was me. It was Tropicana, which was a Clementine I had stabbed onto a fork. And, three lettuce heads that I was trying to regrow in water.
Paddy: Did the fruit and the vegetables all have different personalities and voices.
Monet: Yes, they did.
But Monet didn't go completely off the deep end. After two months of quarantine, Greenland was Covid free and lifted their stay at home order. The US was still a Covid mess so Monet decided to stay, travel around Greenland, and document her adventures. When she finally returned to America that summer, she had a boat load of videos and an incredibly interesting story to tell. So she told it on TikTok.
Monet: So I've just decided to stay in Greenland for who knows how long, because of coronavirus. So I made some new friends, her name is Tropicana, and we have some crazy parties.
I love you guys.
I stay at Nuuk for two months until the lockdown is lifted. I get on a plane to go do something I've never done before. Stay tuned for part three.
Paddy: She started posting in August of 2020 and her account, as the kids say, blew up. And that is how the woman who wanted to bypass social media all together became a social media star.
Paddy: Tell me what you think when you hear the phrase social media influencer.
Monet: Oh, that was me vomiting. I mean, it's so unfair that I feel that way because it just has such a, it has such a negative connotation, but people call me one now. It's really just my own bias. Which makes no sense because I am 100% a social media influencer. I still can't get it out of my mouth.
I'm not trying to show some idealistic, unattainable version of adventure life. I'm not some like bearded muscled man who hangs off of glaciers with my pinky toe. I'm someone who likes to push my personal boundaries. But like my personal boundaries, is going on a hike. Maybe I'll hike for eight days and not shower. But, I would like people to be like, oh my gosh, well maybe you have Monet can do that, maybe I can go out and go on my own adventure.
Paddy: Do you have a mission statement for your interaction or use of TikTok?
Monet: Yeah. I want to help people adventure better offline. If I could get everyone offline, that would be great.
My goal was to fill this hole that I saw in adventure content online, which is that it just felt so unattainable when I was watching it. And it felt like, well, that's stuff is cool, but either like, I can't do that because I'm not rugged enough or I'm not extreme enough. Or I don't feel like I want to go do those things because I'm not some super skinny woman in a bikini who's like lying on a log or like, I don't even see myself in that content at all.
Paddy: When you watch Monet's TikTok's you're going to laugh, because she is hilarious. But you'll also witness her efforts to support local businesses and to generally be a force for good as she travels. And it's this element, her genuineness and sincerity, that keep you scrolling. This is true of many other TikTok influencers, even those who at a quick glance seem like the same old model-pretty popular kids of the interwebs. Someone like 28 year old Vancouver resident Ben Kielesinski. Ben is tall, ripped, and super handsome. Honestly, he looks like the lovechild of Tom Selleck and a goddamn sunset. And when I spoke to him, I just had to point out his outdoorsy thirst traps.
Paddy: When and how do you decide when the appropriate time to go shirtless is?
Ben Kielesinski: That is a good question.
Paddy: Is it like, you know what, ahh it’s okay. This is a nips out type of video.
Ben: Yeah, I try not to do it too much if there isn't like a body of water involved. Just because it's like this guy's just shirtless now. And it, it can make things weird. Maybe if I'm having a good body day, uh, I'll do that.
Paddy: What is a good body day? I'm Irish from Chicago. I don't know if I've ever had a good body day.
Ben: Ooh. I think it's a, you know what, whenever your brain decides to uh, like all of you and, and, uh, you know, seeing you in a, in a good way.
Paddy: When you're like, oh, I had a kale smoothie instead of a hotdog and a donut.
Ben: Yeah. Like, oh, I did seven push-ups like I try not to do it too much. That can get you in a slippery slope of, of views that you might not want.
Paddy: Shirtless or not, Ben has been getting a lot of online attention over the last two years. When Covid hit, Ben got laid off, so he picked up some gig work delivering for DoorDash. He had time on his hands which he filled with outdoor adventuring near his home. He was also spending time consuming videos on TikTok which he had downloaded just a few months previously. Then the old idea lightbulb started to glow.
Ben: We were lucky enough in Vancouver where we didn't have a stay-at-home order but like they just were pretty much like don't gather and I'm like, perfect. I like being alone anyway. And so I started, uh, just like going on those little adventures and I filmed that first one.
And a lot of people were like, wow, I can't wait to be able to travel again when this is all over Like everything was kind of frozen and it just showed, you know how fortunate I was, and kind of a little thing that'd be able to do to give people an escape
It has kind of snowballed in a very wonderful, in a unique way that I never thought possible.
Paddy: Snowballed is an understatement. When Ben first downloaded TikTok, he says he had about 200 followers, mostly friends and family. But because TikTok's algorithm serves users content inline with what they've previously viewed rather than only content from the accounts they are following, that first video he posted got 10,000 views. And every new video he posted got him more and more views, and more and more followers. Today, Ben has an audience of 2.6 million people.
And that's because his videos are adorable. Ben's TikToks are mostly guided tours of hikes near Vancouver. They're not how-to's or instructionals, he's not salesy or promoting a ‘summit fever’ attitude. He is charming on camera, affable, and nearly all his TikToks start off with a cheeky but warm invite that he says you're not allowed to refuse.
Ben: Do you want to come on an adventure? Too bad. You’re coming/
It's kind of like the least threatening way you could make somebody come on an adventure with you.
I like to think special things happen when you go hiking in the rain.
I don’t think we’re going to get much of a view today.
And I liked people being like, I was going to scroll away and they said too bad. I'm kind of like, it just kind of throws people off. I think enough that they're like, oh, okay. Like, I guess.
I don't glorify the views as much as a lot of hiking videos. I try to stay away from very, very scenic spots. I'm worried about people going to those places and, and, and harming it to some degree.
The majority of my story that I'm telling is like the journey up there and the appreciation of that. And then a little bit of the view.
I would say it's like 60 to 70%, my surroundings. 30% me talking to the camera, explaining what I'm doing, adding my personal touch, you know, putting yourself out there, letting people judge you, as opposed to, you know, the scenery where you're like, ‘nah, well, I couldn't control that.’ It’s a decision I made early on to be like, well, what's going to set this apart. I'm like, well, I'm not national geographic. I can't shoot like they do. I won't be able to shoot like they do. They're unbelievable. I, you know, I just shoot on my phone, but what I do have is me and I can try to show some of my personality to some degree. I don't think I'm like a good outdoorsman. I just like making things and I love nature. It just feels nice to kind of be able to share that.
Paddy: Is TikTok a good thing? Do you feel like you're doing good?
Ben: I really, really hope so. I get letters from people. A lot of it's like I've forgotten about nature and how much it makes me feel and it's kind of given me inspiration to go out and just have coffee in the park this morning, or you know, just getting out and moving my body and, and, and remembering like, you know, these little things that are special and showing like the little beauties in my life and the little appreciation. And, people are being very open about their anxieties or, or whatever mental health issues that are going through at the time.
So I think I'm, I think I'm doing good and I very much so worry about doing bad.
Paddy: In a world of likes and engagement tracking and e-popularity, Monet and Ben represent a new wave of influencers who are deeply concerned about the impact of what they are posting. And as Ben sees it, TikTok enables them to make more powerful connections with people than they could through other social platforms.
Ben: The community within it is greater than any social media app there has been.
Paddy: Is that really true? Is TikTok legitimately a place where people build meaningful virtual communities? The kinds that might actually inspire us to actually stop looking at our phones and head out our doors? To find out, I spoke with a digital anthropologist and a TikTok-er whose life has been reenergized through the adventures he's sharing with others.
Nelson Holland: I literally thought about the people I motivate to get outside. And that inspires me and it got me out on a hike.
Paddy: Those conversations after the break.
Paddy: Sometimes shirtless and all the time handsome TikToker Ben Kielesinski had insisted that TikTok was fundamentally different than other social media platforms in its ability to foster community. To understand how this might be possible, and whether the platform really could motivate people to spend more time outdoors, I called on a digital anthropologist, which yes, is an actual real profession.
Jing: My name's Jing Ge Statennick. I am a research fellow at UC Berkeley.
Paddy: Before she began her masters and then PhD, Jing spent the better part of a decade building PR and marketing strategies on social media.
Paddy: Would you describe yourself as a social media expert?
Jing: My dissertation is about social media over the past eight years. I look at social media platforms, both in the Western context and also in China. So I look at Weibo, I look at Twitter, Instagram, and currently, TikTok.
Um, yeah, I think I am expert.
Paddy: Jing currently teaches a course at Berkeley called The Anthropology of Visual Social Media and she's writing a book titled The Discourse of Visual Social Media. In all her years working within the social media industry and now researching and teaching it, Jing says that TikTok is an outlier from other platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Jing: When we think about those platforms, it’s more about human-human connection, it's people-people connection, right?
If we log on Facebook or Twitter, the platforms will ask us to kind of, people you may know, right? You connect people or encourage you to join some groups.
TikTok is different. TikTok The platform itself is designed to encourage content and the content connection. So content comes first and then people come second.
Paddy: Explain to me how a Tik-Tok influencer is different than a Instagram influencer or a Twitter influencer.
Jing: When you think about Instagram influencers, they have their unique visual brands. Everything has to be perfect, and everything has to be beautiful. Makeup has to be beautiful. You have to dress up, the camera angles, and everything. That perfect and a beautiful visual brand.
But on TikTok, no, you don't have to. It is actually the more organic content itself, standing out.
Paddy: Jing believes that because TikTok is organized and led by content categories rather than followers, compared to other social media apps, it's far more likely to connect us with new people. And, that means it really can lead to the creation of new communities.
Jing: On Facebook and Twitter, it's more likely you interact with people that you'll know. Right? You comment on people's posts. But it's very likely that you'll know this person. But on TikToK, users feel very comfortable to interact with people that they don't know with complete strangers that they're interested. And then they, if they're interested in the similar type of content and they just feel comfortable to interact with each other. You know, they tag each other and they, they make comments. So I think that's also very interesting instead of, uh, like Facebook, um, there are different groups, right? Running group. Um, mountain climbing group is like, oh, you know, you have to have predefined the interest, and then you joined this group and then that's interact.
But, on TikTok, it's just really random.
Paddy: TikTok is also collaborative in an important way. Spend some time on the platform and you'll quickly realize that copying someone's post is not frowned upon. In fact, it's encouraged. Users will take audio, music, even clips from other videos to create their own shorts. These copy-me, copy-you interactions often trend and go viral, even though the people working together are complete strangers.
Jing: imitation re-application and the dissemination are really encouraged by the platform. So people just create super interesting content and then someone else, um, change it, right? Revise, modify, and then re-post, and then somebody else likes it and then revise, modify, and re-post. This is how TikTok works.
Paddy: As Jing sees it, the social dynamics of TikTok are markedly different from other platforms. And the same way that it encourages imitation, it empowers people to expand their image of themselves. Which means that someone who's never been camping can start to think of themselves as outdoorsy.
Jing: I think that TikTok itself might redefine this outdoorsy culture. You know, if you're working a garden, you're an outdoorsy person. If you go for a walk around your block with your dog then you are an outdoorsy person. I think this is a huge difference. It’s the paradigm changed. How TikTok, the communication culture, the unique culture on the platform just redefine every shaped outdoorsy culture.
Paddy: Do you think it's giving people something that they wouldn't otherwise have a chance to get, receive, feel, talk about?
Jing: Yeah, definitely. On TikTok users just have that freedom to put their voice out because the platform itself is really unique, is creative, is hilarious. Everything is normal on TikTok.
Paddy: There's no such thing as weird on TikTok.
Jing: Yeah, there's no, actually the weird, the more weird the better. Um, so yeah, I think it's really good. Gives people a space. They feel safe and comfortable to kind of, you know, um, put their voice out and, and to say something that, that they truly want to express. I think that's, that's definitely a good thing.
Paddy: None of this is to say that TikTok is a kind of social media wonderland. It is just a corner of the internet and the internet is filled with terrible things. TikTok is not immune to cyber bullying, predatory behavior, trolls, tin foil hat conspiracy theories, and every sort of awfulness the digital world has to offer.
But something unique is happening here. It might be that the short video format makes us look a lot more real than perfectly framed Instagram photos. And real is cool. On TikTik, honesty and authenticity are often celebrated. At least some of the time.
Nelson Holland thought he'd be a lifelong New Yorker. But in 2014, that changed. Back then, he was working for FedEx and they had a program that allowed employees to transfer to any location in the country. On a whim, Nelson picked Colorado.
Nelson: I planned on kind of just using that as an ends to a means to travel the U.S. and live in every state for 6 months, but once I got off the plane here and saw the Rocky mountains, I was enamored. And, you know, once I started exploring them, I was hooked. And now I don't see myself ever leaving this place
Paddy: Nelson was a huge fan of Colorado, but he was not a fan of social media.
Nelson: I had my Facebook account with my friends, but I actually couldn't stand social media back in the day. A bunch of memes of cats and pictures that I don't actually care about. And, you know, it can be very fake like people say. And the portraits the people are painting of themselves aren't always accurate. And I deactivated my Facebook quite a few times.
But when I moved away from my family over 2000 miles, it became like the most effective way to keep up with people's lives.
Paddy: If distance makes the heart grow fonder, it also softened Nelson's opinion of social media. He started posting videos of his hikes on Facebook and Instagram, sharing his new home and the surrounding trails with his friends and family back in New York. They loved them. And then, in late 2021, he started posting on TikTok.
Nelson: I decided to try it out, but it was never about me. It was always about showing off the wildlife and the mountain peaks because where I'm from, people literally don't know that these are experiences that you can have. I mean, people in Brooklyn have no idea that you can be 30 feet away from a bison. I have friends that have lived here for 30 years that never knew that you could like actually hike to the top of a mountain and climb a ridge.
Like people think that you have to do something like Mount Everest to get these experiences. And I'm really passionate about showing at least my friends and family. And now the world that, yeah, like you, you can do this and it's actually like less than an hour drive away from me.
Paddy: Nelson has already amassed nearly 90-thousand followers and counting. His account is called fat black and gettin it. And his videos, which typically start with a close up of his bearded baby face and giant heart-warming grin, are an outdoorsy mixture of hiking info, trail etiquette, comedy, lip syncing and dance trends, and smile-inducing narration like this.
Nelson: Stop scrolling and let's go check out some nature.
Y’all told me I couldn't find running water in the winter. So I had to come through to the rapids real quick.
Never been to Arkansas, but this is the Arkansas river baby.
The views only get better from here.
I would say my main passion has developed into and will definitely be for the rest of my life, um, making the outdoors inclusive for literally everybody, um, fat black and getting them is in the name. So I definitely care about heavier hikers that literally aren't sure if they can do these types of activity, or people of color that have been historically excluded from these spaces. But lately, I've been focusing more on wheelchair accessible trails.
So literally, like, I just want everybody to be able to have these experiences.
Paddy: Nelson, who describes himself as an inherently introverted, shy guy, is anything but in his videos. He is outgoing and fun and funny, and projects that kind of warm friendliness that makes you want to just be around a person.
Nelson: People are always telling me that I have to check out this hike.
I almost slipped coming down these stairs cause I didn't have my spikes on you. I did slip.
Paddy: Because of that, if you watch one video, you're gonna watch a lot. And the folks who follow Nelson, strangers on the internet, show him a lot of love.
Nelson: I've definitely gotten a bunch of uplifting body positive comments. A bunch of people that are just happy to see black joy out in the wilderness and a bunch of people that are experiencing nature now through my lens and really liking what they're seeing and they're motivating me to get outside and I'm motivating them to get outside.
I constantly get comments that like, ‘you know, I wasn't going to go out for a walk today and you just inspired me to go out for a walk or I'm moving to Colorado now because I saw your videos or I'm going to try this hike out. Thanks for showing me that it's something that I could do.’ And like, yeah. It's lately dawned on me that I'm definitely influencing people to get outside.
Paddy: Nelson is a part of a few hiking groups, and he says that some of the members have found their way to the group because of his TikToks. They meet up at trails, sometimes they shoot videos, sometimes they don't, but they get outside together. And Nelson's TikToks aren't just inspiring outdoorsy community, they're changing who he is.
Nelson: I meet a lot of people that are like, ‘you know, I could never post on TikTok. I don't know how you do that.’ And I'm like, ‘I said that a year ago.’ I said that, like, I know you don't actually know what my life is a year ago, but I was an introvert that never thought that I would be showing two selfies of myself, never thought I would have my shirt off on camera.
I mean it can literally change your life in a year. I mean, I'm living proof of that. So the love and motivation and inspiration that people share with me has definitely turned me into like a more confident person.
Michael Roberts: This episode was produced by Paddy O'Connel and edited by me, Michael Roberts. Music by Robbie Carver.
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