The morning breaks with the UK logging on and catching the internet waves, the great swell from over the Atlantic is that Taylor Hawkins was found dead, a lot of people surfing that grief even those that would describe themselves only tangentially interested in music. I’m not cynical and is probably a testament to the popularity and reach of The Foo Fighters. Winter is the time for death so it feels especially cruel at the start of spring. For a lot of rock babies this’ll be their first death, barring grandparents and some unlucky pets, this will be the first of one of them, their own. It’s only a couple of weeks off the 28th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s grand checkout, something I still remember even though rock stars were some much more fragile back then that an early death was still a badge of honour. Gen X demands blood over inauthenticity. 


I’m thinking all this and my age as I wait for the train, it’s sunny enough to require shades but the chill in the shadows is bone cold. I’m heading to Tockfest MEET, CREATE & COLLABORATE AT TOCKFEST! . Tictok is a social media app that connects people via the sharing of short videos that can range from 15 seconds to 10 minutes. It pretty much filled the gap that Vine left, Vine being a shorter more chaotic version of the slick media managed. Tiktok benefiting greatly from more affordable data plans and advances in better quality cameras, Tiktok really took off in 2019 with a lot of users signing up during lockdown. Other social media platforms have been slowly trying to pivot to the short video content mostly by tacking on the functionality, Instagram Reels being almost exact copy, and recently Facebook folding reels into their timelines. I’d guess that 90% of the content is cross posted. It’s worth noting that Tokfest is not sanctioned by Tiktok or affiliated with them at all.


I download the app and start looking through, it’s mostly the content I’m used to seeing on Instagram Reels with some old Vine clips. In forty or some minutes there is very little that seems to be shot specifically for Tiktok with nearly half of it being clips from stand-up, films, and even an old screen recording of Micheal Barrymore from the nineties. I’m fully aware that given a chance the algorithm would learn what I like and show me different things. With quite a specific degree of accuracy. It took me thirty years to realise I was queer, it took Instagram less than an hour.


Tokfest is advertised as “workshops such as Experience Live Panels, Q&As, Demonstrations, Performances AND MORE!” and “Whether you’re a Creator, or a Fan, TokFEST has something for you! Our event provides a safe place for everyone to come together and make amazing memories!” with panels like “Creating Characters & Acting Online!” and “Content Creation Tips & Tricks!” Maybe the attraction of Tiktok is that each participant isn’t just a viewer but a creator. The influencers aren’t celebrities in the traditional sense but coworkers and contemporaries? 


New Street confuses me, not least of all because if I squint I can still see the old yellow halogen New Street of my youth. Smelling of soot, cigarettes, and if you were lucky, the sickly sweet smell of freshly baked cookies. New New Street is admittedly shiny nice and new, but they couldn’t fundamentally mess with the bones it’s had since the sixties. Anyway today I don’t have to think about it, there’s a comic convention going on in the hall next door to TokFest so all I have to do is look out for the people dressed up in cosplay and get on the same train as them. I mean I could follow the Tiktok fans but what does a Tiktok fan look like? But there’s a group over there dressed as characters from a dystopian Alice in Wonderland, rather conveniently all I have to do is follow the white rabbit.


The train is full, people are grumbling as more get on. 

“They’d put us under the seats if they were allowed” I hear someone say to the stranger next to them. I’m next to the toilets standing hypotenuse against the wall and floor to avoid someone’s skis in a padded bag taking up most of the floor space. We’re close to the NEC when a large black guy wearing a pristine white t-shirt, white shorts and white bucket hat squeezes into the area.

“Is this the queue for the toilet?”

“Nah, but there is someone in there” I say, we get talking. He tells me he’s been on the train since 5 this morning, coming from Glasgow. 

“Must be tough” I say, “I’d be dead asleep still” 

“Nah its cool, I’m used to it I’m a comedian so I work in London all the time”

“Oh, are you on your way to London now?”

“Nah there’s a big Tiktok convention thing happening – I’m there to sit on some panels…” the toilets slide open with a star trek shoosh and chemical stench he and clambers through to it.

The train pulls up to the NEC while he’s still in there. I debate whether to knock and tell him. But as we’re waiting to file out he comes out, he shoots me a confused look.

“This is your stop dude,” I say, he pats my arm and goes back through the crowd before I can ask his name. 


The crowd is filtered into the NIA and quickly I find myself in a hall waiting in a queue of families and preteens, the kids’ excitement is balanced by the parents’ annoyance. Everyone wearing their Sunday Best preened, gelled, and blushed for a thousand cameras. Mentally I group people into fours, the tickets were £25 so every four people is another hundred pounds, there’s thousands of pounds in the queue and more arriving.


I get in and do a quick walkaround, the first thing that strikes me is how little there is here. The giant hall is cut in half the empty half still visible through the six foot high barriers. At the entrance is a series of backdrops presumably for people to make their own Tiktoks in. But these are actually no more than printed vinyl backdrops with one or two props. One stall is offering portable ring lights for your phone, another is for items that personalise your school locker, a third offers a prize draw for a car. There are three merch tables, the middle is never not mobbed with people with a hundred more in the queue. There are two low stages set out with sofas for guests and folding chairs for the audience. The area in the middle of the hall is set up with cattle grid fencing, these are for the queues for the meet and greets, the empty space effectively being used as a backstage space. The food options are low, a Halumi fries trailer, a burger truck, and a giant double decker bus that sells fudge. Visually it looks sparse, empty but sonically the place is full because the far corner is taken up with a wurlitzer and something I’m reliably informed (Wikipedia) is known as a Scrambler, that is pumping out ear splitting bland Eurodance and teenage screams with the gallons of glycerin smoke. 


Like the queue the crowd is majority female and pre teen with a smattering of parents, many of whom have given up already and set up a base camp of bags in the food area while the kids run around the hall stopping slightly older teenagers to say hello and have their photos taken with them, one couple have a large crowd around them all clamoring for selfies hugs and autographs. This is Conner Kern (@Connerckern) model, dad, and influencer. He’s tattoo’d up to his jawline and flinging out solid platinum smiles. On Tiktok he’s racked up 1.9 million followers with content that most seems to be interacting with his family while being stone cold handsome.


The only seats not taken by exhausted looking parents are for the panels, I sit in on one already going ahead its called “finding your niche”, The people on the stage are crushed together on sofas, the youngest of the audience are sitting crossed legged in front of the stage and everyone in the chairs are leaning forward to hear over the chaos of music and screaming from the fair in the corner. From what I can gather the members of the panel all have exactly the same story although recounted in slightly different ways. They started Tiktok during the lockdown (this narrative is ubiquitous – everyone said it) they had one video that went ‘viral’ and gained a massive following after that. The word ‘viral’ is used a lot although there’s no practical advice on how to achieve this. In fact in terms of actionable advice the general feeling of the panel is ‘be true to yourself’ or some variation of that.


The audiences of the panel seem to be very transient anyway, with people drifting in and out. But when an announcer of the other panel starts to hype the crowd, consciously competing with the music and noise.

“…….2.9 MILLION FOLLOWERs . . . MAKES SOME NOISE!! . . . .” The audience for this panal goes from about forty to ten.


I spot the guy in the white hat I met one the train across the hall, he’s trying to make his way to the entrance to the backstage area but stopping to speak and take photos with those that stop him. One of his friends has an expensive looking camera which he talks to directly occasionally. He’s beaming an 150 watt smile and showing no signs of being up since before five. By the time I get to where he was, he’s gone. One of the staff are nearby behind the fences

“Excuse me? That guy that was just here, you wouldn’t happen to know his name at all?”

“Which one?”

“Black guy, white hat and top had a bunch of people with him?”

“Nah sorry mate”

“You don’t know his name or you don’t remember him being here?”



In the toilets the advertisements haven’t been changed since crufts, as I’m at the urinal I get to see a pensive looking spaniel in a drying coat on a rock being all windswept and interesting.


By now the queues for the meet and greets have started in earnest, thick snakes of people ending in the bemused and average smiling and hugging bouncing tweens. I see one of the influencers between people, dropped face shifting their weight from foot to foot, handing their water off to the steward and firing up a smile for the next punter. That’s not to say they’re not being genuine, it just highlights that even the most sought after job is still work.


There’s a panel “Dealing With Hate” even though I’m as close to the stage I’ve ever been I can’t hear a lot of what’s being said. The subject matter can no way justify the hype projection of voices that is needed to cut through the noise. The panel is entirely white with a 4:1 male to female ratio. The crux of the problem for the creators seems to be engagement. They would love not to have to read the comments but the algorithm prefers the creators to interact. Someone tells the audience 

“you can turn off your comments but I heard that limits your videos”

“You just have to learn to ignore it” says another

“And use the block button”

“I love that button,” he agrees. But even blocked they all agree that people just make a new profile or even sends emails to their manager

“My manager gets emails, she saves them up and shows me them. I don’t know why”.


I need air. Or a drink. Something. On my way out of the hall I see a young man in a white suit, he’s been around all morning, always seemingly in a rush to get to one place or another, or talking to people giving them what looks like small potatoes with a business card stuck in. He’s chatting to a group of people doing a freestyle rap. I also walk past Susie Dent from Countdown with two teenagers, I wonder if anyone else has recognised her as I slip out into the seventies orange of the NEC.


Next hall over is a comic convention, a lot of people have dressed as their favorite characters, a phalanx of stormtroopers march through the hall while witches, superheroes and elves chat and run from stall to stall. There’s an area for a Yu-gi-oh tournament, part of the hall is sectioned off by curtains into a stage area, poking my head in, Colin Baker is holding court laughing at an audience question. I walk the rows and rows of stalls, mostly queer and female artists selling stickers and prints of their own art, craftspeople selling thier wares, and the crowd excitedly talking to them. Often the purchases are small, tokens of the interaction. The celebrities are secondary, the stories are what matter, the escape, and the community.People caught up in the joy of seeing themselves in strangers, and being seen themselves.


Back to Tokfest and it seems joyless, gray, and straight in contrast. A hand slaps my back, it’s the guy from the train with his friends.

“How you doing buddy?” he shakes my hand and grins at me

“I’m good man, how are you? You must be exhausted?”

“Not me man.” he tells me as he starts off “too much to do” he shouts over his shoulder with a smile. Once he’s gone I stop a couple girls who watched the interaction.

“Hi, I don’t suppose you know who that was do you?”

“No, is he famous?”

“I think so, so you don’t know his name?”

“Don’t you know him?”

“Not really” the girls look at me blankly before shrugging and walking off.


A crowd mobs a panel stage, I can’t see what’s happening on the stage but there’s a collection of voices with microphones talking over each other






I walk away over to the other stage and catch the end of another panel. As I get there someone in the audience asks the young woman on stage in artfully ripped blue jeans. This is a question and answer session with KT Franklin (@ktfranklin), who has 2.5 million followers through mostly videos of her in her living room.

“What brands would you like to work with?” says the child with the microphone, KT stutters nervously and looks off stage

“Good question… I’m looking at my manager” she laughs and says with a degree of hesitation “I love all brands”.


I’m leaning against one of the pillars dotted around the hall trying to google all the names on the schedule poster so I can find the name of the guy on the train. The crowd flies past, it’s a uniculture, a fashion blandland of black leggings, pastel tops, converse, blue jean leggings with identical holes in the knees, immaculate leggings and everyone, of all ages, wearing full make-up. The constant soundtrack from the wurlitzers pauses for a moment and the silence is baffling, a pattern interrupt  just for a couple of seconds. Enough for it to be very obvious that a lot of the screaming that accompanied the music was recorded and played as part of the music. Every so often someone from the comic-con walks past, their costume being more obvious and a lot more fun. They look like refugees from a more interesting dimension. 


One of the influencers, Eden Harvz (@edenharvzoffical), gets to the last person in her queue for the meet and greets, she visibly sags. With good reason, she was sitting on a panel when I first arrived at 11 and has been meeting and greeting since, only pausing from what I saw, to be part of another panel. It’s about half four now. I get the feeling if all 2.5 million of her followers had been in the queue she’d have said hello to each one.


I see the kid in the white suit again. I follow him and by the time I catch up he’s chatting to a group of girls. Not wanting to break his pitch I wait and ask him if he’d like to answer some questions.


Gabriel (@futurepastperson on the socials) is a seventeen year old from ‘near London’. His accent is public school and littered with ‘blimeys’, ‘spiffings’, and rugby club bonhomie. He describes himself as a ‘entertainer, singer, songwriter, and motivational speaker’. I ask him why he’s here and he launches into a five minute explanation about ‘building a positive community’ and ‘connecting people over the networks’, it’s a politician’s answer. As articulate he is there is no through line from producing online content to the social good he seems to be advocating for.

“So you want to be famous?” I interrupt

“no , not really” he’s annoyed at the question “being famous is vanity – I’d like influence, you can use influence for good intentions.”


I went to Tokfest expecting more people like this, hustling creators. And it’s very much the impression the festival would like you to have. But it soon becomes apparent that this is not the case. It’s the same lukewarm celebrity culture, and even if the audience was interested in becoming creators themselves the creators have very little to offer but a work ethic and the idea that you can make a career from being in the right place at the right time. On the train home I open the app again, the second video I scroll to is a black guy with a smile I instantly recognise. Bash the Entertainer (@bashtheentertainer) is the guy I’ve been chasing all day. Okay so some of the creators have talent and genuine charisma, maybe that’s the difference between a ‘creator’ and an ‘influencer’ two words that have been used interchangeably all day. It would bear out too, with 8.8m followers it seems there could be a correlation between talent and popularity after all. 


Today was frantic. At Tokfest it felt like everybody was chasing something, following the white rabbit. Whether it was fame for themselves, or just the heady contact with someone else’s, or just being part of something – a cultural movement that may have already peaked, or, in my case, a huge black guy in crocs. At the comic-con it felt different, like people had found their tribe, their niche and was celebrating it. Maybe tokfest as a platform is too new or too neutral to generate a community about itself, just is a way of establishing to follow or build one yourself. Either way people like Malo Events who run Tokfest will be happy to take the money to bridge the gap between the two.


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