Netflix’s ‘Hype House’ shows the dark side of the creator economy

We used to describe celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton as “famous for being famous.” But the TikTok megastars featured on the Netflix docu-soap “Hype House” are famous for being ordinary. Unlike the wealthy offspring of celebrities, this class of superstars shot to stardom virtually overnight, for seemingly arbitrary reasons, all dictated by a mysterious algorithm.

“I know it sounds so dumb. You’re a 20-year-old millionaire. What do you have to be depressed about?” says Alex Warren, a TikTok star with 14.7 million followers. “But that’s what I struggle with. I feel like I’m not allowed to be depressed.”

On “Hype House,” these ordinary-teens-turned-icons agonize over the nature of their chance celebrity status, worrying that their fame will vanish as quickly as it appeared. The eponymous Hype House is one of TikTok’s longest-running content houses, where social media stars live together and film videos. This concept isn’t new — YouTube, Twitch and Vine stars have experimented with these collaborative, live-in projects for years.

Thomas Petrou (8 million followers) is the de facto manager, though he says he doesn’t take a cut of profits — he calls himself the dad of the house, but in addition to making sure everyone does their dishes, he makes sure that the Hype House brand can net at least $80,000 per month to stay afloat. His influencer friends like Vinnie Hacker (12.9 million followers), Jack Wright (8.8 million followers), Alex Warren (14.7 million followers) and others live rent-free in the $5 million mansion — all they have to do is post on the official Hype House TikTok once per month, which generates the venture revenue through ongoing branded content deals. Plus, TikTok now directly pays creators for the traffic they drive on the platform.

The Netflix series marks the end of an era for the Hype House, focusing more on the challenges that these influencers face than the antics of these young millionaires.

All things considered, the videos that these TikTokers post aren’t that different from what any average teenager would post (except that now they post from a mansion). With almost 20 million followers, the official Hype House TikTok features the stars experimenting with new filters, iterating on the latest trends and, of course, dancing.

Throughout the eight-episode series, a cloud of anxiety hovers over the scenic Santa Rosa Valley home. Some Hype House members aren’t churning out content on behalf of the group as often as Petrou wants them to, because they feel uninspired and disillusioned. In one scene, some Hype House members try to come up with content ideas while lying on giant beanbags, but the best idea they can think of is to make up a “lit-ass handshake.” They might live rent-free in a beautiful mansion, but they don’t seem to be having fun.

Meanwhile, Alex Warren is grasping at straws, staging stunts that aren’t getting as much online engagement as he wants. Even as he grapples with troubling family situations and a foot injury, he’s terrified to take a mental health break.

“When you stop posting in this line of work, you lose engagement,” Warren explains in a confessional. “You don’t get sick days in this job. If you get a sick day, you lose followers, which is a loss of revenue, which is, you know, your job.”

The influencer gold rush

TikTok stardom is becoming comprehensible as a career on the internet, as dozens of startups crop up aiming to help these suddenly famous kids navigate brand deals and partnerships (for a cut of their riches, of course). On YouTube, most early creators found profit through ad revenue, but at least in the platform’s beginning days, there wasn’t the same attention to monetization as there is now. Other platforms are also eager to capitalize on the success of TikTok and its biggest stars — Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to incentivize creators to post on their platforms, rather than TikTok.

“As an influencer, our whole lives are put on this weird pedestal more so than a traditional celebrity,” Nikita Dragun (14.2 million followers) explains on the show. “You have to become a spokesperson, an activist, a model, a publicist, a manager… You have to be so many things at once.”

In most ways, the growth of creator monetization is a good thing — there are more tools than ever to help creative people make a living by doing what they love. Even LinkedIn has a team of 40 staff dedicated to working with creators. But at the same time, some creators feel pressure to monetize every aspect of their lives. Part of Warren’s following stems from his posts about his relationship with his girlfriend Kouvr Annon, also a TikTok star with 13.6 million followers — but Warren struggles to separate their private lives from the content they make, straining their (rarely) off-camera relationship.

In this era of the internet, accelerated by the growth of TikTok, it’s not just about posting videos. It’s about cobbling together as many different revenue streams as you can to make sure that if your platform died tomorrow (it’s happened before — R.I.P. Vine), you’d still have a career. After all, TikTok stars don’t make the bulk of their income from TikTok itself. The fortune comes from brand deals, sponsorships, merch sales, podcasts, reality shows and unexpected forays into music and acting.

“Hype House” emphasizes these creators’ self-awareness about their own mediocrity. They’re charismatic, funny and conventionally attractive enough to entertain the masses, but they know that their fame has more to do with luck than talent, so they worry that their good fortune can be snatched away at any second. They stress about what they would do if they had to return to their hometowns, where many of them have fractured families; they worry about being “canceled.”

“Social media is a numbers game. Your money depends on the numbers,” Warren explains. “If people stop watching as much as I’m putting out, it means I’m doing something wrong, so what am I doing wrong, and how can I get those people back?”

Warren’s anxiety isn’t unfounded — something as arbitrary as a change in TikTok’s algorithm could hamper his growth. When you’re used to explosive social media growth, how do you handle it when those numbers start to plateau, or worse, plummet?

In addition to worrying about TikTok’s algorithm, the business model of content houses is similarly unstable. Since starting the venture, the Hype House has faced a number of lawsuits, including a dispute with fellow influencer and former Hype House member Daisy Keech. In a recent YouTube video, Petrou says he’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawsuits. Though the legal issues aren’t broached on “Hype House,” Petrou describes waking up and vomiting due to the stress of running the collective. These content houses should, in theory, ease the burden on independent creators — by being part of a collective, they have a team surrounding them to workshop ideas, collaborate on videos and bring in an additional income stream from the shared accounts. But instead, “Hype House” makes it seem like relying on each other without clear financial agreements only made the stress worse.

“I don’t get the hype either”

Among the Hype House social circle is Charli D’Amelio, the most followed person on TikTok with 133 million followers — Forbes estimated that she was also the highest-paid creator on the platform, earning $17.5 million last year.

“I just like, post, as any other teenager in the world,” D’Amelio said on the reality show that Hulu made about her suddenly famous family. “I was just posting on social media… I don’t know.” As D’Amelio once joked in her TikTok bio, “don’t worry i don’t get the hype either.”

But even the creator economy’s biggest star has doubts about whether her stardom is sustainable. In the pilot of “The D’Amelio Show,” she reveals that she’s thought about what she’ll do if she doesn’t keep making millions, or if the pressure of her lifestyle becomes too much.

“Being on calls with CEOs of companies… I’m like, that’s kind of fun?” D’Amelio says. “So no matter what really happens with social media, I could always go into marketing, because I know how it works. I know the back ends of everything, which is cool.”

It’s bizarre for D’Amelio to have a backup plan when she makes more money in a year than most people will make in their lifetime (plus their children’s lifetimes, plus their grandchildren’s lifetimes… unless one of the grandchildren makes it big on TikTok). But for viewers, the entire point of shows like “Hype House” and “The D’Amelio Show” is to humanize these social media stars. For the production teams, the point is to make Netflix and Hulu money and for the stars themselves, it’s to get an extra paycheck, and help them maintain and bolster their fame… it’s all terribly meta. They leverage this semi-manufactured vulnerability to make themselves into even bigger stars.

Maybe the biggest winner here is TikTok. This has been the app’s appeal all along: Like Alex Warren, you might go from living in your car to living in a mansion, all because people like your short video clips. But it’s lonely at the top, even when you’re living with 10 of the most famous people on the internet.