Social media influencers share their passion and expertise
TikTok has become one of the most popular social media apps to hit the market in a decade. It found a captive audience when the world went into lockdown at the beginning of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Ever since, billions of social media users have found both community and entertainment in the vertical short videos that are central to TikTok’s format. Viewers watch just about anything on the app—from dance challenges to cute animals to educational demonstrations.
Often at the vanguard of innovation and technology, RIT alumni are among the early adopters of TikTok. Both Annabel Sammons ’19 (environmental sustainability, health, and safety), MS (environmental, health, and safety management) and Andrew Athias ’17 (management information systems), were early adopters of TikTok, joining in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Others, like Ilana Schwartz ’14 (film and animation) and Madeline Rile Smith ’20 MFA (glass), were among the mass influx of users in the early days of the pandemic.
With a combined nearly 1 million followers and 25 million “likes” between them, these alumni are establishing themselves as social media influencers. Graduates have found a way to share their expertise, passion, and creativity with an enthusiastic and rapidly growing audience.
- 1 billion monthly active users
- App downloaded 3 billion times
- Originally called Musical.ly where users could create 10-15 second music videos
- Follow RIT on TikTok:
'19 (environmental sustainability, health, and safety), MS (environmental, health, and safety management)
- Environmental engineer at Westwood Professional Services
- Rochester, N.Y.
- On TikTok: @belspies
Baking with friends
Annabel Sammons credits her younger sister for introducing her to TikTok and insisting she make videos to share her love for baking pies.
Sammons took the bait, made a pie, and posted her first video. After a family hike the next day, she was curious to know if anyone had watched her video.
“I checked my phone and I had 100,000 views,” Sammons said. “I was like, ‘Oh—this is kind of cool.’”
Sammons, who now counts famous chef Gordon Ramsay among her followers, uses baking to improve her mental health. She shares upbeat videos that highlight her pies, various dinner recipes, and the fun results of baking challenges submitted by her followers. Last year, she created Ten Days of Thanksgiving Pies, a wildly popular series in which she challenged herself to make a pie a day for the 10 days leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday.
“People were immediately engaged with the first video, and they were waiting for the next one,” Sammons said. During the series, her followers sent her photos of the pies they made using her recipes.
Sammons said her time as an orientation leader at RIT helped her find success on social media. It encouraged her to be more personable and engage with people.
Sammons also uses her TikTok platform to bring awareness to mental health issues. In 2022, she is rebooting Letters of Love, a handwritten letter campaign to connect with her followers both online and in real life. People who follow Sammons can request a letter through her TikTok channel.
“I have many days that I would love a hand-written letter,” she said. “I know how incredible it feels, and being able to give that feeling to somebody else is magical.”
’14 (film and animation)
- Graphics artist at Walt Disney Television
- Burbank, Calif.
- On TikTok: @javadoodles
Ilana Schwartz, an animator for Walt Disney Television, found TikTok to be a great venue to share her animated series “Drinks.” It features a variety of cup and glass-shaped characters brought to life in her clean line-drawing style.
In her TikToks, Schwartz takes inspiration from audio clips she finds funny that are posted on social media by other people. “If I’m laughing, I know other people are going to find it funny too. So I take the audio and I put my own spin on it.”
Schwartz uses, and still loves, the TV Paint animation software she learned as a student at RIT, which is also where “Javadoodles” was born. To relax between classes, Schwartz would draw characters on her empty Java Wally’s coffee cups.
“I would draw my favorite cartoons or characters on these cups and I would leave them around campus and post them on social media,” she said. Her doodles on coffee cups inspired a fellow student to brainstorm the name Javadoodles. “Since then it has been my alter ego and my identity. I don’t know if I’m a brand or a person at this point.”
In 2017, Schwartz gained notoriety for her coffee cup art on Katy Perry’s 96-hour livestream and the Today show. Currently, she is further developing her “Drinks” characters into a full series, which she hopes to license for streaming or broadcast.
Schwartz finds the process of animation therapeutic, even though it can take 15 hours to create a 60-second animation. “I’m drawing and drawing, and it’s so much work,” she said. “The best part is that I get to play it back for the first time and watch it by myself. If I am laughing at my own work, then I know I did something right.”
’17 (management information systems)
- Social media and digital marketing coordinator at Silvi Materials
- On TikTok: @the_reeses_guy
Andrew Athias has found his niche in social media. As a super fan of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, his videos celebrate his favorite candy and showcase his lively sense of humor.
Athias joined TikTok in late 2018, shortly after the platform was made available in the U.S. That same year, he competed in a contest hosted by Hershey’s searching for the biggest fan of Reese’s candy. With the help of a friend from RIT, Athias produced and entered a fun music video that captured his infatuation with all things Reese’s. He didn’t win (granted, his competition was a young girl named Reese E. Cupp), but Athias’ video went viral and helped him win a similar contest held by the quick-mart chain Wawa.
Athias says his interest in social media began at RIT, where he was the social media manager for the men’s a capella group Eight Beat Measure.
“The creativity of it comes naturally to me,” he said. “I am always thinking of how to create content, make videos, edit photos, and upload the kind of content that each platform wants.”
His presence on social media helped him land a job as the social media content producer for a construction company. A supervisor found Athias’ TikTok account and reached out via direct message with a job offer. Since joining the company, Athias has learned how to fly a drone to make flyover videos of large-scale construction projects.
“I never thought I would become the Reese’s guy,” Athias said. “Growing up, I loved to sit and watch commercials, especially Super Bowl commercials. Now, I get to make my own commercials. I get to be the Steven Spielberg that I always wanted to be.”
Madeline Rile Smith
’20 MFA (glass)
- Adjunct professor, glass artist, and educator
- On TikTok: @madhotglass
A touch of glass
Long active on Instagram, glass artist and educator Madeline Rile Smith found a new and enthusiastic audience on TikTok, where her videos demonstrating her skills with a hot torch have garnered millions of views.
Rile Smith, who joined TikTok in the summer of 2020 shortly after discovering another user had pirated one of her videos, quickly realized the platform’s power to introduce glass work to new audiences. Part of her success is due to an invitation by TikTok to participate in its two-month program designed to make the platform more educational.
“They gave some advice on how to make videos, optimize them, and work with the algorithm—but a lot was trial and error at first,” said Rile Smith, who saw a solid increase in both views and engagement with her videos after the first few months.
“I had some videos that really blew up and it was really surreal and unexpected,” she said. “It is exciting to just know that more people than you’ll ever meet in your entire life are seeing something you’ve done.”
In her videos, Rile Smith shares her love of glassworking and demonstrates her skill range in the medium. She specializes in flameworking, a unique style of glasswork that shapes and molds glass using a stationary flame torch that is powered by propane and oxygen. Her stream also has videos of objects made by her glassworking students, as well as videos made in response to challenges or ideas suggested by her followers.
“Glass is a magical, mysterious thing to most people,” she said. “A lot of people maybe have seen one person blowing glass in their life. They have very little exposure to it, so I love the idea that I can bring awareness of this art form and expose people to it who are just happening upon it while scrolling on TikTok.”