Northwestern students find internet success


Courtesy of Ashley Xu

Xu’s most famous TikTok video has over 15 million views. She said the video circulated on both TikTok and Instagram, strengthening her presence on both platforms.

Nick Francis, Assistant Arts & Entertainment Editor

TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter all have their forms of viral personalities: some are overnight sensations who stumble into fame, while some carefully craft their online personality.

Some also happen to be Northwestern students.

Bienen senior Nicole Zhang started creating content on YouTube after one of her peers began amassing a large internet following from vlogging. She first noticed her content gaining popularity when she posted a “day in the life” video, which she has since removed.

“When I took it down, it had around 10,000 views, which I was not expecting,” she said. “I got a lot of emails from prospective students asking about majors and…what dorms they should choose and supplies that they should bring.”

In the next few years, Zhang began posting on TikTok. When a viral trend of students featuring their college campuses began spreading, she decided to feature Northwestern. It has since gained over 40,000 views, and some of Zhang’s more recent Northwestern-themed videos have crossed the 80,000 view mark.

While Zhang does not consider herself to be a content creator, she said some students have recognized her from her online presence. She said she never expected to see this much attention for her content, both in-person and online.

“I get Instagram direct messages all the time, but when I was a senior (in high school), I never thought to look up videos and ask current students what their experience was like,” Zhang said. “This is definitely interesting for me now to be on the other side of things, getting questions directed to me.”

Medill freshman Lauren Huttner is taking a different, more calculated approach to her social media strategy. Huttner said she wants to pursue a career in social media marketing and is learning about how to gain a following by posting her own content.

Huttner’s most viral video, “A Day in the Life at Northwestern,” has over 35,000 views on TikTok. After seeing what has excelled on the platform and what hasn’t, she said she is trying to figure out how TikTok’s algorithm promotes content in order to harness it for commercial branding strategies.

“I really like the creator economy — I think there’s a lot of cool opportunities there, writing about it, or participating in it,” Huttner said.

Huttner said many prospective students now flock to her page, and she is strategizing how to promote fun and innovative ways for her audiences to stay engaged.

For Communication freshman Ashley Xu, the COVID-19 shutdowns motivated her to start a TikTok account, which now has almost 350,000 followers and over 10 million likes.

Xu has been practicing videography and painting long before she began posting online. Once she began posting on TikTok about her art, she found, like Huttner, opportunities to advance her career in ways she hadn’t been able to before.

“There was an internship listing by HBO Max on TikTok. . .one of the application requirements was just to submit a TikTok we made that explained why we want to be an intern,” she said. “I painted a few characters that were on the (HBO Max) platform and was very lucky — I got the internship.”

Xu has also met people at NU who recognize her from TikTok. Though she said she has grown somewhat impervious to inappropriate messages from fans via social media, encountering fans in real life still gives her a sense of trepidation.

Since Winter quarter has started, Xu has toned down her TikTok output. She said she is choosing to focus on long-term growth rather than short-term fame, since her art takes a lot of time and dedication.

“School is definitely more of my priority — it’s more important in the long run,” Xu said. “If they ever go head to head and have to choose one or the other, school comes first.”

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @nick24francis

Related Stories:

Chicago film and television industry embraces COVID-19 reality

Bright: An ode to TikTok