Dan Muthama has built a brand on pointing out strange human tendencies. The 21-year-old has amassed a following exceeding 1.4 million on TikTok, the video app best known for short-form lip sync performances and viral pranks, where he’s recognized by the username @strawhatdan. One of his most popular videos, with upwards of 10.7 million views, shows him discreetly wiping the dirt off someone else’s AirPods; in another, he mimics the contorted movements our bodies make when we step into a hot shower. His comedic talents have earned him representation by influencer agency Viral Nation and sponsorships with brands, like the fitness clothing label Gymshark. But beyond using TikTok to extend his personal platform, Muthama hopes to carve out space for others like him, social media creators of color, and he is doing so with the help of an emerging collective: the University of Diversity.
When Muthama was approached in December by founder Hadiya Harris, or @wowhadiya on the app, to join the University of Diversity, a 30-member TikTok collective dedicated to ideals of inclusivity and positive representation across spectrums of race, gender, and sexuality, he jumped at the opportunity. The group is united by a common goal: “To have a bigger platform for everyone, and to promote people of color to a bigger platform where they can be seen,” Muthama told MTV News. And they mean business, with plans to trademark their name, build a website, drop merchandise, and meet up in Los Angeles to collaborate in person. The latter underscores why the collective exists in the first place: By creating content together, members of the group cross-pollinate their audiences, attracting more attention to their individual accounts.
@theuniversityofdiversityUniversity of Diversity 2020 Class. #Universityofdiversity #TheUniversityofdiversity♬ original sound - theuniversityofdiversity
According to Muthama, the University of Diversity was modeled after Hype House, a 21-member TikTok collective that perform together in a luxe, Spanish-style Los Angeles mansion for which the group is named. Hype House received immediate fanfare for its roster of well-known social media stars, including founders Thomas Petrou, 21, and Chase Hudson, 17, as well as sisters Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, who are 15 and 18 respectively. The crew frequently gathers in the home’s palatial bathroom, or atop one of its sprawling Shakespearean balconies, for a coordinated routine or to take part in a viral challenge. In January, the entirety of Hype House signed with the talent agency WME, and this success is due in part to these collaborative videos and crossovers. Take Charli, whose dance videos have become viral hits themselves, currently has 21.1 million followers on the app, and her repeated relationship teases with rumored boyfriend Hudson, with 11.3 million followers of his own, keep fans on their toes and encourage engagement. Four members are full time house residents.
And though the mansion's swanky pool and lavish exteriors may seem extraordinary, the Hype House model is nothing we haven’t seen before. The 02L mansion, Clout House, and Jake Paul’s Team 10 are all early examples of YouTube collab houses that have housed social media celebrities in an effort to create higher quality content at a faster rate, not unlike hacker houses in Silicon Valley. In a 2017 interview with Forbes, Paul explained Team 10’s purpose. “It’s really an incubator for social media talent,” he said. “We take people who have a lot of potential and teach them how to make content, produce it, etc. Then we move them into a house and we all collaborate.” The brainchild of Petrou, who began working with Team 10 in 2017 to help its creators develop, create, and edit content, Hype House’s core mission is the same. And while the project has proved exciting for many fans — its meteoric rise is evidenced in the 6.9 million followers on their group account, which launched in December — it has been met with mixed reactions more broadly, with many viewers pointing out the lack of diversity among its members.
“Everyone is kind of the same,” Muthama said, noting that he felt “intimidated” when watching Hype House videos. “Why not have another creator who can bring something useful to the table?” In response, more groups of TikTokers have emerged, many of which foster intentional communities within viral collectives of their own, utilizing Hype House’s collaborative framework to open opportunities for creators of color and other marginalized users. Muthama continued: “That was the reason why University of Diversity was created. Every group you see coming up, I think it’s all because of Hype House." MTV News reached out to Hype House for comment but did not receive a response by publication.
In addition to the University of Diversity, there’s Melanin Mansion, which is dedicated to creators of color and launched in December by 16-year-old Aiesys Mial. There’s also Cabin 6, an LGBTQ+ collective that “started as the Pence summer camp joke,” according to 20-year-old member Brenley Carmine. The viral meme for which the group is named began when social media users started picturing what life would be like for LGBTQ+ youth if Vice President Mike Pence — who’s come under fire for his support of anti-LGBTQ+ policies — were to take over as president of the United States, imagining that world as an eerie summer camp. In their first TikTok posts as a group, Cabin 6 parodied that there would be a yellow school bus driven by Pence himself.
“It never gets old,” Carmine said of the joke. While those posts are the ones that have garnered the most attention — the “Cabin 6 Lineup” video has been viewed over 430,000 times — the collective is now brainstorming ways to use that visibility to benefit their community. “How can we take this, all summer camp jokes aside, and make it something to represent us in a different way?” Carmine asked. In addition to testing out dance videos and other types of content, Cabin 6 members keep their Instagram DMs open to offer support to LGBTQ+ youth exploring their gender and sexual identities. “If you don’t have anyone to talk to, there are 20 of us waiting,” Carmine said.
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Meanwhile, the University of Diversity has been diligently working to elevate their content: In a recent TikTok post, the group flexed their editing skills by seamlessly passing objects to each other despite being in different locations. “We accept all kinds of people, and we help each other grow,” Muthama said. “We make sure not to change anyone’s content, but just to uplift and make them a better creator than before.” He admits that growth can be hard not just because all 30 members are scattered across the country, but because creators of color often feel they aren’t offered as many paid brand deals as white influencers. And since TikTok currently doesn’t pay out users for their content, securing those collaborations is essential to earn money, which allows for creators to purchase better equipment and, in turn, make stronger videos.
“As a [POC] creator, you feel like you’re kind of excluded from opportunities,” Muthama said. “I think having people like [the University of Diversity] or the Melanin Mansion, it will help us uplift each other and also reach out to brands.” Muthama relates the shortage of monetizable opportunities to the lack of creators of creator featured on TikTok’s For You page, the feed where content is algorithmically suggested to users. “There are barely any people of color. You kind of see a lot of similar things, like a white creator who’s popular, and they’re kind of doing the same thing, lip-synching to a song.” This isn’t the first time the For You page has sparked concern: In December, netzpolitik.org reported that the app’s moderators had been censoring posts from those they identified as disabled, fat, or LGBTQ+.
According to TikTok Director of Creator Community Kudzi Chikumbu: “Videos surface to a user’s For You feed based on things like video quality and viewer engagement.” That means that a new user’s feed will likely be filled with content coming out of Hype House and other verified users simply because they are the most popular on the platform. “As users engage more with content that is relevant, appealing and interesting to them, the For You feed will automatically show them more of the content that resonates with them,” Chikumbu continued. For newer users, joining forces with a collective might be the key to breaking into a space otherwise dominated by the most popular accounts, a notion echoed my Muthama: “Having a platform where you have big engagement and people are really supporting your back, I feel like that’s really important.”
But representation isn’t just important for the creators within these collectives; it’s important for all of TikTok’s 800 million active monthly users worldwide, with 60 percent of users in the U.S. falling between the ages of 16–24. “It’s important for people who are trying to discover who they are to see it on their screen,” Carmine said, noting that it was a kiss between two male characters on Glee that showed him it's OK to be himself. But for the app’s largely young audience, seeing groups like Cabin 6 on social media is the 2020 equivalent. “I think young people need those positive role models,” Carmine added, and TikTok gives him the platform to be one. “I feel the need to use my voice because I know what it was like to not be able to.”
Nonetheless, Muthama and Carmine both recognize TikTok’s efforts to foster a diverse community (among its initiatives are partnerships with GLAAD and the World Economic Forum) and feel grateful for the platform it provides. “It kind of just feels like going to a Pride festival, but every day,” Carmine said. “When I go to a Pride Festival, all those years that I couldn’t talk about this, here I am. I don’t care! If I was a young kid and I saw that all the time, I would feel a little more normal and I would feel like it’s OK to open the door.”