Step Chickens and the Rise of TikTok ‘Cults’

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The image has become nearly ubiquitous on TikTok, as tens of thousands of users have changed their avatars to show their loyalty to its subject: Melissa Ong, the 27-year-old “mother hen” of the platform’s largest and most powerful “cult,” the Step Chickens.

Ms. Ong represents a relatively new kind of influencer, one who has seized a time of great isolation and idleness to capture the interest of a rapt user base.

“I made this video where I was speaking into my phone camera like, ‘Hey guys I think we should start a religion,’” she said in a phone interview on Friday. “Then, I was like, ‘Let’s start a cult.’”

“The next step forward is taking over YouTube as our main project and Instagram as our side project,” Ms. Ong said.

“I envisioned Melissa’s profile photo on millions of devices next to the social media giants,” Mr. Mueller said. “We changed the Blink branding, and put her profile picture as the app icon. She announced it on TikTok and people went insane for it.”

Since the app rebranded as Stepchickens, it has been downloaded more than a hundred thousand times. The company’s four-person team has struggled to keep up. “We’ve been scrambling to keep the servers stable and accept all the users registering. It continues to grow,” Mr. Mueller said.

“I really believe Melissa has tapped into the zeitgeist of bored teens in quarantine and given them a purpose,” he said. “As strange as it sounds, that’s what’s going on. It keeps getting bigger and bigger because it captures the moment.”

“At least 50 big TikTokkers have started cults by now,” Ms. Ong said. “They want me to officially announce them in the cult war. I did it for the first few, but I stopped because too many people were asking me.”

Ms. Ong’s fans said that joining Step Chickens has helped them feel less isolated in the midst of widespread stay-at-home orders. “I think a lot of people want to be a part of something,” said Sam Schmir, 20.

“With the pandemic, social media is very political and controversial,” Jiayang Li, 22, said. “It’s nice to have a break from everything going on. It’s a break from it all and a fun way to interact with other people and have fun while everyone is quarantining.”

The rise of these cults is a sharp contrast to the dance star culture that TikTok is best known for. The cults lift up unlikely influencers and allow members to feel complicit in their rise.

“I think that in this social media generation most youths struggle with low self-esteem. They see these seemingly perfect creators, carbon-copy after carbon-copy,” said Danny Nguyen, 16, one of Ms. Ong’s followers. “The Step Chickens, to me, is the antithesis of that. Our community is based on embracing our individuality and quirks that make us truly unique and stand out.”

Fans find Ms. Ong relatable and say that her success feels like their own success. “Melissa, as our leader, is not afraid to show people that she is not perfect, and as followers that look up to her, we do not feel like we have to be. We are us, we are ourselves, we are the Step Chickens and we are special,” Danny said.

To date, Ms. Ong has amassed more than 1.8 million followers. She recently signed with a management company and wants to use her fan base to start making content on new platforms. Her ultimate goal is to have her own comedy show on HBO or Netflix, similar to Nathan Fielder’s “Nathan for You,” where she can build out the persona she has spent a decade cultivating.

“Before TikTok I would spend all my free time looking at memes on Reddit or Instagram,” Ms. Ong said. “It wasn’t like this came from nothing. It came from spending 10 years of my life in the deepest corners of Reddit, cultivating this personality.”

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