The young disruptors forever changing our ideas of entertainment and communication.
Abigail Barlow, 23, and Emily Bear, 20, had quite an eventful trip to London last week. They played two sold-out shows, performing what they originally wrote for their Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, a series of spoof songs based on the Netflix series they published on TikTok. They met with Andrew Lloyd Weber to discuss possibly collaborating, then went for high tea in the West End, which is when the pair learned the album version of their Bridgerton work had snagged a Grammy nomination.
They aren’t coy about explaining how they arrived there. “We wouldn’t be anywhere without our social media accounts. It gave us the exposure that our music really needed,” says Barlow. In addition to TikTok, they have lively, lyrical presences on Twitter and Instagram.
“I mean, yes, sure: You’re one of hundreds of millions on there. But you could get to that one follower and then that right audience—the right niche that gets you a million likes,” adds Bear. “And then that changes your life forever.”
As they wait to see to if that Grammy nom turns into a win, they’ve already collected another accolade: They’re honorees on Forbes’ latest 30 Under 30 list, which debuts today. They appear under the Social Media category—there are 20 categories in all—and that roll represents a guide to the most dynamic young people changing both our ideas of entertainment and communication. The roster came together only through the help of three judges: Li Jin, founder of Atelier Ventures; Nicole Quinn, a venture capitalist at Lightspeed; and Joe Albanese, founder of Stir, which makes software for creators. (In some cases, the judges have invested in the companies on the Social Media list. For those situations, they did not cast a vote for those businesses and founders.)
[For the full Social Media category list, click here.]
A third or so of the Social Media honorees are creators like Barlow and Bear. Some rank among the most followed celebrities in the world—most prominently, Bella Poarch, 26, who’s pictured above. She has nearly 100 million across TikTok, Instagram and Twitter. Alongside Poarch are a pair of 19 year olds, Josh Richards and Chase Hudson (aka Lil Huddy), both with more than 30 million followers.
Devon Rodriguez, 25, is another creator and honoree, though he cemented his fame less conventionally than the others. He has accumulated 21.2 million followers on TikTok through videos of him sketching strangers on the New York City subway, then gifting the picture to his unwitting portrait subjects. They loved it, but his artist peers didn’t. “Once I started,” he recalls, “other artists would criticize me, saying, ‘Oh, this is only for the clout: You’re not an artist, you’re a social media artist.’” A rather unfair critique: Rodriguez was a finalist for the National Portrait Gallery’s prestigious Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2019 and saw his work sold at Phillips auction house earlier this year. “I didn’t climb the ranks in that traditional way,” he says. “But now I’m here. Like, Phillips would never know about me if I didn’t go viral.”
Just as Rodriguez’s skills extend across art into TikTok, the abilities of the very funny Jeff Wright bridge comedy and social media. On his TikTok account, Wright plays a revolving cast of characters, including a series where he anthropormorphizes the covid vaccines, imagining what they’d be like as people in everyday situations. “I can get away with damn near anything in a sketch because at the end of the day, I’m playing characters, not myself,” says Wright, 27. His videos blew up in popularity last year, earning him a writer-performer gig on Seth Meyers’ Late Night.
Many other Social Media honorees are entrepreneurs, not celebrities. One of them, Cole Mason, has started Pearpop, a new marketplace for creators to link up with each other. “Before Pearpop, there was no way to get someone to collaborate with you at the level of Snoop Dogg,” says Mason, 25. “I just wanted to give everyone access.” In a different part of the influencer universe, Khoi Le, 23, Jerry Meng, 23, and Jasmine Ngyuen, 24, are working on FanHouse. The app has a similar premise to OnlyFans but a different mission: to keep creators safe and their reach expanding. And Mac Reddin, 28, has created his Commsor software for all the businesses rushing to form internet communities around their brand. Such a goal has assumed heightened importance as the pandemic keeps everyone sitting online more.
“A lot of these things that we were pitching early investors on—trends that were going to cause communities to be an important fabric of business—covid accelerated them a lot,” Reddin says.
Not everyone fits within a neat description, like 27-year-old Jane Manchun Wong. She is part digital detective, part journalist, part influencer. Through a widely followed Twitter account, Wong breaks news about previously announced features on apps like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook that she uncovers through a well-honed set of digital detective skills. She sees her scoops as a way to break “the tech news cycle on the future direction of tech companies, where the public no longer relies on the press releases to know about it,” she says. “My goal is to encourage tech companies to be more open and transparent…to call for making the apps lighter and more secure.”
Executives from those large companies have spots on the Under 30 list, too, standouts like Pinterest’s Chisom Obi-Okoye, 29, who has helped the app keep up in the creator monetization race, and Twitter’s Kelsey Taylor, 29, who works with sports teams and leagues to up their social media game.
As for Barlow and Bear, they’ve since decamped for snowy Utah, where they’re at work on a Hollywood musical for actress Margot Robbie’s production company.
They tease a familiar concept. “It’s based off a very, very famous movie,” Bear says.
“A romantic comedy,” says Barlow. “But we can’t possibly say anything more.”