Y
ou learn very quickly on TikTok how to get rich quick. Tips, tricks, and hacks abound. “Do you speak English? And do you want to make $450 for 45 minutes of work? Then you need to watch this,” one such video begins in a typical fashion. The instructions, typically laid out in around 30 seconds, usually by dudes, are always (apparently) dead simple. In this case: Sign up at a website that hires freelance voice actors to record audiobooks.

There are alternatives, of course. You could troll the clearance aisles at Wal-Mart for products to sell on Amazon at an extreme markup (or, better yet, get into the apparently lucrative drop-shipping game). You could learn to code for free and charge people thousands to build their websites. You could become rich overnight by simply buying the same stocks as random millionaires and billionaires. Or how about earning a stack of cash for doing even less — maybe even nothing at all? It’s easy. You could create atmospheric audio videos for YouTube using license-free audio recordings — for instance, of rain falling — and sit back while the ad revenues pour in. Or how about just uploading photos you’ve taken to a website and earning money every time someone simply clicks on one? Anything is possible!

These get-rich-quick TikToks are less like some of the platform’s other popular content, and more akin to conspiracy theory videos.

There’s a kind of mania present in these videos, a peculiar form of excitement that’s immediately palpable and that, if you watch enough of them, doesn’t take long to seep into your mind, predicated on the foundational idea behind each video: that you are being told a secret that only a few others have discovered. That the video’s creator might be, themselves, getting rich quick by creating get-rich-quick content — in a rational setting an indictment of their credibility — actually acts as the opposite. It’s a bizarre-o endorsement of their knowledge, a kind of Trump-ian pseudo-credibility: clearly, they know how to work the system to their advantage — they’re doing it right now.

In other words, there is just enough truth to make these pitches endlessly enticing as well as endlessly replicable. This is the other thing you’ll notice if you watch enough of these videos: there’s perhaps only a handful of basic money-making schemes, with the differences being largely between which gig work platform you leverage, or which website you use to track stock trades or whatever.

What this all seems to point to is that these get-rich-quick TikToks are less like some of the platform’s other popular content like recipes or dance memes, and more akin to conspiracy theory videos, in terms of their sheer numbers, their infinite replication, and maybe most of all in their appeal to the idea that they are sharing an important secret based on assumed truths about the world — some of which, for the record, are accurate.

It’s true, for instance, that a lot of people are able to make a lot of money online, perhaps even in ways similar to those you’ll find being hawked under hashtags like #financialfreedom, #sidehustle, or #makemoneyonline. It’s also probably the case that, for some, profits came quickly and relatively easily, once they knew what they were doing. Also, if you’re on TikTok, you’re likely aware of these truths, as well as others — like, for instance, how much some popular TikTok stars are making.

The feeling you get after watching enough of these get-rich-quick videos on TikTok is not that it’s easy to make money online. It seems like a huge grind.

And, given the platform’s main audience demographic (ie. it skews young), there’s likely also a very real sense amongst its users of something else, too. For those who have come of age, or who are being raised, in the post-Great Recession period, there is no doubt the feeling that they are caught in an economic system, writ-large, that favors the lucky few, perhaps none more than those who can find a way to cheat it.

Weirdly, the feeling you get after watching enough of these get-rich-quick videos on TikTok is not that it’s easy to make money online. Just the opposite, in fact. It seems like a huge grind, just like any other job — especially if part of your plan to make money online is churning out content for TikTok every few hours to gain and maintain an audience, let alone drive them to the other content you’ve created for a more profitable platform like YouTube.

Maybe this is where it might be worth worrying about all this content and its seeming popularity — or, at least, its pervasiveness. Like conspiracy theories, it ultimately can’t lead people where they want to go, which is systemic change. Just like believing in a conspiracy theory won’t make government better — even if it does disrupt things for a while — believing in the power of #sidehustle TikTok might make you money for a time, but it won’t change things like labor laws or minimum wage rates or mandatory medical benefits — know, the kind of things that would help make side hustles irrelevant.

Above all, what’s maybe most concerning is that, if our social platforms are a reflection of our society, it seems they are depicting an increasingly desperate scene, where more and more people are struggling to hack it.