In late November, Cam Casey, a TikTok star with over seven million followers, was relaxing at home when he decided to upload a video of a science experiment that resulted in a Coca-Cola bottle exploding to Snapchat.
Mr. Casey, 19, had read that the company had introduced a new TikTok-like feature called Spotlight within the app where users could share short-form videos. He wondered if some old videos from his camera roll could get traction.
Two weeks later, Snapchat came calling: Mr. Casey was one of the top performers on the platform and was going to make hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Encouraged by his early success, he began posting more videos — sometimes up to 120 per day — uploading fresh content every few minutes from 8 a.m. to midnight.
As of Tuesday, he had been paid nearly $3 million by the company for content that went viral.
Mr. Casey is one of thousands of people around the world now amassing small fortunes through Snapchat. The company debuted Spotlight in November and is “distributing over $1 million USD every day to Snapchatters,” a spokesperson said. (The company did not specify an end date for distributing this much money per day.) Many of these new Snapchat tycoons are famous TikTok stars and Gen Z influencers, but average users are also striking internet gold after their videos go viral.
A Million Dollars a Day
Andrea Romo, 27, earns $12.50 an hour as a merchandise associate at Lowe’s in Albuquerque. She doesn’t consider herself a social media influencer, but has enjoyed sending messages to friends on Snapchat for years. When she noticed the new Spotlight feature on Thanksgiving, she decided to upload a video of her sister deep frying a turkey.
Two weeks later, Ms. Romo learned that her video was so popular that it had earned her about half a million dollars. “It was a big surprise that you can get money posting a video of something totally random,” she said. (The company said it determines payment amounts based on unique video views and proprietary internal metrics.)
Snapchat hasn’t always been fertile ground for social media creators. For years, the company focused on being a messaging platform, and offered internet talent no way to earn money or grow their followings. In 2017, the company began verifying creators with large followings as well as celebrities, displaying their public Stories in the app’s media portal called Discover, but the platform wasn’t designed to source and display viral content to the masses.
With Spotlight, Snapchat aims to change that. Similar to TikTok and other TikTok-inspired apps and features including Instagram Reels, Spotlight is a stream of endlessly updating content (or, more precisely, an algorithmically curated feed of vertical videos).
The same things that are popular on TikTok are popular on Spotlight: dancing videos, prank videos, challenges and tutorials. The primary difference on Spotlight is the absence of public like counts or comments. And when videos go viral, the creator makes money, even if they are not influencers.
“You don’t have to ask to be paid, you don’t have to join any program, you just post a video and if it does well you get paid,” said Dax Newman, 19, a ceramist in San Diego who has made about $30,000 on Snapchat.
Meme accounts and viral aggregators are already trying to manipulate the feature by uploading videos ripped from YouTube and TikTok. But the payouts are already transforming the trajectory of many young people’s lives.
Katie Feeney, 18, a high school senior in Olney, Md., said she has earned over $1 million from Snapchat in the past two months by posting unboxing videos and funny content (in one clip, she spins on a hoverboard while seamlessly appearing in new outfits). Ms. Feeney said the cash has opened up new opportunities already. Colleges that she wasn’t planning to apply to because of financial concerns are suddenly on the table.
“I think it’s going to take me a while to really process it,” Ms. Feeney said. “I now have the opportunity to go to the school of my choice. For a lot of people Spotlight is going to change their life and it’s unbelievable.”
Word Travels Fast
Professional content creators have been cashing in the most on Spotlight. Some small and midlevel creators have struggled for years to eke out a living as full-time influencers. They made their money off a patchwork of brand deals and by selling merchandise, but platform monetization was mostly not happening on Snapchat.
CJ OperAmericano, 24, a content creator in Los Angeles, has been posting videos to Snapchat since 2015. And though she’s worked with brands like Coca-Cola, Walmart and Disney, it’s been hard to grow a following and make money. “I was monetizing primarily on TikTok,” she said. But since she started posting on Spotlight, she’s made over $100,000.
The word is already spreading among young people.
“Everyone is talking about Spotlight,” Ms. Feeney said. “It’s definitely very well known among all TikTokers and all social media influencers.”
Joey Rogoff, 21, an influencer who has earned more than $1 million through Spotlight, believes more TikTokers will begin to shift their efforts. “TikTok set that precedent of what kind of content people are looking for. Snapchat has done a really good job of recreating that in their own way, building that into their own app,” he said. “They’re the highest paying platform right now. Hopefully other platforms see that and will follow their lead because ultimately that’s what’s going to make creators the happiest.”
Joseph Albanese, the C.E.O. and co-founder of Stir, a service that helps creators manage their businesses, said that providing creator monetization options is key for any platform seeking to compete in a post-TikTok world.
He said that the TikTok creator fund, a program in which company-approved influencers can monetize their content, “put all other platforms on notice. These platforms are making it easier for new creators to pop up and if you don’t have a strong monetization play, they’ll leave and go somewhere else.”
Mr. Casey said his Snapchat success has provided him what feels like a ticket to the top of the Los Angeles influencer hierarchy. He recently appeared on the YouTube star David Dobrik’s podcast to discuss his success. “I think it’s already starting to help me get into that mainstream social media world with all the other mainstream creators,” Mr. Casey said.
As TikTok has become a more crowded and competitive space to break out, young people are sensing opportunity in Snapchat, especially given that they can potentially make money so soon. “I think making money is definitely a reason why a lot of high schoolers want to become social media influencers,” Ms. Feeney said.
Coming for the Competition
Snapchat is seeing early success with Spotlight, but it’s going to be a challenge to dethrone TikTok as the platform of the moment. “TikTok is the place to be right now, it’s where all the attention is going, all the energy is going,” said Mr. Casey.
In recent weeks, payments on Spotlight have also already been getting smaller as the pie is divided between more users every day. “There’s more competition,” said Mr. Casey. “It’s harder to get views. More people are posting.”
For Spotlight to succeed, it can’t just pay creators, it must also bestow fame. Followers are their own type of currency and, in some ways, just as valuable as dollars. For brands to take notice of Snapchat stars, the platform must demonstrate that it is a place that incubates and fosters talent — and popularity. Most people on the internet know what a TikTok star is, but an archetypal Snapchat creator has yet to be defined.
In order to keep up momentum, Mike Metzler, 33, a Snapchat creator and social analytics researcher in Houston, said that social media creators and those who work in the industry have banded together to discuss their earnings and boost each other up.
“We’ve formed groups on Snapchat where we talk about strategies and what content is working and what we’re seeing,” he said. “Any time we come across any videos from somebody in that group we share them with each other to uplevel the engagement and try to help each other out.”
Some Spotlight creators are discussing creating their own Snapchat collab houses. Mr. Casey said he had a call with Snapchat to pitch something similar to the Hype House, but that the company indicated they were concerned about the legal issues that might come along with funding such a thing.
Dominic Andre, 27, an influencer in Los Angeles who creates educational content, is hoping to use the $600,000 that he’s earned on Spotlight to launch a science and education collab house in Los Angeles.
“I want to build up a Team 10, Hype House situation but focused around science,” Mr. Andre said. “My goal is to build a Snapchat science education show.” He paused while speaking to look at his phone. “I just got a DM from Snapchat right now saying that I earned another $100,000,” he said. “I’m earning about 100,000 a week on average.”
For the time being, Mr. Casey and Mr. Rogoff, newly minted Snapchat millionaires, share a room in a cramped apartment with friends in Studio City in Los Angeles. They discuss Snapchat strategies from their separate beds.
After Mr. Casey gives some of the money away to family members (in thanks for raising and supporting him), he said he wants to invest the rest of it back into his work. “Yes, it is just making videos, but there’s so much more that goes into creating what you see on camera,” he said. “I want to use the money to put back into my videos and create a life for myself where I’m able to become one of the biggest influencers on the internet. I’ve always had very big aspirations.”
“We’re in a weird industry where anything can happen at any moment.”