Mercury Stardust's rise on TikTok has been meteoric. She's known as the "Trans Handy Ma'am" on the platform, where she teaches people all about home repairs and maintenance.
If you ever need to mount a TV, plunge your toilet, or fix a garbage disposal, Stardust can teach you how, all while being wonderfully wholesome and talking about gender identity.
She's only been on TikTok since April, but she now has 1.1 million followers. Unfortunately, a few days ago much of her hard work went silent.
The audio track Stardust had been using for many of her videos — a Steven Universe remix — was muted without notice by TikTok. This often happens as the result of a copyright strike, and the effect is that any video using that sound has the audio completed muted although the video stays up.
That meant dozens of Stardust's videos had suddenly become useless. She found out during a live chat when a viewer mentioned her videos had no sound.
"I was like, well, that's weird. I wonder [if] I screwed something up," she told BuzzFeed News. Then she started scrolling and realized just how many videos were now silent.
"I kid you not, I was crying so bad," she said.
She had gotten no notifications about the issue from TikTok, in the app or otherwise. The track just happened to be one the app itself suggested when she made her first video, so she stuck with it.
Upset, she posted a TikTok about the situation. That caught the attention of Sean Szolek-Van Valkenburgh, who is currently getting a master's degree in music and happens to be a fan of Stardust.
"I was like, if I was in her shoes, I would want someone to take initiative or reach out," he told BuzzFeed News.
Fortunately, he had the expertise to do that.
Szolek-Van Valkenburgh went through and downloaded every one of Stardust's videos that had been muted — 97 in total — and made a copy of the descriptions in a spreadsheet. Although muted on the app, the TikToks downloaded with the full audio.
He worked out how to drop the audio track into editing software and manually removed the frequency of the background music. He then resynced it to the video.
It's tedious work. It takes about 20 minutes to do one video, and with 97 videos, the project is going to take a few days.
"As creators, we shouldn't have to go through this level of detail to try to put something back when the system itself is so underdeveloped," he said. "It should be more sophisticated at this point."
Stardust and Szolek-Van Valkenburgh are both frustrated that TikTok doesn't notify creators about being muted and that it's not possible to save a version of videos without the added music.
Stardust also has to grapple with TikTok still showing her muted videos in people's feeds while she tries to figure out how to most efficiently reupload the content — the app's algorithm penalizes creators who upload too much at once.
"The thing is the algorithm pushes videos that have music. Even if you've turned the music all the way to zero. It will push it because that's what the algorithm recognizes," she said. "But even if you have it at zero, your video will still be taken down if it has the wrong sound on it. So it's very frustrating."
TikTok did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Szolek-Van Valkenburgh and Stardust got to talking after he posted the process on TikTok, and Stardust said she's so grateful that he was willing to put in all this work.
"My heart goes out to Sean. If there is one thing to say about this whole thing, and there's one positive thing you can take away, is that there are more people in this world who care about each other," she said.
"And when we share that love with each other, it kind of whatever TikTok decides to do is drowned out by the fact that the community is stronger than the app itself."