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A Teen Influencer Who’s Deaf Says Social Media Has A Ways To Go When It Comes To Accessibility

In this week's newsletter: How Scarlet Waters used TikTok, an app built on music and bytes, to make people soberly aware about deafness, and why I think more influencers than not are running their own fan accounts.

Posted on November 27, 2020, at 8:01 a.m. ET

This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.

“This silence was LOUD”

@scarlet_may.1

A day in the life of deaf ears. #fyp #foryou

♬ original sound - Scarlet May 🦋

Scarlet Waters is 19 and has 3.6 million followers on TikTok. She posts comedy sketches, dances, front-facing camera rants — all the things Gen Z’ers are doing to build a loyal following.

Except Scarlet is deaf in both ears and uses a cochlear device to help her hear. The disability shapes her experience as an internet personality and consumer. She’s not the only person who’s deaf who is having trouble with social media, but she’s one of the few people openly talking about it.

Like a lot of young influencers on the app, many of Scarlet’s most popular TikToks hop on trends and reimagine popular sounds. They’re cute and relatable, and she acknowledges other audiences who are hard of hearing by signing through all of them. Some of her posts rack up millions of views. In November, however, a video she posted titled “Deaf Ears in a Hearing World” became one of her most viral hits, with almost 30 million views to date. The video takes you through an average day for her, going to school, running errands, but with common hurdles that most people without disabilities don’t have to deal with — like having to constantly explain her disability or find creative workarounds, like writing things down on paper. Perhaps the most sobering part of her video is that — contrary to what the app was built for — the TikTok is completely silent. This might seem obvious, but coming across it was jarring for a lot of people.

“Wow, that opened my eyes,” a top commenter wrote. “This silence was LOUD,” another added. Lil Yachty even commented, writing, “This made me so much more appreciative of my being.”

Scarlet, who lives in South Florida, told me the idea to share something more sincere came out of frustrations she had because people “didn’t really comprehend the need” to “make this world more accessible” for members of the Deaf community — especially when it comes to using a smartphone, something teens like her have been born into.

“The most surprising aspect for me was how many people didn't truly think about what it means to be deaf,” she said. “I feel like a lot of people knew, like, OK we can’t hear. But I don't think they realized how much they depend on their hearing for little things and the fact that we’re not able to do those things.”

“Especially things we all do on a daily basis, such as simply scrolling through social media,” she added.

TikTok / @scarlet_may.1

Scarlet often jokes about being deaf to normalize the disability. But she wants the big tech companies to do more with their platforms to adjust to the needs of people like her.

“The most popular apps are not accessible to us: YouTube does automatic closed captions, [but they’re] not correct and the words will be all over the place. Instagram does not provide closed captions, so think of all the educational videos you guys see. We miss out on the important events daily. TikTok, the most popular app out right now, has nothing!”

Scarlet said she didn’t have a role model who was deaf growing up, so she hopes to be “a deaf influencer to look up to” for other young people.

“I really hope I inspire deaf people to get involved in the media because there's so many talented deaf people out here that I know can go far but are just put down by a [platform for people who can hear],” Scarlet added. “I hope I can be proof for them that we can change the media and make this an accessible platform.”

Influencers secretly running their own fan accounts is cringey, yes, but it’s also part of the business

Instagram / @bachsleuthers

I’m not going to say who, but I came across fan pages of an influencer I know that seemed suspiciously performative. One of these accounts was extremely over the top with hyperboles and emojis, and almost every caption was rife with typos and a form of I Can Has Cheezburger speak that only a millennial would default to, to try to put on the voice of a young, clueless internet user.

Now, I see and study enough fan Instagram pages to understand the general spirit and tenor of their appreciation posts. Sure, some of them are really zealous and run by young fans and/or nonnative English speakers, so sometimes there is awkward syntax. But there is a kind of authenticity that runs through them. They sound like genuine fans who like to track what their faves are doing and share it with other fans. There is a mix of reactions and conversations in the comments section.

This account had very little engagement with other fans, even though it posted fairly regularly. The exaggerated, oversimplified language was closer to parody than how any young person speaks. In fact, I’d say the fan account was insulting to fan accounts that have their own unique ecosystem of operation and sincerity.

Anyway, my hunch was that it was most likely created and run by the influencer, who’s grown a significant following this year.

It’s a funny thought to imagine someone impersonating their own fan and then re-curating their own content on another page, or multiple pages, with a different purpose and personality. But I speculate that more influencers than not are doing this in the earlier stages of their careers.

Earlier this year, Bachelor contestant Madison Prewett was caught commenting on her own Instagram post that she presumably meant for her fan finsta. "Beautiful date Madi. You are so genuine and real ❤️,” she commented, before deleting.

Madison hasn’t said much about the gaff, but other fan accounts then claimed her sister was accidentally logged into her account on her phone (which, IMO, seems like wilder logic than simply trying to grow your social media appeal with fake fan accounts).

It’s embarrassing, so I don’t expect influencers to cop to it. But it makes perfect sense in the economy of becoming an influencer — fans validate someone’s level of fame. And building that fanbase in an already saturated field is a lot more difficult than just creating your own. And sometimes it takes the investment of creating one or a few fake fan accounts that could then inspire real fan accounts. When people see hype, they want to understand the hype and join in on the hype. It’s the Charli D’Amelio effect: All of the snark and confusion around how an “average” teenager could have so many fans only catapulted her appeal. She now has 100 million followers, most of whom I suspect are passive observers.

Regardless, maintaining one’s own fan page is strange behavior, but smart business. I don’t have a lot of hard evidence to support my thesis that it happens quietly and pervasively, but it makes a lot of sense.

I’m not here to out each and every one of you who do it, but please, if you’re going to do it, respect fandom culture. And please do it well and convincingly.

Until next time,

Tanya

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.

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