Haley Sharpe has had a mobile phone since she was 6. The first was a pink flip-phone her parents gave her for safety reasons, since she was often at the gym for dance and tumbling practice. Or in case she needed to come home early from at a friend’s house. Stuff like that.

Ten years later, Sharpe has an iPhone with a translucent blue exterior. During a recent 36 minute interview at AL.com’s downtown Huntsville offices, she only looks at this iPhone once, and that’s to look up something related to a question I’d asked about her phone.

Lately lots of people online are interested in what Sharpe does with that phone. Her account, @yodelinghaley (a reference to a popular meme feed), on TikTok, a social media app for sharing short videos, has more than 186,000 followers. Her comedy and dance video posts have been liked more than six million times. Just in the last couple weeks, three of her TikTok videos went viral, generating millions of views and inspiring online followers to learn and post videos of their versions of dances she’d made up.
If you’re not a teenager, TikTok, with its 15 second to one minute videos of inside jokes, dances, funny clips, sound bites, etc. can initially seem odd or lowbrow - if you’re even aware TikTok exists at all. But adults were once similarly dismissive about punk-rock and hip-hop, and both eventually became hugely influential. Just because youth culture eventually passes many by doesn’t make it any less important to actual youth.

A high school junior in Huntsville, Haley is a talented dancer and possess a charming, nonchalant sense of humor. Both of these characteristics are displayed in her TikTok posts, referred to as TikToks.

Haley appears pretty unaffected by her internet fame. In conversation, she’s soft spoken and chooses words carefully. She’s even a little shy. When during our interview her mom suggests she show me one of her TikToks that features some kind of hand moves/dance thing, Haley quietly declines, “They’re so embarrassing.” (Mom quietly assures her the videos are not embarrassing.)

Haley Sharpe, left, and sister Julia Sharpe are shown learning a TikTok dance. (Courtesy photo)

It was through TikTok that Rebecca Jennings found Haley. A Brooklyn-based journalist writing about internet and pop culture for the website Vox, Jennings had seen one of Haley’s videos and favorited it. When Jennings’ editors asked for back to school pitches, she suggested following a “TikTok famous” teen. Jennings remembered Haley after deciding the sort of subject she had in mind: someone the opposite of fame-thirsty, look-at-how-hot-I-am socials stars. As school resumed this fall, Jennings flew to Huntsville and spent four days with Haley and her friends and family.

The result was a 6,000-word story for Vox, published early October, that’s as immersive and enlightening a read as you’ll find. For this story, Jennings shadowed Haley at school, at dance practice, at home, etc. “It was dream access,” says Jennings, who left Huntsville with hours of recorded interviews and 24 pages of notes. “And it’s really crazy how lucky we got.”

Lucky, because Jennings didn’t get to interview Haley or her family before traveling to Huntsville, an enormous risk when profiling a subject. But since the writer and her editors realized Haley’s school was about to start in a matter of days, they had to act quickly.

“It just so happened Haley and her family were so great,” Jennings says. “I wasn’t worried that she wouldn’t be funny in-person because the humor in her TikToks is so layered and subtle, and the real reason I wanted to profile her is she really seemed so normal. She just happens to be really funny in this very natural way, and when you’re really funny you can end up getting discovered online. That’s what’s different now. If you’re a funny teenager now you have a lot of opportunity to possibly make this your job.”
In her story, Jennings does an excellent job explaining TikTok, and its explosive growth, particularly among younger users. “In September 2018 - the month after it launched - TikTok surpassed Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat in monthly installs,” Jennings writes, “and by February 2019 it had been downloaded more than a billion times globally. Though TikTok is secretive about its user demographics and mysterious algorithm (the company declined to speak on the record for this story), one analysis showed that its user base is young: 40 percent are under 20 and another 26 percent are under 30.”
Haley enjoys TikTok because creating funny videos and watching videos others have made “is more real” than celebrity-driven Instagram, which she considers “more fake.” One appeal of Haley’s TikToks is she doesn’t take herself too seriously. “I feel like our generation just doesn’t care as much,” she says. This is evident in how she plays down her looks, an observation not commonly made of socials stars. “I feel like other people try to put on a mask, “she says, “sort of.” During this interview, Haley’s clad in a gray shirt, olive pants, white Fila sneakers and little or no makeup. She’s accompanied by her mom, Leslie Sharpe, a Huntsville attorney working mostly in economic development, commercial real estate and other forms of transactional law. Leslie’s wearing a pinstripe shirt and electric blue nail polish. She’s smart and poised.
Since Leslie and I are around the same age, I remark TikTok reminds me of a bite-sized mashup of “Saturday Night Live” and classic MTV. Leslie feels it’s more akin to the VH1 show “Pop-Up Video,” which featured humorous facts and observations manifesting in bubbles as music videos played. “Some of the comments (on TikTok) are funnier than the videos,” Leslie says. “There are some really funny people out there who aren’t famous by your traditional standard. They’re just people looking on the app.”
Haley seems appreciative for the depth and composition Jennings dedicated to her. “It was entertaining and interesting,” Haley says. Perhaps even more important, Mom approved. Jennings went into the project keenly aware of the responsibility in writing about a minor. “They’re kids,” Jennings says. “But what I try to do is just focus on the way teenagers are just sort of like everybody else. They want to be liked. They want to succeed. They’re trying to figure it out. But when you’re a teenager the littlest things mean so much and I just have so much empathy for that and I think the internet only exacerbates that. What journalists can do is listen and tell teenagers' stories with the same seriousness as we would anyone else. You have to take them maybe even more seriously than anyone.”
Haley Sharp, right, with brother Ian, left, and sister Julia, center. (Courtesy photo)

Leslie says she’s long emphasized to all her three kids, including Haley’s younger brother Ian and sister Julia, the importance of being aware of their surroundings, online or in real life. “Kids, social media is just like being out in public to them, " Leslie says. “Like to us, walking on a sidewalk is a public space. To me it’s creepier because there’s people you don’t know out there, but there’s people you don’t know out in the world.” Haley adds, “I can’t be kidnapped through a video. Being out in public is scarier than posting a video.”

As digital as many teens’ lives are now, Jennings found it interesting Haley and her friends knew the words to all the classic hits they heard on the radio, as they were all riding around Huntsville in the car. While working on the Vox story here, Jennings stayed at the Embassy Suites downtown. The first night she met up with Haley and Leslie at Commerce Kitchen for dinner. While here, Jennings also checked out A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard, Offbeat Coffee at Campus No. 805 and Rosie’s Mexican Cantina. She proudly says she ate at a Bojangles’ Chicken ‘n Biscuits for the first time, too. Her other Vox subjects range from a canyon sacred to Native Americans becoming a popular Instagram subject, to why brand names are getting weirder. A Vermont native, Jennings says she always knew she wanted to be a writer. Since moving to New York, she fell in love with reporting on technology: “It’s something that just feels so fast right now.”
A previous generation or two interested in comedy often looked up to “SNL” cast members, standups or film and TV actors. But young people today like Haley look up to popular YouTubers who earn money and fame posting 15 to 20 minute funny videos to YouTube. When it comes to ideas for her TikTok posts, Haley says “I get some influence from my friends, but I find most funny stuff on the internet.” One of her go-to TikTok techniques involves a green screen special effect. Haley’s in the process of building a YouTube page and hopes to make the leap to that platform eventually. But there are challenges, not the least of which is time, as YouTube videos require more editing and effort to produce, since they’re significantly longer than TikToks. However, as Jennings explains in her Vox story, it’s also much easier for content creators to monetize their followings on YouTube than TikTok.
As a dancer, Haley has smooth rhythm and cool instincts, honed by years of training. She looks up to California dancer/choreographer Lucy Vallely. Rhythm is also in Haley’s blood. Her father Anthony Sharpe is one of Huntsville’s most respected musicians, his singing, guitar playing and songwriting with local band Toy Shop echoing the likes of The Beatles, Radiohead and Phish. Antony and Haley have a running joke over who’s more famous now, him or her. Born in the U.K., Antony has a good sense of humor. He and Leslie would watch Monty Python videos with Haley when she was little. Music was passed down too. One of Haley’s early viral TikTok videos featured her dancing to Michael Jackson’s song “Smooth Criminal.” Although she’s a big fan of contemporary artists like Post Malone and Khalid, Haley learned to appreciate vintage singers like Harry Nilsson from her parents’ music collection.
Haley Sharpe and her dad, Huntsville musician Antony Sharpe. (Courtesy photo)

As far as school goes, her best subject is art, and her current course load includes AP History. What Haley does after graduating next year is up in the air. She’s interested in pursuing a career in creating online content. But she’s also been dancing since was 2. “That’s what I want to do, social media or dance,” Haley says. “I feel like I could do both.” Leslie says, “I’m more in favor of dance, but even that’s kind of scary for a parent. But with Antony being a musician, if that’s what she wants to do I fully support her going in an artistic direction.”

Haley Sharpe performs at a dance competition. (Courtesy photo)

Haley first got on social media in the fourth grade, when she started an Instagram account. Besides TikTok her other go-to social is probably Snapchat, mostly for the group stories. Haley got into TikTok via its predecessor, musical.ly, another short video editing platform, when she was in seventh grade or so. She downloaded the TikTok app in October 2018, made a few videos, took a break and got back on this spring. “(TikTok) was just really cringy videos at first and then people started making funny stuff,” Haley says. Since online content popularity is measured in clicks and likes, it’s easy to become fixated on that reaction. “After I post to TikTok now I wait for like an hour before I look at what the comments say and the likes,” Haley says, “so I’m not refreshing over and over, and obsessing over the numbers.” She deleted Instagram and Snapchat from her phone recently for about a week, “because I just didn’t want to go on there.”

Jennings feels Haley has a real shot at having a 21st century-style media career. “She’s very likable in person and I think that goes a really long way,” Jennings says. “And the thing with media careers like that it’s one of those things where if you want it and you’re willing to make it your life’s goal, you have a pretty good chance at getting it, especially if you’re naturally talented at it.”

So far, TikTok has wielded its heaviest cultural influence on music. As Jennings details in her Vox story, artists with a song that becomes a viral TikTok meme can rocket to mainstream success, as in the case of rapper Lil Nas X’s smash hit “Old Town Road.” “These songs will go viral on TikTok and then their Spotify streams will go up,” Jennings says, “and people are getting record deals based on their songs going viral on TikTok.” Haley says TikTok is also becoming influential on youth style - outfits, shoes, hair, etc. Some YouTubers and Viners (creators on now defunct video platform Vine) have achieved relative mainstream fame in recent years. Jennings believes some TikTokers will too.

But social media is a tricky species. At one time Facebook was youth-driven, now it’s the domain of dads, grandmothers and political food-fights. Myspace was cool before becoming passé overnight. What flips a social from buzzy to lame? Is it just once the newness wears off? Or when older users catch on? “If that were the case,” Jennings says, “everybody would be sick of YouTube, and nobody is sick of YouTube yet, in the sense that a lot of people are still watching it. And I also don’t know if the reason people are leaving Facebook is because old people are using it. I think it’s just the technology is centered around something people don’t want as much. It’s for connecting with people that you know in real life, but there are just better ways to do that now.” So, what does Haley Sharpe, Alabama’s TikTok zeitgeist, think will be the next big thing in social media? “More original stuff,” she says. “Sort of.”