Meet the Creators and Activists Leading Social Media’s Next Wave
What makes a creator successful? Maybe it’s their comic timing, the ability to side-eye the camera in selfie mode to match up with the perfect audio cue. Maybe it’s the speed at which they hop on the latest trend, taking it from underground moment to viral movement, or the way that they open up to their followers, sharing their lives. Whatever it is, these creators have got it.
Meet the Class of 2022, picked by Rolling Stone for their proficiency with the form. Whether they’re spreading their passion, documenting their life, educating their followers, or lip-syncing to a hot new sound, these creators stand out for their ability to connect with an audience and push our whole culture forward.
Total Followers 3.8 million
Genre Silly Heartthrob Next Door
Santea was used to being “that skinny, funny kid” who everyone got along with in high school. And it’s perhaps that same goofy energy that’s made him resonate with Latino Gen Z’ers. That and the fact that the girls and gays think he’s a cutie. “I’ve always thought I was more of a seven out of 10,” he says with a laugh.
Raised by a maintenance worker and a housekeeper, Santea — real name Santiago Albarrán — got his start while on the clock at Home Depot, making funny dance clips in his orange work apron. By the time he was let go in May 2020, he was getting recognized as “the Home Depot boy.”
With $2,000 in his bank account, Santea spent the next three months focusing on his newfound craft, and since then, he’s become a Latino TikTok staple. “You don’t usually see this regular Hispanic dude,” he says. “You just see these kids that already have luxuries, drive these nice cars, and have that lifestyle.” In his videos, he’s sometimes in a colorful bob wig with his friends, known collectively as the Dad Wiggies. Other times he’s leading skits about what it’s like “hanging with your white friends.” And more recently, he made a “paying labor workers to play soccer” vlog on YouTube, where he invited men waiting for gigs outside his old workplace to play soccer for cash. It’s his way of paying it forward. —T.M.
Hometown Hanford, California
Total Followers 2.4 million
Genre All-Too-Relatable Everyday Comedy
Leo González let his dream of being a comedian fade when he was in middle school. He opted instead to become a news reporter — but even then, things weren’t working out for him as a production assistant at a local station in Reno, Nevada. It was around that time that González downloaded TikTok. “It was TikTok and that year in Reno that cracked me like an egg,” he says.
González tapped into something he knew well: He made a video poking fun at that awkward lag when anchors are waiting to be connected with field reporters during local-news broadcasts, both often nodding in silence. The video resonated, and his follower count blasted from less than a dozen to more than 5,000 in a single day. “It forced me to dream again,” he says.
González’s videos are often simple, relatable skits in which he plays his character, Junior, in different scenarios — whether it be “people who make lactose intolerance a personality trait” or a friend asking a friend to be a fake résumé reference. The skits, nearly always in Spanglish, have led him to walk red carpets at Spanish awards shows, collaborate with one of his heroes, George Lopez, and most recently, interview Robert Pattinson on The Batman’s red carpet. “Now I can’t even imagine not doing this,” he says. “It’s a lot of healing for a little Leo inside.” —T.M.
Hometown Riverside County, California
Total Followers 7.46 million
Genre Anti-Misogynistic Takedowns
“Women have constantly been expected to be the bigger person — to give patience, kindness, and grace to men in the face of disrespect,” says Drew Afualo, a sports journalist turned anti-misogyny influencer. “I just don’t do that.” If TikTok is Gotham City, then Afualo is its very own sexism-fighting Batman, letting out her signature giggle like a bat signal on millions of For You pages. “Men have been unchecked for hundreds of thousands of fucking years,” she says in one clip. “And now, there’s a new sheriff in town, bitch.”
When Afualo left her position at the NFL, and was freed from the restraints of corporate pleasantries, she decided to speak her mind. “I couldn’t openly express how I feel when I’m having to deal with misogyny or racism,” she says.
Afualo’s trademark has become finding clips of men saying shitty things about women, then stitching them with eviscerating responses. “I’m a woman of color; I’m also not a thin woman. All these different facets of bigotry play into the way people react negatively to my content,” Afualo says.
But millions of others — predominantly women and LGBTQ+ people — have the opposite response. “‘You say everything that I wish I could say,’” she says they tell her. “‘You put it into words in a way that I wish I could.’” —L.P.
Hometown Sarasota, Florida
Total Followers 3.1 million
Genre Honest Trans Journey
Miguel Peña was already gaining a following when he posted a TikTok last summer. In it, he didn’t exactly come out as trans, but signaled a change was coming. “I never posted a video like, ‘Hey, guys, so I’m coming out,’” he says. “It was more like, ‘Hey, does anybody ever feel like you’re not a girl?’” A week later, he cut his hair, and in November, he told followers he was changing his name and his pronouns. Since then, his feed has become a forum to document his transition.
When Peña started posting these clips, he got DMs asking for more information. So, like the queer YouTubers who “raised” him, he started making more educational content. “I have videos on bottom growth. I have videos about the process to get top surgery,” he says. “I might not be able to get to every person, but at least I know that the videos are out there.”
Before last summer, Peña — who grew up between Florida and Venezuela — was going through a “hyper-feminization” phase. “I wanted to be like the spicy Latina,” he says. He still sometimes stitches these videos, reacting to his former “girly-girl” self. “I do get dysphoric [watching them],” he says. “[But] I don’t want to ever feel like I have to erase or hide who I was before. Her posting those videos is what got me to where I am now.” —E.G.P
Hometown Charlotte, North Carolina
Total Followers 991,000
Genre Anti-Racist Education
When Black Lives Matter protests broke out in summer 2020, Rynn Star (real name Erynn Chambers) wanted to add to the discourse. Then an elementary school music teacher, Star wrote the song “Black Neighborhoods Are Overpoliced,” a simple ditty that concisely explained the criminal-justice atrocities that inspired the movement.
When they uploaded it on TikTok, it quickly went viral. Now, Star uses their platform to discuss topics like why highway systems are inherently racist or calling out J.K. Rowling’s use of happy elf “slaves” in Harry Potter.
Star has leaned into the role of educator in a space that is notoriously toxic. “I’m generally pretty approachable,” Star says. “As long as people come respectfully, I provide a space for people to learn and to grow. I hope people can understand that there’s a big world out there. It’s important to go outside of your bubble.”
Star has three podcasts — Hot Tea Hot Takes, Close Encounters of the Blerd Kind, and The Wordy & Nerdy Show — that they hope will be a more substantial form of content creating than on TikTok. “Talking about heavy issues can get tiring sometimes,” they say. “Nobody wants to sit around and have to keep insisting that people who look like you deserve human rights. After a while you just wanna talk about something else.” —A.C.
Hometown Jersey City, New Jersey
Combined Total of Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube Followers 14.5 million
Genre Animal Kingdom Explainer Comedy
An animal lover since childhood, Mamadou Ndiaye racks up millions of views on his TikTok videos with scroll-stopping titles like “Top 5 Disrespectful Animals,” “Animals That Are Down Bad,” and “Why Koalas Are the Absolute Worst.” (The marsupial, which he calls a “degenerate” in the video, makes a sound like “Satan’s doorbell,” and has “the IQ of a cereal box,” he says.) The clips have a low-fi vibe, with Ndiaye holding an absurdly small microphone as he deadpans factoids in front of a green screen. “I try to educate and make people laugh, the way I would’ve liked to learn as a kid,” he says.
A 2019 graduate of Rutgers University, Ndiaye was just starting a career in environmental engineering when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Now, he earns a living making videos of animal facts with funny commentary on social media. As he’s become more established in the animaltok community, users have begun tagging him in videos of creatures they want him to explain, like a water snake covered in moss that he says looks like “something out of the Grinch’s sex drawer.” He researches his subjects, even if he’s already familiar with the species from years of watching Animal Planet. “I always fact-check myself,” he says, “because you don’t wanna be wrong on the internet.” —A.M.