You may never meet him, but Harvey Petito can still drive you to the beach.
All he needs to do is gaze into his smartphone camera, as if you were in the passenger seat, and there it is: TikTok content.
The short form video app has quickly become influential — sending songs to number one and making stars of its early adopters.
And while school was out over the summer, Harvey, 16, was building his TikTok presence. He now has more than 1 million followers.
Based in Melbourne, the professional model says POV or “point of view” videos are one of a few good ways to engage his audience on the app — mostly teenage girls (his followers are more than 90 per cent women, according to his TikTok dashboard).
He just needs to add a caption, and maybe a trending pop track.
“I’ll be like, ‘point of view: you came and swam at the beach with me’ or like, ‘point of view: you came along to my photo shoot’,” he explains.
And with it, comes fame: “At this point, almost every time I see a girl between the ages of 13 and 15 and she looks at me, she suddenly goes, ‘TikTok’.”
His mother Sharon, who sometimes helps film, thinks the charm of POV clips is that they can be anything. About school or friends, funny and relatable.
But, then there’s also the look. “I think his most popular videos, if you look at the stats, are all videos where he looks really handsome,” she says with a laugh.
“So, you know, it’s, I guess, funny and handsome.”
The new boy band
Despite a pile up of controversies, TikTok continues to amass cultural capital thanks to its teen users: kids who were born shooting and editing smartphone video, and have the skills to reflect the realities and fantasies of high-school life.
“POV” videos especially capture this combination of digital savvy and teenage confessional.
The subject usually looks directly into the camera. Moody stares or friendly glances are backed by a song and caption, which provides the story. It’s a fantasy mad lib.
The POV trend on TikTok is similar to a genre that’s long-flourished on YouTube, in which young men will whisper you to sleep — often called boyfriend role-play.
But on TikTok, where videos are much shorter, content makers have to make you react in just a few seconds.
For some, largely white American kids so far, that’s proven a big success: TikTok has been busy minting a new generation of viral dance stars and teenage paramours of all genders.
For the most well-known men, who go by names like Lilhuddy, their floppy hair, clear skin and bouncy personalities place them in a long lineage of pretty teenage heartthrobs, from the Beatles to One Direction.
This is sometimes known as the “non-threatening boy”, according to Catherine Driscoll, a professor in gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney.
But TikTok offers a closeness boy band fans rarely have. Viewers can comment directly on the clips of the app’s content makers. These content makers might even reply.
This is where it could get messy, suggests filmmaker Jessica Leski, whose documentary I Used to Be Normal explored the world of boy band fandom.
“A bit of a fantasy life is healthy, it’s about treading that fine line between when does it take over from your real life and relationships,” she says.
“On social media [it] is a bit different, because you have this illusion of direct contact.”
A literary POV
Having a boyfriend is far from the only “point of view” genre on TikTok.
On the app’s “For You” page, which offers an endless scroll of popular content, there’s also room for drama kids and books.
It’s all driven by a mysterious algorithm, which means one experience of TikTok can be wildly different from another.
There are POVs told from the view of a literary character, and a micro-trend where someone discovers they are the child of Greek gods — inspired by the book character Percy Jackson, who is the son of the mortal Sally Jackson and the Greek god Poseidon.
Jemmah Rattley, 18, is an aspiring actress with around 68,000 followers on TikTok.
She makes POV videos, often as characters from the popular young-adult series The Red Queen, and other scenarios she invents.
One of her most viral clips, for example, was a situation where her character’s parents had murdered someone and were burying the body.
Morbid scenarios are common. Often the POV videos she sees on the app are dark in tone. Short stories about abuse are easily found, with make-up bruises to drive the point home.
For some viewers, the line between fact and fiction can be hard to determine in TikTok’s timeframe of less than a minute.
Jemmah says she got comments from concerned viewers asking if her parents really had killed someone, and if she was OK, despite the caption making it clear her clip was invented.
But mostly she says the POV trend is an opportunity to test her range as an actress. To try out situations and an American accent.
“If people are getting known for POVs, I think it’s a great way to put yourself out there,” she says.
“It’s just great to see other people having creative minds.”
An ’emotional fantasy’ experience
TikTok stars typically range from teens to early 20s, so the content veers from flirtatious to outright invitational.
Harvey says he tries to keep his content PG, conscious that his audience is very young.
“I don’t post anything where it’s like, super-like, heavily swearing or super-sexual,” he says.
Jemmah, for her part, thinks being flirty is a way some people to seek attention.
“For me, I am just making videos that I enjoy making, and if people don’t like that or view that as sexual, then that’s their decision and that’s their point of view,” she says.