TikTok community becomes support system for UNC first-year student

By Benjamin Rappaport

Ainsley Edwards has been running cross country competitively since she was in middle school. She loves having a place to let out her energy, relax her mind and be in touch with nature. Edwards first started going on runs with her dad in the wooded trails near Salem Lake by her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina

During the early months of the pandemic, those runs became Ainsley’s sense of sanity. They were also the place where she got her comedic ideas for her viral TikTok videos. 

Ainsley has amassed more than 245,000 followers and 12 million views on the short-form video app. She and her brother Tre Edwards started making absurdist comedy videos together in March 2020. 

“Me, Tre and my dad would just run for hours and riff the whole time,” Ainsley said. “There was literally nothing else to do.” 

Ainsley and Tre would talk about the latest social media trends and come up with potential ideas for videos. Their father, Mark Edwards, would usually lag both on the runs and on the jokes.  

The first few videos Ainsley and Tre posted together went viral because they reflected the comedic chaos of being trapped in quarantine. They were sporadic and disjointed, but that’s part of what made them so hilarious and relatable. 

“I don’t think we even understood our own jokes back in March,” Tre said. “We would connect ridiculous trends together and mish mash whatever our brains could come up with. It was comedic anarchy.”

The Edwards siblings used their restlessness and turned it into content. 

Quarantine bonding

Beyond the videos, being trapped inside also brought the whole Edwards family together. Tre is five years older than Ainsley, and prior to the pandemic they weren’t nearly as close. Mark was also typically traveling around the country as an investment banker, but he became closer with his family by working from home. 

“As much as I wanted her to have a normal senior year, I secretly really loved having Ainsley right outside my door,” Mark said.  

The two of them had their work-from-home computer setups right next to each other and would consistently crack jokes between, or sometimes during, meetings and classes. Ainsley would try to photobomb her dad’s consulting meetings, and then Mark would shout obscenities while Ainsley was participating in class.

Raised on comedy

While Mark didn’t necessarily understand all the social media trends that his kids’ videos were based on, he was the inspiration behind a lot of the humor in the Edwards household. From a young age, he taught Ainsley and Tre to not take life too seriously. He would force them to make short musical comedy videos for their church to preview the weekly sermon. They would spoof characters from “The Office” to teach the congregation about lessons of family or dress up like fish to discuss the importance of preserving resources. 

“As the youngest child, Ainsley always had to make her mark in those skits and put her foot in,” Mark said. 

Ainsley’s knack for comedy has only grown stronger over the years. It’s her outlandish flare that made her a hit in the church and now on the internet.

Pressure to please 

But as her followers grew, so did her internal pressure to produce for others. Ainsley said she has always been her own worst critic, but that internal voice only got louder when she started college at UNC-Chapel Hill this fall.

So much of her quarantine experience had been making videos at home with her brother, sharing jokes and experimenting with new formats. In college, she could not have this and it was hard for Ainsley and Tre to keep up their social media presence.

“Her and I are like the TikTok partners in crime,” Tre said. “When she left for college, it felt like that dynamic duo got a little less dynamic.”

Prior to her leaving, Tre had pushed Ainsley to start making videos on her own to prepare for what it would be like in school. To Ainsley, though, it never felt right without Trey.

“The reality was, we have this following, and we don’t want to let them down,” Tre said. “I wanted her to keep making videos because she loves doing it, even if it was no longer a thing we did with each other.”

Tre is out of school and pursuing a full-time music career. He has his own successful TikTok page to showcase his talents. He occasionally visits Chapel Hill from Winston-Salem. When he does, the two still make TikTok videos together, and it feels like they’re back at their house again. But with life picking back up, it’s hard to maintain the consistent stream of content they made over quarantine.

Ainsley is trying to make friends, join clubs, manage classes and adjust to everything else that being a college student entails in 2021. All the while, her thousands of followers constantly want more content.

A social media community

“I really want to continue this aspect of my life, but I am the biggest source of pressure for myself,” Ainsley said. “It’s hard to give myself some grace.” 

One of the ways Ainsley has learned to take space for herself is through connecting with other TikTokers with similar concerns. She has befriended several college-aged comedy TikTok creators, like Jack Martin, who told her that her content wasn’t everything.

“I remember when I first came to college and just trying to do all the things, the same way Ainsley is now,” Jack said. “I learned pretty quick something had to give and I needed to continue taking care of myself.” 

Jack is now in his third year at the University of Southern California. His TikTok following got him noticed by an acting agency in Australia, where he is currently filming the NBC show “La Brea.”

He and Ainsley became fast friends over their mutual understanding of what they call “TikTokery debauchery”—the struggles of being a young person and navigating the complex algorithms of TikTok to grow their platform. 

Young creators on TikTok have formed their own community to collaborate and solve problems together. It’s a collaborative environment of creativity that wouldn’t exist otherwise because it fosters connections around the globe.

“TikTok can feel like a really strange and isolating place at times,” Jack said. “That’s why I’m so glad people have reached out and invited me in. Ainsley was one of those people and she’s become one of my best friends because we just get each other.”

The community Ainsley has formed on the app has helped her balance all the chaos of school, life and maintaining a viral presence. 

Her support system, along with her runs, give Ainsley the peace of mind to keep her life and her comedy moving forward. 

Edited by Isa Mudannayake