TikTok has changed Joe Mele’s life.
The local resident used to be a straight-A finance student at Binghamton University. But now, he’s a full-time creator on a social media app that had been relatively obscure in the U.S. only a few years ago.
“I was confident in my ability to get a job after college, but social media happened and I started making money,” he said. “There were so many opportunities on social media to expand and learn so much, and you know, I dropped out of college and I’m successful and making money and I’m doing social media full time.”
The 22-year-old has, in fact, become a virtual giant. Through comedic skits that often involve his father and other family members, he’s accumulated more than 13.8 million followers on TikTok, a popular social media platform for short videos. His videos can be found at tiktok.com/@mmmjoemele.
“He said he dropped out of college, but I like to think of it as, like, he’s putting it on hold just for now and then eventually, he’ll go back and finish his degree,” said his father, Frank Mele. “I’m old fashioned that way. But he’s doing fantastic.”
Joe Mele’s popularity on the app exploded after the pandemic hit. He was already making viral videos at that point — one of his first viral videos posted in fall 2019 hit 30,000 views in just a few hours, and he had 900,000 followers before the outbreak — but it wasn’t yet a business. As he focused on growing his platform, offers started to come in from companies interested in sponsoring content.
“I guess clients and companies and stuff like that who want to advertise on TikTok almost hone in on creators like myself, and they just want to run a lot of advertisements and promotions and campaigns,” he said.
Now, he spends his days on business calls, writing skits, and then editing, producing and directing the content he posts on a daily basis. Although the app has provided a “TikTok advisor” who helps discuss his analytics and how he can “improve as a creator,” he operates everything himself — no managers or agents.
“I’d like to ride this wave, I guess you could say, for as long as I can,” he said. “At this point, we’re continuing to grow every day. I’m still getting deals and everything is on a steady incline.”
It may seem as though he’s fallen into TikTok stardom, but Joe has tried to build an online base for years. He created several YouTube channels that failed. He launched several Instagram accounts that also failed. When Vine — a discontinued social media platform for six-second videos — was popular, he tried that, too. All to no avail, until TikTok.
“It was kind of like a meant-to-be sort of thing,” he said. “Finally, I got it right. And I just knew that I would always be good at it given the opportunity.”
He’s been able to capitalize not just on his own comedic ability, but also his father’s. Comedy runs in his family.
“My uncles, my dad, we’ve all been funny and joking around, so that’s our family. And now it’s on TikTok,” said Frank, who frequently stars in his son’s videos.
Thanks to videos that sometimes achieve views exceeding Joe’s follower count — one skit his mother came up with recently hit 20 million views on TikTok and 50 million on Instagram — both have achieved a level of semi-fame. People send fan mail and recognize the Meles when they’re out — Joe said people recognize them “everywhere they go,” sometimes as many as 10 or 15 times in one outing. The feedback, he said, has been “incredible.”
“The thing that touches us is when we get like fan mail, especially during COVID. You know, ‘We’ve been very depressed and’ — you know, this is people writing to us — ‘but you guys make us laugh and thank you so much for all that you do,’ ” Frank said. “That kind of inspires us and keeps us going to, you know, put out the content.”
The pair has always been close, but they’ve become closer since they started producing content together. And, they acknowledged, it’s led to some “butting heads.”
“He runs a great business, and he does things the way he does things, and like I said, I’m a little old-fashioned and I have things the way I do it,” Frank said. “But, you know, it’ll be maybe 9 o’clock at night, and I’ve had a full day and I’m eating my meal, and he’ll say OK, come on, Dad! Let’s do a video! And I’m like, you’re kidding, right? I’m eating.”
It all works out, though, he added. And he’s proud of his son.