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If you’re on TikTok, you’ve probably seen (and heard) Anania Williams.

As @anania00, Williams has nearly 2 million followers on the app and a dedicated fan base that loves his self-deprecating humor and candor.

The city of Boston is its own character in Williams’s TikToks: He often records his videos while walking around the city at night, speaking into the camera in his distinctive voice or simply running to music. In one video, Williams goes kayaking with friends on the Charles River. “My white friends got me on the water,” he half shouts into the camera. “I’m a kayaker now.” His followers quip that one day he’s going to get killed from not paying attention to his surroundings.

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Williams has achieved TikTok fame by being what Gen Z desires most — authentic. His voice is distinct and recognizable, even as a background sound in other creators’ videos.

Williams, 21, is going into his senior year at Emerson College, where he studies musical theater and social justice. He’s originally from Iowa.

Q: Tell me how you got started on TikTok. When did you join?

I started making my own videos around July or August of 2020. I started making these videos that were called the “Gen Z as” series. It was just me making fun of how Gen Z acts in different occupations, like if a Gen Z-er was the president. I eventually veered off into using my own comedy. I saw something missing on TikTok that I wanted to fill, which was people being unafraid to show that they’re not okay at this moment, or that they’re not perfect.

Q: When did you start to see your account blowing up? Was there one video that first went viral?

It was one of those “Gen Z as” videos. I think I hit 100,000 followers based off of those videos, and then started doing more social justice-related content and comedy. I hit 1 million followers during the election, when I was working a lot with the Gen Z for Biden account (now called Gen Z for Change). That’s also when I started my running around series — I just started filming myself out in the dark running away from fantastical beings and things like that.

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Q: Was there one moment where you realized, like, “I’m famous now?”

It was the blue check — getting verified. I also got a management team and that’s when I was like, “Oh, I’m famous.”

I get recognized pretty much every time I go out publicly. It’s weird because I don’t see myself as someone to get excited about seeing on the street, but it’s nice that it makes someone’s day to meet me. That’s my entire goal — if I can make someone laugh or make their day, I’ve done something right.

A lot of celebrities have shared my content or reached out. Cynthia Erivo reached out to me on Mother’s Day and offered to be an older queer sister that I can always reach out to for anything. She’s been my inspiration for a really long time in my life and when that happened, it reinforced a lot of what I’m trying to do. I’m also happy that I get to even interact with the likes of Cynthia Erivo.

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Q: How much time each week do you spend on TikTok? Are you making money?

It’s a side job and my favorite job that I’m doing right now. I get to choose the hours, but also when I’m not inspired, it makes me upset with myself that I can’t create as much as I want to.

I make the most money with my management team. They hit me up with brand deals and all those kinds of things. TikTok also has the Creator Fund, which I don’t make as much money on, but I do use for bills and school and rent.

Q: How did moving to Boston for college impact you and your identity?

I wanted to move so far away from home that it would be a nuisance to get there and back. The first thing I noticed was how instantly liberating it was as soon as my father and my sister left after they dropped me off. I just felt this freedom for the first time in my entire life. For the first time, I’m surrounded by queer people, I’m surrounded by people who are willing to think differently than how they were raised. It’s crazy how much can change in a person based on their location and based on who they’re surrounded with. I don’t know where I’d be if I wasn’t in Boston right now, or in a bigger city. I probably wouldn’t like myself as much as I do now.

Q: Is it difficult to reconcile your hometown self with your college and online self?

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Definitely. I have to compartmentalize different parts of my identity just so I can be safe, just so I can feel welcome in whatever space. When I go home for breaks, it’s a matter of survival. It’s kind of sad because I promised myself I would never put myself in a situation again where I feel like I owe people things, or I have to change myself for a lot of people, but I’m working on that.

Q: What are the drawbacks of TikTok fame?

There’s an emotional tax. It’s draining to put yourself out there in a way that people want to engage with. There can be so many positive comments and then you see a negative one and it just ruins your day.

Another drawback is the picking and choosing. The algorithm likes to play with people of color and with queer people. It’s really hard to navigate what will do well on the app. It’s exhausting to put your heart into a video and have no one see it.

Q: What do you see for your future? Where would you be without social media?

I’m planning to go to New York after I graduate to pursue my musical theater career.

Even if social media was erased off everyone’s phones, I would still find a way to connect to people in my community. I’m a social justice minor because I want to be able to organize my community on a smaller level.

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This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.