How an eight-year-old American boy became a viral sensation in China

Gavin Thomas, an eight-year-old American boy who has a surprisingly huge Chinese fan base, during his visit to Beijing in 2018

Beijing (CNN)If you've never heard of eight-year-old Gavin Thomas, you clearly aren't one of the millions of people around the world who have fallen in love with the young internet sensation.

But it isn't in his native United States where Gavin has really hit the big time, that honor belongs to China.
Since creating a profile a mere four months ago on Weibo, a Chinese platform similar to Twitter, Gavin has gained an astonishing 1.8 million followers -- and the number continues to grow, along with his fame. On Twitter, by comparison, Gavin has a mere 450,000 followers.
Why is a young American, born in Minnesota and still in elementary school, an instant sensation in the largest country in the world? It's because of Gavin's unique facial expressions, which have become a hugely successful, viral meme.
    Gavin first made a name for himself in the US, when short videos of him playing with his uncle Nick Mastodon quickly became a hit online.
    But it wasn't until Gavin's videos spread organically to the Chinese cyberspace, particularly one of him reacting with a nervous smile to a gecko being placed on his head, that his fame truly took off.
    A gif of Gavin's face, smiling awkwardly, might be used as many as 10 million times a day across China's various social media platforms, according to Ann Ding, founder and CEO of, a major distributor of online gifs, told CNN.
    "Gavin seems to be more popular in China than in the US," Ding said. She'd know -- her company partners with major Chinese social media platforms affiliated with Tencent and Alibaba.
    She estimated that all of the total number of Gavin related gifs used across platforms in China has easily exceeded 1 billion. His debut on Weibo was widely reported by Chinese state media, and his first trip to China in August made headlines across the country.
    A photo of Gavin in Beijing's Forbidden City was captioned, "I'm dressed in an imperial robe, but I'm not really happy."