Going Viral

I don’t know what people did for comfort before social media. I assume the physical equivalent of venting online would be yelling into a crowded bus of captive and passively interested strangers (some still prefer this method, and that is perfectly valid). For me though, when I found myself stranded at my parents’ house during a quarantined holiday season, I did what I’ve learned to do since creating my first social media account in 2012: I made a joke on the internet.

Holiday seasons are stressful enough during good years, but adding a lockdown and spiking coronavirus cases on top, and congrats! It’s a new circle of hell. In December 2020, my sister was living at home with my parents after her graduate program moved fully online, my parents hadn’t left for anything besides a quick TJ’s run in over six months, and I wasn’t allowed back into my dorm until the new year. Christmas magic didn’t stand a chance against the rising tensions in the Slater residence.

Bored and isolated, I turned to the questionable coping mechanism of TikTok. For the uninitiated, TikTok, in this era of brain rot and involuntary freetime, has become a self-referential video sharing ecosystem of seemingly endless memes, ideas, trends, and dances. An endless carousel of content that isn’t necessarily there to entertain; its actual outcome is more akin to a numbing. My family dynamic had already taught me the true meaning of “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” In the same vein, when four people who have grown accustomed to more independence are now forced back into living together, relationships are… less fond. When you can’t walk into your parents’ kitchen without 13 discrete muscles in your body clenching at once, an anesthetic is very much welcome.

So, I lay on my childhood bed and began my descent into my “For You” page. You know, there’s a reason you scroll downward on TikTok. Each video pulled me out of myself and sunk me into whatever space some advanced algorithm designed for me. Just before I entered a merciful vegetative state, a moment of lucidity came. I can’t recall if I heard the right audio, saw the right trend, but something sparked my first coherent thought in hours and, somehow, a full joke formed.

I rose from my bed, sat in front of my vanity mirror (how fitting) and in less than a minute, I had a 15-second video – just four clips of my face with a few lines of text as the fruit of my labor. At this point I had only posted on my account a handful of times, mostly clips of friends and myself over music I liked. I had about 200 followers — too many for my previous lazy inside jokes — and I didn’t have any intention of gaining more. I posted the video expecting my friends to see and laugh at me airing out some familial dirty laundry during the break. That’s really all it was, just a way to vent and blame family dysfunctions on astrology signs while I was stuck at home and between therapists.

I posted it, laughed one more time, and put my phone down to watch “The Muppet Christmas Carol” for the third time in a week. The next morning when I woke up I opened TikTok again and nearly choked on my morning drool. My little video had more than 70 thousand views and hundreds of comments of people tagging their friends shouting that they, too, shared my astrological sign, some even adding I looked like certain C-list celebrities. I couldn’t believe I was getting any attention because — at the risk of sounding like a guest lecturer in your tenth-grade health class decrying drug use — you never think it’ll happen to you. Yet thinking about it now, I probably couldn’t have engineered a more viral-baiting video if I’d had a millennial reusable water bottle start-up’s marketing team behind me. According to the algorithm gods, astrology + family dynamics + relatively trendy audio = people sharing the video around and, more importantly, wanting to comment and talk about themselves and their own families.

It went just like this: I’m spinning in a desk chair, eyes innocent and glassed over with calm music playing. Text above my head reads “My Aquarius dad.” In the next shot, the camera is shaky and close on my face as I angrily lip sync the now-intense xxxx music, the text on the screen now reading “My Cancer mom.” Then another close-up of more furious lip syncing, the text reading “My Cancer sister”, suggesting the two are in an argument. Last is a final closeup of, you guessed it, my face, now absurdly contorted into a sobbing expression with text reading “Me, also a cancer.” For you skeptics who don’t believe the stars’ affect our brain chemistry, the punchline of the joke is that cancers are very emotional signs while aquarians are spacey and out of touch with the emotions of other. So basically between my mother, my sister and I, the house is burning down and my dad doesn’t have a clue.

At first, I was ecstatic about the response. I was texting my friends, following people back, and scrolling through their hundreds of comments. The rush of social interaction was like an adrenaline injection to the ass after the weeks of loneliness. Now here were hundreds of people responding to and laughing at a joke I made and talking to me. The best part was, they didn’t know me at all. Zero preconceived notions about me. Like many people who weren’t particularly attractive or popular in middle school, I’m fascinated with reinvention. The allure of a blank slate was overwhelming, and I spent the first few hours of my day answering comments in the nicest, funniest, coolest ways I could imagine. TikTok had given me thousands of people ready to humor me, and all I had to do was be whoever made them want to stick around.

But as the video surpassed 200,000 views and the comments went from discussing the video to making wild assumptions about me and others, the adrenaline started to wear off. Some highlights from the comment section include: “how are they [my parents] still together?” “and he stayed?” “Cancers always super aggressive,” and my favorite and most unsettling comment: “ur ears are so connected to ur face it’s merozing idk how to spell it.” I was acutely aware that I had no control over the little social pocket I had made and no way to stop anyone from looking at me and saying whatever popped into their head first. Comments were less like a conversation between me and a stranger, and more like several strangers talking at each other about me while I stood a yard away. I closed TikTok and ground my teeth for the rest of the day, trying to swallow a lump threatening to fully tighten my throat closed. I realized that in an effort to be understood, I had subjected myself to the humiliation of being perceived.

That TikTok now sits at 456,300k views, 110,400 likes and 1393 comments at the time of writing. I gained about two thousand followers, but I’ve posted again a few dozen times in the months since, each new video gaining between a few hundred and a thousand views each.

“Going viral” on an app like TikTok somehow changes how you fundamentally view and use the app, and social media in general. When I started using TikTok again after my video got popular, I was struck with seeing, and now knowing, how human the platform really was. Suddenly every face on my phone wasn’t just a moving picture there for my entertainment, but another human experiencing something similar to what I experienced. Media companies relying on and promoting user-generated content is still relatively new, so it can be difficult to remember the vulnerable human side of polished social media and entertainment.

Fearing that this realization revealed a narcissistic lapse in my empathy, I talked to Temple University student and TikTok creator Ella Bone. Since first posting on her account @el.bone in February of 2020, Ella has amassed 53.6k followers and 3.6 million likes on her videos where she usually makes jokes and observations to popular audio clips. Her most popular video has 14.9 million views. After so many of her videos gain massive attention, she’s learned to separate who she is and what she posts from viewers’ responses.

“I honestly feel like when there’s a video like that people take one thing from the video and everyone just rolls with it in the comments,” she said. “Like if everyone was talking about your dad, or whatever, that’s so weird. It’s almost like a mob mentality: they all gang up on, you know, whatever they don’t like or do like in the video.”

But even with a year of TikTok pseudo-fame under her belt, Ella isn’t sure about the trajectory of her online presence. “I feel like I’m still kind of trying to navigate it,” she said. “It’s almost surreal. Like, my video video I made, that many people saw it. But I don’t exactly know what I can do, say, good with it. I feel like you have to do something good, if you have even a small platform.”

Nicky Romano, on the other hand, embraces the irreverence of TikTok. “I really as a person like try not to take myself too seriously,” he explained, “I don’t see a point in it. Like, why not have fun? Why not be a little stupid? Why not make people laugh?” The Temple junior started his account @nickromano124 in the fall of 2019 and has gained 36.8 thousand followers and 3.3 million likes by posting comedy videos about Philly, the coronavirus, his houseplants, and more. (I was led to Nick after seeing videos of him commenting “#girlboss” under reports of female criminals on the Citizen app.)

Nick’s tongue-in-cheek approach to TikTok allows him to have fun, but also takes the pressure of performance off that I had been feeling myself. “I’m not like doing this because it is like my art, or my career, or my whatever,” he said. “It’s honestly humbling to me because this doesn’t matter, like you’re some asshole on the internet. So I try to dumb that down so that I don’t feel these overwhelming feelings.”

Nick also doesn’t have the expectation of socializing on TikTok that I did when I first went viral, but did experience the same shock of realizing that numbers on social media translate into human individuals.

“I don’t often think that there is a personal connection,” he said. “But when I have even the slightest amount of that, it kind of does hit me that I’m like, ‘Oh, these are people behind these numbers,’ like, it’s not just a heart next to a number that says 10k, 20k, 30k, 100k. And that, I literally cannot comprehend that.”

Ella, Nick and my own experience showed me that you have two choices in your approach to social media fame: expect a meaningful interaction with others who do not see you as anything but a profile picture and suffer all that the wonderful strangers on the internet have to offer. Or, in an effort to preserve sanity and your sense of humor, depersonalize the whole experience until the idea of digital relations is a welcomed anomaly.

So, social media is neither a social exchange, nor a replacement for human connection — it’s a human zoo, with enclosures made up of comedians, musicians, artists, and that guy that dresses up as sexy Willy Wonka. And look, I love a zoo. Who doesn’t? But the more you think about them, the more depressing it gets, and I can’t imagine spending hours a day at a zoo. Really, social media is a coping mechanism — not a remedy —- for the loneliness we’re feeling now during quarantine, or as a whole. If you really want to feel better, I prescribe a break from TikTok and a facetime call with a friend, or even a mostly silent dinner with family. Hey, they may even know how to spell “mesmerizing.”

Photos by Ingrid Slater.

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