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By Patrick McAuliffe

In the unplanned sequel to my expression of concern over millennial humor, “Area 51 and Weaponized Depression,” I would like to focus my attention on the newest hip thing that all the kids are doing: the spiritual successor to, TikTok. The Area 51 raid was pitiful, to say the least, but I have respect for those few hundred that showed up (an honorable mention to the Naruto running guy). It’s also good that, you know, nobody died. Like a meme that had the potential for being taken too far, TikTok also has the potential for both hilarious, wholesome content, and users posting their mental breakdowns to the tune of thousands of likes. Not only is this worrying for the users, but it is concerning for the shift in public attitudes to the things people want to see.

Scrolling through TikTok is a fantastic way to kill a few hours. It probably popularized Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts,” with memes based around the lines “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m a hundred percent (fill in the blank with some ethnicity)”, followed by shots of cultural memorabilia around the house. It definitely sent Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” to the top of the charts, with a sudden costume change into flannels and cowboy hats at the beat drop during “I got the horses in the back.” Unfortunately, it couldn’t work its magic on BoyBoy West Coast’s “U Was At The Club” or Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up,” which were both doomed to short lifespans and stuck as memes instead of blowing up like others did. If the Internet is a vast jungle where the circle of meme life is always going on – memes living and dying, eking out a living if even for a short while – TikTok is the Petri dish to see the truly dynamic ecosystem of memes interacting with and one-uping each other in fast-paced life cycles. That is, if you follow those types of users and The Algorithm™ shows you enough of them.

The concerning bacteria growing in this Petri dish, however, are the users that post videos depicting impulse decisions, usually some sort of cosmetic modification to their hair or face, claiming that it is a result of an onset of a mental breakdown. Users will dye some or all of their hair, give themselves bangs, shave off their eyebrows, or self-pierce some cartilage on their head, among other things. Most of the time, they’ll be muttering to themselves – and their thousands of followers or passersby on the For You page – how bad of a decision they’re making due to their mania or anxiety. One user I saw even did a skit with herself talking to herself about what to do during this particular manic episode, resulting in the manic side resolving to dye her hair a deep brown from her usual dirty blonde. Although the color is a bit tamer than some others, it is both fascinating and worrying to me: is this entertainment? Is this some sort of therapy, hoping that, by opening up to the giant neighborhood of the Internet, someone can offer words of encouragement or express solidarity? Is this just another way to go absolutely batshit so one’s page will blow up with follows and likes?

The Internet is, without a doubt, filled with sensationalism that newspaper headlines would kill to have. People want exciting, bizarre stories that they think couldn’t possibly happen in real life, perhaps to break out of the monotony of their own realities. “Nobody just climbs into a lion’s pen to taunt it!” “Florida Man, again? What WON’T he do?” “Would someone really just dye their hair or shave their eyebrows for no reason?” I will admit, sometimes these videos are funny to watch, but in the way you might laugh at a dark suicide or 9/11 meme. It’s no secret that that type of humor has its place in dealing with tragedy, whether that tragedy is external in the world or confined to one’s own mind. Maybe mental breakdowns for clout really are therapeutic, and maybe they do help people with mental illnesses feel a little less alone by relating to their favored TikTok personality.

As you remember from my Area 51 article, I will once again argue that the concern here lies with the likelihood that those struggling with mental illnesses, medicated or unmedicated, will switch to the camera app instead of making a call to a therapist or a close friend to help them work through their issues. It’s just one more method of living in that constant state of irony; people may be more inclined to continue to make such mental breakdown videos as their coping mechanism without doing anything to help solve it behind the scenes. Like other platforms for ironic memes, the motivation to do so is strong because it is quantifiable in likes, comments, and followers. The Internet, and the apps and platforms within it, does a universe’s worth of good for the world, but we can only hope that it does a fraction of that good for its users.

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