the escape artists of tiktok
plus: more on Scatman John
Here’s a fun thing to think about:
Vine has now been dead longer than it was alive.
Isn’t that a fun thing about the passage of time? Are you enjoying the fact that you now know this? I bet you are!
A lot of people compare TikTok to Vine, and I get why. A platform for short-form funny videos, the most compelling parts of which become memes that get referenced heavily or become widely participatory. I was talking to some people last week about how TikTok and Vine differ and the thrust of it is this:
Every Vine was completely unique. No TikTok is completely unique.
Vine had no algorithmic recommendation system for people to pander to or optimize for (a Vine’s most powerful distribution channel was often… Twitter). Optimizing for algorithms requires adherence to templates and frameworks and “best practices,” and it’s tough to both do that and put your own spin on it, all within six seconds. So even though Vine spawned a constellation of influencers and comedians, who often collaborated, the actual individual videos were generally one-of-a-kind.
TikTok, on the other hand, uses its design to encourage everyone to just do what everyone else is doing. Sound clips act as prompts, where everyone uses them the same way. It’s inconsistent use of timestamps, and its poor search features, often make it impossible to pinpoint where a trend has started, making it easy to get away with plagiarism or aggressive cribbing. The way people talk, act, style themselves and their surrounding evnironments — none of it feels completely original. Even if it’s a really good video! The platform’s core feature — its algorithmic treadmill, the For You page — rewards this homogenizing behavior, because when everyone acts similarly, the system can more easily make recommendations that feel accurate.
The TikTok blender leads to things like dance challenges and viral stunts and clickbait vlogs. I’ve seen a lot of teenagers threaten to reveal/confront others who hooked up with someone they shouldn’t have, as long as enough people like and follow. But instead of everyone posting the exact same freebooted clip of viral content, TikTok encourages its users to stage their own production of the same play. (Though there’s plenty of freebooting too.)
The impulse to be original in execution but not conception leads to some weird things on TikTok, like the corner of it devoted to Good Thing. One of the most befuddling for me is Escape TikTok, which teaches people who to deal with knots and stuff. It is full of totally pointless knowledge. There are a few microgenres of Escape TikTok I’ve stumbled upon so far.
There’s the one about what happens if you somehow install a rod over an electrical cord.
There’s the one about how to escape a front car seat if you’re being choked from behind.
(To be fair, this guy Dutch’s channel is escape-themed, but I’ve seen various car escape videos.)
One of the more unsettling types of videos I’ve seen is concerning in its detail. It’s about what to do if your hands are bounds together by a relatively slack rope, which is itself looped around another rope, which is mounted to a pole. This seems like a highly specific and inefficient way to tie someone up, which leads me to questions like “Who would tie up someone this way?” and “Why does someone know how to escape from this precise configuration?”
But none of these microgenres — even the last one with the implied kidnapping — has rattled me nearly as much as The Car Door Escape, a video joke that I cannot get out of my head. It is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen, for a few reasons.
Here’s what happens: We see that someone — almost always a woman — has something of theirs caught in a car door. Usually a piece of clothing, sometimes their hair. Another person walking buy offers to help them out by cutting off whatever is stuck in the car door. The newly freed person then watches as whoever cut them free casually opens the car door, revealing that they own the car. Haha???
First of all, why is someone just casually carrying around scissors? Also, how did the trapped person get snared in the first place???? Lastly, why does the rescuer cut them out instead of just opening the door?
The answer to all of these questions is: comedy necessitates it. But watching this particular scene is another one of those websurfing instances that makes me feel like I’m visiting a totally different planet, where everyone except me both understands the premise of this video and finds the punchline amusing.
All of these videos make me feel like I know far less about the world than I think I do (and, let’s be real, I’m pretty goddamn stupid). Like, how do all of these ropes and cords and clothing items get entangled in this way? Why does TikTok keep serving me solutions to problems that I don’t think really exist?
Sometimes I think that maybe I’m the only person who’s seeing these things, that the “escape hacks” is a statistical anomaly that the world’s most surreal artificial intelligence created solely for me. And then I see jokes like this, a phone charger stuck in a mug handle, that make me realize that I’m not alone, and that the genre is pervasive enough to be parodied… and that makes me even more confused.
an update on Scatman John
A long time ago, back when BNet was good, I wrote a thing about Scatman John and Wikipedia recursion. Someone put a quote from the Scatman on his Wikipedia page, and the cited source was an article that itself cited the Wikipedia page. A confusing development. In the course of investigating the mysterious quote (referring to his cancer diagnosis: “Whatever God wants is fine by me ... I've had the very best life. I have tasted beauty.”), I’d emailed the Wikipedian who’d added it to the page, but I never heard back.
This week, I heard back from the woman who made that edit, Joni Rush, who explained: “Gosh I would have put that in when I was 15 and I’m now 30. I definitely remember reading it somewhere. I think it was from a defunct Scatman John fan site? I didn’t make it up. I wouldn’t joke about him, I stutter and he’s one of my heroes.”
I was directed to an Internet Archive snapshot of
scatmanjohn.com circa 2001, where the first half of the quote, “Whatever God wants is fine by me,” is present. According to Joni, the site was run by a woman named Gina who was a friend of the Scatman, and honestly, I have no pressing reason to doubt its validity.
Regarding the other half of the quote, about tasting beauty, Joni said: “I think that section genuinely is fake. I don’t know what happened there.”
BNet will continue digging until we know the full truth about what Scatman John said as he was dying.
capcom knows what’s up
If you area a video game developer, you simply don’t post tweets confirming the height of a very large female character that gamers are already wildly horny for unless you want to whip them even further into a frenzy. Extremely smart marketing move. This is the tweet that convinced me that we need to drastically ramp up vaccine distribution immediately.
a comprehensive investigation into a Reddit user who faked a Tumblr post that included the now-infamous line “oppa homeless style”
some more context on the tall lady
jeff bezos is stepping down as amazon ceo, which is as good a time as any to reiterate my stance: it’s impressive that we still haven’t seen his nudes