In my favorite TikTok video of 2022, an amateur interviewer with a small microphone approaches a stranger in an AC/DC T-shirt who is minding his own business. Pushing the microphone in front of the person’s face brings the interviewer in with the gatekeepers favorite question since time immemorial:
“Can you name three AC/DC songs?”
Silently, without hesitation, the person in the AC/DC shirt looks at the microphone, back up at the interviewer, and slaps his hand away, as if you were chasing a fly away from your food. It’s beautiful, amazing, perfect and, if we’re all so lucky, hopefully it will be much more normalized in the future.
The video comes from an account that distributes this person-on-the-street sound bites, which is just one flavor in a genre of video that derives its entertainment value from ignorant passers-by. The person filming may come up with the concept, but the most interesting parts of the videos are the subjects that are tied in consciously or unconsciously.
TikTok’s For You page probably served you a version of this sort of thing – the world first encountered Corn child, one of the cutest viral sensations of the year, when he was interviewed for a casual internet show called Recess Therapy, where a host talks off-the-cuff with kids in New York. There are shows that ask people trivia questions in exchange for money; the astrology app Co-Star shares snippets of conversations with regular people and tries to guess their zodiac sign; fashion vloggers stop the best dressed and ask where each item of clothing comes from.
But often people appear in videos who never signed up for it in the first place. In a clip that has been viewed more than 20 million times, two friends sit on a sidewalk in New York City, observing and recording people walking by. A person appears to be stooping to hide from a passing emergency vehicle and looks genuinely concerned. Another stands almost motionless for a while, seemingly unable to move. It’s unclear if they have a medical problem, but the clip is presented as amusing. The intention is to sew together a tapestry of things that the maker finds strange. Instead, it ends up feeling like an unnecessary intrusion into a stranger’s walk home.
Many viewers on TikTok ate it up, but others pushed back the idea that there’s humor in filming and posting an unsuspecting neighbor for content. This year I saw more and more resistance to the practice that has become normal or even expected.
One type of video that tends to go megaviral is the “random acts of kindness” variety, in which a man (it’s always a man) films himself doing something nice to a stranger and the audience watches the person’s reaction shows. The people “blessed” with “kindness” are often presented as a person in need – a mother shopping at Walmart, a person asking for loose change, or just someone sitting alone in a public place.
It’s nerve wracking and weird to be filmed by others
After being the subject of one of these viral TikToks, a Melbourne woman told news outlets in July that she felt “dehumanized” after being commercialized for cheesy content – the implication being that any older woman should be happy to receive even a crumb of attention. If you approach me sitting alone, thinking my thoughts, hoping to use me to generate sympathy and followers, I’d go to the media and complain too!
Other people who have appeared in videos without knowing it have pointed out that even when there is no ill will, it is just unnerving and weird to be filmed by others as if you are secondary characters in the story of their lives. A TikTok user, @hilmaafklint, ended up in a stranger’s vlog when they filmed her showing off her outfit. She didn’t realize it had happened until another stranger recognized her and tagged her in the video.
“It’s weird at best, and creepy at worst and a security risk,” she says in a movie.
The man-on-the-street genre is a common format – before Billy Eichner was writing and starring in movies, he was harassing normal, unsuspecting people as regards La La Land. Journalists have long used the form to get first-hand reports and opinions on news hits. In the case of more professional surgeries, there’s probably at least some level of consent to get, whether that’s having subjects sign release forms or clearly stating who’s filming and why. In the case of random TikTok creators, it’s clear that the permission level and notice run the gamut.
Even before TikTok, the public space had become an arena for constant content creation; if you step outside, there’s a chance you’ll end up in someone’s video. It can be minimally invasive, of course, but it can also throw an unwanted spotlight on the banal moments that happen to be captured on film. This makeshift, individualized surveillance device exists outside of state-sponsored systems — those where tech companies will hand over electronic doorbell footage without a warrant or where elected officials allow police to view surveillance footage in real time. We are watched enough already.
So if you’re someone who creates content for the web, consider this heartfelt advice and a warning. If you’re filming someone for a video, ask for permission. And if I catch you recording me for content, I’ll slam your phone away.