As TikTok has grown from just another social media app into the premier platform for watching one or two quick videos — maybe a few more — okay a couple more swipes wouldn’t hurt — before emerging from a content-drunk stupor with the sudden realization that hours have passed, many of its most ardent and least shameless wannabe-creators have turned to a tried-and-true genre of making something out of nothing: vox populi, otherwise known as “man on the street” interviews.
A familiar concept to anyone who has watched local news or comedic stylings in the vein of local news, these videos generally feature someone asking a randomly selected average Joe some inane question, with results ranging from boring to shocking to hilarious. On late night comedy shows, especially, they provide a shortcut to easy laughter in lieu of the comparatively harder work of actual joke writing. On TikTok, the genre has ballooned among people who don’t have the chops for the subtle work of dance challenges or front-facing camera comedy to house several well-known subgenres, several of which are so pervasive on the app that their inescapability has been the subject of parody: “smash or pass?”, “how much is your rent?”, “what’s your body count?”, “what song are you listening to?”, “how much does your fit cost?”, “take [this amount of money] or double it for the next person?”, and so on and so forth.
The risks of agreeing to appear in one of these videos are known; just like in reality TV, someone’s words could be misconstrued, taken out of context, or completely remixed, as some TikTok users have been unfortunate enough to discover from interviews deliberately edited to invite insult upon them. (And we all know how reasonable social media addicts are about respecting the boundaries of complete nobodies who are suddenly and inadvertently punted into the spotlight.)
But even the simple act of saying no to being in a video can be made into content (for a video that of course gets posted anyway). TikTokers who don’t give a shit about anyone else’s privacy — and don’t bother with outdated things like release forms — are posting videos with the fully identifiable faces and figures of people who don’t want to be filmed in public for millions of TikTok users to jeer at. Just walking through Washington Square Park, a college campus, or any other hotspot haunted by 22-year-olds with an iPhone and a lav mic could result in becoming the unwitting star of a video that gets two million views and a few thousand commenters insulting the way you talk, walk, dress, or try to duck out of view.
One video creator, whose whole shtick is bothering passersby for restaurant recommendations, published a video of all the strangers who have declined to answer her question in Brooklyn Heights; the TikTok has been viewed more than 11 million times, and several of the top comments are of users insulting the subjects and New Yorkers, demanding to know why they couldn’t just take time for the video. Another creator filmed himself trying to put his arm around a lady getting off the subway for a dance, then acting befuddled when the woman immediately pulled away in alarm. Many responding to the video condescendingly question why she would be so scared, as if subway commuters don’t have a reason to be nervous when physically cornered by random strangers near the platform edge.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with videos filmed on the street. But TikTokers who regard the world around them as their own personal movie sets are a public menace who should learn what a head shake means. No one needs a shitty little video of you making a sad face at the camera after someone walked past your proferred microphone without stopping; the non-assent of non-public figures who haven’t done anything out of the ordinary is no one’s business but your private diary’s. Cease the constant surveillance, stop making objects of ire out of regular people who clearly don’t want to be bothered, and get a job!