This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.
I love watching feel-good videos online. I believe most of the action in them happens organically, even though I know some of them are also staged. I’m also impressed when the strangers who get caught in the background of some of these videos become likable main characters themselves. (For example, in this viral video, a man belts out K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life” at a gas station as a bunch of onlookers stare in awe and hype him up.)
It probably wouldn’t be me, though.
I’d like to think of myself as a decent citizen who is moderately happy and pleasant as I move through IRL spaces on most days. I’d probably be cheering on the guy singing in that TikTok, like a wonderful lady is seen doing. But sometimes I’m in a crummy mood, and we now live in a society where that could also be captured in a stunt that goes viral and is implanted on the internet forever.
This week I saw a TikTok from a comedian and influencer who goes by Graysworld. In the video, he asks a Starbucks drive-thru employee: “Hey, yeah, um, I was actually wondering if you could maybe make something for someone who might have just gotten their heart broken?”
The Starbucks employee is then heard sighing deeply, and responds, “Can you just get something off the menu?” Gray captioned the TikTok, which has since gone viral, “ill be going to dunkin from now on 💔.”
The TikTok had been viewed more than 12.5 million times as of this writing, and the comments are mixed. Some people were disappointed and thought the employee “did not pass the vibe check,” reprimanding him for how he spoke to Gray. Others sympathized with the employee, and said he was most likely having a bad day.
The employee hasn’t been identified, so we don’t know, but I don’t think it really matters if he was having a bad day. Anyone who has worked in the service industry can viscerally feel the depletion in his sigh and his response to Gray. Food service jobs are often demoralizing, and service workers are seldom paid wages commensurate with the various difficult people and requests they encounter. I’ve worked in retail, in restaurants, and at public pools. Almost every day has the potential to be a bad day. I’m sorry — it would have been nice to see a Starbucks employee rise to the occasion and gleefully make Gray a drink concoction, even free of charge because of his heartache! — but I’m on Team Starbucks Employee.
This is especially true because drive-thrus have become popular places for people to film funny stunts featuring employees, which then become the subject of memes. This became a trend as service workers became frontline workers during the pandemic.
Gray’s TikTok, while pretty hilarious, made me so conscious of our current reality: We all could unknowingly be the focus or the background of a tweet, a TikTok, or an Instagram story. That makes social media fun, but it’s also what makes social media anxiety-inducing. It’s like the Improv Everywhere era of the internet…everywhere. Of course, chances are relatively low that being caught in a scene for social media could happen to you or me on an average day, but it is very much a possibility. We all live with the pressure to be on our best behavior.
For creators, this new reality is great. They can mine for content the second they step out the door. For the rest of us, it’s...precarious. The best place to be in viral theater is in the audience. But if you’re either a creator or a person suddenly facing a creator’s camera phone, there’s a new kind of relationship to consider, and it’s one, like many, that hinges on consent.
Stuff like this immediately unlocks a vault of existential questions for me: Outside of recording and privacy laws that vary from state to state in the US and around the world, are we submitting to a social agreement to be recorded when we’re private citizens now? Should influencers always ask for consent when they’re turning their lives and stunts into posts — especially if they have a massive audience? On what basis can people like the Starbucks employee ask to have posts removed if they do not want to have a moment in their regular degular life forever immortalized on the internet?
I reached out to Gray and his team to ask these very questions, but have not yet heard back. I’ll update this post on our website and/or next week in our newsletter if I do get a response. I think these are important questions to start thinking about as IRL and online communities continue to become enmeshed.
Until next time,