In my favorite TikTok video of 2022, an amateur interviewer with a tiny microphone approaches a stranger in an AC/DC T-shirt minding their own business. Pushing the mic in front of the person’s face, the interviewer comes in with the favorite question of gatekeepers from time immemorial:
“Can you name three AC/DC songs?”
Wordlessly, without hesitation, the person in the AC/DC shirt glances down at the mic, back up at the interviewer, and swats away his hand, like how you’d shoo away a fly near your food. It is beautiful, amazing, perfect, and, if we’re all so lucky, will hopefully become way more normalized in the future.
The video is from an account that peddles these person-on-the-street soundbites, which is just one flavor in a genre of video that derives its entertainment value from unwitting passersby. The person filming might come up with the concept, but the most interesting parts of the videos are the subjects who are knowingly or unknowingly roped in.
TikTok’s For You page has probably served you up a version of this kind of thing — the world first met Corn Kid, 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 out and about in New York. There are shows that ask people trivia questions in exchange for money; the astrology app Co—Star shares clips of conversations with ordinary people and tries to guess their zodiac sign; fashion vloggers stop the best-dressed and ask where every article of clothing is from.
But often, people are featured in videos having never signed up for it in the first place. In a clip that’s been viewed more than 20 million times, two friends sit on a New York City stoop, observing — and recording — the people walking by. One person appears to bend down to hide from a passing emergency vehicle, looking genuinely concerned. Another stands near-motionless for a time, seemingly unable to move. It’s unclear if they’re having a medical issue, but the clip is presented as amusing. The intention is to stitch together a tapestry of things the creator considers odd. 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 on 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’s become normal or even expected.
One type of video that tends to go mega viral is the “random acts of kindness” variety, in which a man (it’s always a man) will film themselves doing something nice for a stranger and show the audience the person’s reaction. The people who are “blessed” with “kindness” are often presented as a person in need — a mom shopping at Walmart, a person asking for spare change, or simply someone sitting alone in a public space.
It’s unnerving and weird to be filmed by others
After being the subject of one of these viral TikToks, a woman from Melbourne told news outlets in July that she felt “dehumanized” after being commodified for cheap content — the implication being that any older woman should be thrilled to get even a crumb of attention. If you approach me while I am sitting alone, thinking my thoughts, hoping to use me to manufacture sympathy and followers, I, too, would go to the media and complain!
Other people who have been featured in videos unbeknownst to them have pointed out that even if there’s no ill will, it’s just unnerving and weird to be filmed by others as if you’re bit characters in the story of their life. One TikTok user, @hilmaafklint, landed in a stranger’s vlog when they filmed her to show 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 and a safety hazard at worst,” she says in a video.
The man-on-the-street genre is a well-worn format — before Billy Eichner was writing and starring in movies, he was bothering normal, unsuspecting people about La La Land. Journalists have long used the form to get first-hand accounts and opinions for news hits. In the case of more professional operations, there’s likely at least some level of getting permission, whether that’s having subjects sign release forms or identifying clearly who’s filming and why. In the case of random TikTok creators, it’s clear the level of consent and notice runs the gamut.
Even before TikTok, 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 could be minimally invasive, sure, but it could also shine an unwanted spotlight on the banal moments that just happen to get caught on film. This makeshift, individualized surveillance apparatus exists beyond the state-sponsored systems — the ones where tech companies will hand over electronic doorbell footage without a warrant or where elected officials allow police to watch surveillance footage in real time. We’re watched enough as it is.
So if you’re someone who makes content for the internet, consider this heartfelt advice and a heads-up. If you’re filming someone for a video, please ask for their consent. And if I catch you recording me for content, I will smack your phone away.