Spend a few minutes in the comments section on TikTok or other social media platforms and you’re bound to see a certain type of comment over and over again. Someone shares their personal experience, a recommendation or a recipe and the responses are flooded with comments like: “Well, what if I can’t eat/buy/wear/use/just don’t like that particular thing?”
TikTok creator Sarah Lockwood (@sarahthebookfairy) refers to the tendency to make everything we see online about ourselves as the “What about me?” effect. She posted a video about the concept in September; It has since been viewed more than 4.5 million times.
As Lockwood explains in the video, it’s the What About Me effect “When someone sees something that doesn’t really concern them or that they can’t fully identify with, and they find a way to relate it to them – or instead try to find certain accommodations for their very nuanced, personal situation.” to realize that maybe they’re just not the target audience for this thing.”
Lockwood said she has been noticing this type of online behavior for several years.
“Since I started creating my own content and receiving these types of comments, it became more apparent to me when I saw them in other videos,” she told HuffPost in an email.
A prime example that Lockwood gives in her TikTok is responding to a virus Bean soup recipe that was circulating on the platform. It’s made from a range of different types of beans and the creator behind it said she likes to cook it during her period because it’s high in plant-based iron. In the comments, people wrote things like: “What should I do if I don’t like beans?” or “How do I do this without the beans” or “Can you substitute the beans?” Instead of just saying, “Hey, if I don’t like beans, maybe I shouldn’t watch this bean soup video,” Lockwood said in her TikTok.
Lockwood, who has gluten intolerance, said this was like watching bread-making videos saying, “Well, I can’t have gluten,” rather than just looking for videos of people baking gluten-free bread.
Micheline Maalouf is a mental health expert and digital writer who frequently posts about tools people can use to manage conditions like anxiety and ADHD. And she’s no stranger to the What About Me effect. She recently made a video offering tips for treating panic attacks, such as eating sour sweets or salty or spicy foods at the onset of symptoms.
“It helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system by producing more saliva and rebooting your digestive system, signaling your brain that you are safe,” Maalouf told HuffPost. “The most common ‘what about me’ here was people saying, ‘This is dangerous, I have diabetes, so how can you tell people that?'”
Regarding salty or spicy food, someone else said, “If I took your advice I would die, I have high blood pressure.” I can’t believe you are so irresponsible with this tip.”
“The What About Me Effect occurs when someone sees something that doesn’t really concern them or that they can’t fully relate to, and they find a way to relate it to them.”
– Sarah Lockwood, content creator
An important note: In her TikTok, Lockwood distinguishes between the What About Me effect and very real concerns about equity and inclusion — something she emphasized in her email to HuffPost.
“The frustrating thing is that comments like the ones I talk about in The What About Me Effect ridicule real arguments for inclusion, which results in people not taking valid, important points about equity and inclusion seriously,” he said Lockwood wrote.
“It’s more than just annoying comments on TikTok. The knock-on effect of these comments is that they prevent marginalized groups from having important arguments heard. I saw a commenter refer to this as “weapons of inclusivity” and I think that’s a great way to put it.”
Jessica Maddox — a social media expert and assistant professor of digital media at the University of Alabama — said distinguishing between the What About Me effect and legitimate concerns about equity and inclusion often depends on the topic being discussed. When the conversation turns to identity or access, “inclusion is essential and required,” she said.
“Bean soup? What About Me effect. Building accessibility? Equity and inclusion. Conversations about race and representation? Equity and inclusion,” Maddox told HuffPost. “There’s also a power dynamic at work. When a marginalized person tells you that “If your content is harmful, listen. But if someone says, ‘I don’t like beans,’ well. You don’t have to engage.”
What is behind this phenomenon?
In her TikTok, Lockwood says that while it’s easy to attribute this type of behavior to that Lacking common sense or critical thinking, she believes something else is at play: the combination of “chronic onlineness” and the individualistic culture in the US.where we make everything about ourselves and look for adjustment and validation for everything.” Egocentricity and entitlement could also play a role, she told HuffPost.
“It’s the idea of, ‘How dare you not consider every single personal experience before posting a video?’ or ‘You did something wrong by ignoring me,'” Lockwood said. “It means shaming someone for sharing something just because their experience isn’t universal. I think it can sometimes come from projection or insecurity, depending on what the comment actually is.”
“If a marginalized person tells you your content is harmful, listen. But if someone says, “I don’t like beans,” well. You don’t have to get involved.”
– Jessica Maddox, assistant professor of digital media at the University of Alabama
“Social media also has a way of making things seem closer to us than they actually are,” Maddox said. Sometimes that’s a good thing: It can make the world feel more connected, she said. The downside, however, is that people think that everything they see applies to them, even though it doesn’t.
“I’ve seen this What About Me effect time and time again, not just with people trying to apply everything to their own personal experiences, but also in discussions,” she told HuffPost. “For example, a famous Twitter joke is that someone says, ‘I love apples,’ and someone responds, ‘How dare you ignore oranges?’ This and the What About Me Effect assume that everyone on the internet is acting in bad faith and trying to be exclusionary, when in fact they are talking about something very specific that may not affect everyone – and that’s okay.”
Maddox agrees with Lockwood’s view that at least part of the What About Me effect is due to the “very individualistic culture” in the United States
“We are trained to put ourselves at the center of discussions and to prioritize ourselves over others. I think, as the creator alludes, it would be worth chatting with people in other countries who are more collectivist to see if that’s still the case,” she said.
But there are other infrastructural and cultural dynamics that contribute, Maddox said.
“In terms of infrastructure, social media’s highly tailored algorithms have led us to believe that all content delivered to us should be related to us. And unless it’s done in a way that absolutely can’t be explained by technology – I don’t like beans, I’m bald, etc. – there’s a disconnect that people may be struggling with,” she explained .
When it comes to culture, people often say that the internet has made us more narcissistic, but Maddox doesn’t think that’s happening.
“I think it has made us solipsists, or the view that the self is the only thing that can be known. Solipsism puts us at the center of all discussions and topics because it believes that things can only be known through one’s own experience,” she said.
“This creates a really limited understanding of the world. I think social media has contributed to solipsism because the algorithms are very tailored, but also because of the individualistic way we experience social media. We have our own experiences with being online, no one else does.”
What do we do now?
Lockwood hopes her TikTok will open an important conversation about the What About Me phenomenon so we can all think about it and “become more confident about how we might participate in these trends,” she said.
So if you’re watching a video and suddenly feel the urge to say, “Well, how about this?” My very specific circumstances?!” pause for a second.
“If something you see online brings up questions or emotions in you, ask yourself if it really applies to you or how serious it is,” Maddox said.
Remember that not every post will be relevant or applicable to you, nor should it be.
Creators of these types of comments have several options available to them, Maalouf said. On the one hand, they can respond to the question or give an answer if they are able to do so. Or they can kindly acknowledge the comment without necessarily replying to it.
“It can sound like, ‘Wow, I haven’t thought of that, I’ll think about it,’ or ‘What a great question, I’ll do some research and maybe I can make a follow-up video.’ ‘” She said. “This shows care and concern for people, but doesn’t add pressure to give them an answer right away or at all.”
And of course, they can also choose not to respond at all.
“We don’t have to respond to every comment, especially if the ‘what about me’ is rude or attacking,” Maalouf said. “Instead, focus on responding to people who are friendly or have questions that you can actually answer in a comment section.”
Again, keep in mind that not all content is targeted to every single person. The good news is that there is a wide variety of content available to you online. Instead of firing off an angry comment or angry question, take a few minutes to figure out what meets your personal needs and interests. There really is something for everyone.