We love watching other people fail. Social media just makes it that much easier.
Cursed TikToks (@ToxicTikToks) emerged on Twitter earlier this month and already has more than 100,000 followers. The account posts some of the worst and most ridiculous clips from TikTok, the video-based social media platform that has largely replaced Vine and turned earworm songs like Ava Max’s “Sweet But Psycho” into viral sensations.
A “good” TikTok usually involves a young person doing something quick and impressive. Sleight of hand, complex lip syncs, feats of physical strength or agility, cosplay, and camera tricks are all popular on the platform.
What sort of posts do well as “cursed” TikToks? Videos attempting “good” TikToks—and failing.
One post features a teenage girl holding back tears as she half-heartedly works through some rudimentary dance moves.
Another features a man rather unimpressively putting on a fedora and grasping a foam bat, backed by Alan Silvestri’s soaring Avengers score.
A video with over 7,000 likes features a would-be influencer shamelessly showing off his abs while showing his audience a very average cheeseburger.
An overdone adults-only Harry Potter theme party is the subject of another post.
These videos share something in common: they fall short of the accepted and celebrated use of the platform. The kind of video that goes viral earnestly on TikTok usually features a young person doing something attractive or clever backed by bubbly pop music or sensual hip-hop. The “cursed” TikToks that go viral are the opposite: they feature off-beat lip-syncing, thoroughly unimpressive physical moves, terrible music, or a failed and confusing concept.
Though every one of them is different, there is always something “off” about every cursed TikTok. For example, this video features the kind of teenage girl who should do well on TikTok. But once we click the video, her shrieking and angry cursing tells us that, yes, this is definitely cursed.
Cursed TikToks are not the first “bad” social media entries to gain a cult following. Most of the Vines that got passed around Twitter in the defunct platform’s heyday could also be characterized as “struggle” or “cringe.”
The Instagram account @cookingforbae enjoyed wild popularity in 2013, cataloging some of the worst meals posted to the platform. Galleries of “struggle plates” posted to social media have become staples of the Thanksgiving season.
On Twitter, “the ratio”—when a tweet has far more comments than it does likes or retweets—has become shorthand for when a public figure posts something worthy of the internet’s derision. Of the ratio, Deadspin’s David Roth wrote, “For all the shitty tweets that we cannot and will never see, there are a great many that achieve a sort of rank anti-fame. Everyone hates these tweets, and because Twitter is what it is and how it is, these tweets are then shared widely specifically because of how shitty they are. “
In the post-Trump era, Facebook has become so unbearable that the entire platform feels cursed to anyone left of center and/or under the age of 50. It’s no accident that screenshots of outrageous Facebook posts crop up on Twitter and Instagram now: you could say the entire platform is cursed.
This sort of content is by no means unique to the internet era. America’s Funniest Home Videos has run 31 seasons to date, with 653 produced episodes. That show operated on the same principle as “Cursed TikToks”. Home videos are supposed to show sweet family moments that hide the rough edges. The kind of video that “wins” an episode of AFHV is one where the cracks show: a cherubic child falls down, a lovely wedding cake gets destroyed, a family pet bursts into an orchestrated scene. The show could have been called America’s Most Cursed Home Videos or America’s Struggle Home Videos.
For decades, sports blooper compilations, local news outtakes, and feature film deleted scenes have been hits. And before the dawn of video, we can assume that people regularly enjoyed watching people fail IRL. The Germans, after all, developed a whole word for it: schadenfreude.
Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Aaron Ben-Zeév has argued that we don’t actually take pleasure in all misfortune of others. He believes that other conditions are necessary. For him, these are, “(a) the other person is perceived to deserve the misfortune, (b) the misfortune is relatively minor, and (c) we are passive in generating the other’s misfortune.”
The Daily Dot spoke with the creator of Cursed Tik Toks, who asked to remain anonymous, and in many ways, they agree with Ben-Zeév. “I’m honestly shocked it’s this popular, it’s really exploded I only made the account two weeks ago,” they said. “I think people enjoy cringe stuff because of their morbid curiosity, it’s like watching a train wreck. Except instead of trains it’s horny people lip-syncing or furries.”
The creator adds, “I think people like to watch some of this stuff to feel better about themselves, kinda like Jerry Springer...I think people like the lack of self-awareness in these videos too. It’s mystifying sometimes, like how could anyone think that this is a good idea? How could anyone think this is sexy?”
Ben-Zeév and the creator make similar arguments. The person posting the video is thought to deserve the misfortune in part because they have chosen to put themselves out there on a public platform. The misfortune is minor because, unless the video goes truly viral, the long-term effect is just a few strangers laughing at you on an entirely different social media platform. We are passive viewers—we didn’t make the videos—and if you are looking at a Twitter account, you aren’t even on TikTok.
There’s not a precise answer to why we like watching other people fail. But we are willing to bet that “Cursed TikToks” will continue to be a success because human beings love laughing at each other’s shortcomings, and the account provides some of the most entertaining shortcomings online.
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