The internet is a peculiar place. If you have spent even a quarter of your free time on TikTok within the last year, you may have witnessed the surge of a concerning trend: people overhearing private conversations in public and exposing them to the world via the internet.
It looks like something like this: a random person will post a video on TikTok, saying something along the lines of: “If your name is X, you live in Y, and you are dating Z, I have bad news for you,” or “if your name is X, and you’re friends with Y and Z, they were bitching about you behind your back,” usually followed by more details and some kind of a shocking revelation. These videos tend to go viral, leading other strangers in the comments section thanking the creator for doing “God’s work.”
Oftentimes, such TikToks do end up being seen by the Xs and Zs in question, and then the relationship that the video digs into will inevitably get broken. This is also why the whole trend feels a little sinister to me. Hear me out, by no means am I saying cheating or being a bad friend should be celebrated. However, I believe there is something really dark about surveilling personal conversations or behaviours of strangers, translating it into content and posting it online for millions of people to judge. Especially since you yourself do not have the full context.
In May 2021, TikTok user @drewbdoobdoo posted a video that has now amassed over 15 million views. In the video, he said, “I hate to be the one to stick my nose where it doesn’t belong, but if your name is Marissa, please listen up. I just walked by your friends, and I need to tell you that the weekend you are away is not the only time that they could do their birthday party.”
“They are choosing to do it the weekend you’re away and you need to know. TikTok, help me find Marissa,” he urged potential viewers. Of course, TikTok did its thing and helped him find Marissa. In a video posted the following day, Marissa stitched Drew, “Okay so, my name is Marissa. Hi, I live in New York City and I saw this video and I’m duetting it because in the last two hours over 25, 30 people sent it to me—people I haven’t even talked to since high school sent it to me.”
Marissa then continued by stating that she wants to get in touch with Drew. “I want to know where you saw people because if it’s in my neighbourhood, it was definitely about me. So please respond to my DM, and if this is about me, besties, I will need some friends.”
The two got in touch, met up and made a TikTok about it. Marissa then launched an Instagram page called @nomorelonelyfriends as a result, where she creates meetups in New York for other people who are in need of friends. The whole interaction seemed super sweet: Marissa cut the ‘bad’ friends out of her life, made a new one, went viral and eventually started a good initiative—it ended well for them. But here is the thing: was Drew right to expose Marissa and her ex-friends to the internet in the first place?
Having bad friends sucks, no doubt. But the thing with airing your—or in this case, a complete stranger’s—dirty laundry on the internet is that people in digital spaces have a mind of their own. It’s easy to paint Marissa’s friends as the villains and tell her to ditch them, especially when you have no context and are making this entire judgment based on a one-minute TikTok.
It’s also easy not to take people’s feelings or embarrassment into account. Marissa mentioned that certain people who she hadn’t spoken to since high school sent her the original video made by Drew. Now, I am really glad it ended well for her. But I know for a fact that if this happened to me and I had people hitting me up about my personal business out of the blue because I basically went viral without my consent—with absolute strangers on the internet trying to tell me how to approach the situation (even if they had my best interest at heart)—I would get very anxious. And that is the thing: everyone is different, and thus, will be impacted differently.
This TikTok is not an isolated event either. The platform has hundreds of similar videos, from people exposing shitty friends to partners. “If you’re marrying a builder called Adam from London on the 27th of August, please message me, I know what happened on the stag do,” a viral TikTok by user @pollyjaewebster read. Another one posted by @tylerdowns—who also happens to be an Olympic diver, mind you—exposed a stranger he sat next to on an aeroplane (even if just for a second) with the caption “Who’s ever husband this is… I’m reading his texts and he’s cheating on you.” The comments? Thanking the creator for “doing the lord’s work” yet again.
There is a lot to unpack here. To start with, in the case of the aeroplane guy, being filmed without your consent (again, even if it’s just for a second) is a serious violation of privacy. We should neither be praising nor encouraging this behaviour. Yes, dangerous and corrupt behaviour that harms others should be called out and brought to attention. But here’s the thing, and do not hate me for asking this, does cheating really fall under that category?
On a quest to get an expert’s take on this question and the overarching parent phenomenon, Screen Shot spoke to Brian Appleby, a London-based relationship therapist. When asked for his opinion, he explained, “If we genuinely believe another person is acting badly, and feel there is a moral imperative for us to intervene, we can do so without telling the whole world.” In other words, when posting something like this for millions of people to see, you really need to ask yourself: who is it really benefiting?
“I suspect that in some cases the moral outrage that’s being expressed is in fact virtue-signalling—positioning as being morally superior,” Appleby continued. Or in other cases, “done to boost an online profile.”
The thing with cheating, and this may come as a surprise to some, is that not everyone wants to know that they are being cheated on. Yes, you read that correctly. Appleby gave me an example of two different types of people—one who was appreciative of receiving a message about their partner cheating in the name of #girlcode, and one about someone who preferred to remain unaware even after suspecting, thereby burying it in the past altogether. The latter individual has found it helpful to remain unaware of the entire situation.
What people often forget is that relationships are complicated. It’s easy to prescribe blame, especially if you don’t know the couple’s history, but you also need to remember that people have different circumstances within their relationships. As a stranger, it’s not really your place to make a judgment based on a single one-sided interaction.
People online feel very entitled to put in their two cents—be that with your relationship or anything else for that matter. When you post a video like this on the internet, you inevitably allow the people mentioned in it to receive scrutiny from everyone else on the platform. Comments like “dump him,” or “you’d be dumb to stay with him after this” under a viral video featuring you can really cloud your judgement or trigger your insecurities. This gives strangers the power to have a potential influence on your private life’s decision making. Doesn’t that freak you out?
It’s easy to judge someone else’s relationship. You might have a completely different experience than, let’s say, a mother-of-three married to said cheater exposed on the internet. It’s effortless for you to preach that she needs to dump him. But what about her personal circumstances? What do you actually know about their relationship and life together? What are some of the serious factors preventing her from leaving (for starters, finances, personal affairs, etc)? What are you really achieving through your virtue signalling other than making someone feel awful about themselves?
Of course, in some cases, people might appreciate being exposed to the truth. But there’s no way for you to know this for sure beforehand. As a viewer, such content is highly entertaining and somewhat addictive. But you also need to understand that these are real people behind these viral stories, with real lives and personal circumstances—who are being exposed to millions of people without their consent. So perhaps, think twice before you pick your phone up to air someone’s dirty laundry out.