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TikTok’s obsession with exposing strangers for cheating and being shitty friends, explained

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.”

@drewbdoobdoo

TikTok don’t let marissa’s friend group do her dirty like this!!! #fyp #ROMWEGetGraphic #marissa #nyc #nycapartment

♬ original sound - Drewbdoobdoo

“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.”

@marissameizz

#stitch with @drewbdoobdoo PLEASE MESSAGE ME BACK I WANT TO KNOW IF I NEED NEW FRIENDS HAHAHAHHA IM NOT CRYING

♬ original sound - MARISSA MEIZZ

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?

@drewbdoobdoo

Reply to @missangiej Bestie, you’re gonna LOVE what I have to tell you! @marissameizz #MARISSATOK #marissa #nyc #nycfriends

♬ original sound - Drewbdoobdoo

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.

@pollyjaewebster

♬ i talk sht about you on the internet - MADSN
@tylerdownss

bye

♬ my sound makes you blow up - jake

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.

Hitchhiking on steroids: inside the reckless TikTok train hopping trend

Some use Uber to get from a to b, other’s Lyft. Noah gauges the speed of 15,000-tonne cargo train containers before throwing himself in between the carriages. If he’s correct, he boards the cargo train. If he’s wrong, he is crushed beneath the steel wheels to almost certain and excruciating death. He’s directionless, at the mercy of the tracks. He has just a vague idea of where his destination is; the train driver (or fate) will decide the rest. It’s essentially hitchhiking on steroids.

“That’s the fun of it though,” Noah said over a brief and anonymous conversation, “you never quite know where the train will take you.” Of course, Noah isn’t his real name, taking up the train hopper life is highly illegal for a reason—with optimism, it’s a naive and miscalculated risky gamble, realistically it’s pretty stupid.

But Noah isn’t the first person willing to dice with death through train hopping, and he won’t be the last either. Ever since trains have chugged, people have caught free rides—it’s a tradition that has spanned generations. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, an estimated quarter of a million people travelled illegally on freight trains looking for jobs. It’s an era of history that spawned the term ‘hobo’, coming from the slang ‘hoe boys’ as a way to label migratory farmworkers.

I discovered the concept of train hopping (at least the modern alternation) not from history books but from YouTube. During one of my routine, procrastination-driven late-night YouTube binges, I stumbled across a man who goes by the name Brave Dave. His series, titled ‘Brave Dave’s Big Fat Freight Hop’ consisted of a multiple-hour freight-hopping journey across Canada, avoiding security and sleeping in ditches. The minimalist editing and early 2010s GoPro video quality are symbolic of his journey across the country itself—dirty, rugged and rough around the edges.

The problematic rise of the train hopping TikTok trend

Video quality has raised since then, and so has the bar of which clout-chasers will go for those precious likes. It’s no surprise then that the action, once used by migrant farmworkers to desperately escape economic depravity, has been whitewashed by gen Z TikTokers.

@coolrockerchick

#jugallos #latfo #trainriding #trainhopping #hotgirlsummer #ooglettes

♬ What is a Juggalo? - Insane Clown Posse

Queue a video showing a majority white group of Gen Z Americans drinking vodka on a moving cargo train to ‘What Is A Juggalo?’ by Insane Clown Posse. Admittedly, this tops as the most cringe-inducing post on the train hopping hashtag on TikTok, a trend that is currently ranking at 33 million views, but it goes to prove a point.

“Not only does this paint our community in a shitty and reckless way—it’s also just stupid. Why the hell would you drink while train hopping? It’s dangerous enough being sober,” Noah accounts, describing his last US inter-state train hopping journey. “I at least took it seriously and analysed the risks involved.”

https://www.tiktok.com/@arthurbonazzi/video/7015978764886641925

But even the videos which are significantly less cringe-inducing pose a threat to society. TikTok has the youngest consumer base and so, consequently, the most impressionable too. Worse still, TikTok and other social media platforms lack the descriptive information needed to train hop safely and, in essence, not die.

Prior to social media, those willing to start their own train hopping journey would resort to Reddit or obscure online forums to get their tips. Posting this sort of content via the video-sharing app not only gives the false impression that it’s safe to hop onto a moving train but that it’s actually glamorous to do so. You’re not robbing a car, you’re hopping a train—so please, for your own sake, don’t dub it with a GTA San Andreas soundtrack. 

Why do people hop trains in the first place?

For Noah, it’s about “the freedom.” The idea of living life completely on the road (or tracks) with every day different to the last. And I get it, in some respects at least: the idea of escaping the mundane and repetitive metropolitan routine is fairly tempting. But can’t you just hitchhike instead? Noah replies, “It’s more about the thrill and adrenaline than anything. It’s about pushing your body and your mind to its limit. It’s definitely a thing to do out of leisure.”

But the TikToks posted by content creators glamorising train hopping are either unaware or don’t care about the consequence of their actions. “These people don’t respect a subculture of society which has been passed down for generations—they’re only in it for the views,” Noah argues.

The consequence is, sadly, reflected in the numbers. In the year 2018, railroad trespassing fatalities in the US hit a ten-year record high. “Let’s face it. Compared to any other form of travelling, train hopping is easily the most dangerous,” Reddit user Huckstar posted on r/vagabond, a subreddit dedicated to connecting an online community of hitchhikers, squatters, train hoppers and backpackers. “Sure, hitchhiking is definitely a roll of the dice each and every time, but it’s nothing compared to jumping on a moving piece of metal on steel weighing 15,000 tons,” they continued.

I value my 99p Chicken Mayos too much to risk my life on the rails. However, I respect that everyone’s values are different and so, if you do wish to live the hobo life, I can only provide you with the statistics—which, coincidentally, indicates it’s a reckless idea. Yet if, in spite of all evidence, you’re still committed, do your research, and for the love of God (and your dignity), don’t post it on TikTok.