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The “what about me?” effect and hyperindividualism

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Trigger warning: This article contains mentions of suicide and self-harm.

There has been a shift in the air that a lot of people have noticed. Every comment section of every piece of media on the internet has become a war zone — people inserting themselves in situations they shouldn’t and juggling each other’s traumas like inside jokes have become a rampant issue. People appear to have become more whiny, but why? 

This phenomenon was recognized by TikTok user Sarah Lockwood as the “What About Me?” effect. It’s the situation in which people see something that does not pertain to them or something they can’t relate to, but still find a way to make it about themselves. Lockwood detailed how people “try to seek out certain accommodations for their very nuanced, personalized situation instead of recognizing that maybe they’re just not the target audience for that thing.” 

The most popular example of this was the infamous “Bean Soup” video, where TikTok user Vibingranolamom, whose real name is Kara, shares a high-iron recipe for women struggling with anemia. She explains that this recipe could help women regain strength after their menstrual period. The video gained traction and specifically garnered comments such as “What if I don’t like beans” and “Can you replace the beans for something else?” The questions are silly, so much so that they could be mistaken as jokes. 

Unfortunately, they weren’t. People were actually looking for a bean substitution in a bean soup recipe. 

To this day, one of the most popular trends on TikTok is to stumble upon a video of a happy couple and comment stuff such as “Sleeping on the highway tonight” or “Cute! If you look closely you can see me hang myself.” These comments are usually for comedic value, but ultimately are to complain about their own lives and take away from someone else’s experience. 

Plenty of content receives the same attention, from gluten-free requests on bread-making videos to people trauma dumping about their daddy issues on a video about father-daughter dates. It’s not only on TikTok — the comment sections of Instagram are now infamous for having some of the worst hate comments of any social media app. People can’t help but share how certain things affect them, and they leave comments not bothered by how vile or irrelevant these can be. 

Many people have tried to decode the reason why this “What About Me?” effect has become so popular. In an article for HuffPost, Kelsey Borresen talks about this phenomenon with assistant professor of digital media Jessica Maddox, who claims the phenomenon can be a mix of the individualistic culture of the United States and how social media has made us self-centered.

“I believe it’s made us solipsistic, or the view that the self is the only thing that can be known. Solipsism positions us at the center of all discussions and topics, because it’s believed that things can only be known through one’s experience,” Maddox said to the HuffPost.  

As Maddox mentioned, solipsism is based on the idea that the only thing that can be truly known is our own self and because of this, it places us at the center of everything. Unintentionally, the internet has enforced this ideology because of the way it functions. Our devices create mechanisms that perfect our algorithms to constantly feed us content that is curated for our interests, reinforcing the belief that only our opinion matters. 

“We have our own experiences of being online, no one else’s,” Maddox told the publication.

These facts settle into one conclusion in my mind — this is one of the effects of the loneliness epidemic. 

More than ever before, the effects of capitalism are affecting the way friendships develop and come to fruition. The loss of third places has caused people to only go between work and home, sometimes staying at home completely, minimizing their day-to-day human interactions. 

According to Brookings article,“‘Third places’ as community builders,” a third place is defined as “locations where we exchange ideas, have a good time, and build relationships.” If the home is the first place and work is the second place, a third place is space where people spend time relaxing. The problem is that these spaces are now unaffordable and unapproachable. There are coffee shops that charge for internet access and purposefully make their spaces uncomfortable to encourage people to leave quickly and allow more customers to come in.  

However, people never stop craving third places, as we are always going to need a place to decompress and relax. With the lack of this space, we go to the next best thing: the internet. And when our minds spend so much time in a digital virtual space, they start to detach from the real world and how it functions. 

Nicole Rafiee, a popular YouTuber, talks more about this “What About Me?” effect and how it connects to the way we communicate with other people. She mentions how as time passes, we become more selective when it comes to choosing friends; we no longer look for diversity in our friend groups and specifically look for people who think, feel and act the same way that we do. While there is nothing wrong with that, it does cause a level of close-mindedness. We have become uncomfortable with being uncomfortable. 

Our minds are constantly bombarded with information that, for the most part, agrees with our opinions. The algorithms in our phones are perfected to our personalities and while satisfying, it also deconditions us from hearing other perspectives or experiences. 

“It’s this idea of ‘how dare you not consider every single personal experience before posting a video’ or ‘You’ve done something wrong by not considering me,’” Lockwood said to HuffPost.

It’s a vicious, endless cycle — our close-mindedness leads to a smaller demographic of people whom we consider interacting with and because of this our minds become less accustomed to challenging ideas and arguments that are not necessarily catered to us. The cycle keeps going infinitely. We have popularized and internalized the main character syndrome so deeply in our lives that we assume everything has to be catered to us specifically when in reality, it doesn’t. 

Internet overusers are not only those who have integrated brain-rot words into their daily vocabulary, it also refers to the users whose hyperindividualism leads them to be selfish and close-minded. 

Angela Serna-Norzagaray is an Opinion Intern for the spring 2024 quarter. She can be reached at asernano@uci.edu.

Edited by Jacob Ramos.