There’s healthy cynicism and then there’s the kind I’ve grown up with. News coverage of a midnight inferno never escaped Dad pronouncing it—without a second’s hesitation—as arson. No owner of a paper factory, no beleaguered garment manufacturer, no developer with heritage restrictions on their property, was ever to be given the benefit of the doubt. Of course they lit the bloody match.
Even now, any news of a hefty charitable donation will be followed by Dad dismissing it as a brazen tax reduction effort.
Personally I quite like grey. Nuance. Of there being more than one explanation for a buffet/showgirls dining establishment burning to the ground at 4:30am. Admittedly my initial thoughts still always go to arson, to tax offsets—I am my father’s daughter—but the academic in me is committed to seeking out alternate explanations too.
It is therefore, not without genuine effort that I admit to exclusively seeing only shuddery awfulness in these TikTok ROAK (random act of kindness) videos.
If you’ve happily dodged exposure to this genre, think secret recordings of someone paying for a stranger’s groceries. A secret recording of a homeless man sharing a birthday cake with a stray dog. A secret recording of a giant tip left for a struggling-student waiter. Pleasure or pain photographed and then shared online in the hope of a viral moment.
A recent and distinctly awful incarnation has a woman handed a bunch of flowers while seated alone in a food court. If there’s anything good to come out of this food court foolishness it’s that we now know the recipient’s name—Maree. More than that, we know she felt dehumanised. Because she told us so. Because she dared disrupt the standard pattern of a recipient-victim’s identity being reduced to bit player in ‘content’.
A lot of my recent research has examined the pop culture industries. With ever more platforms needing content—be they television streaming services or TikTok accounts—the pressure is on creators to churn it out. And the same content-desperation that, in part, explains the flow of remakes and reboots, has TikTokers needing to generate ever more material else slip into irrelevance.
Content creators—be they advertisers or filmmakers or wannabe TikTok titans—have awareness that audiences are drawn to certain themes. And just as audiences like the new and the funny and the cute, we also really like the heartstring-tugging. That we’ll be inclined to like and then share the heartstring-tugging. Afterall, who doesn’t enjoy a swollen heart and happy tear?
And the manufactured reality of such material—i.e., the fact that this moment was orchestrated—alone isn’t enough to devalue it. Afterall, every novel or song or movie that we’ve sobbed to was contrived to stir a reaction.
TikTok videos can absolutely be artistic. This piece is no condemnation of the medium nor its creators. But this supposedly feel-good genre of videos cannot be viewed in the same way as we view that rousing novel or song or film.
This is not the place for me to further channel my father and presume motive on the part of the creators. While obviously they chiefly create to be consumed, I’m also mindful that genuine altruism might be a factor. Speculating on their motives however, isn’t all that interesting to me.
Be it Maree and the unsolicited flowers or the endless procession of people who find themselves secretly recorded and then broadcast, none of these people consented to participation in someone else’s efforts at online glory.
In being filmed this way, not only does a person lose control of their image but they get edited and framed. And regardless of whether that framing is positive or negative or heartstring-tugging, no option to ever opt-out was offered. And that person who didn’t consent is now positioned to be mocked or pitied or pilloried by an infinite audience. No flowers can counter the ethics breach.
People, afterall, do things that are both nice and simultaneously wretched all the time. They buy an overweight friend a gym membership. They buy a partner lingerie to exclusively service their own personal kinks. They drag people out of comfort zones that they’re perfectly comfortable in.
And offence is often taken when the uglier undercurrent of their ‘generosity’ is exposed. As though their supposed generosity was all that mattered.
Of the many gifts the internet has bestowed, one of the horrible deficits are the new and increasingly efficient ways to wound. There are decades of research on humiliation as one of the sharpest and most painful emotions humans can feel. Imagine then, not only feeling humiliation at a given moment, and then again when discovering that the moment was filmed. And then broadcast. And then feeling it again and again and again each time that video resurfaces, as is the nature of viral videos.
More than ever before we’re getting better at talking about consent when it comes to matters of sex. Most of us seem to understand the importance of enthusiastic agreement before we engage with anyone else’s genitals. We’re yet to realise, however, the necessity to have these same conversations about other kinds of human interactions. Even if they’re interactions with people we don’t know or yet care about.
In Australia people can be filmed in places where there is no reasonable assumption of privacy without their consent. So I can’t object to these videos on legal grounds (even if I have some issues with the law). My umbrage lies in ethics. The production of these ROAK videos is wholly unethical.
If an action is primarily motivated by benevolence, then it shouldn’t be filmed. And no, it’s not okay to film it first and then request permission afterwards, which, alas, is a feature of some more recent spins on this genre. It’s completely unethical—and highly manipulative—to seek permission after you’ve done the wrong thing and taken something that wasn’t offered. We understand this in the context of intimate videos and we need to remember it whenever we feel tempted to photograph a stranger on the street.
These videos are an intersection of several interesting cultural moments. Of evolving attitudes to privacy. About both individualism and deindividualisation. About fame-at-all-costs. They’re also a reminder to pause for thought about the rich and complex lives of the people who find themselves involuntarily cast in these cheesy clickbait videos. About the true costs of those couple of free minutes of online entertainment.
Lauren Rosewarne is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Melbourne and is the author of 11 books on gender, sexuality, politics and the media.