Spend a few minutes in the comments section on TikTok or other social media platforms, and you’re bound to see a certain type of comment coming up again and again. Someone shares their personal experience, a recommendation or a recipe, and the replies are flooded with remarks like: “Well, what if I can’t eat/buy/wear/use/just don’t like that particular thing?”
TikTok creator Sarah Lockwood (@sarahthebookfairy) refers to the tendency to make everything we see online about ourselves as the “What About Me Effect.” She posted a video about the concept in September; it has since been viewed more than 4.5 million times.
As Lockwood explains in the video, the What About Me Effect is “when someone sees something that doesn’t really pertain to them, or they can’t fully relate to, and they find a way to make it about them — or try to seek out certain accommodations for their very nuanced, personalised situation, instead of recognizing that maybe they’re just not the target audience for that thing.”
Lockwood said she’s been noticing this kind of online behavior for a few years now.
“Ever since I started creating my own content and receiving those types of comments, it made it more obvious to me when I saw it on other videos,” she told HuffPost in an email.
A prime example Lockwood gives in her TikTok is the response to a viral bean soup recipe that was circulating on the platform. It’s made with a bunch of different types of beans, and the creator behind it said she likes to cook it during her period because it’s high in plant iron. In the comments, people wrote things like, “Well what should I do if I don’t like beans?” or “How do I make this without the beans” or “Can you substitute the beans?” rather than just saying, “Hey if I don’t like beans, maybe I shouldn’t watch this bean soup video,” Lockwood said in her TikTok.
Lockwood, who has a gluten intolerance, said this would be akin to her commenting, “Well, I can’t have gluten” on bread-baking videos, rather than just seeking out videos of people making gluten-free bread.
Micheline Maalouf is a mental health professional and digital creator who often posts about tools people can use to help manage conditions like anxiety and ADHD. And she’s no stranger to the What About Me Effect. Recently, she made a video giving tips to help with panic attacks, such as eating sour candy or salty or spicy food at the onset of symptoms.
“It helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system by generating more saliva and restarting your digestive system which sends a signal to your brain that you are safe,” Maalouf told HuffPost. “The most common ‘What About Me’ here was people saying, ‘This is dangerous, I have diabetes so how can you say this to people?’”
Regarding the salty or spicy food, someone else said, “If I listen to your advice I would die, I have high blood pressure. I can’t believe you are being so irresponsible with this tip.”
“The What About Me Effect is when someone sees something that doesn’t really pertain to them, or they can’t fully relate to, and they find a way to make it about them.”
One important note: In her TikTok, Lockwood draws a distinction between the What About Me Effect and very real concerns about equity and inclusion — something she emphasised in her email to HuffPost.
“The frustrating thing is, comments like the ones I’m talking about in the ‘What About Me Effect’ make a mockery of real arguments for inclusivity, which causes people to not take valid, important points about equity and inclusion seriously,” Lockwood wrote.
“It’s more than annoying comments on TikTok. The ripple effect of those comments is that it prevents marginalised groups with important points to make from being heard. I saw one commenter refer to this as ‘weaponising inclusivity,’ and I think that’s a great way of putting it.”
Jessica Maddox — a social media expert and assistant professor of digital media at the University of Alabama — said differentiating between the What About Me Effect and legitimate concerns about equity and inclusion often comes down to the topic being discussed. When the conversation is about identity or access, then “inclusion is essential and required,” she said.
“Bean soup? What About Me Effect. Building accessibility? Equity and inclusion. Conversations about race and representation? Equity and inclusion,” Maddox told HuffPost. “There is also a power dynamic at work. If a marginalised person tells you your content is harmful, listen. But if someone is like, ‘I don’t like beans,’ eh. You don’t have to engage.”
What’s behind this phenomenon?
In her TikTok, Lockwood says that while it’s easy to attribute this type of behaviour to a lack of common sense or critical thinking, she thinks something else is at play: the combination of being “chronically online” and the individualistic culture in the U.S “where we make everything about ourselves and seek out accommodations and validation for everything.” Egocentrism and entitlement may have a role in this too, she told HuffPost.
“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. “It’s shaming someone for sharing something just because their experience isn’t a universal one. I think it can also sometimes come from projection or insecurity, depending on what the comment actually is.”
“If a marginalized person tells you your content is harmful, listen. But if someone is like, ‘I don’t like beans,’ eh. You don’t have to engage.”
Social media also has a way of making things seem closer to us than they actually are, said Maddox. Sometimes that’s a good thing: It can make the world feel like a more connected place, she said. But the downside is that it makes people think everything they see applies to them when it doesn’t.
“I’ve seen this What About Me Effect time and time again, not just in people trying to make everything apply to their own personal experiences, but in discussions as well,” she told HuffPost. “For instance, it’s a famous Twitter joke that someone will say, ‘I love apples,’ and someone will respond, ‘How dare you ignore oranges.’ This, and the What About Me Effect, assumes everyone online is acting from a place of bad faith and trying to be exclusionary, when they’re really talking about something very specific that might not relate to everyone — and that’s OK.”
Maddox agrees with Lockwood’s take that at least part of the What About Me Effect can be chalked up to the “highly individualistic culture” in the U.S.
“We’re socialized to place ourselves front and center in discussions and prioritize ourselves over others. I think, like the creator alludes to, it would be worth chatting with folks in other countries that are more collectivist to see if this still persists,” she said.
But there are other infrastructural and cultural dynamics that contribute, too, Maddox said.
“In terms of infrastructure, the highly tailored nature of social media algorithms has made us think all of the content pushed to us should also be related to us. And, if it’s not in ways that can absolutely not be accounted for by technology — I don’t like beans, I’m bald, etc. — there’s a disconnect people may struggle with,” she explained.
With regard to culture, people often say the internet has made us more narcissistic, but Maddox doesn’t think that’s what’s happening.
“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 centre of all discussions and topics, because it’s believed that things can only be known through one’s experience,” she said.
“This creates a really limited understanding of the world. I think social media have contributed to solipsism because of the highly tailored nature of algorithms, but also how we experience social media individualistically. We have our own experiences of being online, no one else’s.”
Where do we go from here?
Lockwood hopes her TikTok will open up an important conversation about the What About Me phenomenon so we can all reflect and “develop more self-awareness of any ways we might be partaking in those trends,” she said.
So if you’re watching a video and have the sudden urge to say, “Well what about my very specific set of circumstances?!” pause for a second.
“If something you see online provokes questions or emotions in you, ask yourself if it really applies to you, or question how serious is it,” said Maddox.
Remember not every post is going to be relatable or applicable to you, nor should it be.
Creators on the receiving end of these kinds of comments have a few options, Maalouf said. For one, they can address the question or provide an answer, if they’re able to. Or they can kindly acknowledge the comment without necessarily answering it.
“This can sound something like, ‘Wow I hadn’t thought of it, I’ll think about it,’ or ‘What a great question, I’m going to do some research and maybe I can make a follow-up video,’” she said. “This shows care and concern for people but doesn’t add the pressure of having to give them an answer immediately or ever.”
And of course, they can also decide not to respond at all.
“We don’t have to respond to every comment, especially if the ‘What about me’ is rude or attacking,” Maalouf said. “Instead, focus on responding to people who are being kind or have questions you can actually answer in a comment section.”
Again, keep in mind that not every piece of content is geared toward every single person. The good news is that there is a vast array of content online at your fingertips. Instead of dashing off an angry comment or question, take the extra few minutes to find what fits your personal needs and interests. There really is something out there for everyone.