TikTok has sides, and like all of us, it has good sides and bad sides: replicated specificities that we and others experience as moral or immoral. Within a few hours of scrolling, maybe once you’ve scrolled the height of the last office building you entered, TikTok will suggest you to you, and as you confirm your own biases, your scroll molds into a set of sides.
The sides of TikTok you land on reveal if you’re gay, or anti-racist, or from Massachusetts, if you have avoidant attachment style, or would shave your head. The sides illuminate that you find carpet cleaning soothing, that you have a parent who does not believe in therapy, that you like tiny frogs, your preschool was maybe a cult, or that you miss the clicky clicks of old cell phone keys. A “side” is a repetition, a path, a belonging, like a shared memory.
The involuntary aspect of landing on a side makes identification with that side euphoric. Without posturing or naming, without even self-reflecting, you are greeted with interests and instincts you would not otherwise organize for your own pleasure.
One of my favorite parts of being on TikTok is sharing videos that capture shared memories with my siblings. Like Sky Dancers toys, anti-Barney playground dogma, stinginess with Hubba Bubba Bubble Tape gum and the intricacies of Hide and Seek (the Imogen Heap song, not the game). The brain straws up serotonin when a TikTok, as they say on TikTok, “unlocks a memory.” It’s the best thing in the world to remember things together.
And just as potent is forgetting things together. One of the most alarmist and entertaining sides of TikTok is Mandela Effect TikTok. The Mandela Effect is not a new concept, it was coined by a blogger named Fiona Broome more than a decade ago when she learned that many other people shared her erroneous belief that Nelson Mandela died in prison in the 1980s (he died in 2013).
Mandela Effects from the last decade include the revelation that the surname of the beloved children’s bear family the Berenstain Bears is not spelled Berenstein, or that Rich Uncle Pennybags, aka the Monopoly Man, does not wear a monocle. But the newest ones, discovered recently, feel like a true “side” of TikTok: an active remembering of a generational misremembering.
There are, at the time of writing, 444.3 million views on videos with the hashtag #mandelaeffect on TikTok. There’s at least another 102 million tagged with variations of the name. Typically, in these videos, a narrator speaks over a TikTok sound called Blade Runner 2049 by a creator named Synthwave Goose (whether this piece of music was made as an aspirational score is a mystery, it doesn’t matter, it sounds like watching Stranger Things while Lizzo practices flute in an adjacent room).
Many videos begin: “For those of you who don’t know, this is Nelson Mandela [shows photo of Nelson Mandela].” That is depressing, but courteous. Then, they present a duo or trio of Mandela Effects — never more, there isn’t time — and express gleeful dismay that we do not know our own reality. They quickly make the point that if we do not even know the spelling of JCPenney (there’s that second E) or Double Stuf Oreos (same stuff, sans homogeneous digraph) then for all we know, a goose did score Blade Runner 2049. What’s firm is fragile.
That brings us to an example of a new Mandela Effect, which it seems came to our collective attention this month. Picture the music video for Britney Spears’ song Oops!...I Did It Again. When Britney appears in her red latex jumpsuit, do you see her wearing a headset?
Many do. Many even believe she was originally wearing a headset in the music video, but that the original music video was replaced on December 21, 2012, when our world entered a black hole and our reality was replaced with a simulation. A rush job simu-world filled with typos, like JCPenney, and glitches, like Britney’s headset. These folks say that at 2:43 in the video, you can see Britney adjust the invisible headset. But I am not here to delve into conspiracy-theory TikTok (that is another side of TikTok, and as we established, the sides have morality). Many others (me) are merely interested in the experience of the shared memory of Britney in the video. The Britney dolls that were sold at the time have headsets. Isn’t it interesting that she isn’t actually wearing one in the video, and never actually performed the song in the red latex suit on stage with a headset?
Let me fuck you up once more before we continue: White Out? It’s Wite Out. Fruit Loops? Froot Loops. And remember the old Gawker logo with the caryatids? Nothing about it, I just wondered if you remember.
There’s something assuring in the shared experience of memory-checking the things we involuntarily consumed in the past.
In the Oops!...I Did It Again video, which takes place on Mars, Britney is notably under-accessorized. She does not even wear earrings. She has no belt. But the headset still would and would not make sense. In the setting, the Mars Lander (the video’s male interest) is communicating with a control room on Earth. Conceivably, for the astronaut to hear Britney’s song, she would need to be tapping into his signal and have the sound coming directly into his helmet. The Martian atmosphere is 100 times less dense than Earth’s, so sound is much softer. Listen to this conceptualization of the song Clair de Lune on Earth vs. Mars. It’s quieter. So, Britney on stage without a microphone either patching sound directly to the astronaut or into speakers, would be very much inaudible to a human ear inside a space helmet.
What is it about missing this memory that’s so frustrating? Why must we solve a mystery around Britney’s inaudibility? Why, as billionaires proclaim their goals to reach Mars, does a video in which we are meant to pity a man who was just a “nice guy” who brought a diamond for Britney to the red planet while she sing-confesses to leading him on roil us?
You do not have to be on the psychology side of TikTok to guess. Is it a reckoning of interpersonal failures presented as entertainment signaling across time to us that the moment we conflate space travel with something “for us” we will become like Britney: women unheard for 13 years in legalized parental abuse (in this metaphor Jamie Spears is Capitalism). We were so young when the video came out. Someone fed us the image of the headset. Who do we blame?
All we have to share is our routine remembering, which is why TikTok feels like true sharing. The old definition of the word, the one we’ve unwillingly misremembered because of social media. The sharing that means there’s enough Bubble Tape for all of us.
Katherine Bernard is a writer in New York.