It has been a particularly messy month on TikTok. Beyond privacy concerns and threats of a ban in the United States, TikTokers are exposing cheating partners via the #MessyTikTok hashtag, a viral social media trend that encourages users to get personal in a very public way.
Set to an original sound from TikTok user @Kr0yalty, first posted on August 31, TikTokers sing along to the lyrics “I like you; I don’t give a fuck about your…”—before the sound switches to an automated voice— “girlfriend. Actually, why don’t you tell her?” Though most #MessyTikTok posters do not actually tag the offenders in the video, this format still allows TikTok users to call out cheaters publicly, backed up by “receipts” in the form of photos, videos and text chains.
North Carolina native Alyssa Stalica, 21, participated in this online trend. A few weeks earlier she’d learned that the guy she was seeing already had a girlfriend. After hanging out for just a week, the guy’s sister knocked on Stalica’s door and told her that he was cheating. When confronted, he told Stalica his previous relationship was over, and he and Stalica continued seeing each other—until Stalica saw his girlfriend’s car in his driveway overnight. On September 3, she posted a TikTok featuring footage from her doorbell camera, which had captured Stalica and the man kissing on her porch.
@alyssastalica2Welcome to messy tik tok, the vibes are immaculate😌 ##greenscreen ##greenscreenvideo ##fyp ##OnlineSchool ##foryoupage♬ original sound – Kr0yalty ✨
Stalica’s TikTok now has more than 20 million views. “I just wanted to expose him as a liar,” she explains. “I never expected so many people to see it. Even though it shocked me, it didn’t feel real, because although so much was happening on TikTok, my [real] life hadn’t changed at all.” The comments on the video—all 37,000 of them—were both supportive and cruel, as many people called her out for “homewrecking.”
#MessyTikTok is just one of many trends that encourage users to bare all for their followers. Another popular example is the #putyourfingerdown challenge—basically a shareable version of the drinking game “Never Have I Ever.” Throughout August, the #itstheforme challenge had friends roasting each other with increasingly savage insults, while the recent #HurtMyFeelings challenge, set to a clip from La Roux’s “Bulletproof,” has users publicly share their most upsetting memory. The hashtag has more than 3.5 billion views.
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TikTok is like one big game of Truth or Dare at summer camp; no one, it seems, can resist throwing their wildest stories into the ring. And interestingly, exposing oneself appears to be just as popular as exposing others (CC: TikTok star Dixie D’Amelio, who outed her ex-boyfriend for cheating on the app). But what makes users so comfortable sharing such intimate details about their lives on TikTok?
People with certain personality traits are more likely to share on social media
Dr. Tara Marshall, director of the social psychology program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, investigates which personality types gravitate towards social media. She explains that, both online and IRL, people develop a sense of intimacy with others through self-disclosure. “That’s how you form an emotional bond,” Marshall says. With face-to-face relationships, self-disclosure tends to occur naturally as intimacy develops; on social media, connections between strangers can be made with a single post.
This is especially applicable to people with neurotic tendencies and social anxiety, who often turn to social media for the connections they lack face-to-face. Known as the “social compensation hypothesis,” this is particularly important for people with stigmatized identities, including those who identify as LGBTQ+. “If you feel like you have to hide a part of yourself in offline relationships—because your parents, family members or religious groups won’t support your stigmatized identity—then you may find a group of people online that accept you and support you,” Marshall says.
Real-life extroverts also tend to share more online, using social platforms as another means of self-expression. Narcissists are also prone to oversharing; attention is a powerful motivator. “People love getting likes, retweets [and] comments,” Marshall explains. “It’s social validation—getting that little hit of a dopaminergic rush each time someone likes one of your posts.” And TikTok is the perfect platform for these people to get that rush, as the most downloaded app of 2020 so far and with more than 850 million active users worldwide.
Another reason the #MessyTikTok trend may be taking off is demographic. TikTok skews incredibly young; according to internal data from March 2019, close to half of all users are between 18 and 24 years old. Dr. Jacqueline Nesi, psychologist and research fellow at Brown University, notes that self-disclosure is especially satisfying for young people on social media, as “they’re still in the process of developing their identities.” She also explains that younger generations who have grown up with social platforms are likely more comfortable sharing online, whereas older generations who have not always had this immediate and public access to others may be more wary of sharing with strangers.
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Neuroscientists estimate that people under 25 years old are still developing their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, judgement and decision making. Because of this, Nesi explains, teens are particularly sensitive to social rewards. “So, on TikTok, that might be things like views [and] shares. Any kind of positive reinforcement, particularly from peers, can be really reinforcing,” Nesi says.
TikTok’s unique algorithm makes it even easier for users to reach a wide audience. On a user’s “For You” page, curated videos appear based on the user’s profile, location and preferred content. Any interactions—including liking, sharing or even watching a video all the way through—influences the kind of content that pops up next. Not to mention the fact that follower count doesn’t impact whether or not one’s video is promoted. This means an account with only a few followers can reach millions if their video is engaging enough. In other words, TikTok is *incredibly* easy to access and use, and even easier to go viral on and reach a wide audience. These factors all lend to its appeal—especially for Gen Z.
The desire to cultivate an authentic—if messy—online presence is real
Kirstie Lovelady, a 29-year-old musician from Nashville, Tennessee, jumped on the #putyourfingerdown trend in July. Five years ago, while she was waiting for a friend at a restaurant, Lovelady discovered her father had a secret family.
Beginning with the phrase, “Put your finger down if…” Lovelady retells this harrowing experience in 60 seconds. Overnight, she gained at least 10,000 followers and the video itself has over four million views. “It’s been really overwhelming and life-changing in a positive way,” Lovelady says. She received thousands of reassuring comments from strangers, and many reached out to share their own similar experiences. “It’s just a really beautiful thing for people to hear broken stories and be able to relate.”
@kirstieloveladyit’s fine, i’m in therapy about it now😅 ##putafingerdownchallenge ##fingerdown ##putafingerdown ##storytime ##TodayYearsOld ##IceCreamDay♬ original sound – kirstielovelady
Like so many others, Lovelady joined TikTok during quarantine, and felt particularly comfortable sharing on TikTok since most of her followers were strangers. Eventually, however, someone sent Lovelady’s video to her dad. “He is not the happiest with me about it,” she says. “But I’m not doing it for him. I’m just doing [it] from a place of sharing my story.”
In recent years, social media users have turned away from posting self-enhancing content. These days, Dr. Marshall explains, people are more interested in cultivating an authentic online presence—even if it puts one in a negative light. “You may get more likes and reactions if you are posting sympathetic content,” she says. “People like people who are flawed, that they can relate to.”
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But there are dangers to oversharing
Yet, oversharing poses its own ethical risks. “If you’re posting something that goes public and it violates a partner’s privacy, that can be a major relationship transgression and could potentially end a relationship,” Marshall says. Plus, once a video is posted online, it is incredibly difficult to delete. Social posts have the potential to spread far beyond their intended audience.
This is particularly concerning for those in same-sex relationships that are not “out” in real life. A number of #MessyTikTok videos involve individuals cheating on their partners with someone of the same gender, including a viral post from TikTok user @ryanandhermo, which received more than 29 million views and 200,000 comments. Many fellow TikTokers expressed concern that the video outed a closeted man. Though @ryanandhermo posted a follow-up video confirming that this video was a joke, these comments raise a genuine problem—whether posted maliciously or accidentally, social media has the potential to out people before they’re ready.
@ryanandhermooops lol ##messytiktok ##foryou ##gay ##fyp ##greenscreen♬ original sound – Kr0yalty ✨
Beyond her initial #MessyTikTok video, Stalica has continued to update followers about her relationship drama. “A lot of people were asking questions or making assumptions, so I wanted to clear the air,” she explains. Though Stalica’s flame contacted her after the TikTok went viral, he is now back with his girlfriend, and Stalica confirms she and him no longer speak.
Stalica’s story is long and winding, but her followers are invested. In her most recent update, Stalica ends with: “I’m not mad that they’re together, I just think they look like clowns. And it should be known not to fuck with me when I have receipts.”