Ten years ago this month, the Harvard men’s baseball team put a video on YouTube in which they danced and lip-synched to Carly Rae Jepsen’s No. 1 hit, “Call Me Maybe.” It was funny because, well, you know: They were muscle-y boys with serious jawlines, and they were doing choreography that involved punching the ceiling of a van; this was back when a lot of people thought that pop songs were really stupid and for girls. So the video got really popular. Then other groups of people started to film themselves doing their own versions of the song: college students in Idaho; the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders; the U.S. Olympic swim team. Maybe you, too, were inclined to dance and lip-synch to Carly Rae Jepsen’s No. 1 hit, “Call Me Maybe,” with your friends and post it to the internet. This is how one of the first super-viral “challenges” on social media was born.
Planking, where people filmed or photographed themselves lying flat—like a plank—in unexpected places, had already peaked, as a challenge, in the previous year. But the “Call Me Maybe” challenge turned out to be a lot less dangerous, and—as a group activity—a lot more fun. The Pittsburgh Steelers made a “Call Me Maybe” video in 2012. A class of kindergartners made one. Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber made one—this is when they were in love. And I’m sure you already know who else made one … I did, at the end of a closing shift at a coffee shop in the mall food court. (This was an amazing, boring, mostly unsupervised job. We also did the eat-a-spoonful-of-ground-cinnamon challenge, which was popular at about the same time.) I recently dug up our “Call Me Maybe” video from the depths of Facebook and watched it and was shocked.
Although it is always uncomfortable to see a video of yourself from your teen-goth era, what really set me back on my heels was how alien the clip seemed. I texted the link to my former coffee-serving colleagues and co-stars in the video. “Was there choreography involved or is this freestyle?” I asked them. “I couldn’t even watch it, I need to be in the safety of my own home first,” one of them replied. This video from 10 summers ago was not just embarrassing—it was from another world. Viral challenges like this one used to have the power to unite the internet, bringing together mall-food-court kids and professional athletes and politicians and 4-year-olds. Then suddenly, they disappeared.
The challenge once embodied all that social media was meant to be: a forum for exchange; a source of fellowship; a way “to make the world more open and connected.” Our favorite truism about the internet today—that it divides us into warring tribes and makes everything terrible—simply wasn’t true back then, or at least it didn’t seem to be. In the early 2010s—the golden age of challenges—anyone could get involved in an online trend, and that would only make the whole thing better. I can’t even think of a person, circa 2012, whose decision to make a “Call Me Maybe” video would have killed the fun. Phil Spector? Sandra Bullock’s ex-husband who cheated on her? We even loved it when U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan lip-synched next to their mortar shells and machine guns. (“Whatever your position on U.S. foreign policy, these are worth watching—they’re amazing,” The Atlantic argued at the time.) We loved it when Donald Trump made a video too.
Today, you can imagine how this would all play out. A right-wing pundit would spin the challenge in some awful way to “own the libs,” and then the libs would do the challenge, too, so as to make it both heavy-handed and smug. Then some dreadful bureaucrat would post a video, setting off a flame war, and someone else with a porch surveillance camera would harass their Amazon delivery person into joining in. If the viral challenge served to bring us all together—if it stood for online comity and fun—then we should acknowledge that it’s never, ever coming back. The past five years have dumped a bucket of ice-cold water on the premise.
One needn’t blame politics alone for the death of this cultural phenomenon. The challenge could also be a victim of our new self-consciousness online, and our more developed fears of looking stupid. The male lead in the original “Call Me Maybe” music video was a shirtless hunk with the words The sky is the limit tattooed in script across his entire chest—solid evidence that embarrassment was not a powerful force in 2012, and that “cringe culture” on the internet was still brand-new. But if cringe killed viral challenges, then what went wrong in 2020? During the early months of the pandemic, we were all invited to post whatever we wanted to, cringe or not. Instead of producing a great new challenge, though, this gave us only short-lived TikTok trends (mostly dances that looked cool but were too hard to do yourself) and a bunch of celebrities using hashtags sponsored by the CDC or the National Health Service. During the shutdowns of that spring, The New York Times tried to convince me that “social media challenges” were “helping keep boredom at bay,” yet the examples it provided were the most boring things I’d ever heard of: turning pillowcases into dresses, bouncing Ping-Pong balls off of pots, juggling toilet paper, doing push-ups. (Doing push-ups???)
I understand that people still film themselves dancing and put it on the internet. (They even film themselves dancing to “Call Me Maybe,” but in an upsetting way.) I realize that “videos of people lip-synching” continue to be a viable entertainment product. But it’s not the same—it’s a hot or talented or famous person’s game now. New “challenges” do emerge on the internet every week, but they’re not the kind that bring people together. A challenge is not really a challenge, I would say, until aunts and uncles have tried it and babies are aware of it and it is not ridiculous to suggest that your “team” at work give it a go. A real challenge has to be fun, it has to be easy, and it has to become unavoidable … and then people have to get sick of it, because such is life. What happened to that?
Those sorts of challenges used to pop up all the time. In early 2013, just a few months after “Call Me Maybe,” we had the Harlem Shake. Each video began with one person dancing somberly, alone, usually wearing a mask. Then the beat dropped and they were joined by a bunch more people who danced sort of frantically and strangely. This wasn’t a TikTok star’s sterile presentation of one viral dance move after another on The Tonight Show; it was odd teenagers thrashing around in the drab-looking spaces that are usually available to odd teenagers. In 2014, you could hardly avoid the Ice Bucket Challenge, which wasn’t interesting in the slightest but went exceedingly viral anyway because the videos raised money for a good cause and each one ended with a shivering person shouting out the names of friends or family members who were therefore “nominated” to take a turn dumping ice on their own head. Refusing to participate would indicate that you were heartless, or—worse—not game. And everyone would know it, because you were tagged on your “Facebook Wall.”
All of these fads spread on Facebook, which was more or less the official platform of the viral challenge. (In many instances the videos were posted first on YouTube, but they had to be shared to Facebook or no one would see them.) That made sense: Facebook was, at the time, a cross-generational platform—a place where I could share content with my mother and my grandmother too. “Check out the Harlem Shake video I filmed in A.D. White Library today,” some kid I barely knew from the college paper posted in February 2013. “Kaitlyn Tiffany … you have 24 hours!!!” my cousin wrote above a video of a bucket of ice water being flung at her face in August 2014. I don’t think I ended up doing either one? (I’m heartless and not game.) But my college roommates did, and so did the girls from my high-school soccer team, and so did the One Direction member Niall Horan, as well as everyone in between.
The final challenge of this golden age arrived a few years later, and its timing was no accident. In early November 2016, as the presidential campaign moved into its final days, the nation came together for one last run at community rapport. When the Mannequin Challenge spread around the internet, entire high schools, including teachers, froze in place, mid-action, to the background music of the rap duo Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles.” It made no sense, which was perfect. One school in Canada filmed a very long tableau vivant with roughly 1,500 people—the camera panned over teens and staff paused as they pretended to sword fight, to lick a statue’s abs, to prepare the day’s lunch in a surprisingly clean and professional-looking cafeteria kitchen. The women’s gymnastics team at Brigham Young University participated, as did students at West Point, and factory workers, and librarians. People did the Mannequin Challenge on airplanes, and on the International Space Station, and on Sesame Street. I hate to bring this up … Hillary Clinton’s campaign did the Mannequin Challenge. They posted it on Election Day. (“Don’t stand still. Vote today.”)
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) November 8, 2016
“Wack as Hell Mannequin Challenge Could Cost Hillary Clinton the Election,” GQ suggested in a headline, but the rest of the post was sanguine: “It is unquestionably annoying. But you know what? I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. By this time tomorrow, if we’re lucky, Hillary Clinton will officially be the next President of the United States.” Whoops! When I watch that video today, of Hillary and Bill and Huma Abedin and (for some reason) Jon Bon Jovi pretending to be frozen in an airplane cabin, I feel queasy. First of all, Bill Clinton is too good at freezing; he looks dead. Second, it’s a little too spot-on: On November 8, 2016, it really did feel as though the physical laws of the universe had changed. Time didn’t stop that night, but it did stretch out, and in the morning everything was different; we saw divides we hadn’t seen before, and no obvious way to bridge them. A lot of people didn’t even want to bridge them. Yet, for a little while longer, somehow, the Mannequin Challenge survived.
Kathryn Winn, the author of Memeforum on Substack, wrote about the Mannequin Challenge last year: “It required no special equipment, or learning anything, or editing. Tell grandma to stay still and record her. The whole family can enjoy it and it’s more fun than trying to do a family photo.” It was “a Thanksgiving meme,” she said. I agree that seemingly absolutely everyone asked their families to do the Mannequin Challenge that Thanksgiving. Or maybe I feel that way because my family did it. This is confusing, because after Trump was elected, a lot of people seemed afraid of talking with their own families—if your relatives loved Trump, what could you really talk with them about? I had wanted to skip Thanksgiving altogether that year, for just that reason. Yet we all did the Mannequin Challenge?
Winn described a “moment of silence” on the internet at the end of 2016, during which nobody was allowed to joke. The Mannequin Challenge was the lone exception: “Everyone was still allowed to post the mannequin challenge. It was a reminder that life goes on.” Those videos would be the last exhalation of challenge culture: From then on, social media would not be understood as a place to come together but as a place to come apart. Also as a place to be serious, even while joking, to the point that everything became a bore. In those same few weeks of November 2016, media outlets covered a no-fun and not-real trend called the Trump’s Coming Challenge, in which someone yelled “Hey, Trump is coming!” and then recorded a bunch of people screaming and running away. (“The Trump’s Coming Challenge Is Why the Future’s Gonna Be Alright,” a writer for GQ … begged?).
In the early to mid-2010s, when viral challenges had their run, most people were still using a social-media platform that was explicitly designed to connect them to people they knew in real life—from work, from school, from hanging around town. I’m not trying to express some great nostalgia for the Facebook of this time—there was concern about political rancor on the platform then, too, and it was well on its way to becoming a fundamentally miserable website—but people did use it like a town square or a family-meeting place. In 2017, Facebook started bleeding younger users in a major way to Instagram. The year after: the wrecking ball of TikTok. The site is a wasteland now, known for corrupting the minds of Boomers.
Older people are stuck on Facebook, a website with more garbage content than ever, and lacking any grandkids’ prom-photo albums to click through. Meanwhile the Millennials and middle-aged are straddling the line between Instagram and Twitter. Viral challenges used to bubble up from college kids and teenagers before they crossed the generation gap; now the kids are all on TikTok, and the “challenges” they create (whether there or elsewhere) are either too insider-y and confusing to spread more widely, or else they’re kept behind the glass of moral panic. The Tide Pod Challenge of 2018, for which young people were said to be consuming laundry detergent, didn’t turn out to be real; neither was the Momo Challenge from 2019, which allegedly invited self-harm. Parents’ eternal fear of youth culture has been exacerbated in the TikTok age—sometimes intentionally, as when Facebook paid a Republican consulting firm to plant “challenge” panic in local newspapers. Other challenges that make the news today are creepy and not cool, and seem dangerous to grown-ups. Clearly, Grandma is not going to participate in a trend she finds terrifying.
Looking back on the era of transcendent challenges, I’m talking about a time when I myself was young, which is what filming yourself dancing in socks in a mall is all about. But those challenges were also about being old, or being interesting, or being regular. They were about being anybody! With the Mannequin Challenge, we all froze, but time didn’t stop. Now we’re on the other side: Anybody can hold a pose, or pour water on their head, or do a silly dance with friends, but everybody will never do those things again.