It looked the same as any other viral post. As I scrolled through the never-ending train of branded content, a video, retweeted by someone I followed, began to play before my eyes, animated by Twitter’s autoplay function. Posted by @MissBNasty on Christmas Day, the 22-second clip features a woman (presumably the account owner) vigorously masturbating her poorly censored vagina with a dildo in a car while placing a drive-thru order. The post had 10,000 likes, 2,000 retweets, and almost half a million views by the time it appeared on my feed. One moment I was bored and wasting time on social media, looking for and at nothing in particular; in the next, I found myself forced by Twitter’s algorithm to view pornography.
Social media conglomerates know our faces and our names; sell our personal data to advertisers, archive our memories, replace conventional modalities of self-expression with branding tools and monetize our output, and warp our brains into dependency on the stimulation provided by their products. They are watching and ‘listening all the time.’ They also control what we see and what we like, by way of algorithms.
Content automation has obvious pitfalls; YouTube came under fire for how its automated recommendation system traumatizes children and caters to pedophiles. That Twitter’s algorithm can expose the casual social media user to pornography is, then, to be expected. The algorithm is indifferent to the meaning of the content it promotes; it promotes it on the basis of content’s success among its audience, its potential virality. In this way, automation not only influences what we consume and why, but also what we create and how, with no concern for what the component-parts of the content may require. Combined with other factors endemic to social media — the commodifcation of the personal, and the democratization of the sex industry — it engineers a situation in which online sex workers use viral marketing techniques, and viral marketing techniques dictate increasingly antisocial behavior.
@MissBNasty is far from the first person to repurpose malfeasance into viral content. This summer saw the ‘Ice Cream Challenge,’ a trend of going into stores to film yourself contaminating their products, started by a girl who took a carton of Blue Bell ice cream from a Walmart freezer, licked it, and put it back on the shelf. What distinguishes something like this from typical, devil-may-care adolescent behavior is that it is done with the intention to be seen by others — it is not an anonymous prank, but a fully realized product.
The constant self-surveillance that populates social media platforms exists for public consumption. It creates a paradox in which we both are ourselves and not: we approach life not as one within it and living it, but as one outside of it, surveilling and curating ourselves for an audience of mostly strangers. We are our own producers, engineering situations and events because we know what currency they have in the black hole of the attention economy. We do and say things in order that they be mined for content; we act in shocking and grotesque ways because we know the algorithm will reward this with attention, which can translate to notoriety and money. Every moment of life contains the potential to become alienated labor.
The creators of viral content are as indifferent to the meanings and consequences of their behavior as the algorithms are. A famous example of this is Logan Paul’s ‘Suicide Forest’ controversy. Paul, a YouTuber whose audience is mostly children, encountered a dead body while vlogging in the Aokigahara Forest. He not only continued to film, but he also heavily focused on the image of the hanging corpse, and his friends’ reaction to it. He uploaded the graphic footage to his channel, where it garnered 6.5 million views before being removed. At no point in this process did it occur to him to stop filming, or even abstain from uploading. The disconnect between Paul and the egregious nature of his actions — and, arguably, between his audience, who consumed this content — and the gravity of the situation is symptomatic of memetic detachment. @MissBNasty’s video similarly exemplifies this both in her execution of the clip, and in how her audience, and the larger public of Twitter, received it.
@MissBNasty, who has more than a quarter million followers, has produced exhibitionistic amateur porn before, masturbating in another drive-thru last April and ‘squirting in the back of a Lyft’ a few days before the Christmas video. The single-minded motive to go viral — compounded by the nature of fetishistic exhibitionism, which purposefully relies on the violation of unwitting participants — razes any consideration she could have for the potential to harm others. By involving these service workers in the production of her sexual content, @MissBNasty exploits them.
The abuse is twofold: she forces them to be part of her sex act, then forces them to be part of the filmed product that she sells, from which she alone profits. That workers in these jobs are already exploited by their massive corporate employers makes this even bleaker. The transmission of the video to its audience via social media in itself entails yet another level of exploitation: technocapitalists profiting from viral content, for the engagement it precipitates. Negative reactions, like shock and outrage, arguably do more to generate revenue than do positive ones, by provoking an enduring controversy, as with the ‘Ice Cream Challenge’ example. This ensures not only that videos like @MissBNasty’s will be picked up by the algorithm — exposing countless other people to what is in reality a sexual offense — but also that this behavior will be emulated by copycats, and those who want to capture viral attention will be pushed to greater and greater extremes.
The response to @MissBNasty’s post indicates a collective desensitization to its contents. In addition to it going viral (i.e., people deeming it appropriate or novel enough to share) the replies are full of largely supportive comments, complimenting the OP on how ‘sexy’ or ‘funny’ the video is. Virtually no one responded with disapproval or disgust, indicating that the benchmark for socially acceptable behavior has moved: the act of public masturbation is transformed from a sex offense into a meme. @MissBNasty produced this content for her OnlyFans page, which adds another dimension: ‘sex work’ is now memetic. Independent sex workers are omnipresent on social media; brands like PornHub use it to cultivate relatability; both of these normalize exposure to porn in unprecedented ways, to younger and younger generations.
The act of meming requires sex work, for all of the abuses of its industry, to be flattened into a consumable, depersonified spectacle of the grotesque. A visible form of exploitation is made unquestioningly mundane. As a consequence, we are emotionally removed from it: just as @MissBNasty conceives of the service workers not as people but as components of her production, we, too, are detached from her humanity, and from the base fact that she is compelled to publicly masturbate herself in order to make money.
Perhaps the worst aspect of these antisocial memes is that they are ultimately purposeless: the algorithm is never fulfilled, the content cycle never stops. No matter the extent to which one degrades oneself, those efforts will inevitably be eclipsed by something worse. Attempting to appease the monolithic social media user base is a useless, futile exercise, that, in sowing detachment, trends in the direction of increasing monstrosity. Creators like @MissBNasty and Logan Paul willfully participate in the gross commodification of private and personal matters, uncomprehending of the possibility that they should put the camera down. Whether they have learned to suppress their ability to care, or never knew that these actions were wrong, they are driven to do this by the specter of social media success. Their willingness to profane overshadows all else, whether it be the intimacy of sexual encounters, or the sacred privacy of the dead. All of their gestures spill out meaninglessly into the open, bottomless maw of social media, granting them nothing but further alienation in return.