Venting on the internet has become the new way to complain. Instead of leaving a one-star Yelp or Google review, or sharing a bad experience with family and friends, disgruntled customers can go on TikTok, go viral and go nuclear on a place − or person − they feel has wronged them.
Be it a bakery, tattoo parlor, airline or bar, anyone can find themselves at the mercy of thousands of angry bandwagoners ready to carry out justice on an organization or person they don't know. Take TikToker @emilyraefit, a newlywed in Charleston, South Carolina, who had a negative experience with the bar she chose for her wedding after-party. She shared her story, it got 1.4 million views and in a later video, she thanked her followers for decimating the businesses' reviews.
"I did not expect everyone to take to Google (reviews) like they did," she said in a recent video. "We took them down so quickly in their stars, like that. They're already back up but it's fine, justice will be had."
Experts say this phenomenon is about more than a cake, tattoo, flight or night out. It's about the urge to pick a side and a need to feel validated by others − even if they have no real connection to either party.
"Social media, especially TikTok, has democratized consumer reach," says Chapman University adjunct communications professor Matthew Prince. "Whether you have 200 followers, or 2 million, consumers' content is going further than it ever has before. That reach comes with power."
'A sense of powerlessness': Why people get the urge to seek revenge online
The internet, and especially TikTok in recent years, has taken venting to the next level. When we feel we've been given the short end of the stick, we seek out those who will tell us we're right, experts explain, and in viral videos, people are able to find thousands of people who will agree with them. Those following recent incidents − such as #CakeGate or #TattooGate − are enthralled by the drama, in part, because humans are hardwired to be social and take sides depending on who they most identify with.
"When you feel like you are getting scammed, there's usually a sense of powerlessness," Andrea Bonior, a clinical psychologist and host of the "Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice" podcast, previously told USA TODAY. "Posting about it often tries to reverse that: giving you validation when people agree that you were wronged."
People on the internet often appreciate being able to connect with others in a shared frustration over an argument in which they've taken the same side.
But does the punishment fit the crime?
Internet culture has forever changed what it means to be famous: The average person with no connections to Hollywood can be thrust into the spotlight with millions of viewers overnight. Fans now have direct access to the people they idolize – or hate – and they have the power to drive what can become an unavoidable level of attention to a subject.
There's an aspect of schadenfreude, too: People on the internet find joy in watching a person fall from grace in real-time, even if the punishment (hate from thousands of people) doesn't fit the crime (making a cake the public has deemed ugly or overcharging for a tattoo design).
"It gives people a temporary escape from their own lives, allowing them to indulge in the thrill of someone else's conflict without actually being directly involved," says crisis management and public relations expert Molly McPherson. "It taps into our innate desire for justice and our fascination with human conflict. It's like watching real-life reality television play out in front of our eyes, and people can't help but follow along in their feeds to see how it all unfolds."
It's 'none of our business' − so why do we care about TikTok drama?
"People have always been engaged by gossip and conflict," Gayle Stever, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at Empire State University of New York, previously said. "In my mother's day, it was about the neighbors, and it would have been the cake shop down the road. Today, because the boundaries of our social worlds have expanded, we learn about these things from a distance, but the human proclivity to weigh in on something that is essentially none of our business is irresistible for many – not all – people."
And those urges to band together are even stronger when there's drama at the center of it.
"When it comes to human connection, there’s certainly a negativity bias and social media is no exception," Prince says. In many cases you relate, rationalize and rally more from negative experiences than positive ones."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: TikTok videos, negative reviews and getting angry online