Viral Challenges Are What’s Keeping Us Occupied

In the past two weeks, Instagram has been overrun with viral challenges.

On Tuesday, thousands of teenagers began posting unflattering photos of themselves to their feeds with the cryptic caption “until tomorrow.” Anyone who liked the photos, which are intended to only stay up for 24 hours, received a message from the user daring them to do the same.

“It’s all that’s on my feed right now,” said Ophelia Parisi, 16, of Whitesboro, N.Y., who participated in the challenge herself. “Literally everyone is doing it.”

That might be because literally everyone is home right now — or should be! What else is there to do?

In addition to “until tomorrow,” there is the new “draw something” challenge, where users draw an object using the creative tools on Instagram Stories, then tag five friends to do it, too. There is “see a dog, share a dog,” which encourages people to post photos of their pets.

There are physical challenges, such as the push-ups challenge, where a person posts a video of them doing 10 push-ups to Instagram Stories then tags 10 friends to do the same. Or the planking challenge, where users hold a plank for 15 seconds.

Credit…Zebra Iq
Credit…Zebra Iq

There’s the couch challenge for those who consider push-ups to be too easy. (You’re supposed to lift up your entire couch.) Star athletes began taking part in the “toilet paper challenge” last week, which consists of kicking a toilet paper roll around so as not to let it touch the floor.

And some celebrities have even tried to start their own. The country musician Tim McGraw posted the #deepcutschallenge on Sunday, imploring followers to play their favorite throwback song on guitar. Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez posted a “couples challenge” where they try to guess how the other would answer questions about their relationship.

“These challenges all started when people began to stay home and go into quarantine,” said Taylor Loren, head of content marketing at Later, an Instagram marketing platform. “Instagram usage has risen a lot in the past couple weeks and these challenges are way for people to interact with their friends and stay entertained while they have to stay home.”

Historically, internet challenges have taken hold when people have some time on their hands to get creative — usually during the summer. Planking, icing, and the Ice Bucket Challenge all took hold in summer months, their growth spurred by out-of-school teenagers looking for something to do. The summer of 2018 also brought a rush of dance-based challenges, including the InMyFeelings Challenge and The LevelUp Challenge.

Social media has been getting more participatory for some time now, in large thanks to TikTok, where challenges are a big part of interacting on the platform. As challenges become more popular, they spill over onto Instagram.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in TikTok content coming over to Instagram,” said Ms. Loren.

Many of the most viral challenges in the past week have centered around relatable quarantine habits. There’s one where you take a shot, or drink a glass of wine then tag 10 friends to do the same. There’s the “post what you’re doing right now” challenge which seems, anecdotally, to have taken off among parents. (The challenge is simple: post exactly what you’re doing in the moment, then tag friends to do the same.)

These challenges are “based around themes that everyone feels like they can relate to now in some way,” Ms. Loren said.

The majority of challenges don’t promote negative behavior, but some are worrisome. “There’s a few people doing drug related stuff,” said Ms. Parisi, “like the ‘not sober challenge.’ People have been posting pictures of themselves smoking and doing other drugs which is disconcerting.” One influencer posted a “coronavirus challenge” where she licked a toilet seat, which sparked widespread backlash and some copycats.

For those sick of challenges clogging their feeds, there may be no escaping it easily. “It’s the modern day chain mail but on Instagram,” said Tiffany Zhong, the founder and CEO of Zebra IQ, a Gen Z market research firm. “I think it’s going to go on for a while. There are many different branches and you’re going to always be tagged by someone somewhere as things spread through different communities and circles and categories.”

Ultimately, people are lonely so they are trying “all sorts of extreme ways of connecting,” said Ms. Zhong. “There’s even a meta challenge where the challenge is to simply tag 10 friends’ usernames.”

“I think we’re doing it out of boredom,” Ms. Parisi said. “It’s coronacation 2020.”

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