Every day opens a new channel of online interaction, creating more and more social situations to navigate. The endless social media landscape, coupled with the vitriol of digital callout culture, creates a nightmare scenario for participating in any situation.
Functions like quote tweets on Twitter and stitches on TikTok allow others to dictate what’s right and wrong. There seems to be zero hesitation over telling someone else how to live their life.
In a time where young people are looking for answers on TikTok, rule videos have become a response to the overwhelming changing social norms of being extremely online. In these videos creators present a screenshot of their Notes app and explain a list of rules for any imaginable situation.
One of the most prolific rule posters is 24-year-old Eli Rallo, better known by her TikTok handle @thejarr. She began with “rules for a first date” and a year later she tackled an absurd number of situations for her 569,900 followers, like “rules for liking yourself a little more” and “rules for going back to school”. “If you can dream it I’ve done it,” Rallo tells Mashable. “I get so many comments and DMs, like, ‘Can you do rules for when you’re home sick for school?’ The amount of specificity I have received in my time doing this is absolutely out of control, to a point where I have done pretty much anything.”
Instead of fretting over what you should do to stop yourself from texting someone you shouldn’t be, you can check Rallo’s TikTok page and if she hasn’t posted a video on that yet (she has), the list of rules is just a comment or DM away.
“The pandemic upended our lives in so many different ways and I found that structure and ways to make a shitty day better can really change your life,” shared Rallo. “When we were going through so much loss and isolation, the idea of structure and fun structure that didn’t just look this is what you have to do to make your life better. But instead, go buy yourself a fucking treat, you deserve it resonated with people.”
Kel McCall, a 27-year-old personal assistant in Toronto, posts rule videos on TikTok because when seeking advice online she’d end up on Reddit or deep into Twitter threads and wished she was receiving advice from a woman her age.
Both McCall and Rallo say their intentions aren’t to tell their viewers how to live their lives. “My goal and only intention is to influence people to feel good about themselves,” said Rallo. However, it’s undeniable that the genre aims to make the individual universal.
It’s not a phase. It’s an era.
“[Rule videos] point to a really deep uncertainty about what is right or, or wrong within these spaces, and how to connect with others,” explained Zoetanya Sujon, the program director in communications and media at London College of Communication and member of the TikTok Cultures Research Network. “That might be in part due to overstimulation online, but it might also be due to this accelerated pace of relational exchange and the ways in which that can kind of make people a little socially dizzy, a little relationally overwhelmed.” We have unprecedented access to other people, which brings up a lot of questions over what to do with that access.
For example, with the boundaries between offline and online life blurring there is ambiguity over who qualifies as a friend and who’s just an acquaintance. McCall posted a video where she created a point system to help people figure it out. Items on the list include “go pee together” for three points and “share a near death experience” for five. While she described the video as “silly,” people commented saying, “according to this video I have no friends.” Rule videos both offer a solution to uncertainty and play into the desire to monitor other people’s behavior. And this kind of conduct runs rampant online.
Sujan pointed to German sociologist Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process, in which he argued that etiquette guides were a signal of social transformation to help contextualize rules on TikTok. Ultimately, rule videos are like the etiquette guides of the TikTok era. “Etiquette guides and guides on manners articulate things we often might take for granted, but the people who are writing them are indicating that they’re not necessarily taken for granted, which is why I think they’re coming out at times of uncertainty around what it means to be a friend,” explained Sujan. “Etiquette and manners guides are often about social control and claiming space.”
The sign of a mainstream trend format on TikTok is the creation of parody videos, which often reveal more than the trend itself. Dan Hentschel, a 26-year-old content creator in Los Angeles, California, makes satirical etiquette videos, not unlike the earnest rule videos you might find on your FYP. In one, he details “how to be a good texter,” where he explains the importance of matching your texting partner’s level of enthusiasm, length of text, and use of punctuation.
While Hentschel’s tone is satirical, he does document the mental exhaustion that goes into figuring out how to interact with someone across mediums. “A lot of my videos are in a place that’s between satire and truth,” Hentschel told Mashable. “A comment summed it up pretty well: ‘Your videos are like if I listened to my worst impulses.'”
“An accidental byproduct of my videos has been, how outrageous can I make the premise of these videos, and people will admit openly to doing the behavior in the comments.”
Despite poking fun at the trend, he understands their appeal and that other creators approach it in good faith. “There’s people who struggle with social anxiety or just difficulty with social cues like me and you always wish that there was a rulebook, or it seems like everybody else is following a rule book,”said Hentschel.
Essentially, rules on TikTok serve as a guide for users to better understand the offline world, but by seeking out this information online it creates a culture of digital surveillance. With American teens spending upwards of an hour and a half a day on TikTok, the inclination to search for life’s answers on your FYP makes a lot of sense. But perhaps before DMing your favorite creator for situational rules, ask a friend first.