“I was just doing my makeup for work, and I just wanted to tell you guys about how I don’t think math is real,” Gracie Cunningham says, dabbing concealer beneath her eyes. In the event you spend a lot time on TikTok, the setting is acquainted: a teenage woman’s bed room, a quilt overlaying the wall, the digicam tilted barely upward towards her face. She rapidly acknowledges that she is aware of math is actual, within the sense that we study it at school and settle for its rules and formulation. However how do we all know it’s truly true? Who got here up with it? Why? “I know you’re going to be like, Pythagoras,” she riffs — “but how? How did he come up with this?” The exasperation in her voice is extraordinarily, comically teenage. Why had been individuals who, she imagines, lived with out indoor plumbing so occupied with mathematical abstractions? “How would you, like, start on the concept of algebra? Like, what did you need it for?”
Cunningham posted this minute-long video to her TikTok after which, presumably, completed making use of her make-up and went to work. Two weeks later, the video had been considered greater than 1.3 million instances. On Twitter, the place it was reposted, it acquired thousands and thousands extra views. Earlier than lengthy, Cunningham had turn into a kind of on-line characters unlucky sufficient to have a reputation: In web parlance, she was now the “Math Isn’t Real” Woman.
It started, as this stuff typically do, with mockery. Somebody tweeted the clip with a remark: “This is the dumbest video I’ve ever seen.” Many agreed. Others, perturbed by the sight of individuals gleefully calling a teenage woman dumb, sprang to her protection: “She is actually a genius,” one wrote, “and isn’t making any mistakes.” A publish emerged on Medium, arguing that the response to Cunningham was emblematic of a a lot bigger subject: “The Viral Math Girl From TikTok Perfectly Encapsulates What It’s Like to Be Female Online.”
On and on it went. Finally specialists logged on and weighed in. Mathematicians and different lecturers posted the clip supportively, noting that Cunningham’s questions had been, in actual fact, foundational to the research of math and to sure branches of philosophy. “IS MATH REAL? Me, a Harvard-trained data analyst speaks out,” began one thread, by a Ph.D. candidate named Kareem Carr — an evidence of the distinction between mathematical methods and the world they attempt to describe, full with examples of how two plus two may, from time to time, equal 5. That specific declare prompted the tutorial Yascha Mounk to tweet out a name to “cut out the crap,” arguing that questioning primary mathematical statements was undermining “public trust in experts and scientists in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic.” Cunningham’s video, and the arguments about it, had traveled fairly a distance.
It’s the pure life cycle of a factor on the web — a viral video, a meme, an editorial — to come back free from its context and tackle a plethora of meanings. A photograph of a park full of individuals throughout a pandemic, as an illustration, instantly turns into a logo of one thing: a flagrant violation of social distancing; a accountable return to some semblance of regular life within the open air; the federal government’s failure to manage public house; even how pictures itself might be deceptive. Questions like the place the park is, or what the case charge is within the space, turn into immaterial. We react to the static picture. The dialogue it sparks is sure to be heated and go nowhere, as a result of everybody concerned is aware of from its onset what they imagine the photograph means.
This isn’t a lot the stress-free of context because the willful ignorance of it. It’s a near-daily routine. We customers of Twitter are introduced every morning with some nugget of knowledge — something from breaking geopolitical information to a private essay whose worst sentences everyone seems to be quoting with a combination of glee and horror. Then begins the joking and pontificating about it, as folks work to research it in a means that aligns with their pre-existing beliefs. This mode of engagement makes a specific amount of sense when contemplating, say, statements from political figures. It’s stranger when utilized to bits of informal self-expression — individuals who, in going about their bizarre lives, are yanked right into a morass of long-simmering conflicts.
Movies from TikTok could also be significantly prone to this type of decontextualization, as a result of TikTok is assumed to inform us one thing concerning the youngsters. That’s how broad, puzzled swaths of adults deal with it, anyway: as a sphere to strategy anthropologically, a key to understanding a era whose habits, politics and in some instances sources of revenue are baffling to their elders. Earlier than social media, curious adults needed to make do with dissecting the youngsters’ music purchases and slang and fads from over their shoulders. Now youngsters broadcast whole virtualized lives adults can pore over and shake their heads at. Together with, doubtlessly, a teenage woman questioning out loud about math, whose questions are all of a sudden freighted with significance that has nothing a lot to do along with her.
It will be incorrect to see Cunningham as a naïf, helplessly swept into the currents of the web. She very seemingly is aware of extra about learn how to navigate on-line house than the adults arguing over her, and she or he has posted quite a lot of humorous and insightful follow-up movies, together with jokes and ideas concerning the expertise of viral fame. Nonetheless, she and her video turned unusually flattened within the discourse. This mode of gawking — utilizing viral posts as a approach to take the temperature of what others are doing and pondering — is definitely solely heightened by lockdowns and social distancing, which preserve us at arm’s size from what we used to consider as “real life.”
“Why did a physicist who is followed by Barack Obama retweet me?” Cunningham asked in one of those follow-up videos. This was, frankly, a fairly good query. She had begun by asking out loud the idle questions college students ask themselves amid the tedium of finding out for an additional algebra examination. In a classroom, a useful instructor may need answered by speaking concerning the origins of arithmetic or assuring her that philosophers ponder variations of her questions on a regular basis: How do we all know what we all know, and in what sense is summary information “real”? As a substitute her questions quickly turned a helpful proxy for absolutely anything. And ultimately — regardless of fixed accusations that at present’s children are too targeted on their smartphones to note the world round them — it was everybody else who wrestled the video away from its bizarre actuality: only a regular teenager asking regular questions right into a telephone digicam and posting them on-line.