Whether your self-isolation has been spent baking or masturbating, you've likely been forced to get a little innovative in terms of filling all your newfound alone time. And though there's something to be said about the value of having some solo space, as many of us approach the one month-mark of quarantine, it makes sense that our desire for human connection has only intensified. As a result, experts believe we've been coping by sharing memes, and the latest iteration of this has been the popularization of a meme subgenre known as the chain challenge.
A trend that sees people doing anything from push-ups to drawing carrots, chain challenges seem to be on everyone and their mother's Instagram Stories. And while TikTokers have been ahead of the curve in terms of pioneering these types of challenges, the tagging of specific friends to seed these newer challenges is a post-quarantine development that seems to have ties to a deeper desire for intimacy. After all, before self-isolation, many of these (pretty random) challenges probably would've been disregarded or even considered irritating, especially by the generation that remembers chain emails. So then, why is everyone doing them now? And is there more to it than just boredom?
While it's been hypothesized that these chain challenges could be our way of searching for a sense of nostalgic comfort in uncertain times by reaching out to people we trust, I also have a theory that the appeal of these chain challenges, particularly the ones in which you're instructed to "tag 10 friends," could lie within the perception that they're more interactive and personal as something circulated amongst a tighter social circle. Why? Well, compared to the way we tend to interact with more conventional picture and text-based memes, chain challenges are often direct prompts sent to an established group of friends. As a result, they tend to be more unique to the participant, which is something freelance creative director Eric Hu also pointed toward in his analysis.
"I think we seek out traces of our friends. We miss specific things about specific people. You might miss a friend's infectious laugh. You might miss another friend's dance moves. You might miss another friend's sarcasm," he explained. "I think the most successful chain challenges let you witness the things that make your friends unique. Everyone draws an orange in a different way and it becomes this stage where you show parts of your personality... It becomes that substitute for hearing your friends laugh in a way."
And this line of argument makes sense, especially since people do seem to be taking advantage of these chain challenges as a sort of creative outlet. For example, according to Creative Director Morgan Freed, he's seen people he typically wouldn't expect to partake in these sorts of challenges to showcase their more irreverent sides — and the results have been a pleasant surprise.
"Through this quarantine, I've been blown away by my friends who are like lawyers and doctors — who don't really get a chance to be funny or creative because they don't have the time — have fun with this stuff," he said. "All these people who I never knew were talented and funny and creative are so hilarious, so creative, and beyond funny."
Needless to say, it appears as if many people are using chain challenges as an open invitation to chat, which makes sense seeing as how responding to your friend's Story, posting something of your own, or tagging a friend has the possibility to jumpstart a conversation. And in this way, these challenges also could quite possibly be our sneaky way of fishing for communication with those we miss seeing in real life.
"Everyone's craving attention from their friends right now, but it's still uncouth to be so transparent about it. I still feel weird FaceTiming a friend more than once a day," Hu said, adding that "these challenges to me kind of circumvent that, because it's gamified." So perhaps it's this desire for intimacy in combination with boredom that's led to a newfound willingness to engage in these more time-consuming types of memes — especially given the difference between the effort put into figuring out how to bounce a roll of toilet paper on a tennis racket versus hitting send on a viral video.
"We're literally picking up crumbs of each other's humanities that way, in a way that doesn't feel perverse or needy or invasive," Hu explained. "It's like a less creepy version of smelling someone's hair, because if you verbalized a challenge it'd seem absolutely nuts. [Like], 'Hey, can I just like watch you do push ups?'"
That said, maybe we have all gotten to the point where we genuinely do just want to watch our friends do push ups, or even give it a try ourselves. And while arguably a stopgap for intimacy, perhaps it's not all too bad, especially if it does end up in some comforting conversation. After all, in addition to providing a lighthearted dose of levity, these chain challenges have also become a genuine way of reaching out to those we love and, in these strange and trying times, the importance of that can't be understated. So in short, check in on your friends, respond to those Stories, and keep those chain challenges going, because we could all use a little connection right now.
Welcome to "Internet Explorer," a column by Sandra Song about everything Internet. From meme histories to joke format explainers to collections of some of Twitter's finest roasts, "Internet Explorer" is here to keep you up-to-date with the web's current obsessions — no matter how nonsensical or nihilistic.
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