Wishful thinking

In this week's edition: ShiftTok, StockTok, ChefClub, internet junk, the best internet culture of quarantine and a mystery in Peoria

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The queen of “reality shifting” looks like a pretty ordinary high school senior. @Natzkaban, as she’s sometimes known online, likes to write and travel and film genuinely funny Harry Potter fan fiction. She has a Pinterest, where she bookmarks smoothie recipes and Minecraft stills. An Instagram, where she posts prom photos. But on TikTok, Natalie coaches her 200,000 followers in the fine, fascinating art of … mentally teleporting to Hogwarts.

These are strange times, of course, and strange times yield strange hobbies. But few speak so directly to the claustrophobia of our current moment as the wildly trendy, quasi-spiritual teen practice known as “shifting.” In the past few months alone, the trend has attracted half a billion TikTok views, many on @natzkaban’s videos. New shifting forums have wracked up tens of thousands of subscribers on sites like Reddit and Amino. Meanwhile, discussions of shifting — most of them unskeptical — have headlined a bevy of college and high school newspapers.

“There’s no reason,” convincingly argued one high school junior, “to waste your time somewhere you don’t want to be when you can use your mind to consciously go elsewhere.”

At its face, shifting appears to involve meditating one’s way into an imaginative, half-asleep stupor, though adherents — many borrowing from quantum theory and parapsychology — generally believe they’re doing more than that. Shifting is not lucid dreaming, they say: When you shift, your consciousness is transported wholesale to another, equally real and tangible environment. Moreover, you can conveniently pre-script or control that environment to your exact specifications, so that the weather’s always nice or your nails are always done or you never get pregnant (for instance!).

Shifters claim to taste food in their “desired realities,” or DRs, which are often — though not always — derived from Harry Potter. They say they can smell dust and taste food and feel changes in temperature. They can also, one presumes, interact with their peers sans masks or six-food radii of hygienic space. The creator of one throaty, 31-minute shifting meditation tracks put the appeal this way:

Whether you feel sad, unhappy [or] useless in this current moment, or if you simply just want to improve your life for the better, shifting to a new reality in REAL LIFE can be more powerful than you think.

Given the full spectrum of ways a housebound adolescent could cope with the dual tedium and horror of the past year, we should probably be glad that witchcraft lite emerged as a leading option. (In fairness, I also love ShiftTok videos on their own merits: They’re weird and smart and imaginative.)

Many shifters are pretty explicit about wanting to escape the particular “hell matrix” of 2020. Shifting “scripts,” in which shifters plan out the desired reality they plan to port into, often specify the DR will not include Covid-19.

“I currently have Covid-19,” another shifter wrote on Reddit, “and it’s pretty minor right now. But will being sick affect my ability to shift? I really hope not because I’m so bored at home I wanna do something fun lol.”

One cautionary note in all this: the many, many sad and desperately hopeful kids who very much want to shift (… or experience something they interpret as shifting) and haven’t been able to yet. For every well-hydrated 17-year-old who claims to have jumped realms and banged Draco Malfoy, there are dozens of aspirants in the comments section demanding the secrets to scripting or meditation. Stories about giving up or losing hope are common; posters on Reddit and Amino often beg fellow shifters to help keep their faith up.

But then @Natzkaban posts another video of herself visiting Hogwarts (… as far as we can tell, sleeping in bed) and a thousand would-be Hogwarts students, stranded for now on Zoom, decide to try again.

If you read anything this weekend

  1. This cheering (& extremely fun) compilation of all the good culture that came out of an otherwise no good very bad year. I spent over an hour clicking through all these videos and tweets and TikToks, many of which I loved but forgot (!) in the indeterminable 2020 brain fog. This list is a testament to creativity and resilience and fun (remember fun?) and a reminder that there was *some* joy in the past nine months. Plus: It comes with a lovely, year-end essay by Links fave E. Alex Jung. [Vulture]

  2. This deep dive into the internet of “TERFs,” or trans-exclusionary radical feminists. Come to gawk at a rightly derided transphobic cult; stay for the larger discussion of what happens to speech and communities chased off of major platforms. It’s a question that’ll become more urgent as social networks continue stepping up moderation. [Kaitlyn Tiffany / The Atlantic]

  3. This mind-bending essay on the unseen ways that Google shifts what we know, and even how we understand the very concept of knowing. “To the extent that it hides the unknown behind a scrim of facts, and encourages us to see the world’s plurality as something we can skim, Google also reduces our equipment for living.” [Megan Marz / Real Life]

  4. This jaunt through the internet of birders, a place and a people I know nothing about. Don’t really have a pitch for this, except that I — a person who hates the cold, and also any leisure activity that might end without a clear accomplishment or resolution — finished reading it and asked Jason if he wanted to try birding this weekend. [Jessie Williamson / Outside]

  5. This truly encyclopedic compendium of buyable online junk. Pair with this Guardian essay from last week, in which Max Benwell he comically reviews all the dumb gadgets advertised on social media. [NYT]

And now for something completely different


StockTok. Zoom gaze. The “red pill” for women. The “inevitable life cycle” of UGC platforms. (See also: Pornhub’s disturbing child porn problem.) The economics of Christmas trees. The search for the next Alex Trebek. Two newish pro sports that I, for one, am very into (!): breakdancing and competitive tag.

Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical is … actually going to air! But that “deadliest days in U.S. history” meme is … actually wrong. 2020 claims Instagram sharing and the Ikea catalog. Forecasting the future of OnlyFans. Obsessing over Chefclub. Last but not least: Wtf is going on in Peoria?

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Few people who know me would ever mistake me for “cool,” but Marc and I have met IRL and … he still said it! In fairness, we met at a conference in D.C. for agricultural economists. 😂THANK YOU to Marc & everyone else who shares this newsletter. Your referrals are the main way it finds new readers!!

— Caitlin