From TikTok creator awhmalfoys

It’s hard for a social media platform to truly break into the public eye unless it has something genuinely new, and people aren’t going to jump ship for a site their friends aren’t on. This makes the sudden and absolute dominance of TikTok all the more fascinating. Necessitated not insignificantly by a year spent indoors, TikTok offers endless content that’s sorted not by recency or whether you know the creator, but by an impenetrable algorithm ostensibly designed to show you what it thinks you’d like most. While designed largely to keep people using the app, this feature also funnels people into smaller and smaller subcommunities based on their interests, creating entirely distinct experiences for each user.

One such externally incomprehensible subgroup is “Reality Shifting,” a niche built squarely in the midpoint between the spiritual and fandom communities, populated by people who believe wholeheartedly that they can project their consciousnesses into alternate realities — largely fictional ones. There is disagreement on the supposed science, but the general consensus is that this is a spiritual process; suggestions that users are simply describing dreams or the like are immediately shouted down. In one representative example, a popular creator talks about an experience in the world of Legend of Korra, elaborating especially on how they became important to the story and their favorite characters.

If you aren’t familiar with the history of fandom, you’ll probably be further shocked to learn that this phenomenon is not without precedent in these circles. There was the “Snapewives” phenomenon of the 2000s, and of course Tumblr’s “kin” communities. But what sets reality shifting apart is its enormous appeal with people who aren’t otherwise particularly engaged in fandom. These videos regularly break hundreds of thousands of likes, and the people who make them enjoy a significant level of microcelebrity. Though they usually position themselves as teachers, they are in fact content creators / influencers.

Despite their enormous numbers, most members of these communities don’t actually claim to have succeeded in “shifting.” Commenters regularly share their frustrations at not having “got it” yet, while the influencers assure them it’s right around the corner. In the absence of these personal experiences, users turn to people who are happy to share their own. This subculture is structured around this power dynamic between those who claim they can shift and those who admit they cannot, and this hierarchy introduces an obvious financial incentive to create content framing yourself as the former. The average non-educational reality shifting TikTok features a creator explaining their exploits in a fictional space (most often the Harry Potter universe), going into great detail on what they supposedly encountered. Such videos advertise the creators’ experiences as learning opportunities, but also encourage viewers to continue consuming their content. 

These videos act as artificial escapism, offering people the chance to matter to their favorite fictional characters in the way those characters do to them. While it is obviously a lie, it preys on the very real feelings of people who, for whatever reason, think they don’t belong in this world. These creators cast themselves not only in the role of educators but also as spiritual leaders, and with that comes some all-too-familiar methods of maintaining a belief even when it’s against someone’s best interests.

Among other arguments, defenders of reality shifting assert that it’s impossible to disprove the experiences practitioners claim to have had; there’s no way of getting inside their heads and knowing what they have done and believe. But this is of little use when your goal is to convince people that they can do something, and that’s where the power these creators hold becomes really apparent. People who engage with this content — extravagant ongoing stories about their favorite characters, framed as if they are not fictional but real people — desperately want it to be true, because surely something is lost if it’s not. 

Similarly, telling people that it is their failing that they have not achieved this transcendent experience, that they simply need to work harder or believe more, creates a space where to stop believing can be seen as admitting defeat. Such a pattern of manipulation is similar to rhetoric used by many traditional religions and cults. Hardcore believers also point to a series of declassified CIA documents from the 1980s as concrete proof of reality shifting’s validity, despite them being nothing of the sort — maybe an omen of TikTok’s general slide toward the conspiratorial. The point is not to justify the practice to a skeptic, but to act as an appeal to authority in the minds of those already convinced.

The reality shifting community is a microcosm of some of the more disconcerting parts of the internet, both in the way it is designed to distance people from the outside world and in the worrying power these influencers have. There is a framework apparent for how content creators can both manipulate their fans and create a space where that manipulation is seen as doing them a favor. This community reflects both the commodification and weaponization of escapism.

Guy Dolbey is a freelance film and culture critic based in London. He is currently studying film at university level, with a goal of making it as some kind of writer.