Jill Burrow, "Collage of smartphones with woman portrait on surface" (image courtesy the artist via Pexels)

The other night, swiping through bright bursts of TikToks, I stopped on a video set in shadows and muted tones. It showed lighted windows in Chicago before dawn, a woman standing at a round mirror in athleisure, water filling a thermos, the darkness lifting, boots at a bus stop, a work desk, elevator doors closing, a basket of groceries, the skyscrapers lighted at night, a small dog pattering on a leash, and a movie glowing on the television in the woman’s apartment, a cup of tea steaming in her lap.

This was one of the TikToks @caitmm_ has posted daily since October to evidence the details that make a day. Other entries flick through more workout fits, a five-minute journal, a Kindle, a candle burning, and planners and to-do lists opened on desks (the pen always traces the last letter of a word). In these clips I found a cinema of the little things: restocked pouches of green tea, Q-tips, endlessly steaming mugs of coffee. I watched weeks of this woman’s patient, gentle life in just minutes — got to know her routines, her walls, her pet’s mannerisms and her gaze on our lighted city.

The #minivlog, #dayinthelife takes part in a post-2020 movement to represent life with more veracity. The videos portray the everyday realities edited out of the curated Instagram feeds that dominated the 2010s, contemporaneous with a recent Instagram trend (everything is a trend) to photo dump the messy, blurry, half-eaten croissants of ourselves (our lives). Days-in-the-life respond to a general exhaustion with overly artificial entertainment, not unlike autofiction in literature and half-scripted vlogs on YouTube. Post-truth and the pandemic inspired us to demand more from art. Now, TikToks arm us against spectacle, with video memoirs more true to life.

The genre originated in the first lockdown, when we learned to entertain ourselves with — and fix our gazes on — the minutiae of daily life. Nabela, a popular creator, began posting #pocketsofpeace in quarantine because, as she explains in one video, “I believe that each day carries a few moments of goodness, and we deserve to enjoy them” (the hashtag has accrued 1.2 billion views as of this writing). Her videos define the genre’s images and (one-handed) actions: showering, applying makeup, lighting candles, buying flowers, wiping countertops, and turning morning knobs, the water awakening in the showerhead. They suggest that, as we re-enter the world slightly more wounded and reserved after the heights of pandemic, we can continue to cherish the at-home, the minute.

Paul Cézanne, “Fruit and a Jug on a Table” (1890) oil on canvas, 12.75 x 15.98 inches (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

But this reality must look a certain way. The creators do not film the work that admits them to their high-rises and refined interiors. The neutral palettes of Instagram persist. Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) survives here in the crunch of dirt on nature trails and plops of vegetable soup poured into a thermos. The narrated Tikvlogs lull with calm voices, and those without narration rely on soft acoustic sounds or sparse piano notes. This is meant to suggest the calm motions of a life — but, set to footage of small acts, the music washes me over with a faint sadness. How long will the creators record their days? Six months? Five years? A half-century? If, at the end of a lifetime, the self-documentarian watches her quiet aesthetic scenes, what will she feel? What will all the recording mean then?

The dailies do not merely show life for life’s sake: they silently appeal for how to make meaning in our lives. One woman who eats, sleeps, drinks cocoa, listens to the air, and takes deep breaths in “the forest,” journals in cursive: “5 changes for the next year.” If you pause the TikTok, you can make out her first goal: “trusting oneself + intuition [sic]. Why? Lack of self trust leaves one vulnerable.” In this moment, the mini-documentary becomes a motivational post. At the same time the women manufacture pieces of life, staging their mindfulness, posting against the helpless anxiety our digital addictions provoke. When they produce content in hope of inspiring others who are as sad-anxious as them, they brand themselves as inspirational influencers who repeat advice to growing followers and likes. Fill out your planner; light candles; walk the treadmill; list your goals.

But can the genuine penetrate the TikTok voice? Can we find beauty or peace in washed out filters? Can we be healed by the tools that induce our pain?

In a class I teach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we consider these questions of the digitized self. If a few powerful men in Silicon Valley can finance and design applications to manipulate us with tools that raise our dopamine and cortisol and condition us to reach for our devices after class, panic when they aren’t beside us, yearn for them when we’re occupied by responsibilities, and surrender our time, our imaginations, our idle thinking, our reflections before bed and at dawn — do we have free will? In early drafts, sometimes a student will claim an influencer who posts an unfiltered, unposed photo might resolve the body dysmorphia Instagram inflicts on millions worldwide. And I ask: does this undo the hundreds of filtered, posed photos on the influencer’s feed or the rest of the filtered poses we reproduce?

My personal resolve, to step away from the bacchanal of validation and pain, may seem impractical to the motivators. And we may be bound in knots we can never undo. Instead, I like to picture the reality at the edges of each frame. The day-in-the-life videos feature unpeopled scenes. The few that include a companion reduce him (often him) to an elbow, a leather shoe. You do not have to strain to imagine the life outside the day-in-the-life: the continual pausing at meals to pan over the food; the conversation-stopping apologies (I need this content); the entreaties to do something again; the slow opening of washer and refrigerator doors (for the seventh time, in an apartment, alone); the desperate semi-furtive movements of the filmmaker’s hands, which seize the pro-sized phone, palm for it under tables, throw open purses and jacket pockets for it, and thrust it forward to record.

Edvard Munch, “Self-Portrait. Between the Clock and the Bed” (1940-1943) oil on canvas, 58.8 x 47.4 inches at the Munch-museet, Oslo (photograph via Wikimedia Commons)

Desperation, quiet resolve: this describes the viewers, too. Millions like these videos. In the comments I find unanswered appeals for communication (“So how is your day going?”) and pleas of affection (“Day 7 commenting till you follow me back”). And I continue to watch the days-in-the-life. Last summer, when I soared into what we were sure would grow into something more honest and real than love — something beautiful, mature, and thrilling like the ancient arbors in the Amazon — the woman with my heart made me a TikTok account so she could send me videos she liked. She created the username, which advertised the account was for her and included the date we met. I opened the app only twice to see what she sent me: clips of dogs and a home library.

Now it has been months since she left me, and sometimes I open the application, still logged in to the account named for her. Lying alone in the blue-lit dark I swipe through videos the algorithm feeds me of people crying at their phone cameras in their cars, the young monologuing about lost hope, viral psychologists lecturing on trauma, the fit juxtaposing morose selfies with photos of their biceps and glutes bulging like hot air balloons, the cosmic casting spells and affirmations to “manifest an ex,” and anonymous 20-year-old women in my city documenting how they cooked oatmeal, went to the gym, organized their cabinets, called old friends, read a book, opened journals, outlined their futures, and reflected on themselves — a solitary drama I cannot turn from, a quiet triumph in the pained carnival of our digital, contemporary world.

Marek Makowski teaches courses about writing, Shakespeare, and social media and the self at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He lives in Chicago. You can find more of his work on marekwriting.com and...