America’s Summer of Viral Meltdowns

Videos of people behaving badly have become so popular that filming one another is now a reflexive impulse.

A distorted image of a woman screaming
Getty / The Atlantic

The sign outside the Panera Bread in Chico, California, clearly informed customers that they must wear a mask in order to enter. But inside, one day in July, someone was breaking the rules, and William Cuthbertson, a 49-year-old librarian, instinctively started filming.

In the video, a woman waits in line and lets a surgical mask dangle from her hand rather than put it on her face to satisfy the restaurant’s harried manager. She is filming too, holding her camera up over her shoulder, pointing it at Cuthbertson. At the one-minute mark, she storms up to the counter. “You’re not going to serve me, because I’m not wearing a mask?” she yells. “That’s exactly right, dummy,” Cuthbertson interjects. The woman spins around, and approaches Cuthbertson and a friend of his, who is also filming. She blows air on them and grins as wide as the frame. “You think that mask is going to protect you? You fart off your ass and you can smell it,” she snarls, gesturing at her own butt, just before the video ends.

Cuthbertson says he started filming because of a combination of anger and solidarity—he hoped he was providing backup for the Panera Bread manager in some way—but he couldn’t say why he shared the video. “I just posted it to post it, no big deal,” he told me. “You see these videos everywhere.”

And this is the type of incident that feels made for the internet. Cuthbertson shared it to his private Facebook, which he hardly uses, and set the post to public. It started taking off from there, and was screen-recorded and reposted on Twitter the same day. Forty-eight hours later, the video was on the internet culture site The Daily Dot, with its star renamed “Panera Karen”—Karen being the catchall name the internet has landed on to refer to all kinds of selfish and aggressive, mostly white, women.

Cuthbertson’s recording was just one two-minute installment in America’s Summer of Outrage: For months, videos of people behaving horribly to one another have been bounding across the internet. Despite the fact that 75 percent of Americans support face-mask requirements, many of these clips feature the minority of people who are most vocally opposed to them. There’s the man in a Costco who refused to wear a mask and then insisted he felt “threatened”; the Ohio woman who lost it over a mask mandate at the DMV is the same woman who lost it over a mask policy at a Planet Fitness; 15 million people clicked to see another woman go absolutely wild outside a Red Lobster in Pennsylvania. All of this is mixed with the constant crowdsourced documentation of quotidian racism and police brutality. In another viral video, also from July, a white woman senselessly interrogates a Black man sitting in a car outside his own house. “Another one of those ladies on TV, on the internet,” he mutters as she stomps away.

There is a sharp difference between the filming of George Floyd’s murder and the filming of a selfish person doing something unpleasant or funny. Yet social media treats everything as equally shareable, and part of the same broad, never-ending story about the terribleness of people. “Viral videos beget more viral videos,” Katherine Cross, a doctoral student studying online toxicity at the University of Washington, told me. “They’ve become part of the culture.”

This vortex of outrage isn’t entirely organic: Once uploaded, these interactions quickly get reposted by enormous meme accounts, amplified by algorithms, and monetized by sites that specialize in spreading them. The videos have become so popular and ubiquitous that this is how the physical world appears to so many of us now: an astonishing array of potential viral interactions. Anywhere you turn, you might see something stupid, cruel, or worse—and the immediate impulse is to take out your camera and film it.

Whenever a new video is posted online, people who know exactly what to do with it are waiting. Shortly after Cuthbertson’s video went viral, he received a mysterious text message from a viral-video agency offering to represent the clip, cutting him in on 50 percent of its revenue. “I had this dream of making a million dollars off of this thing, so I could retire comfortably,” Cuthbertson joked. The agency, which declined to comment, failed to sell it, so he hasn’t made anything at all. But others have done better within the micro-economy around the summer’s biggest viral hits.

The rights to the best videos are quickly snapped up by agencies, such as ViralHog or Jukin Media, that then try to license them to news outlets. Editors at aggregation powerhouses like The Daily Dot and TMZ mine massive Reddit forums such as r/PublicFreakout for new material, or they peruse the dozens of Instagram and TikTok accounts dedicated solely to collecting such content. Headlines blare “SUPERMARKET ‘KAREN’ 2.0 ANOTHER MASK MELTDOWN … Chucks Food This Time!!!” above clips ripped from Twitter.

“Karen does really well for us,” Kris Seavers, an editor for The Daily Dot, told me. “We’re always looking for the latest Karen.” Seavers oversees the site’s IRL section—real-world incidents that can blow up online—and says the site has more than 110 stories tagged “Karen.” New videos are fairly easy to find, she added, and they’re easy page-view wins. “The more that people realize these are traffic drivers, the more there are TikTok accounts, or Twitter and Instagram accounts, pulling them as well.” The same day Cuthbertson’s video appeared on The Daily Dot, it was also covered by Complex, the New York Post, and the Daily Mail, and served as the inspiration for a Lifehacker explainer about why face masks protect from the virus but not from fart smells. “I’m not sure how these things spread,” Cuthbertson said. “But it got more and more views. It got more and more shares. It was a surreal kind of thing.”

Individual influencers help videos spread as well. Fans of the celebrity blogger Perez Hilton send him links that he posts on his personal YouTube or TikTok account, where they’re seen by his millions of followers. “The best Karen videos are the ones that have a compelling and clear beginning, middle, and end,” Hilton told me, with the detached tone of a film critic. “If you can get drama, ridiculousness, and explosion in 15, 30, 60 seconds, that’s gold.” And truly, some of the viral meltdown videos are almost artfully ridiculous. “You can’t take my temperature; that’s against the law,” a belligerent woman in flip-flops and whimsical capri leggings rants at her dentist’s receptionist in one recent video. “This is a medical office,” an offscreen voice tinged with exhaustion offers as the clip fades out. You’d be hard-pressed to script a better scene.

Then there’s the merchandise. Etsy stores have started selling Karen-related coffee mugs and stemless wine glasses. The Instagram account Keeping Up With the Karens has sold several dozen doormats that read No Karens Allowed, and accepts donations from fans. Somebody recently gave $400. “The most popular type of Karen content is typically the ones that involve a meltdown of some sort,” the owner of the account told me, requesting anonymity for fear of professional consequences. He spoke about the chore of wading through submissions, trying to decide which videos were sufficiently natural and dramatic. Some he tosses out because they’re clearly staged. “I see thousands of videos a month,” he said. “You start developing what I dub a ‘K-dar’ in how to distinguish a real Karen incident from a forced one.”

The immense ecosystem of internet culture doesn’t just amplify and promote these videos; it needs them.

By the time his video went viral, Cuthbertson wasn’t sure he’d done the right thing. Before signing over the video rights to an agency, he turned down a request from a local TV news station that wanted to use it, worrying that the attention would result in the woman’s being identified. (So far, she hasn’t been named.) “You could tell the woman was just being stupid, and we’ve all done stupid things,” he said.

Unlike the videos of police violence that galvanized this year’s protests and have led to many tangible results, a great argument hasn’t typically been made for the value of viral shaming videos like these. In 2018, when The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix wrote about the everyday racism captured in proto-Karen videos starring internet villains with nicknames like Coupon Carl and Permit Patty, she was wary of coverage that presented them as memes, or “superficially cutesy.” Since long before this summer, recording strangers and allowing social-media companies to profit off the resulting provocative content has been regarded as ethically murky. But now the sheer quantity of galling behavior caught on tape seems to make its own argument for keeping the cameras rolling.

“I started sharing them because I view myself as a pop-culture purveyor,” Hilton said of the clips he posted. “I talk about what people are talking about.” These clips pop up all over our timelines. They’re out of control. They’re almost as familiar as the morning weather report. This summer, Cross said, “we are definitely seeing a significant increase in the number of viral videos.”

The impulse to reflexively record an anti-mask meltdown is obvious: Unlike America's manifold failures at responding to the pandemic, the video typically stars a clear villain who can be shamed and held accountable. “The individualist logic of social media leads us to believe that we can virally shame our way to a better world,” Cross added. But a shoddy cellphone recording gives only the illusion of control. So far, what many of us have likely accomplished is the acceleration of our own cynicism: The more videos we see of adults throwing temper tantrums over wearing masks, the more likely we are, it seems, to take another video of someone throwing a temper tantrum over wearing a mask. And the more we share those videos, the more algorithms will convince us that temper tantrums are happening all the time, and that we want to see more of them.

The paradox at the center of a viral-video culture is that hardly anyone thinks of themselves as the villain worth filming. In many of these videos, the “Karens” don’t care that they are being recorded. Even the maskless woman throwing a fit in the Panera Bread imagines herself as the hero of the interaction, compelling her to record it too. She likely shared her version in her own internet bubbles—a practice reporters have noticed is common among anti-maskers and conspiracy theorists who believe that the coronavirus is a hoax.

If our culture of viral meltdowns is heightening our awareness of something, it may only be awareness of the culture itself. In a June video of a maskless woman taunting and coughing on customers in a New York bagel shop, a remarkable moment comes when she turns to see the phone camera pointed at her. Her face falls. “I’m sorry,” she says in one breath, desperate as a toddler. Hundreds of videos of other people acting just as badly didn’t do anything to deter her from acting that way. Her mistake, which you can see register in her eyes, was failing to realize that she was being recorded. What she can’t know, and what the person filming her can’t know, is where exactly her face will go from there—who will use it, and how, and who will care, and who will get paid, and what difference any of it will make.