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Mike Schwanke might have spent this weekend in Chicago like he does most others: bumming around as he rests from his day job in tech by walking his dog or maybe visiting a couple of bars with friends.
But the truth is, his girlfriend and roommates were out of town, and he didn’t get up to much.
“I had the home alone, and I didn’t do shit,” he confessed to BuzzFeed News. “I didn’t do anything.”
You wouldn’t know that from the one thing he did make this weekend: a video that’s since gone viral for its pitch-perfect parody of the “day in the life” videos that are seemingly everywhere on TikTok.
“This is my weekend as a 28-year-old living in Chicago,” Schwanke says in the video, mimicking the deadpan affectation of a podcast host who has better places to be.
According to the video at least, his day starts ordinarily enough: making his bed before enjoying “Mental Awareness Day” at his unnamed company by meeting up with a friend for brunch and drinks. But soon, he’s with other friends kayaking in the Chicago River, touring a museum, and visiting a Mexican restaurant for tacos, “drinks and vibes,” and a margarita tower. Suddenly, he’s taking his car in for repairs, seeing Bill Maher perform a set at the Chicago Theatre, enjoying tequila shots with other friends, and sampling yet another marg tower. Then they’re at a new restaurant enjoying stuffed pineapple and snow crab, meeting buddies for beers at a sports bar, getting some “small bites” at a fifth restaurant, and then, inexplicably, heading to Medieval Times.
If by this point you find yourself wondering how Schwanke is fitting — and affording — all these adventures and marg towers into a day, you’re not alone. It took many people who watched the video, which has been viewed more than 2 million times on Twitter alone, quite some time before they realized this was all a bit.
Schwanke, a comedian who performs with friends in the group Phantasmagoria, wanted to satirize the videos he and his buddies share with one another where other TikTok users film all the things they get up to in a “typical” day.
“I saw a couple of videos with people doing it earnestly, and it’s crazy that these people can’t hear themselves talk. It’s just crazy that people are fitting all the shit in that they do in one weekend,” Schwanke said. “I think they’re already kind of parodies of themselves. If you go through and watch them, the cadence of talking about your weekend that is so insane in just, like, a normal, everyday voice was really funny to me.”
“Day in the life” videos are everywhere on TikTok and come in every shape and form. You can follow 22-year-olds “getting their life on track” by cleaning and working out, or college students sharing #motivation by filming themselves studying and working out (all the videos do tend to show a lot of working out). But there are also more niche videos too that reveal supposedly typical lives of a private chef in the Hamptons (946,000 followers) or a woman living and working in the haunted house that inspired The Conjuring movies (1.3 million followers). TikToks featuring the hashtags #dayinthelife, #dayinmylife, and #dailyvlog have more than 49 billion views combined on the platform.
The videos, first popularized in 2020 by young New York City women like Audrey Peters (589,100 followers) and Victoria Paris (1.4 million followers) who filmed themselves visiting brunch spots or nail salons as the city reopened in the pandemic, satisfy our curious and voyeuristic urges. We get a glimpse into the lives of people who aren’t celebrities but still seem somehow glamorous. They might have corporate jobs with good perks, but the work is never really shown (although their workplaces are catching on). They’re 23 and hot and living in Manhattan (it’s always Manhattan) and eating at Carbone. It’s best not to ask how they’re affording all this and just go along for the ride.
“It is fascinating to see how somebody else lives their life. I think even if someone was doing that type of video, and they were just staying at home and playing video games — yeah, I want to know what microwave meal you made for lunch. I find that interesting. I think just getting a portal into somebody else’s life is interesting,” Schwanke said. “But the people who have success with making these videos are people who live kind of insane, carefree lives, and yes, it’s fun to watch. People who have a lot of money and just blow it, and people who kind of live just insane day-to-day lives that seem completely normal to them.”
It’s undeniable that there has been a shift away from the so-called Instagram aesthetic in recent years, with users favoring more authentic content that doesn’t feel staged. This explains why all your friends are suddenly posting photo dumps or downloading BeReal. But even on TikTok, things are still being curated. Hell, it’s a video editing app, after all.
In their most pure form then, these videos occupy something of a middle ground. Your life comes across as both attainable and unattainable. You’re showing it, but also showing it off. We might see you getting ready before you put your makeup on, but we also see the stylish outfit you choose and catch a glimpse of your trendy loft. We’re told this day is pretty typical for you, but yet we see you getting up early for yoga, getting a massage, working until 8 p.m., and still managing to stay out late at a gallery opening — on a Tuesday?! It’s the Gen Z or millennial version of I Don’t Know How She Does It! (The answer? She doesn’t! Even Peters, one of the first to popularize the trend, has admitted she stitches several days together into one video.)
What’s more, they all tend to sound the same. Digital strategist Olivia Yallop wrote a piece for Refinery 29 last year about the emergence of the so-called TikTok voice, the registered style of delivery that pops up in many front-facing videos where users play with their intonation and pace to effectively perform the other people who went viral before them. “It’s a way of signaling that ‘I’m a certain type of person, I’m an influencer,’” sociolinguist Nicole Holliday told Yallop.
Schwanke himself said he was trying to do “the voice” in his video. “It’s like people are turning into robots trying to sound more human on TikTok because TikTok is kind of an insane platform,” he said. “So it’s people trying to humanize themselves and make whatever they’re doing seem normal and like they have their shit together.”
But TikTok’s very nature also means these “day in the life” videos tend to somehow blur into one after a while. The app encourages users to copy trends, and the more of a certain type of video you watch the more the all-knowing, all-seeing algorithm will force feed you. Eventually, they congeal into nothingness.
Which is why Schwanke’s video is so perfect. It’s the TikTok equivalent of semantic satiation, that phenomenon where if you say a word enough times, it loses all meaning and sounds ridiculous. It’s a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, and you can see it start to break down in real time.
By the end of the video, Schwanke has visited the Museum of Ice Cream three times in a single weekend, eaten nonsensical foods at made-up restaurants, spent time with his girlfriend and his husband and wife, and consumed a terrifying amount of marg towers. His voice even starts to speed up and slur by the end as clips of comedy shows and hikes and cooking appear in rapid succession. (For the record, Schwanke estimated about a third of the footage he used was his own, and the rest he pulled from others on the platform, including the clips of the marg tower: “Those girls were having a day,” he said.)
Schwanke is not the first to challenge the reality of these videos. Others users before him upended our perceptions just this past month, but not by using comedy.
Kristy Nguyen, a 22-year-old in California, went viral with an Aug. 20 video showing “a typical day” working her two supermarket jobs, starting at 6 a.m. and not finishing her second shift until 10:30 p.m. Nguyen, who is determined to save up so she can invest in stocks and property, even uses the same ethereal song that appears in most of the other “day in the life” videos — “Aesthetic” by Tollan Kim — as she lugs crates of bread and fills online orders at Walmart. It’s been viewed more than 2.5 million times.
“I decided to make that video because I just wanted to showcase to my followers essentially what I did in a day because all I do is typically just work,” Nguyen told BuzzFeed News.
“I think that’s why my video probably got so much traction because it definitely shows the reality of most people that have to technically work two jobs,” Nguyen added. “I think it’s so different from a YouTuber’s life where they get to kind of have the whole day to themselves and do things that are just for fun.”
Like Nguyen, Ashleigh Carter, a 30-year-old who works in media in New York City, is also a fan of the “day in the life” format and the glimpses they afford her into other people’s lives. Earlier this month, she was heading to her job as a newsletter writer when she decided to film herself doing her hair and taking the subway from her Brooklyn apartment.
“I just figured that that would be the perfect day to show what it’s like in my life,” Carter told BuzzFeed News, before admitting there was a dark thought at the back of her mind. “For some reason, I was like, It would be so hilarious if I got fired today. I don’t know why I had that thought, and then I went into the office and obviously that happened.”
In the TikTok, which has been viewed more than 700,000 times, we watch Carter’s life fall apart as she arrives at her desk, makes coffee, and then leaves the office in tears. (Carter said she was laid off for company financial reasons, not because of her job performance.)
But because Carter included the onscreen text “Day in the life: girl who just got laid off,” viewers also know what’s coming — that reality is about to creep into the video in a very depressing way. She also ditches the TikTok voice altogether, instead sounding rightfully cynical and jaded. “This video is honestly fucking hilarious now because I filmed this ‘Spend a day in my life with me,’” she says, mimicking the vocal fry of the TikTok voice as she names the genre, “and I had no idea what was to come when I got to the office today.”
Carter has since followed up her all-too-real TikTok with another, titled “Day in the life of a newly unemployed girl,” which also flips the stereotypical video that might show a young woman brunching in an expensive Manhattan neighborhood.
“I’ve always taken those videos with a grain of salt because social media in general is just like the highlight reel. I’ll still watch them, but I’m always like, ‘Who’s paying your rent? I know it’s not you. How are you affording the West Village?’” Carter said.
“I just felt why not [post my videos]?” she added. “Why not just show what actually happened?”
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