A few nights ago, I woke up from my sleep in a cold sweat. My head jolted off of my pillow, and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that caused me to instinctively curl up into a ball. This experience was the result of a bad dream. 

I’m sure this is not a new phenomenon to anyone reading this who has also slept at one point in their life. In fact, this is likely such a common occurrence that you are probably stewing in frustration at the fact that you are being forced to read about such a banal experience of the human condition. “That happens to me all the time,” you just muttered dismissively. But I assure you this article is not about bad dreams. 

It’s instead about myself and something that I’ve experienced recently and how it relates to something I read one time. The story of my nightmare was simply a quick ploy to draw the reader (you) in, and hopefully act as a point of reference that I can return to later in the article at a time when it is more contextualized, bringing the essay full circle and leaving you intellectually satiated. Now, to the real essay.

In a futile attempt to improve my mental health or free myself from the chains of Big Tech’s rule or whatever the current discourse on the matter is right now, I recently decided to delete two social media apps: TikTok and Instagram. These two seemed like the natural place to start. I had fallen into the trap of believing that Twitter made me smarter, while TikTok and Instagram seemed to only have frivolous content that I could live without.

A few weeks after making this decision, while watching “Inside the NBA” on TNT on a Friday night, halfway through my second Miller High Life of three that night, Charles Barkley did the “Silhouette Challenge” during the show. My friend promptly burst out laughing at what we were both seeing, occasionally jabbing me in the rib with his elbow as if to say “Are you seeing this? This is once-in-a-lifetime stuff! I’m so ecstatic to be alive for this.” But nothing going on at that moment was funny to me. No, nothing was funny to me at all.

Later, I came to learn that the “Silhouette Challenge” had been a trend that started on TikTok in the weeks since I deleted it. Barkley’s dance was a subversion of this trend, something created under the assumption that everyone who saw it would understand the reference. I felt like the rug was swept out from under me. Suddenly, I was the butt of the joke, and my friend was pointing and laughing at me, saying, “You fool! You know nothing of what’s going on. Nothing!” 

I had only meant to delete TikTok and nothing more. But now that decision had entered into another sphere of my life. Watching “Inside the NBA” on TNT was once the most comforting activity I could think of, and now I was completely lost. I didn’t know how I let this happen; I never wanted this to happen. I suppose that’s the problem with falling out of “the know” — you don’t realize it’s happening until it’s too late. And then you’re sitting on the couch with one of your best friends but you feel completely alone. And all you can ask yourself is if you had just spent two hours on TikTok every day for the last two months, could this fateful situation have been avoided? 

Later that night, as I laid in bed recounting the events of that day, I started to wonder how many other aspects of my life had already been impacted by this decision to get off TikTok and Instagram. How many off-handed comments had been made in reference to a trend or song or hashtag that I missed? Would I have even known I had missed something, or would the comment have just gone by me without my knowledge while resonating in the heads of those around me, slowly pushing me further and further out of touch with my generation?

I am not the first person to have been concerned about something like this. One of my favorite essays on pop culture is “Death by Harry Potter,” written by Chuck Klosterman in 2007 for Esquire magazine. In this essay, Klosterman admits to having never read, watched or paid any attention whatsoever to the franchise. While he does not express a desire to ever do so in the future or any regret in having never done it in the past, he does investigate the repercussions of that mindset. Mainly, how having no understanding of a cultural touchstone as pervasive as the Harry Potter franchise has impacted the way in which he interacts with the world around him. In a section that reflects the overarching idea of the essay, Klosterman asks, “Because I don’t understand Harry Potter, am I doomed to misunderstand everything else?”

In re-reading this essay for the purpose of creating this article for you, the reader, I can’t help but think about how trivial Klosterman’s concerns now seem. This is not Klosterman’s fault, of course: In the faraway year of 2007, how could he have predicted the huge growth in social media, where much of today’s culture is now conceived? And yet, the burden of having never read the Harry Potter franchise still seems entirely manageable compared to the trials of keeping track of new trends that seem to manifest at the top of every hour. Staying “in the know” now requires one to completely immerse themselves in these apps, and to disengage almost guarantees social and cultural self-destruction in the future.

Even if you are not on social media, those around you are. Those people are certainly having conversations — if not explicitly about social media — almost certainly influenced by the dialect and discourse of it. And that will continue throughout the rest of your life. 

Every time you miss something on social media is another detail that you miss in the character of this generation. Slowly, those that stayed “in the know” will rise to the top of the social hierarchy, all speaking a homogenous cultural language and basking in the joy of understanding the world around them, while you quiver at the bottom, occasionally blurting out a Vine reference from your short time on the app. Wishing, praying, to be heard. 

I sat at my desk, doing what I believe to be homework, although I couldn’t quite see the screen. There was also an entire party going on around me, my desk directly in the middle of it. Suddenly, I was approached by a beautiful woman. She towered over me as I sat in my pathetic little seat and looked me in the eyes. 

After a few moments of gut-wrenching silence, she asked me, “Did you hear about Armie Hammer?” In truth, I had heard about Armie Hammer. He had been trending on Twitter for a few days now, but for whatever reason, I hadn’t been able to bring myself to look into the why. I knew I should at least do some perfunctory investigation into the issue in case I was presented with a situation like this, but I never got around to it. So, I sheepishly responded, “Yes.” 

As if she was some sort of demi-God, she saw right through my lie and burst out into a deep belly laugh. She pointed at me and encouraged others to do the same. I was paralyzed. Before I knew it, the entire party was laughing at me, heckling me for my cursory understanding of an Internet trend that happened a week prior. And then I woke up.

Daily Arts Writer Leo Krinsky can be reached at lkrinsky@umich.edu