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The irresistible voyeurism of “day in my life” videos

These are the days of our lives.

Photo collage of a hand holding a cup, a woman in sunglasses, and a handing whisking tea. Dion Lee for Vox
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

My weekend as a 28-year-old in Chicago” is, I would argue, one of the best TikToks ever created.

It starts like this: A tattooed and mustachioed guy named Mike opens a Guru energy drink and explains that today is “mental awareness” day at his job, so he gets brunch with his friend Lizzie, which includes chicken and waffles and an electric-blue cocktail with cotton candy in it. The rest of his weekend is a similarly expensive caricature of a certain kind of hypersocial, hyper-consumerist urban 20-something: He eats, in one day, (another) cotton candy cocktail, a tower of margaritas with hot wings, small plates at a bougie-looking restaurant called Alpana followed by more small plates at Tanto, popcorn at a rooftop cafe, as well as a slew of increasingly gluttonous and unhinged meals and beverages. Total trips to the Museum of Ice Cream over the course of the weekend: four. Number of margarita towers: six.

It took me until his second visit to the Museum of Ice Cream — one of those depressing and expensive venues that only exist for attendees to take Instagrams at — to realize that it was all a joke. Mike did not spend his weekend drinking six margarita towers and multiple cotton candy cocktails; all the footage was taken from other TikTokers’ videos showing off a day in their lives, with the exception of, he told me, a trip to Target. “I’d just moved to Chicago and my girlfriend and roommate were both out of town. I pretty much just walked my dog, made a sandwich, and went to Target.”

That there are enough “day in my life” videos on TikTok to power a robust cottage industry of satirical “day in my life” videos is a far cry from the earliest days of the “vlog,” or video blog, in the early 2000s. YouTube may have made a few dozen people very, very famous for taping their every waking minute and posting it online, but YouTube isn’t like TikTok: It takes a lot more time, effort, and skill (and money!) to pull off a good 15-minute video. A one-minute video on an endless scroll app that invents new famous people every day, meanwhile, can get seen by a lot more people.

Thanks to TikTok, there are “day in the life” videos about being in med school and “day in the life” videos about being a fifth grade teacher. There are “day in the life” videos about 23-year-olds with cushy consulting jobs and of high school dropouts-turned-lash technicians. You can watch women who work three jobs and men who seem to do nothing besides showing off their six-pack while getting dressed and tousling their hair (many of whom have extreme American Psychovibes). There are vlogs of blissfully childfree women and equally blissful tradwives, of unhoused people in addiction recovery and wealthy bankers in gray apartments with huge closets just for their shoes.

And I have seen all of them. Or, at least, it feels like I have: Every time a “day in the life” video comes up on my For You page, something in me cannot know peace until I finish it. I’ve watched so many that I’m now able to categorize them on an imaginary matrix where the x-axis extends from “look at how beautiful a quiet, small life can be” to “look at all the stuff I have/all the work I did/how hot I am” and the y-axis goes from “a mostly faithful representation of a day in someone’s life” to “a heavily romanticized fantasy” (the vast majority fall in the “look at all the stuff I have”/”romanticized” square).

The most prevalent genre, at least on my TikTok feed, comprises what I call the “skin care-salad-girlies,” or women in their 20s living in one of those big apartment buildings where everything is white and gray and appears never to have contained even a single speck of dust, who has a double-digit-step skin care routine, makes her (fluffy, white) bed every morning, and works what’s sometimes derogatorily referred to as an “email job,” or a fully remote, white-collar positionwhere the main duties seem to be attending Zoom meetings and Slacking coworkers. (There are other names for this type of existence: “that girl,” or worse, “clean girl.”) They are impossibly productive — chores are completed, smoothie bowls assembled, PowerPoints crafted, all to the beat of the music.

Vlogs, and particularly these sorts, also have the tendency to make a lot of people very, very angry. Take Kendel Kay, a 25-year-old TikToker who’s gone viral several times over the past few months for posting her morning routines “as a stay-at-home girlfriend,” in which she journals, exercises, tidies the house, and prepares a shocking number of green juices and probiotic supplements. (Her boyfriend, who runs a startup PR agency and posts frequently about his quest to become a billionaire, is also a fellow TikToker.) When one of Kay’s videos went viral on Twitter, she became the subject of a loud and lasting internet discourse about these sorts of aspirational “day in my life” videos, and whether they were anti-feminist or upholding harmful stereotypes of white womanhood.

@kendelkay

in san diego this week visiting family

♬ original sound - kendel kay

“There’s so little self-awareness in what people are choosing to post about themselves,” says Mike Schwanke, who created the Chicago parody TikTok. Crucially, he explains, it’s the tone of faux humility and earnestness with which creators narrate their videos that he finds so grating. “They’re posting as though their lives are normal or nothing special, but to most people, they’re a rich kid living in Brooklyn who’s living a fucking insane life.”

Kay, meanwhile, avoids the negative comments she sometimes gets. Rather, she sees her vlogs as a way to “romanticize the boring moments of my life,” she tells me. “My videos show a very soft, slow life, and it’s a feminine trait. But I love it, and I love seeing people slowing down and enjoying their life.” Few people on the internet are afforded the privilege to post about their personal lives without inciting a panic, and it’s easy to see how a “day in my life” video can become a straw man for our own fears and desires of what and who, exactly, is wrong with the world.

For me and many others I’ve talked to, “day in my life” videos are opportunities for voyeurism, sure, but they are also satisfying on a more basic human level: By watching other people be productive, we get to feel productive ourselves. In the span of a few minutes or even less, we’ve seen a person get up, get dressed, clean their home, beautify themselves, prepare meals, send emails, take an exercise class, grab a glass of wine with a friend, and cuddle with their cat before lights out. And not only do we get to gape, aghast, at the dude who literally irons his bedsheets, but also at the fact that he has had to set up a camera in multiple precise angles to film himself doing so.

Even the most realistic-seeming, mundane “day in my life” vlogs require a pretty big lift — in an attempt to test this theory, I decided that I would record a “day in my life” TikTok video on a random Tuesday, but immediately gave up after I got out of the shower. It was simply too much work without a real point: That day, like most Tuesdays, was going to be pretty ordinary and visually unstimulating.

Schwanke theorizes that this, though, is the point of “day in my life” videos: to push back against the idea that social media is just a highlight reel. “It seems like a very Gen Z thing to do, to post your everyday life as a retaliation to millennials, who grew up posting their trips to Cabo,” he says. “But what you get is essentially like the same product. In a lot of these videos, what’s funny is that in a lot of the clips you can see their friends will have their phones out, too, taking videos at the same time. Nothing is actually happening because they’re all posting.”

Perhaps that’s the reason why so many “day in the life” videos, no matter how aspirational or ostentatious, share a quiet melancholy. Here is a person who just wants to be seen when they are by themselves, when nobody else is around. Maybe they’re looking for some kind of meaning, maybe their lives feel small, or maybe they feel so big that they can’t help but want to share it. It’s why I think the best “day in my life” videos are the ones that give voice to all the anxieties and self-consciousness that come with being a person who spends a lot of time thinking about how they present to the world. Louise May, a UK-based TikToker, has built a following of a million with her “day in the life in your 20s” vlogs, which are spoken in second person and peppered with thoughtful, funny asides, the kind that pop into your head as you walk to the refrigerator, excited about the overnight chia pudding you made yesterday, only to open it up and realize it hasn’t set properly.

No “day in my life” video is ever going to be a perfect representation of someone’s existence, but they’re more fun to watch when they’re made by people who spend the time to ask the fun kinds of questions: What are we all doing? Is this what life is? And, more importantly, how many margarita towers per weekend is enough?

This column was first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.