One Question Quiz
Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

InternetFebruary 7, 2023

‘Mascara’ and the perils of algospeak

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The rise of TikTok-inspired ‘algospeak’ is making online communication even more of a nightmare, writes SYSCA‘s Lucy Blakiston.

This is an excerpt from the Shit You Should Care About daily newsletter – sign up here.

Content warning: sexual assault

The other day I was chatting with a friend about algospeak – the way we change our language online to get around social media’s content moderation systems, like saying “corn” instead of “porn” or “unalive” instead of “kill”/”dead”. Recently on TikTok we saw the dangers of “algospeak” in action, thanks to mascara.

Last week I started seeing people popping up all over my FYP talking about their “mascara” stories. After seeing about three of these videos I realised they weren’t actually talking about the beauty product, and had to search “what do people mean when they refer to mascara???” I was then taught by a variety of different randoms that it was a euphemism for “sexual assault” or more broadly “dick”.

So, after about 20 minutes of scrolling I finally sort of understood what “mascara” meant – and the seriousness of some of the videos I was seeing. But unfortunately, not everyone had done that 20 minutes of research into what it meant… especially not Julia Fox. Fox saw one of these videos about “mascara” and commented: “Idk why but I don’t feel bad for u lol.”

This was the video:

View post on TikTok

Fox, who seemed not to know about this “trend,” quickly realised, and commented: “Hey babe I’m so sorry I really thought u were talking about mascara as in make up.”

At the most basic level, I hope we can all see how creating words to stand in for other words/phrases is eroding our (already murky) communication skills on social media. Expecting everyone to see all the same videos and understand all these new terms and trends and the context behind them was probably always going to lead to misinterpretation like this.

The dangers of algospeak

This situation isn’t the fault of the users – it’s actually more of a characteristic of social media companies. It’s what happens when users of a platform like TikTok (though it applies across most other social media platforms too) feel like they need to “get ahead” of the algorithm in order for anyone to see their content or hear their stories. When it’s a race between you and the algorithm, the algorithm – and the company behind it – is always going to win.

Do you know how much engagement these “mascara” videos will be getting now? How many more people will be flocking to TikTok to search “mascara” and see how Julia Fox dunked on herself? Can you see who’s benefitting here? Because it’s definitely not the users who are trying to tell their stories.

Keep going!