‘What about me?’ effect: Why do commenters seem to make every piece of content about themselves?

When Kara (@vibingranolamom) uploaded her bean soup recipe, she intended for it to be something other women with low iron could benefit from.

“All my anemic girlies, this one is for you,” she wrote in the caption.

Kara, a 22-year-old homemaker, built her TikTok following by sharing recipes and “#momsoftiktok” videos. On average, she clocked a couple of thousand views for each TikTok, occasionally jumping to several hundred thousand views, and her previously top-performing video was one from January, which got 5 million views.

But her bean soup recipe has skyrocketed to almost 8 million views since she posted it on Aug. 18.

The comment section is flooded with people making jokes about replacing elements of the recipe — “What if I don’t want to make this?,” “What if i don’t like anything in the recipe? any subs?,” “What do I do if I’ve never been to a grocery store?”

While the more recent comments are jokes, buried in the original comments on the video was allegedly a stranger who asked Kara if she could recommend a substitution for the beans, the main ingredient of the soup.

“i’m in tears over someone asking for a bean replacement,” a top comment reads. “for bean soup. i’m CRYING.”

As innocuous as it seems, finding examples of commenters demanding to make content applicable to specifically themselves is pretty easy. Earlier in September, Kimberly Lecuyer, a mother of three with one on the way, caught backlash from commenters after she wrote that she was “praying for a healthy baby boy.” According to some, it was an “ableist” comment.

Mom of an unhealthy kid here to say that those babies are equally valuable and worthy of love,” one person wrote, according to a screenshot taken by a TikTok creator.

“Whatever ‘healthy’ means? If it’s not ‘healthy,’ then your prayers won’t be answered?” another said. “How is ableism different from being sex-selective?”

In October 2022, X (formerly known as Twitter) user Daisey Miller (@lilplantmami) shared her morning routine with her husband, which involved grabbing coffee and sitting in their garden to talk. People were furious by “the extreme lack of acknowledgment of their social privilege to live such a life.”

“it feels like the tweet should start with their fortunate circumstances/schedules,” one person responded.

“I wake up at 6am, shower and go to work for a shift that is a minimum of 10 hours long. This is an unattainable goal for most people,” another chimed in.

The response was so overwhelming that Miller felt compelled to post a response.

Why does it seem like everyone online thinks everything needs to cater to them? Enter: The ‘what about me?’ effect.

In response to the bean soup debacle, creator Sarah Lockwood (@sarahthebookfairy) shared a theory on why commenters act this way. She called it the “what about me?” effect.

“[It] basically combines individualistic culture with being chronically online,” Lockwood explained in a video. “It’s when someone sees something that doesn’t really pertain to them or they can’t fully relate to and they find a way to make it about them.”

Instead of recognizing that they are not the target audience for whatever they are reacting to, Lockwood argued that the “what about me?” commenter is fixated on understanding why they are exposed to this piece of content — even if it means bending it to fit their needs.

“It’s this individualistic culture that we have created in the United States — and maybe elsewhere, I don’t know, I don’t live ‘elsewhere,’ — I live in the U.S. and I see it running rampant here,” Lockwood continued. “We make everything about ourselves and seek out accommodations and validation for everything.”

The “individualistic culture” Lockwood is talking about is addressing the one outside of political and social systems. Brown Political Review argued in 2018 that Americans, on an anthropological level, do value their own needs more as individuals, especially compared with more “collective” cultures like in South America and the Middle East where intra-group relationships are prioritized.

For years, studies have proved that, when behind a screen, people are more willing to comment or share their opinions. John Suler, a psychologist, called it the “online disinhibition effect” in an essay for the National Library of Medicine in 2004.

“In the age of digital abundance, many of us have grown used to a personalized online experience,” R.Y. Langham, a psychologist specializing in obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), told In The Know by Yahoo. “The very essence of social media, which offers everyone a voice, also fosters a space where we’re encouraged to constantly relate content back to our own lives.”

Langham also explained that this compulsion to comment stems from the idea that “when content doesn’t mirror their immediate world, there’s an impulse to bring their perspective to the fore, to ensure their narrative is acknowledged.”

This is a universal, intergenerational issue too, Lockwood argued in a follow-up video. Lockwood explained that despite assumptions that the “what about me?” effect is a lack of common sense or, as one commenter suggested, affecting only chronically online teenagers, she thinks it happens “at any age.”

“If you have a fear of not being liked, a fear of being seen as a bad person, if you deal with moral perfectionism or have a really strong morality complex, you’re going to be more susceptible to the chronically online takes and behavior,” she said.

According to Lockwood, this all stems from a lack of confidence and a lack of sense of self, which can be especially prevalent in people who spend a lot of time online and on social media.

“When you come onto this app and you see a video and you feel the urge to comment something like, ‘Well, what about my very specific scenario?’ or ‘Well, not everyone can blah blah blah,’ I’m going to encourage you to stop,” Lockwood advised. “Not everything can apply to you every single time.”

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