The porcelain challenge didn’t need to be real to get views
Despite what you may have heard, the teens are not stealing their family’s fine dinnerware, tossing it in a blender, and snorting the resulting dust for the “porcelain challenge.” That’s just what Sebastian Durfee, a 23-year-old actor and TikTok creator, hoped you might believe when he spread the word on social media of the latest dangerous teen challenge.
Never mind that it was all fake from the start.
On Saturday, Durfee posted a call to action to his followers: to work together to get “boomers to freak out about a fake TikTok challenge.” He chose the porcelain challenge—which, once again, is just a thing Durfee made up—because it seemed like something that would be plausibly dangerous, but not something “the average person could go off and do very easily,” he told me this week. Besides, it’s a catchy name. His original video quickly passed half a million views, and TikTok slapped a warning on it for promoting dangerous acts.
Meanwhile on TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter, #PorcelainChallenge videos created by those in on the joke started asking people to spread warnings and share stories of (fake) injuries and deaths from those who tried it. One particularly clever video takes the bit to the next level, with the creator claiming that videos of people trying the challenge are being removed by TikTok moderators immediately—a way to explain why there’s no available video of any person actually doing this.
Shortly after we spoke on Monday, Durfee sent me an update: TikTok had permanently banned his account (which had 150,000 followers), apparently as a result of this experiment. The company didn’t give him a reason for the permanent removal, but he said that they did take down two videos for “promoting dangerous behavior”: one in which he told viewers to post warnings about the porcelain challenge in local Facebook groups, and another in which he shared a screenshot of some early media coverage of his work.
TikTok confirmed on Wednesday that it had banned Durfee’s account, and said that it viewed any content, including hoaxes, that promotes dangerous behavior as a violation of their community guidelines.
“It goes without saying that neither these videos nor any other ones I created glorified, endorsed, or depicted performing the challenge,” he emailed me on Wednesday. “The fact that they reacted to the challenge as if it was real by banning me entirely is the sort of knee-jerk widespread panic the challenge was meant to critique in the first place; the irony here is not lost on me.”
Durfee’s goal was to get views, which he got in spades before his account was banned. It was also to examine how attention and outrage work online. If a content creator performs all the parts of a moral panic, will the fact that the challenge itself is a complete fiction actually change anything about its spread?
I’ve reported on moral panics about The Children many times over the years. Right now, it’s the season when people annually freak out about the possibility of THC-laced candies in their kid’s trick-or-treat stash. This fear, along with the many other warnings that deadly candies might be handed to kids by the sadist next door, have thrived every fall for decades merely on possibilities and what-ifs: dig into the “proof” cited by those pushing these warnings and you’ll find that it doesn’t stand up.
It doesn’t need to. Social media often works by reflex. Content that does well practically begs to be shared right away, reality be damned. And in the case of teen challenges and dangers to children, those warnings are often passed along by sources that carry some authority in their communities: the Facebook pages of local law enforcement, local media, or school officials.
“I’ve dabbled in the past with trying to make fake news that is transparent about being fake but spreads nonetheless,” Durfee said. (He once, with a surprising amount of success, got a false rumor started that longtime YouTuber Hank Green had been arrested as a teenager for trying to steal a lemur from a zoo.)
On Sunday, Durfee and his friends watched as #PorcelainChallenge gained traction, and they celebrated when it generated its first media headline (“TikTok’s porcelain challenge is not real but it’s not something to joke about either”). A steady parade of other headlines, some more credulous than others, followed.
But reflex-dependent viral content has a short life span. When Durfee and I chatted three days after he posted his first video about the porcelain challenge, he already could tell that it wasn’t going to catch as widely as he’d hoped. RIP.
Nevertheless, viral moments can be reanimated with just the slightest touch of attention, becoming an undead trend ambling through Facebook news feeds and panicked parent groups. Stripping away their original context can only make them more powerful. And dubious claims about viral teen challenges are often these sorts of zombies—sometimes giving them a second life that’s much bigger (and arguably more dangerous) than the first.
For every “cinnamon challenge” (a real early-2010s viral challenge that made the YouTube rounds and put participants at risk for some nasty health complications), there are even more dumb ideas on the internet that do not trend until someone with a large audience of parents freaks out about them.
Just a couple of weeks ago, for instance, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about boiling chicken in NyQuil, prompting a panic over a craze that would endanger Gen Z lives in the name of views. Instead, as Buzzfeed News reported, the warning itself was the most viral thing about NyQuil chicken, spiking interest in a “trend” that was not trending.
And in 2018, there was the “condom challenge,” which gained widespread media coverage as the latest life-threatening thing teens were doing online for attention—“uncovered” because a local news station sat in on a presentation at a Texas school on the dangers teens face. In reality, the condom challenge had a few minor blips of interest online in 2007 and 2013, but videos of people actually trying to snort a condom up their nose were sparse. In each case, the fear of teens flocking en masse to take part in a dangerous challenge did more to amplify it to a much larger audience than the challenge was able to do on its own.
The porcelain challenge has all the elements of future zombie content. Its catchy name stands out like a bite on the arm. The posts and videos seeded across social media by Durfee’s followers—and the secondary audience coming across the work of those Durfee deputized—are plausible and context-free.
But in a new twist, it is Durfee’s attempt to now mess with the people who are in on the joke that may return to chase the living.
When Durfee realized that he’d found a large audience of people who were really enthusiastic about dunking on boomers by helping to spread the porcelain challenge, he thought it was time to shift tactics a bit. “I decided, what if I get all these people who think they’re in on the joke to actually be the punchline of the next part of it?” he said.
So he posted a video on TikTok that appeared to show a Fox News headline about the porcelain challenge, along with a video clip of someone who appeared to be on the conservative channel ranting about the decline of morality. The headline, of course, was fake, the clip taken from its original context. But Durfee’s video, which featured him pointing at the headline as if he couldn’t believe how well his prank was working, ended up on Reddit’s r/facepalm subreddit. The post has more than 16,000 upvotes. The headline makes no nod to the fact that the Fox News segment is faked: “this guy made up a fake ‘TikTok challenge’ and FOX news made an article about it in three days.”
Just before we spoke, Durfee followed up with another faked video, purportedly showing the porcelain challenge on CNN. This, too, was fictional. And many viewers of his TikToks were fooled by this one as well.
“I was getting many, many comments from people saying stuff like ‘Oh, does no one check sources anymore? This is so embarrassing that they would post something without fact checking,’” he said. “And the irony is that the thing they were watching and commenting on was entirely fictional.”
No one in this fake challenge, it turns out, was immune to the impulse to share. Durfee’s followers were enticed by the excitement of dunking on boomers, and that promise became a lure, the faked Fox News clip as shareable as a warning about NyQuil chicken.
I checked in with Durfee on Wednesday morning. He said his account was still banned. But many of the videos, Facebook posts, and tweets about the dangers of the challenge he made up remain online. Unlike Durfee’s content, many of these videos and posts provide absolutely no indication that the challenge itself is fiction. So there they sit, awaiting the end of the porcelain challenge’s online life span. The perfect candidates for reanimation.