“I was just doing my makeup for work, and I just wanted to tell you guys about how I don’t think math is real,” Gracie Cunningham says, dabbing concealer underneath her eyes. If you spend much time on TikTok, the setting is familiar: a teenage girl’s bedroom, a quilt covering the wall, the camera tilted slightly upward toward her face. She quickly acknowledges that she knows math is real, in the sense that we learn it in school and accept its principles and formulas. But how do we know it’s actually true? Who came up with it? Why? “I know you’re going to be like, Pythagoras,” she riffs — “but how? How did he come up with this?” The exasperation in her voice is extremely, comically teenage. Why were people who, she imagines, lived without indoor plumbing so interested in mathematical abstractions? “How would you, like, start on the concept of algebra? Like, what did you need it for?”
Cunningham posted this minute-long video to her TikTok and then, presumably, finished applying her makeup and went to work. Two weeks later, the video had been viewed more than 1.3 million times. On Twitter, where it was reposted, it received millions more views. Before long, Cunningham had become one of those online characters unfortunate enough to have a name: In internet parlance, she was now the “Math Isn’t Real” Girl.
It began, as these things often do, with mockery. Someone tweeted the clip with a comment: “This is the dumbest video I’ve ever seen.” Many agreed. Others, perturbed by the sight of people gleefully calling a teenage girl dumb, sprang to her defense: “She is actually a genius,” one wrote, “and isn’t making any mistakes.” A post emerged on Medium, arguing that the response to Cunningham was emblematic of a much larger issue: “The Viral Math Girl From TikTok Perfectly Encapsulates What It’s Like to Be Female Online.”
On and on it went. Eventually specialists logged on and weighed in. Mathematicians and other academics posted the clip supportively, noting that Cunningham’s questions were, in fact, foundational to the study of math and to certain branches of philosophy. “IS MATH REAL? Me, a Harvard-trained data analyst speaks out,” began one thread, by a Ph.D. candidate named Kareem Carr — an explanation of the difference between mathematical systems and the world they try to describe, complete with examples of how two plus two could, on occasion, equal five. That particular claim prompted the academic Yascha Mounk to tweet out a call to “cut out the crap,” arguing that questioning basic mathematical statements was undermining “public trust in experts and scientists in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic.” Cunningham’s video, and the arguments about it, had traveled quite a distance.
It is the natural life cycle of a thing on the internet — a viral video, a meme, a piece of writing — to come loose from its context and take on a plethora of meanings. A photo of a park full of people during a pandemic, for instance, immediately becomes a symbol of something: a flagrant violation of social distancing; a responsible return to some semblance of normal life in the open air; the government’s failure to regulate public space; even how photography itself can be misleading. Questions like where the park is, or what the case rate is in the area, become immaterial. We react to the static image. The discussion it sparks is bound to be heated and go nowhere, because everyone involved knows from its onset what they believe the photo means.
This is not so much the relaxing of context as the willful ignorance of it. It is a near-daily routine. We users of Twitter are presented each morning with some nugget of information — anything from breaking geopolitical news to a personal essay whose worst sentences everyone is quoting with a mixture of glee and horror. Then begins the joking and pontificating about it, as people work to analyze it in a way that aligns with their pre-existing beliefs. This mode of engagement makes a certain amount of sense when considering, say, statements from political figures. It is stranger when applied to bits of casual self-expression — people who, in going about their ordinary lives, are yanked into a morass of long-simmering conflicts.
Videos from TikTok may be particularly susceptible to this kind of decontextualization, because TikTok is assumed to tell us something about the teenagers. That is how broad, puzzled swaths of adults treat it, anyway: as a sphere to approach anthropologically, a key to understanding a generation whose habits, politics and in some cases sources of income are baffling to their elders. Before social media, curious adults had to make do with dissecting the kids’ music purchases and slang and fads from over their shoulders. Now teenagers broadcast entire virtualized lives adults can pore over and shake their heads at. Including, potentially, a teenage girl wondering out loud about math, whose questions are suddenly freighted with significance that has nothing much to do with her.
It would be wrong to see Cunningham as a naïf, helplessly swept into the currents of the internet. She very likely knows more about how to navigate online space than the adults arguing over her, and she has posted a number of funny and insightful follow-up videos, along with jokes and thoughts about the experience of viral fame. Still, she and her video became strangely flattened in the discourse. This mode of gawking — using viral posts as a way to take the temperature of what others are doing and thinking — is surely only heightened by lockdowns and social distancing, which keep us at arm’s length from what we used to think of as “real life.”
“Why did a physicist who is followed by Barack Obama retweet me?” Cunningham asked in one of those follow-up videos. This was, frankly, a pretty good question. She had begun by asking out loud the idle questions students ask themselves amid the tedium of studying for another algebra exam. In a classroom, a helpful teacher might have answered by talking about the origins of mathematics or assuring her that philosophers contemplate versions of her questions all the time: How do we know what we know, and in what sense is abstract knowledge “real”? Instead her questions rapidly became a handy proxy for just about anything. And in the end — despite constant accusations that today’s kids are too focused on their smartphones to notice the world around them — it was everyone else who wrestled the video away from its ordinary reality: just a normal teenager asking normal questions into a phone camera and posting them online.