Joshua Landy noticed the reaction almost immediately. The Toronto critical care physician had posted a video on TikTok explaining the dilemma presented by a 50-year-old patient who needed an MRI. This patient’s X-ray showed his chest riddled with birdshot pellets from a shotgun accident 30 years before. If the pellets were magnetic, the MRI wouldn’t be possible. In the end, a pellet was examined and found to be made of lead, and doctors went ahead with the MRI.
Landy, a former colleague of mine, has long shared deidentified cases with the medical education community. What surprised him about this case was the response: The post has racked up more than 800,000 views, which is more than 300 times his usual reach. The reason, he soon realized, was his error. In his commentary, he had referred to the projectiles as buckshot. To date, more than 1,600 people have called him out on the ammo inaccuracy.
With his honest mistake, Landy stumbled onto a very intentional growth hack deployed by TikTok power users: creating a glitch that even the fastest scrollers have to scratch.
The most infamous example of this came late last year in a (since deleted) TikTok that featured an attractive woman posing in front of a mirror overlaid with this riddle: “Imagine how good your life would be if you had a 26yo nursing assistant by your side, now replace S with N.” What did it mean? The post went viral as thousands of people tried to figure that out. “Someone please tell me what a nurning anninntant is,” one commenter joked. “I’m loning my mind here!”
Nearly a month later, the mystery lingered. A leading theory: The correct answer would be “so good,” but replacing the “s” makes it “no good.” Or maybe RN somehow becomes MS? This highly selective application of logic only seemed to make the riddle more enticing.
“Every day, at least once I am haunted by this,” tweeted media scholar Ranjodh Singh Dhaliwal on Jan. 11. “It is the Voynich manuscript of our time and I am fine with that.”
Finally, on Jan. 12 in a response to a Daily Dot story on the phenomenon, the original poster explained that the haunting was the point. “[T]he answer is that it’s meant to be a brain stump,” she wrote. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
Regardless of whether you buy that explanation, there’s still something to be learned from the original video’s 5.6 million views, 7,000 comments, numerous TikTok response videos, and burgeoning afterlife as a meme. That response is partly explained by SIWOTI syndrome, an abbreviation of “Someone is wrong on the Internet!” the punchline from a 2008 Randall Munroe xkcd cartoon in which a stick figure tells their partner why they can’t come to bed.
The human need to publicly correct others’ mistakes surely has less to do with our noble pursuit of truth and more to do with showing off our intellectual superiority. It’s as old as humans learning from one another, though like everything else, it’s been accelerated by the internet.
What’s interesting is how this psychological quirk has been exploited—first in good faith by those looking for real answers, and now as a growth hack designed to juice TikTok’s algorithms. (The app’s exact recommendation system is a valuable secret, but the company has stated that user interactions such as comments are a key ingredient.)
This good-faith quest for answers was famously observed by Ward Cunningham, the technologist who helped create the wiki. He was credited by his former colleague Steven McGeady with Cunningham’s Law: “The best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question; it’s to post the wrong answer.” This concept explains the digital miracle that is Wikipedia: Many contributors are so eager to correct one another that they don’t mind doing so in relative anonymity. (Amusingly, Cunningham has disowned the axiom with the sort of recursive humor that programmers love: “I never suggested asking questions by posting wrong answers,” Cunningham says in a short YouTube video. “This is a misquote that disproves itself by propagating through the internet as Cunningham’s Law.”)
As one might expect, the technique is primarily used by software developers, the original power users of the internet. “I have 2 Stack Overflow accounts,” a developer explained on Twitter last year. “Whenever I want a good thorough answer, I post the question then login to the other account and reply with a wrong answer. Always end up getting 3-5 perfect answers correcting my fake answer.”
The rise of TikTok, with its mysterious, hypersensitive algorithm and default public sharing, has transformed this technique for knowledge seekers into a trick for attention seekers.
There’s the impossible riddle about a man whose name starts with “J” and rhymes with one of the 50 states, the pet video that calls a puppy a little “angle,” the cooking reaction video for General Tso’s chicken in which the chef incorrectly identifies almost every ingredient … and so on. It’s a specialized subgenre of trolling: one where the goal isn’t so much enragement as quantifiable engagement. They’re selling jigsaw puzzles that are missing key pieces, and we keep snapping them up.
These broken riddles can be found across social media platforms, and while they’re always irritating, they’re certainly more desirable than their angry cousin: rage-farming. The practice of intentionally provoking people to increase engagement, especially around political issues, is infamously encouraged by algorithms designed to favor more divisive content. You could say the difference between rage farming and engagement flubs is like buckshot and birdshot: Same general purpose, but one’s much less dangerous.
Going forward, Landy plans to keep his mistakes unintentional. “Medicine and social media aren’t an easy combination: in one of those fields, errors are rewarded, and in the other they can be lethal,” he told me in a text. “In both cases you might end up in the news, but I’m not sure I could be proud of either.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.