Dirt: New Nick Jr.
Kyle Chayka on TikTok frontiers.
Kyle Chayka on TikTok’s niche trend of glitchy avatars speaking wise truths.
Something about the format of the TikTok feed inspires a sense of surprise encounters, almost jump scares. The feed is like a tunnel where some unknown visage can ambush you at any corner. A new clip comes up and fills the full phone screen, like a visitation or a haunting — or suddenly Facetiming with a stranger. That sense of surprise is intensified when the character that pops up is non-human, something totally new.
This TikTok popped up in my feed the other day. (You can click on the image to get to the actual video, since they don’t embed.) I was taken aback by the kaleidoscopic rainbow colors and glitchy animation of the pixelated face, not to mention the strangely chirpy voice.
Only after a few seconds did I realize that the face was quoting a line from Rainer Maria Rilke, like an Instagram story mental-health meme template turned sentient. The quote is interesting enough but the presentation was bizarre: content that was supposed to be calming displayed in the most aggro mode possible. The entire account of Wurrmdotcom is like this — creepy spiritual inspo from bell hooks, Timothy Leary, Ram Dass. And the website, Wurrm.com, sells swag around this pop-up, not particularly viral brand. Tagline: Scream into the digital void. Monetize your despair, I guess.
Not long after that first encounter, this video came up.
A pixel-art woman with a giant eyeball for a head, the animation intentionally wavering and hazy like an old TV or bad streaming connection, interprets the watcher’s Tarot card pull. It’s drawn like a POV video; the hands holding the card are where your hands would be — and, if you look closely, they’re tied with rope. The eyeball woman opines on karmic justice and then, right at the end, a multi-eyed Santa figure slashes at the screen. Meaning is supposed to be delivered in the form of the reading, but it’s wrapped in illogic and flashes of a story we don’t understand.
That account belongs to Peo Michie, an Australian artist who already has 235,000 followers on Instagram. Her recent animations are a break from her usual clean illustration style and partake of the weirdness of the TikTok feed, intimacy plus unfamiliarity delivered in the same instant. Michie’s pixel graphics are part of a wave of digital nostalgia and a fascination with the visual limits of early computing.
These videos feel new and interesting to me, though some comments did remind me that Wurrmdotcom is kind of like Nick Jr.’s Face, which also occupied the entire TV screen. The aesthetic is digital mess, the detritus of the poor image. The content is Gen Z identity affirmations, a kind of seeker hippie-ism for the hyper-individuality of the internet era. No one can tell you what to do, except perhaps a fictional character, an avatar.
After all, “avatar” originally came from Sanskrit and meant “the incarnation of a deity in human or animal form”: not a human’s representation of themselves but the human representation of something far greater, a vast force given corporeal form. — By Kyle Chayka