This guy took video of Switzerland, labeled it "Gastonia," and got 5.6 million TikTok views
What's the recipe for a viral video? A little bit of gentle misinformation, maybe.
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NOTE: This post was updated on January 20 at 11:18 a.m. (Skip to the end for the update).
I feel as if, maybe, some people took the headline of last Thursday’s newsletter very seriously.
Now, I happened to think that my argument was nuanced and layered. But, in fairness, I did put out that newsletter knowing that some people would very loudly and strongly disagree with the premise. Anyone who writes anything that gets posted online knows that you can double your engagement by getting equal numbers of people calling you a genius and an idiot.
I say all of that because last week, someone else did the same thing, only he did it on TikTok, and his execution was flawless:
Basically, a guy posted a very simple video of a pastoral village in a jaw-droppingly beautiful valley, and labeled it “Gastonia, North Carolina.”
Folks, I hate to break it to you: Gastonia does not look like that.
Anyway, that video has more than 5.6 million views and counting.
The Guy Behind Beautiful, Transcendent Gastonia
“I don’t think I’ve ever been called a prankster,” says Zachary Keesee, the guy who came up with the fake Gastonia video. Up until now, he’d posted TikToks of his travels and of himself cliff diving. The latter ran into that social network’s moderators, who saw it as too dangerous and shut down Zachary’s first account. This time, he decided to do something that wouldn’t get him banned, so he strove for purposeful inaccuracy. “The ‘Not Carolina’ TikToks actually were inspired by a friend who posted a picture of himself skiing in the Rockies this winter and posted it with a caption, “Boone is looking lovely right now,’” Zachary says. He’d seen the same sort of location mislabeling trend on Twitter, so he figured he’d kick the tires on it himself.
On January 4, he went back into his phone, found a video of some snowy European mountains, labeled it as the Blue Ridge Parkway in Boone after a storm, and popped it up:
That TikTok ended up with more than 145,000 views and almost 700 comments, many of them trying to tell him that he was wrong.
He kept it up. He took a video he shot in Venice, labeled it as “Raleigh, North Carolina,” and got more than 100,000 views. Another video that shows him driving into a village in the Italian Alps got almost a million views, probably because he labeled it “Sugar Creek, Charlotte, North Carolina.” A stunning video from the inside of a frescoed and ancient European building was tagged as UNC’s Davis Library. The most viral TikTok, that of “Gastonia,” is actually a video of Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland that Zachary took back in 2020 when he was traveling around Europe doing undergraduate research.
Zachary sees this trend as what it obviously is: A joke. “I hoped people would laugh at it,” he says. But, if people did not laugh at it, Zachary did not break character.
Why This Works
There’s no better way to ruin a joke than by explaining it. So here goes:
Gastonia is an easy target You know how people use Cleveland to get a quick laugh? Gastonia is North Carolina’s version of that. It’s a place that wholly doesn’t deserve it, but it’s still shorthand for “worse than where you’re from.” (Unless, again, you are from Bessemer City.)
North Carolina has great things, but not the biggest, bestest things: This is gonna get me in trouble, so let me start this way. North Carolina has great places. It is, pound for pound, in diversity and geography, in economy and culture, the best state in the country. But! It does not have the tallest mountains. It does not have the bluest ocean water. It does not have the biggest cities, or the lowest taxes, or any Ivy league schools. You could make a subjective, anecdotal argument that certain types of food or drink are better here than anywhere else. And yes, North Carolina does have superlative things like the World’s Largest Frying Pan (although it doesn’t actually look like a frying pan). Still, though, this state does not have sheer Alpine cliffs that look like that. You know this. You know that what you are seeing is not Crowders Mountain.
It got a ton of engagement from Gastonia-knowers:
It leans into its unreality: So much stuff online is contrived to feel like it’s genuine, but it feels more and more like everything you see or read on the internet ends up being a setup to sell you something. This, at least, is making no effort to seem real at all. It’s like buying a cheap iPad out of the trunk of a guy’s car in a McDonald’s parking lot, only to get home and open the box to discover that it’s just a block of wood with an Apple logo on it, which is ACTUALLY A THING THAT HAPPENED in the inferior Carolina. You have to respect the brazenness.
It’s too pretty to be a shitpost: Sure it’s brazenly NOT North Carolina, but it’s still very pretty! The camera work is cinematic. The music is ethereal. The lighting is subdued. It really does look like a place that you’d aspire to visit someday. You sort of want Gastonia to look like that. You’re being gaslit, but in a very earnest way.
People are making it into a trend? Maybe? I know TikTok is very good showing you what you want to see, and I guess I want to see more of fake North Carolina, because I’ve now seen this and this. It’s like a non-stop “Gonna tell my kids this was (insert name of place)” meme up in my feed right now.
It’s short: The whole thing lasts :09. There are two shots. It doesn’t try to do too much. Unlike, say, this post.
But, I don’t know, it’s not like Zachary was thinking about all that when he did it. “It’s kinda just silly,” he says.
Zachary knew these TikToks would get some attention. But he doesn’t know why that video did that well. “I honestly have no idea,” he says. “I saw many comments saying to do this kind of idea or trend to Gastonia. So I listened to the viewers and it produced.”
And, in one way, it produced a very prescient prediction:
Fast forward four days after Zachary posted his TikTok and, well:
Big, if true.
UPDATE (Jan 20, 11:18 a.m.): I reached out to Olivia Garcia, the woman in the TikTok above, to get the story behind it. Here’s her response:
Ok so, I’m from south Florida (Jupiter to be exact) so the closest thing we have to mountains down here are landfills which is why I was so excited when I saw the TikTok😂
I was on a road trip with my family and we had just left Boone and we were on our way to visit the Angel Oak Tree when I came across the video. I had honestly never heard of Gastonia before but the name sounded like it could be out of a Disney movie, although my TikTok comment section is now referring to it as Gas-Town🙃. Anyway, I showed everyone in the car the TikTok and was so excited someplace like that could be in North Carolina that I think my excitement convinced everyone to go… big mistake.
I didn’t bother to read the comments on the video, and honestly didn’t even consider googling it… I know, I know, it was a rookie mistake. I hate admitting this but… I kinda was just trusting TikTok on this one. Usually I find really cool places/restaurants to visit on there so I really didn’t think anything of it.
I started getting suspicious when we were about 20mins out because I didn’t see any mountains around… it was just flat. Then we got to the town and drove through a not so nice part where there were tons of run down gas stations (I’m sure there’s a nice part to the town, we just didn’t stick around long enough to find it lol).
When we found out that we had gotten rickrolled I was so embarrassed that I made everyone drive to Gastonia (which was an hour out of the way) because of this TikTok. I then read through all of the comments and googled it and sure enough it was just a joke… I should of known… that’s when I decided it would be funny to make my reaction video. I even made the joke to my husband “if this video blows up because I believed this TikTok then the drive would of been worth it.”
I actually saw Zachary‘s “I’m so sorry😅” comment this morning. Which I then replied “I forgive you” because it was all in good fun and it gave us a funny story for our trip!
Moral of the story… don’t believe everything you see on the internet haha😂