"At first, I was pretty upset," he explained over the phone. "But if I saw somebody else do this, I'd have a good a laugh." Days later, willed by the idea that others might also laugh at his expense, Gold submitted the video to GymFuckery , a popular Instagram account of "gym fail" videos, where his squat-disaster has since racked up more than 400,000 views and 600 comments.
If you've never stumbled across the gym fail hashtag on any social media platform, most popular gym fail videos fall into one of two categories: Those videos where accidents happen, like a lifter who fails a bench press and struggles to get out from under the bar, or those videos where gym-goers' egregious form or other questionable behavior is caught on tape. (Take, for instance, this video of a man straddling a barbell for, well, reasons we can't surmise.) Many videos of the latter category, it seems, are recorded without the participants' consent, often filmed from afar and with the subject unaware of the phone faced in their direction.
On YouTube, gym fails exist as part of longer compilations, with titles like " Gym Idiots 2020 - All Pain No Gain " and " Stupid People Fail In Gym Fail Compilation || 43 Funniest Workout Fails Ever ." And on Instagram, GymFuckery has grown to nearly 1.3 million followers. With the latest video-platform targeting Gen Z audience in the form of TikTok, gym fail videos have been popularized for a new generation of viewers. (Together, the #GymFail and #GymFail hashtags currently have more than 153 million views.)
And many of us are drawn to these videos, it seems, because we like to watch people suffer a littleotherwise known as experiencing "schadenfreude," a German concept written about during the 18th century and later cited in English by philologist Richard Chenevix Trench in the mid-19th century.
At its most basic definition, schadenfreude refers to the delight an observer experiences in witnessing another person's struggle. (Its translation from German means "harm" or "damage" and "joy.") The concept has recently entered into the zeitgeist to describe the joyful experience of watching very bad individuals (ie. corrupt, powerful white men) endure the consequences of their actions.
But what about total strangers with whom an Instagram user has zero personal connection with or bias? Well, perhaps it's part of our competitive nature to want to be superior to others, particularly in a space like a gym where numbers are everything. While at the gym last week, I couldn't help but feel a little emasculated by the guy who easily out-bench pressed me by 90 pounds. A video of someone struggling to lift my weight can, no doubt, prove a confidence-booster.
To boot, social media and the rise of ultra-fit influencers with eight-pack abs and consistently-tanned complexions have created unusually high standards and might be partially to blame for the current discourse around schadenfreude.
"It provides endless examples of people living their lives better than we are which makes large numbers of people deeply miserable," Dr. Catherine Chambliss, a professor of psychology at Ursinus College and author of Empathy Rules , explained in a phone interview. "And in order to cope with that, people [seek] out those who are less fortunate, those who fail, and even those in pain. So, unfortunately, it brings out a nasty part of our human nature." (Unsurprisingly, research suggests envy can lead to feelings of schadenfreude.)
Still, some people open themselves up to this ridicule willingly. Soleen Barzanji, a 23-year old athlete, also submitted her treadmill mishap on video last year to GymFuckery's account. "I enjoy making others laugh and Im not ashamed of falling on the treadmill, honestly," she said in an email. Since November 2019, the video has racked up nearly 600,000 views and 36,000 likes.
If some people can make fun of themselves (and aren't getting injured in the process), then why can't we? Well, users are also, obviously, granted the power of relative anonymity on social media, which enables them the power to post unfiltered comments. This video of a woman's failed clean and jerk has garnered more than 3,000 comments, which range from constructive to sexist.
In Barzanji's case, the few negative comments also proved overwhelming. "But after I sat there looking through the comments and individually replying back to them, I realized I shouldnt let some person that doesnt even know me or the reason why I recorded the video bother me."
(According to Edwin Mejia, co-founder of licensing company Generation Iron Brands which recently acquired GymFuckery, the team at GymFuckery does moderate its comments section, though he said they don't encounter many hostile comments: "Our team really does a good job at picking the right videos so as not to offend anybody.")
Mike Gold, too, experienced some initial backlash for his squatting fail, both online and in person. "Originally, I had a few regrets because there were certain people in my gym that got a little bit upset," he said. "... I guess they were upset that I was turning it into a joke."
People aren't all bad, though, and we do have our limits when it comes to experiencing this sick kind of pleasure. "For most people, empathy does kick in at some point, as [do] guilt and shame," Dr. Chambliss explained. "However, since repeatedly watching others in agony also produces desensitization, some may get to the point where their natural empathic tendencies in these situations are blunted."
In other words, we are kind of jerksand repeated exposure to near-perfection on social media might only be worsening our asshole-like tendencies. All of this also begs one final question: In videos where subjects are being recorded, why don't these people just step in to help? After all, these gym fail perpetrators might learn a thing or two. Well, one can argue it's simply bad gym etiquette to intervene, unsolicitedor maybe these people, like those who submit videos of their own fails, are simply in it for the likes at the end of the day.
"People really want to see themselves go viral," Mejia said. "There's a big thirst for that."