In the indie thriller 12 Feet Deep, a pair of sisters find themselves trapped in a pool under a heavy fiberglass cover. They scream; they pound; they negotiate with a janitor who robs them instead of freeing them.
I learned all of this from TikTok, where for months I’ve watched clips of this seemingly random, small-budget film ricochet across the platform. Six years after it was released to little fanfare (its Rotten Tomatoes page doesn’t mention a single review from a professional critic), 12 Feet Deep is finding its audience one clip at a time. A two-minute part posted to TikTok in January got more than 90 million views. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but for some perspective, about 95 million people watched the O. J. Simpson police chase live in 1994.
This is, of course, not how any film is meant to be watched. But mysterious movie-clip accounts, by editing films such as 12 Feet Deep into multipart sagas that anyone can watch on their phone, have offered TikTok users the ability to fall down a rabbit hole of sequential clips. This phenomenon is a reminder of how our platforms can—intentionally or unintentionally—dictate our media-consumption habits, and how their constraints can spawn entire strange new cultures online.
The process typically goes something like this: An account splits the film or TV show into smaller sections and labels them. Some of these posts get picked up by the algorithm. Then, a user passively scrolling TikTok’s main feed suddenly encounters, say, Part 8 of That Film From Six Years Ago. They watch the two minutes, and they want more, so they start looking for Part 9, which is usually linked to in the comments.
Instead of channel surfing, these people comment surf—they use the comment section to find the next clip, and then the next, and then the next. People who spend a lot of time on TikTok may find themselves watching entire chunks of movies or TV shows this way, like very-online Hansels and Gretels following a trail of digital crumbs. Most of these films and television shows are old; some of them are clearly nostalgia plays, and others just seem random.
This is not a particularly efficient way to consume a piece of media. Why not just stream something on Netflix instead of watching it spread across 10 clips? And yet, a lot of people are doing it: Movie-posting accounts with close to a million followers and individual movie parts with hundreds of thousands of likes and millions of views are not unusual. These clips are styled in a really odd way: Some of them are overlaid with songs that seem entirely unrelated and just there to set the mood (and probably to give the post an algorithmic boost by linking it to a popular audio clip). Others offer captions that read like they were written by an AI. (“Georgie and Mandy romance faces break-up due to age deception,” read the captions on one clip that purports to be from the show Young Sheldon.) One subgenre even features a robotic narrator who awkwardly describes what’s happening on-screen.
A lot of the comment-surfing economy is based on shameless engagement hacking—repurposing old media for new likes, comments, views, and follows. Cinema Joe (real name: Joe Aragon), a movie TikToker with nearly 900,000 followers, guesses that about half of the accounts he sees posting these clips “are there to farm views and followers and to get attention”—to exploit the content and boost their numbers, in other words.
This kind of behavior has a precedent, says Crystal Abidin, a Curtin University professor who founded the TikTok Cultures Research Network, which connects scholars doing qualitative research about the platform. YouTube movie or TV-clip accounts offer a potential corollary: There, these accounts tend to be run by fans who are curating clips from their favorite show (say, Grey’s Anatomy) for other aficionados to watch. Once they reach a certain number of subscribers, they may start taking on sponsorship or advertising deals. But Abidin distinguishes between genuine curatorial accounts, where users clip movies as part of established fan or community traditions, and spam ones. On TikTok, Abidin has encountered accounts that post only “Part 15” of a movie to trick users into looking for a Part 16 that doesn’t exist, racking up engagement as they desperately search. And in a separate scheme, clips of the sitcom Family Guy are set against, say, a video of someone doing a random craft, so that your attention ping-pongs between the two. This is known as “sludge content,” and it is basically designed to keep you watching longer to help boost the video’s performance.
Of course, long before people comment surfed, they channel surfed. In the broadcast era, people flipped among channels mindlessly, often jumping into shows or movies midway through because they had no control over when something started airing. In the social-media age, every “channel” is playing a clip algorithmically optimized to make you stop and keep watching. The result is a firehose of captivating moments—from movies, from the news, from everyday life—each of which wants to capture your attention. “It’s really not a TikTok problem. It’s not a Gen-Z problem,” Abidin explained to me. “It’s the way that we need to bait people’s attention differently now that our media ecology is so saturated.”
Carl Marci, a psychiatrist, a consumer-neuroscience researcher, and the author of Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age, isn’t surprised to hear that people watch movies this way, given that everyone is consuming media in shorter bites these days. “The thing about the world of TikTok is it’s mostly titillation,” he told me. “How do we hook you?” Stories—films, novels, TV shows, magazine articles—are written with narrative arcs designed to build tension and then release it. TikTok movie clips disrupt these arcs entirely.
But perhaps the existence of comment-surfing accounts simply shows that we’re chafing at the storytelling boundaries imposed upon us by platforms. (TikTok, for its part, limits videos to 10 minutes or shorter.) As Juju Green, whose movie account, Straw Hat Goofy, has more than 3 million followers, puts it, “It’s funny, because TikTok started off as this app that was all about capturing the very short attention spans of the youth, but they’re putting a whole movie where you’ve got them sitting on the phone for an hour and a half plus.”
I called up the director of 12 Feet Deep, Matt Eskandari, to see how he felt about his film being repurposed in this way. Despite having a few questions about monetization (he assumes that these accounts are somehow making a profit off of his movie), he seemed relatively unbothered by it. And he was glad the film was enjoying a second life on social media so long after its debut. “As a filmmaker, as a director, that’s really all you want, right?” he told me. “If people are still making clips about the film … 10 years from now, that’s great. I love that.”
I admitted to Eskandari that, despite having been served TikTok clips of it on my feed for months, I’d never seen 12 Feet Deep in its entirety. I told him I planned to watch it on Amazon later that day, and I did. Afterward, I felt satisfied—happy to finally know the ending, but also pleased to have exercised my attention span on something a little longer, as a kind of small protest against the whirlpool that is the modern attention economy.
The sisters, for what it’s worth, make it out alive.