Who’s Afraid of ‘Skibidi Toilet’?

Who’s Afraid of ‘Skibidi Toilet’? 1

If you’re baffled by Skibidi Toilet, you’re not alone.

The bizarre animated YouTube series centers on an alien invasion: a swarm of singing heads, all popping out of toilets, has descended on a Los Angeles–like metropolis and triggered a surreal, cartoonish, apocalyptic war. That’s a more direct and clear explanation than you’ll find in the actual videos, since they’re all almost completely wordless. There’s no language barrier, which is a major reason why the videos have been viewed hundreds of millions of times, becoming a global cultural phenomenon among Gen Z and Gen Alpha.

Surprisingly for something so popular, Skibidi Toilet has garnered a reputation for being incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t a fan. Its impenetrable nature has raised serious concerns around the world. Some call it a moral outrage, foreign propaganda meant to prey on vulnerable young minds, or even a disease. In a cultural climate where it’s harder and harder to understand trends and popularity, people are searching for an explanation for how singing toilets conquered the world. On the May 22 episode of The Late Show, Stephen Colbert punched up a joke about the Biden campaign using Skibidi Toilet to attract the youth vote, saying that if anyone didn’t get the gag, their grandchildren could explain it “and you still won’t understand.”

As random as the videos can seem, their success isn’t. Skibidi Toilet deftly combines modern storytelling trends with nostalgic internet humor in a way that magnifies the outwardly confusing qualities of both. “It was initially appealing to young people for its utter weirdness,” says danah boyd, a partner researcher at Microsoft Research. “Parents (and many other adults) probably reacted with revulsion, as they’ve done many other times. That revulsion from adults makes it even more appealing to young people.”

That’s why the word “skibidi” has become a more general shibboleth for Gen Z and younger, in the same class as “rizz”, “gyat,” and “sigma.” Adults being shocked and confounded at kids having fun creates a feedback loop where kids want to make it even more distressing. The videos certainly have a lot of shock value, featuring surreal, disturbing, and violent imagery. In an interview with Forbes in February, Alexey Gerasimov, who creates the videos and uploads them under the name “DaFuq!?Boom!,” described the videos as being inspired by his own recurring nightmares.

In that light, it can be easy to see why the global success has been met with an equally global panic. Last August, several writers and journalists in Malaysia and Indonesia warned parents about the dangers of a “Skibidi toilet syndrome” that would cause children to refuse to stop imitating the toilet’s songs and dances. Earlier this year, Robbie Collin wrote in the Telegraph that the videos were a sign YouTube needed more strictly enforced age limits.

Other sources are going even farther, calling the surreal meme videos a threat to national security. In February, reporter Olga Sosnina claimed in a Swedish news outlet that Skibidi Toilet was Russian propaganda aimed at indoctrinating children. Russia was just as worried: In January, Moscow officials were called to investigate the videos. In April, Anna Mityanina, St. Petersburg’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, played the videos to the city’s legislative assembly as part of an annual report on risks to children. “There is no need to pretend that there are no standards of decency,” Mityanina said. “A character in the form of a toilet, to put it mildly, is not cultured enough.”

For all of the worry, there isn’t much to be concerned about within the Skibidi Toilet videos themselves. “I see these media as reflective of our societal obsessions,” says boyd. “As always, young people twist it slightly in a way that makes adults uncomfortable because they don’t want to reckon with their own passions.”

The videos, as uncanny as they can get, don’t contain anything particularly unsuitable for children. The violence is unrelenting and large in scope, but never goes beyond cartoonish explosions and punches. Characters who appear to be killed or turned to the villain’s side regularly return to fight alongside the heroes. The largely wordless storytelling, of course, puts a limit on mature themes. Ultimately, the most “indecent” element of the videos is the toilets themselves, which will always be a hit with the younger generation.

That’s not the only area where Skibidi Toilet follows a long tradition. Gerasimov (who didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment) animates the videos using the Source Filmmaker program, but he’s modified the animation interface to emulate the 2006 game Garry’s Mod. Garry’s Mod, true to its name, was initially a fanmade modification of the game Half-Life 2 that removed any structure or objective, leading to a purely creative sandbox years before Minecraft’s Creative Mode. The game was used to create thousands of machinima videos throughout the late 2000s, and Gerasimov calls these videos a primary inspiration for Skibidi Toilet.

Maddy Buxton, the head of YouTube’s culture and trends team, says this is a major factor in the videos’ success. “One thing we know about Gen Z viewers and creators is they’re interested in nostalgia. It’s hearkening back to this earlier time, even if they didn’t grow up in it themselves,” Buxton says. Skibidi Toilet was one of the top trending topics last year on YouTube, where at one point it garnered 2.8 billion views in 28 days.

Nostalgia and scatological humor can be eye-catching, but to build up the kind of sustained interest and devotion Gerasimov has, there needs to be a story in its own right. The narrative of Skibidi Toilet isn’t communicated directly, but that only adds to its intrigue for many viewers, especially younger ones who are used to having to put in extra work to get the full picture. “We’ve been looking into the role of lore in building these big fan communities,” says Buxton. “The ones that aren’t just passively watching, but digging into the backstory.”

That digging is so popular that it’s transcending traditional structures of fandom. There’s no shortage of ways to be a fan of something online, but Skibidi Toilet’s audience has spent most, if not all, of their lives on the internet, and their work comes out in extremely online forms. Acolytes flood YouTube with breakdown videos and expand on the worldbuilding with Roblox games. Then there’s the comment-section fiction: Wherever the videos are posted, the comments are filled with dozens or hundreds of people providing their own written narratives retelling the events of the video, filling the gap left by the storytelling with their own words. It’s a cross between a liveblogged reaction and fan fiction, creating lore where none existed.

The idea of lore is now fundamental to the way many people consume any fiction, but it started in the world of video games, especially games like Dark Souls that have virtually no direct storytelling. There are hundreds of unofficial Skibidi Toilet games that let players take part in the battles, but the videos themselves invite a similar degree of participation.

“People are coming at it from different entry points,” says Buxton. “Some people are coming in from the gaming world, some are coming just for the action storytelling, some like to unpack lore.” She describes these unusual fan works as “casual creation,” saying that “this idea of being a daily creator makes it much easier to be an active fan than it was five, 10, 15 years ago. Now you can engage in the subject of your fandom by creating it online.”

Of course, Skibidi Toilet itself could be categorized as a fan creation, containing numerous echoes of Garry’s Mod and the Half-Life games. Like many recent works that emerge online, from streetwear trends to unauthorized TikTok musicals, Skibidi Toilet blurs the line between fan work and original work. “Lots of the kids who got into Skibidi Toilet don’t know anything about where these characters and assets are sourced from,” says Phillip Hamilton, an associate editor at Know Your Meme.

Beyond the actual content of the videos, their release schedule is also a factor. “Skibidi Toilet is huge with people (namely kids) who always want more,” says Hamilton. “Each episode is about a minute long and they blast by so fast, with episodes coming out super frequently.”

During the first wave of the videos’ popularity in mid-2023, Gerasimov was uploading at least two videos each week for months, sometimes uploading a video every single day. Social media algorithms have prioritized more frequent uploaders for years, and Gerasimov had been animating in Source Filmmaker for more than a decade, giving him enough experience to crank out the videos fast enough to satisfy YouTube’s algorithm.

This isn’t the first time the algorithm has popularized content that adults find inappropriate for children. In 2017, YouTube faced a public outcry when it was found that the platform was promoting hundreds of disturbing videos, and allowing them to be viewed on its family-friendly YouTube Kids app. The controversy would be known as “Elsagate,” since the offending videos featured popular children’s characters like Elsa, Spider-Man, and Peppa Pig undergoing gory medical procedures, getting kidnapped, and more.

These videos were transparent attempts to game YouTube’s recommendation system for ad revenue. Many of them had hundreds of seemingly inauthentic comments to boost engagement metrics, and a report by the New York Times found one prominent channel was creating videos with a team of roughly 100 people.

YouTube made changes to its algorithm to disincentivize scammers from making these videos. They can’t do the same to flush away Skibidi Toilet, because it wasn’t made to satisfy the algorithm in the same way. It’s a much smaller operation, made with genuine craft and artistic intention. Gerasimov made the videos longer and more ambitious as the series grew in popularity, but that growth happened thanks to people actually enjoying the series, not for associations with popular characters.

Nonetheless, they’ve become even more of a hit among the younger generation, and for parents, this seems to be the real underlying fear. “I think Skibidi Toilet’s ‘negative effects’ on kids are mostly just the obsessive, seemingly addictive aspect,” says Hamilton. “It’s the same reason parents worry about short-form video platforms like TikTok.” The videos took off at the perfect time—after the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated a general shift away from in-person social interaction—for their weirdness to feed into paranoia about what a screen-mediated life might be doing to impressionable young minds.

When it comes to children’s browsing habits, there are many scarier things they might find online than Skibidi Toilet. As strange as the videos are, they wouldn’t do very well as propaganda or even advertising. There’s no agenda, for good or ill, besides the entertainment value. In the Washington Post, Taylor Lorenz compared Skibidi Toilet to “harmless entertainment” like Cocomelon and other children’s videos. Not everyone is happy about the popularity of Cocomelon, but that popularity hasn’t caused the same kind of panic.