Caitlin Smith, 30, is just like any other college-educated woman her age. She has a decent job, is still paying off debt, and keeps up with her old friends from school on Facebook. One December morning, what should have been a normal day of scrolling through photos of engagement rings and newborn babies on the social media site, quickly turned into an existential crisis for Smith. It all started when the words “Easy Peppermint Bark Recipe” flashed across her screen.
“I knew Christmas was several weeks ago, but I figured, ‘Hey, it’s still winter; peppermint is also a winter thing, not just a Christmas thing,’” says Smith, of her first impression of the video.
The 15-second video tutorial was shared by one of her high school friends—who dropped out their senior year—and had nearly 20 million views. It had already started autoplaying when Smith got a twinkle of excitement in her eye.
“This would make a great late Christmas gift for mom,” she thought aloud. “Plus, it costs about $5 to make, and that last student loan payment nearly cleared me out.”
Five seconds later, dread was already setting in. The anonymous hands in the video were melting chocolate, something Smith had never done on purpose before. Despite her more-than-adequate understanding of the classics, she felt immediately inept.
“What’s a double boiler?” the former English Lit-Poli Sci double major asked aloud, ignoring the coffee shop patrons around her. “Would it be cheating to just put it in the microwave?”
Smith began to panic. Then, she thought back on her training from school. “Google it, of course!” She said aloud, again startling the people next to her. Upon realizing she could place a bowl in a pot of boiling water to melt the chocolate, she was not relieved. “But what if I don’t have the right bowl?” She doubted herself. “What if it melts my bowl?” Smith, who spent a year assisting a company that expedites microloans to female business owners in sub-Saharan Africa, quickly Googled the phrase, “how hot to melt a bowl in water”. “That’s when the adrenaline really hit.”
The coffee shop patrons began to notice Smith’s heavy breathing, and one nearby woman told her to calm down. Smith says she tried her best to reassure herself. “Surely, this wasn’t as complicated as it looked,” she explains, “and it definitely wasn’t as complicated as that trigonometry course I took freshman year. Which I aced, by the way.” Her breathing eventually steadied.
As she regained her composure, sipped on her peppermint latte, and pressed play on the last five seconds of the video, another dilemma presented itself: would she opt to crush candy canes for the bark, or those round starlight mints that you sometimes get at diners? “’Oh God,’ I thought, ‘they really ARE the same thing.’” Despite having passed rigorous exams that tested her knowledge of engineering, modern art, and philosophy, Smith’s mind couldn’t figure out which candy would be easier to smash into bits and layered over re-melted chocolate. Letting out a loud cry, she caught the sympathetic eye of the barista, who appeared to be phoning the police.
Defeated, and in a hurry to leave, Smith took a moment to click “Like” on the recipe video, pin it to a Pinterest board, email her mother an apology for the even-more-belated gift, and order peppermint bark online for $8.99 with free shipping.
“I’m not allowed back in that Starbucks,” says Smith, “so I guess I’ll have to work on my master’s thesis on voting rights somewhere else.”