April 18

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Sarah Joy Nelson And The Difference Between Entertaining And Lying

Mental Health, Social Media

Sarah Joy Nelson amassed half a million TikTok followers making videos claiming to be a "plain" woman — that is, a member of the Amish or Mennonite community. But after an ambiguous apology video to her community and a suddenly deleted account, Nelson's followers quickly started worrying she may be in danger.

Then, Internet sleuths created a compelling case arguing that Sarah Joy Nelson was actually never a plain woman in the first place. 

It's a bizarre saga that raises some interesting points about the responsibility entertainers have to their audience and the difference between entertaining and lying. 

The Sarah Joy Nelson Situation, Briefly Explained

Sarah Joy Nelson started a TikTok account with the handle @thatplaingirl in late 2023. In a few short months, she amassed around 500,000 followers thanks to her videos in which she claimed to be a plain woman who worked at a plain store (akin to a general store). Much of her content focused on "insights" into the simple lifestyle of plain people, tutorials, and even awareness of issues within the community. 

But on March 26th, 2024, she posted a video that some users said felt like a "hostage" video in which she apologized to her "community" and said she wouldn't be posting anymore. This led a lot of her followers to express concern that she was being coerced or threatened to leave TikTok after people in her community found out about the account. Some even called local authorities asking for a wellness check. 

In response, Sarah Joy Nelson posted another video saying she simply was given a choice to remain in her community and stop posting or to pursue a life outside the community and that she chose to continue her life within the community. She also criticized some users who accused her of lying about being part of a plain community, saying she "joined" one in 2018 or 2019. 

Rolling Stone tried to reach Nelson to no avail, but did speak with several acquaintances who said they knew her and doubted her claims that she joined a plain community. While she did work at a plain store, social media users found recent images of Nelson in regular clothes with her family, celebrating things like Halloween, going to the mall, and other typical things people in plain communities eschew. 

Some users further tracked down a different account Sarah Joy Nelson started between June and December 2022 that showed no indication of Nelson being part of an Amish or Mennonite community. Despite the @thatplaingirl account being gone for a while, users continue to talk about the bizarre ordeal and post content around it. 

Why People Are So Fascinated With These Stories

Let's set aside any discussion about Nelson herself. The reality is, very few people know what she's going through or why she put herself in the predicament she did. We can only hope that if she's struggling, she gets the help and support she needs. 

But people are absolutely fascinated by these types of stories, for two reasons. One, the concept of the plain girl account was actually quite smart. The account grew so quickly because at the heart of it, the videos were entertaining and novel. Beyond the simple concept of a somewhat "forbidden" look into a unique lifestyle, the content was also just genuinely interesting to a lot of people. 

That in and of itself is not easy to do. From a basic content creator standpoint, the @thatplaingirl account was an absolute knockout of a concept. But it was also built on an inherent sense of trust that this was an earnest representation of plain life from somebody experiencing it firsthand. 

The second reason people are fascinated with these kinds of stories is because, well, they always are. There have been several high profile examples of people essentially cosplaying another lifestyle only to get caught in the act. It's true crime adjacent and it plays to our worser storytelling instincts of drama and betrayal. 

Why Does It Matter If It's Good Content?

So if the content was genuinely good, why does it matter if the underlying premise was a lie? Well, it's a bit complicated. For starters, any time you make an audience genuinely believe you're in danger, you're playing with a very fragile ethical boundary. So the "goodbye" video posted to the account was in many ways a big no-no.

Magicians Penn and Teller famously beef with certain types of magic or mentalism because they believe it's immoral to lie to your audience to exploit grief. They also believe it's immoral to make the audience believe you are in genuine danger. And they continuously tell their audience they are lying to them while lying to them. That hasn't stopped them from becoming some of the most successful and respected entertainers in the world. 

But social media is still a very funny place. A lot of users don't think of the platforms as necessarily entertainment, though most successful content on social media is highly scripted. Viewers understand and know movies aren't real. They get that reality TV is still scripted and often staged. They're cool with watching skits and stand-up bits that are clearly dramatized or completely fabricated. Even most users can grasp or acknowledge staged content on social media and be fine with it.

But the moment somebody posts a video to social media in this sort of vlog fashion, users feel like they're giving over an inherent sense of trust to the creator. And if a creator ends up being inauthentic — no matter how good the content is at face value — it can alienate an audience and turn south quickly. 

The Difference Between Entertaining And Lying

So, here's the frustratingly nuanced answer to the difference between entertaining and lying: it comes down to your audience and your intention. 

There are people who are willing to suspend disbelief for a good time. People spend money all the time knowing they're being fooled but still find the joy and wonder in it anyway. Professional wrestling is still one of the biggest entertainment businesses in the world because people love the stories, the spectacle, and the athleticism of it all. Just about everybody knows they're being lied to, but they don't care — because they're being entertained. 

But there are also people who put their trust wholly in another person to be completely forthright with them. And the more people seemingly sign that "social contract" with a creator, the more the creator needs to understand the ethical implications of their content. Not to mention whether or not they can sustain a business built on dishonesty, if they choose to fabricate the premise of their content. The scenario gets even trickier when you consider things like cultural appropriation or co-opting another community just because it leads to compelling content or you're good at it. 

And then there's intentionality. When somebody fools you with a clever game of three-card monte, they either do it because they take joy in seeing your disbelief, or they do it because they're a hustler looking to make a quick buck. Whether or not they actually take your money is kind of everything in this case.

Most entertainers will tell you there's nothing like the feeling of seeing somebody's face at the completion of a trick, or watching somebody sing along to their song, or reading about how your content changed somebody's life. Bringing that intentionality to your content — whether it's entirely earnest or entirely fabricated — is what separates entertainment from downright lying. 

Yes, it's incredibly subjective. But hey, that's art. 






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