Caught in the Study Web

Exploring Gen Z’s Ambitious and Anxiety-Fuelled Pursuit of Straight A’s Across YouTube, TikTok, Discord, and Twitter

In late 2020, a 10-hour loop of a song from Mario Kart titled “Coconut Mall” started blowing up on Youtube. Initially uploaded as a joke by Gliccit in 2017, the video never saw more than 39 views a day in that calendar year. 

But on October 29, 2020, “Coconut Mall” was viewed 39,959 times. As of late April 2021, the video has been played for a collective 478,941 hours. Why did a relatively obscure video featuring a song from 2008 MarioKart Wii get such a significant traffic boost? 

The “Coconut Mall” video exploded when it got pulled into what I call Study Web

Study Web is a vast, interconnected network of study-focused content and gathering spaces for students that spans platforms, disciplines, age groups, and countries. Students seeking motivation, inspiration, focus, and support watch livestreams of a real person at their desk, studying; videos in the Study With Me genre are simultaneously streamed by thousands of students. Or they join Discord communities, where they search for “study buddies,” share studying goals, and compete—by studying—for virtual rewards. On Twitter, they swap study tips and seek out study “moots,” or mutuals, under the hashtag #StudyTwit. 

In the case of the “Coconut Mall” video, a TikTok study influencer recommended the video as great focus music, under the hashtag #StudyTok. Tens of thousands flocked to watch, chat, and, of course, study: 

  • “I'm back again because I have a big test to study for, a bunch of busy work due tomorrow, and graphing math homework. Here we go.”
  • “POV: you waited too long to do that big project so you are rushing to finish knowing that you will fail regardless”
  • “just wrote 3 essays and took 2 quizzes listening to this... thank god for coconut mall.”

The Study Web is a constellation of digital spaces and online communities—across YouTube, TikTok, Reddit, Discord, and Twitter—largely built by students for students. Videos under the #StudyTok hashtag have been viewed over half a billion times. One Discord server, Study Together, has over 120 thousand members. Study Web extends far past study groups composed of classmates, institution specific associations, or poorly designed retro forums discussing entrance requirements for professional programs. It includes but transcends Studyblrs on Tumblr that emerged in 2014 and eclipses various Reddit and Facebook study groups or inspirational images shared across Pinterest and Instagram. Populated mostly by Gen Z and the youngest of millennials, Study Web is the internet most of us don’t see, and it’s become a lifeline for students from junior high to college. 

Much of Study Web parallels more adult and professional spaces that have emerged in the last decade—revered influencers, a bend towards materialism, and inspiration over analysis. But it’s also a reflection of the realities of young people today that most of us miss. 

Why are millions of students from around the world spending countless hours online, tangled in the Study Web of their own design?

In the highly-pressurized pursuit of the academic goals they’ve been told will help them succeed, students venture into Study Web to feel less alone; assuaging anxiety with inspiration, pursuing perfect grades through para-social productivity, and quelling fears about the future with cyber friends. As Zoom school has left young people even more desperate for connection and support, they’re turning to Study Web—post-to-post, DM-to-DM, and webcam-to-webcam—to find it. 

I dove into Study Web to see how it works.

YouTube 

If you’re a mid-millennial or older, and once-upon-a-time used YouTube for studying and learning course material, you might remember Khan Academy videos explaining the Krebs cycle or a kind stranger from India balancing redox equations.

These tutoring style videos are generally one-off watches where students land to grasp a concept and rarely return. While they exist in the same universe, they feel worlds apart from the fresher crop of content on the YouTube section of Study Web where students return again and again, seeking comfort and counsel from their favorite creators, regardless of what they’re studying or where they go to school.

Study Creators 

Every online world, from Tech Twitter to Linkedin, has its influencers—Study Web is no exception. On YouTube, study creators with thousands to millions of subscribers focus less on subject matter and curriculum, instead sharing productivity tactics and study techniques. A key feature of these videos is aesthetics—from the right ruler to the perfect pen. Lighting is an important part of a study creator’s vibe: candles, string lights, salt lamps, and neon lights are all common fare. Most creators are students themselves, grappling with many of the same pressures that they’re guiding their audience through — namely, a seemingly endless workload and a schooling system that drives youth to equate academic achievement with self-worth. 

On her YouTube channel The Bliss Bean, a creator named Beatrice provides advice on leveraging active recall and using Anki for spaced repetition (a different digital flash card tool is the video’s paid sponsor). A student herself, she imparts the importance of effective study habits:

“...instead if you set yourself little goals, if you set yourself little time limits and you implement techniques to help you get stuff done within those time limits, then you will win at school and at life.”

Another study influencer, Berkeley student Angelica Song recommends finding an effective note-taking system and staying off your phone during long classes. She lends advice on how to think about the much coveted student goal, straight A’s: 

“...yes grades are not everything. GPA is not everything. I know that. But sadly a lot of the industry still today heavily rely on what grades you get: medical school, law school, grad school. And so it is important that you kind of do the best or like, win the game in the system in this academic and educational institutional ecosystem thing we have going on. We have to win the simulation! We're all in this simulation and then we have to win it.”

This emphasis on “winning” the game of exams and assignments leaves out the implicit idea that doing poorly is to lose—to be a loser—and not just at school. Luckily, the right study tip or academic advice is just a recommended watch away. YouTube’s content in the genre seems endless: videos on setting up your workspace, the science behind active recall, and how to implement memorization tricks like the mind palace. There are techniques taught on how to focus with pomodoros or how to create a study schedule. 10 hacks to get a 4.0, study tips from a college graduate, and brutally honest advice on getting good grades. The comments from students surfing the Study Web under these videos reveals a mix of gratitude, hope, and anxiety: 

  • “I’m failing class so this helped me extremely good ty ❤️”
  • “does anyone just gets anxious when a video writes ‘study smarter, not harder’ and end up watching it eventhough its the same technique? just me?”
  • “Thank you so much for making this wonderful video! I’ve been struggling with my grades now a days and I think this would really help me!”


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