Happy first birthday when sea shanties briefly took over the internet.
NPR was among the media organizations promoting the charming online phenomenon in January 2021 of people singing maritime folk songs. After the inevitable wave of remixes and parodies, the trend quickly died down.
“It was like a real craze for a week, then no one ever remembered it again,” thinks Rebecca Jennings. Vox’s senior correspondent covers internet culture; she coined the term “garbage trend” in a December article to describe these fast-paced, short-lived online phenomena.
Other examples of trash trends she’s noticed over the past year range from viral baked feta pasta, a surge of intense interest in “RushTok” (the sorority hopefuls of the Alabama explaining their cutting-edge outfits), Elon Musk’s choppy promotion of Dogecoin, and the divisive slang term “cheugy.”
“Garbage trends…are kind of like fast fashion,” Jennings points out. “They come out of nowhere, they seem very current, everyone showers them with attention and in some ways money and time and meaning, and then the next week they’re in… the figurative dump of ideas. “
There is nothing new in fads and trends. Rightly or wrongly, many people associate the Dutch Golden Age of the mid-1600s with its overrated tulip craze. Maybe your great-great-grandparents got in on the Charleston dance craze of the 1920s. (Vintage clips of Josephine Baker performing it almost seem to presage TikTok videos.)
But Jennings points out a major difference. “The speed of these trends coming and going is so much faster,” she says. “I think TikTok and these other algorithm-based platforms are a big part of that.”
These algorithms direct our attention, direct it and monetize it. They’re also what fuel the rotation cycle of content appearing in personalized feeds on Netflix, Spotify, or your news app of choice.
“Hardly anyone knows how these algorithms actually work,” says Jennings, referring to casual consumers driven by artificial intelligence — and to some extent, even the marketers who manipulate them. “They test something and if it doesn’t explode, they get rid of it. If it does [blow up]they’ll put it in everybody’s face and then move on to the next thing.”
Jennings is troubled by the way trash trends fuel cultural conversations in an ever-widening vacuum of local news — it’s often easier, she points out, to encounter outraged responses on a clip from a meeting. a school board thousands of miles away than finding unbiased coverage of your own school board meetings. Much like NFTs, cryptocurrencies or Web 3.0, garbage trends consume a lot of oxygen on the internet, she adds. “But you don’t really know what’s meaningful or valuable about them.”
When TikTok user Nathan Evans posted his rendition of “Wellerman,” it inspired a huge wave of videos singing sea shanties on the app.
Thanks to TikTok, the world got a glimpse of outfits worn by University of Alabama students that promised sororities.
Ultimately, says Jennings, litter trends also reflect the pace of the pandemic over the past two years. “Things just seemed so frantic,” she observes. The vaccines are coming, and everything seems to be accelerating. “Oh wait, no, delta is here. All is not well. And oh, omicron. What are we supposed to do?”
The litter trend — as silly as it is — can help people feel grounded in a moment when the future looks terribly uncertain, Jennings says. In any case, the garbage trend is not a trend. As long as algorithms are invested in hooking us, garbage trends are here to stay.