UK Research & Insight Director Susie Hogarth, discusses why trends aren’t ‘dead’, but are in fact, more powerful than ever.
If you are one of Vox.com’s 23 million+ monthly readers you might have stumbled upon the opinion piece, published online earlier this month, boldly titled ‘Trends are dead’.
I did – as it was shared and reshared in a few of my online bubbles. As a trend researcher myself, whose day job is to help brands understand trends to make their own comms more effective, I was alarmed – but also curious to figure out how long I had left to find a new career. Wait. Trends are dead? As the online saying goes; huge if true.
But for those that TLDR’d, the piece doesn’t actually argue that trends are dead at all. Instead, the story goes that they are very much alive, it’s just that there are too many of them, they are too silly, and the author doesn’t like them.
Or, more specifically, that the growing number of micro-trends recently gaining traction along with the rise of TikTok – from cottagecore to dopamine dressing to Night Luxe –are meaningless, mindless and empty of any political or social meaning. That they have finally killed off the existence of a truly provocative counter-culture and so, therefore, in conclusion, have turned the internet into a “garbage-filled hellscape”. Eesh.
As a trend researcher you become inured to frequent accusation that the subject of your life’s work is dumb. Fine. A reasonable price for a brilliant job. But dumb isn’t the same as not impactful. Or joyless. Or not valid. Or unworthy of analysis. And I’d be far from the first person to point out how consistently the stuff that gets derided as dumb and meaningless overlaps with the stuff we define as women’s work or femme-coded, or a part of commercial culture, or simply youthful or new. See Vox’s own argument last year on the underrated cultural power of teen girl culture last year, or follow Kardashian Kolloquium on TikTok – an astute and creative neo-trends analyst of the type called out as was of harbingers of the cultural apocalypse in Nguyen’s piece. Or, for a more established view, take note to bell hooks’ wise words from in 1997 “Whether we’re talking about race or gender or class, popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it’s where the learning is.”
@kardashian_kolloquium #greenscreen #kardashians #khloe #khloekardashian #theory #popculture #metgala #fashion #fyp #kimk #kylie ♬ Egyptian Bellydance Music – Arabian Belly Dance
But anyway, in her trends-hating conclusion, the author of the piece in Vox, Terry Nguyen is, ironically, taking part in a micro trend herself. Just like the hundreds of thousands of social media commenters who gleefully hate-shared The Cut’s now legendary ‘vibe shift’ article in February, slagging off pop culture trends analysis is an increasingly popular pastime for a particular slice of a culturally attuned and very online audience.
Like any backlash – this small, but observable, rejection of the thing only serves to underline their power over the thing in the current landscape; you know a cultural phenomenon has truly arrived once the op-eds tearing it down start coming out. Some sociologists have described this push-pull effect as backlashes bubbling up in response with ‘frontlashes’. That’s not a new viral TikTok beauty hack (I’m here all week) but a way to describe a leap forward, socially, technologically or culturally, that challenges the status quo.
Which checks out. As the trends ‘frontlash’ is very much still with us, and likely still yet to reach its peak. TikTok – the super fast engine at the heart of new micro-trends phenomenon – is still growing – reaching over a billion monthly users this year.
Culture pre-internet could be largely understood as two layered, like a pint of Guinness. Dark, liquid subcultural depths and a creamy topping of the mainstream. The mainstream was smaller, but the more powerful part of the mix overall. It was where the money and the attention were. Only a few people (newspaper editors, TV producers, politicians etc.) had the power to create it and they kept it largely distinct from the subcultural stuff below.
Then the web, with its promise of creative freedom and endless access for everyone, came along and shook this mixture up. Suddenly, anyone could have a reasonable stab at adding to mainstream culture from anywhere (share your song on Soundcloud, upload your fantasy writing to fanfiction.net and accidentally create Twilight) and you could consume subculture at the click of a search button (*google: ‘punk aesthetic amazon: stripey tights and safety pins add to basket*).
And then more recently, social media, and most recently of all, TikTok, has taken this mixing process and sped it up – taking the old cultural solution out of the mixing bowl and transferring it to a blender. With its combination of freakishly powerful discovery algorithm that rapidly sends brilliant content viral, and a suite of editing tools that can turn almost anyone into a charismatic digital creator, the pathway from underground subcultural bedroom artist to million-selling commercial artist has transformed into multiple escalators.
The result is a kind of emulsification of the old cultural mix. Instead of the two-layered pint of Guinness, there is one smooth emulsion, made up of a seemingly infinite array of tiny social media cultural bubbles. Each one is an online community or loose community of interest that forms around fandoms or games or passion points. These span from the vast, established and organised (see the awesome power of K-Pop fans) to the fast-moving and ephemeral clusters of shared cultural references and aesthetics like ‘cottagecore’ or ‘Coastal Grandma’ that Nguyen accuses of turning the internet into a “garbage-filled hellscape”.
@lexnicoleta GRAN EXPLAINED #coastalgrandmother ♬ This Will Be (An Everlasting Love) – Natalie Cole
These cultural bubbles have both subcultural and mainstream properties. They lack gatekeepers and elitism in a way that feels indie, but they come embedded with the potential to achieve the real economic power previously associated with old ‘mainstream. They are often vast in their size and reach – comparable to a hit TV show or the fanbase of 1990s pop band –, and yet also somehow manage to be obscure at the same time. Consider the estimated 22,000 YouTube channels that have over 1 million subscribers each. That’s 22,000 online communities the size of Birmingham, each with their own stories, relationships and streams of content. And 22,000 YouTubers pulling a substantial enviable wage creating for them.
How many of these channels would you have heard of? And anyway, have you heard of Cottagecore? Night Luxe? Coastal Grandma? Are these subcultures? Mainstream media? Does it matter?
Well no, because the old delineation is gone. Subcultures have been plugged into the globalised financial and attention economy in a way that cannot be unplugged. In a way that Guy De Bord, the brilliant 20th-century Marxist theorist referenced in the Vox hit piece, could never have imagined. The author uses his theory of ‘recuperation’ as evidence of the pernicious leaching of subcultural energy by platforms like TikTok and the brands and corporations with a vested interest in capitalising on these movements, which immediately defang them of any of their politically subversive power.
Not only is this argument against the power of trends built on a theoretical framework created in 1967 to analyse a cultural and media landscape so different from today that it’s basically unrecognisable, but it fails to acknowledge the power of the internet trends engine in shaping political discourse. The same trends-obsessed, analysis-heavy social internet that birthed ‘Coastal Grandma’ also birthed the alt-right, BLM and the current youth-driven resurgence of the union movement. And, finally, this ‘recuperation’ argument against trends way overestimates the current ability of brands to take advantage of all this online audience-driven cultural creativity in the first place.
If big brands, as the author alleges, are determined to suck the creative lifeblood out of TikTok trend to sell more tank tops, then the vast majority of them quite simply, aren’t currently very good at it.
Today there exists a gaping chasm between the creativity and cultural impact available to the average independent creator on social and your typical corporate brand manager. The former is able to work freely and quickly, cutting and splicing whatever source material she finds on her phone and creating exhilarating weird new creations from her bedroom floor. Adding a weird voice-over to her slime video one day, experimenting with jump cuts the next. She can tweak and adjust her output constantly, taking on board feedback and winning over a growing legion of fans by sharing more of her authentic personality and flair. The latter is slow and reactive – trying to join in lightning-fast trends created by 23 year olds in the small window of time between getting the response signed off and the moment drifting into internet obscurity.
And so when it comes to the average social media consumer considering whether to stop scrolling to pay attention to the insane, kaleidoscopic cultural superhighway of digital user-generated culture, or linger on the culturally neutered, creatively conservative majority of branded content online, at the moment there’s almost no contest. The attention economy is rigged (yes, maybe in favour of silicon valley) but definitely not in favour of branded creativity.
(Which is where we come in of course).
And so, to put my brand consultant hat back on in conclusion, the answer for any brand social media managers who, like me might have been alarmed when they stumbled across the Vox article, definitely isn’t that trends are dead.
But it’s also not that brands should be working harder to cynically leach off the best parts of fast-moving internet culture. No, being a hanger-on still won’t close the creativity gap, where there are a billion users putting out creative, more heartfelt content for free, with no agenda other than their own pure stakeholder-free expression and success.
The best way for big brands to benefit from UGC internet trends is to get closer to them. Firstly, to listen to what they are telling us about what people want, about their passions and motivations and stories, so we can understand the nuances better when we’re trying to communicate really broadly.
And secondly, by learning how to think more like a bedroom floor creator in the first place. This means adopting a collaborative spirit that embraces working with the super-fast, hyper-talents creators of internet culture, not co-opting their genius. And it means brands learning to be bold and creative enough with their own voices to start new conversations and new microtrends online- not just borrowing from everyone else, to have a real shot at closing some of that cultural gap.
Maybe when this happens it will be time for the real backlash against the frontlash – when the average high street supermarket is as good at making TikToks as the most gifted 17 year olds. But that’s a way off yet. So for now, trends aren’t dead. Thank goodness. They are very much alive. And they have plenty to teach us.