In today’s garbage-filled online hellscape, anything can qualify — if even for a minute — as a trend
One of the recent trends on TikTok is an aesthetic called “night luxe.” It embodies the kind of performative opulence one usually encounters at New Year’s Eve parties: champagne, disco balls, bedazzled accessories, and golden sparkles.
“Night luxe” doesn’t actually mean anything. It isn’t a reaction to wellness culture, nor is it proof that partying is “in” again (has partying ever been “out”?). It’s just one of many aesthetic designations for which the internet has contrived a buzzy, meaningless portmanteau. Rest assured that night luxe will likely have faded into irrelevance by the time this article is published, only for another meme-ified aesthetic (i.e., coastal grandmother) to be crowned the next viral “trend.”
The tendency to register and categorize things, whether it be one’s identity, body type, or aesthetic preferences, is a natural part of online life. People have a penchant for naming elusive digital phenomena, but TikTok has only accelerated the use of cutesy aesthetic nomenclature. Anything that’s vaguely popular online must be defined or decoded — and ultimately, reduced to a bundle of marketable vibes with a kitschy label.
Last month, Harper’s Bazaar fashion news director Rachel Tashjian declared that “we’re living through a mass psychosis expressing itself through trend reporting.” There is, I would argue, as much reporting as there is trend manufacturing. No one is sure exactly what a trend is anymore or if it’s just an unfounded observation gone viral. The distinction doesn’t seem to matter, since TikTok — and the consumer market — demands novelty. It creates ripe conditions for a garbage-filled hellscape where everything and anything has the potential to be a trend.
TikTok plucks niche digital aesthetics out of obscurity and serves them up to an audience that might not have known or cared in the first place. While aesthetic components were once integral to the formation of traditional subcultures, they’ve lost all meaning in this algorithmically driven visual landscape. Instead, subcultural images and attitudes become grouped under a ubiquitous, indefinable label of a “viral trend” — something that can be demystified, mimicked, sold, and bought.
Trend brain, as I call it, encourages us to simplify everything online into something either buyable, understandable, or moral (and therefore worthy of consumption). We may tire of trend talk, but there is a devout certainty to the speed at which they’re cycled through. There are more choices than ever today, but seemingly less authority as to what constitutes a trend’s lasting legitimacy. Consumers are left to grasp at these dwindling markers of cool: fleeting fads to help us understand capital-C culture and ultimately, what’s on the horizon. How did we get here? And perhaps more importantly, will the trend churn ever stop?
My theory begins with cottagecore. Cottagecore, for the unfamiliar, is an online aesthetic that glamorizes aspects of rural living: bucolic pastures, pastel-colored sundresses, and the virtues of idle homemaking. It emerged on Tumblr in 2018, and, like night luxe, exists largely as an online state of mind — a moodboard intended for digital cosplay. Anyone on the internet could personify this charming sylvan lifestyle, simply by sharing images or videos of mossy fields, farm animals, and prairie dresses.
When cottagecore went viral on TikTok in 2020, however, it morphed into something concretely buyable. It became a lifestyle to emulate via mass consumption through nap dresses, woven bags, rustic home trinkets, and a room’s worth of potted plants. Cottagecore’s mainstream popularity coincided with the pandemic’s early months, a time when people were desperately searching for a sense of escapism, often by buying lots of stuff. The aesthetic reflected a kind of quaint domesticity, which was fitting for the spring quarantine. On Tumblr, a visual blogging platform, online aesthetics could transcend physicality. On TikTok, which has become an informal but powerful product recommendation engine, a prerequisite for most aesthetic trends is tangible accessibility. In other words, what could a person wear or buy to embody cottagecore?
For media outlets, fashion blogs, and TikTok trend forecasters, the frenzy to identify, categorize, and decode every emerging aesthetic is not just driven by algorithms. The hype can be profitable too. This content-dependent relationship occurs most visibly in fashion, coalescing into what Vox’s Rebecca Jennings has dubbed “TikTok couture.” Trends, or the illusion of a trend, benefit the fast-fashion companies and direct-to-consumer brands making products that aesthetically align with such fleeting fancies. They can also often act as major sponsors and advertisers for content creators and publications.
The problem, so to speak, isn’t cottagecore, night luxe, or the concept of micro-aesthetics. It’s the fact that modern consumers are bombarded with a neverending stream of inconsequential trends to take note of — marketing vessels for products that fit into a paradigm devoid of meaning. This doesn’t just concern the fashion world: The effects of trend-induced brain rot have trickled into online discourse. The topics and figures deemed most important on the internet are based on where they fall along this spectrum of trendiness, depending on the scale of attention they command.
In his 1967 book Society of the Spectacle, the French philosopher Guy Debord introduced the concept of recuperation: the process by which subcultural ideas and images become commodified and reincorporated into mainstream society. Throughout the 20th century, recuperation was achieved through mass media. It was done with the intent or effect of depoliticizing radical social movements and subcultures, rendering them comprehensible — and therefore less threatening — to mainstream society.
A version of recuperation is playing out on the internet today with micro-aesthetics, memes, and the online communities they stem from. Unlike the radical subcultures of yore, which had their own visual schema, language, and aesthetics, these digital scenes aren’t exactly subcultures, at least not in the traditional sense. (Subcultures like hippies, punks, and mods existed in stark opposition to the mainstream, often with a clear political ethos and a distinct style of dress.) Some draw inspiration or pay homage to distinct countercultures of a bygone era, but it might be more accurate to consider them “aesthetic submarkets,” to use a phrase coined by writer and creative strategist Ayesha Siddiqi.
These submarkets are not entirely void of politics. Instead, they often promote a sort of political anesthetization. The digital embodiment of a certain aesthetic or attitude (i.e., “reactionary chic”) takes precedence over genuine political resistance. Recuperation, at least on TikTok, isn’t always a process of depoliticization. It’s an attempt at repackaging ideas, attitudes, and aesthetics into identifiable trends — something that can be capitalized on for attention or profit, comprehended, and widely consumed by a mass audience.
Social media writ large has eradicated basically any sense of a digital monoculture. “You have so many taste communities, but they don’t exist in opposition to anything,” said Ana Andjelic, a brand executive who writes about the sociology of business. “Culture has decentralized. The center, the mainstream, has disappeared.”
The trajectory of TikTok’s many micro-trends is practically a parody of the early 2010s internet, a period that marked the beginning of the end of a mutually agreed-upon monoculture. There was still the “lamestream” to rebel against, a clear spectrum between normie and alt to position yourself on. The 2010s was, broadly speaking, the twilight of the hipster, when alternative music and fashion blogs were gospel and indie tastemakers the ultimate arbiters of cool. That is, until hipster-dom morphed into an aestheticized parody of itself on social media, transmuting into a rebloggable, buyable identity courtesy of Tumblr and Urban Outfitters.
“The visibility and virality of social platforms made it really hard for subcultures to stay subcultures. It became a way for people to connect online that didn’t need a specific physical space,” said Sean Monahan, a Los Angeles-based trend consultant who writes the weekly newsletter 8Ball. (Monahan was a member of K-HOLE, the disbanded art collective that coined the term “normcore” and is somewhat responsible for the prevalence of “-core” as an aesthetic suffix.)
“When something became popular in the 2010s, it would blow up online and onlookers would start showing up,” he added. “Instead of forming a subculture, brand partnerships started to happen.”
Virality isn’t always a bad thing, but it chips away at this once-valued notion of authenticity, of discovering a music or fashion scene first. Today, this sentiment doesn’t matter nearly as much. Trend mania is considered passé among young social media users. Teenagers, for instance, are accustomed to trying on digital aesthetics like clothes (and also buying fast fashion to represent these tastes), swapping out ones that no longer fit their aspirational personality, style, or vibe. Taste communities, as Andjelic mentioned, aren’t competing for social relevance. Cottagecore and night luxe can coexist in harmony — and might even overlap in the demographics that they attract.
“Gen Z is better able to treat culture as a playground with less self-conscious dissonance because it’s not as central to their identity formation as it was for [millennials],” argued Siddiqi in a newsletter post. “For them, the digital is the mainstream. And it’s disposable. Being ‘alternative’ doesn’t have the same currency since it’s an identity accessible to anyone.”
It’s fitting that the so-called revival of indie sleaze, or 2010s hipster-ism, induced a bout of mild hysteria among Twitter millennials, who fretted over whether they would survive the “vibe shift.” The phrase “vibe shift” has nebulous origins on the internet, but Monahan deployed the term in his newsletter — which was later picked up by New York magazine — to describe “the subjective experience that culture has changed when we left quarantine and Covid.” The vibe shift is just an empty signifier, he told me, like a lot of TikTok trend taxonomy.
“We live in an age where everyone is rushing to name and schematize cultural phenomena,” Monahan said. “It just makes it easier for people to be organized for mass consumption.”
The ceaseless tornado of TikTok trends reflects a chaotic consumer landscape, one where people are looking to their peers, not institutional tastemakers, for guidance. It’s why so many creators on TikTok are trying to launch careers off of summarizing, predicting, and investigating the zeitgeist.
It’s a jarring shift, particularly for Gen X-ers and older millennials, who grew up accustomed to the duality of the consumer experience. Regardless of what a consumer personally chose to espouse, what once was declared a trend was considered “in,” while its opposing counterpart was “out.” These declarations have grown murky and irrelevant, although media outlets are still primed to drum up trend discourse for clicks. (The generational scuffle over whether skinny jeans were “in” or “out,” if you ask me, was a psy-op concocted by Levi’s marketing department to sell more jeans.)
Trend brain operates on dichotomies: relevant vs. irrelevant, good vs. bad, buyable vs. unbuyable, cool vs. uncool. This mentality extends to how people perceive and react to the internet, where even a whimsical aesthetic can become a commodified status signal — a way to demonstrate that you’re a distinct individual who is in the know. With the mass decentralization of culture, even while platforms are becoming increasingly centralized, there’s no way for a sane person to keep up. The problem is, we’re told that we can. We’re told we must evolve to keep up or our digital personas will wither into irrelevance as our style grows stale.
And here we all remain: trapped in the throes of increasingly meaningless trends.
Terry Nguyen is a reporter for The Goods at Vox. She broadly covers consumer and internet trends, and technology that influences people’s online lives and behaviors.