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'Garbage trends' clog the internet — and they may be here to stay

The recipe for tomato feta pasta that briefly took over TikTok comprises of oven-roasted feta, tomatoes and garlic, which is mixed with pasta and topped with parsley.
Carolyn Lessard
The recipe for tomato feta pasta that briefly took over TikTok comprises of oven-roasted feta, tomatoes and garlic, which is mixed with pasta and topped with parsley.

Happy first anniversary to when sea shanties briefly took over the internet.

NPR was among the media organizations hyping the charming online phenomenon in January 2021 of people belting out maritime folk songs. After the inevitable wave of remixes and parodies, the trend quickly died.

"It was like a whole craze for a week, then no one remembered it ever again," muses Rebecca Jennings. The senior correspondent for Vox covers internet culture; she coined the term "garbage trend" in a December articleto describe these fast-moving, short-lived online phenomena.

Other garbage trend examples she's noticed over the past year range from a viral bakedfeta pasta, a flare of intense interest in "RushTok" (Alabama sorority hopefuls explaining their rush outfits), Elon Musk's fitful promotion of Dogecoin and the divisive slang term "cheugy."

"Garbage trends ... are kind of like fast fashion," Jennings points out. "They sort of come out of nowhere, they seem very of the moment, everyone showers them with attention and in some respects, money and time and meaning and then the next week they're in ... the figurative landfill of ideas."

There's nothing new about fads and trends. Rightly or wrongly, many people associate the Dutch Golden Age in the mid-1600s for its overhyped tulip mania. Perhaps your great-great grandparents took part in the Charleston dance craze of the 1920s. (Vintage clips of Josephine Baker performing it seem almost to presage TikTok videos.)

But Jennings points out a major difference. "The speed of these trends that come and go is so much faster," she says. "I think TikTok and these other algorithm-based platforms are a huge part of it."

These algorithms direct our attention, goose it along and monetize it. They're also what drives the spin cycle of content showing up in personalized feeds on Netflix, Spotify or your news app of choice.

"Barely anyone knows how these algorithms actually work," Jennings says, referring to casual consumers steered by machine intelligence — and to an extent, even the marketers who manipulate them. "They test something and then if it doesn't blow up, they'll just get rid of it. If it does [blow up], they'll shove it in everyone's faces, and then move on to the next thing."

Jennings is troubled about how garbage trends drive cultural conversations during an ever-widening vacuum of local news — it's often easier, she points out, to run across outraged responses over a clip of a school board meeting a thousand miles away than to find unbiased coverage of your own school board meetings. Much like NFTs, cryptocurrencies or Web 3.0, garbage trends take up a lot of internet oxygen, she adds. "But you don't really know what actually is meaningful or valuable about them."

Ultimately, Jennings says, garbage trends also mirror the pace of the pandemic over the past two years. "Things have just felt so frenzied," she observes. The vaccines arrive, and everything seems to be on an upswing. "Oh wait, no, delta's here. Everything's not fine. And oh, omicron. What are we supposed to do?"

The garbage trend — as admittedly stupid as it is — can help people feel rooted in the moment when the future feels terribly uncertain, Jennings says. In any case, the garbage trend is not a trend. As long as algorithms are invested in hooking us in, garbage trends are here to stay.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.