Trends—social media trends most of all—create the illusion that they exist in the present.
Consider three facts about social media trends. First, something obvious: their known existence depends hugely on their relevance. Second, and less obviously, their relevance is highly contingent upon the difficulty of determining their staying power. Third, social media trends gain power, and not just relevance, when we give up trying to figure out how much to care about them. We let social media function like a market that ascribes an interest value to us, fuels trends accordingly, and adjusts our interest value in the trends on a rolling basis.
One potentially irritating example of how this works: the trend of digital self-promotion that combines livestreaming, editing vlogging, and multi-platform promotion. The goal is to leverage a performance-art version of everyday life, varying sometimes shot-to-shot and take-to-take in its degrees of authenticity, creating a form of celebrity that’s codependent on life online and off.
Naturally the New York Times is on it—a clue to the nagging indeterminacy of the trend’s location in time. A recent report profiles “a small but growing number of entrepreneurs who have turned their lives into do-it-yourself reality shows. They pay videographers, editors and producers thousands of dollars a month to shadow them and create content for their social media platforms. They ‘star’ as part motivational speaker, part life coach, as they dispense advice and speak enthusiastically about the hustle. They are earnest to a fault; you’ll find no melodrama here (or even much drama). But people are watching, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands.”
We Can’t Determine The Lasting Relevance Of Today’s Trends
What is so irritating about this? It’s obvious that this new generation of “stars” would include personally irritating people—opportunists, fools, ingrates, hucksters, caricatures, and so on. But it’s also apparent that fairly normal and pleasant people, or winsomely weird born performers, could also merrily exploit the trend to informative and entertaining effect. Some stars, the Times observes, genuinely want to serve as role models, not just for would-be superstars but for “people [who want] to see that you can have a wife and kids, and work out, and stay healthy and manage a business. You can pull it off.” Managing the whirlwind of everyday life is a bona fide accomplishment. Why wouldn’t you want reinforcement from people who have turned at least semi-pro at whirlwind management?
You can watch the trend work its seductive, deconstructive magic: it’s hard to say exactly how much, for instance, you’d want your own children or other family members getting involved, or why you’d draw the line where you would, or what right you’d have to do so, or how hard we all ought to argue about what might be the best way to cut into this whole matrix of potential problems and uncertainty.
And because it’s a trend, its power over us grows precisely because we have no way of forming reliable working assumptions about whether it’s a fad, it’s a niche, it’s an ordeal which will pass in a decade or so, or it’s the new normal. We become passive, perhaps helpless, unable to establish the trend’s position. Does it exist in the immediate moment? The short-term present? The endlessly unfolding future? Or, as is sometimes the case with trends the Times is on, does it really inhabit the quickly receding past? We don’t know. We don’t get to know. And we don’t get to decide.
We Should All Strive To Escape The Trendpocalypse
This uncanny loss of agency is not exactly a brand-new creation of the social internet. Fashions and trends and movements have always implicitly posed similar predicaments. But social media is accelerating and multiplying them. It is one thing to feel a twinge of anxiety about where you and your progeny might stand vis-à-vis the Oneida Community or Disco. It’s another to be basically plunged into a sea of content where your relationship to barrage after barrage of lifestyle options is continually renegotiated—or not—on the fly.
We can respond in several ways to this sometimes exciting but probably often draining experience. One, we can simply surrender to the borg of trends. Two, we can try to take charge and forge our own trend. Three, we can try to quarantine ourselves from the trends and hope for the best, crossing our fingers against the possibility that one day we will open the door and the trends, zombie-like, will have closed in around us, ready to claim their next (or final) victim. Fourth, we can dedicate part of our lives to keeping trends at bay, inspecting the ones that penetrate into our world on a wary and ad hoc basis.
But probably the least exhausting option is to occupy ourselves with pursuits and habits and commitments and convictions that are not trends and have built-in protections against trendification. This way, we will not only be too busy being fruitful to get sucked into the grind of parsing trends (something, after all, that AI might get really good at doing for us): we’ll also level up the skills and abilities that will enable us to withstand, and maybe even escape, a zombie trendpocalypse.