What Does ‘Trending’ Even Mean?
You haven't heard of the 'latest trend' because it's not one.
Last week, the New York Times published a piece about “date-me docs,” which is exactly what they sound like: extended dating profiles, typically hosted on Notion or Google Docs, where people make the case for why you should date them. There was something about the article that stood out to me, even more than the subject–the way they framed date-me docs. There was recognition that “date me docs” weren’t really a trend, at least not a widespread one; they were only popular among “some urbanites.” Even though it seems trivial, it’s a distinction rarely made. These phenomena are often framed as “the next big thing,” when they’re only popular among a few dozen people. And if they do, in fact, become the next big thing, what helps amplify them is being covered in a major publication, like the New York Times or the Washington Post. In other words: there’s trend reporting, and there is manufacturing trends under the guise of “trend reporting.”
One of the most egregious examples of this in recent history was the claim that young people were identifying as “tradcaths” in large numbers. Journalists didn’t get this idea from nowhere–there was a kernel of truth here–but there wasn’t a wave of conversion sweeping the country. In reality, there was a cluster of vocal people in places like New York and Washington, D.C., mostly visible on Twitter. This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t interesting or even that it wasn’t worthy of writing about. It just wasn’t a “trend” in the way one typically thinks of a trend.
There are many explanations for why this happens, some more charitable than others. As I, and many others, have reported, trend forecasting itself is a sort of hustle—a trend in and of itself. Trend forecasting and cataloging are less politicized than the “take economy.” They can be a welcome departure from the exhaustion of needing to come up with an opinion on everything. The reverse is also true: it can astroturf ideas that may later be used as a political weapon. For example, since the Trump administration, every couple of weeks, an article is published that asserts this or that behavior is a new trend among the “far right” and is, therefore, a “fascist dog whistle.” Obviously, this type of trend reporting is naked propaganda designed to demonize certain populations of people. Sometimes, behaviors or products are framed as “trendy” because a publicist has reached out to a journalist and pitched them their client. It used to be an open secret that most articles about a new product, say a direct-to-consumer mattress or a CBD-infused soda, were the product of PR firms providing perks to journalists—in the biz, this is called “earned media.”
But more charitably, this happens because the culture we’re living in is so fragmented, and it can be difficult to tell what the bigger picture is. For example, it takes an incredible amount of resources just to determine how big any given internet subculture is. You can eyeball it—this influencer has X amount of followers, that post has Y amount of engagement, and that term turns up Z number of posts—but more accurate numbers require both time and tools that most writers don’t have. So, you rely on what you do have and make an educated guess. Reporters might genuinely believe they’re reporting on a trend to find out later it was only a trend in their universe. As a professional necessity, either to promote their work or have an easy way to keep tabs on current events, many journalists have to spend an incredible amount of time on TikTok and Twitter. This has a distorting effect, and what the algorithm shows you starts to appear more popular than it might be in reality. Put simply? A lot of “trends” are just scene reports, and those scenes, more often than not, are elite bubbles in cities like Los Angeles and New York.
But then, there’s always a final possibility: that this is how it’s always been. Journalists determine what is trending—they are not describing reality as deciding what it should be.