2018 Digital Trends let us hear sex-assault victims, scorn teen show-offs
The internet is our modern-day sandbox for shaping folklore. And this year, the millions of neighborhood kids sifting through the World Wide Web dug into some serious sand.
That’s according to directors of Utah State University’s Digital Folklore Project in an announcement of the 2018 Digital Trends of the Year.
The most far-reaching and influential meme of 2018 was #WhyIDidntReport, a Twitter hashtag that continues to give survivors a platform to speak to the difficult issue of sexual assault, said Jeannie Thomas, who co-directs the DFP with Lynne McNeill, an assistant professor of English.
In the lighter-hearted but no less significant category of Serious Fun, the Tide Pod Challenge bubbled to the top, said Thomas, who also serves as chair of the English Department.
The annual survey, conducted since 2014, is drafted by students in USU’s Folklore Program and judged by a nationwide panel of professional folklorists who assess such factors as cultural significance, persistence over time and whether the trend fits the grassroots, common-people usage that identifies it as folklore, said Thomas.
Folklorists are great fans of the internet, where they can track the evolution of folklore almost in “real time,” said McNeill. She’s the co-author of the 2018 book on perhaps the internet’s greatest folkloric phenomenon: Slender Man is Coming: Creepypasta and Contemporary Legends on the Internet (Utah State University Press).
Today’s online community is much like yesterday’s backyard-fence conversations, said Thomas, where pre-digital-age folks once shared and spun gossip and wisdom. In fact, the internet “functions like a ‘digital campfire’ that draws people together to share their stories and lore,” she said.
#WhyIDidntReport first trended in September during the hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Sparking the trend was Trump’s harsh Twitter assessment of Christine Blasey Ford, who came forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual assault many years earlier. “If the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says,” he tweeted, “charges would have been immediately filed with local law enforcement …”
2018’s winning meme reflects 2017’s top digital trend, the Twitter hashtag #MeToo. The continuing conversation is “deepening in an interesting way and becoming more nuanced,” said Thomas. Like #MeToo, she adds, #WhyIDidntReport is a grass-roots reaction to a national issue. It’s “clearly folkloric because it’s made up of personal experiences,” she said.
Thomas acknowledges that Twitter may seem to an unconventional venue for such a discussion, “but that seems to be happening with this one,” she said. These ordinary people behind the tweets “are actually educating people about an aspect of sexual assault that’s not well understood. It’s a teaching moment.”
McNeill agrees. “The distilled micro-narratives that people share over Twitter – and aggregate by using hashtags – are some of the most powerful individual expressions we encounter,” she said.
On the goofier side, the gimmick of an edible challenge, albeit it of laundry soap, first appeared on the satirical news site, The Onion, in 2015. What was first an ironic take on the squishy, colorful appearance of a Tide pod — a “forbidden fruit” in other words — evolved in January 2018 into something more aggressive, according to the ballot written by USU student folklorists. The expanding internet-based challenge called for people to bite into Tide pods and post their inevitable #fails on such social media platforms as YouTube.
The trend presented older generations with a handy dartboard for mocking teenagers for months.
Runners-up in the Social Justice category were:
No. 2: Black Hogwarts, a look at the Harry Potter world through the lens of black culture. Tweeters assigned the movies’ roles to a variety of black celebrities. Former President Obama as the Minister of Magic? Or Morgan Freeman as Dumbledore?
No. 3: Presidential alert hashtag, a take-off on the first-ever tweet from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Oct. 3, 2018 tweet from President Trump read: “Presidential Alert of the National Wireless Emergency Alert system. No action is needed.” The millions of people who received the tweet were soon responding in folklore fashion.
No. 4: The Momo Challenge, featuring an eerie image of the bird-like “Momo” that in July, 2018, was linked to a WhatsApp phone number that would allegedly send disturbing photos and comments to those who contact it. The specific details vary by meme, but all are dominated by themes of suicide and self-harm.
No. 5: Parodies of the Nike ad featuring controversial former pro-football player Colin Kaepernick with the text, ‘’Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
As for the Serious Fun category, it’s grown from cat memes to something much more, said Thomas. Fun, she said, “is almost always meaningful.”
These memes allow us to chuckle, but at the same time dip into a message “that gets at something real or serious,” she said. “We started out just referring to them as ‘fun,’ but we soon came to see they were always more than just mindless fun. They start a dialog, change behavior or raise an issue that people care about,” she said.
Runners-up in the Serious Fun category are:
No. 2: The Baby Shark children’s song, a form of the often overlooked category of children’s folklore that allows watchers to join with hand motions. It’s also an “incredible earworm,” notes Thomas.
No. 3: Marxist Gritty, the floppy, orange-furred mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team that became a darling of antifascists and left-wing types.
No. 4: Elon Musk mocking, which basically involves making fun of the inventor and “pretentious and craziness,” said Thomas.
No. 5: American Chopper, based on a specific scene from the TV reality show about custom motorcycles that portrays the father and son stars in a wild argument that ends with the father firing the son. Unlike many memes, this meme presents a multi-faceted argument.
Contact and writer: Janelle Hyatt, 435-797-0289, or Janelle.email@example.com.
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2017 Digital Trend of the Year was a Tie
#MeToo, alt nat'l park accounts top USU Digital Folklore Project trends
Scholars from Utah State University’s Digital Folklore Project declared a tie — a first in the project’s four-year history — between Twitter handles like @AltUSNatParkService and the #MeToo movement. The panel considered trends suggested by members of the campus community and the general public.
“I will admit, I was a little bit surprised,” said Lynne McNeill, USU assistant professor of English. “I was expecting #MeToo to sweep it unconditionally.”
But she appreciated the fact that two trends tied.
“I feel like the tie is really bringing together that … we don’t just have a singular issue this year,” McNeill said. “There’s all these different fronts on which people want their voices heard, and we’re seeing that reflected in these top two contenders.”
Alternative government social media accounts became a trend in January after the official Badlands National Park account began tweeting statistics about climate change, defying an apparent effort by the Trump administration to suppress government accounts sharing such information. The tweets were deleted a few hours later, but it didn’t stop the more than 100 “alt government” social media accounts from being created.
“I think people like them because there’s a little bit of a trickster to them,” Thomas said. “But it’s not a real mean, trolling kind of trickster. … It’s witty; it’s cheeky. I think that’s why it was so attractive.”
The hashtag #MeToo was posted by women — famous or not — who stated they experienced some form of sexual misconduct in their lives. It gained traction after a series of reports alleging several prominent people in entertainment, politics and other industries had engaged in such conduct. Those reports and people’s accounts led TIME Magazine to select “The Silence Breakers” as the 2017 Person of the Year.
“We see this idea of people refusing to be silenced,” McNeill said. “That’s a wonderful use of social media.”
The hashtag that took the No. 2 spot was #TakeAKnee, referring to many professional athletes who knelt during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality. That action would later morph into a protest against President Donald Trump calling for National Football League boycotts and firing players who knelt.
“When we first started this (Digital Folklore Project), I thought it’d be memes all the time we’d be naming,” Thomas said. “One of the things this shows me is how much people engage with political and social justice issues.”
Speaking of the president, one Trump tweet made the top digital trends list this year.
Hashtag #covfefe became popular among Trump’s critics after he posted a tweet with a typo in it. The president initially tweeted “Despite the constant negative press covfefe,” and the unfinished tweet remained on the account for hours. It was eventually deleted, but by then, the “word” had spread as people joked about what the “covfefe” could mean and speculated about why the apparent mistake lingered for so long on such a high-profile account.
Then-White House spokesman Sean Spicer added fuel to the covfefe the next day, telling the press that “the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant.”
“People could really just have a good laugh about it,” McNeill said. “It became sort of this keyword for, I think, for just sort of the nonsense, the element of the ridiculous, that infuses a lot of the stuff we’re dealing with today.”
Thomas commented on how many social trends made the top spots for the Digital Folklore Project as opposed to memes.
“I think what’s happening is we had a unique moment in American history, and that’s really being reflected here,” Thomas said. “We had a president who was very much stylistically, and in terms of substance, too, unlike anything else we had ever seen before.”
Thomas hopes people don’t forget that the Digital Folklore Project is about “everyday people and what they’re passing around in an informal or folk way.”
A fitting theme for 2016: USU folklorists say creepy clowns year’s hottest internet trend
Logan, UT – Utah State University researchers don’t clown around when it comes to determining what trends dominated the internet in 2016.
USU’s Digital Folklore Project has named the “creepy clowns” phenomenon as the 2016 Digital Trend of the Year. The winner is selected by ballot among folklorists nationwide who look at such factors as cultural significance and whether the trend fits the grassroots, common-people usage that identifies it as folklore.
Jeannie Thomas, who with Lynne McNeill directs the DFP, noted that while sightings of the terrorizing bozos have slowed in recent weeks, history has seen many cycles of this “rumor-legend complex.”
“So, I expect the clowns will be back,” said Thomas, who is also head of USU’s English Department.
“You know,” she jokes, “if you’re a clown lurking in the woods now, those large, red shoes won’t give you any traction in the ice and snow.”
In second place was #NoDAPL and #StandingRock, a social justice-themed trend made popular by those joining the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, said Thomas.
The spring 2016 gathering at North Dakota’s Standing Rock camp was an old-fashioned folk protest, but it quickly became a digital movement, said Thomas. Selfies and other images of individuals worldwide raising their fists in solidarity were widely shared, she said, with the result that “a classic folk gesture was turned into a social-media trend.”
The creepy clown craze, while an interesting trend in itself, quickly became a means for people to comment on socially and cultural significance events like the presidential election, said Thomas.
McNeill, an assistant professor of English, agreed, adding that 2016 saw a massive up swelling of digital folk commentary, largely thanks to a contentious political landscape.
"The election created the perfect environment for memes of all kinds to emerge as people sought to express their feelings through shared cultural content,” she said.