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.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or, contact Jeannie Thomas (Jeannie.email@example.com) or Lynne McNeill (lynne.McNeill@usu.edu). Follow on Twitter at @profjeannie, @lynneSmcneill, #DigitalTrendOfTheYear, or @DigFolkProj.
Themes of Resistance Reflected in 2017's Hottest Internet Trends
Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017
Directors of the Digital Folklife Project Lynne McNeil (left), assistant professor of English, and Jeannie Thomas, professor of English and head of the Department of English.
Folklore throughout history is ordinary folks’ reaction to the big themes of their time. And, in a year when climate change and sexual harassment dominate Twitter and national headlines, it’s fitting those hot topics are the 2017 Digital Trends of the Year.
The Twitter hashtag #MeToo and the phenomenon of fake government social media accounts like @AltUSNatParkService top the survey hosted annually by Utah State University’s Digital Folklore Project.
The topics may be a bit more subdued than the 2016 winner, “creepy clowns,” Jeannie Thomas, who co-directs the DFP with Lynne McNeill, assistant professor of English. “Folklore is all about everyday culture, and dynamic variation is one of its hallmarks,” said Thomas, who also serves as head of the Department of English.
The internet, Thomas added, is today’s setting for folklore that was once shared over back fences. In fact, she said, the internet “functions like a ‘digital campfire’ that draws people together to share their stories and lore.”
The Digital Trend of the Year, launched in 2014, 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.
2017 is the first year the contest has ended in a tie. The #MeToo trend has been on Americans’ minds since it appeared in October. But the @AltUSNatParkService, which cropped up on Facebook in January 2016, also reflects this year’s overall theme of resistance, said Thomas.
The @AltUSNatParkService trend started with one official Twitter account “going rogue” in November 2016 when Badlands National Park in South Dakota began tweeting statistics of how climate has changed, said Thomas. The tweets were promptly deleted.
Since then, more than 100 “alt government” social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook have emerged. The grass-roots source, said McNeill, is in “everyday people sitting around at a computer and saying, ‘I’m going to be the rogue NASA.’”
She added, “It’s people saying, ‘I want these institutions to have a real voice that’s not hampered by a government that I disagree with.’
“I think there’s something to be said for that.”
The issue has come home to Utah with the recent announcement by President Donald Trump that the amount of protected lands in Bears Ear National Monument and other wild landscapes was being slashed.
A Dec. 4 tweet from @AltNatParkSer, for instance, reads:
“I’ve come to Utah to take a very historic action to reverse federal overreach and return the rights of this land to your citizens” - @realDonaldTrump
By “this land” you mean “National Monument that belongs to all citizens.”
By "your citizens," you mean "gas & oil developers.” (sic)
The Me Too movement was launched a decade ago by activist Tarana Burke, who created the slogan when she founded Just Be Inc, an organization promoting the wellness of young female minorities.
The latest incarnation of MeToo, this time as a searchable Twitter hashtag, arose from a tweet from actress Rose McGowan saying she’d been raped by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. It was fueled by a Oct. 15, 2017, tweet by another actress, Alyssa Milano, that called upon other victims of sexual harassment, assault and rape to share their stories.
Unlike many social media trends, #MeToo has exploded from its digital origins into national headlines, said Thomas. The cultural significance continues to be measured by ongoing news prominent men losing their positions based on claims by ordinary people, she added.
Modern folklore trends often appear as memes, defined as a short video or captioned photo that reflects a social idea. Memes were the perfect format to feature 2016’s creepy clowns, including sinister Pennywise from the movie It. This is the first year the trend has been defined as an account, such as on Facebook or Twitter.
McNeill said she understands that the internet may seem an unlikely venue for folklore scholars to research. But “memes work online much like proverbs, jokes and folk art have always worked offline,” she said. Plus, she said, “Those interactions are preserved in a medium where folklorists can observe them after the fact.”
Memes not only “provide a view into what everyday people are really thinking,” added Thomas. “Often that view is massively entertaining or moving -- and may also involve cats and avocado toast.”
Unsure what avocado toast is? Ask the nearest millennial.