Will we remember any of the fast-paced “trendbait” slang on TikTok?
Feb 27, 2024

Will we remember any of the fast-paced “trendbait” slang on TikTok?

A look at the life cycle of slang on TikTok, and whether it has any real effect on our culture.

The race to coin new words and phrases is on — on TikTok. They range from “first time cool syndrome,” to “the weekend effect” and “dinner and couch” friend.

Keeping track of all this can feel like a wild goose chase, to use an expression credited to William Shakespeare, who introduced countless words and phrases to the English language.

But unlike the Bard’s phrases, TikTok slang doesn’t seem to have much staying power.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Rebecca Jennings, senior correspondent for Vox, on the TikTok “trendbait,” as she calls it — terms invented by content creators who seem like they’re trying a little too hard — and what’s driving it all. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation:

Rebecca Jennings: It’s sort of like in direct opposition to slang, which is sort of this word or term that spreads organically within particular groups and then, depending on what it is, is co-opted or appropriated by the mainstream. These are sort of a top down thing where it’s like, one person really, really wants it to go viral. It’s almost like a marketing term. And usually, like, historically, when people coined terms that spread, it’s usually the province of journalists or screenwriters, right? It’s like, Shakespeare coined a lot of terms and “friendzone” comes from “Friends,” I believe. And that’s the way things used to work. But now, in this era of social media, when we all kind of have to think like publishing companies or media companies, there’s so much competition, and a lot of the times people are hoping that these terms will go viral, and not necessarily for monetary reasons but so that they can say that they did it or that they can be seen as this authority, or as someone who has the power to make something go viral, which I think is really interesting.

Lily Jamali: Yeah, we recently had a former journalist, now venture capitalist, named Christina Farr on our show. And we had a very funny conversation about b2b marketing, that’s like businesses catering to other businesses, and how the language that they use is like, almost inscrutable sometimes. And I’m sort of thinking like, where does this all lead, this “trendbait?” Does it get to that point, eventually, where it just doesn’t mean anything anymore? Or it sounds like an AI wrote it?

Jennings: Yeah, totally. And like that kind of jargon, I suppose it’s useful if this is your literal job, like if you are only talking to people that work in that field. And when you talk about “circling back” and “1,000-foot views” and just like, office culture jargon that I hate, that does have some kind of utility, whereas this is sort of like trying to make something happen, just to say that they did. And I think that’s part of why it’s so annoying to people. A lot of these words, predictably, don’t go anywhere, they end up in this sort of attention economy landfill. And so where we’re at now is just like, every week, there’s a new term or a new aesthetic or something that goes viral on TikTok. And it’s only useful insofar as it can get more people attention because if they make a response video or a stitch or a duet on TikTok, that can help them grow their audiences. But as soon as it’s no longer viral, it’s just tossed aside. So there’s really very little value to most of these.

Jamali: Well, let’s circle back, if you will, to TikTok. How unique is this trend bait phenomenon to TikTok itself as a social media platform?

Jennings: I think this stuff has always happened on any social platform. But I think that the difference about TikTok is its ability to speed up the trend cycle more so than any other platform we’ve ever seen. Very few people go super viral on Instagram and even if they do, it doesn’t really spread to every corner of the app. Whereas on TikTok, if something goes super duper viral, and it can be seen by millions and millions of people literally overnight, and those things happen much slower on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, whatever. TikTok literally is like just a pumping machine full of viral videos that are really, really big for a couple of days, and then they kind of are erased from the cultural memory. And that’s why so much of culture now feels really sped up, because of TikTok’s influence.

Jamali: So I am still, even in the Elon Musk era, stuck hanging out on Twitter. And I wonder if you can draw the comparison to TikTok for me, because there — and this has been the case for a really long time — you see subspaces where people from a shared culture or ethnicity, they have their own jokes, they have their own memes. I’m thinking Black Twitter, that’s a great example of this, that make viral content. Is there a similar space on TikTok or does it not really work in that same way?

Jennings: Oh, yeah. 100% There are totally like filter bubbles on TikTok, for sure. Because the algorithm is, as everybody knows, it’s personalized pretty much to whoever’s viewing it. And so something could be really going viral in your corner of TikTok and then I won’t see it. There’s obviously some videos will get so viral that everyone sees them but, you know, that’s for really really big stuff. But it’s all just part of this sort of constant churn of new stuff and I think the reason why so many things get so big on TikTok is because more people are using TikTok than Twitter, but also because like, you’re seeing someone’s face, it’s almost like you’re FaceTiming with a friend and so you really come to have these parasocial relationships with someone and you’re like, “oh my God, yeah, I do feel like that.”

Jamali: Can you tell I’m over 40 and not really on TikTok yet?

Jennings: I mean, stay off. It’s probably for the best.

Jamali: Like, please translate this for me. In fact, I wouldn’t mind if you translated a couple things for me. Okay, let’s start with “girl dinner” and “on fleek.” Or, you know, you pick your favorites. What are some terms that we’re seeing on this on TikTok?

Jennings: Well, I think “girl dinner” is a really funny example because “girl dinner” started as a joke. You know, this creator was just sort of like, you know, sometimes when my boyfriend’s out of the house, and I’ll just like put together a plate of whatever’s in the fridge and I call it “girl dinner.” And then from there, it just completely took off. And I think, you know, it was part of this wave of stuff that was happening last year that was really feeding into this discourse of what girlhood and what womanhood was. And so it sort of played into that unintentionally. And then what happened after “girl dinner” went viral, though, is that all these other girls were trying to make like, “Girl X” go viral. So there was “girl math,” “girl hobby,” and that started all this other wave of discourse about like the gender essentialist nature of that and meanwhile this poor “girl dinner” girl was like, I was just making a joke. But yeah, that’s a big one.

Jennings: And a similar instance happened when last year there was this term that went viral called “quiet luxury.” And it was sort of this aesthetic of like, wearing neutral colored basics in an attempt to look wealthy. And then as a joke, this comedian was like, okay, I’m gonna start this new trend called “loud budgeting.” I’m just gonna make it very obvious that I am broke and everyone will know. And after that, you saw all these TikTok creators who were either like financial experts or just like want to be lifestyle influencers being like, okay, so this year, we’re into loud budgeting, and here’s our five tips to loud budget. Like, this is not a real thing that anyone is doing. So it’s just fascinating how language works there and how thirsty everyone is to get some attention.

More on this

You can read more of Rebecca’s thoughts on the incredible speed at which internet trends seem to live and die these days here.

One recent example of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it lifespan of trending terms: Oxford’s 2022 word of the year “Goblin Mode” – when you just decide to be lazy, or self-indulgent — is already a once-popular phrase you rarely hear anymore.

There’s also this piece from the New York Times’ Melina Delkic on TikTok creators coming up with substitutes for words that could get flagged as violating content moderations rules and cause the algorithm to delay posts. This new lexicon? Yeah, there’s a word for it — it’s called “algospeak.”

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