You know the drill: you wake up after 10 hits of the snooze button and check the feed – TikTok, Twitter, whatever – to get the latest updates from the web. Lo and behold, a new trend has gone viral, seemingly overnight.
The world’s going goblin mode – no wait, that was last week. Today it’s dinocore, or balletcore, or weirdcore, or clowncore. Maybe it’s night luxe, feral girl, or rockstar girlfriend. It doesn’t really matter. All you need to know is that the internet has moved on from whatever was cool last week. Call it a vibe shift.
Confused? Head to Aesthetics Wiki and catch up, mate. As the trend cycle winds tighter and tighter, with new fads catching fire and then fading away before your latest Depop order has even arrived, the ever-evolving language of the internet is following suit.
It’s one thing to embrace a new trend; it’s quite another to give it a name. A name gives a trend gravitas, a social identity and, if you’re lucky, virality. Even if we’ve already moved on from the ballet flats and cardigans of twee, the very online among us will always remember the week when that was all anyone could talk about.
As such, may we winkingly introduce to you the online trend that links all of these disparate digi subcultures together: namecore, AKA the internet’s insatiable appetite for naming things.
Naming trends and subcultures, of course, isn’t a new phenomenon. History has given us punks, Mods, hippies, New Romantics, grunge, acid house ravers and emos, to name a few. But what’s striking right now is the frequency at which new terms to describe trends, subcultures, vibes and even moods seep into the cultural lexicon.
“Every day virtually there’s a new kind of micro culture, micro niche, aesthetic or vibe,” says Tony Thorne, director of the Slang and New Language Archive at King’s College London. “And what is happening, in a way, is not new at all. It’s happened many times in popular culture in the past.”
Thorne points to the badge culture of the ‘60s, through which people would wear their political or cultural allegiances on their sleeves (actually, lapels), or the ‘90s’ label mania, when logos were the in-thing, as examples of more niche trends through history.
“What, of course, is new, though, is that the technology and the access to media has changed, and the media itself,” he continues. “First [there was] the internet and messaging, then mainly verbal platforms like Twitter and Reddit. But this has moved to much more visual-based platforms. That’s what helps to shape these micro trends. Because of the way TikTok and Instagram work, that’s helping to generate this kind of new media.”
Where once a handful of standout trends might define a decade – say, skinheads, disco and metalheads in the ‘70s, for instance – we’re now seeing just as many, if not more, take over TikTok in a single week.
Natalia Christina, director of strategy at creative agency The Digital Fairy, also believes that platforms like TikTok and Instagram play a huge role in both the increasing speed of the trend cycle and how we name them.
“There is no doubt the rapid trend cycle has increased the rise in coining names for trends – in part due to the ‘TikToKification’ of our tastes, what’s trending within smaller community niches can be surfaced quicker to consumers thanks to the pace of the platform’s algorithm,” she says. “It means that the hierarchical fashion house-to-consumer trend cycle is over. A perfect – and troubling for the environment – mixture of the need to satiate our feeds with ‘newness’ coupled with access to a neverending vault of nostalgia (AKA the internet) means trends are being coined almost daily.”
But what’s in a name? Why do we feel the need to label absolutely everything when we could simply… not? Well, it’s kind of human nature.
“Key words are really resonant, socially, culturally, psychologically, personally,” says Thorne. “They have tremendous power. That’s how our psychology works, and all of these trends exploit that.”
Biz Sherbert, culture specialist at The Digital Fairy, agrees: “Labels can be a means of identity exploration and formation, acting as a quick route to highlighting one’s core interests and characteristics, no matter how temporary, and signalling these traits to others succinctly.”
Perhaps the reason everyone went crazy over ‘goblin mode’, then, was because it struck a chord with people on a personal level. Suddenly, we had the language to describe the abstract and very particular feral mood that it describes (read more about that here). It became a way to identify the messy parts of ourselves we didn’t previously know how to articulate.
And best of all: we soon found out via social media that lots of people have those exact same messy parts. We’ve all just been keeping them hidden.
If namecore labels are partly born out of our desire to self-identify, we must also give a shout-out to identity’s big sis: community.
Maybe you’ll see someone on TikTok wearing head-to-toe Juicy Couture, tinted Y2K sunnies and layers of lip gloss, and think, “this is sick!”, and head to the hashtags to discover #McBling. Bingo! You’ve just found your new online tribe.
Search the term and you’ll find thousands, if not millions, more people around the world also engaging with the trend. Your friends at school might not care about The Simple Life nostalgia aesthetic, but that doesn’t matter. You’ve now got an online megacrew of besties at your fingertips, all ready to get into that virtual convertible to go shopping.
“There’s a thing called enregisterment. It’s a horrible word, but enregisterment is where you use language and visual symbols in order to insert yourself or slide into a bigger identity,” explains Thorne of the theoretical side of things. “There’s a micro element to this, that you can now have a subculture, which may start as four people. But if it can brand itself, if it can find an identity, a key word, a symbol and labels, [it can become a bigger thing].”
That’s perhaps why so many of these online trends and subcultures often seem incredibly niche and nuanced – what’s the difference between dark and light academia, for example? The girls who get it, get it. And if you don’t? You’re simply not an insider, sorry.
“It’s kind of about obsession, as well – I don’t think it’s unhealthy, I think it’s fun. But it’s not just about celebrating style. It’s fetishising it,” continues Thorne. “But what’s really nice is you’re only obsessed for a week, maybe. And then you get bored. And then you find a new thing to focus on. It’s a joke on one level. A very amusing, sophisticated cultural joke.”
In this sense, namecore is similar to stan culture, as the internet weaves a network of in-jokes to describe everything from aesthetics to moods. To outsiders, it all probably sounds a bit silly – stupid, even – but that’s only because they don’t understand the language and references. Trying to explain an online subculture is a bit like trying to explain why a deep-fried meme is funny. By the time you’ve unpacked all the pixelated layers, the joke (and probably the trend itself) is dead.
“Labels are also essential to the ‘moodboard economy,’ ” says Sherbert, “in which individuals seek and organise inspiration on image-sharing and social media platforms like Pinterest, where images are searchable through increasingly specific keywords and tags like ‘cyber y2k’, ‘rockstar gf’ and ‘pastel coquette.’ ”
In other words: these terms help us to curate the self, as social media makes us increasingly aware of our personal brands – and the potential to rebrand.
Contrary to what you might think, this hyper-awareness of our personal brands might actually be a good thing.
“It’s empowering, because people borrow these notions from marketing,” says Thorne. “People realised that they could empower themselves, that there’s actually no barrier between a commercial exploitative brand and a personal identity brand – the things operate in very similar ways. And, even, you can exploit both of them to make money. [Breaking] that barrier between brand commodification, which used to be done by governments or companies, and the commodification of ideas and trends is something that anybody can do.”
And again, this – the branding, the commodification, the self-awareness – is all part of the joke. The “me having meetings with myself to discuss my rebrand” meme is a case in point.
But the internet gets bored of things pretty quickly. Is there a chance that we’ve reached peak namecore?
“The rhetoric around ‘trends’ and ‘moods’ has become so ubiquitous with the daily content churn that we’ve become a bit numb to it all,” says Christina. “Much like ‘hot takes’ synonymous with celebrity culture, it has reached boiling point. For cultural commentators, if you’re going to chime in, this means providing a slower, more considered analysis. Lots of these ‘trends’ and ‘moods’ borrow from cultural scenes and subcultures anyway, which can lead to their categorisation feeling reductive.”
Oops! It seems like we might have just ended namecore through the act of publishing this very article. Sorry for killing the joke, kids. Forget everything we just said. Namecore is so last week.