Cloudy with a chance of mall goth: trend forecasting with Sean Monahan
In a world of peak “core” and hourly TikTok fads, Monahan is the OG elder to a new gen of trend forecasters: the man who hailed the vibe shift, christened “normcore” and knows what you want even before you do.
If you google “Sean Monahan”, you’ll get a swift lesson in an ice hockey pro. Monahan, Wikipedia reads, is “a Canadian professional ice hockey centre for the Montreal Canadiens of the National Hockey League.”
Hockey is great and all, but that’s not the Sean Monahan we’re after. Ours is hiding further down the rankings, on page three of a Google search – but he arguably has had more influence on your day-to-day.
This Sean Monahan is a trend forecaster. The man who hailed the vibe shift this year, and who in 2013 with his collective K‑Hole, christened “normcore”, that wilfully boring aesthetic that’s still alive and well nine years later (cheers, Sean).
In a certain, very online sector of culture, Monahan’s even mononymic. On the episode of the Wet Brain podcast discussing the vibe shift in February, Walter Pearce and Honor Levy call him “8Ball Sean”, referring to his influential post-K-Hole newsletter and IG handle.
This Sean Monahan lives in Los Angeles and talks to THE FACE via an audio-only Zoom, a detail confirming his position as the wise oracle of our modern matrix. Here are his thoughts on the vibe shift, trend analysis TikTok and how we all have our own internet now.
How did you start working in trend forecasting?
In K‑Hole, a lot of us went to art school. One of our senior thesis projects was about making things that were from the near past and from the near future. We thought it was funny to make, say, a documentary on PBS set, like, two years in the future.
When we graduated, it was the recession. We all moved to New York [in 2010] and one of the K‑Hole members found some corporate trend report PDFs online. This kind of fit nicely within what we had been previously working on, in that they were about the future, but they were also kind of pop and accessible in a way that we found appealing.
It began as an art project, one that maybe could be monetised. We made trend reports but not really the kind you would find in the corporate world… What we thought about these PDFs was something like: “What is a $10,000 PDF or $100,000 PDF for, you know, a corporation?”
Was it political?
We didn’t necessarily have deep anti-capitalist critiques. We were coming out of the era of [Canadian anti-consumerist magazine] Adbusters. We were being cheeky about it. It was seen as moderately transgressive to embrace a corporate cultural form. The flag we planted was the idea that everyone is a consumer and no one can escape that fact.
What era was this?
This was very much like the hipster era [K‑Hole was founded in 2010] and we were – I mean, I’ll speak for myself – we were definitely hipsters. It was an era when people were trying to escape being consumers. We’re kind of living through the revival of it again with things like Depop, DIY and shopping vintage. It’s seen as rejecting consumer behaviours, but it’s actually just [being] a more complex consumer.
You’ve been doing this a while now. How does it affect your own lifestyle?
During Covid, I had to become more domestic and I was like: “God, now I need to have an opinion on furniture.” I’ve started thinking about what kind of couch I want to buy. All of a sudden you have questions and part of it is you’re going to have guests over and they’re going to look at your couch and judge you based on it.
How has the growth of trend analysis on TikTok changed the game?
I would definitely say trend forecasting has become kind of a content vertical in its own right now, and K‑Hole was part of that and I’m part of that and the new wave of TikTok video trend analysis is the next frontier.
I quite enjoy the TikTok trend analysis because it gets back to old school trend forecasting in magazines. It’s microscopic and picking through purchasing decisions with people, but it’s also kind of fun and candy. That’s one of the things I always think about trend forecasting – it’s supposed to be inherently a bit pop and a bit entertaining.
It also sort of follows the general trend of social media – that the internet personality is that primary content form. I have had weird interactions with people where they would be like: “Well, you don’t look very normcore.” I never said I looked normcore, I just wrote about it. But more recently I have noticed that people have a harder time distinguishing between the person and the writing.
What are the most common misconceptions around trends currently?
I think that most people think of trends in terms of micro-phenomena, which I would call fads. If you think about trend forecasting, it’s kind of like a lens, right? So you can either zoom in really, really close or zoom out really, really far. If you zoom in really, really close you get a beauty influencer haul video talking about which colour palettes are going to be most successful in the next two to three months. And that tends to have a direct effect on what people are doing in a very short term… These things move very fast, but I am a little sceptical about the impact that they have. I think Covid gave us a lot of these weird micro trends. We got sea shanties, and sourdough bread. To me, these are fads, they’re not part of a bigger cultural shift.
There’s lots of talk that trends are dead…
I don’t agree with that. I think we’re just living through a kind of weird time because we’ve fully shifted from a print media ecosystem to a digital first media ecosystem, and I think we’re still kind of figuring out what that means.
When the telegraph was invented [in the 1830s], suddenly there was an appetite for more daily, more frequent sources of information. Similarly, with social media, we have daily memes that trend, programmed by Twitter and the trending bar.
How does it feel when a term you come up with goes viral?
Like you don’t own it anymore. They made a reality TV show about Dimes Square [the trendy, Manhattan “micro-neighbourhood” featured in The Come Up] and I watched it last night. I was like: “Oh, God, I really hope they don’t say the vibe shift”. There’s a really high possibility that they will at some point.
The terms that tend to go viral are the ones that have enough ambiguity that people can kind of fashion them for their own purposes… There’s a weird period of people being like: “This term is stupid. I hate it. I don’t know what it means. Bullshit.” And then it kind of just somehow sinks into everyday vernacular. Normcore was the runner up for the Oxford English Dictionary word of the year in 2014.
How important is the algorithm to trends now?
I think there are two parts to this. One is that what the algorithm picks and chooses is totally opaque to us and the other is that it’s unclear who knows about what anymore. In conversation among my peers, no one knows about the same things anymore because there’s no shared resource of references.
The vibe shift went viral last February, during Frieze Los Angeles. A lot of people were in Los Angeles from New York and Europe and it was blowing up on Twitter, but most of my friends are in fashion or art and don’t really use Twitter, they’re more on Instagram. It totally went over their heads for maybe a week or two. And then they were like: “Oh wow, that was like a really big thing.”
How does this disconnect play out?
I hate to go back to talking about filter bubbles, because I don’t even know if that’s the correct term anymore – it became popular in the early 2010s to describe this dynamic, from the Facebook era, with algorithms serving up information to people that confirms their biases, so if you’re left leaning, you only see the liberal press. I think [now] it’s something even weirder than that. The filter bubble thing is more about certain events emphasised or de-emphasised based on your previous scrolling. Whereas this is just more generally about people not knowing about the same things anymore, It’s even more than a filter, it’s kind of parallel realities.
We don’t live in a broadcast culture… There’s no centre. Previously there were cultural middlemen who would enforce the trends and they’ve all been kind of put out of business by the internet… So I think that’s part of why people feel like there aren’t trends anymore because what used to be like more coherent cultural output, maybe in the 2000s, or ’90s now feels kind of scattershot. A lot of that is because we literally took people out of the control room, out of the cockpit, and said: “Let’s see what the algorithm does.”
Are smartphones part of this?
I think our cellphones have really been designed to distract us and when you dig into it a little bit, [you discover] the people who design how your iPhone works and social media platforms are the same people who design slot machines in Vegas. It’s called persuasive design. It’s about conditioning human beings. We’re like the rats in a cage – with cocaine every time you hit the button.
Have you kind of taken steps to try and stop that yourself?
I deleted Twitter but it’s definitely kind of an odd dynamic to be caught in. I simultaneously deeply resent being on these platforms, but [to] some extent, you have to pay attention because you don’t want to end up overly stuck. You want to be aware of weird things happening.