As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and businesses were forced to shut down and millions of people found themselves strictly homebound for what seemed like forever. Until countries lifted their quarantine mandates, entertainment and social connections needed to be at home, distanced six feet or more, or over the internet. Meeting with friends and family safely proved impossible outside of glitchy Zoom sessions and medium-distance hangouts from a truck or a car in an empty parking lot. So, for many mid-pandemic, interaction via social media became the most efficient mode of communication. Platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook showed an increase in traffic; however, TikTok, which started gaining traction in early 2020, absolutely exploded in popularity and became the internet’s central hub for online content and interactions.
Hundreds of the internet’s most popular trends came from TikTok mid-pandemic and they still hold a special place in the internet’s heart. Although the pandemic is not yet over, several trends are making a comeback as COVID-19 shows signs of returning and the threat of World War III looms on the world’s doorstep. Is this push for the return of old trends a result of a collective nostalgia for a “simpler” time, or a response to mounting stress as global safety is once again in danger?
TikTok’s Rise to Internet Popularity
For the first few months of the pandemic, the world spent its time trying to stave away the boredom that came with its newfound free time. Almost everybody took up a hobby, whether it was cooking, fitness, fashion or music — and what better way for internet users to catalog the progress of their fitness journey or sourdough baking experiences than by posting it on TikTok? The app’s heavily curated For You Page, based on a user’s likes and searches, allows users to connect with niche communities. And while cooking tutorials on websites or YouTube often contained long-winded descriptions of specific dishes or annoying ads that broke up the viewing experience, TikTok rarely played ads and made cooking accessible through simple instructions that anyone could follow.
The number of posted videos increased, building the database for every new trend that emerged. At that point, TikTok had become the social media equivalent of Google, offering anything a user wanted to see: Sewing tutorials, dance routines and skincare recommendations curated all the way down to skin type was only a quick search away. While Google searches came up with generally relevant results, the TikTok search mechanic took previous likes, shares and searches into account. Sometimes a search wasn’t necessary; the algorithm would show a video before a user even knew they were looking for it.
Like any social media platform, trends soon emerged from within TikTok communities and as the app rapidly grew in usage, so did the number of people who participated in the popular trends. One of the first mid-pandemic trends was a recipe for whipped coffee or, in its original Korean form, dalgona coffee. The trend started in March 2020 when TikTok user @imhannahcho posted a video of her making the drink, which is equal parts instant coffee, sugar and hot water whisked together and topped over milk. The video gained over 15 million views and 2.1 million likes and spawned thousands of videos with other users recreating the recipe, some substituting instant coffee with chocolate milk powder or matcha powder.
A majority of TikTok trends are based around music, usually clips taken from a popular song that plays in the background of the video. The app is perfect for any budding artist who wants to promote their new song and that is exactly what user @supvano aka VANO 3000 did with his 2021 remix of BADBADNOTGOOD’s 2016 release “Time Moves Slow.”
Another trend referenced the late-night programming block Adult Swim, which would occasionally show clips or “bumps” with time-lapsed clips or short comedic bits with the Adult Swim logo hidden somewhere in the footage. VANO 3000 told Insider Magazine why his second video — the clip that started the trend — referenced the “bumps,” stating, “I just thought it was so genius. I’m like, I love Adult Swim, you know? And then the cartoon selection that they’ve got and all that, I just love their aesthetic.” After making several more TikToks that paid homage to the Adult Swim bumps, it became a trend on the app, with thousands of users adding their own spin on the original — from the Sacramento History Museum showing off their printing press to someone going as far as to get a tattoo of the Adult Swim logo.
The Resurgence of Old TikTok Trends
Connecting both coffee and hidden messages, a new trend finds users writing a message on a clear, coffee-filled cup that isn’t revealed until the user pours milk into the container.
Tensions and case numbers have fallen from their previous heights; however, TikTok has found itself repeating, or attempting to repeat, both mid-pandemic trends. Maybe it is the fact that the pandemic just hit its second birthday and the internet is feeling nostalgic, or maybe now that another nuclear-level threat is risking the lives of millions, many are looking to escape reality in something as simple as a cup of iced coffee. TikTok user @alysheac posted a video of her making a whipped coffee drink with the caption: “Making whipped coffee in January 2022 just to feel something.” The chances of catching COVID-19 are a little lower than they were mid-pandemic, but the anniversary of the outbreak remains a sore subject.