Trends take on an unsettling shape and pace when anything on social media can become a thing. The latest and funniest online fad began in late January, when beauty gurus on TikTok—many of whom were young white women—started recording clips of a specific, but not very unique, skincare tip as part of their evening routine: lathering their faces in Vaseline.
The procedure, known as “slugging,” is intended to serve as a kind of anti-aging elixir. Its name comes from a South Korean TikTok corner and refers to snail slime, which has a gloss similar to Vaseline (another common brand used by sluggers is Aquaphor). Marketing student @Abbikuy’s face is caked in the gooey material in one video made that month, as she imitates the audio of a Black producer, a recurring cliché on the app.
@abbikuy The girls that get it, get it #slugging #aquaphor #skintok #hairtok #heatlesscurls #curls #thegirlsthatgetitgetit #iykyk ♬ original sound – Makenzie Wilburn
It’s one of her most popular posts, with 4.3 million views. Despite its viral success, the video was nothing new. Petroleum jelly has been used as a restorative balm in Black households for generations—equal parts moisturizer, lubricant, and healing ointment—especially when it gets cold outside.
What the internet’s popularity of slugging signifies is a continuous, distinctively American conflict over ownership — cultural thievery masquerading as cultural literacy. Slugging videos have amassed hundreds of millions of views, which should come as no surprise. The fabric of TikTok is weaved with appropriation. On the app, the term “ownership” is used frequently. Nothing is ever solely one’s responsibility.
It’s no secret that pop culture is influenced by Black culture. What’s going on right now is a continuation of a trend that began in the late 1980s, when companies began to mine Black cool as hip-hop became a global force. The addition of social media to this—which allows people to create, shape, and share whatever they want and claim it as their own, even if it isn’t—helps to distort what we see on these platforms even more. Feeds are filled with culture that comes out as empty and cheapened when viewed through the lens of a creator solely interested in clout.
What’s startling, though, is how TikTok’s slugging videos—along with a cacophony of other macro- and micro-crazes throughout the social internet—have ushered in a stunning, and very demanding, new era. Validated by social media platforms, trends will never be the same.
Trends, the events that make an age memorable, are the currency of this generation. Only now, these trends aren’t decided by a small group of tastemakers. Instead, how effectively a trend appeals to the rhythms of a given platform is frequently used to define what is deemed popular.
The aesthetic or cultural value of an idea is determined by how simply it can be implemented using the instruments available. Before the internet demanded our attention 24 hours a day, television, radio, and lifestyle magazines had a firm grasp on the zeitgeist, scouring youth culture for the next big thing.
Gauging cool is now far more democratic and the increasing speed of internet culture means that fads can come and go before they ever reach their height. Anything can be a trend these days, and I’m unsure if that’s a good thing.
The coming years will be defined by our fleeting urges, fueled by smarter technologies and passing trends. We used to believe at some point that the speed with which we processed culture was a terrible thing. I used to believe that our passing interests devalued digital life—that we were moving too swiftly and recklessly—but perhaps that’s how the future we created feels… A fleeting moment of fast forward motion.