Web culture | Long cruise and reality TV in our hands

In its annual report on upcoming trends, TikTok recently announced a significant change in the way we tell stories and highlighted the growing popularity of collective storytelling. People are less and less inclined to consume television content passively and would rather like to get involved in telling the stories that fascinate them… in real time.

Created from scratch by Internet users, these stories without beginning or end allow everyone to take on the roles of casting agent, screenwriter, director or even TV host!

This tendency towards collective narration perhaps draws its source from the ubiquity of true crime, especially crime documentaries focusing on unsolved cases. Indeed, many podcasts, amateur videos or TV series are based on sordid mysteries that need to be elucidated. Not only do they represent an extremely popular source of entertainment, but they also instill in the public a desire for active participation. On the web, some go so far as to conduct their own investigation. This is what happened in 2021 when the disappearance of influencer Gabrielle Petito galvanized Internet users and pushed many creators to track the missing woman, whose remains were eventually found.1

If, in the case of Petito, the collective narration has a real crime as its starting point, the same is not true for all the stories that unfold on the Web. Indeed, Internet users sometimes invest in situations which are not tragic, but which nevertheless seem predisposed to generating potential drama. That’s what happened last December, when Royal Caribbean kicked off its nine-month world cruise.2

By virtue of its great dramatic potential, this expensive 274-night epic quickly aroused the interest of many people online. Internet users were quick to imagine the multitude of possible twists and turns aboard the boat, whether it be ocean storms, divorces, a massive outbreak of COVID-19 or even a pirate attack.

When the boaters began to document their daily lives, they unknowingly became the main characters in an improvised reality show orchestrated on TikTok.

However, no production company, cameraman or even script in sight. These are TikTokers who have been piloting this tourist saga since December and who weave stories from the digital publications of boaters. Grouped together under the hashtag #CruiseTok, the scattered snippets of this narrative have since attracted the attention of numerous media, such as New York Times.

Check out an example of #cruisetok

The misfortune of some…

It must be said that a story’s ability to captivate its audience rests in part on the emotional responses it generates. In this sense, apart from a shortage of red wine and a bit of bickering on board the Serenade of the Seaswe cannot say that the maritime epic has made us experience great emotions, at least for the moment.

Collective narratives like #CruiseTok, however, could push us to cultivate an appetite for the misfortune of others, since it is this misfortune that we seek to experience vicariously when we consume drama.

For example, I came across a TikTok user who was sad to see the famous cruise ship crossing the Drake Passage without incident, even though this stretch of sea is reputed to be one of the most dangerous in the world. If the latter seemed to want a catastrophe to strike boaters, it is perhaps also because sensational content circulates more easily on algorithmic platforms, generating more engagement. To attract attention and subscribers, 2.0 storytellers therefore have an interest in setting their sights on stories that are likely to go wrong. They acquire a flair for drama.

In Quebec

This taste for tragedy pushes us to transform the distress of others into a spectacle. Little by little, we sometimes come to forget that the improvised reality shows that we consume and that we put on on our screens influence the lives of real humans. The repercussions that this type of collective narration can have are illustrated very well in the case of Florence and her troll, the TikTok account of a Quebec couple with several thousand subscribers.

The couple, struggling with mental health problems, until recently increased the number of live broadcasts, lives which aroused the anger and jokes of thousands of Quebecers, but also an anthology of satellite videos and public publications on discussion forums like Reddit. Perhaps wishing to give the story more sinister contours, some spectators took the audacity to the point of alerting the police, making it appear as if it had been a murder. Many Quebecers thus witnessed a police intervention broadcast live on TikTok. Did they take out the popcorn with a sense of accomplishment when “the troll” was handcuffed in front of their eyes? Because we can say that they had scripted, if not fomented, this episode of the drama.

1. Read the article from New York Times “How the Case of Gabrielle Petito Galvanized the Internet” (in English, subscription required)

2. Read the article from New York Times “A 9-Month Cruise Is TikTok’s Favorite New “Reality Show”” (subscription required)

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