How to kill a trend in two days
The fall of men thinking about the Roman Empire
Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, written by Kate Lindsay and edited by Nick Catucci.
I’m more of a Marie Antoinette kinda gal. —Kate
Subscribe to never read about the Roman Empire again:
My rule reporting for Embedded: Two’s a trend. For most of my career as a pop culture writer, we held off on declaring a trend until we found three examples to cite. In the world of internet culture, however, trends don’t build on one another, but multiply exponentially. If you’ve spotted three instances, that means are there are almost certainly at least nine in the wild and too many people already talking about the trend to make reporting on it novel. And if The New York Times publishes an explainer, it’s already dead.
“Asking men about the Roman Empire” may have set a new record for the, well, rise and fall of a trend. On Tuesday, I texted Nick—the faceless man behind the curtain of this newsletter—if I should write about it, since I had started seeing it on my FYP. By Thursday, I realized it was already too late. “Tomorrow we’re gonna start seeing a waterfall of Roman Empire posts,” I said.
Lo and behold: “How often do men think about ancient Rome? Quite frequently, it seems.” —The Washington Post; “Are Men Obsessed With the Roman Empire? Yes, Say Men.” —The New York Times; “The Brain of a Man Who Is Always Thinking About Ancient Rome” — The Atlantic; and my personal favorite, “Can't Stop Thinking The Roman Empire? Check Out This HBO Series” from Collider. (The show: Rome.)
A quick Google search unearths explainers in Wired, Time, Today.com, Elite Daily, Cosmopolitan, and more. Now, I’m not saying men thinking about the Roman empire is not a thing, but it certainly isn’t this much of a thing—and certainly isn’t one anymore now that it’s been yanked out of its organic origins on TikTok and into an inauthentically manufactured cultural moment. I’m reminded of Rebecca Jenning’s great recent piece on “girl” trends:
This is sort of what all trend journalism feels like to me these days. A single video goes viral, some people start talking about it, the media picks it up, and suddenly it’s used as fodder for the kind of lowest-common-denominator broadcast news segments where old people marvel about how foreign young people have become—and it’s not a coincidence that it’s almost always young women they’re referring to here—even though the thing they’re talking about isn’t even really happening on a scale that’s by any measure newsworthy.
While these trends may not be newsworthy, they are fun to participate in—until, that is, they’ve been explained to death. I mean absolutely no shade to the writers of these stories, who did what they were called upon to do in the course of covering internet culture.
The internet popularizes some weird things, like DJ Crazy Times and the Tabi Swiper, that are fun to read about. But more often, to explain an online joke in real, AP-style-approved words is to pop the balloon. People on TikTok joking about men earnestly loving a period of history? Fun, playful. “A new social media trend prompting women to ask the men in their lives how often they think about ancient Rome reveals that it crosses the minds of many men on a weekly basis”? Clinical, feels like a survey I’d fill out while waiting for the gynecologist.
And the explainers aren’t even the terminal stage of the trend. It now filters down to marketers, social media workers, and engagement-hungry creators: the guides to the ruins of a once-mighty meme, echoing with the shouts and laughter of the people that it once entertained.