Erin Cunningham is Making an Online ‘Burn Book’ of Cultural Trends She Hates

Posted inSVA Branding: 100 Days

100 Days is an annual project at New York City’s School of Visual Arts that was founded by Michael Bierut. Each year, the students of the school’s Master’s in Branding Program spend 100 days documenting their process with a chosen creative endeavor. This year, we’re showcasing each student in the program by providing a peek into ten days of their project. You can keep an eye on everyone’s work on our SVA 100 Days page.

Welcome to Erin’s (not so average) Burn Book.

Rather than people, she takes a look at and provides insightful commentary on pervading social trends that are primed for critical discourse. As trends constantly evolve, they shape the way in which people think and live their lives. Erin seeks to consider how we may think differently about these cultural phenomena, and facilitate new or reframed dialogue surrounding them through digital collage.

Erin is a brand strategist from Manhattan, New York. To join in on the conversations and critiques, follow @notyouraverageburnb00k on Instagram. You can check out more of her branding work at!

I love skincare, but I don’t always love the prices. During COVID, it was difficult to even get your hands on it. Because of this, and as the importance of self-care has come even further to the forefront of people’s lives, many have taken to creating their own DIY skincare products. In theory, it sounds like a pretty reasonable idea, but not so much in its practice.

Social media platforms have exploded with videos showing people how to make their own masks or facial scrubs. Some of them aren’t too bad— a kitchen ingredient like honey or turmeric can be good for the skin. But, lemon? Coffee grounds? Sugar? Coconut oil? Oh boy. The problem with doing this is not only that you’re using potentially irritating and harmful ingredients on your skin, but you’re posing it as a fun “hack” for others to try out as well. The clean/natural skincare movement has been thriving, and I can understand wanting to have control over what exact ingredients are going into your skincare. However, these household products may be contaminated with pesticides, harvesting bacteria, or are simply not providing the same benefits that they would in a lab formulation. Social media creators frequently react to a lot of these DIY videos, encouraging people to instead use products that have heavily researched formulas that have been exacted by experts. I’m all for saving money and being able to make something on your own, but make sure that doing so isn’t actually causing more harm than good.

I will never fully understand the internet’s obsession with watching other people do stupid shit for views. But, nevertheless, it will always be on-trend. 2022 has ushered in its very own set of idiotically dangerous challenges, finding a home on Twitter, Instagram, and most often TikTok. From intentionally blacking out to eating NyQuil-marinated chicken, such challenges start out as absurd and controversial trends that inevitably lead to damaging, even tragic, consequences. One of the most popular of these challenges recently is the Milk Crate Challenge, where people will stack milk crates in the form of a pyramid and try to climb and descend them without falling off. Injuries from attempting this challenge thus far have included dislocated shoulders, torn ACL and meniscuses, broken bones, and even spinal cord trauma, landing many in the hospital.

Knowing the risks, why do people choose to participate in these challenges? Impulsivity? Morbid curiosity? A desperation for popularity and belonging? As some psychologists have noted, the brain doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25, which could point to why teens seem to be the most susceptible to being drawn in by these trends. But though they are the most active participants, they are not the only ones. Perhaps a constant submersion in content desensitizes us to anything new, so we must continually up the ante and toy with risk in order to provoke or entertain. However, prompting others to put themselves or others at serious risk is not a trend or a cool challenge— it’s wildly irresponsible. Trends don’t have to be unsafe to be entertaining or interesting; millions of other users recognize this, and are able to generate unique challenges for everyone to participate in. The idea that people need to constantly out-do one another in performing crazy behaviors should not be sensationalized. Think outside the box and get creative. Don’t just light something on fire or send yourself to the ER for views and call it a “new trend.”

No, I’m not talking about those random bot accounts that won’t stop DMing you on Instagram. The spam accounts I’m referring to are private, second accounts that influencers create for their followers to access more raw, “unfiltered” content. In theory, this is a great way to connect on a deeper level with their followers, allowing them an opportunity to see a more vulnerable side of them. However, some followers of these influencers have expressed a dislike for these private spam accounts because of how exclusive they make it. The influencers tend to rarely accept new followers, despite constantly promoting the account, only accepting requests every so often in order to maintain a balance of a large following and an air of exclusivity. Some followers that try to join this little community are often met with frustration and feelings of ostracism when they wait for months on end to be accepted, and ultimately are not. Why am I being left out of seeing pieces of someone’s life who I look up to and that other people get to be a part of? This is certainly a fair point to make, and I can understand where this sense of hurt comes from, but ultimately it’s an influencer strategy; sometimes, disappointment from a public figure just comes with the territory.

During my drive to the grocery store, I heard a commercial on the radio for a new show called Love in the Jungle, where singles live in the wild and exclusively use mating rituals to make a connection. At first, I genuinely thought it was some sort of nature show about mating rituals, given that it’s debuting on the Discovery Channel. But boy, was I wrong. It is quite literally a show where people can’t speak and must only search for love through physical challenges.

This has been just one of countless new dating shows that seem to get stranger and stranger. It follows another Netflix original dating show called Sexy Beasts, a mini Bachelor-style show where people get set up on dates while wearing full prosthetic makeup, so one has to choose a partner based on personality rather than their looks. In theory, amazing. In execution… if I were on this show, I would not be able to stop laughing long enough to even introduce myself.

Netflix in particular is infested with these dating shows with very little variation: Love is Blind, Too Hot To Handle, Love is Blind: Japan, Married at First Sight, Love is Blind: Brazil, and so on and so forth. There just doesn’t seem to be any thought behind them; they’re made for the purpose of riding the dating show hype for profit, essentially churning out as many knock-off Bachelor’s and Love Island’s as possible. This phenomenon is also not exclusive to dating shows. YouTuber Drew Gooden has made a video commenting on how many American Idol ripoff shows there are, with one single aspect changed to attempt marketing it as an entirely different thing. Not only does it just feel overly derivative, but it kills the allure of the original. Don’t get me wrong— I stan Are You the One and Criminal Minds— but, the sheer volume of shows that follow the same exact formula over and over again becomes disappointing.

In the wild, alpha males are at the top of the food chain; they’re confident leaders who easily attract female mates. For some odd reason, some men seem to think that the same kind of status applies to them as people. Self-proclaimed “alpha males” will take to social media and show other men how to be more dominant and to stop being a weak, submissive “beta.”

Some alpha males on Reddit claim that this isn’t an inherently negative mindset; one user offered an example of Elon Musk bringing a girl ice cream to her dorm room in college when she flaked on a date with him because she needed to study. The user explains that “a beta-male would have accepted that the girl rejected him, and that the situation was out of his control, but Elon Musk assumed that he had control over the situation, and made something happen” (u/Aghayden). There’s a lot to unpack here. Sure, despite it being Elon Musk, it’s nice he brought her ice cream. But, the part that I’m particularly focused on— which is very common among hyper-masculine alpha males— is that a “beta-male would have accepted that the girl rejected him.” Alphas have a tendency to assume they are god’s gift to women, and will refuse to take no for an answer, which is problematic for incredibly obvious reasons (but, not to them I suppose). These labels are just a way for some men to give themselves permission to be an asshole and to make them feel good about themselves. You’re not an alpha or a beta— you’re either a rational, decently kind human being, or you’re not.

The act of doomscrolling is something I’m sure most of us have become familiar with during the past couple of years. This is when you spend a significant amount of screen time consuming negative content, typically news feeds. Platforms like Twitter are highly conducive to this activity, making it easy to scroll and browse threads for hours. Any form of excessive content consumption can be overwhelming, let alone when that content consists of seemingly perpetually disheartening news and tragedy. Some seek it out to ensure they’re always up-to-date on what’s happening around the world, or as a coping mechanism for combating fear with information. For many, it’s simply unavoidable— you hop on Twitter for a bit and quickly find yourself falling down a rabbit hole. This can trigger harmful psychological responses and contribute to overwhelming feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress.

So, how do we combat this while still staying aware of what’s going on around us? Set realistic time standards for social media and news platforms to allow yourself some time away from the screen. Actively seek out uplifting content— it’s easy to look at and hear about all of the shitty things happening in the world, but it’s important to remind yourself that there are still glimmers of hope and happiness out there too. Finally, think about turning off your app notifications so you aren’t constantly bombarded, but can still access necessary information by opening an app when you need to. It’s important to stay informed when the world is constantly changing, but mental health must also be prioritized.

I don’t chase, I attract. What is meant for me will simply find me (if I interact 3x).

There has been a huge surge in TikToks revolving around fate and manifestation. While I can find a lot to admire in the idea of manifestation and speaking things into existence, some of these videos are a bit questionable with their execution. Rather than promoting a positive mindset or providing a sense of empowerment, some users making these videos are simply doing so to hop on the bandwagon. Many will feature some sort of aesthetic background with text saying, “they like you back and are going to tell you very soon,” or “that thing you’ve been wanting for a long time is going to come true this week.” Their captions are something to the effect of “if you’re seeing this, it was meant for you,” and direct viewers to interact with the post in order to “claim” the statement being made.

I love the energy of manifesting your dreams and working to make them happen. Buuuut, there are a couple of things that are off about this specific type of content. Yes, perhaps this message was meant for you; perhaps it’s just TikTok’s very pinpointed algorithm. The notion that this message is meant for you, accompanied by the requirement to interact with it in order to claim it seems contradictory. If it’s meant for me, why do I need to like and comment on the post to make it come true? Just the sheer coupling of these statements with a mandatory action that will further promote the post demonstrates an ulterior intention— attention. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing— after all, TikTok is a social media platform meant for content creation— but there’s no need to mask it as something deeper and more profound in order to gain interaction. Having an algorithm show you a post for the purpose of liking and sharing it isn’t “fate”— it’s just TikTok.

Many brands’ social media accounts have been given a Gen-Z makeover. Social media platforms are frequently home to new forms of humor and meme adaptations, and companies have been hopping on the train. Fast food companies have mastered Gen-Z-esque humor over the years (namely, Wendy’s). Now, brands like Duolingo are giving them one hell of a run for their money.

The Duolingo TikTok account, run by 23-year-old Zaria Parvez, features their green owl mascot making absolutely unhinged content. With how successful this style of brand expression has been among Gen-Zers, other brands have been getting in on it as well, even the Toys-R-Us giraffe. Why does this work so well? Perhaps it’s that if it were any other random meme or shitpost account, the content would get lost in the algorithm. But, given that this style of outrageous humor is coming from a corporate company that we expect to be buttoned-up and overly conscious of brand image, it’s much more enticing.

While brands have tended to do a decent job of walking a line between humor and maintaining a good image, it can backfire quickly. The Duolingo social team recently found themselves in hot water for making an insensitive joke about the Amber Heard v. Johnny Depp trial, which had become a major topic on TikTok. When leaning so far into Gen-Z humor and trends, it becomes easy to cross the line rather than toe it, as Duolingo had been able to do so well prior. It then becomes about recognizing what can and should be said for the sake of a trend, and not forgetting that at the end of the day, you are representing a brand. Yet, all-in-all, brands are constantly striving to appeal to Gen-Z consumers, so what better way than to hire people who truly speak their language with the right training and execution.

If I see this phrase used one more time in someone’s Tinder bio, I’m going to absolutely lose my mind. Why? I’m glad you asked.

The phrase “I’m here for a good time, not a long time” was popularized by Drake with his verse on Big Sean’s 2015 song “Blessings.” It was originally used as a way of saying to live the way you want and stay in the moment, and not conform to others’ expectations. However, the meaning has been warped, and taken on a few different implications. Gen-Z has often used it as an excuse to act irresponsibly (or to express that their personality essentially relies on drinking and partying through social media). It also tends to be used in dating app profiles as “code” for only wanting casual sex, not a relationship.

Why has it become such a cliché? It is used so flippantly that it’s lost any real meaning. It’s now seen in videos or posts making fun of fuckboys on Tinder just as much as it’s being used non-ironically, as it’s become the most generic thing ever to say in a profile. If that’s the only thing in your bio, what is one supposed to gather from that? Are you just looking for a drink and hookup? Are you all about “living your best life”? Or do you just really like Drake? In the end, one can define “a good time” however they want, but it’s essentially become a way of saying something about yourself without really saying anything about yourself. So, my advice would be to opt for something a bit more substantive if you’re looking to portray any kind of real emotion or personality.

A lot of wellness/influencer social media accounts are all about ~posi vibes~ and good energy. This message can be super helpful for others to see, especially given the current state of the world. Sometimes, you just need to let a little optimism shine through so life doesn’t feel so bleak— but there is such a thing as too much optimism.

This is where you can veer into the territory of toxic positivity, which is defined as “the overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience” (The Psychology Group). As I said, we all need to focus on silver linings every once in a while. For as much bad as there is in the world, there’s still a lot of good. But constantly forcing yourself or others to look at the bright side and pretend that everything is always sunshine and rainbows can be equally as harmful as never acknowledging the positives. Thinking that we can maintain “good vibes only” is not only unrealistic, but terrible for your mental health. It represses certain emotions and allows us to fall into states of denial or detachment. Maybe when you’re trying to cheer someone up or make yourself feel better about something, don’t just respond with “it is what it is” or “stay positive, everything will be fine.” Recognize the experiences, sit in those feelings, and have a real conversation. As cheesy as it sounds, you really can’t have highs without going through some lows, so let yourself feel all of it.