When did vibes become a Thing?

When Gawker editor-in-chief Leah Finnegan put “vibe” on her publication’s list of banned words in October 2021, it was clear the term stopped being cool and started to sound basic. That move made me wonder when exactly “vibes” became the preferred vernacular term for describing something like a milieu, an ambient atmosphere, or a qualitative orientation. At some point in the last five or so years, people started to talk a lot more about milieus and ambient atmospheres, and vibes was the idiom they used to do that.

Google Ngram shows a steady uptick in the use of the term “vibe” since the mid-1990s, when Quincy Jones launched the hip hop publication VIBE Magazine.

Breaking things down by case, it’s clear that a significant majority of these hits are not references to the magazine–those would be capitalized proper nouns–but common nouns. So, most of the growth is in the use of vibe to refer to an ambient state or orientation.

Zooming in a little closer, we can see a bit of an uptick in 2015-6: 

Ngram’s dataset only goes up to 2019, but it’s my very educated guess that there’s at least as significant an uptick in 2020 and 2021.

Moving to the plural, vibes, things also took off sometime in the mid-90s when people started using the term to refer to more than just the vibraphone.

So we know that people started to use the term “vibe” with increasing frequency beginning sometime in the mid-90s. But how were they using the term? What did people mean by “vibe,” and in what contexts was it being used?

To start thinking about that, I turned to Google News search. Given the small uptick in use-frequency I observed in 2015, I searched for news stories published in 2015 and 2016. The first few pages of results yielded three main uses: references to sex toys, references to the Lenovo Vibe X3, and uses having something to do with music and especially with hip hop (Kendrick’s “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” was released in 2013). In what feels like a bit of a troll, the first news story listed in the search that uses “vibe” to refer to an ambient atmosphere appears on the fourth page of results, and it’s from the Charlotte NPR station (I teach at UNC Charlotte): “Biz Owners Hope the City’s ‘Vibe” Returns After Protests.” The title quotes Charlotte Center City Partners’ CEO Michael J. Smith, who told reporter David Boraks “It was really quiet on Tuesday night, last night you could feel the vibe starting to come back.” That piece was from September 2016. Later down the list of results there’s a 2015 article in AZ Central where an interior decorator uses “vibe” to describe the feel of a room, and a business publication that uses the term to refer to something like brand image: “Abercrombie & Fitch Is Over the ‘Cool Kids’ Vibe, But It’s Too Late.” That article’s fall 2016 date suggests, in mid-2016 vibe was increasingly used to refer to something like a style sometime. For example, there’s this news story about “XMEN New Mutants Movie Will Have A ‘YA Vibe,” and this 2017 piece “When a ‘vibe’ becomes a copyright issue.” In both these stories, “vibe” refers to the qualities that define a genre or a piece of intellectual property.

Looking backwards from 2015 in Google News Search, it becomes clear that “vibe” has been in regular usage for a while and there’s no big spike in its frequency or popularity, just, as the Ngrams suggest, steady growth. But there is a big change in how people use the word. Around 2013, when Kendrick Lamar released “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” mainstream news outlets started to use the term to refer to more than just places. In 2012, the overwhelming majority of results are stories that use “vibe” to describe a place like a bar, a restaurant, a casino, a city, a region, or even a fantasy universe. In these examples, vibe quite explicitly means ambiance. 

But over 2013 and 2014, mainstream news outlets began to regularly use “vibe” to refer to things that are not places. For example, this piece from 2014 uses the phrase “startup vibe” to describe company culture. In 2013, The Tampa Bay Times reported that Kenny Chesney’s tour bus has a “vibe” room. Here, vibe is not a property of the room, but an activity or experience people have in the room. Vibe is not just something a place can have, it’s something someone can do or perform. 

In the early 2010s, mainstream use of the term “vibe” shifts in two key ways: (1) it is attributed to more kinds of things than just places, and (2) it’s not just something people observe, it’s something people adopt and perform.

This shift happens because there’s a need or desire to talk about things like companies, brands, and people the way we’ve traditionally talked about places — that is, as having ambient orientations or milieus, an abstract “feel” one might get from living in a specific city or eating at a particular restaurant. Those of you who’ve been following my writing on vibes know why this need arose: vibes are vernacular versions of the methods algorithms use to perceive the world. Vibes are how we perceive ourselves the way algorithms perceive us. As we interact with platforms and devices, we learn how algorithms perceive us, and we translate that knowledge into pop culture practices. 
The shift in the mainstream media’s use of vibe/s historically locates this new need or desire in the early- to mid-2010s. And if you think about tech and social media of this era, that dating makes a lot of sense: Instagram launches in fall 2010, and over this period middle-class people could afford iPhones, the figure of the social mediainfluencer emerges, and EdTech platforms like Proctorio start to use facial recognition to surveil students and test-takers. As interacting with algorithms became a more regular part of people’s everyday lives, they developed pop culture practices for practicing, reflecting on, and critically engaging with the skills and modes of perception they practiced in their interactions with algorithms.