“Vibe shift” and the shifting meaning of “vibe”

“Vibe Shift” has gurgled to the top of The Discourse this week, largely thanks to Allison P. Davis’s article in The Cut. The term was coined by Sean Monahan (whose work I like and which I’ve talked about in The Sonic Episteme & my review of Spotify Teardown) to describe what Davis frames as the phenomenon whereby “a once-dominant social wavelength starts to feel dated.” For example, Monahan identifies the shift from the millennial hipster of the aughts to the last decade’s hypebeast as a “vibe shift.” Davis’s conversation with Monahan focuses primarily on the direction of the shift–what’s the next vibe? Here, I want to focus on the other part of that term: vibe. (regular readers are, I’m sure, shocked by this lol)

In Monahan’s sense, “vibe” refers to a location, a point in time. More specifically, it refers to the dominant style of a particular era, like the sartorial “vibe” of what Davis describes, via Monahan, as

a 21-year-old woman wearing Rocket Dogs, as in the platform shoes, with low-rise, boot-cut True Religion jeans. He noticed how she had a little black leather under-the-arm purse and a cami and a trucker hat. It was as though she had time-traveled from early-aughts Kitson. 

Here, all these elements–the shoes, the jeans, the purse, shirt, and hat–are elements that define a style: “early-aughts Kitson.” This is the primary way the mainstream Anglophone media used the term “vibe” up through the early 2010s: a “vibe” is the style exuded by a geographic location like a city or a hotel. 

But as I explained in this post, around 2013 the mainstream Anglophone media started to use “vibe” to refer to things that weren’t locations–namely, to people. As I explain here, in this more contemporary sense of the term, a vibe is not the same thing as a style.

A style focuses on the contents of that set–the collection of aesthetic features or properties that, put together, make a song a rock song or a reggaeton song. But that’s not what algorithms are perceiving–they’re not comparing the content of these data points (the common aesthetic features) but their alignment. As anthropologist Nick Seaver has shown, recommendation algorithms model data as vectors or orientations in space and then evaluate the similarity or dissimilarity of these vectors’ alignment to one another. The thing these algorithms perceive isn’t the qualitative content of the data set, but their form or orientation. So, algorithms aren’t perceiving styles or genres. They’re perceiving vibes, where the alignment among data points matters more than the contents of that data. So, it’s correct to say that algorithms perceive vibes, but it’s incorrect to treat vibe and style as interchangeable. To be a bit overly reductive, think of styles as describing the contents of a set of data points, but vibes as describing those points’ form or arrangement.

There’s a more recent sense of the term “vibe” which uses it to refer to the form of perception used by the algorithms behind AI, ML, financial speculation, etc. Styles are defined by the qualitative features of their key elements–think back to the trucker hat and the low-rise jeans from the description of the aughts-Kitsune style. In this more recent sense of the term, vibes are defined not by the specific qualities of their component features, but the alignment or orientation of those features.

The latest “vibe shift” in Monahan’s original sense is that “vibe” has shifted in meaning. 

Part of this shift in meaning is a shift in context: on contemporary social media platforms, there is no dominant vibe. Algorithms like TikTok’s or Facebook’s are all about delivering whatever content gets you in all your individual idiosyncrasy to engage with it. The aim isn’t conformity to a dominant vibe, but cultivating a plurality of vibes and connecting people with the vibe that makes them most productive of data.

Keeping with the fashion example, let’s think about TikTok. I get fashion videos like this one recommended to me on what has to be the basis of the music–I don’t follow or like videos with that fashion content or those hashtags, but I definitely have a house and techno focused FYP (For You Page) that is largely videos of DJs at gigs. The algorithm didn’t send this to me because I follow accounts with similar fashion styles (the fashion videos I get are in the goth/health goth/NAKT Studio realm)–it sent me the video because its music was aligned with the kind of music in the videos I like and follow. TikTok determined me to have a similar vibe to this video not because of the actual style of fashion it depicted, but because of the alignment between me and one aspect of the video’s profile–its music.

So THE vibe has shifted to vibeS plural. There is no singular vibe to shift right now. Think of this less in terms of the end of the monoculture (which is really about industrial mass culture) and more in terms of the neoliberal management of difference: amid the plurality of vibes, the all-too-common thread is patriarchal racial capitalism. As Kyle Chyaka notes in his 2019 piece on digital monoculture(s), Spotify’s country music playlists have a serious gender imbalance: ““You expect it to be an equal playing field or a space where you have a greater variety of choice, but it actually looked like any old country radio playlist,” Watson said. This both immediately decreases diversity and operates at the level of perception.” Liz Pelly made a similar claim in her 2018 piece on Spotify’s gender problem: “It remains unclear whether streaming culture is merely reflective of a relentlessly male-centric status quo, or if streaming is creating a data-driven echo chamber where the most agreed-upon sounds rise to the top, subtly shifting us back toward a more homogenous and overtly masculine pop music culture.” Algorithms may be delivering us our personalized vibes, but those individually-tailored streams interpellate our individual tastes and preferences to systemic power relations. In the same way that neoliberalism folds traditionally excluded individuals into the (re)production of systemic patriarchal racial capitalism, vibes discourse instrumentalizes plurality and pluralization into the reproduction of the same old relations of domination and subordination.