Actually, I Think TikTok Should Leave the 9-Month Cruise Passengers Alone

A bunch of non-famous people, currently vacationing at sea, are being mined for content, and it's getting weird.

Actually, I Think TikTok Should Leave the 9-Month Cruise Passengers Alone
Screenshot:TikTok

Having grown up in a generation that’s been long victimized by boomers’ disdain for everything we’ve ever enjoyed, I hate to descend into a rant about a recent TikTok trend, but here I am. A nine-month world cruise (you read that right: that’s nine months at sea) offered by Royal Caribbean has caught the attention of TikTok influencers since taking off in early December. And over the last several weeks, these TikTokers have capitalized on the day-to-day lives of the Ultimate World Cruise’s non-famous passengers to manufacture what they call a new kind of “reality show.”

As trends like #BamaRush clearly indicate, there’s precedent for ordinary-ish people’s lives becoming a spectacle on the clock app. But what strikes me as especially bizarre about #UltimateWorldCruise-Tok is that… there doesn’t seem to be anything especially messy or nefarious going on. Yes, nine months at sea is an absurd premise, but what’s actually happening doesn’t seem at all on par with the juicy reality TV premise that TikTokers are promising.

There’s at least one account dedicated to documenting, repackaging, and offering commentary on every social media post from the cruise passengers, and they’ve built a following of over 175,000 users. Since the cruise began on December 10, this user—the self-declared “sea tea director”—has managed to post 35 videos about it, averaging more than one TikTok per day. They’re one of numerous creators speculating about and mining everyday passengers’ lives for content: The New York Times reported over the weekend that videos with the hashtag #UltimateWorldCruise have drawn more than 138 million views on TikTok, and the Times compared the phenomenon to the aforementioned obsession with the University of Alabam’s sorority rush, which took over Tiktok in 2021 with the hashtag #BamaRush.

@sipteawithmelissa

If you need the context/explanation of the 9 month cruise this video is for you 😂👀 #popculturecommentary #popculturenewstoday #celebnews #celebritynews #ninemonthcruise #9monthcruise

♬ original sound – Melissa


Some background about the Ultimate World Cruise: Tickets initially went for about $60,000 per person, and when Royal Caribbean struggled to garner interest, they offered deals at a reduced price for people who were only interested in joining the cruise for specific continents rather than the full nine-month voyage. After scrolling the hashtag and watching recaps and commentary from top creators, here’s what I’ve gathered: TikTokers report small dramas like passengers alleging differences in how they’re treated based on whether they paid for the full nine-month package, as well as other divisions between these different sects of passengers, like separate group chats. TikTokers have also reported “town halls” hosted by Royal Caribbean that are available exclusively to the nine-month passengers. One Black woman on the cruise made TikToks about her experience being mistaken for a crew member rather than a guest by both fellow passengers and cruise workers.

And that’s the crux of the drama. It’s unideal, especially when you’re trapped at sea with a bunch of strangers for nine long months, and there’s little else to do except drink and eat and try not to vomit. But all of those sound like pretty standard, shitty cruise experiences: day-to-day annoyances from neighbors; racist microaggressions from rich white people on a boat; groups of people with too much time on their hands forming cliques and factions. It’s hardly the sort of shocking catastrophe that warrants the large-scale invasions of privacy we’re seeing.

Yes, much of the #UltimateWorldCruise TikToks being made about passengers’ lives come from the passengers’ public social media posts. But posting little updates about your life—like one 67-year-old retired dad who made a TikTok to document the trip at the behest of his four kids—isn’t the same as consenting to be cast as a reality show contestant against your will, your every post hyper-scrutinized by bored strangers reaching for anything that can be sold to internet voyeurs as “tea.” One TikToker made a “bingo card” predicting Ultimate World Cruise experiences ranging from “petty neighbor drama” to “pirate takeover.”

Joe Martucci, the retired dad, told the Times of the TikTokers shepherding the rise of Ultimate World Cruise TikTok: “I think they’re trying to manufacture something. They’re in it for the views and for the followers.” Another passenger told the Times the attention they’ve been receiving from TikTok is “very, very weird.” I can’t help but be reminded of true crime TikTok, another TikTok phenomenon I’ve critiqued for its fanatical obsession with mining real people’s lives for potential viral content. In 2021, the Times reported how several TikTokers exponentially grew their followings by posting nonstop, speculative, and sometimes inaccurate TikToks about the disappearance of Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old influencer who was killed by her boyfriend that summer. The allure of reality shows—and, apparently, viral TikTok content—is that they center around real people. But like victims of horrific crimes, cruise ship passengers just trying to see the world and stave off seasickness didn’t sign up to be objects of speculation and entertainment for thousands, if not millions, of online strangers in service of a handful of content creators trying to make a quick buck.

https://www.tiktok.com/@southernbelleinsults/video/7312622116673785134
For lack of better words, I’m honestly pretty weirded out by what TikTokers are doing here. Of course, I can see how nine months at sea with strangers seems ripe for the sort of mess and drama that many of us understandably crave—as an avid #BachelorNation follower, who am I to yuck anyone’s yum? But can’t we all agree that the fact that there are accounts making daily videos about non-famous strangers’ every move on a ship without these passengers’ permission is incredibly strange behavior? All the more so when, as some of the passengers emphasized to the Times, nothing really interesting is even happening. (At least not yet.) It’s widely accepted that reality dating show producers are evil, manipulative vultures. And yet, what these TikTokers are doing strikes me as even more unsettling because, unlike Bachelor contestants, no one on that cruise has consented to being made into a nonstop content mill for nosy strangers.

This point has been made over and over again, but I feel compelled to make it one more time: Social media is continuing to normalize some pretty anti-social behaviors. Once upon a time, we all would have known to leave a bunch of people on vacation to their own devices, but the existence of a video app seems to have convinced a lot of people that we’re entitled to make unsuspecting strangers’ lives into a reality show for our consumption. More so than TikTok, maybe the real problem is waning respect for other people’s privacy.

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