The audience on land clearly has a fantasy of what cameras may catch. Something juicy, like a disgruntled crew member struggling to serve an impossibly demanding guest. If you stare long enough, connect the right dots, perhaps you’ll glimpse some tense dynamic, the sort of thing Bravo might send an entire production team racing toward. All the ingredients for drama are there, which seems like enough to hold viewers’ attention; rooting for wealthy vacationers to suffer is a favorite American pastime.
‘I will record everything.’
But it feels as if there is something more driving the virality of this ship and the online world’s uncanny intrusion into its material space. You might imagine a cruise as a place to relax and escape the real world, but it is also a carefully controlled luxury environment, designed to be constantly offering you memorable little experiences of delight — in other words, exactly the kinds of soothing “aesthetic” joys that influencers post on TikTok. The digital world’s obsessive interest just puts the vessel in a more aggressive version of the same surreal situation it was in to begin with, the situation so much of the world seems pointed toward: Everything here is just content. Everything that happens must be engineered for consumption, must pop and amaze — from sea-gazing in a solarium high above the ocean to dancing at the silent disco. As for the humans within those scenes, they, too, must always be on. Some of the people caught in Sebastian’s cross hairs must be looking at an annoying bargain: Either you find a way to be telegenic content at all times, or you spend the next eight months dodging other people’s cameras, lest you accidentally become the ship’s main character for the day.
Still, for the life of me, I cannot yet find anything actually happening on the Serenade of the Seas. One passenger, a conventionally attractive young blond woman with more than 224,000 TikTok followers, posts day-in-the-life videos; they are as banal and familiar as you could ever expect of a cruise. She plays pickleball. She pours sugar-free Smucker’s breakfast syrup over oatmeal. Her pink sweater matches her pink water bottle, which matches her pink smoothie. A vast online audience is eager to turn such passengers into characters in an improvised reality show, but the havoc Sebastian hoped to capture for them — or, who knows, to cause — is nowhere to be seen. So far, his biggest complaints are about noise and lighting.
How surprised can anyone be? Nothing exciting is supposed to happen on a cruise. This is presumably why seniors, especially American seniors, are so partial to them. And yet #CruiseTok has nearly three billion views. Cruises may be deliberately undramatic, but there are things about them that we can’t seem to look away from: the eye-popping engineering, the ships so enormous it boggles the mind that they even float. All those ghastly pearly-white surfaces. Or the odd sociality: The rise of theme cruises, dedicated to topics like “Game of Thrones” or Taylor Swift or knitting, turns the ships into giant convention centers plopped into the ocean, where thousands of like-minded people stagger from one activity to the next.