ANU: The viral magic behind the Gentleminions TikTok trend

If you’ve taken a trip to the cinema over the school holidays, you might have been bewildered by the sight of high school boys dressed in formalwear and brandishing bananas.

Well-dressed youths around the world are flocking to theatres to attend screenings of Minions: The Rise of Gru as part of the latest social media trend.

The phenomenon began after Sydney teenager Bill Hirst shared a Tiktok of his mates watching the Despicable Me prequel in their best suits. The group are depicted in a solemn line ascending on an escalator to the cinema and then sitting in a row in the theatre while steepling their fingers in an imitation of the character Gru’s trademark gesture.

After being reposted on the official Minions TikTok account, the video has gone viral, racking up more than 36 million views and sparking a global wave of #gentleminions. The movement seems to have had a tangible impact on the film’s success. The Rise of Gru set box office records over the July 4 long weekend in the US. In Australia, the movie is ranked number one in the country, beating out other blockbusters including Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis and Top Gun: Maverick.

Dr Jenny Davis from the School of Sociology at The Australian National University (ANU) says it’s rarely obvious why anything goes viral, and that’s often part of the magic.

“It’s hard to predict or explain virality,” Davis says. “Things that are fun, relatable, and visually spectacular have a better chance of going viral than things that do not have those characteristics.”

The people participating in the gentleminions trend are predominantly boys in their mid-late teens who would have been in preschool or early primary school when the original Despicable Me film was released in 2010.

But is their urge to suit up due to a collective sense of nostalgia or a sign of the Tiktok’s algorithm’s power to influence?

Davis says online social networks often have a homogenous quality, as people tend to interact with others just like them. This is reinforced through recommender systems like TikTok’s For You page and other content delivery algorithms.

“Algorithms deliver content to people who they think will like it, and those predictions are based upon data from which existing users who engaged with a piece of content,” Davis says. “If the phenomenon started with teenage boys, it’s unsurprising that things would snowball among the demographic.”

Davis says it’s not surprising that a social media trend is inspiring kids to take real life action – which, in this case, involves dressing up and heading to the movies with friends. Cheering at some screenings has become so rowdy that cinemas in the UK are reportedly enforcing restrictions around group size and dress codes.

“Contemporary society is a hybrid of online and offline. In other words, of course viral content moves between digital and physical because that’s how life works now.”

Davis is dubious, however, about whether this kind of fervour could be replicated through marketing.

“People can smell a forced or commercialised campaign and are likely to either ignore or ridicule the effort.”

While other patrons may find the well-dressed gentleminions disruptive, the content they produce is largely wholesome.

“It’s fun to watch kids out having fun,” Davis says. “Especially these days.”

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