The end of the Tumblr era, with its aesthetics and moodboards, has left a gaping hole in the social media landscape. Initially, I believed that Pinterest and Instagram would take over the space, but as TikTok continues to grow in influence and popularity, it’s only natural that the short-form video platform would attempt to scoop up the orphans and wayward children who once roamed Tumblr.

TikTok’s latest aesthetic is composed of compilations of movie clips, home movies, YouTube videos, live streams, television screencaps, memes, photographs, quotes and excerpts from prose and poetry. Time magazine describes it as “visual poetry that is meant to evoke certain emotions.” On the platform, it’s known as “corecore.”

As stupid as the name sounds, it’s a play on TikTok’s habit of naming every aesthetic with the suffix “-core”: cottagecore, fairycore, goblincore, you get the gist. Essentially, corecore aims to be the antithesis of an aesthetic – it can be anything, feature any kind of media, and be interpreted in any way by anyone. Common topics include abstract ideas such as loneliness, anti-capitalism, relationships and philosophical questions, usually soundtracked with something melancholy, wistful or soft.

Sometimes the subject of the TikTok is not as explicit, leaving interpretation largely up to the viewer. In this way, the corecore trend feels reminiscent of Tumblr’s moodboards – compilations of images and quotes to evoke moods rather than making explicit statements. However, Tumblr moodboards typically only used photos, quotes and GIFs, whereas corecore TikToks have a more multimedia aspect by layering music, dialogue, soundtracks, sound effects, and all kinds of media clips from the internet, real life, or fiction. If anything, it feels like a natural evolution as the medium shifted.

A typical corecore TikTok, if such a distinction can even be made, would open with a clip from a show or movie to define the subject: heartbreak, parental relationships or environmentalism, to name a few. It would start with isolated dialogue and then introduce a soundtrack to the following clips, perhaps a video of plants dying or a sci-fi movie’s projection of the earth in 100 years. Sometimes quotes from Tumblr accounts or pulled straight from novels would be included, but the bulk of the video is typically pulled from movies or television.

Corecore refuses to be defined in simple terms. It expresses feelings toward topics like environmentalism and oppression through images and audio rather than just written words. They’re therapeutic in a way, a sentiment I share with Kieran Press-Reynolds, a digital culture blogger who first wrote about corecore in November 2022. Press-Reynolds called corecore “a balm for TikTok-broken brains.”

If nothing else, I find corecore TikToks more intellectually and emotionally engaging than a clip of Family Guy overlaid with a mobile app gameplay and Reddit robot audio. They provoke thought, inspire contemplation and evoke emotion in a world where social media does more to desensitize users than make them feel. The medium of video provides an emotional impact more similar to that of a movie than of just text or still images like what is found in Tumblr moodboards.

Occasionally, I do find corecore falls into the wormhole of pretentiousness. It constantly toes the line between using the platform in an intellectual manner, incorporating thematic concepts and academia for views or to appear “deep” to others. As the trend gains further popularity, the rat race for views and fame will only quicken. Similar to many things on the internet that start from earnest roots, it is very possible for the trend to grow too broad and become an outlet to build brands and followings rather than for genuine artistic and emotional expression. However, there are far worse evils on the clock app, and corecore videos make me feel something far more complex than most of social media. I choose to be optimistic in this regard.

Press-Reynolds considers corecore an art movement. I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but there’s certainly an artistic element to it. As with any art, we must be vigilant such that it does not become bastardized and exaggerated; the purpose of corecore is not self pity or a competition of suffering. The beauty of corecore is in its accessibility and the familiarity of many of the images and themes evoked in each video.

As it continues to spread, authenticity is key; then perhaps we can all learn to engage with social media more thoughtfully.

Thumbnail graphic by Olivia Abeyta / North by Northwestern