On the inner wall of a 6 train rumbling down the east side of Manhattan, you can find an ad for a skin care brand with actress Sydney Sweeney’s dewy visage urging potential customers to “enter their strong skin barrier era.” On TikTok, a ragdoll kitten with its paws crossed demurely is declared to be “in her Victorian child era.” As an end-of-year promotional gag, the private equity firm Blackstone released a widely mocked music video with a jingle called “It’s the Alternatives Era”—as in, alternative asset management.
If you are even a little bit online, you’ve likely become accustomed to this vernacular use of the word “era,” meant to represent something a bit more personal than the Pleistocene. A geologist would tell you that we’re currently living through the Cenozoic era, but ask any of the girlies on the internet, and they’d surely tell you that, in 2023, the world was in “its eras era.” With a little imagination and a healthy dose of main character syndrome, any phase of life, no matter how mundane, can be an era. Going to the gym? Actually, you’re in your sporty era. Weird first date? Fleabag era. Wearing a lot of pastels? You might be entering your Little Bo Peep era. If a friend told a story about shedding some people-pleasing tendencies, you might reply, “Villain era,” with confidence they’d know what you meant. A scroll through TikTok reveals millions of videos using “eras” this way; the “my eras” trend, just one of several hashtags sorting this content, has more than 516 million views.
Why is this happening? As with many parts of culture this year, the answer has to do with Taylor Swift. This was, of course, the year Swift launched her mega-successful Eras Tour, a show built around the idea of eras in Swift’s musical life. The tour was the cultural event of 2023, meaning that the eras concept was centered on an event that held, by no exaggeration, much of the world’s attention over the past year. Thousands and thousands of concertgoers posted photos from the show with captions like “In my Eras era,” which Swift had used in March in a post marking the tour’s debut. Gradually, that phraseology became so ubiquitous that one could argue Swift has redefined the colloquial meaning of a word that The Oxford English Dictionary says has been in use since 1615.
A Google Trends search reveals that interest in the terms “in my era,” “eras,” and “era” has increased this year. It feels safe to assume that no brand marketing meeting was safe from some pitch involving eras—the dozens of organizations I’ve seen co-opt this language in 2023 include PetCo and a major legal recruiting firm. The OED selected another term with social media origins—“rizz”—as its 2023 word of the year, but while #rizz has been tagged on TikToks with more than 36.9 billion views, #eras had a reach of over 44.5 billion.
Swift is the key to this level of scale—companies appropriate online slang all the time, but that Blackstone video does not exist without her reach—but this use of “eras” did not start with her. For years, the perpetually logged on have been posting about eras, whether it was about stars like Swift or their own lives. Internet culture reporter Julia Reinstein described it as a word tailor-made for social media, first and foremost because it’s a bit dramatic. Giving a new haircut the historical significance of the ice age is textbook behavior online, where attention-seeking people are incentivized to be just a little bit extra. But Reinstein also figures that eras caught on as a trend in part because they’re a useful tool for sneaking some lowlights into the highlight reel of social media—saying you’re in your “rotting in bed era” or your “Jo March in Little Women era” provides the acknowledgment that you’re feeling unmotivated or lonely with a cheeky protective coating, plus the built-in implication that the state is only temporary. Eras end, after all.
“I think we feel omnipresent pressure to continuously post about our lives online,” Reinstein said. “You want to share what’s going on. But the bad stuff probably feels a little easier to cover in a veil of humor.”
An early iteration of this use of “eras” was the phrase “flop era,” typically a self-deprecating or ironic means of referring to a time of failure or difficulty.
therapist: you need to be honest with yourself about your mental state— soul nate (@MNateShyamalan) December 10, 2021
me: i’m in my flop era
The internet database Know Your Meme estimates that “flop era” first appeared in social media posts as early as 2008. The earliest cited use comes in a tweet by writer Jeff Foust, who posted on July 22, 2008, that a trade by the Washington Nationals baseball team might take them out of their flop era, though Know Your Meme acknowledges that this is not the term’s likely origin.
(Foust, reached by email, was surprised to learn of his role in recorded internet lore. “I was referring to Felipe López, who in 2008 was an underperforming second baseman for the Washington Nationals,” Foust wrote, kindly including a link to López’s Baseball Reference page, which does reveal that he batted .234 for the Nats that year. “Felipe López, F-Lop, FLop. It seemed clever at the time!” Foust agreed with Know Your Meme’s assessment that “flop era” likely originated somewhere other than his pun—accidental internet influencer era!)
It’s more likely that the phrase entered the vernacular of the very online sometime during the early 2010s, when music stans used it to make light of underachieving records by their favorite pop stars, like Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP or Katy Perry’s Witness. Eras became a concept that fans used to discuss pop stars’ changing sounds and aesthetics in general—Reinstein remembers that Ariana Grande’s fandom used “eras” a lot in the mid-2010s, in particular.
this is how i find out there’s a rumor sandra bullock has an invite-only lesbian nightclub https://t.co/4fWc6fOgMi— carey (@brokebackstan) December 15, 2023
That was around the time when the concept of eras found Swift. Flop era has never accurately described any stage of Swift’s career, but her 2017 album, Reputation, is most affiliated with her personal and professional struggles. Part of what makes a flop era attractive branding is that it puts a narrative spin on challenges, what Swift did so well on that darkly stylized album, which told the story of her public reinvention and private rejuvenation after she was painted as a villain. Reputation was divisive because of some of the production choices and the way Swift indulged in telling stories about fame. Early sales numbers for Reputation were relatively low (by Swiftian standards), making it hard to declare the album an immediate success. But over time, it has won critics’ hearts for its risk taking, it was featured in a record-breaking tour, and it became an album especially beloved by Swift’s core fans. “Reputation era” was initially used to literally describe the album cycle and Swift’s reinvention, but eventually, it morphed into a phrase that could depict any period of villainization preceding a major comeback.
Rules for a reputation era ✨ tag the og creator who had this idea !♬ original sound - Eli Rallo
A few years after Reputation, the eras trend caught on more broadly when the whole world suddenly found itself going through a pandemic era. The time-warped existence of lockdown was when the “in my eras” trend graduated from in-joke among stan communities to something truly viral, with millions of people stuck at home describing the newly nebulous passage of time in terms of how they were feeling or entertaining themselves. “Sourdough era,” for many, was both a more interesting and more meaningful descriptor than “April 2020.” By 2022, a major end-of-year trend on video platforms like TikTok had users describe their year in eras—all the minor fixations and phases that mattered to them during that time span.
Then, in November 2022, Swift named her upcoming tour. On some level, this was a late-stage meme cycle event, like Heinz jumping on “seemingly ranch” and running it into the ground, or whatever is going on in those “hot girl summer” commercials for the 2024 Olympics—a massive organization’s adoption of something that’s popular online and use of it as marketing. Except in this case it’s Taylor Swift, a person with unique signal-boosting ability whose art also resonates deeply with her hundreds of millions of fans. Swift said she was in her Eras era, and so the world followed suit. It’s a small but telling marker of her influence and the year she’s had that, in her hands, an internet trend can become big enough to alter our collective vernacular.
Perhaps this would have happened with any tagline Swift chose for her tour, but there’s an implication in her use of “eras” that speaks to what Reinstein described as initially driving the trend, only with a Swiftian twist. If looking at one’s life in eras allows people to cope with periods of struggle through the subtle reminder that they are only temporary, the Eras Tour is the embodiment of coming out on the other side. The show is a journey through Swift’s musical eras, yes, but it gets its narrative arc not from basking in past triumphs but from walking fans through all that she has outlasted. The emotional climax of the show is the 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” a song about memory from the perspective of the survivor of a cold and manipulative relationship. The closing number, “Karma,” is about eventually getting your due, or what’s coming to you. It peaks in the bridge, on a simple line: “I’m still here.” It’s the thesis of the tour, and maybe therein lies the real definition of what it means to be in one’s Eras era—not reliving the past, but stronger for all the eras that came before and did not last forever.