If you head over to Columbia Road on a Sunday, you’re going with the expectation that you might have to weave through some small crowds in order to secure yourself a cheap cheese plant. What you don’t expect is a stonking 7,000 people. That’s how many punters descended on the East London landmark last Wednesday for the weekly carol service in the run up to Christmas. Due to safety concerns, the event has now been cancelled. Why did so many people turn up in the first place? Because it went viral on TikTok, of course.
Bishop Adam Atkinson has been leading the carol service put on by St Peter’s church for nearly a decade. While they’ve attracted hundreds each year, it was only last Wednesday that they came with a side order of crowds so huge you couldn’t hear the singing and queues of up to thirty minutes for drinks. While we can’t say for certain that Atkinson would have used these words himself – to be honest, he definitely didn’t – this year’s turnout can be put down to the TikTok effect. Journalist Moya Lothian-McLean called the event’s cancellation “another interesting (and sad!) example of social media virality being a burden [sic]”.
According to Lothian-McLean, online creators have a penchant for repackaging something like the already popular Columbia Road carol service as “something even shinier, while simultaneously presenting it as a peer-to-peer ‘hidden gem’”. While they depend on who you ask, some of the other spots considered to be “ruined” thanks to the influence of short form content might be Brick Lane’s Beigel Bake, Marylebone’s Le Relais de Venise and pretty much anywhere @eatingwithtod goes (and talks like a CBBC presenter about). And these places don’t just feel busier: according to a recent US survey, 60% of respondents said they became interested in visiting a new destination after seeing TikTok content about it, with 35% actually popping along.
Step foot in any PR office and the concept of “going viral” is practically a holy entity. But for the consumers, it’s different. And what’s happened with Columbia Road’s carol service gives credence to the idea that it ain’t exactly what it’s cracked up to be. “Pinballing from Columbia Road carols to Supernova burgers to Crisp Pizza then to the Blue Posts in their thousands,” said one user on X. “We must kill hype”. Basically, we hereby declare that 2024 is all about gatekeeping your favourite spots. Everyone shush.