How a 9-month cruise became TikTok’s favourite dystopian reality show

On the high seas, it’s content creators versus the other passengers.

“The people on this cruise ship continue to give me dirty looks everywhere I go,” Marc Sebastian announces to his 1.5 million followers on TikTok. He is filming in a cabin onboard the ship, addressing the camera in a classic reality TV confessional style. Text floats above his head. It reads: “Day one on the 9-month cruise.”

The ship in question is Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas, now on a 274-night “ultimate world cruise” set to visit 65 countries and every continent, including Antarctica. It took to the seas on December 10th, carrying its presumably wealthy passengers – the full cruise starts at $53,999 per person and can go up to $117,599 according to its website. Sebastian is not, precisely, one of them; his “day one” came later. He is there because the cruise has become a strange online obsession. 

It all began with passengers posting snippets of their experience aboard the ship on TikTok and spiralled rapidly from there. The Serenade of the Seas transformed into a spontaneous mash-up of Triangle of Sadness and Big Brother; viewers back on land (sitting on their sofas scrolling on their phones, rather) started gobbling up every inch of cruise-related content they could find, producing their own commentary, concocting their own wild story lines, and turning passengers into “characters.” 

Many observers are now openly rooting for this vacation to devolve into some kind of entertaining chaos, clutching on any sign of chaos. Flooded rooms, a shortage of preferred wines, rumours of sexual exploration, Illness, and exclusive perks for so-called Pinnacle Club members maybe, somehow, sparking class conflict.

Sebastian was, initially, one of those watching in anticipation online. But he used his own online following to make his way onboard for one leg of the trip, paid for by Atria Books. “There’s going to be mutiny, there’s going to be blood, someone is going overboard, I wanna watch,” he told his followers. “Put me on the cruise. I’ll go … I will cause chaos, I will wreak havoc and I will record everything.” These are the obvious reasons fellow cruisers might be giving him dirty looks. In his cabin confessional, he inserts a shot of himself walking around the ship, smacking gum, as a perturbed fellow guest can be overheard saying, “He’s videotaping everything.”

The audience watching intently, catching every piece of new content that’s released, clearly have a fantasy of what cameras may capture. Something juicy, like a disgruntled crew member struggling to serve an impossibly demanding guest just like a scene eerily similar to Triangle of Sadness. If you stare long enough and connect the right dots, perhaps you’ll glimpse some tense dynamic, the sort of thing ITV might send an entire production team to document. All the ingredients for drama are there, which seems like enough to hold viewers’ attention; of course, rooting for wealthy vacationers to suffer is a favourite pastime for many.

Still, despite its enormous buzz, and trawling through way too many TikToks, there doesn’t even seem to be much happening on the Serenade of the Seas. One passenger with more than 224,000 TikTok followers posts day-in-the-life videos; they are as bland and familiar as you could ever expect of a cruise. 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 to cause – is nowhere to be seen. So far, his biggest complaints are about noise and lighting.

If you spend enough time watching content around the on Serenade of the Seas, you’ll eventually lose track of whether the videos you’re watching were even made by people on the ship. It’s impossible to tell the average passenger apart from the working influencer, you can’t guess whether a video was a result of incredible social media spin by Royal Caribbean or someone happily doing the company’s PR for them. Everything looks, well, like content. And on the off chance that most of it is real, isn’t it equally as terrifying that we’re regularly tuning in to see the ship’s citizens perform the most mundane of tasks?

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 constantly offer you memorable little experiences – in other words, exactly the kinds of “aesthetic” joys that influencers post on TikTok. The digital world’s 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 currently: Everything is just content, and everyone is a character. And as technology and social media only seem to become more and more ingrained in our lives – Apple’s surreal Vision Pro will be available in the US in February – perhaps we’ll one day become characters for the world to observe.

WriterChris Saunders