Sorority rush at a big Southern school is a different world than many of us have ever known, as scholars of digital and social media point out. And our fascination with the unknown helped RushTok rocket to the top of TikTok’s For You Page.
“Bama #RushTok took off because it existed at the perfect intersection of many things — an experience outside of one’s own, the features of TikTok and what people expect out of the app, and content that is highly meme-able,” to name a few factors, said Jessica Maddox, an assistant professor of digital media at the University of Alabama, the very school where many “RushTok” videos take place.
The novelty of sorority rush fascinated us
The fascination with RushTok “is rooted in an even split between learning about Greek [sorority and fraternity] culture and learning about Southern culture,” Maddox told CNN. Trivial as sorority recruitment seems to the casual viewer, it’s everything to the young women in the thick of it — how they fit in at their new university depends on it, at least in the moment. That obsession with joining a sorority isn’t something all viewers can relate to, but it’s a facet of Southern culture that begs to be explored.
It also doesn’t matter if we’ve never experienced firsthand the heartbreak of being dropped by a favorite Greek house. The novelty of RushTok is part of its appeal — that’s because social media is “inherently voyeuristic,” said Diana Zulli, an assistant professor of communication at Purdue University who studies digital tech and its influence on politics and society.
“People are getting access to information and a culture that is foreign to them, which is likely propelling this trend,” Zulli said.
In other words, Greek life is an extremely big deal at the University of Alabama in a way that it isn’t at many other universities. And viewers who’ve never experienced anything like it were rapt.
It made for good memes
Many of the women who starred in these videos spoke with thick Southern drawls and mentioned local brands with a hilarious matter-of-factness — that’s the “highly meme-able” element Maddox mentioned. A trend like RushTok can be remixed, parodied or inspire spun-off content that maintains its audience’s focus on the same topic, she said.
The TikTok algorithm is still mostly a mystery, but Maddox said that based on her research, she’s found the algorithm to be “finely tuned to push … highly related content, and that’s what often expands people’s experiences on the app.”
It unfolded live
The sorority rush process, like the Olympics, was something viewers could watch day-by-day. It followed a narrative arc — after Day 2 of the sisterhood round, we waited with bated breath to see where our RushTok favorites would head next. Every new video was a chapter in their story, and they usually ended on a cliffhanger.
“This gives people something to follow, something to anticipate, and an end date,” Zulli said. “Rush will not last forever, so following along is not too much of a time investment.”
And because RushTok was unfolding live, there was a narrow window to get in on the cultural conversation. It was better to get in early than come in too late, Zulli said.
“So, even if people are not personally invested in Greek culture, they are probably invested in being able to talk about it, on or off TikTok,” she said.
TikTok trends are ephemeral, vacating the mind as soon as newer, funnier content arrives. Now that the young women of RushTok have “run home” to their new sisters, the hashtag will soon be replaced and fall off users’ “For You Page,” Maddox said.
And the app, needing to retain users, will likely suggest new videos and hashtags to its users so sorority recruitment doesn’t dominate the app into the fall, she said. It’s possible RushTok could return next school year, given its popularity, she said, but for now, RushTok will cede space to whatever oddly specific, highly hilarious trend comes next.
CNN’s Alisha Ebrahimji contributed to this report.