What happened?

On September 20, many UFO enthusiasts descended to near the secret U.S. military installation known as Area 51, long rumored to house government secrets about extraterrestrial life and alien technology (e.g. UFOs). The plan to visit Area 51 began with a joke on a Facebook event page called “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of US”, on which millions said they would attend the “raid”, hoping to overturn the U.S. military and uncover the secrets of Area 51. Although there weren’t millions in attendance by far, the event got high publicity and saw a wide range of activities around it, such as a festival called “Alienstock”, specific basecamp with food and drinks for exhausted raiders, and the event even got its own “launch trailer”.

What does this mean?

Interest in Area 51 and (conspiracy) theories about the U.S. government housing aliens and UFOs are on the rise: the U.S. Navy reports a significant increase in reported UFO sightings this year, while ufology – the study of aliens and their technology is experiencing a revival. As such, some attendees of the raid may have been truly excited about the possibility of finding aliens and UFOs at Area 51, but most of them were likely merely attracted by the buzz around the event, further fueled by social media and livestreaming platforms.

What’s next?

Although the actual intent might not have been to discover aliens and their technologies, the event and the surrounding publicity were drenched in symbolism and cultural references. For example, attendees were supposed to “Naruto walk” past U.S. military defenses, its launch trailer was one large compilation of references to online and gaming culture, internet heroes Keanu Reeves and Elon Musk as well as gaming vlogger PewDiePie voiced support of the event and the general use of memes helped make it a viral sensation in just a few days. We have written before that the line between video games and social media is blurring, and as gaming is becoming more social and interactive, online and gaming culture could become more mainstream as well. Turning it into real-world phenomena and events is difficult, as the Area 51 raid might have shown, but as it is merging with other (sub)cultures, we can see how this culture could spread beyond traditional computers, consoles and smartphones.