Today’s internet is a shapeshifter – an origami creature that’s forever folding in on itself and coming out in new forms (from -cores, to lorecore, to corecore, ad infinitum).
But beyond its role as an entertainment sinkhole, an everything-archive, and home base of our chattiest AI playmates, it’s also a crystal ball of sorts. Digital culture is an early warning system for the longstanding behavioural shifts to come – it’s why We Are Social’s ongoing cultural tracker, The Feed, always has one eye trained on the signals coming through.
In our annual Digital Culture Review, our Director of Cultural Insights, Mira Kopolovic, looks across the content and moments that shaped the past year for some informed future-gazing on where social is headed, and what brands and creators should do about it.
The internet has hit its zombie stride: just vibin’ amidst exhaustion. We may be living on the razor’s edge of existential risk – but what else is new? As of the end of 2022, a state of crisis feels less novel, more normalised. The stressors of life – both online and off – are ambient, unwavering, undeniably one with the fabric of everyday life. And this isn’t reason for panic or pessimism. If the content we’re seeing is any indication, it’s… liberating.
After years of headlines flogging disaster, promising the end of days and then the light at the end of the tunnel, the internet has finally come to peace with the fact that whatever the daily struggle – climate, cashflow, or political upheaval – it’s not the exception, it’s the rule. And in a bittersweet way, it’s made space to heal: we’re starting to see the behaviours designed to deal with this unvarnished, newest New Normal, instead of waiting for it to be over. Content that swirls together the feelings of ‘thrill’ and ‘chill’ to soothe us even as it entertains; escapism so good it blurs the divide between reality and fiction; a ‘small wins’ approach to systemic struggle – by the end of 2022, digital culture had become its own balm.
All this means no more stopgaps: 2023 will be a case study into how we consume content in the era of acceptance.
People want content that’s both soothing and suspenseful
A more demanding attention economy requires more stimulation, but a more stressed out population needs to be soothed.
These two strands of culture are running parallel, but they’re also at odds – how does content grip desensitised attention spans, while also giving us a sense of calm? Enter, soft thrills: a genre of content that’s marrying sensory calm with narrative tension.
We see it in 2022’s most-viewed TikTok and rising creators. Pastry chef @amauryguichon’s video of himself assembling a giant chocolate giraffe – the most viewed TikTok of the year – is both meditative and dramatic, with its grand reveal flanked with soft piano music and the smooth visuals of pouring and splicing molten chocolate. Meanwhile, creators like Bread Guy have gone viral for mastering the soothing-yet-suspenseful vibe. In sight and sound, Bread Guy’s videos are oddly satisfying: viewers watch him slice a loaf of bread, watching the slice’s slow flop to the cutting board, and listening to the ASMR-esque sounds of a knife moving through crust. But the calmness of this video is underpinned by a sense of thrill – the way the bread falls determines questions like ‘bread, will I find love?’ or ‘bread, will everything be okay?’
At its most emergent reaches, the idea of ‘soft thrills’ is coming through in the as-yet-unnamed style of content that’s causing moral panic in anyone over the age of 20: the spliced-together videos where multiple clips from TV shows and ASMR-like videos play at the same time, in a confusing mashup of storyline and soothing. If this odd Frankensteining of content is any indication, 2023 will see countless experiments of intertwining the thrilling and the tranquil – some of which will go right, and some of which will go very wrong.
TL;DR – People are trapped amid the contradictory desires to be soothed and to be entertained. The content that will resonate will make use of the full arsenal of storytelling, from sensory stimulus to narrative, to find innovative ways to marry these disparate qualities.
Surreality is the new normality
A tuxedo-clad man filling a toy truck with nachos while belting Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. A grandfather waltzing into a gas station and pelting bags of lettuce at the camera. These are examples plucked from the viral tweet by @drewcoffman, who boasted that he “trained [his] tiktok algorithm to show videos that are so surreal you feel like you’re dreaming”. It’s part of a growing wave of intentionally bizarre content – and while no one would argue that a bit of weirdness on the internet is a novel phenomenon, surreality on social is becoming both more mainstream and more nuanced.
@drewcoffman’s tweet raked in over 100K likes and stoked a vibrant community discussion from those who share his ambition at weirding the For You Page. On the brand side, American streaming device Roku accidentally earned cult fandom for its otherworldly, sci-fi futurescape screensaver, while fashion houses like Balenciaga have gotten some of their most adoring fan feedback from intentionally perspective-distorting videos.
This gestures to the reach of surreal aesthetics – but its effect on culture and content goes deeper than that. For avid TikTokers, Redditors, Tumblr natives and Discord surfers, it’s not only that more content looks surreal – it’s that today’s resonant content disrupts the idea of a clean-cut ‘reality’ altogether. Online, our sense of the divide between fiction and reality is increasingly blurring, and this is shaping how stories are told, how creators express themselves, and how fandoms engage with brands and content.
‘Main character energy’ taught Gen Z to think of themselves as protagonists, not people – now, this has evolved into people narrating all of life like it’s a TV show, including referring to boring days as ‘filler episodes’. Fan communities are willing imaginary realities into existence, like the nonexistent 1973 gangster film that Tumblr users made up (now it has its own Wikipedia page). Meme accounts are imagining youth subcultures and overlaying them onto real-world neighbourhoods: Nolita Dirtbag made memes. Now, ‘Dimes Square’ is tagged on Google Maps.
The internet has found its way to imagine things into reality. Brands are even helping to blur this divide, like when Bumble reformed its own app to mimic the fictional dating app in the TV show Ted Lasso. All of this is laddering up into a 2023 world in which life imitates content; content doesn’t imitate life.
TL;DR – If the battle of yesterday was accepting the blur of online and offline selves, today’s battle is accepting the blur of fictional and real worlds. To make compelling creative work, brands can take a page from the book of Bumble or Tumblr communities and build bridges between imagined worlds and ‘reality’.
SMALL PICTURE THINKING
People are blocking out the big picture to focus on the small wins
Immobilised in the face of big issues they can’t change, people are taking a new approach to engaging with content and culture: they’re blocking out the macro, big picture in favour of the micro, small picture. It’s a kind of ‘zooming in’, or willful tunnel vision that makes reality palatable.
We see it in the way people deal with ethics – not in terms of how much ethics shape cultural consumption, but in terms of the knottier question of how people deal with moral ambiguity. The cultural distribution of love and hate towards the World Cup is a perfect example of this: on a big picture level, the games lost their most ethics-driven viewers for Qatar’s moral transgressions. But when we look at the vast middle ground (the ethically ‘mid’), most people side-stepped big picture content in favour of zooming in on the hero narratives of individuals. It’s why three of the biggest Instagram posts of the year were highly personal and solo photos of against-the-odds success story Lionel Messi, and why TikTok blew up with an appreciation of the uncontroversial, foam-finger wielding Metro Guy. They zoomed in on the ethical gems within an unethical system.
It’s a mirror of ‘zooming in on the aesthetic moments of an unaesthetic life’, a trend wherein TikTokers find small moments of lifestyle magazine-worthy glamour within the wider shabby landscape of their home (because not everyone can live in The Modern House, but an aesthetic matcha tea whisk is eight quid on Amazon). Across the board, an exhausted population is putting a pin in the big picture, and focusing on small wins.
TL;DR – This small-scale focus is a response by the people. It doesn’t mean that brands – those powerful enough to actually have a hand in shaping the systemic – will get a free pass in ignoring the big issues. What it means is, while the powers that be are putting effort into tidying up the macro picture of society, there’s also space to show people the small gems – the micro, wholesome, roses growing amidst the concrete.
People are questioning allegiance to mainstream platforms and experimenting with alternate options
It happened slowly, then all at once. The rattling of Twitter in late 2022 was a landmark cultural moment in itself – not only because of what it meant for Twitter, but because it showed a reframing of how people think about the permanence of social platforms.
Up until Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, most digital natives have only seen platform shifts play out as slow migrations or gradual metamorphoses (for all of the TikTok-Instagram turf wars, the latter never saw hundreds of thousands jump ship over the course of days). But the Twitter reaction was different: regardless of whether or not the platform actually follows its doom trajectory, many users were prepared to pack up their discourse and bring it elsewhere – a willingness that wasn’t always there.
How can we read this eagerness to put a major social platform in the bin? Looking at the wider context, it signals a cultural climate that’s ready for a paradigm shift – one that’s revelling in the takedown of the old guard and taking pleasure in toppling giants. Destructive energy is being directed towards mainstream powers, be they platforms or figureheads – we see it in the Swifties’ (Taylor Swift fans) fiery assault on Ticketmaster, and in Greta Thunberg’s mock of the fall of Andrew Tate being one of the biggest tweets of the year.
The counterpoint of this destructive energy is renewed willingness to experiment with the new. Now that there’s less of a sense that the old guard is all-powerful, when problems crop up, there’s more openness to new spaces that offer up solutions, the way Mastodon did for Twitter. Particularly as online communities become more niche, sticking to platforms with a critical mass is no longer a dealbreaker. Instead, it’s en vogue to be a defector, sampling new spaces from BeReal to Gas rather than maintain mainstream presence. Even some vintage revivals took centre stage, like the comeback of Tumblr (which, no surprise, was pitched as a response to the disappointment of the old guard of social media, and has drummed up a powerful cult following).
TL;DR – Legacy platforms aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. But that being said, there’s frustration with old powerhouses, openness to new spaces, and a sense that niche communities don’t need platforms with critical mass. As people look for more places to hang out online, brands can get creative in mapping out and realising their own utopias – even if they’re small scale or temporary.
Mira Kopolovic is Director of Cultural Insights for We Are Social in the UK. Quoted in publications from Dazed to Vogue Business, her work in insight has spanned seven years and four continents, informing how Tinder understands cultural notions of intimacy, how Google understands attitudes towards censorship and surveillance, and much more.