Digital Culture Review: What the biggest content from 2021 can tell us about what’s to come in 2022

The internet is full of content that can make us laugh, freak us out and fill us with hope for the human race. But it’s more than just trolls and lols. From contained cultural moments to creators that go on to become celebrity mainstays, digital culture can function as an incredible early warning system for the cultural and behavioural shifts that will far outlive the media cycle. In our annual Digital Culture Review, our Research & Insights Director in the US, Rebecca Finn, picks out the biggest moments from the past year to make some educated speculation on where social is headed, and what brands should do about it. 

We entered 2021 with a whole lot of misguided optimism for a life lived post-pandemic. And while there were some ups (vaccines, yay!), there were also more than a few downs (Delta and Omnicron, no!). For better or worse, much of last year still saw us continue to rely on the internet for shared experiences. This led to some pretty rapid evolution in the way that we engage with tech. Have you heard about the metaverse? What about web3? Or blockchain? Do you know what an NFT is? And should you? From the fringes of the internet, a wealth of new terms have become mainstays in the marketing press and mainstream media alike.

While the masses grappled with this sudden influx of new technologies, our relationship with the social mainstays continued to be tense. On the structural end of the spectrum, whistleblower Frances Haugen became arguably one of the most powerful women of 2021 after shining a light on the negativity that social media can play in our lives. When the company’s full suite of apps went down in October, it led to a now-iconic tweet from Twitter, welcoming the entirety of the internet to its feeds. It was the most liked tweet of the year (over 3.3 million and counting).

Really what got so many hitting the like button on that now-iconic tweet wasn’t the brief failure of tech: it was the magnitude of the shared experience of social apps going down. After all, there are now more than 4.6 billion social media users globally (a 10% increase on last year), and many of them will have been shunted to Twitter during that brief blackout.

These digital shared experiences were an ongoing theme in 2021: Britney Spears’ conservatorship battle and #FreeBritney, the unexpected rise of the sea shanty as a unifying ritual of digitised togetherness, and global audiences came together online to watch the 32nd Summer Olympics games from afar. It might be a little saccharine, but it’s nice to think that as we enter 2022, our digital lives can continue to be a source of community, and even a little optimism. Who knows? The year started on a high with the unifying presence of Wordle, after all. For better or worse, here are our biggest predictions for what the rest of the year might have in store.

1. New value systems and economies will be built around fan favourites
We’re nearly two years into the pandemic and time continues to feel fairly distorted – it’s a perspective reflected back at us in memes and downtrodden tweets and endless newspaper headlines. Meanwhile, endless reporting reminds us of ever-shortening trend cycles: the micro-trend is the latest phenomenon in fast fashion to wreak havoc on the planet, the ‘scene’ subculture from 2007 has inexplicably already made its return, and wired EarPods are somehow back in fashion, largely due to TikTok and Bella Hadid.

Social has become a central arena – and driver – for our ever-loosening grip on time. This isn’t nostalgia: this is a new generation of fans engaging with cultural phenomena and artefacts on their terms, through a new lens. “The internet has allowed folks of all ages, but especially tech-literate young people, to rediscover cultural artifacts from the past,” writes Rebecca Jennings for Vox.

In many ways, it’s given people new ways to engage with old cultural properties and give them more air time in a broadened and diversified media landscape. After being on air for 15 seasons, fantasy show Supernatural was the #2 trend on Tumblr last year, while ‘70s hitmakers the Bee Gees, Stevie Nicks and ABBA all joined TikTok after each receiving respective trending moments on the platform. ABBA’s ‘GOLD’ even returned to the Top 40 on Billboard 200 as a result.

It’s a phenomenon that’s only set to increase amid the uptake of emergent technologies. NFTs are essentially building an economy around the enduring power of nostalgia, with recent-history icons like Doge and Nyan Cat having been updated and reframed from their early internet fame. These NFTs have ascribed both financial and cultural significance to the moments in history that happened while people still considered the internet to be throwaway, and that’s what fans of any cultural property – past or present – truly desire.

TL;DR? Brands should harness social – and web 3.0 technologies – to not only engage fandoms, but actively celebrate and create value around cultural moments, figures and properties that have yet to see their fair dues.

2. Influencers will no longer be required to share all aspects of themselves
The past few years has put pressure on creators to be more available than any other form of celebrity. It’s a form of fame that’s notoriously overwhelming. “When you’re an actor and you’re playing a character and people don’t like your character, you can say, ‘That’s not me as a person’,” the D’Amelio sisters tell Paper Magazine. “But when you got where you are because of who you are, it’s a lot harder when people hate on you.” In this landscape, it’s no surprise that a growing body of creators are finding ways to make content that still protects their private lives. 

One way creators have found to overcome this personal hurdle is through the creation of micro-formats that are easily repeatable. One of last year’s biggest breakthrough TikTok creators Oneya Johnson – aka @angryreactions (25.5M followers) – has made a personal brand of screaming reactions at other TikTokers videos. Meanwhile, Khaby Lame (130.6M followers), the second biggest TikToker in the world, has also found fame with lo-fi imitations of other people’s videos that de-centre his own personal life, relationships or experiences. 

This shift away from projecting the personality and the personal is manifesting across platforms. In gaming, ‘roleplaying’ on dedicated servers is growing, allowing people to play as characters on games like GTA V or Minecraft without the pressure of sharing every detail of who they are. On one of the world’s biggest Minecraft servers Dream SMP, 34 creators roleplay as different characters to the tune of 2 billion cumulative views on YouTube. It also made up 33% of last year’s “Top Things” on Tumblr

In its most extreme iteration, this shift is seeing virtual influencers take on a new role. On YouTube in particular, the top five VTubers – a ‘virtual’ YouTuber who is usually animated –  were collectively streamed for over 30 million hours, where people are getting comfortable forming connections with characters as they would in an animated movie or cartoon. These figures allow for creativity, personality, and fame, without revealing your whole self, creating a safe space for influence in an ever more volatile digital landscape.

TL;DR? Influence is no longer necessarily about intimacy. This is creating new opportunities for brands to get creative with the way they approach partner publishing, and work harder to protect the private lives of creators.

3. A desire for domesticity could see Instagram become the next Facebook
When Rihanna and A$AP Rocky took to the streets of New York hand-in-hand with Rihanna’s baby belly out for all to see, the internet went wild. It’s the most recent announcement in the long list of Millennial-age, digital-first celebrities who’ve announced their progression into ‘grown-up’ life stages via the internet, proliferating a new vision for what marriage and kids looks like when you’re young, hot and famous.

Instagram is increasingly at the heartland of this shift. Last year, many of the most popular posts were scenes of domestic bliss. Ariana Grande shared her at-home wedding photos (26.7m likes), while Kylie Jenner delivered on the family content by bringing us along on her journey as a mother with a home-video style pregnancy announcement video (24.5m likes). One of the most popular was Christiano Ronaldo and Georgina Rodríguez’s pregnancy announcement, snapped from their bed (32.2m likes).

This desire for domesticity that hasn’t gone unnoticed by mainstream media, either. Disney+’s 2021 show WandaVision harnessed the ritual and comfort of traditional family values by allowing viewers to revisit the home-based sitcom formula with references to The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Partridge Family, Modern Family and Full House. More recently, Netflix has harnessed the power of Ronaldo and Rodríguez’s home life with the announcement of a reality show centered on the lesser-known details of the world’s most famous footballer’s wife.

Instagram has always been about pulling back the veil and getting closer to the public figures that we idolize, aspire to or otherwise fangirl over. But this phenomenon feels uniquely different – and maybe a little cheugy. It feels a bit like Facebook: a place for diarising your life and publishing personal life announcements. While Gen Z may be rejecting this behavior (and even deleting their posts altogether), as Instagram continues to age up (62% of users are aged 18 to 34, while just 8% are 13-17) we could see it become the new Facebook: a place where people go to diarise their lives and announce those big life moments.  

TL;DR? While progressive and non-traditional family structures have grown in visibility, brands shouldn’t underestimate the power of family traditions and rituals to resonate with young audiences, but rather explore how they can be updated for modern preferences and ideals.

4. Top creators will take back control 
By the end of 2021, it felt like the whole of the internet was talking about the creator economy, with average daily mentions of it on Twitter up 384% in December ‘21 from January ‘21. And as we moved through the year we saw many platforms capitalizing on the power of follower monetisation. Twitter launched Twitter Blue, Facebook announced Bulletin, and most recently Instagram’s Adam Mosseri posted about the new feature Subscriptions. TikTok found a new way into the game by creating a form of revenue for its creators outside of subscriber fee with TikTok Kitchen, a food delivery service based on the app’s most viral recipes (though it looks like that last example may not come to fruition).  

The spike in conversation around creators cashing in on their followings comes amid the mainstreaming of the ‘fan’, and the dawning understanding of the sheer power creators can wield with their followings. BTS ARMY is arguably the highest profile example of this phenomenon: in 2020, ARMY managed to raise $1 million for Black Lives Matter, and in 2021 they ensured that the band’s personal sentiments on #StopAsianHate were the most retweeted (1.86m retweets) post of the year.

It’s a shift that Taylor Swift is also spearheading. Her launch of Red (Taylor’s Version) – which accrued 90.8 million streams globally on it’s first day, breaking two Spotify records. Red was originally released in 2012, but is one of a number of albums Swift is re-releasing to make a stand about the importance of artist ownership. “Artists should own their own work for so many reasons,” she wrote in a Tumblr post to fans, “but the most screamingly obvious one is that the artist is the only one who really knows that body of work.” The album was launched alongside a digital treasure hunt, hosted across social platforms: to hype up the re-release, Taylor dropped hints about titles of songs and collaborators for her swathes of superfans to decode. She doesn’t need traditional marketing tactics to make a splash, she’s her own PR machine, mobilizing her fans directly.

The archetypal example of this is the rise of NFTs. Jack Dorsey selling the first tweet as an NFT for $2.9 million or Disaster Girl reclaiming pay for her viral likeness to the tune of $500,000 really brings our story full circle. As long as top creators continue to prove the power of fandoms and followers, smaller creators can find a way to monetize their internet fame on their own terms.

TL;DR? Brands will need to find new ways of creating mutually beneficial partnerships with creators and creatives who can increasingly find revenue on their own terms. One way to legitimize their position in culture is with traditional titles and salaries as in-house brand partners.