Digital Culture Review: What 2023’s fringes will mean for 2024’s mainstream
Until now, our Digital Culture Review has looked at the previous year’s most viral content, and used it to predict the coming year’s flow. That would be pure masochism today, given that last year’s biggest moments have been talked to death, worn smooth by the worry-beading of trendspotters and futurists.
Luckily for us, it’s not always the biggest waves that dictate the current – and no one loves a swerve tsunami like the internet. Online, it’s often the unvarnished edges of yesterday that shape tomorrow’s mainstream.
So for this year’s Digital Culture Review, our Global Director of Cultural Insights, Mira Kopolovic, scrapes these edges for the impactful outliers and clustered phenomena of 2023 – all in service of training our collective gaze in the right direction for 2024.
When we came to do this year’s Digital Culture Review, we found that you all actually ‘completed the internet’ just over a year ago, so this will be our last transmission.
Kidding. Things have happened online (how else would we account for all that screen time), but there has been an odd aimlessness to the internet, a flatness and a beigeness, since we dove into our niches in 2022. In our hearts, we know this isn’t true – digital culture isn’t in stasis; no earthly atoms ever are. But it’s so distended across bespoke For You Pages; so awash with the loud fuzz of trend chatter, that it’s become harder to pull meaningful behavioural arcs out of anything.
And finding the arc is what we’re here for – not to give you another Buzzfeed countdown of ‘the ten biggest cores of 2023’; enough of those exist. Cultural analysis is best when it goes beyond trendspotting to unpick what really drives us – but on today’s internet, there’s a dense layer of camouflage over most of our meatiest feelings.
Culture has always had a knack for self-encrypting – the ironic, the slangified, the deep-fried, the garbage trend, the um… Very Internet™ . But the murk keeps getting murkier: what we say is tactically delusional or earnestly unhinged. How we feel is flippantly doomsdayish or optimistically nihilistic. How we’re doing is maybe not ‘objectively true’, according to the data – but who are you going to believe, the data or the vibes???
It’s probably pollyannaish to think there was ever a time when what we wanted or needed was singular or clear – but it’s not a stretch to say that today’s desires are muddled. At least as muddled as our experience of reality, which is surreal, fractured, turbulent, and all those fun words that are the stuff of existential acronyms.
The shifts that we do see coming through, beneath this noise, testify to this pervasive sense of
¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Users are testing their ability to shape new realities, they’re questioning the fundamentals of originality and creativity, they’re wrestling with their responsibilities as the torch-bearers of the soft power of Youth™ . We’re all a bit stuck, but we’re out here wriggling.
People are harnessing fantasy worlds for real-world impact
20.2 billion TikTok views of #shifting, for all the ambitious young things who’ve grown tired of their current reality and want to ‘shift’ themselves into a new one. 5.8 billion for #delulu, for those who plan to believe themselves into a better life. On Reddit, r/astralprojection, r/luciddreaming, and r/lawsofattraction for wider communities pulling cosmic strings to dream or dissociate themselves into alternate worlds.
On first glance, this cluster of occult fantasy movements looks familiar. We all know the internet gave up on a shared reality a while ago (though especially this past year). It’s old news that ‘new spirituality’ movements are springing up to fill the void.
But on closer look, there’s a step change in 2023’s approach to fantasy worlds. These worlds are no longer just safe havens – today, they’re tools.
Up until now, digital culture has been preoccupied with imagining, and making, other worlds. To do so took labour, creativity, commitment – it’s the whole premise of vibrant fanfic culture, with users toiling to visualise Hogwarts as a Black university or rewriting the entire Shrek franchise in the sci-fi genre. But last year, generative AI mainstreamed worldbuilding amongst everyday users – 70% of Gen Z report using the technology, and nearly 6 in 10 users say they’re on their way to mastering it.
As the social internet becomes saturated with imaginative tech, the next frontier is moving beyond fantasy-for-the-sake-of-fantasy. If taking refuge in fantasy worlds is entry level, using fantasy to shape reality is advanced.
It’s why this year’s cluster of movements – #shifting, #delulu and #luckygirlsyndrome – use the supernatural not as an escape from the real world, but as a mechanism to change it; and why pro-Palestine protests on Roblox see virtual worlds pushed beyond their roles as fantasy, and repurposed as spaces for engendering offline impact.
TL;DR: It goes without saying that visualising new realities – from queer Marvel universes to fan-generated Nicki Minaj kingdoms – will stay a dominant motif in 2024’s creative production. These visions were joyous last year, and they’ll be joyous again. But as AI creates a glut of imagined worlds, standing out from the crowd will be harder. To have a better shot at sustained interest, brands and creators should focus on closing the loop back into ‘offline reality’ – finding ways for cyberspace to have a ripple effect into meatspace.
Gen Alpha’s new codes of youth culture are having a ripple effect on Gen Z’s values
In the 1940s, the advertising industry invented ‘teenagers’. Since then, our understanding of youth as a separate, inscrutable space has only been amplified – it’s why the early 2020s were flanked with the (now fossilised) term ‘OK Boomer’.
This past year on the internet, a new wave of youth has been rumbling towards centre stage, in the form of the iPad-cyborgs known as Gen Alpha. Alpha itself has been asserting its own version of social, most notably the split-screen sensorial potluck known as ‘sludge content’, the deeply unnerving Skibidi Toilet Youtube miniseries, and slang terms that literally no respectable adult needs to adopt, from ‘Fanum Tax’ to ‘gyat’.
But louder even than Alpha’s presence itself is the response from other generations. From Gen Z, there’s been some defending their throne as the ultimate main characters – but mostly, a sense of semi-ironic unease at being “the next cringe generation on the chopping block”, still in their teens but youthful relevance already waning. And while Gen Z are rinsed by 10-year-olds for misusing slang, one generation up, Millennials feel the schadenfreude of watching their own former tormentors suffer the sting of age.
Most headlines tout Alpha’s impending effect on culture – but their impact won’t play out for some time; they’ll still be tumbling out of the womb until 2025. In the immediate term, the more notable shift is the domino effect of Alpha’s budding presence on Gen Z’s behaviour.
This has some softer implications: as Gen Z imagines ageing out of youth and relevance, it’s dovetailed with a growing admiration for those long disqualified from youth, with ‘Grandpa core’ and ‘Granddad style’ up 65% and 60% on Pinterest, respectively.
But it goes deeper than a taste for woollen jumpers, and into the meatier fabric of identity. Alpha’s soft launch as ‘the new youth’ is important, because so much of what we think of as internet culture today is a product of Gen Z’s self-conception as ‘the youth’ – or, to be more precise, their self-awareness of how youth limits their agency.
As Gen Alpha usurps Z as ‘the youth’, the latter will have to reappraise who they are, and how they fit into the power structures they’ve long been eyeing from afar. As a group that pays close attention to how power is transferred between generations, it’s something they’ll be thinking about.
TL;DR – Gen Z has famously grown up having front row seats to existential risk, minus the systemic power to make the changes they need. Content and creators have found resonance by catering to this – with earnest values paired with nihilistic humour; motivation tinged with despair; hypersociality amidst alienation. Now, as Gen Z loses youth and gains power, it’s going to change how they see themselves – and by extension, will reshuffle the fundamentals of what resonates with them.
The internet is grappling with how to redefine creativity in the age of AI, algorithms, and nostalgia
Of the many genres of unease on 2023’s internet, one in particular underpinned the work of every user, fan, brand, and creator. Despite the fact that an unspeakable amount of content is made in a single minute on the internet, the consensus is clear: no one knows what originality means anymore.
This has sprung from a deep ambiguity about the most powerful forces shaping creativity today – namely, algorithms, AI, and nostalgia. If previous years were defined by vague concerns around algorithms shaping our taste, 2023 saw this settle into a culture-wide dictum that algos have made everything ‘mid’. Across platforms, users bemoaned algorithms that optimise for agreeable, not challenging. The rough edges of culture have been sanded off, and instead of the avant-garde there are only werewolf love triangles whose story arcs ‘come from an assembly line’. Entire meme genres (boring ahh) have spawned from this sense of chronic underwhelm.
Once algorithm-induced beigeness knocked our creative confidence, the rapid normalisation of generative AI didn’t help. One tweet says it all: “midjourney is a perfectly named software to describe one’s foray into AI generative art. That journey is 1000% mid”.
And with these two tech-led drivers disturbing our sense of creative-originality, nostalgia piled on to truly fry the circuit boards. Social’s sentimentality for the past hardly needs proof points – it’s normal to see tweets fangirling the year 2014 or Kim K posing as an ’80s ski bunny. And the past still has its appeal, with fandoms clustering around historical archive accounts like @dametalmessiah or TikToks memorialising cultural cross-pollination. But our flirtation-turned-wedlock to nostalgia is starting to sour. This heavy borrowing and indiscriminate remixing has given even the most creative sectors a stew-like texture. It’s not uncommon for people to note that “[Today’s fashion is] some weird mix of athleisure, bizcash, 90’s vintage, crop tops and oversized. I don’t get it LMAO.”
It’s not all hopeless. No one really believes that originality is dead; just that it’s buried under 8000 hours of Skibidi Toilet videos. But dedicated users are tirelessly chipping away at the barriers to originality – from YouTune, a link that auto-direct listeners to songs that have only been streamed a few times, to Obsolete Sounds, an extinct-sound repository with as much focus on inspiring new sounds as archiving old ones.
TL;DR – This wave of ‘originality anxiety’ comes at the intersection of well established cultural drivers: culture has reached peak nostalgia, platforms have reached peak algorithms, and content has reached peak automation, in the form of AI tools that recycle existing material into new arrangements. As a culture obsessed with ‘creativity’ grapples with how to redefine it, brands and creators that address these barriers head on can lead the conversation.
Mira Kopolovic is Global 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.