The ways of exploring the Internet and discovering new content have been evolving. With rapid changes in the digital spaces, users are questioning the old modes of search and leaning more on the rich data social offers, supplementing traditional modes of search with ones that are visual, collaborative, serendipitous, and steeped in personal experience.
Individuality is no longer the main pull of social, instead, platforms such as TikTok and Reddit are encouraging collaborative creation, creating space for effective community building. Moreover, the impact of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) on identity in digital spaces is also becoming more prominent than ever.
With the emergence of a more complex and ever-shifting web of digital culture, one can only wonder what role brands can play in reflecting and shaping it. Let’s look at some of the trends outlined by We Are Social set to shake up 2023.
Trend 1: Textured discovery
In a swelling sea of content, search and discovery have become less about information-seeking, more about curation. And while people have always gravitated towards content guided by subjective human experience, they’re now coming to it earlier in the journey: TikTok tours and subreddits are no longer a refinement point at the end of a search journey, but a starting point for discovery.
Rather than a clear or specific search term, people are hinging their discovery journeys around a mood, aesthetic, or feeling. It’s contributing to the success of platforms like Pinterest, which organises information more based on intuitive aesthetic codes, or TikTok, which lets users follow the thread of a given “trending sound”. The subreddit r/BooksThatFeelLikeThis is an example where people crowdsource book recommendations based on the “feel” of a given photograph.
Brands can turn discovery into a collaborative process to see a slice of the internet that would've otherwise been hidden from view. That’s what Spotify did when it let people collaboratively discover music: its “blend mixes” let people peer outside of their own algo-recommended filter bubble, pushing them onto a pathway of discovery guided by their music partner’s taste.
Trend 2: Collapsing narratives
Storytelling is no longer linear nor contained. Instead, to survive the modern attention economy, storytelling on social is mutating. Once a formulaic art – beginning, middle, end – stories are no longer progressing through a full narrative arc, nor do they play out start-to-finish in one place. Instead, they’re collapsing and starting mid-narrative, or expanding and becoming scattered across platforms.
It’s become common practice to move fluidly between platforms, with our experience of content developing across these spaces – such as when trending TikTok soundbites live in our head rent free, and lead us to dedicated Spotify playlists where we then come to know the song (and artist) in depth.
Brands can use collapsing narratives to weave together the real and the virtual. Take Pringles' recent activation for example, people could “win a job” as a non-playable character - a “vending machine filler” - inside Train Sim World 2. Fans were invited to post a selfie explaining why they'd be the ideal candidate.
In doing so, Pringles let people piece together their own narrative for their vending machine character, all while blurring the lines between platforms (on Instagram vs. within Train Sim World 2) as well as realities.
Trend 3: Margin chasers
On social, what signifies realness is always in flux. As rising cynicism makes it increasingly difficult to come off as genuine, authenticity has become a game of chicken – pushing people to behave more and more unusually in order to be seen as true believers, rather than mere poseurs. This explains why self-expression is moving to extremes: in the post-genuineness internet, extreme now equates to believable.
Speaking of the behavioural change, people tend to zoom all the way to a niche. This explains the ever-expanding list of digital micro communities (weirdcore, goblincore, bubblegum witch) and the increasing cultural clout of precise, weird interests, such as chef Thomas Straker’s ASMR-style videos of churning butter.
There are countless ways to embody intensity of energy, ranging from offensive, to absurd, to niche, to chaotic, to contrasting. Brands can stick with their core values, but look for where these types of playful experimentation fit into their brand narrative.
For example, brands can learn from Gucci and Balenciaga’s collaboration “The Hacker Project”, where the two luxury houses went to the extreme of faux-vandalising each other's shop fronts. For Gucci, this loud statement didn’t come out of nowhere: it’s an extension of the brand’s longstanding fascination with authenticity, appropriation and counterfeit culture, and a more extreme manifestation of something it had been playing with since 2018.
Trend 4: New cooperatives
Vibrant Discords, supportive subreddits, sisterhood fostered in the comments section of TikToks – in 2022, the social life of the web is thriving. Conspicuously absent in all this? The individual profile page. With less self-branding and more open community, the ‘social’ part of ‘social media’ is changing. Individuality is out – at least in its earlier form. Identity curation, self-presentation, hierarchy and status-seeking are being gently set aside to make more space for effective community-building, and forms of connection that are open, dynamic, and far less focused on the individual.
People are performing trends communally instead of individually. Hopping on a trend once meant putting an individual spin on a wider movement – a song, dance, or aesthetic moving through culture. Now, trends are increasingly performed communally rather than individually, meaning the end goal is to be part of the crowd, rather than the loudest voice in a trending conversation.
With growing emphasis on community over individuality, brands are better received when they act as connectors, rather than frontmen. Brands can lay the groundwork for communities to co-create content. For example, Twitter has started testing a CoTweets feature, letting users in the US, Canada, and Korea co-author posts. This means that individual users, or even brands and influencers, can share the creative and edit responsibilities for a given post, making it a truly collaborative effort.
Trend 5: Expanding identities
As we enter an even more VR- and AR-inflected realm of social, it’s opening up new avenues for identity expression. It’s part of why the ability to self-represent in virtual worlds – whether with accuracy, playfulness, or nuance – is a major cultural touchpoint. Against this backdrop, legacy brands and creators alike are furiously building the infrastructure to support more open self-expression in online worlds.
Virtual worlds represent a fresh slate. With this in mind, underrepresented communities are trying to get ahead of real-world issues of inequality in the metaverse, before they can become ingrained. Representation is a central focus, with people trying to create equitable presence from the get-go.
As people venture into new virtual worlds, they’re looking for brands to support more flexible and elaborate self-expression in these spaces. Brands can think outside the box about how avatars can convey personal identity. It’s what adidas did with its Originals Ozworld platform, where users answered questions about their personalities and were given bespoke avatars that embodied their psychological identity, rather than their physical traits.
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