People on the internet have never shied away from some gleeful naughtiness, from trashing the halls of Habbo Hotel to trolling forums while mods are asleep. But when Elon Musk took over Twitter in November 2022, promising to turn the debt-ridden platform into a money-spinning bastion of free speech, he instead inherited the world’s unruliest classroom.
Pharmaceutical brand Eli Valley saw stocks plummet after a verified imposter claimed "insulin was now free". Community notes, designed to debunk disinformation, became fertile ground for violations. And Twitter Blue, the platform's controversial subscription model, saw blue checks transform from status symbol to badge of shame.
In going through with the takeover, Musk lost control of his class. But the Tesla CEO’s experience is just one example of how the internet’s pursuit of profit has hampered the overall user experience – and sparked a particularly playful form of resistance.
The rise of social media has revolutionised the way we connect, share, and communicate – but what was once started as a space for fun, playfulness, and creativity has become a battleground for brands, influencers, and corporations vying for users' attention and engagement. Put simply, the internet has sold out.
The influx of amateur advertising, sponsored content, and algorithms designed to maximise profits has, in many ways, drained the spontaneity and authenticity that initially defined social media. The old adage that as soon as a business gets involved with something, all the fun and joy are sucked out of it has never been truer.
But amidst this commercialisation and homogenisation of online spaces, there's a compelling counter-trend emerging. Digital natives are challenging the status quo, seeking to break free from the constraints of commercial structures that have come to define social media – by embracing mischief.
This mischief is taking shape in various senses of the word. On the one hand, the web’s unruly pupils are cooking up content that’s rebellious and challenging – the sight of the Pope in a Balenciaga puffer jacket has already fooled the world, thanks to ever-improving AI. But on the other hand, content that taps into more playful, unapologetic energy – bringing the vibe and confidence of unabashed physical play – is striking a chord with users young and old.
As brands and creators fight for space in a monotonous, monetised landscape, many are rediscovering that sometimes, the best way to be noticed is to act out. the best way to be noticed is to act out.
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Surreal content was already permeating the internet, with TikTok acting as ground zero for bizarre aesthetics and nonsensical storytelling. Now, the creative work that resonates with Gen Alpha is the ultra-surreal, with Skibidi Toilets – a series of YouTube shorts about evil singing toilets – having over 10 million YouTube subscribers and a fiercely loyal fanbase amongst the 13-and-under crowd.
From Bobbi Althoff’s captivatingly awkward interview style to de-influencers telling people what not to buy, the rules of influence are changing. As we reach peak awareness of how commodified internet culture is, some creators are rejecting smooth, subtle salesmanship in favour of content that makes people less comfortable.
With a sense that the internet has become too cultivated and commodified, there’s growing traction for the creators and movements that powerfully reject this cultivation – especially through the shameless, embarrassing, or self-consciously unhinged. The #delulu movement (celebrating being intentionally delusional) has over 4 billion views, while @tubegirl has become the patron saint of unashamed confidence for her bold dance routines on public transport.
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Lean into opportunities for your brand to play with reality. Brands like Jacquemeus, Maybelline and others are playing into the trend as a way to both wow and wrongfoot their followers. Participating in this creative technique not only signals a playful and rebellious streak, but also an understanding of what gets people talking.
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Embrace the disruptive behaviours in your category. In order to prove that its products couldn’t be duplicated, haircare brand Olaplex duped the internet with a phoney influencer campaign promoting the fictitious Oladupé No.160. By disguising its own star product as an astoundingly effective knock-off, then having a range of trusted influencers rave about it, Olaplex could rugpull their own community, champion its range, and decry unsavoury business practices, all in one go.
Encourage and amplify playful behaviours around your brand. Mere months after the existence of aliens was supposedly confirmed – then met with apathy and hastily scrolled past – home security brand Ring leaned into the world of hoaxes to promote its smart doorbells. Owners could win $1 million if they managed to capture an extraterrestrial on their cameras – but also grab a $500 gift card if they got creative with props and effects.