Last year, with algorithms funnelling people into ever more specific corners of the internet, users found empowerment in their niches - from ButterTok to r/LiminalSpace. In those smaller spaces, they looked for the kind of pure authenticity and unhampered creativity that defined the early days of social media. Niches were meant to rescue social: to bring it back to its un-commodified roots.

Enter 2023. Offline, a cost of living crisis put everyone’s minds on their wallets. But looking back to their screens for some respite, users didn’t see a space free from commercial interests. Instead, even in a fragmented landscape, profit was loudly informing play. Platforms like X would verify anyone for a price; brands raced to hop on quick-moving trends, from goblincore to rat girl summer; algorithms surfaced lukewarm-but-palatable content rather than fringe creativity; influencers sang the praises of Shein’s fast fashion factories.

‘Eat the rich’ might have been pop culture’s favourite storyline, but there was no denying it: money was being made on social. For nostalgic users, this was cause to mourn the lost innocence of the early days of MySpace and Tumblr. But for future-facing ones, this meant staging a new kind of revolt: one that reframes how creativity can coexist with a ‘sellout internet’.
First came the deinfluencing movement, where influencers balanced criticism and consumerism. Now, this balancing act of the commercial and the creative has become digital culture’s ongoing theme. Creators like @2girls1bottl3 and @mattisontwins make brands into background props in their creative flow. Influencers like Bobbi Althoff straddle fakeness and authenticity, becoming a self-aware hybrid of the two. Cultural phenomena like Barbiemania show that people will willingly buy into manufactured hype, as long as it makes space for community, creativity, and play.

In this new era of social, people have realised that neither commerciality nor creativity can govern alone. Instead, users are looking for new avenues for genuine self-expression – even within a commodified landscape. And unlike the idealised days of the early internet, this new coalition government of capitalism and creativity has an inbuilt space for brands – but also a new and nuanced set of demands. In 2024’s Social Reckoning, every brand will be judged. Sponsored ad? Or patron of the arts?


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Think Forward 2024 was researched and written by We Are Social's global Cultural Insights team, through desk research, literature review, semiotic and thematic analysis of digital artefacts, and expert interviews with Anne Helen Petersen , Josh Chapdelaine, Dr. Francesca Sobande, Terry Nguyen, and Allegra Rosenberg.

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