How To Approach Online Culture

How To Approach Online Culture

Or how to inculcate yourself against trend mania by calculating for force
The following is a summary of my 2023 SXSW Talk: Movements > Trends. Here’s Part II.

Firstly — there is no such thing as “online culture” vs. “culture.” That’s the digital dualism fallacy kicking in.

It’s just one in the same.

But for the sake of common understanding — “online culture” in this instance is the fast culture memeified online discourse, which organizations are too often obsessed with.

It’s a shift that occurred ~15 years ago.

2007 was a monumental year for marketing.

Facebook introduced Pages.

Brands suddenly looked exactly like our friends.

They weren’t.

But nonetheless, brands saw the opportunity. And it was a glimmering one.

“What do we have to do or say to feel like a friend?”

Ever since the 00’s, brands have been seeking out material and excuses to join in online discourse across social — the perceived “hotbed” of culture.

“If we win these discussions, we win culture... and then sales.”

It’s uncertain if this notion has even been measured or supported, but was — and often remains — the collective hypothesis.

Regardless, “trending” headlines and the meme of the moment became the focus for “friendly relatability.” Attempts to resonate and cut through, optimizing for attention, has resulted in an obsession: scan, track, measure, understand and activate upon whatever’s “trending."

Brands say bae, express nihilism — are they depressed? — and are now seemingly... horny?

Hashtags, challenges, and aesthetics have replaced the original intention of a “trend”: a meaningful social shift in human behavior.

We’ve come to conflate “trending” with “trends.”

In the process of chasing cool, most discussed “trends” are really just frivolous entertainment.

We’ve lost the plot.

Meanwhile, two other macro factors have helped further reverse the figure and ground.

In a moment of chronic uncertainty, trends have become our “answers” — comforting explanations of what comes next.

And simultaneously while culture also feels stagnant, trends have become our “progress” — comforting change.

As a result, the number of published trend reports have roughly tripled since 2016.

Trends are trending.

And the trending is seen as trends.

It’s a mess.

Yet in primary research when asking 1,500 people globally if they’ve heard of ten “trends” — from Cottagecore and Barbiecore, to Indie Sleaze and Permacrisis — 43% haven’t heard of a single one.

Utter “vibe shift” to the general public, and they’ll think you’re speaking a foreign language.

...Because you are.

And meanwhile, for the 57% of people who have heard of one of the most discussed “trends,” less than half of those people have actually participated in any capacity.

The vast majority of people have not heard of what cultural thinkers and strategists obsess over, and the general public isn’t doing anything with it.

“Trends” as we currently know them are really only for ourselves. That’s fine... but for as long as we recognize they’re untethered from the real needs and desires of real people.

These are empty vessels for us to fill whatever explanations we wish into them. They are our Rorschach tests. Cottagecore is whatever we want it to be... because it doesn’t actually exist.

If our foundational task is to understand people, we’re way off the mark.

For this reason, we need to break up with trends as we currently know them. It’s a toxic relationship.

The critical caveat here is that understanding culture remains a priority, but the nuance is mistaking “trending” with substantial ideas worthy of strategy and investment. We must continue to study these signals, but with a dose of skepticism and healthy distance.

If anything, they’re signals in themselves, not substantial shifts.

Cottagecore as a viral, idyllic aspirational aesthetic is one thing. A sensibility. But we have to hold that in conjunction with the reality that this “trend” only applies to a fraction of a fraction of people... with minimal behavior being nudged.

More precisely, there are three reasons as to why our current approach to understanding “online culture” requires a gut-check:

Firstly, it’s exhausting.

Sixty-four percent of people feel culture is accelerating. And that’s according to the consumers. How about the strategists tasked with keeping the pulse, analyzing and activating?

We now have anti-trend trends, and currently #corecore — the trends have gone meta: online commentary about the absurdity of living online.

We’re chasing “trends” which are inherently fleeting, and ephemerality has a notoriously low ROI.

At SXSW this year, a leading social platform argued for the importance of “ephemeral trends” — we know what that means, right? When has investing in “temporary” ever been a sound business decision?

This is simply an unsustainable and unwise practice.

The second reason we need to interrogate our approach is because our current process is futile.

Two-thirds of people believe brands are trying way too hard today. Even if a brand was to successfully chase down and capture the fleeting and act upon it, their mere presence undermines the outcome.

As a brand, wrap your arms around something and you (often) kill it. That’s just how it works.

But many still don’t want to accept this law.

Take a look at r/FellowKids — the unfortunately still growing graveyard of cringe.

Brand participation begets erosion.

And for the brand who doesn’t mind the cringe and leans in regardless for engagements sake, psst... it’s still cringe.

And the third reason we need to break up with “internet trends” as we know them is because these concepts are often inherently empty — devoid of meaning.

Let’s go back to physics.


The equation for force is mass times acceleration.

(F)orce = (m)ass • (a)acceleration

Or more simply, force is calculated by the “weight” of something times its “speed.”

Why do we care about force? Because culture is made up of forces: the crosswinds, efforts and influences of ideas and behaviors.

For us to understand what to pay attention to, we need to be calculating “force.”

But the problem is, we’re using the wrong variables.

We’re failing physics.

Of course we are.

For the variable of speed, we have to recognize, today, everything is fast. Everything.

Seventy-four percent of people believe algorithms can make anything go viral.

In this context, speed is table-stakes. Anything new just moves fast. Fast is the norm. And as a result, we’re confusing speed with newness.

Ironically, it’s perhaps the slower moving or sustained shifts that are more valuable to us today — the ones with prolonged energy.

And for weight, today, everything is big. Everything.

Again thanks to algorithms, everything has a trillion views. Fame is democratized and each piece of content can reach more people than the average blockbuster. Size is what’s distracting us.

But size isn’t the metric we need to be paying attention to. Consider a balloon and bowling ball. Both are the same size, but very different weights. Remember, it’s weight that we’re after.

We’re too often mistaking what’s trending for a machine with the real desires of humans.

So our current working formula is:

Force = Size • Newness

We’re way off and exhausted.

We need to go back to the original formula.

Force = Weight (or the meaningfulness) • Speed (or the momentum)

Or more simply, we need to focus on bowling balls over balloons.

Balloons are cheap, pop or fly away.

Why would that ever be a winning strategy?

When the vast majority of people would prefer brands to “serve my needs by understanding what I care about” (70%) over “appears relevant by leaning into the latest trends” (30%) a new strategy is required.

It’s about going back to basics.

Physics 101: remembering the true definition of force — does this actually have weight and sustained energy?

Psychology 101: remembering the human — does this actually mean something to a real person, not an algorithm?

Business 101: remembering ROI — does this actually move a needle and is a sound investment of time, energy and resources?

And if there’s no astounding “yes” to the above, let’s put it aside for the moment and just keep tabs on it.

Not doing so is a disservice to our clients, ourselves and our industry.

Survey Sourcing: “Modern Movements > Trends” Reddit & Attest, Jan 2023, n=1,500 (US, UK, FR & AUS)
Webby-winning cultural intel. Critical trend research and foresight for the curious.