2023 has been quite a ride for viral culture. From the internet’s wrath against nepo babies to Gen Alpha making their mark on the digital space, this year has been filled with highs and (honestly, some really low) lows.
But before we ring in 2024, let’s take a look at fifteen of the biggest culture-shaping moments for the internet this past year.
The AI Boom
This year saw artificial intelligence (AI) breakthrough the mainstream, largely thanks to ChatGPT. As a freely available and easy-to-use text-based chatbot, ChatGPT democratised AI and gave internet users a peek into this new world of tech.
From viral AI-generated images (throwback to the Papal Puffer) to Meta’s new AI chatbot assistants, social media users have spent the year combatting misinformation and speculating how AI will change the way many industries operate— with the latter even becoming a significant bargaining point throughout the Hollywood SAG-AFTRA strike.
A year marked by influencer scandal, Mikayla Nogueira kicked off the drama. In January, she faced criticism for a sponsored TikTok promoting L’Oréal’s Telescopic Lift mascara. The dramatic before-and-after shots in the video, showcasing Mikayla’s longer and fuller lashes, sparked accusations from fans. Many claimed that the TikToker intentionally misled viewers by wearing false eyelashes.
While this wasn’t Mikayla’s first brush with controversy, she seemed to handle the situation differently. During the Lashgate saga, Mikayla remained unbothered, refusing to succumb to public pressure and issue any form of an apology video. All in all, Lashgate set the tone for a year brimming with TikTok drama and a growing distrust of influencers.
Selena Gomez vs Nepo Babies
While Mikayla faced her fair share of criticism, it was the Hollywood nepotism babies who became public enemy number one.
It all started after Selena Gomez debuted a fresh brow lamination on February 21. Just hours later, Kylie Jenner posted a screenshot of a FaceTime call with Hailey Bieber to her Instagram story, with both women seemingly zooming in on their eyebrows. Given Hailey and Selena’s strained relationship, internet users jumped to all sorts of conclusions— accusing Kylie and Hailey of shading the actress.
Soon after, Hailey found herself inundated with a barrage of hate comments and labelled as a “mean girl.” Selena and Hailey later released statements to their Instagram stories, urging their followers to stop the negativity.
Sofia Richie’s wedding
Speaking of nepo babies, Sofia Richie established herself as an “it girl” this year. In April, she captured the attention of TikTok users, going viral after sharing behind-the-scenes content of her wedding with music executive Elliot Grainge. Internet users dubbed her the “people’s princess,” enjoying her casual GRWM videos and quiet luxury aesthetic. Sofia has come to epitomise the ultimate Clean Girl, ushering in an era of natural makeup, slicked-back hair, and clear glossed lips.
Dylan Mulvaney’s partnership with Bud Light
But the internet wasn’t so kind to everyone, especially Dylan Mulvaney. The TikToker faced an onslaught of transphobic vitriol after teaming up with Bud Light in April.
Despite many internet users applauding the company for supporting LGBTQIA+ visibility, conservative commentators condemned the campaign and boycotted Bud Light beer. These critics went on to invalidate the experiences of trans women – with many misgendering Dylan and claiming that Bud Light is “mocking women.”
Following a hiatus from social media, Dylan later shared that the brand failed to reach out amid the backlash.
Questionable Brand Trips
With Dylan and Mikayla in mind, 2023 was a cursed year for creator-brand partnerships and influencer marketing. And the number of problematic influencer brand trips only added fuel to the fire.
Tarte ended up in the middle of two scandals linked to influencer trips in May. The makeup company was first criticised for a brand trip to Turks and Caicos called “Tarte Island” (a play on the reality show Love Island). Creators like Shawtysin accused the brand of favouritism and racism, alleging that white influencers with large followings were given priority over minority creators.
Days later, Bria Jones, another creator of colour, accused Tarte of being deceptive about a brand trip to Miami for the Formula 1. She noticed that Tarte had booked her return flight a day before the race while most creators were leaving the following week.
In response, Maureen Kelly, the founder and CEO of Tarte Cosmetics, made a video explaining that situation, noting that brand trips try to host as many influencers as possible. However, her statement didn’t satisfy many TikTok users, prompting her to delete the post.
Shein also hosted a brand influencer trip that went viral (for all the wrong reasons). As a company best known for violating labour laws and operating under an environmentally unsustainable production model, Shein attempted an image overhaul by flying a bunch of creators to China.
Over four days, the attendees visited a Shein factory in Guangzhou and the company’s “innovation centre.” As they began posting positive content from the trip, critics slammed the influencers, claiming they have “zero critical thinking [skills].” Meanwhile, other internet users defended them, pointing out the diversity within the group. They argued that the limited opportunities afforded to minority creators might lead them to support controversial brands like Shein.
Toxic Gossip Train
Beyond brand cancellations, 2023 saw one of the most unsettling influencer cancellations unfold— centering around Colleen Ballinger.
While concerns about Colleen’s online behaviour have lingered over the years, the conversation really gained momentum in July after a former follower posted a YouTube video exposing her fandom. Since then, Colleen has been accused of grooming, manipulating and fostering inappropriate relationships with minors. Ex-fans even claimed that Colleen had sent them nude pictures of Trisha Paytas, seemingly intending to mock Trisha’s body size.
The public scrutiny gave rise to one of the most infamous viral moments of 2023: Toxic Gossip Train. Colleen added a musical twist to her so-called “apology” video, strumming a ukulele and singing a song refuting the accusations against her. Although Colleen hasn’t emerged from the backlash unscathed, she has returned to vlogging.
From ‘girl math’ to ‘girl dinner,’ 2023 truly embodied the girlification of viral culture— and it all peaked with the release of the Barbie movie on July 21. On the same day, Oppenheimer also hit the screens, setting the stage for an unexpected (but very fun) cultural moment. The internet swiftly became flooded with “Barbenheimer” memes as people shared themed outfits while gearing up for back-to-back screenings.
The Rise (and immediate fall) of Threads
While “Barbenheimer” thrived, there were a few viral flops in 2023, one of them being Threads.
Slated to be Meta’s response to Twitter (or X), the platform launched in July and gained 100 million users within a week. Even with the initial influx of users, Threads faced challenges keeping its audience engaged, with many Gen Z users describing the content on the app as “Millennial Cringe.”
By August, engagement had plummeted by 79%, and the daily user base dwindled to around 1.1 million, down from the 3.4 million recorded in July.
Where Threads may be Millennial-coded, Gen Alpha (kids born after 2010) has officially entered the cultural zeitgeist this year. Skibidi Toilet, a YouTube series on the DaFuq!?Boom! channel, quickly became one of the internet’s most popular memes in 2023.
The series features Skibidi Toilets (animated toilets with human heads) as they battle figures who have CCTV cameras and televisions for heads. The episodes are typically two to five minutes long— each having been viewed tens of millions of times. Given that most followers are Gen Alpha, Skibidi Toilet is offering older internet users a peek into what the next era of internet culture might look like.
Bobbi Althoff’s viral Drake interview
But for now, Gen Z can’t seem to get enough of podcasts, with many influencers launching their own shows.
Bobbi Althoff, a 25-year-old TikTok creator and mother-of-two, has quickly become one of the internet’s favourite podcasters. She launched ‘The Really Good Podcast’ in July of this year, interviewing a new celebrity guest in each episode. She went viral for her conversation with Drake, where their awkward chemistry and Bobbi’s deadpan delivery left listeners wondering how she is so connected.
Bobbi later removed the interview with Drake and TikTok users soon questioned whether the two had fallen out.
Sabrina Bahsoon, AKA Tube Girl, is another creator who skyrocketed to viral fame in 2023. Posting videos of herself lip-syncing on the London Underground (often in front of full carriages), Sabrina dominated TikTok for a brief moment in time— even collaborating with singers like Troye Sivan and Omar Apollo.
With viewers praising her confidence, Tube Girl sparked a movement. Soon, people worldwide were filming themselves lip-syncing on public transport, trying to emulate Sabrina’s overall vibe.
The Downfall of 8 Passengers
2023 was also when the bubble (finally) burst around family channels, with Ruby Franke of the now-defunct 8 Passengers YouTube channel arrested for aggravated child abuse. On August 30, she was taken into custody alongside her business partner, Jodi Hildebrant, who founded a personal improvement group called ConneXions. The arrests came after one of the Franke children escaped through a window and sought help from a neighbour. Ruby has since pleaded guilty to four counts of aggravated child abuse.
Internet users have long argued that mommy vloggers are exploitative, choosing to film their children for clout. But with Ruby getting arrested, the conversation has finally entered the mainstream— hopefully bringing about some meaningful change around child labour laws in the digital space.
The Hunger Games Renaissance
With online discourse being rather heavy, Gen Z has found a sense of comfort in nostalgia. This year, the internet has seen the return of the Hunger Games franchise— with the #HungerGamesRenaissance on TikTok and the release of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes in theatres.
TikTok users have taken to the platform in droves, posting fan edits, commentary videos and comedic content about the series. Creators like @luckyleftie remain at the forefront of this niche, amassing almost one million followers for her videos analysing Hunger Games lore.
Many internet users questioned the authenticity of the Hunger Games revival, claiming it was all part of a grand PR strategy by Lionsgate. Even if this is the case, one thing that cannot be overstated is the cultural impact of the Hunger Games as many Gen Zs entered teenagehood— something that has allowed the series to transcend its original context completely.
The Return of Concert Films
On the topic of nostalgia, concert films have had a major comeback in 2023. While this genre never fully disappeared, concert movies have become a streaming-first phenomenon in recent years. But Taylor Swift and Beyoncé have managed to parlay the success of their world tours into blockbuster movies.
Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour and Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé hit theatres towards the end of 2023. The Eras Tour movie raked in $123 million worldwide over its opening weekend in October. Meanwhile, Beyoncé’s film achieved the highest first-weekend-of-December total in the United States since 2003, debuting with $21 million domestically. Of course, this is all after both tours went extremely viral on TikTok— with users loving anything Traylor-related or clips of Blue Ivy’s performances.
With both singers on break from touring, fans are capitalising on the films and continuing to share content from both tours on social media. Theatres have transformed into mini-stadiums, with movie-goers singing and dancing with every performance.
While there were some parts of 2023 we would all rather forget, there were also plenty of standout moments. And as internet culture continues to blend with the mainstream, 2024 will undoubtedly bring more iconic cultural moments—fingers crossed for no more musical apologies, though.