The internet is clogged with shoppable content, literal sludge, cheap (if funny) AI thrills, nostalgia overload, and algorithmic “recommendations,” threatening the human-driven curiosity and spontaneity that pushes culture forward.
As Garbage Day’s Ryan Broderick notes, “there is actually more internet with more happening on it — and with bigger geopolitical stakes — than ever before. And yet, it’s nearly impossible to grab ahold of it because none of it adds up to anything coherent.”
2023 was defined by the dissolution of online consensus and in 2024, you better buckle up and pray you’re not in an Alaskan Airlines window seat.
Our current Alternet Reality is marked by accelerating mass incoherence, hyper Trendflation, the mainstreaming of metric misinformation, and jumbled “brandspeak.”
Like a bad hangover, this forces vexing, existential questions: What’s “trending?” What does “viral” even mean? Does this survey data add up? Why is Duolingo so horny?
In this Alternet Reality, and in the meatspace, 2024’s challenge is twofold. First, we’ll need to mitigate Data Dissonance by rethinking how we use social media metrics and statistics to understand what’s happening online and IRL. Second, we need to “small sip” our way out of Ad Nauseam, the vertigo induced by unapologetically-commercialized feeds. Brands must reconsider how they can be trustworthy peers online, let alone culture-worthy.
They say data is the 21st century’s “new oil,” but it’s starting to feel more like fool’s gold. The numbers we’re using to define and understand internet culture aren’t so solid, a phenomenon we’re calling Data Dissonance.
What’s in a number these days? On social, there’s more style than substance. With the arrival of the TikTokocene, we’ve shifted into a video-first, algorithmically-driven internet without clear ground rules. No one is sure how best to measure popularity and influence.
For instance, TikTok defines and quantifies views differently from other platforms. But social platforms and media often leverage metrics like view counts and engagements without platform-specific context—ignoring social “exchange rates” and real-world impacts. This can be low stakes, like men and the Roman Empire (#romanempire has 3.6B views on TikTok). But it gets serious when media outlets use TikTok views to stir up full-blown moral panic.
Data Dissonance also impacts brands, for whom metrics are currency. They might find themselves holding a wheelbarrow of social performance statistics that aren’t adding up, or making them “rich” in Gen Z resonance: 300M “views” does not necessarily equate to 300M people who will act on your campaign message.
Data Dissonance extends beyond social platform metrics. It’s not hard to commission the data you need to make your point. In an effort to understand the incomprehensible — Gen Z trends, political ambivalence and/or rage, brand loyalty — companies, media and politicians are turning to easy-click surveys, foggy metrics, and quote-unquote insights to bolster their desired narrative or course of action.
Fans shouldn’t have access to numbers and statistics the way they do right now.— 👤 (@CLINT419) July 22, 2023
Football, Music, whatever it is, people forgetting how to decide from just feeling. Everybody gotta pull out some numerical bullshit to try prove a point.
Well, we can’t and shouldn’t abandon the numbers, but we must recalibrate how we measure importance, relevance, and resonance.
This means increased rigor in sourcing insights and audience statistics, and pivoting toward qualitative measurements and nuance. It also means fighting for data transparency, a major flashpoint in last summer’s Hollywood strikes; streaming platforms are notoriously secretive about viewership data. Same with podcasting — when Apple switched off “automatic downloads” for listeners who hadn’t tuned in to five episodes of a show in more than two weeks, major shows saw a dramatic drop off in audience.
Social platforms might be a different arena, but a clearer understanding of how engagement is measured will only increase trust in the ecosystem, for brands and consumers alike.
Most crucially, we need a more stringent interrogation of where statistics are coming from, how they’re used, and who is using them to craft a story. We’re used to scrutinizing data points floated by known boogie men, like oil companies. We should also interrogate—and mitigate—semiotic pollution. The onus here is collective and individual: What data do we trust and why?
Brands might also consider ways to bring a more human, less Spock-like touch to how they strategize their social and gauge its success. There’s a reason normal people post, and it’s not always about the numbers. If you’ve ever had a crush and scrolled through your Instagram story views for that one special “seen,” you know what we’re talking about. Creative strategy should be rigorous and critical, but it’s not a hard science. Bringing intention and humanity to social also brings the superfans (more on that later).
In the weird, evolving world of generative AI development, researchers are concerned with “Hapsburg AI.” Brands and advertisers are rolling out campaigns, using terminology, and dishing out products that are just signalers for other brands and advertisers, not actual humans. The early days of Threads, or a quick scroll through the TikTok comments section, illustrates this plague of sameness.
I coined a term on @machinekillspod that I feel like needs its own essay: Habsburg AI – a system that is so heavily trained on the outputs of other generative AI's that it becomes an inbred mutant, likely with exaggerated, grotesque features. It joins the lineage of Potemkin AI.— Jathan Sadowski (@jathansadowski) February 13, 2023
To stand out, many have started to build their own personas online. But somewhere in the Duolingo lesson on digitally native language, the wires got crossed, and authenticity turned obsequious, occasionally cloying and patronizing even. The race for differentiation instead devolved into an “Ok queen” and “bestie” brand chorus.
People are becoming brands, too. Consumers may push back against “brandspeak” but they also use it. In the “personal recommendation complex” Gen Z, and increasingly Gen Alpha, a generation of digital-savvy consumers who know the ground rules, have become fluent in influencer marketing, meticulously crafting pitch decks and promoting products absent any brand deals.
Ad-Nauseam, a sort of internet “ick,” is what happens when “everything is content” turns into “everything is commerce.” It’s what New York Magazine writer John Herrman describes as “TikTok’s transformation into an infinite dollar store.” You’re left to navigate a dizzying funhouse where nothing is unmonetizable. Explicitly or not, you’re being sold (or selling) something.
When the product is free, you are the product. Given the internet’s commerce-first infrastructure, there’s basically no boundary between using the product, being the product, and selling the product.
Consumers can expect to be exposed to more ads next year — wherever they scroll, shop, watch, travel, eat and even drink. Once considered a third rail monetization option, virtually every major streaming platform launched an ad-driven subscription tier last year in an effort to reach more price-conscious consumers. Meanwhile, rideshare platforms, airlines, hotel chains, and big box retailers are building out their own ad networks.
As ad surfaces expand to new platforms and become more ubiquitous, “breakthrough” advertising will require “breaking through” ad nausea. And if you speak like… every other brand, tap into the same trends and meme formats, you’ll just end up on the same starter pack meme pages.
Brands can bring their audience a box of saltines (for you know, the ad nausea) by being more intentional. Doing so requires going back to brand basics: regrounding creative work and brand presence in the true value you bring to your audience. It feels so simple, but brands will have more impact if they show up in fewer places (see: Double Clique). You can’t create “breakthrough” advertising if everything is an ad.
Curing ad nausea also requires nuance, complexity in where and how to contribute to cultural moments. With the rise of Trendflation and the TikTokocene, brands are facing Titan submersible-level pressure to participate in every aspect of cultural discourse. Reactive moments and viral stunts won’t go away, but they must be done critically and authentically, not to check the box. A little less “how might we sacrifice our brand mascot live to cheering sports fans?” on the menu, please.