2023 was a maelstrom of stagnation, nostalgia and recursion. Headline after headline spelled out (in 18pt font), how America’s glitching octogenarian leaders, with their stubborn, arthritic grip on power, are stunting the country’s progress and failing to tackle 21st century challenges.
Cultural consolidation is inevitable when most of what we read, watch, scroll, and wear is still mediated by a small handful of giant players. Raking Big Tech over the coals has become a time honored tradition, perhaps the only thing that both political parties can agree on, but there are other cultural numbing agents — “Big Fiction,” “Big Fashion,” “Big Hospitality.”
Even the seemingly innovative is just “big bark, little bite” culture, as eloquently explained in The Baffler’s criticism of The Las Vegas Sphere and the Saudi Arabian skyscraper Mukaab: “These structures claim to redefine the future, push boundaries, expand the possibilities of live entertainment, and so on, but their innovation is purely distributional… part of the broader, ever-accelerating race to discover fresh forms for the delivery of cultural content, even as culture itself stagnates into a stultifying recursiveness.”
That “stultifying recursiveness” is partly thanks to the rise of Zombie IP, a nostalgia overload spurred on by corporate consolidation and an “end of endings” brought on by total risk aversion. Underlying it all, as always, is the algorithm. Algorithmic recommendations wreak havoc on our cultural tastes and habits, as well as our communities. Double Cliques offer a way out for individuals and brands caught in the crosshairs of looking cool, looking corny, and burning out.
Here’s how we’ll break out of the “mid-iocrity” in 2024.
As prophecy foretold in the 2023 Predictionary (please clap), “Fratigue” swept the globe last year. Marvel mania waned (notably evidenced by the flop of The Marvels). The latest Star Wars spinoff Ahsoka failed to capture audiences like The Mandalorian or Obi-Wan Kenobi. But franchise fizzle be damned, Zombie IP still wound its grip around the 2023 zeitgeist.
Thanks to pioneering technologies, mega conglomerate budgets, and a stubborn belief that any established IP can be spun into gold, intellectual property is living long beyond its natural lifespan, sometimes even coming back from the dead. This Zombie IP era is fueled by a relentless drive to remix, reimagine, and resurface.
Limits and expiration dates are a good thing. The FDA imposes them to help us from getting sick. Presidential term limits exist so we don’t turn into a dictatorship. But today, movie studios, retro bands, and even Silicon Valley weirdos are shirking biological and cultural limits.
Zombie IP is the silver screen de-aging silver-haired movie stars (how many times must we de-age Harrison Ford?). Or Tupac’s Coachella cameo giving way to an ABBA avatar band, which is grossing $2M a week at near-sold out shows at East London’s ABBA Arena. (Kiss also debuted its own digital avatars at the close of their final farewell tour show.) It’s The Beatles single, released with the help of AI, and streaming platforms sparring over licensing deals for decades old series, looking for their next Suits.
Credit where it’s due: The technical effort it takes to keep IP relevant is genuinely impressive. Mamma mia here we go again and again forever and ever. But is a novel way of experiencing existing stories, music or brand IP the same as true novelty? Not really, and therein lies the trouble.
Don’t expect “Zombie IP” to take a silver bullet anytime soon. Quite literal Zombie IP, the Walking Dead, is the basis of six spinoffs, with a new one set to release this month. A slate of century-old IP, freshly available through public domain, will also lead to…old dogs (or shall we say mice) doing new tricks, like “Steamboat Willie,” a new horror film that shows Mickey Mouse’s “potential for pure, unhinged terror.” But our eyes are locked on the Mattel Cinematic Universe. The outstanding question is whether franchise-happy studios—and brands like Mattel—will learn the lesson from Marvel overload and temper their ambitions.
Coming out of the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes and a generally gnarly year for streamers, platforms are still trying to figure out how to keep viewers engaged. The challenge here, from a Zombie IP standpoint, being that licensing older television and film has become a safer and cheaper route than investing in new programming. We’re likely to continue to see platforms focus on growing their libraries’ archives.
Some streamers do see the potential in original storytelling. Indie darling A24 struck a deal with HBO to bring the studio’s catalog and new releases to the Max streaming platform this year, and the studio’s series The Curse debuted to critical and popular acclaim late last year.
Perhaps the biggest positive to emerge from last year’s Zombie IP hoard is that viewers do seem truly “fratigued” (sorry) by endless iterations on the same stories and the same talents, and hungry for net-new shows, films, and music.
For the past few years, the algorithmic conveyor belt has churned out “trends” and “aesthetics” at a frenetic rate. And in 2023, this fomented a deep sense of status anxiety: Are you rocking Arc’teryx because it popped up in your TikTok feed, or is it your dad’s old ski jacket? Are you a tenured regular at Fanelli, or just there for the vibe edit? Have you always been an Emma Cline fan, or is “The Guest” just a thirst trap?
Hipness to these trends felt both mandatory and deeply cringe in equal measure, thanks to the whims of a mercurial jury (composed of, say, SEO bait reporting and TikTok “tastemakers”). The floor has long been down, out and away from any person or entity that might be described as a reliable cultural touchstone for the masses.
But new types of mini communities and cultural guides (dare we say subcultures) are emerging from the vacuum, giving rise to what we’re calling the Double Clique.
Double Cliques operate as buffers to cultural groupthink. A Double Clique doesn’t chase scale; it cultivates scarcity. It’s an inch wide and a mile deep, unconcerned with optimizing for the algorithm. Double Cliques are tapped in, but gain value from the trends they don’t participate in as much as those they do.
These communities allow for experimentation and encourage actual engagement, a more satisfying participatory experience in, and creation of, culture, than the backseat ride the algorithm has us on.
Expect to see brands and platforms create intentional barriers to entry and more participation friction to cultivate discovery, taste and commitment.
Corteiz and Syna have drummed up substantial communities through secretive IRL events and limited digital drops. The music streaming platform Marine Snow is another good example. Still in beta, the app pivots away from Spotify, which uses an algorithm deliberately designed to give you exactly what you want. Marine Snow’s small, intentional library is meant to broaden your horizons and challenge your tastes.
Double Cliques offer rituals for participation that allow brands and individuals to skip out on the urge to be present at all the buzziest virtual and IRL arenas. If you’re already part of a Double Clique, maybe you’re less inclined to post an IG Story take on the latest -core, or go to the latest “it spot” as crowned by The New York Times. Relieving the pressure of “keeping up” with culture and adopting a more critical, curational mindset would do wonders for burn out, and encourage community-building that’s more sustainable and enjoyable in the long-term.
A community for all in name, is a community for no one in practice. The semblance of “all for one, one for all” camaraderie that marked 2010s Instagram—and bolstered brands like Glossier—has started to read as more saccharine than genuine. To put it in a “digitally native” tongue, if everyone is your “bestie,” no one is your “bestie.”
Communities, as well as brands and platforms, should play a little harder to get. Everything’s better when you have to work for it.