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Valdes ’27: Irony won’t save you anymore

It’s 2014. You see a picture of a toddler triumphantly clenching his fist to his chest with the superimposed text, “Ate spaghetti while wearing a white shirt. Didn’t get sauce on it.” You like a comment that says he has “just won the internet for the day.” It’s 2014. This is absolutely hilarious.

You blink. It’s 2024, and your friend reposts the same image on their story, fried and pixelated to the point of abstraction, from some Instagram account called @postcolonialozempicinjections. You “like” the story. An acknowledgement.

It’s obvious that online culture has gone through radical changes over the last decade. Simultaneously, companies have relentlessly marketed viral trends in an attempt to be relatable. Looking at the history of the internet parallel to the rise of the digital corporate presence begs the question: has the rise of irony and surrealism in internet humor over the last decade developed as a defense mechanism against corporate marketing incentives? And can irony as a defense mechanism stop being used in favor of a newer, more genuine trend? 

To start answering those questions, here’s  a brief history of the internet over the past ten years:


  From about 2010 to 2015, humor on the internet was largely meant to be relatable. The general nature of posts during this time were straightforward, slightly too on-the-nose gags, including wine jokes, minion memes and sketchy comics. You can find these fossilized today on your mom’s Facebook. 

Although the monetization of Instagram began as early as October 2013, features regarding audience demographics, post impressions, reach and advertising weren’t released until May of 2016. Within the year, we saw a rise in corporations participating in digital trends. Instagram meme accounts that were once purely recreational seemed to internalize the idea of profiting off the internet: popular accounts assumed handles like @yourdailymeme or @bestmemes and their comment sections were rampant with other accounts promoting themselves, mirroring the onslaught of corporate marketing. 

By 2017, big businesses were in regular contact with what was trending at the time; Wendy’s twitter (briefly) became an internet favorite. But it wasn’t long before corporate accounts, particularly on X, began to receive backlash. People felt threatened by corporations participating in humor that was meant to be genuine and consequence-free. Their response was to distinguish themselves from the new “norms” on social media. The most interesting example of this was the 2017 “surreal meme” movement; colorful, nonsensical text imposed over uncanny renderings of humanoid creatures that swept Instagram, Reddit, 4Chan and Tumblr. Similar to the rise of Dadaism in the early 20th century as a reaction to the horrors of World War I, in the face of industries trying to profit off the predictability of Internet users, creating content that defied logic and reason resonated with countless people, and mainly, it was funny

The surreal meme movement, while short-lived, is a crucial piece to understanding the use of “niche” Internet humor to resist corporate marketing. Avid online users could retreat into it for a taste of the zany freedom of the Internet prior to the invasion of influencers and targeted ads. But, this harmonious era was disrupted by the rise of TikTok as many hopped aboard the new wave of short-form video media. By October 2018, TikTok was the most downloaded app on the App Store — its rapid growth decentralized Internet communities. 

TikTok continued to grow in popularity throughout 2018 and 2019. Trends throughout this time existed cross-platform and were reminiscent of an early 2016 in their lightheartedness and key characters, e.g. Kylie Jenner vs. egg picture. When the COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020, TikTok’s momentum led it to become a keyhole into society for millions of young people with no regular social contact. With such a large proportion of the younger generation on the app, it prompted users to use the divides of the Internet to stratify content and, subsequently, real human people solely by aesthetics;  “straight” TikTok and “alt” TikTok were born. Fast forwarding from 2020 to now, these prototypical camps rapidly divided into innumerable online “factions,” distinguishable only by aesthetics: acid pixie, cottagecore, academia, gorpcore, blokette, coquette — the list goes on. 

What began as an innocuous form of self-expression within a time where regular activities were limited by the pandemic it soon became  a common expectation to belong   to “niche” when participating in online culture. These niches, each so closely tied to humor, music, fashion and film, allowed companies to target these corners of the Internet. Through market research, these companies learned to penetrate consumers with the precision of the data of millions, particularly on TikTok. The irony that had been so often applied to circumvent corporate incentives was no longer effective in the face of this new form of marketing — corporations could now mimic the irony and cynicism of any online camp.

Though users have continued to try to evade corporate appropriation by getting even more ironic, it's all in vain. Companies grow smarter, and the people’s beloved irony compounds on itself. Most at risk are the marginalized groups that assume niches on the internet. These groups are more prone to rapid changes in trends and lingo, as these online spaces are crucial to its members for finding community. The queer community is the perfect example of this. 

Going online has become more draining than ever. The end? Not quite.

The rise of “hopecore” on TikTok, Buddhist undertones in Instagram content creators, and the success of educational content all point to the emergence of a new thought revolution : that the way to escape the endless cycle of the profit-driven internet is not through consuming irony-heavy media, but by finding what is simple and true that makes going online enjoyable in the first place. To swim sideways out of the current. The irony and cynicism that once protected us is now allowing companies to exploit us — so let them keep it. Maybe it’s time for us to once again embrace the adorable toddler memes of the pre-2016 internet. Maybe it’s time to be genuine.


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