Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

The Internet has been a messy place in 2023. This year, the world was treated to a host of viral moments, from low-stakes dramas that nonetheless prompted days of discussion to trends with larger societal implications that will continue to be felt online.

Online, popular moments can be distinguished from the truly viral ones by their lifespans. These are your weird TikTok trends that people forget about after a day or two or or silly memes that finds legs on X, like Madame Web did in November.

[time-brightcove not-tgx=”true”]

When a meme, video, or topic of discourse goes viral, it is able to break out from its original platform and be discussed and shared across the Internet. Last year, we saw this with the never-ending discourse surrounding “The Slap” (sorry to bring it up again) and the many interpersonal dramas between creators that could’ve been handled privately (looking at you, Womblands). These moments usually make a larger impact or have something to say about who we are, how we got to this point, or where we’re headed. Here are the 10 moments online in 2023 that captured audiences’ attention, ignited discussions, and turned a mirror back on the world.

Read More: The 10 Most Viral Moments of 2022

10. MrBeast’s Chokehold on the YouTube Attention Economy

MrBeast is the most popular creator on YouTube. He has over 342 million subscribers across five channels, and although he doesn’t frequently post across all of his channels, his videos routinely get tens of millions of views. This year, he was one of, if not the most, inescapable YouTubers because of the frequency at which his videos were discussed due to their moral gray areas. MrBeast prompted widespread discourse after uploading a video on Jan. 29. Titled “1,000 Blind People See For the First Time”, it featured him paying for 1,000 people to receive a “10-minute surgery” that would help them regain their eyesight. In the video, he also gave the recipients Teslas, gave $50,000 to a high school senior about to go to college, and $10,000 to some of the people he helped get surgery.

While the deed was undeniably good, not everyone was sold on MrBeast’s approach of putting a camera in people’s faces while doing philanthropic work. While many applauded the YouTuber for his stunt philanthropy, others criticized him on social media, to which he defended himself with a post on X.

MrBeast, whose real name is Jimmy Donaldson, continued to post regularly throughout the year, consistently raking in millions of views—along with a stream of critiques of his content. Most recently, he uploaded a video in November saying he built 100 wells in Africa that will provide clean drinking water to over 500,000 people. The video, which he says he knew he was “going to get canceled for,” drew criticism from activists in Kenya.

9. Barbenheimer Dukes it Out at the Box Office and on Social Media

Monoculture, as we know it, has ceased to exist—making the excitement over Barbie and Oppenheimer releasing on the same day extra fun. Both movies came out on July 21, and became an event colloquially known as Barbenheimer, suggesting the possibility of a monocultural resurgence. The two films, which on the surface are quite different, actually share some thematic similarities: they both deal with existential crises and learning how to live in a new world. Barbenheimer became a meme, inspired costumes to wear to the movies and on Halloween, and, of course, provided marketing for both movies.

In Variety’s “Actors on Actors” interview, the films’ stars Margot Robbie and Cillian Murphy talked about the Barbenheimer phenomenon, discussing how the sensation took off organically online. “This is the world doing this, this isn’t part of the marketing… I think it just connected in a way you, I, or anybody never could have imagined. It may never happen again.”

Robbie said she received a call from Chuck Roven, one of the producers on Oppenheimer, who suggested Barbie move their release date. To which she replied, “No. We’re not moving our date. If you’re scared to be up against us, then you move your date.”

8. Keith Lee V. The City of Atlanta

Keith Lee has amassed 15 million followers on TikTok, up from 1 million just one year ago. The food influencer has also gained the power to turn a business’ fortune around with just one positive review. The restaurant The Dining Experience in Fairburn, Georgia, sold out two days in a row after Lee’s visit, according to the New York Times and Frankensons in Las Vegas said the phone never stopped ringing following Lee’s positive review. These establishments have gone from having little to no business to selling out daily after Lee visits their restaurants. As his platform has grown, Lee has gone on food tours in different cities, including Houston, Detroit, Chicago, and New York.

@watersarchive

@Keith Lee & @DoorDash GOT IT JUMPIN 😂😂😂😂😂 THIS IS CRAZY #fyp #foryou #viral #keithlee #doordash #food #foodie #crazy #viralvideo #hungry #keith

♬ Put It On Da Floor – Latto

At the end of October, Lee visited Atlanta—a city known for its inconsistent dining restrictions and infamous long waits. Even Cardi B says she has trouble getting food when she visits the city. Lee decided to head South to try out recommendations from his followers, maintaining that he did not want preferential treatment nor any free food. Lee was able to find spots that he loved and give back to small, Black-owned businesses, but as the food tour continued, the drama unfolded.

When Lee visited a restaurant called The Atlanta Breakfast Club, he said there was no place for him and his family to wait. After they were seated, he said, they were only allowed to order once and had to pay an extra $1 for butter. Lee visited another place called The Real Milk and Honey, which he said was closed during “normal business hours,” and he was not able to order online. The workers saw Lee walking in and offered to open the restaurant just to serve him, which he declined.

He then decided to try out Old Lady Gang, a restaurant owned by Real Housewives of Atlanta’s Kandi Burruss. Lee tried to get takeout and was quoted a wait time of more than an hour. After staff saw him taking pictures with fans outside, his wait time went down to five minutes. Lee declined this as well, saying he wouldn’t cut people in line to eat.

@keith_lee125

💕 Keith Speaks 💕 God Is Amazing 🙏🏽 #foodcritic

♬ original sound – Keith Lee

Lee is a beloved food critic on TikTok because he reviews affordable food, is accessible to a wide audience, and is always honest. Even when he critiques the food, it’s done with empathy and compassion for the business. His genuine enjoyment of the food he’s eating comes across in the videos he makes. But most of all, he’s humble, and that’s what builds trust with his viewers.

7. Lil Tay Dies Then Comes Back To Life

Lil Tay rose to viral fame at the age of nine after videos of her cursing and flaunting an extravagant lifestyle with expensive watches and money found large audiences. In August, a text post uploaded to Lil Tay’s Instagram account announced the 14-year-old rapper’s death. Soon after the statement was released, suspicion grew from fans and media alike over its sourcing and accuracy. The next day, Lil Tay, whose real name is Tay Tian, provided an update to TMZ that said, “I want to make it clear that my brother and I are safe and alive, but I’m completely heartbroken, and struggling to even find the right words to say.” She claims she was hacked by “a 3rd party and used to spread jarring misinformation and rumors regarding me.”

Following the incident, Tian took time away from social media before addressing everything in an Instagram Live on Sept. 30. On the Live, she spoke to her fans for the first time since the death hoax and released the video for a new song called “Sucker 4 Green,” played the piano and guitar, before talking about her father, whom she accused of inappropriate behavior, neglect, and abuse. Her comeback to social media, where she’s been relatively quiet ever since, and the entire ordeal is just as confusing as her rise to viral fame, but just as sad is the story behind the Internet star.

6. “Heart on My Sleeve” Became the Catalyst for Viral AI Content Online

In April, an anonymous creator uploaded a video of themselves under a bedsheet with sunglasses on, bopping along to a song that sounded like an unreleased Drake track featuring the Weeknd. Except, the track was generated by AI and quickly found its way across streaming platforms, racking up tens of millions of streams. The creator @ghostwriter977 uploaded the video with the caption saying they were “a ghostwriter for years and got paid close to nothing just for major labels to profit. The future is here.”

Shortly after that song was uploaded on X and TikTok, AI-generated videos of major pop stars like Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna covering different songs began popping up on social media. This prompted record labels like Universal Music Group to order strikes to take down the copyrighted material and told CNN in a statement that they had a “moral and commercial responsibility to our artists to work to prevent the unauthorized use of their music and to stop platforms from ingesting content that violates the rights of artists and other creators.”

This kind of content has since morphed into something else entirely. At one point this year, AI-generated videos of SpongeBob characters singing popular songs were inescapable. Somehow, each one was comically good. Take Patrick Starr bearing his soul in a rendition of “Burn” from Hamilton or Plankton singing “Hello” by Adele.

This all shows that while the Internet might be up against obstacles, the collective user base will always find a way around it to have some good old-fashioned fun.

5. The Too-Long Not-So-Real Feud Between Selena Gomez and Hailey Bieber

@donttellmymomma.fr

this is so sad how she uses this sound and calls it “just a sound” but this sound is not even viral. #haileybieber

♬ Sure Thing (sped up) – Miguel

In January, Selena Gomez posted a photo of herself in a bikini, and the comments section quickly filled with people talking about her body. Soon after that conversation began, Hailey Bieber, who is married to Gomez’s ex, Justin Bieber, posted and then quickly deleted a video showing her, Kendall Jenner, and Justine Skye mouthing to a popular TikTok audio that said, “I’m not saying she deserved it, but God’s timing is always right.” TikTok users took this as a slight at Gomez, and the conspiratorial floodgates opened.

Then, in February, Gomez posted a TikTok video about how she accidentally over-laminated her eyebrows. Shortly after, Kylie Jenner posted a selfie to her Instagram story with text that reads, “this was an accident???” and placed it over her eyebrows. In a separate Instagram story, she shared a screenshot of a Facetime with Bieber just showing off their eyebrows.

Jenner and Gomez responded to a TikToker’s video about the alleged beef and attempted to dispel the rumors. “This is reaching,” Jenner wrote. “No shade towards Selena ever and I didn’t even see her eyebrow posts! [You] guys are making something out of nothing. This is silly.” Gomez replied to Jenner’s comment: “Agreed, this is all unnecessary. I’m a fan of Kylie.”

This, however, did not stop fans from making content about the feud, which itself was manufactured by TikTok creators who took a morsel of truth and ran with it. It’s the perfect example of the power of conspiracy theories on the Internet and the ugly places it can go. Gomez grew tired of trying to quell the controversy and decided to take a break from social media, which she is known to do from time to time. And to add a cherry on top of it all, Gomez’s popular beauty brand, Rare Beauty, launched a brow gel so people can perfect their eyebrow look.

4. Dylan Mulvaney v. Bud Light v. The Right Wing

Dylan Mulvaney was caught in the crosshairs of a culture clash because of a couple beer cans. In April, Bud Light sent the 26-year-old influencer cans of beer with her face printed on them as part of a March Madness brand campaign. After the video was posted on her Instagram and TikTok, Mulvaney became a target of conservative media. She was a talking point for figureheads like Ben Shapiro and Matt Walsh, while Kid Rock decided to take a more violent route, posting a video of himself shooting up a couple of boxes with a gun (doing a terrible job aiming).

Mulvaney took a few weeks away from social media before addressing the controversy on TikTok. In it, she said the backlash was “so loud” that she “didn’t feel like [she] was a part of the conversation,” saying she wanted to let them “let them tucker themselves out,” a seeming nod to Tucker Carlson who spoke about her on his former Fox News show. She ended the video by saying that the uproar was a lot to handle, but was doing OK and appreciated the support she got throughout it all.

3. Mikayla Nogueira and the Multiverse of Mascara Madness

@mikaylanogueira

THESE ARE THE LASHES OF MY DREAMS!! @lorealparisusa never lets me down 😭 #TelescopicLift #LorealParisPartner #LorealParis @zoehonsinger

♬ original sound – Mikayla Nogueira

On the surface, the Mikayla Nogueira mascara controversy seemed to be a one-off event but at the same time it occurred, another similar situation was unfolding. In January, beauty guru Nogueira uploaded a video of herself using L’Oreal’s Telescopic Lift Mascara, praising the difference they made to her eyelashes, as the words “L’Oreal Paris Partner” appeared onscreen, to let viewers know it was an ad. “This looks like false lashes—,” she says in the video before stopping herself. Immediately, people in the comments section accused her of adding false lashes at the end of her video. While Nogueira denied it, saying L’Oreal would never let her do that and the comments are “just proving my point,” the incident highlighted the distrust that is brewing amongst viewers of beauty content who have been scorned by influencers pushing subpar products, like Jaclyn Hill’s notoriously messy lipstick launch in 2019.

@alissa.ashley

no hate its just super disappointing because as ‘influencers’ people are putting their trust in us and this isnt cool #mikaylanogueira

♬ Chill Vibes – Tollan Kim

At the same time, model and actor Julia Fox came under fire because she wasn’t up to date on the latest Internet algospeak—code words Internet creators use in videos to avoid TikTok’s notoriously heavy-handed moderation—which also has to do with mascara, an algospeak word for a romantic partner or penis. After a TikToker made a video describing an instance of sexual assault, saying, “I gave this one girl mascara one time and it must’ve been so good that she decided her and her friend should both try it without my consent,” Fox commented, “Idk why but I don’t feel bad for u lol,” and was later inundated with replies saying she was discrediting a survivor. She later apologized, saying that she didn’t know “mascara” was code for something else.

Both instances speak to the responsibility public figures have to understand the platforms they are posting on and the audience they are posting to. One controversy started out as an unassuming makeup ad promoting a new mascara posted by a popular video; coincidentally, mascara came into play when a different creator failed to understand Internet code words.

2. Colleen Ballinger Took Things Too Far

YouTuber Colleen Ballinger’s missteps caught up to her in 2023, after she was accused of having multiple inappropriate interactions with minors online. The allegations date back to 2020, when Adam McIntyre, a former fan of Ballinger and her Miranda Sings character, posted a video detailing his experience receiving lingerie from Ballinger and her friend when he was 13 and she was 20 years his senior. She addressed the video and apologized, leading McIntyre to be ostracized from a fan community in which he’d been deeply ingrained.

In June, the creator KodeeRants uploaded a now-deleted YouTube video sharing screenshots where they said Ballinger attempted to clear her name with them against McIntyre’s claims and persuaded them to make a video defending her. This became the catalyst for other former Miranda Sings fans to come forward to discuss the inappropriate conversations they say they had with the YouTube star.

In June, Ballinger responded in a 10-minute “apology” video where she sang her rebuttal while playing the ukulele, claiming that people “made up rumors for clout” and said that she’s “a loser, not a groomer.” The video was not well-received by audiences, who said they felt she was “minimizing” the allegations against her.

Following the video, many of Ballinger’s former collaborators denounced her, including Trisha Paytas, who had just released the first episode of their new podcast together before the accusations were brought to light. One of the accusers who spoke about his experiences with TIME said that Ballinger sent him Paytas’ nude photos from her OnlyFans to make fun of her. On July 3, Paytas addressed this in a YouTube video, saying, it “should never have happened. And, again, this really hurts sex workers as a whole — this is out there, and it looks like we’re some deviants because this is used in this way.”

Ballinger took some more time offline before deciding to return on Nov. 18 with a video posted to her vlog channel, titled “fall vlog.” In it, she addressed the controversy by saying that “there have been moments where I was immature and inappropriate with some of my comedy. There were times when I did not put enough thought into some of my fan interactions, and because of that behavior, people got hurt.”

Read More: What to Know About the Controversy Around YouTuber Colleen Ballinger

Suspicion still hovers over Ballinger and her return to the Internet because it’s been perceived as strategic. She uploaded a video four months after her last one, coming close to the six-month mark where YouTube reserves the right to demonetize inactive channels that don’t post for six months. Ballinger also began regularly uploading videos at the start of “Vlogmas” season, where creators will upload a video a day leading up to Christmas. McIntyre uploaded a video where he speculated that she started uploading around this time again because the ad revenue creators make through Google AdSense, how creators make their money in the YouTube Partner Program, increases around this time. Viewers also take issue with the amount of which she features her children in the vlogs, which raises questions about having kids appear in content.

It’s still to be seen how Ballinger will recover from this, but as has become apparent time and time again, you only get canceled if you let yourself get canceled.

1. Brand Trips and The Chaos They’ve Wrought

For the past decade, brand trips have caught the eyes of social media users who see their favorite creators jetting off on what appear to be lavish vacations provided by a brand hoping that the influencers will promote its new product. This year, brand trips became the talk of social media, thanks to one company, the beauty brand Tarte, which caused controversy throughout 2023. Creators who attended Tarte’s brand trips alleged the company treats creators of color worse than their white counterparts.

Accusations began in January when Tarte invited major creators and influencers on an all-expenses paid trip to Dubai. A large group of influencers and their guests flew business class and stayed in private villas at The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah. The trip was criticized for being “tone-deaf” as the United States was in the early stages of a recession.

As the company continued its brand trips into the year, they were conducted under the watchful eye of social media. The beauty brand took influencers to Turks and Caicos as well as Miami, both of which came with their own set of controversies. One of the creators on the Turks and Caicos trip, Cynthia Victor, said she was given the smallest room on the trip and said that she got “the short end of the stick” because she is a creator of color. A spokesperson for Tarte told TIME that she was given a medium-sized room, and there were smaller rooms available that were not occupied by BIPOC creators.

Read More: TikTokers on Tarte’s Latest Excursions Pulled Back the Curtain on Influencer Brand Trips

More drama took place during the Tarte Miami trip to F1 Grand Prix race, where one of the invitees, Bria Jones, uploaded a since-deleted tearful video to TikTok saying that she knew before going on the trip that she “wasn’t going to be treated” like the white creators because she was only invited to the warm-up races, while the rest of the group was invited to stay until the day of the actual race. Tarte denied this. This culminated in Jones retracting her statement and saying that there was “miscommunication on both ends” and that “all parties are glad to be moving forward positively.”

@heybriajones

I’m reactivating my account for 24 hours in hopes that this message gets across. Please leave @ANELLE @Fannita @Niké and any other creators alone! I do not condone any form of bullying. The situation with Tarte has been resolved and all parties are glad to be moving forward positevely 🤍

♬ original sound – Bria Jones

Tarte’s CEO Maureen Kelly attempted to address the controversy head-on in a since-deleted conversational get-ready-with-me video, but TikTok users were not convinced because this is not the first time that Tarte has come under public scrutiny. In 2018, YouTubers Jackie Aina and Alissa Ashley uploaded a scathing review of the company’s products and the lack of inclusivity of their shade range, which they have taken steps to widen.

But Tarte wasn’t the only brand trip that captured our collective consciousness online. The controversial fast fashion brand SHEIN invited a group of influencers to tour their “innovation center” in China, where they uploaded videos about their experiences. SHEIN faces multiple allegations of labor law violations, unsafe working conditions, the potential use of toxic chemicals, and more. While the brand has either denied or vowed to correct these issues, social media users were quick to pounce on the influencers who cast the brand in a positive light through their videos. One creator, Dani Carbonari (@itsdanidmc) claimed she would go into the trip “as an investigative journalist,” which she quickly drew criticism for because she inaccurately represented herself as a journalist and also did not push back on the company’s public relations messages.

Carbonari and the rest of the creators were met with swift backlash and hate comments. Kenya Freeman, a fashion designer who was on the trip, told TIME in June that she understands the criticisms of SHEIN. “I hear you with sustainability. I hear you with human rights violation. I hear you on the whole thing,” she says. “But it’s kind of hard for me to digest all of that, when these are the same people that’s telling me to jump off a bridge.”

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