Illustration by Twyla Skeggs

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“It seems like niche content emanates the strongest these days”

There are two defining characteristics of modern internet culture: virality and community. As social media took hold in the late Noughties, places like Tumblr lent Millennials a space to express their weirdness, putting their eccentricity on display, like a virtual reincarnation of London’s King’s Road. And in the same way that Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren’s SEX shop was a defining destination for the first wave of London’s punk movement a decade later, Tumblr was a beacon for the hipster aesthetic that so-defined early Noughties Millennial culture.

A decade later we saw the rise of the influencer — and anachronistic return to the worship of ‘norm’ culture. Social media, for so long a place for niche interests and weird expression to thrive, became a place for people to signal their peak normality. Influencers were praised for their soulless depiction of life; the less politically engaged or divisively opinionated they were, the more successful they would become. This was, of course, of huge benefit to personal monetisation — after all, brands don’t like controversy — but its impact on digital pop culture was significant and wide-ranging. The internet was born of elevating subcultures, but now the Kardashian generation wanted to create their own sleek, sellable reality show online.

It’s really no wonder, then, that Gen Z rebelled — and a return to Tumblr’s glory days of weird, niche, and occasionally bizarre content has found its rightful home on TikTok, far away from the filtered, curated feeds of ageing Millennial influencers. The Tumblr Girl, draped in an indie core aesthetic, was now the E-girl; the ironic hipster now a DeepTok fuccboi.

Aspiring influencers who took their #foodporn and #bodygoals Instagram personas a little too seriously were suddenly relegated to the online dustbin under the hashtag ‘cheugy’ — an urban slang potshot at trending content like pumpkin spice latte selfies and gender reveal videos, seen as cringy and embarrassingly ‘norm’. TikTok signalled a changing of the guard, and thus, it heralded the declining relevance of Instagram. 

Melbourne illustrator, Twyla Skeggs, is one of the few niche-content holdouts on Instagram, where she posts her own illustrated Seinfeld scenes on @twylamae, relating them back to current events or trending pop culture references. 

“It seems like niche content emanates the strongest these days,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I think maybe because we’ve become stressed-out oddballs searching for some meaning on the internet.”

Skeggs found her own clique, connecting with fellow Seinfeld obsessives who lauded its ‘show about nothing’ take on the humour of banality. Over the years, her work has been reposted by Seinfeld, the Broad City girls, Clementine Ford, and Kyle McGlaughlin (Trey from Sex and the City). She was even sent a photo of Pete Wentz (Fall Out Boy) wearing one of her illustrated t-shirts.

Melbourne illustrator, Twyla Skeggs, illustrates Seinfeld scenes, relating them back to current events or trending pop culture references.

“If you find niche content that feels tailored to you, it makes you feel special. Less lonely,” she says. “I have a strange obsession with cooking Instagram accounts, and instructional videos — Japanese cooking if we want to be really specific. If I’m feeling stressed out, watching those sped up videos of someone cooking is very soothing for me.

“Then of course there are niche meme accounts, specifically those that are catered to Melbourne, or inner north Millennials. I feel both personally attacked and entertained all at once. Taking the piss out of yourself is certainly more healthy than comparing yourself to an influencer.”

The Rise of ASMR: From Unboxing and Dr Pimple Popper to DeepTok

The rise of niche, viral video content began on YouTube. Early versions that amassed millions of views online, rendering their creators oftentimes famous, included unboxing videos and the ‘free hugs’ guy (made famous by Sick Puppies’ music video for “All The Same (Free Hugs)”), and morphed into the endlessly shared zit-squeezing of Dr Pimple Popper. 

Today, we have embraced the ASMR element of accounts such as this; watching a dermatologist squeeze oozing pus out of impossibly large pimples in close up, slow motion. It sickens us, but we can’t look away, due to the mesmerising crudeness of it all. So what exactly does such a video deliver to our brains to keep us so transfixed, despite monotony, repetition, and even disgust?

“ASMR videos have become very popular in recent years,” says Dr Tracey Marks, US-based psychiatrist and one of YouTube’s favourite mental health educators. “The research on it is still new, but it’s developing.

“ASMR is a reflex response to a trigger, such as a sound or something you see. It’s a tingling sensation… ASMR is relaxing and calming. At its most basic level, it’s a way to engage your senses in a mindful experience.”

Although Marks connects ASMR with mindfulness, in some ways, ASMR videos online are the antithesis of the mindfulness movement. They seem to be defined moreso by mindlessness, if they can be defined at all. And recently, the internet has attempted to intellectualise ASMR content, taking it underground into some really weird spaces. Alt TikTok — a space for unconventional content beyond the choreographed videos on ‘Straight TikTok’ or ‘StraightTok’ — evolved into the darker DeepTok, a series of nonsensical video tableaux that has descended into a deeply weird void that spans everything from personified department stores to murderous Peppa Pig vignettes.

ASMR is, in some ways, the antithesis of the mindfulness movement; it is defined by mindlessness, if it can be defined at all. And from here, the internet attempted to intellectualise ASMR content, taking it underground into some really weird spaces. Alt TikTok — a space for unconventional content beyond the choreographed videos on ‘Straight TikTok’ or ‘StraightTok’ — evolved into the darker DeepTok, a series of nonsensical video tableaux that has descended into a deeply weird space that spans everything from personified department stores to murderous Peppa Pig vignettes. 

Although DeepTok was a visceral response to not wanting to be part of the cringey dance trends of ‘StraightTok’, they are in themselves a clique — a select club, connected through a self-affirming sense of absurdist, sub-cultural elitism. There’s a vibe of superiority here — rejecting ‘norm’ Influencer culture in favour of something unsettling or odd that certainly cannot be monetised. 

There’s a vibe of superiority here — rejecting ‘norm’ Influencer culture in favour of something unsettling or odd that certainly can not be monetised. 

If Tumblr and the rise of meme culture was Dadaist, then DeepTok is its successor, Surrealism. The Dada movement was marked by an anger-fuelled rejection of the world, its satirist creations made to incite feelings of rage or shock. It gave way to a softer, more positive form of surrealist expression, rooted less in cutting analysis, and more in kooky, dreamlike abstraction. 

In the same way, TikTok’s Berries and Cream trend (a reasonably non-ironic adoption of a dance from an absurdist Starburst commercial) was made purely for absurdist entertainment by poking fun at dance trends, whereas in the past Tumblr culture would have adopted it as cutting ironic commentary on capitalism. 

It’s one of the reasons that Millennials remain perplexed upon opening TikTok: How does one find the cutting commentary in Beans TikTok — a series of surrealist art videos about, well, beans? Or a community based around iStock pictures of speckled fruits, like speckled pear, and speckled mango? 

“The creation and development of DeepTok sort of sums up the essence of Gen Z humour,” says writer Kristin Merrilees. “It is purposefully meant to be lighthearted and surreal, often random and ‘quirky’, and yet still nuanced and complex. Indeed, it is incredibly creative. It’s sort of like deep-fried memes if they came to life.” 

“The creation and development of DeepTok sort of sums up the essence of Gen Z humour.”

As Merrilees points out, things just aren’t that serious anymore. And Gen Z’s DeepTok humour, often devoid of seriousness in favour of pure absurdity, is perhaps a response to how divided, and oftentimes scary, the online world has become.

The rise of the online culture wars have created intense, and oftentimes threatening spaces that viciously ‘other’ anyone outside of the strictly defined mainstream. As the world of the internet has become a place where the marginalised can be bullied 24/7, so content streams like AltTok and DeepTok have become a sanctuary, a place of escape. However, the elitism that comes with joining the DeepTok community — proliferated with how-tos that teach people to game the algorithm in order to be part of the subculture — can in itself become isolating for the very people it’s meant to represent.

As user GoViolet told Bustle about the AltTok community, “the gatekeeping that happens occasionally when defining what’s considered Alt [is concerning.] For people who are Alternative, it’s more than just a fashion statement. A good amount of people forget that politics are a crucial part of being Alternative.” 

Or as Mashable put it, in a recent op-ed about the parallels between Alt TikTok and Queer culture, “there’s a sense of reclaiming what made them weird from those who were ostracised. The elitism comes from years of not being included.” 

That rush of community — the feeling that you’ve suddenly found ‘your people’ — can be both powerful and intoxicating, driving users to engage for longer and more often. YouTube personality Miller Wilson, who has amassed 1.35 million subscribers making survival and wilderness videos, tells me that this kind of weird content can be embracing, and even inspiring. 

Miller Wilson has amassed 1.35 million subscribers making survival and wilderness videos.

“I definitely come across some very extremely funny or weird content in the course of my week — and I guess I enjoy it for its pure, raw form of human expression. Some of it is supremely unique and very inspiring, and others are, at the very least, hilarious to observe and sometimes scary — in the same way as that weird uncle at the family wedding kind of way.

“But it takes all types to fill such a huge array of platforms, and you can weave yourself throughout a plethora of topics all day if you are not careful. In some ways this is the beauty of the online smorgasbord of social media personalities, from all walks of life — it’s the weird and the wonderful.”

The Weird, the Wonderful, and the Algorithm

If there is a commercial side to these profoundly unsellable videos, it is the social media conglomerates that make their money off the engagement of viral content. Advancing technologies and constantly tweaked algorithms rule the social media space, and as much as we’d like to imagine that our rousing originality results in virality, it is in fact the decision of a faceless computer.

There’s something ironic about a subculture that rejects popularity, but in itself relies on it to proliferate. DeepTok and AltTok, of course, started as a subculture, but in some ways is more mainstream, and more viewed, than the now-tired dance trends that populate StraightTok. So, if the subculture becomes more popular than the culture it is rejecting, does that still make it a subculture?

Wilson knows the power of creating niche online video content first hand — and how quickly it can go viral if it connects with people.

“I grew up in a house in the rainforest on a creek in the mountains, and I spent all my childhood exploring nature and camping at the creek. I used to describe all my adventures to my friends, and they said I should film it to show them. So I uploaded a few videos to YouTube, and then one went viral straight away really. And that set me off on what is now a seven year journey — I now do it as a full time job.”

“I uploaded a few videos to YouTube, and then one went viral straight away really. And that set me off on what is now a seven year journey — I now do it as a full time job.”

“My second or third YouTube video was of me catching a huge eel down the creek and it went viral. A week later I was contacted by the US production crew of a Ellen Degeneres / Steve Harvey produced show called Little Big Shots. Within a few weeks they had flown me over to Los Angeles for 10 days to record an episode for the series. 

“My very next video was me delivering 12 baby stingrays, which now has over 20 Million views and really set up my channel to get over 1 million subscribers and 150 million views.”

So what does it take to go viral these days? I spoke to Luke Grigis, CEO of The Brag Media, and manager of YouTube sensation and inventor Simone Giertz (2.6 million subs) and Brisbane-based comedian Christian Hull. He believes the growth in uber niche content areas is twofold: based in both rapidly advancing algorithms, and TikTok’s groundbreaking digital strategy, focused not on appeasing advertisers, but rather on serving you quickfire content.

“If you think about the genius of the TikTok platform, it has zero friction in terms of serving out content — you don’t need to follow anyone, you don’t even need to have an account. You open the app and content instantly hits your feed. That’s never really happened before.

“TikTok gets a lot of data, every five seconds. So their ability to understand very quickly what a certain community is liking in a certain area of the world… it’s better than anyone else has ever done in human history.”

The combination of the platform’s instant gratification — the second you open it, it’s already serving you its best content based on your demographics and the huge bank of data it has accumulated in the background — and its ability to seek out niche communities that might interest you with pinpoint accuracy, means it’s a bubbling crucible of oddball content that can reach exactly the right people at exactly the right time.

It solves the internet’s most frustrating problem: that because there is so much content on offer, we end up spending most of our lives online looking for it, coming away mostly unsatisfied. We spend a gobsmacking 187 hours out of our year mindlessly scrolling Netflix alone for something to watch, so it’s really no wonder that TikTok’s brilliant strategy — removing the onus away from the user to find content they’re interested in, and instead just showing them — has paid off. 

“The internet,” Grigis tells me, “has basically allowed anyone with some random, obscure, niche interest — like watching pimples get popped, or guessing paint colours — to find the million other people in the world that are interested in that as well.

“Is culture shaped by this content, or is content shaping this culture? It’s probably both. This stuff would have always been out there in the world, it just needed the technology to connect people.”

Blurring the Lines: Where is the Internet Heading?

There’s no question that the internet has changed dramatically since the early days — and social media platforms are no different. Huge advances in technology, paired with an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how humans interact on the internet, has fundamentally altered not only the way in which we use the internet, but how we interact in our offline lives as well.

The advent of AI technology has given rise to viral AI-generated content — like the hilarious TV ‘episodes’ produced by robots that are fed scripts from popular shows like Seinfeld and Friends — as well as the launch of Instagram’s first ever ‘virtual influencer’ in Miquela. So is this where content is headed? A blurring of the lines between our real and virtual selves?

“Everyone is in some way or another living out a portion of their life online now,” says YouTube personality Miller Wilson, “whether they are forging a career or just searching for the portrayal of their best self.

“Obviously with the expansion of the meta world and the opportunities for people to completely immerse themselves in a reality of their own creation… I think more and more people will disappear into a dreamscape, which I am a little scared to think about the societal consequences of, to be honest. Maybe the next generation will lose touch with the real human life experiences.”

Wilson speaks, perhaps, to the decline of celebrity-style influencers, modelling themselves on supposed ‘real life’ monotony — and branding those experiences every step of the way. As more and more people discover their own creative outlets on less intimidating, less glossy platforms like TikTok, it follows that social media content will broaden into some of the most uncharted corners of the internet.

“You’ll get creators who will get more and more niche, and are enormously famous,” says The Brag Media’s Luke Grigis, “with millions of followers, making millions of dollars — that most people haven’t heard of. Back in the day, you had Madonna, you had Elvis, you had Prince — whereas now you have ‘real’ celebrities out there who are proper famous, but only famous to the people that love them and follow them. They’re not famous outside of their niche. It’s only going to become more prevalent.”

Illustrator Twyla Skeggs, meanwhile, is more optimistic than Miller, and tells me she thinks we’re headed backwards to a more lo-fi depiction of our online personas, rather than propelling ever-forwards, losing ourselves in the virtual, dreamlike dystopia of DeepTok.

“It’s very hard to predict, but if trends are cyclical then maybe we’re heading towards a MySpace renaissance? Gen Z have changed the face of social media by being both earnest, and having a flair for choreographed TikTok dances.

“We’ve come a long way from adding song lyrics to your MSN chat handle.”

This article features in the September 2022 issue of Rolling Stone AU/NZ. If you’re eager to get your hands on it, then now is the time to sign up for a subscription.

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