Analyzing Gen Z micro-trends and internet culture: the first issue!
The renaissance of Whisper memes and the rise of the "sigma male" / "soft girl" / "girlboss" archetypes... Let's dive in.
👋 Hi! We’re The Z Link, a global Gen Z-led social media agency that helps brands reach our generation. From this issue onwards, The Digital Native is rebranding. Instead of being run solely by Erifili (our Founder & CEO), it is now written by our new Trends Reporter, Shaurya Singh! In the new Digital Native, we take a deep dive into niche internet micro-trends and subcultures, and analyse/explain/comment on them so you don’t have to. For any feedback, questions or suggestions, just reply to this email! <3
The Whisper Meme Renaissance 🤫
If we know anything about Gen Z, it's the fact that we love to overshare on the internet. The Whisper app was the boon of our existence because we could say practically anything under the safety net of anonymity. Whisper's popularity soared in the mid-2010s during its inception and gradually fell off over the years. Around its peak, a lot of people made confession accounts on other social media platforms to share anonymous Whisper confessions. While Whispers were absolutely unhinged, Instagram confessions were just as bad, if not worse. Whisper, while it had the advantage of being 100% anonymous, also gave users the feature to use images of their choice as a background to their text/confession, therefore having an aesthetic appeal as well (and pretty much created a special new aesthetic of its own).
There isn’t an exact timeline of how Whisper started gaining traction again. Still, its creation and subsequent renaissance have been impactful. Whisper meme formats are simple yet versatile to fit into any genre of memes and aesthetics. Understanding the meme format is elementary, my dear Watson — a picture matching your aesthetic, with text (usually satirical) on top of it. There's only one tricky part to it which is understanding WHEN a meme is intended to be satirical. So far, the majority of the template users are 'sigma male, grindset, Patrick Bateman cultists' and 'coquette, hyper-feminine, love Lily-Rose Depp'-type of people.
The 'sigma male' meme accounts usually consist of people presenting toxic, archaic, regressive and possibly dangerous ideas about masculinity in a normalised context. The meme could joke about anything from how they're (they = the admin of the account and/or the audience) unfixable, to how women aren't real and they should just focus on themselves. Now, because a lot of the audience is Gen Z, they understand it is satirical and practically making fun of ACTUAL 'alpha male, we-only-grind-at-work, work hard party harder' accounts. If you're reading this, do not be risky and try anything they post at home, please.
The men have their 'sigma male' accounts, and the women may have gotten the better end of the stick with the 'coquette, hyper-feminine' meme accounts. The typical content on these accounts consists of talking about self-love, loving your feminine side and, in general, being very wholesome. Satire is usually present in the form of encouraging women to be 'maneaters' and being delusional and toxic. Weirdly, the said memes have helped multiple get a better sense of worth. Even though some share the memes as a coping mechanism or a joke (which is their intended purpose), reading through similar things enough times eventually made them believe in them. They took "fake it till you make it" and made it a reality (especially when it comes to all those memes about girls being confident, taking care of themselves, etc). Really speaks volumes about what and how content affects people.
The Whisper renaissance also gave birth to a whole genre of text-based memes — screenshots of TikTok videos, Facebook/Instagram create mode and vintage comics and posters with text on top. While the two aesthetics seem polarising, they share one thing in common, which is romanticising sadness. The 'coquette' meme accounts use Lana Del Rey's music, relate to Emily from Corpse Bride and compliment themselves to romanticise their sadness. The 'sigma male' accounts usually opt for characters such as Thomas Shelby of Peaky Blinders and Patrick Bateman from American Psycho as a way to cope with their feelings. A plausible explanation seems to be wanting to be in control of one’s sadness. 2020 was the year of the pandemic, a year where Gen Z (and most people) felt powerless, and everything seemed to be out of our control, even our emotions. Romanticising sadness and making fun of it was a way for Gen Z to get their power back. In the process, a robust, loving, wholesome and understanding community was built, filled with strangers who look out for each other. Memes are how Gen Z-ers connect with each other and understand each other.
The sigma male / soft girl / girlboss archetypes ✨
Hustle culture and the three musketeers: TikTok's influence on various industries has been highly prevalent. Still, none have compared to the impact it has had on hustle culture. Since the boom of TikTok during the initial lockdowns two years ago, hustle culture has gained traction with seemingly three very different approaches — the sigma/alpha/Greek letter men, the soft girl or also known as THAT girl, and the girlboss (the three approaches have affected meme culture in general, which can be seen distinctly within the Whisper renaissance). While the approaches are different, the end goal is the same — ✨productivity✨.
The Greek letter men (I say men, but it applies to whatever people identify as <3) are Tyler Durden and Patrick Bateman cultists. They're heavily interested in finance (finance bros) and gym (gym bros!), tend to have a slightly skewed moral compass, and like to put themselves on a pedestal and think they're above others. While most videos on TikTok are satirical, a portion of Instagram users tends to take the videos literally. The topic of focus in the non-satirical alpha/sigma male videos usually focuses on the lack of female interaction (instead replaced with working harder and being more productive), financial gains, and the general scarcity of basic human emotions, which is then satirised by the satirical accounts, which is in turn taken seriously by a group of people and then it's just a hellish loop with no exit at that point.
Life started to slow down, and the soft girl aesthetic was conceptualised in 2020 when the cottagecore aesthetic was at its peak. Everybody wanted slow living and wanted to be the best version of themselves. People saw productivity in a different light, and regarded taking care of themselves as productive. As the restrictions eased and people started going out a lot more, the soft girl evolved into THAT girl. THAT girl was a girl (or anyone for that matter) that lived a life of balance. She partied hard but worked just as hard and took care of herself. The exact nature of THAT girl aesthetic is very ambiguous and open-ended because being THAT girl meant something different to different people.
Eventually, all restrictions were lifted, and THAT girl evolved into the Girlboss. The Girlboss exhibits traits of both the soft girl and the alpha/sigma males in balance and cohesion. Being a Girlboss is a state of mind; she knows her worth, but she never puts other people down. She is thinking about financial gains and her personal success. Still, at the same time, she cares about other people, shows basic human emotions and takes care of herself. She's a social animal and loves people and parties but also her career. She's the New York, London, Paris and Milan it-girl.
The idea of success flipped 180 degrees for everyone during the pandemic due to a lot of self-reflection. Although the idea of success was different for everyone before the pandemic, it just happened to be brought to the limelight. People tried all approaches and stuck to what worked for them. All three categories we just spoke about eventually lead to the same thing, which is personal success.
So, now you know all about niche social media memes and the personal success/hustle culture archetypes that became so prevalent on TikTok. Any questions/suggestions as to what we should cover next? Reach out to us and we’re always here to chat! <3
— Written by Shaurya Singh, Trends Reporter at The Z Link