Watch one episode of a 90’s sitcom, and you will hear various jokes referencing popular culture. Television, radio, and magazines were widely available to learn about what was new and hip, and everyone knew what was going on. Today, you can make a pop culture reference you think everyone will understand, only to be met with confused faces in your friend group. They have no idea what you are talking about, they do not even know or follow the celebrity or the meme you are talking about. What seems like world news to you might not even have popped up on your friends’ feeds. This leads to interesting questions about the changed media landscape, which appears to have fragmented. The comparison of two similar internet hypes, one from 2016 and one from 2022, demonstrates the way in which algorithms have reshaped the internet into a place where globalization is occurring at an entirely new level.
Globalization and Filter Bubbles
It is often argued that the Internet contributes to globalization by facilitating easy, fast, and cheap communication between people anywhere in the world. This, of course, has many advantages on many levels. For example, for many people, it is a means to find a group of people with the same interests or hobbies. Maybe you are into knitting, or you want to connect with other members of the LGBTQ+ community, or maybe you are a big fan of a band or an actor. No matter your situation or preferences, online, you can always find a global community of like-minded people to share ideas and conversations with, and they might even become your friends. This creates diverse global communities of people, and this happens for practically every single area of interest. According to Elkins, these communities have previously been defined as “taste clusters” or “taste communities”, which is the idea that “common tastes bind viewers across geographic distances and cultural differences” (Elkins, 2019). On the one hand, this can be seen as a positive social development, as it provides people who have trouble finding like-minded people in their local community with an active, online social life. It connects people with the same interests, and it creates communities of people all over the world who share a common interest or value. It also provides social environments for people who might be excluded from their local community, perhaps because they are a minority there. Social media platforms play a very important role in this development. For example, on TikTok, the algorithm decides what kind of videos you see. This is determined by your personal interests and the types of content you have previously interacted with. If you like or comment on a few videos about puppies, you will likely be shown more cute puppy videos. This leads to everyone ending up with a completely personal and unique TikTok feed; everyone resides in their own ‘filter bubble’ and only sees what the algorithm shows them.
These developments might be threatening our connections with local communities.
However, these bubbles also have a negative side. The term ‘filter bubbles’ was coined by Eli Pariser, who claimed that these bubbles lead to limited and non-diverse media intake. This means that if you are in a certain filter bubble, you have little knowledge of what is going on outside of your bubble, and you are not seeing counterarguments to your own opinions (Pariser, 2011). Now, if this means you are exclusively watching puppy videos, that seems like a wonderful thing. However, it can actually be dangerous. For example, in the case of fake news, people in certain filter bubbles are only seeing fake news, not knowing the real story. This might lead to polarization, as everyone is only hearing their own point of view, which gets stronger and stronger by remaining in the bubble. This leads to a strong sense of ‘the other’, who are not in the filter bubble and have a different opinion. In his TED talk, Pariser explains that the algorithms only show us what they think we want to see but not what we should see. He argues that we should also be seeing things that are foreign to us, counterarguments, things that make us uncomfortable, and general, important news. He states that this will lead to an ideal online environment that connects people and creates healthy communities where no one is isolated in their own lonely filter bubble (Pariser, 2011).
PPAP and Going Viral 'back in the day'
When Pariser introduced the term ‘filter bubbles’ in 2011, the internet was looking very different than it is today. Filter bubbles already existed in a sense, but there were also things everyone knew. For example, in 2016, a seemingly nonsensical song went viral on the internet: PPAP. A song about pens, apples, and pineapples, paired with a silly dance and performed by an eccentric character, took over the internet for a while. No matter your filter bubble, this song was stuck in everyone’s head, whether we wanted it to or not. This signifies that there were, in fact, things that transcended filter bubbles that went so viral that everyone saw them. In the Netherlands, the video was the most often viewed YouTube video of 2016; worldwide, it was the second most viewed (NOS, 2016). The music video was discussed by various reputable and serious news outlets. For example, the BBC wrote an article theorizing why the song went so viral and discussed several reactions and parodies to the song (Chen, 2016). There was practically no way that you had not seen this video. It was on television, discussed in the news, it was everywhere online, and everyone talked about it. Even my grandparents knew about it. This case clearly demonstrates the degree to which something could go viral in 2016.
But between 2016 and now, something has changed. When was the last time we saw one video sweep the entire internet? When did things stop going so viral that absolutely everyone knew about it? In 2011, we were all planking. Then, in 2012, everyone was dancing to Gangnam Style. In 2013, we did the Harlem Shake; a year later, we did the Ice Bucket Challenge. 2015 was the year of arguing over the color of a dress, and in 2016, we all watched PPAP. But when we think about hypes and trends today, it seems like they have become more fragmented. This can be attributed to the rise of extremely personalized content and filter bubbles due to more advanced algorithms. The chances of something going completely viral have decreased since everyone was divided into specific online environments, leaving us all scrolling our personally tailored feeds.
I'm a Little Lad Who Loves... Algorithms?
TikTok trends come and go on a daily basis. However, trends are often exclusive to their respective community. For example, TikTok has a reputation for being a dancing app, but this is different for most users. There are countless topics on which TikToks are made, and these are watched and made by people who are in a similar filter bubble. These communities of people with similar filter bubbles often get a specific name. For example, if you see a lot of videos about Harry Styles, you are on ‘harrytok’, if you watch TikToks about books, you’re on ‘booktok’, or maybe you are interested in spirituality and end up on ‘witchtok’. The possibilities are endless. But then, how do you go viral? The answer is, you don’t, not really. You can, however, go viral within a specific space of the internet. A trend or hype might be global, but it is still exclusive to a certain part of TikTok.
Today, it is nearly impossible for something to appear in every single filter bubble.
For example, in 2021, a video emerged online that bears many resemblances to PPAP -an eccentric character singing a song involving fruit doing a silly dance. Of course, I am talking about the Little Lad, singing the berries and cream song. Now, maybe saying ‘of course’ is out of place here. For me, the Berries and Cream song was all over my feed; in my filter bubble, it was everywhere, just like PPAP was in 2016. Apparently, this was a 2007 Starburst commercial that had somehow made its way onto TikTok. It seemed like it had gone viral; just like PPAP, it popped up every few videos. People were recreating the dance, making parodies, making jokes about it; it was a big deal. But something was different this time: I seemed to be the only one in my friend group who knew about it. Even though, for me, it seemed like it was the next big thing that could be expected on the 7 o’clock news again. But apparently, it had not gone viral across all of the internet or even on TikTok as a whole. My algorithm decided to show these videos to me and a million random strangers worldwide but not to my best friend, my mom, or my partner. The same happened with trends such as the Corn Kid, the Miami Boys Choir, the Try Guys scandal, the chrome biscuit lady, and more. These things seemed to be everywhere online, but really, they were just in my algorithm, and most of my friends in real life had no idea what I was talking about.
This can be attributed to TikTok relying more on algorithms than other prominent social media platforms (Anderson 2020). Pariser warned us about the algorithms on Google and Facebook back in 2011, and according to Elkins, the idea of the “taste cluster” has been around for many years and actually found its origins in the 1950s (2019). The difference is that TikTok is more about the algorithm and personalized content than ever. Therefore, with the current status of TikTok as one of the most popular social media apps and many other apps, such as Instagram, copying the TikTok format (Hern, 2022), it comes as no surprise that the apps’ algorithm has influenced the way in which videos go viral. As we lead our lives in the online-offline nexus, which is the “social reality in which online and offline dimensions of action and identity are effectively fused (Blommaert, 2020), what we see and whom we connect with online is vital for our social life. Therefore, being connected to a global community of strangers through our filter bubbles and taste communities and being essentially cut off from our local community while spending time online greatly impacts our lives. It might even have a negative impact on the degree to which we feel connected to our local community when we excitedly talk about the things we watch online to our friends, only to be met with puzzled faces.
It can be said that the Internet plays a large role in globalization; it connects people all over the world. This is what we always thought it would be and what it thus far has been seen as. However, this new development seems like online globalization has gone one step further. Algorithms are creating online communities of people all over the world, being shown a particular hype or watching videos on a specific topic. However, creating these global communities of strangers actually leads to alienation or separateness from a local community. As we spend quite a significant amount of time of our life online, the fact that we are separated from our local community online is a serious issue. Where we used to be able to laugh at a video with our offline friends, now, everyone is being shown different, personalized content. In other words, the new level of globalization might lead to ‘delocalization’, a process where we begin to feel less connected to our real-life local community and more connected to online global communities.
Anderson, K.E. (2020). Getting acquainted with social networks and apps: it is time to talk about TikTok. Library Hi Tech News, 37(4), 7-12.
BBC.‘Pen Pineapple Apple Pen’ best bekeken op YouTube. (2016, December 7). NOS.
Blommaert, J. (2020, June 22). Jan Blommaert on “the online offline nexus” [Video]. YouTube.Elkins, E. (2019). Algorithmic cosmopolitanism: on the global claims of digital entertainment platforms. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 36(4), 376-389.
Hern, A. (2022, 26 July). ‘Stop trying to be TikTok’: user backlash over Instagram changes. The Guardian.
How a ‘Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen’ earworm took over the internet. (2016, September 2016).
Sunking4ever. (2007, 28 April). LITTLE LAD DANCE! BERRIES AND CREAM BOY BUSTS OUT [Video]. Youtube.
TED. (2011, May 2). Beware online “filter bubbles” | Eli Pariser [Video]. YouTube.
Ultra Records. (2016, November 2). PIKOTARO – PPAP (Pen Pineapple Apple Pen) (Long Version) [Official Video] [Video]. YouTube.