Five major trends from We Are Social’s Think Forward 2022, backed by an extensive global survey  by Lore Oxford, head of cultural insights.

After a summer of headlines about multimillion dollar NFT purchases, followed by Facebook and Microsoft respectively announcing Meta and Mesh in the autumn, when it comes to 2022 forecasts, no one will feel too brave making some kind of prediction about the metaverse.

It’s partly why We Are Social’s annual trend report, Think Forward 2022, discusses Brave New Worlds.

The name in itself might give you the idea that it’s all about the metaverse. It’s not. In fact one of the most surprising things we uncovered when we conducted a global survey of 3,000 people for the report was that 87% of people who use social media every day don’t know what the metaverse is.

That said, people don’t always need to understand something to use it: 49% of social media users are not sure what bandwidth is, while 30% still don’t understand the cloud.

The ‘Worlds’ our title refers to not only address the next frontier for literal social platforms, but the wider ideological and cultural shifts that are making these digital worlds possible.

These include how social media is transforming ways of learning and the topics of study we choose to pursue; the growing artform of curating emotional triggers; and why broadcasters need to forget the idea of our smartphones as ‘second screens’.

Read on for a round-up or, for more detail, download a free copy of the full Think Forward 2022: Brave New Worlds report. Of course, digital trends are our year-round business, so follow We Are Social’s global digital culture tracker The Feed to keep up with the latest cultural moments and more.

Trend 1: In-feed Syllabuses

We’ve long turned to the internet to teach ourselves everything from DIY to the ins and outs of cryptocurrency investment, but it’s no longer just Reddit and YouTube where we get an education online – social media is making inroads.

These platforms aren’t necessarily where learning journeys end, but can be a place where they are inspired, from signing up for a language course after learning some Japanese on TikTok, to embarking on a self-directed politics education after the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag swept across Twitter.

Our survey shows social media users globally are more likely to say they’ve learnt practical life skills from social media (57%) than from university (51%), and 74% of Gen Zers say they’re learning these skills from social. So expect new learning features to become embedded into digital spaces, and digital platforms to improve the accessibility of education for all. Brands have plenty of chances to get involved too, asserting their values and even tackling misinformation by educating people on important issues and harnessing the power of credible teachers.

Trend 2: The vibe economy

The rise of social video combined with a heightened desire for connection post-pandemic is seeing a new form of creativity move into the fore, defined by an ability to evoke specific emotional responses.

The art of Instagram has always been about visual moods, but with the rise of TikTok and 30% of 18- to 34-year-olds saying they use social with sound on more now than before Covid-19, there’s a surge of interest in how the audio aspects of brand marketing impact audiences.

Relatedly, the cart of curating truly evocative ‘vibes’ through content has become a coveted creative skill. It doesn’t have to be super slick, as resourceful individual creators show. But the opportunity for brands to curate moods and feelings of their own is already there – how satisfying is this Defected Records’ snippet of sunkissed  perfection, for example? And as we move into the metaverse, multisensory inputs will only grow more central to our experiences of digital spaces.

Trend 3: Prime-time platforms

Social media is getting a promotion from second screen to first, as more social-first formats emerge and the impact it has on traditional media increases. Social commentary has long been important in creating hit shows but the commentators – and the platforms they’re on – have more influence than ever. Would Squid Games have become Netflix’s biggest show without the memes surrounding it?

This is a more democratic form of entertainment, where what people watch and who gets to commentate on it are elected by likes and follows. So expect more creators to be invited into traditional media moments, and as well as an increase in content made by mainstream producers for social platforms – like Netflix France’s IGTV mini series Lama’scarade.

Brands should collaborate with commentators for clout, either to gain fame or, as in the case of Love Island, to maintain it. And they can show up in social-first entertainment spaces, like KFC Spain has done with Colonel Sanders on platforms like Twitch.

Trend 4: Social cynicism

Social platforms increasingly serve users a stream of polished, pastel-coloured, commercially friendly – and largely indistinguishable – content. Accordingly, our research found that 35% of social media users globally believe that the algorithms powering our feeds are having a negative impact on their media diets – a number that rises to 43% among Gen Z.

Conforming to the demands of algorithms in the past might have helped a lot of accounts build substantial audiences, but now users are craving something different. Step forward the creators who have mastered the art of poking fun at cliches, tropes and overdone memes. The king of these is Khaby Lame. His TikToks making fun of the internet’s more convoluted life hacks have racked up hundreds of millions of views and made his account the second most followed on the site.

Brands can tap into this trend by creating their own trope-busting content. And it’s not something that’s just for edgy brands with meme-literate audiences. In fact it can be employed effectively by very ‘everyday’ brands – as Heinz demonstrates with its #NormaliseHeinzwitheverything message to the sriracha generation.

Trend 5: New materialists

From NFTs to designer Fortnite skins, a growing number of people are seeing the value of digital goods and putting hard cash behind them. Our survey found that in late 2021, a third of all Gen Z social media users had bought digital clothes of some sort, while 11% had purchased an NFT, and a third would consider buying digital art.

The driver of this behaviour is often similar to many non-essential real world purchases – to earn owners clout in their chosen communities.

This shift will only grow as more of us start to adopt avatars and spaces in metaverses and want them to represent our individual tastes and values. As is clear from the numerous fashion houses which have already sold plenty of virtual products, we’re taking our real-world brand preferences with us – presenting huge opportunities for brands.

This shift is laying the groundwork for more accessible ways to collaborate with emerging talent in various creative industries, with some – like ASICs – even creating innovative fundraising campaigns to support charitable causes.

All these predictions about the directions social content is headed highlight some exciting trends for the creative minds in our industry. We’re on the brink of a renaissance in creativity on social, in which brands and creators alike are going to have to work harder and better to make us laugh, move us, and connect us.