In August, a TikTok video of a 7-year-old named Tariq whisked me back to 2013 when being online was actually fun.
Through a toothy jack-o’-lantern grin, he waxed poetic about the delights of corn with such unadulterated joy and sincerity that virality seemed almost inevitable. The video spread widely and soon Tariq became known as “Corn Kid” across the internet and beyond. He was featured on Good Morning America, rode in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, was named an official “Corn-bassador” of South Dakota, and gained further notoriety when YouTube creator Schmoyoho crafted a musical remix of his adorable enthusiasm that has since been used in more than 1.4 million TikToks.
For a moment, the internet felt warm and sweet. “Corn Kid” was a TikTok hit, the viral wunderkind of a platform that continued to feel thrillingly fresh and unpredictable this year, the way Vine did when it launched nearly a decade ago, and YouTube did until an influx of showy creators, political vitriol, and conspiracies ruined the fun for everyone.
Back then, the magic of the internet revealed itself every day. It was electric with possibility, and logging on was accompanied by the thrilling anticipation of discovery. New types of humor, new forms of self-expression through GIFs, videos, and photo sharing, and new ways to communicate through social media and instant messaging were taking shape online. The idea of an internet “trend” was brand new; we could now see something online — like “Gangnam Style” or the Harlem Shake — and replicate it ourselves. In 2013, what was big on the internet was big for everyone on the internet.
Back then, the magic of the internet revealed itself in new ways every day. It was electric with possibility, and logging on was accompanied by the thrilling anticipation of discovery.
That year’s YouTube Rewind, an annual video recap of the year’s most viral clips and trends, shows how united we were then by a shared cultural dialogue. The video was themed around Ylvis’s “What Does the Fox Say?” a viral hit played on heavy rotation, performed at awards shows, and parroted ubiquitously in daily life. The Rewind montage also referenced Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” music videos, a reminder that there was a time when releases were major monolithic events (and the general awareness of rape culture was low.)
By 2018, YouTube received so much backlash for its inability to capture the increasingly fractured expanse of the internet that it gave up on producing Rewind videos completely.
Today, Corn Kid’s glee over the buttery goodness of an ear of corn feels so precious because the internet now feels so sour and divisive. Politics embitters so much of our online experience, and the rest of it is suffocated by negativity or bullying. Meanwhile, cultural content has become so derivative, closer to regurgitation than reinvention. Marvel’s big-budget blowouts own the box office, and Broadway is flooded with jukebox musicals and movie adaptations. Skins walked so that the drug-popping, sex-charged teens of Euphoria could run, and HBO Max’s Gossip Girl reboot has yet to re-awaken the fervor for the original. Even the digital trends are repetitive.
On the charts, the explosive growth of hip-hop and Latin music, and the rise of K-pop — which has ballooned as a global economic and cultural force since Psy’s 2012 hit “Gangnam Style” — are all exciting developments. But much of the industry is still thriving on nostalgia where everything old gets reborn on the internet. The 1975, whose popularity surged alongside Skins GIF sets on Tumblr in 2013, are making horny tongues wag on TikTok again. Harry Styles is at the height of his power, 10 years after One Direction were at the height of theirs. Taylor Swift has managed to remain pervasive, a decade after Red became her first no. 1 album in the U.S. An emo-infused pop-rock resurgence led by newcomers like Olivia Rodrigo and the return of Paramore and My Chemical Romance has even woven its way back into the fabric of pop culture, 10 years after its dominance on our airwaves.
There is no longer a “mainstream” culture we all participate in.
In February, NBC shared that viewership for its 2022 Olympics coverage was 43 percent lower than that of the last Olympics. Some blamed it on COVID restrictions or on the time difference between China and the U.S., but the ratings also spoke to a loss of community, of singular cultural events that used to unite us.
There is no longer a “mainstream” culture we all participate in. The internet is algorithmic, thriving on niche interests and breaking down into smaller and smaller corners until we are all staring into our own highly customized feed. Being online feels less like a collective experience and more like a choose-your-own-adventure. That’s what makes Corn Kid so special.
Corn Kid is nothing new himself. In fact, I’m probably endeared to his delightful little rant because I grew up on internet culture that valued the simple, weird, and irreverent. But that stuff can also be the purest form of entertainment, marrying the fun of 2013 with hyper-specific, algorithm-driven modernity.
If YouTube cut a Rewind for 2023, Tariq would undoubtedly be its star, thanks to the popularity of Schmoyoho’s remix, even though credit for his fame as the “Corn Kid” is owed to TikTok. But what else brought us together this year? The World Cup, sure. Mutual disdain for Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover and the dying whimpers of cryptocurrency, fine. But beyond that, the internet has become so negative, or untrustworthy, or blasé, or simply too big for us to feel united by anything at all.
Except on TikTok, which has somehow combined the extremely niche with the widely relatable, and where a toothless little boy holding an ear of corn larger than his own face will tell you in earnest, “I hope you have a corntastic day!”