It’s fair to say 2023 has been a busy year in the social media world. So much has happened that Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter in late 2022 feels like ancient history.

So we thought it was a good time to round up some of the biggest social media moments of the last 12 months, from the neverending viral hype train surrounding the Barbie movie to those horrendous big red boots all the influencers wore for approximately two weeks back in February.

Let’s get into it!

1. Elon Musk Rebrands Twitter

After ambiguously tweeting — or “posting,” we guess — a solitary letter “X” in April, Musk followed up a couple of months later by revealing that Twitter had been renamed after the 24th letter in the alphabet.

More than just a name change, the move is part of Musk’s long-standing plan to create an “everything app” similar to China’s WeChat, which has no equivalent in the US.

The letter X has long been an obsession for the businessman. It was the name of his short-lived online bank, which eventually became PayPal after merging with a competitor. It was the name of Tesla’s third car model, launched in 2015. It’s even the first letter of his son X AE A-XII’s name.

Explaining the decision, Musk wrote: “The Twitter name made sense when it was just 140-character messages going back and forth – like birds tweeting – but now you can post almost anything, including several hours of video.

“In the months to come, we will add comprehensive communications and the ability to conduct your entire financial world. The Twitter name does not make sense in that context, so we must bid adieu to the bird.”

At this stage, it remains to be seen if X will ever become the “everything app” of Musk’s imagination.

2. Brands Ride the Barbie Bandwagon

Plenty of blockbusters have been backed by huge marketing campaigns. But few have captured the zeitgeist quite like Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. For weeks before its July release, the movie seemed to be all anyone was talking about.

As we can see from Google Trends, search interest in the movie started growing weeks before it arrived in cinemas, and it’s still not entirely died down months later:

Given all the attention it generated (and continues to generate), it was inevitable that brands would leap at the chance to join the conversation.

There are far too many viral Barbie-related campaigns to list here, but some of the most eye-catching included Airbnb promoting this Barbie Malibu DreamHouse (hosted by none other than Ken):


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A post shared by Airbnb (@airbnb)

And Bumble teaming up with Warner Bros to launch a tool for sharing Barbie or Ken-related compliments with other users on the dating app.

3. Cockroach Slays at Met Gala

Many major social media moments are entirely predictable. Everyone knew the world was going to go wild for Barbie and that Elon Musk buying Twitter would lead to a near-endless stream of online discourse.

But some are a little more unexpected. The starring role played by a cockroach at this year’s Met Gala falls into the latter camp:

The six-legged insect somehow upstaged the likes of Rihanna, Nicole Kidman, and Anne Hathaway at fashion’s biggest night.

Sadly, it also proved to be one of the shortest-lived social media moments of 2023:

RIP, Met Gala cockroach.

4. TikTokers Get Creative With Grimace Milkshake

This summer, McDonald’s decided to celebrate the 52nd birthday of Grimace — one of the few mascots the fast food giant hasn’t consigned to the dustbin of history — by launching a special meal, including a limited edition (and violently purple) milkshake.

So far, so what? Mickey D’s always introduces new meals, drinks, and snacks, which are hardly the ingredients for a social media sensation.

However, TikTokers thought otherwise, with creators battling it out to share the most outlandish and horrifying videos depicting what happens after you drink the cursed purple shake.

This is probably our favorite.

@haleyybaylee Idk why you wanted me to try this… but here we go. Trying the Grimace Shake from McDonalds… HAPPY BIRTHDAY GRIMACE 💕🫶🏻🎈🎂 @Max Goodrich #grimaceshake #happybirthdaygrimace #grimace ♬ original sound – haleyybaylee

But there’s no shortage of competition, with the hashtag #grimaceshake eventually generating close to 3.9 billion views.

The lesson here for brands is that if you create a weird enough product, people will probably post about it.

5. Celebs Step Out in Big Red Boots

From one horrifying product launch to another, way back in February social media went insane for a pair of giant red rubber boots:

@nicekicks MSCHF’s newest shoe is straight out of a cartoon! 🤯🔴 #mschf #sneakers #mschfsneakers ♬ original sound –

The real-life cartoon boots were the brainchild of Brooklyn-based art collective MSCHF, which explained: “Big Red Boots are REALLY not shaped like feet, but they are EXTREMELY shaped like boots. If you kick someone in these boots they go BOING!”

Well, quite.

Despite looking hideous, the boots took the fashion and pop culture worlds by storm, with Lil Wayne, Diplo, and Iggy Azalea — plus endless TikTok and Instagram influencers — stomping around in them.

Demand was so high that the “BRBs” were sold for almost $1,400 on reseller platforms, although you’ll be relieved to hear a pair can now be purchased for a far more reasonable $350.

6. “Kevin James Smirking” Belatedly Becomes a Meme

Some memes are highly time-specific, capitalizing on the fleeting popularity of a movie, song, TV show, or some other event to jam our timelines and FYP.

Meanwhile, others come straight out of left field with no context and stick around for weeks or months.

The “Kevin James smirking” meme is a classic example of the latter. For no particular reason, people started sharing a 25-year-old publicity shot from the sitcom The King of Queens, accompanied by captions that sort of relate to the image.

As far as we can tell, this is the post that started it all:

It’s hard to say what makes this a “good meme,” let alone a viral smash. I guess people quite like Kevin James? Although in kind of an ironic way? And the combination of the little smirk/grin and double-hands-in-pockets stance is quite endearing?

As with so many social media moments, the meme eventually came full circle when the actual Kevin James used it to promote his standup tour:

7. “Angela Bassett Did the Thing”

As award shows go, the BAFTAs tend to be pretty reserved.

But the 2023 edition had a rare viral moment in the form of actor Arianna DeBose’s self-penned musical tribute to some of the world’s most talented women.

Her rap name-checked the likes of Viola Davis, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Cate Blanchett, but her mention of Angela Bassett sparked all the attention. Not because of what she said, exactly — it was more about how she said it.

If you don’t know what we’re talking about, you’ll just have to watch:

While the BAFTAs audience appeared to love DeBose’s performance, reactions online were a bit more mixed.

For the most part, people just seemed confused, but everyone agreed it was memorable.

In response, the celebrity world rallied around DeBose, with Angela Bassett checking in with her via DM and Jamie Lee Curtis describing the performance as “joyous, celebratory, sisterly, hot, [and] spicy.”

8. Meta Launches Familiar-Looking AI Chatbots

A late addition to the list of 2023’s biggest social media moments came in October when Meta announced the rollout of its new AI chatbots.

That hardly felt like huge news in a world of ChatGPT and its myriad competitors. But it’s fair to say Meta’s bots looked a little familiar:

Image source

That’s right: these chatbots are based on celebrities like Snoop Dogg, Kendall Jenner, and Charli D’Amelio.

Each bot has a unique personality. For instance, Snoop Dogg — or “Dungeon Master,” as we should have called him — does a whole choose-your-own-adventure thing, while Tom Brady is described as a “wisecracking sports debater who pulls no punches.” Most compellingly, Paris Hilton lends her likeness to Amber, a detective who helps you solve mysteries.

You can speak to all of them through Messenger, where your text-based conversation will be accompanied by real-time video showing the character’s reactions.

Each also has their own Instagram and Facebook profiles. At the time of writing, Billie — AKA Kendall Jenner — has amassed about 250,000 followers across both platforms.

9. Men Think About the Roman Empire (a Lot)

You might have thought there was no room for the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” discourse in 2023. But you’d be wrong because a viral TikTok trend discovered that guys are seemingly united in their obsession for Ancient Rome.

This social media moment is easy to explain but harder to understand. Women ask the men in their lives — partners, dads, brothers — how often they think about the Roman Empire.

Turns out the answer is: “A lot.”

@ambarrail This trend is incredible. Some of the best ones #romanempire #romanempirecompilation ♬ original sound – Alexia B.

According to KnowYourMeme, this trend first surfaced in 2022. However, it wasn’t until this year that it was picked up by TikTokers and burst into the mainstream.

10. Tube Girl Dances Into the Limelight

There’s no doubt that Tube Girl — or Sabrina Bahsoon, to use her real name — has been one of the social media sensations of 2023.

Like so many big social media trends, it’s beautiful in its simplicity. Basically, Sabrina records herself dancing on the London Underground subway, which is informally known as the Tube — hence the name “Tube Girl.”

Sabrina’s unself-conscious routines made her an overnight sensation on TikTok, where she’s notched up almost 800,000 followers and more than 27 million likes at the time of writing. The hashtag #tubegirl is edging ever closer to two billion views.

@sabrinabahsoon So now im en route via tube. The man in the back getting a show fr 🤣 #tubegirl #tubegirleffect ♬ Prada – cassö & RAYE & D-Block Europe

Inevitably, brands have quickly got in on the act.

Perhaps the most memorable campaign saw Hugo Boss promote its 2023 Milan Fashion Week show through a collaboration between Tube Girl and social media star Dixie D’Amelio:

@boss It turns out that the Tube stops in Milan. Welcome to the #BOSSMilanShow 🔋 #DixieDamelio #tubegirl ♬ greedy – Tate McRae

Want to create your own viral social media moments? Find out how at one of our upcoming Social Media Strategies Summits.

Featured image by Freepik.


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