Visual Culture

What Youth Culture Looked Like in 2018

Michelle Santiago Cortés
Dec 24, 2018 1:00PM

From the hippies of the 1960s to the grunge kids of the ’90s, it’s often the youth culture that comes to define its decade. Generation Z has been called a lot of things: industrious, shy, technologically obsessed, mysterious. We’re the most anxious generation and a fast-growing sector of the workforce. We’re barely in our twenties, but we’ve already been credited with disrupting popular conceptions of gender and shopping with a conscience. But a generation so young is still figuring itself out; only time will tell who we really are.

In the 2010s, you can make millions on YouTube and lose it all to Bitcoin in a snap. Public discourse is more nuanced and complex than ever before, and technology is increasingly more embedded with our daily lives. This year ushered in the authority of CGI influencers, a J-pop band proselytizing cryptocurrencies, the global domination of Chinese app TikTok, and two redesigns of Snapchat. It was also a breakout year for campy designer Paolina Russo, model-activist Chella Man, and artist Aria Dean. Here are the 12 moments and people that defined visual culture for the youth of 2018.

America’s school-aged youth deal with 95 school shootings

New York Magazine cover featuring Parkland shooting survivor Anthony Borges, 2018. Photo by Michael Avedon. Courtesy of New York Magazine.


According to a mid-December roundup by the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, there were 95 school gun-violence incidents this year. Only a handful made national news. Among the most visible of the tragedies, the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, claimed 17 lives, while the May shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas claimed 10. Survivors from both shootings—as well as those of others, including 1999’s Columbine shooting—told their stories in October’s New York magazine and were photographed by Michael Avedon. On the cover was 15-year-old Parkland student Anthony Borges, his thin torso still recovering after being shot five times while barricading a door, ultimately saving over a dozen lives.

Just days after the shooting in Parkland, then–high school senior Emma González called out the National Rifle Association at a press conference. Along with fellow survivors David Hogg and Cameron Kasky, González went on to help organize the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C. “The Parkland kids,” as they came to be known in national headlines, have become the faces of a new generation of gun-control advocates, dubbed the #NeverAgain movement.

With her shaved head and Spanish family name, González became an easy target for pro-gun conservatives bemoaning young liberals: A Republican candidate for Maine’s State House, Leslie Gibson, went so far as to call González a “skinhead lesbian.” When a Teen Vogue shoot with photographer Tyler Mitchell presented the young activist as self-determined and righteously defiant, antagonists tried to use the images against her. They doctored Mitchell’s image of her tearing apart a target-practice poster to make it appear as if she were ripping apart the U.S. Constitution instead—igniting controversy across social media, where the highly charged fight over gun control often plays out, with images as the ammunition.

Miquela Sousa, a.k.a. Lil Miquela, redefines CGI: Computer-Generated Influencer

Miquela Sousa in Kenzo. Courtesy of Brud.

Thin, pretty, and ethnically ambiguous, Lil Miquela is the perfect influencer by design. When Miquela Sousa first emerged in 2016, it was obvious that she was CGI, but no one was sure who had created her. It didn’t seem to matter that she wasn’t a real person—she’s starred in a national ad campaign for UGG and graced the covers of Notion and Highsnobiety. But this year, Lil Miquela went from quirky art project to cultural phenomenon: In February, Prada invited her to its fall show in Milan; in October, she was named one of Dazed’s contributing editors.


But Lil Miquela is not the only one of her kind, and in April, she was victim to an absurd act of CGI-on-CGI crime. Bermuda, a Trump-supporting CGI influencer, hacked Lil Miquela and held her Instagram account hostage until she promised to “tell the world the truth.” The hack connected Lil Miquela’s origins to Brud, a Los Angeles–based studio “that creates digital character-driven story worlds.” Then the story took another turn: The reporters covering the drama had unwittingly played into its creators’ fantasies—Bermuda was also a Brud creation.

The publicity served Lil Miquela well; by the end of the month, she had reached 1 million followers on Instagram. They love her pictures of delicious tacos she doesn’t eat and clothes she wears, but doesn’t own. Like other influencers, she can sometimes look comically artificial, and supplements her social-media fame with a capricious music career. But Lil Miquela is the question mark that punctuates any discussion of online authenticity in 2018. She may not be “real” in the flesh-and-blood sense of the word, but her impact is undeniably authentic.

Snapchat’s redesign²

Snapchat’s current interface for its premium content, which was updated in May. Courtesy of Snapchat.

Snapchat’s current interface for its “Friends” page, which was updated in May. Courtesy of Snapchat.

Snapchat started 2018 strong: It was beating its own record of worldwide daily users with a peak of 191 million. Teens were leaving Facebook in droves for Snapchat and other apps. In January, the Pew Research Center estimated that 78 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States used Snapchat (as well as 54 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds). According to Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, the time had come to conquer older audiences, too.

But Snap’s February redesign (piloted in November 2017) merged incoming messages and stories into one messy page, while the “Discover” page only hosted featured and sponsored content. The redesign made using the app so tedious and frustrating that it was met with the ire of over 1 million petitioners asking for a reversal. The kiss of death came from the lip mogul herself, Kylie Jenner: “Sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore?” she asked her Twitter followers. Reporters didn’t waste time in characterizing the redesign as the overly ambitious whims of a precocious, then-27-year-old CEO.

By March, Snapchat had lost 3 million daily users, its stock prices dipped, and its quarter-by-quarter growth rate fell for the first time in the company’s near-seven-year history. Its solution? Another redesign. In May, Snapchat rolled out a redesign of the redesign—redesign², if you will. This time, the “Discover” page was divided into three sections: “Friends,” “Subscribers,” and “For you.” Despite the brief hemorrhaging of daily users, Snap’s CEO remarked that the app has started seeing positive results, “including increased new user retention for older users.”

Erika P. Rodríguez captures Puerto Rican youth in revolt

Protestors recover from tear gas after a clash with the Police of Puerto Rico at banking district, known as La Milla de Oro, in Hato Rey, San Juan, P.R., during the National Strike on May 1, 2018. For the International Workers Day protestors, including unions, teachers, students, and citizens, took the street to protest against the Fiscal Management Board austerity measures. Photo by Erika P. Rodriguez.

In 2018, Puerto Ricans struggled to rebuild after Hurricane Maria swept away any sense of security that remained in one of the world’s oldest colonies. In a year of hardship, local photographer Erika P. Rodríguez emerged as a leading documentarian of contemporary life in Puerto Rico.

Rodríguez’s images, part of her ongoing series “The Oldest Colony,” provide a multifaceted glimpse into life in a colony in the 21st century. In February, on assignment for the New York Times, she captured a budding generation of American entrepreneurs eager to build a crypto-utopia on land they saw as a slate wiped clean by the hurricane.

On May 1st, dozens of community and student groups took to the streets in protest. Cornered by oppressive debt, the island’s 3.4 million U.S. citizens can’t participate in federal elections, and the local government answers to a congressionally imposed fiscal control board—a group of seven appointed officials with absolute control over Puerto Rico’s finances. By late April, they hiked university fees and planned to close down hundreds of schools. Thousands of people responded by funneling into the heart of the financial sector, aptly named the “Golden Mile.” Rodríguez was on the ground and among her peers, capturing it all. And while local media jumped at the chance to chastise an unruly youth, Rodríguez’s pictures tell a different story.

Chella Man, IMG’s first deaf and trans model, becomes the voice of a generation

Portraits of Chella Man. Photos by Alex Cruz/IMG Models. Courtesy of IMG Models.

It’s rare to see a model with cochlear implants and top surgery scars, but such are the badges of pride of artist-activist-model Chella Man. Man signed to IMG in September, capping off a year of exponential visibility as a multi-hyphenated creative and de facto intersectional spokesperson of Gen Z. As an activist, the 20-year-old encouraged youths to vote, gave a TEDx Talk, advocated for the deaf, and authored a column on Condé Nast’s Them. Man lives in New York, where he is pursuing an undergraduate degree in virtual reality programing. In owning his myriad labels, he discovered who he is.

Man is living proof of how Gen Z uses the internet as a place that can nurture and foster personal development. On YouTube, Man posts intimate videos of his relationship and how testosterone has transformed his body. Some might dismiss it as a symptom of a digital native’s oversharing, but in Man’s case, it’s more like paying it forward. In his TEDx Talk in May, he emphasized that one of the most important things he learned growing up was how to use the right words to describe himself authentically. In his childhood home in central Pennsylvania, Man could only access that kind of knowledge through the internet, where queer folks of older generations shared their stories.

A cryptocurrency girl group performs in Japan for the first time

After China and South Korea outlawed cryptocurrency exchanges in 2017, Japan swiftly legalized them. And in early 2018, the world was introduced to the Virtual Currency Girls, a J-pop idol group on a mission to proselytize virtual currencies. In their debut single, the group reveres blockchain’s elusive creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, and sings about how surrendering to technology can be “so thrilling and exciting.”

They performed the song, “The Moonlight, Cryptocurrencies and Me,” for the first time in January to an audience of about 20. But the performance made headlines in U.S. media, with the Wall Street Journal writing that their performance seemed to promote Japan as “an idyllic cryptocurrency paradise filled with colors and fun.” The eight members of the group, who wore girly maid outfits and aggressively colorful luchador masks, each stamped with the logo a different cryptocurrency, chanted their names as they danced: “Nem! Neo! Mona! Ada! Ripple! Bitcoin! Ether!”

In 2018, a series of multi-million-dollar trading hacks shook Japan’s confidence in the security of such currencies. It might not be a coincidence that apart from adding a new member, Trigger, the Virtual Currency Girls have also spent most of the year under the radar. But their January performance left us with some zany but relevant consolation: “Calm down, baby. Tranquilo. Accidents are inevitable!”

Artist Me Love Me Alot, a.k.a. MLMA, breaks through with her army of clones

By using her body as her primary medium, Korean visual artist Me Love Me Alot has honed a hallmark style of freakishly defiant makeup looks, trademarked by a signature blue eye. Last year, she unwittingly started the undulating “wavy brow” trend, to both the delight and disgust of beauty bloggers everywhere. She has since revamped her SoundCloud rapper-persona and plugged her underground streetwear brand, Skoot. This year, she poured her creative energy into the creation of a series of collages and documented the process for her YouTube channel. But she shares her best work on Instagram.

Scrolling through MLMA’s feed, you feel yourself spiraling down her dark corner of the internet. Her anxiety-ridden work takes Haruki Murakami–esque twists in which the line between fantasy and reality blurs. A mirror selfie shows MLMA without eyes, taking a selfie in an elevator with a friend, the artist’s clone. At second glance, you then realize that the reflection in the mirror is a third clone staring back at you.

It’s because of works like this that MLMA’s Instagram following alone grew eightfold in 2018. Her images riff on social media clichés and poke fun at the indulgences of the influencer class. She is irreverent in her use of social media because she refuses to take it seriously. Perhaps it’s because, to MLMA, virality comes naturally.

China’s TikTok takes over the world

On the morning of August 2nd, American users found that the red soundwave logo on their phone screens had been replaced by a stereographic music note. Overnight, they had been migrated to the app TikTok, following Beijing-based parent company ByteDance’s purchase of late last year for a reported $800 million.

Known in China as Douyin, TikTok is structured like, where users can share 15-second videos of themselves lip-syncing to popular songs. But to browse through TikTok’s “Discover” page is to dangerously lean over a rabbit hole of internet subcultures. From J-pop to K-pop and from black youth culture to gaming culture, TikTok follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, Vine, as a chain of pop-cultural references. TikTok-native viral trends like the “Karma’s a Bitch” challenge have already become part of the internet’s cultural canon. From the looks of it,’s Gen-Z user base gracefully accepted the transition, but the advent of TikTok, a Chinese import, has prompted millennials to write bemused thinkpieces and commentary on its overnight success.

Back in June, ByteDance reported to have over 300 million active monthly users in China—while that’s just 1 in 10 people there, it’s nearly equal to the United States’s entire population. It’s often said that the future is in the hands of the young, but with TikTok toppling all of Facebook’s apps in the iOS app store, it looks like the future of internet culture is more specifically in the hands of China’s youth.

Designer Paolina Russo becomes the future of camp in fashion

Paolina Russo makes clothes for the sartorially deranged. Her work revels in nostalgia and childhood imagination, a place where there’s no such thing as “too much” and concepts are meant to be turned on their heads. The 23-year-old won the L’Oreal Professionnel’s Young Talent Award for her fantastically tacky graduate collection for Central Saint Martins in London. (Stella McCartney, John Galliano, and Alexander McQueen are but a few of the school’s noteworthy graduates.)

In an age where athleisure is the name of the game, Russo’s approach to lycra and shin pads turns “sportswear” into camp. Her collection “I Forgot Home” is a tribute to her Canadian hometown of suburban Toronto, and shows a level of whimsy and excess inspired by the sports culture of her childhood: Her models walked down the catwalk with rollerblade hats and soccer ball helmets; they wore kaleidoscopes of sneaker parts that fanned out from the hips and shoulders as Nike swooshes and Adidas stripes embellished their torsos. It’s easy to picture one of her creations in the upcoming 2019 Met Gala, whose corresponding exhibition will be “Camp: Notes on Fashion.”

Photographer Sarah Bahbah opens up about child abuse

Sarah Bahbah, I Could Not Protect Her, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Australian-born Palestinian photographer Sarah Bahbah established her practice three years ago, and her signature subtitled images reached a point of ubiquity early in 2018, when she was tapped to shoot for Gucci and Condé Nast. In April, she announced on Instagram that she’d be sharing a new series, “I Could Not Protect Her.”

The series follows a big-eyed brunette who is cradled by a lover, as her inner monologue, subtitled at the bottom of each picture, keeps her from being present in the moment. They have dinner, the protagonist drinking away her problems. She eats a clementine in a bathtub, dreaming of escape. She smokes a cigarette in the street, angry. Bahbah released the final scene of “I Could Not Protect Her” on June 1st, the day she told Teen Vogue that the series was about surviving sexual abuse as a child.

Teen Vogue readers learned about the panic attacks Bahbah had when she was four, the body dysmorphia she had in middle school, and the hard drugs she took in her twenties to deal with it all. She discussed how little girls are held accountable for the actions of grown men, and how it’s made worse by the adults who don’t believe them. “My sole intent in my work and my being is to practice transparency of my emotions,” Bahbah said, “and to express, express, express, as for so long I didn’t have a voice.”

Young voters disprove apathy myth and turn out to vote—was it Taylor Swift’s doing?

In November’s midterm elections in the U.S., an unprecedented 31 percent of voters under 30 turned out to cast their ballots. Young voters face a challenging future—more brazen white supremacy movements; the worsening effects of climate change and income inequality—all of it motivation enough to hit the voting booth. But a month before the election, made headlines by claiming that it was pop star Taylor Swift who was partly responsible for record-breaking registration numbers.

On October 7th, Swift took to Instagram and encouraged her 112 million followers to register to vote, endorsing two Democrats running for office in Tennessee. It was a stark contrast to her actions in 2016, when she didn’t publicly acknowledge the election until Election Day; her silence led to the alt-right proclaiming her an “Aryan goddess” that May.

While crediting a previously apolitical pop-star for results that generations of activists have worked for is a dangerous line to walk, there is something to be said about the power given to a single Instagram post. It’s hard to picture young voters waiting by their phones, with bated breaths, for Swift to give them the thumbs-up to vote. But according to, that’s not too far from what actually happened. “The bottom line,” a spokeswoman told the New York Times, “is that she did significantly impact registrations.” Over 166,000 people registered to vote during the subsequent 36 hours, 42 percent of which were under 25. And although it’s normal to see similar surges as registration deadlines approach, pointed to the surge of 6,200 registrations in Tennessee in those three days (which equaled the number of registrations from May to September) as proof of how far a celebrity endorsement can go.

Artist Aria Dean exhibits art about blackness on the internet

Installation view of Aria Dean, But as One Doesn’t Know Where My Centre Is, One Will With Difficulty Ascertain The Truth . . . Though This Task Has Made Me Ill, It Will Also Make Me Healthy Again (Crowd Index) at Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 2018. Photograph by Tom Loonan. Courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

Aria Dean, an artist and curator of net art and digital culture at New York’s Rhizome, has penned essays that analyze selfie culture and how blackness manifests itself online. The 25-year-old’s artistic practice combines her curatorial concern for documentation with her academic interest in critical engagement. In October, the success of her first solo museum presentation at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery established the writer-curator as a formidable artist grappling with the issues of our times. In a year, she had moved from writing about art to elevating her own art practice.

This year, Dean was also an artist-in-residence at Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum, curated an upcoming exhibit at New York’s New Museum, and exhibited in a group show at London’s Serpentine Galleries. The philosophical and ontological nature of much of her work is leavened by the recognizability of the images she examines: Anyone who’s spent enough time online will immediately recognize the viral videos and memes she compiles in her works.

Dean’s art questions how we consume and reproduce black bodies in the digital age. Although rarely acknowledged, blackness is part of the fabric of internet culture. It’s in the dances on Fortnite; it’s in every meme captioned “dis,” “dat,” “issa,” and “Bye Felicia.” Blackness is the mother of the acrylic nails, human hair wigs, and overlined lips behind every social media “baddie.” As a demographic that is consistently undervalued, America’s black youth are the unsung authors of a great deal of its culture.

Michelle Santiago Cortés

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Sarah Bahbah was Palestinian-born. She was born in Australia. Additionally, she has not shot a campaign for Dior.