We long to see ourselves in media. Is it different than it ever was? I think so.
Welcome to People vs Algorithms 27.
I look for patterns in media, business and culture. My POV is informed by 30 years of leadership in media and advertising businesses, most recently as global President of Hearst Magazines, one of the largest publishers in the world.
This is about you.
One way or another, media always is. If it wasn’t you wouldn’t consume so much.
Social media made it even more about you because with social media you get to be the star.
An endless stream of things competes for your attention. Gen Z spends almost half of waking hours in front of a screen, much of that time engaged in some type of media experience. Inside this vortex we undertake continuous subconscious mental calculations of whether a thing is worth our time. Is this going to make me better, happier, smarter, richer… more famous.
Perhaps you are motivated by a professional or civic obligation, especially if the effort promises to make things better for you.
Take this newsletter. Why are you reading it? Professional curiosity? New ideas? Maybe it gives you something to talk about at your next meeting or social engagement. Perhaps we have a personal connection.
Let’s face it, some of you don’t even like to read that much, particularly things that are dense and conceptual or not well aligned with direct professional interests. That’s fine. It's why I include a picture each week. Sometimes I include a song. This week’s is good. Scroll to the bottom.
I write this for you but mostly I write it for me. It increases my awareness, it forces me to think through things. Truthfully, I hope it makes you think about me more often.
I’ve never done this before and I thought it would be a good thing to try. My goal was to get to 52 weeks. This is number 27. Cranking an idea out each week is a commitment. But this is not your concern.
After 27 inevitably you run low on your intellectual tricks. Things get a little reflective and bloggy. I will probably get a bunch of people going “What the fuck is he doing, where is the unsubscribe button. This is supposed to be about media stuff. Why is he not telling me important media stuff.”
I find the best performing posts in my little corner of the newsletter world involve appealing to an audience’s personal frustration with the state of things (Lean Media) or practical ideas about the future (How to Launch a Brand Now). Mostly my narcissistic theory holds. Anything that is too conceptual or does not create discernable value for a discrete segment of my audience performs less well. The personal has to be highly relatable.
But before you unsubscribe, remember, this is about you. All good media is. This is the age of media narcissism. Is it different than it ever was? I think so.
A better you. A better me.
Total media saturation and selection democratization made the media more about you because if it’s not you can easily choose something else about you.
Obviously you consume media about other people but usually because it tells you stories that you can relate to you. Either to make you feel better about being you or to make you want to be a better you.
Sports are good for this especially when you are winning because a winning team says good things about you and your tribe. My team didn’t win this year.
The best “lifestyle” content promises a better you. You, a better cook. You, more beautiful, more stylish. A better lover, husband or parent. (Btw, I stumbled onto this impressive treatise on "lifestyle.” Take a look if you want to be smarter about lifestyle.)
Influencers have emerged as powerful nodes in the media ecosystem. Is there anything more narcissistic than the influencer? I asked “The Professor” why we care about people that are famous for being famous. He said it was an evolutionary phenomenon, that when we feel intimidated in a new environment, we imitate people that are successful in that environment. Influencers are successful narcissists, good at online stuff. He said it was a deeply ingrained survival characteristic and the mechanism by which culture is propagated. The Professor makes me smarter.
That said, “creators” seems to be update to “Influencers” with the added benefit that they make things other than influence. Underneath all the jargon, I do think people long for a connection to real, relatable people, not institutions. The internet makes this much easier. This seems to be as true in media as it is in politics.
Some smart newsletter writers like media critic Rusty Foster of “Today in Tabs” write brilliantly with a sly insider's tongue that appeals to a left leaning media-literate audience who cherish the narcissistic feeling of being smart and funny like Rusty. This kind of media is very fun to read especially when he goes after Vanity Fair for publishing the longest essay ever on the “New Right”, something I suggest you read just so you are ready when that stuff comes at you next year:
In Vanity Fair, James Pogue wrote an irresponsibly gauzy and sympathetic portrait of what he calls “the New Right,” a clown car full of Nazis that includes Curtis Yarvin, a blogger and failed technologist coming up on his second decade pushing for fascist dictatorship, Peter Thiel, a billionaire supervillain who hates himself so much that he destroyed Gawker for telling everyone he was gay, Thiel protegés like Yale educated venture capitalist and Snuffy Smith cosplayer J.D. Vance, the same gang of MAGA white supremacists that 2017’s gauzy and sympathetic portraitists called “the Alt-Right,” and a scattering of relative newcomers like Red Scare podcast hosts Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan, who have recently discovered their socialism is more of a National Socialism.
The art here is to be simultaneously serious, dismissive and lightly sarcastic. This style of media shows how the Gawker ethos lives on and is probably its lasting legacy. One can see the roots of it in other beloved, less intellectual media brands like the New York Post. It’s certainly fun to read but very prone to groupthink.
Of course everything comes back to Elon and Rusty could not resist a drive by:
And Elon Musk’s pretend-infrastructure and flamethrower hobby project The Boring Company announced a series C funding round of $675 million at a $5.675 billion valuation. Seems like a lot of money just to make Tesla traffic jams underground but I’m obviously no business genius.
A bias to confirm.
Perhaps our narcissistic ways are a reflection of the broader rise of identity politics. A friend characterized the state of American politics as “narcissism unbundled,” where political ascension no longer requires long term commitment, grinding through thankless committee assignments. Instead, one can appeal to their base on the strength of personality. You used to need the charismatic thing and the competence thing.
The theme runs through much of the present geopolitical complexity. It’s too far a field to dig into this, but the excellent new Ezra Klein podcast with Ivan Krastev, “Putin May Not Like How He is Changing Europe” is worth a listen, outlining how at a time of deep uncertainty, identity becomes a home base that trumps other interests, policy or economic. And when voters feel dissatisfaction and a loss of agency, conspiratorial thinking creeps in:
So this is where the problem with dissatisfaction goes, because dissatisfaction assumes a meaningful change, a change that you can achieve. If you don’t believe that you can achieve this change, your goal is this kind of hysterical reactions in one direction or the other, where everything is about expressing how you feel. And this is what I find kind of dramatically changing, and also this is slightly generational.
When this happens, we no longer seek out the truth, we look to confirm our biases. Should you need proof, remember, a stunning 35% of Americans and 68% of Republicans still think the election was stolen. For many, a righteous tribal connection, a kind of participatory real life fiction, is a richer source of narcissistic purpose than a “responsible” media-brokered assessment of reality.
This week Obama, an articulate and sophisticated narcissist, made a speech at Stanford about disinformation. He too is worried about social media’s grip on our reptilian brains, and how the mechanics of a mobile social world create a unhealthy petri dish for narcissistic media:
Today, of course, we occupy entirely different media realities, fed directly into our phones. You don’t even have to look up. And it’s made all of us more prone to what psychologists call confirmation bias, the tendency to select facts and opinions that reinforce our preexisting worldviews and filter out those that don’t.
So inside our personal information bubbles, our assumptions, our blind spots, our prejudices aren’t challenged, they’re reinforced. And naturally we’re more likely to react negatively to those consuming different facts and opinions. All of which deepens existing racial and religious and cultural divides.
No one tells us that the window is blurred, subject to unseen distortions and subtle manipulations. All we see is a constant feed of content where useful factual information and happy diversions, and cat videos, flow alongside lies, conspiracy theories, junk science, quackery, White supremacist, racist tracts, misogynist screeds. And over time, we lose our capacity to distinguish between fact, opinion and wholesale fiction. Or maybe we just stop caring.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the New York University Stern School of Business, comments on the same thing this week in The Atlantic. In “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid” he reminds us how far we have drifted from comments in Zuckerberg 2012 investor letter, released just before Facebook went public, where he proclaimed “People sharing more… creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others.”
Shortly after its “Like” button began to produce data about what best “engaged” its users, Facebook developed algorithms to bring each user the content most likely to generate a “like” or some other interaction, eventually including the “share” as well. Later research showed that posts that trigger emotions––especially anger at out-groups––are the most likely to be shared.
Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous. Is our democracy any healthier now that we’ve had Twitter brawls over Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tax the rich dress at the annual Met Gala, and Melania Trump’s dress at a 9/11 memorial event, which had stitching that kind of looked like a skyscraper? How about Senator Ted Cruz’s tweet criticizing Big Bird for tweeting about getting his COVID vaccine?
All together we have this perfect storm of media saturation, a fragmented identity-driven culture and the frictionless mechanics of social media. Now to Tweelon.
Twitter, Elon and you.
The most narcissistic of media environments, Twitter was just purchased by a highly accomplished narcissist influencer. A bit of online research confirmed this thesis. According to Psychology Today:
In our own work, we found that people who had high levels of narcissism traits to begin with tended to use Twitter (and other textual-based platforms) more-and-more over time. However, those who used Facebook (and other visually-based platforms) tended to become more narcissistic over time. This differential association between social media platforms and narcissism is highly similar to that noted in another piece of research that demonstrated that Facebook and Twitter differed in the facets of narcissism that drove their usage: those high in "superiority" feelings prefer Twitter, whereas those high in "exhibitionism" prefe Facebook.
I asked my friend Brian Morrissey about the tendency and he confirmed it: “Twitter is 99% about the Tweeter… I mean they had to put in a button prompting people to first read the article they were about to comment on.” Narcissists don’t have time for the details. They have work to do telling you about themselves.
Guardian columnist Sonia Sohda made a related point in an opinion piece last year following whistleblower Frances Haugen’s Facebook revelations, pointing out the good and bad of our social media primed narcissistic culture:
A dash of grandiose narcissism in our public sphere is not a bad thing. Saintliness is a rare character trait: most good in the world is achieved as a result of mixed motivations, people who want to do good things because of how it makes them feel and what it does for their status, as well as what it does for others. But social media has elevated narcissism far beyond what is healthy.
Social media is the narcissist’s playground. Through likes and shares, it re-engineers their social feedback loop towards the superficiality they thrive on, fuelling a sense of superiority and rewarding manipulative tendencies. Perhaps it is little wonder that narcissists are more likely to become addicted to social media. Interestingly, studies suggest that narcissists on the right show greater tendencies towards entitlement and those on the left towards exhibitionism, craving validation. Narcissists are also, perhaps unsurprisingly, more likely to engage in online bullying; for those purporting to be in it for moral causes the ends justify the means. And there is evidence that a platform such as Facebook itself increases narcissistic tendencies in people.
Which is why the Twitter acquisition will be the business story of the year. Reactions amount to the most frothy expression of collective narcissism from both the left and right. I think we are overreacting. My context…
An aspergery guy changes the global vector of transportation technology and makes bags of money. Part of his success involves moving immovable objects which he does by raw determination, sleeping on the shop floor and owning a communication channel to 80M people. That channel, like it or not, only grows by interspersing serious things with seriously goofy things, because the medium is the message and narcissists like you and me tune in more actively when people say stupid and extreme things.
So, good on him. He hacked the system and changed the world and was rewarded. Now he wants to spend some dough so he buys an underperforming asset that he believes he can improve. This is not a public asset. It is a private corporation. If you think Twitter sucks now imagine if it was run by the government. You would have to tweet by filling out form T1023c.
People on the right rejoice because they think they have taken back the Town Square. People on the left see it as the end of times because a rich guy is going to open up the platform to lunatics and bullies, spreading lies and advancing the interests of a small group of people. They are convinced his views on moderation and the complexity of running an open platform are wildly naive.
I think both of these concerns are overwrought. There are plenty of social networks, with larger and more powerful network effects than Twitter. This is not the town Square. It is a place where a small number of people share their thoughts, mostly about themselves. The technology itself is a commodity, the network is not. Social environments are a balancing act — if the system gets out of equilibrium pressure will build and the network will fade. There will be intense pressure on the new team to keep the system in balance - needs of users, advertisers, policy makers and employees.
Musk’s track record of managing extremely complex systems is pretty much unmatched. He has a history of making off-handed comments, the idea that this is not economically motivated needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The business is leveraged, Musk is a commercial animal who understands that for Twitter to meet its potential, it must become a more successful commercial entity.
This week the Atlantic outlined some scenarios to look at the darker outcomes. I cannot imagine how these manifest in a world of competitive platforms. Nor can I imagine why a highly accomplished manager and entrepreneur obsessed with personal legacy would light a Himalayan sized pile of cash on fire...
The darkest-darkest timeline is the one where the world’s richest man runs a communications platform in a truly vengeful, dictatorial way, which involves Musk outright using Twitter as a political tool to promote extreme right-wing agendas and to punish what he calls brain-poisoned liberals.
I suspect Musk will do several things to broaden the support of actors in the ecosystem in addition to opening the algorithm to public scrutiny, which will be much less satisfying than many expect. These may include tiered membership offering and an API feed access to third party client communities, a strategy which would likely divide the company into two parts, one that controls and sells core messaging and graph services, the other that manages a Twitter interface and advertising business, the value of which Ben at Strategery articulates well:
A truly open TwitterServiceCo has the potential to be a new protocol for the Internet — the notifications and identity protocol; unlike every other protocol, though, this one would be owned by a private company. That would be insanely valuable, but it is a value that will never be realized as long as Twitter is a public company led by a weak CEO and ineffective board driving an integrated business predicated on a business model that doesn’t work.
Like most things, after an endless amount of hangwriging, I suspect Twitter will stay Twitter, a product of its 140 character architecture and the most talked about and maligned little narcissistic social network on the planet.
This all started at a lunch I was having this week with some “Banker” friends. I call them Bankers and they pointed out how silly it is that I use the word “Banker” to describe all the financial people I know and how little I actually appreciate the differences between what different financial people actually do. Like calling an architect a designer or worse, a contractor.
Astute readers will notice how I sometimes refer to The Professor (yes a real one, philosophy) or a CEO friend, etc. The “Banker” wanted to know when he would show up in the newsletter. Which is where this whole idea originated.
I know what you guys do, I just like calling you Bankers.
Thanks again for lunch and as promised, here’s the mention. You are all very smart and I look forward to getting more fodder for this note the next time we get together.
Have a great weekend…/ Troy
Subscribe and make you a better you:
1. The story of Nazi Billionaires, a new book from David de Jong on the the persistence of wealth and power from the Third Reich to present day. From Chartbook.
2. Ben Dietz at [SIC] makes good links. Useful for the curious. Thanks Ben.
3. Every Sunday 20 good charts.
4. Can you reach net zero by 2050? A climate simulation game experience from the FT.
5. Rolling Stone profiles Mr. Beast in the Creator Issue.
6. Little Signals is a very cool design study from Google, imagining new design patterns to move information from the background to foreground in physical settings.
7. RealityScan is an easy way to turn real things into metaversey things. More fodder for my Full Composability thesis.
And this… how Unreal 5 becomes an tool for product photography.
8. Infinite Mac brings your old Mac right to the browser including a folder of games like used to take up a lot of my time. Maelstrom nostalgia!
Like a Version is a segment on Australian radio station, Triple J.
Worthy of the original: