The internet is changing us profoundly. We aren't sure into what.
Digital as default culture, Colleen and Randall chime in, a good use of Twitter, appreciating Babyteeth, Vox to the Nine. And t-shirt of the week.
Welcome to People vs Algorithms 10.
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.
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Note: A friend commented that every good series needs a fever-dream sequence. I guess this is mine. Thanks for your patience…
That weird my-brain-lives-on-the-internet sensation
I’ve had this feeling lately like I’m caught inside the set of the Truman Show. I move from place to place but boundaries are constrained inside of a giant Covid-designed reality show set. I keep looking for the staircase.
One of my favorite newsletter people, Ryan Broderick, author of the terribly good Garbage Day, wrote a snippet this week that make me think about our digitally mediated reality. The post started with an comment about a spoof video going around Twitter showing a real-time digital price tag on physical running shoes:
We’ve reached such an absurd era of late stage capitalism that the expensive goods that wealthy people are buying are no longer recognizable to the average person as expensive, thus forcing wealthy people to invest in more and more elaborate ways of conveying their expensiveness.
I’m not sure about the late stage capitalism stuff. Seems to me how value is defined and created evolves perpetually. Ryan observed something deeper and more interesting, however — the triumph of online over offline culture — and with it a world that increasingly looked like the internet, resulting in among other things, the proliferation of increasingly niche subcultures:
As silly and, honestly, cool as Moore’s hypetags idea is, I do think it exposes something really interesting about where online/offline culture is at the moment. The idea of an auto-updating price tag for collector’s items feels increasingly less ridiculous the more online culture becomes our default.
Before the pandemic, though real life was routinely interrupted by viral content (“Gangnam Style,” internet famous animals, flash mobs, Supreme merch drops, YouTuber conventions, etc.), there was the understanding that the offline world was the dominant space. Linear TV, Hollywood movies, cable news, radio monopolies, and newspapers (lol) determined what was popular with brief weird intervals where we’d all talk about the internet. This status quo has been eroding for years — late night American talk shows now essentially make YouTube clips with millionaire-dollar budgets and US radio stations are owned by one company that is a glorified Spotify playlist curator — but the pandemic really broke things.
I found myself coming back to the idea of digital first culture repeatedly. First it was a story in the Atlantic about Operation Underground Railroad, a bizarre tale of QAnon inspired, conspiracy-minded do-gooders carrying stories of child trafficking from the internet to wholesome community gatherings across the country. Obviously hurting kids is a bad thing. But here, facts are dispensable and moral outrage is, seemingly, the reward. Sordid tales of mistreated children are the emotional center of this digital community. Somehow it seemed totally logical in our present reality:
But the present panic is different in one important respect: It is sustained by the social web. On Facebook and Instagram, friends and neighbors share unsettling statistics and dire images in formats designed for online communities that reward displays of concern. Because today’s messaging about child sex trafficking is so decentralized and fluid, it is impervious to gatekeepers who would knock down its most outlandish claims. The phenomenon suggests the possibility of a new law of social-media physics: A panic in motion can stay in motion.
I've always marveled at Trump's ability to twist reality and sustain the flock. Surely this is a manifestation of same phenomenon.
The walls of a hyperlinked mind
My media experience is no longer common ground, outside of narrow professional or social circles. Watching football remains one of my last connections to mass culture. Reality doesn't feel like a bubble, but a hyperlinked journey though connected worlds. Sometimes I bump into fellow travelers and we share a campsite, but it's my motorhome, these are my directions inside of my Google Map.
The idea that the internet sustains and amplifies an increasingly niche-ified physical existence seemed logical. For better, and worse.
I went back to reread Ryan's post. A quote he cites from a 2018 New Yorker William Gibson profile sticks out:
A physical object was also a search term: an espresso wasn’t just an espresso; it was also Web pages about crema, fair trade, roasting techniques, varieties of beans. Things were texts; reality had been augmented. Brand strategists revised the knowledge around objects to make them more desirable, and companies, places, Presidents, wars, and people could be advantageously rebranded, as though the world itself could be reprogrammed. It seemed to Gibson that this constant reprogramming, which had become a major driver of economic life, was imbuing the present with a feeling—something like fatigue, or jet lag, or loss.
So, by this logic, we are already in the metaverse. It's a data-skin on our reality and it's programmed by, none other than.... brand fucking strategists. I know a few and they are reasonable and nice. Better them than the QAnon programmers. Besides… a connection to affiliate commerce!
So this is the inversion — our source of truth has shifted from offline to on. I couldn't stop connecting the dots. Clearly my metadata layer was reprogrammed that day. A.O. Scott wrote a seemingly unrelated piece in last weekend's New York Times Magazine. There it was again:
Even before the pandemic annexed previously I.R.L. interactions, turning work meetings and family gatherings into extensions of screen time, the writing was on the wall. Maybe that’s the wrong cliché: The shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave stopped being metaphors. They were us.
A history of how this came to be — how screen life came to dominate reality, replacing large swaths of it and reconfiguring others — might begin with movies, with one of those origin myths about how early audiences mistook projected pictures for physical phenomena. Our naïve ancestors, one legend tells us, saw a black-and-white silent clip of a train pulling into a station and scrambled to get out of its way. Nowadays, our gullibility runs in the other direction. We might doubt the fact of a real locomotive if there were a video on YouTube questioning its existence.
And later in the piece, more on the feeling of living in one never-ending stream of algorithm-driven media stuff:
The flood of digital content comes from a single tap, which can make everything seem equivalent. An Instagram feed, a British baking show, old “30 Rock,” new “Insecure,” plumbing tips and porn — all that stuff might share your algorithms with past and present masterworks of cinema. The old taste hierarchies that would stack such offerings (and their fans) into pyramids of cultural status are a distant memory.
I needed physical interaction. Thankfully a friend dropped by for a drink. "Just Google it,” he instructed me that evening, looking to resolve a minor point of discussion. Of course that's what I should do.
This was part of our long arc of change and our short, violent one. I could never have predicted that the world would have changed so drastically because of Covid. Now it feels fundamental and lasting. If we were moving through a pretty profound generational shift before, Covid and it took it and supercharged it.
I saw a poll on LinkedIn this week wondering if it was appropriate to dress in shorts and a sports team hoodie for a client services Zoom job interview. Suddenly formal dress seems old fashioned for any occasion.
But back to my hyperlinked journey. This time I clicked on a link to a BuzzFeed News piece entitled "The Internet is Coming After the Rest of You":
...You personally can quit Instagram and Twitter, Facebook itself can swoon into the ocean like defeated Godzilla, but the world as it is constructed now will continue to exist and will keep extending its rhythms.
This runs across the whole gamut: Ring cameras and NextDoor posts, push alerts, group texts, For You personalization on TikTok and on streaming services and in ad targeting, better food and photography, music available immediately, a shocking number of goods available for delivery tomorrow and underpinned by hourly labor. Without much in the way of conscious decision-making, the fluid world between the phone and real life did get remade in a lot of ways.
For that reason, arguably, the concept of realness consumes, already, Twitter and Instagram — from how tethered to real life Twitter is, to the mediation of self that Instagram asks for and breaks down. Heavy use of either platform, on some hokey spiritual level, requires you to invest a real portion of your actual body and psyche in them, so the existential questions of reality and what you’re doing with your life are bound to hang over the enterprise.
I endeavored to try to understand things a bit better by connecting the then and now:
In defense of friction
I kept thinking about the early internet days 20 years earlier where the idea of a default online culture seemed impossibly distant. We were eager first-gen digital evangelists who longed for a seat at the grownup table where real decisions were made. Now that the world is fully ours, is this the future we imagined?
Still confused, I turned to a couple of really smart, old friends that might add perspective. I emailed newly-retired advertising trailblazer, Colleen Decourcy, and all around strategic smart guy and IAB Exec Chair, Randall Rothenberg.
Randall made a couple of great points. Maybe we should slow the roll:
The most obvious movement forward, of course, is toward goods and people that never show up digitally - the rarest and most precious commodity of all in a global marketplace of hyperlinked nanomarkets.
I’ve been thinking about an essay called “In Defense of Friction,” but haven’t the brain space to write. It would basically begin with the Federalist Papers, and the founders’ recognition that pure democracy would be disastrously chaotic, thus requiring a government that deliberately moves slowly and only rarely is capable of gigantic actions (like wars). So, too, economies are built on friction - on the relative expense, historically, of mining raw materials, building a factory, operating a central market in the town square - all of which creates the greatest benefits for those who can (by stealth, wealth, relationships, or force) do that, BUT ALSO builds in certain protections for the hoi polloi. (Mental model: food safety.) Once you create a thoroughly open economy (for goods, services, ideas), you create a set of tensions that are hard to reconcile. On the one hand, you create new opportunities for participation and wealth creation, as you and I have been discussing for years. But you also eliminate the checks and balances that protected people. In fact, you may only be creating the illusion of democratic participation, while actually enabling the already-wealthy and already-powerful to manipulate the global marketplace of hyperlinked nanomarkets even further. (Mental model: GameStop). The problem is, it’s hard to know. Is Google an enabler of democracy, or a controller of “democracy”? I belive it’s an enabler, but both Ted Cruz and Amy Klobuchar disagree. That’s pretty much the Section 230 debate in a nutshell.
Colleen riffed a bit:
This gets reductive in my hands real fast.
The online first culture - just because we can, should we?
Even if it “is”, is it good?
The removal of friction is an obsession of mine. I’m a bit of an advocate for putting the friction back in to some of these transactional markets. “Move fast and break things” being the far left of frictionless and Network television advertising and abortion rights eradication being the far right.
If long-term market value is driven by scarcity, (if you’ve ever visited the Diamond Trading Commission’s HQ and heard tell of the vaulted stash of diamonds, you know,) aren’t things I can’t get digitally, that don’t move freely, that aren’t accessible by many the real value? Isn’t that what Shkreli was reaching for with the WuTang Clan album? Is that market dynamic over?
Randall, as always, pointed to the good and bad:
Which gets at possibly a more profound point: Small groups can make profound changes happen. Sometimes for great good (Freedom Riders), sometimes for terrible ill (Beer Hall Putsch, Jan. 6).
Colleen, more skeptical:
I think it’s Gibson’s “fatigue or jet-lag, or loss…”
I’m numb to it. It’s all cool. It’s all different. It’s now. But I’m disconnecting. I’m missing heart. I don’t know what to care about in an NFT and I think it’s very interesting but sad that the design of the shoe isn’t the thing to draw attention to - the fluctuating price is. All the things that culture is cleaving to in terms of touch-points are like dead eyes on a pretty dancer. Weirdly performative of value or culture or art or something but not the actually thing itself. I’m not a nostalgist. But I did study at the alter of “make me feel something dude” and I don’t feel anything. It seems like it’s not about what it’s about, it’s about how clever it is. Very post-something.
But here’s the thing; the pendulum swings. Good and bad from both ends of the spectrum will get pulled along into a more balanced middle. I think we’re in a moment of great equalization. We will pass through extremes to get there. We will move on and move forward. Much good will be done for culture in the process
This post started with my feeling of disassociation. With the news, with culture, with truth. Probably like many of you, I thought it was a temporal Covid state, one that would get cleared up when we all started to congregate again. I am not sure.
Perhaps we are all a bit exhausted. It’s no wonder people are quitting their jobs.
It will be good to watch a few Holiday movies by the fire.
Have a great weekend…/ Troy
Six more things:
1. Finally, a good use of Twitter
Trung Phan makes Twitter threads work as stories. I love this format.
2. Airplane movies
I watched Babyteeth on the plane this week and loved it. It’s a remarkable movie about coping and addiction and dying and how we change one another in unexpected ways. Plus the soundtrack is good, reference this track from Sudan Archives. The pulsing fiddle melody is insane in my membrane.
3. Vox bulks up
Jim and team have done a great job building a modern media company IMO, aggregating good brands with a capable publishing platform, a sensible premium ad network, events, podcasts and scale. And personalities. Combining with Group Nine will yield valuable synergies. If that translates into 15% EBITDA and growth, the multiples will start to look interesting for the big group of investors lined up for an exit. A Media Operator provides perspective.
4. Software with soul
From A16’s Future blog. A worthy read on bringing personality to software design.
As technology advances, software will increasingly be chosen not just for how well it addresses its use case, but how it conveys its personality, similar to how we choose our clothes. We’re already beginning to see this shift. In highly individualized spheres like note-taking tools and consumer crypto, software is often chosen based on identity. What we’re witnessing, I’d argue, is the reemergence of style in software: the process of humans recognizing and projecting their sense of self onto products — turning inanimate pixels into something with soul. This shift directly impacts the type of user and community that forms around the product.
5. 94 Slides to the future from Benedict Evans
Best viewed with a little eggnog and rum.
6. And… the ChartWear t-shirt of the week
It’s tough out there for a hobbyist communications intellectual. Perhaps a chart will help. Get yours at the PVA Shop.