The next chapter of the internet is emerging. Some thoughts on what the New, New media looks like.
Welcome to People vs Algorithms #45.
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.
Brian Morrissey and I talk through Twitter, cheating, brand building and more on this week’s podcast. Listen here.
It's good to be back in NY. Fall is the best, aside from the melancholy of knowing something worse is coming. Seasons are a useful reminder of our mortality. Take that LA.
Work travel took me to London then Rome. I sensed apprehension in London, unsurprising given current economic uncertainties, the falling pound and polarizing, knee-jerk political leadership. But the British soldier on... stiff upper lip and all that. Rome is much too centered on life-well-lived to worry about momentary conundrums; everywhere you look a reminder of the slow, sweeping hands of history. To visit that exquisite city and walk the halls of the Vatican is a good way to contextualize the hysteria of the moment and set it in proper historical context.
Concentration of wealth and power are not unique to our current moment. Just ask the Medici family who held a hegemonic position in Florence and later Tuscany for almost 300 years (early 1400's to 1700's). Recognizing the limits of their commercial power, they sought higher order control, elbowing their way into the Vatican, providing the church with four popes, then proceeding to spread their covetous seed across royal families of Europe. Our recent cast of American "royalty" — the Trumps, Bushes, Kennedys, tech or hedge fund billionaires — look transitory by comparison. Extreme wealth concentration remains but power is more fleeting now. I am no scholar of this stuff, but modern media has got to play a role, giving more people the means to challenge power structures than any time before. What would ancient Rome have been with Twitter?
Power players of antiquity never knew how good they had it. Imagine Twitter outrage upon discovering another shameless elite bathing in donkey milk. Seriously Poppea, who do you think you are? Cleopatra? Stop with the frivolous indulgences. How did they get all that donkey milk anyway? (Answer: about 700 donkeys). Summon the donkey milkers, the empress wants to soak!
But back to contemporary Elon drama. This week, texts released in court filings revealed that rich and powerful people say facile things while texting just like normal people. Shocking. As it turns out, texts suggest even Elon doesn't have all the answers to fix Twitter, a service that can now only be described as the North Korea of the internet. Not even Jason Calacanis, who is surely the archetype Nietzsche was referring to when articulating the concept of "will to power." But what the fuck did you expect would be revealed in a string of text messages with Elon besides others badly cloaked sycophancy? Polite, thoughtful exchange? A secret, well articulated business strategy? In the continuum of communications, text is one step above a bathroom wall. Maybe Musk can turn Twitter into the one app that rules them all. It will be fun to watch. I'll cheer him on.
If the Rome and the Vatican reminds us of anything else, it's the power of narrative to move people and reinforce power structures. Or that sin and redemption are everlasting themes and extraordinary ways to summon power, energy and money. Maybe that well-crafted pyramid schemes can work for a long, long time. Or more simply, good stories and well-maintained brands endure.
On a more superficial front, you can buy a lovingly tanned, beautifully crafted, hand-stitched leather bag at a shop on the narrow streets of Rome for under two hundred bucks. Walk down the street to the Loewe boutique, thinking you might arbitrage the strong American dollar, only to learn that a sweet Flamenco drawstring clutch is still €2400. Not only do brands endure, we’re still happy to pay up for them.
Apologies if travel has made me a bit ponderous. But it does occur to me that this is a moment. This is more than Twitter drama. The next generation of media framework is beckoning. Like, obviously this is a moment, but right now it feels like an inflection point worth noting. I have been struggling to define what it is precisely, but conceptually I think it has something to do with last week's note, "Flow Theory."
"Old media" was powerful brand middle men, tightly defined by media type (Time, NYT, NBC) and reinforced with stable distribution structures. Old media bathed in donkey milk.
"New media" replaced old media, shifting power to social platforms who connected you and me and media, algorithmically syphoning content from the open web, transforming a professional class to crack-addled content surfs, jonesing for the next hit. New media introduced programmatic advertising and a new art of "branded content", advertising doing its best to masquerade as something useful. New media brought old media online, but preserved many of the conventions of the past, in particular how we thought about the authority of media brands and the functional attributes of advertising as a repetitive mechanisms to interruptive a captive consumer.
Covid was a catalytic force of change, showing us how easily we could reengineer social, work and commercial worlds through our digital connection points. Perhaps most profoundly, people became even more comfortable projecting themselves through the digital interface. The tools keep getting better, erasing lines between us and the digital worlds that represent us. Strangely, we are all just... content.
TikTok accelerated a long term shift to video as the dominant media type, this time driven by a class of eager creators. A new entertainment type evolved. Streaming closed the book on a long broadcast tradition and, slowly but surely, marketers preoccupations with TV as the single, reliable brand building medium.
Importantly, all the pieces are now in place to connect the influence of media with downstream activities. Selling stuff, services, experiences in new and varied ways are becoming indentured cousins of attention. The lines between advertising and content and the things they flog are becoming imperceptible. Thankfully, we still go out to dinner…
This is the “New, New Media.” It is marked by abundance. More and more content. More and more content creators. Continuous, unstoppable flow.
Anything that creates friction is avoided. The New, New does not discriminate by content type or creator provenance. Immediacy and access rule. Websites are fine, but hard to create and manage. Who wants to create an app? Use someone else’s. Email is fast and direct. Finally video can be created, edited and distributed as fast as you can whip out your phone. New tools make podcasting cheap and effortless. Platforms are a means to an end. The New, New is maximum, unimpeded flow driven by people. The best earn insane leverage.
The Metaverse is an attempt to create a wholly new domain for the New, New. Efforts to build these are the Colosseum projects of antiquity. They take huge investment and lots of people. Those that succeed are awarded long term toll booths. Elon would like to turn Twitter into a Colosseum.
If I was to articulate a single difference between then and now, it’s the barriers to media access and control have been completely dismantled, all the way from creation to commerce. Inside, the New, New is completely intolerant to blockages of the flow. Models that works will abide by the rules of digital flow or they atrophy.
The New, New is boon or bane, depending on how you like to play the game. Brands building is evolving from a protracted battle of attrition to guerrilla warfare. Video is just you on the wire. It devolves from manicured narrative to reality TV, delights in vulnerability and imperfection. The New, New loves a gag, an inside joke. Take this Barstool / Caleb Pressley interview with Aaron Rodgers and compare it to what came before. This is the talk show of the New, New.
To be sure, the New, New rewards those that understand the Flow and how to get inside of it. Better to be fast, funny and fearless.
And, the world is waking up to a reality that the community power of digital technology does not have to be owned by a handful of social platforms. The new is always a reaction to the old. This time we want more meaning and more tangible human connection. It's smaller communities of people looking for more self determination in what they consume and how they connect. Tools we use versus tools that use us.
The New, New is People over the Algorithm. At least for now. And, like Rome of today, it is human, visceral, delicious, occasionally very weird, especially if you veer off the path. I suspect the New, New is a Renaissance of sorts. We just don't see it yet.
Kick back and take a warm bath this weekend. Take your time, we can all pretend we are royalty now... / Troy