Consuming the past while losing the future
This week, we’ll explore new perspectives on social media and the explosion of content. I wanted to do an issue on this topic for a while and I think I’ve finally found the right stuff. This is again a curated collection of thoughts and ideas from super interesting articles and smart people that I encourage you to check out if you want to dive deeper.
There is a few chapters to this:
The Feeling We All Have
The Original Sin: The Advertising Business Model
One Algorithm Fits All
Software Is Eating Individuals
On The Internet, We Are Living In The Past
I probably already lost a few people at “there is a few chapters” 😅, so without any further ado, let’s jump into it:
THE FEELING WE ALL HAVE
Let’s face it: We are addicted to content!
It’s difficult to just do some apartment cleaning, we need to listen to an interesting podcast while we clean. We can’t even just sit and drink a beer for 15 minutes. No, that would be too boring. We need to do something and that something usually means staring at our phones, zapping through various apps and consuming content.
And the content we consume is interesting, yes, but not all the time. There is also lots of bullshit and often times it’s just mildly interesting or only interesting while we consume it. But afterwards, we often feel lost, strange, and even ashamed. We feel like we just wasted time, attention, and lost agency...
And even if the content is incredibly interesting, it’s simply too much. Every day, there is a new tsunami of content thrown at us that might be interesting to check out, that might have some new insights or ideas that could help us in our daily life, our project at work… But it’s just soooo much! And it’s just so overwhelming.
We then try to set up systems, optimize time spent/wasted and all that stuff…..but after a while, it just gets messy again.
“I’m declaring defeat. Infinite scroll has won.
There is an endless supply of interesting things to consume online, and there are teams and teams of very smart people working very hard to get me to keep watching. One more video means one more metric counter incrementing, one more engagement click, one more step towards growth, ad revenue, product success…
It’s so easy to get stuck in it. Time melts away. I wasn’t planning to spend 30 minutes lying on the couch looking at my phone, but here we are. It’s far too easy, and since they know exactly what I find interesting, there’s almost no barrier to keep looking.”
“We know that what we post and consume on social media feels increasingly empty, and yet we are powerless to stop it.”
“We ignore our children, friends, and sometimes, our own needs for interaction while we stare dead-eyed into a device that promises fulfillment while we grow lonely and our mental health deteriorates. It is as if we’ve handed control of our lives, emotions, and well-being to a system hell-bent on destroying us, and yet we’re okay with that?”
THE ORIGINAL SIN: THE ADVERTISING BUSINESS MODEL
What’s driving economic value and incentives on the internet today is all in some way or another linked to an advertising business model. What wins is the content that is able to attract most of the attention, the eyeballs, no matter the actual value of the content.
Marc Andreessen, who founded one of the first internet startups (Netscape) and runs VC firm a16z, talks about the “original sin” of not building economics into the internet:
“‘So I think the original sin was that we couldn’t actually build economics, which is to say money, at the core of the internet.’ […]
In the absence of native commerce, internet companies gravitated towards the information-based business model that was accessible to them: advertising. Or as Andreessen puts it,
‘Because we were unable to build payments into the browser... that is why the internet today, at least in the US, is predominately based around advertising.’”
Critique of the advertising business model seems to be growing these days, both when it comes to social media platforms and search. But even back in 1998, the founders of Google already talked about the problem:
“The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users…we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers…Furthermore, advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results.”
Yep, that’s some of the early builders of the internet criticizing the thing they created or eventually end up creating. 🙃
“Google made the Internet more easily searchable, but, in the early two-thousands, it also began selling ads and allowed other Web sites to easily incorporate its advertising modules. That business model is still what most of the Internet relies on today.
Revenue comes not necessarily from the value of content itself but from its ability to attract attention, to get eyeballs on ads, which are most often bought and sold through corporations like Google and Facebook.
The rise of social networks in the twenty-tens only made this model more dominant. Our digital posting became concentrated on a few all-encompassing platforms, which relied increasingly on algorithmic feeds.”
“Guillaume Chaslot, an engineer who left Google in 2013 after helping to design YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, remembers being told to program it to encourage larger amounts of time spent by people on the site. ‘When you optimize for time spent, then you optimize for addiction,’ he says. ‘At the time, I did not even realize that.’
“[Kate] Eichhorn uses the potent term ‘content capital’ - a riff on Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘cultural capital’ - to describe the way in which a fluency in posting online can determine the success, or even the existence, of an artist’s work. […]
‘Cultural producers who, in the past, may have focused on writing books or producing films or making art must now also spend considerable time producing (or paying someone else to produce) content about themselves and their work,’ Eichhorn writes.
“[…] All are trapped by the daily pressure to produce ancillary content—memes, selfies, shitposts—to fill an endless void.”
ONE ALGORITHM FITS ALL
The early internet was chaotic but human, it was bubbly, customizable, emotional, diverse and full of ideas of liberation. Today, the internet seems much more minimalistic, optimized for efficiency and convenience. It’s playful, fun human essence seems almost lost.
“‘At the turn of the century, the early internet harnessed the boundless possibilities offered by cyberspace, providing a liberating and autonomous dreamworld beyond the confines of capitalist structures,” says Maria Vorobjova, a London-based artist who builds utopian digital spaces.
[…] ‘The tech evolution corresponds with shrinking possibilities, and now we're all constantly online on the same five websites. This evolution has also seen the rise of a seeming aesthetic paradox,’ she says.”
[….] as our everyday software tools and media became global for the first time, the hand of the artist gave way to the whims of the algorithm. And our software became one-size-fits-all in a world full of so many different people. All our opinions, beliefs, and ideas got averaged out — producing the least common denominator: endless sequels that everyone enjoys but no one truly loves.
[…] in so much modern software today, you’re placed in a drab gray cubicle — anonymized and aggregated until you’re just a daily active user. For minimalism. For simplicity. For scale!
The problem here is that internet culture is (becoming)….culture! And when the internet becomes minimalist, unemotional, conform… then so is culture overall.
“This has had a deadening effect on all kinds of culture, from Marvel blockbusters that optimize for attention minute to minute, to automated Spotify recommendations that push one similar song after another.
Cultural products and consumer habits alike increasingly conform to the structures of digital spaces.”
SOFTWARE IS EATING INDIVIDUALS
The saying “software is eating the world” (yes our Marc Andreesen from before actually coined this phrase) was originally meant to describe how software is consuming all industries. But Marc should have maybe gone even further.
“Software is consuming industries but it is also consuming individuals.
What it means to be human is shifting. We are becoming what I call ‘embedded humans.’ Our interactions with the world are determined by the software that we use. Software is being embedded into our identity and individuality.
When software was originally invented all it meant was the Wikipedia definition. It just helped us use hardware. Software is no longer the meta-control layer of hardware, it is the meta-control layer of humanity. I don’t mean this in a Blade Runner, 1984, Terminator sorta way. Merely that there is this everpresent digital edit feature that is lightly altering our individual reality.”
“‘The more you use the Internet, the more your individuality warps into a brand, and your subjectivity transforms into an algorithmically plottable vector of activity.’ [writes Justin Smith in The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is]
[…] According to Smith, the Internet actually limits attention, in the sense of a deep aesthetic experience that changes the person who is engaging.”
ON THE INTERNET, WE ARE LIVING IN THE PAST
How our social media addiction, the ad model and algorithms shape our individuality brings us back full circle to how we feel consuming online content: overwhelmed, defeated and stuck.
But why exactly do we feel that way? Because the past is absorbing more and more of our attention, consequently deteriorating our ability to be present and to imagine the future:
“On the internet, we are always living in the past.
[…] The layers of artifice that mediate our online interactions mean that everything that comes to us online comes to us from the past - sometimes the very recent past, but the past nonetheless. This is so because on the internet, all actions are inscriptions. These inscriptions include verbal expressions as well as images, audio, videos, memes, likes, shares,….. […] By contrast, consider the evanescent spoken word, part of which has already vanished before it is fully articulated by the speaker.”
“On the internet, fighting about what has happened is far easier than imagining what could happen.
Because we live in the past when we are online, we will find ourselves fighting over the past. Because our fighting is itself inscribed and inscriptions cannot be defeated only overwhelmed, it very quickly becomes part of what is fought over. […] Soon, it becomes impossible to map the course of the conflict or even make sense of it. And nothing changes.
[…] [Ultimately,] the energy we pour into building archives of the past is transmuted into a means to condition our action in the future.
[…] As the databases of the past grow in mass, their gravitational pull absorbs ever more of our attention and energy. Consequently, our capacity to inhabit the present and imagine the future deteriorates.”
Constantly absorbing and commenting on things that have just happened sounds to me like a recipe for feeling powerless.
[…] How do we train our attention on our present and future, when so much of our life is spent ensconced in dispatches from the recent past?
That’s it for this week!
As always, thanks so much for reading and please do share my newsletter or this specific issue with friends if you think it deserves more attention! 😉