Why no one ever has any idea what's going on...
I’m eating a hotdog at The Red Lion Tavern in Silver Lake and someone asks me if I like Taylor Lorenz. It’s a loaded question. As dust-ups from recent (now somewhat forgotten) Twitter cycles show, there is Taylor Lorenz the brand and Taylor Lorenz the journalist and—though people frequently forget—Taylor Lorenz the person.
I don’t know Taylor Lorenz the person so I can’t comment on that. As much as we live in an era where it’s encouraged, even incentivized to judge each other by the digital detritus we leave behind on social media platforms—I resist that presumption. I don’t believe people’s Twitter brands are a full and transparent representation of who they are as people—and neither should you…
Taylor Lorenz journalist, however, is essential to a lot of my work. I explain to my friend that it’s not just that she is good at her beat and quick to publish—it’s that she’s widely read. When I start working with a new client, her writing is a good heuristic for what they know. Marketers who work at large multinational corporations are pressed for time—that’s why they hire consultants—to supplement and expand that knowledge.
This is easiest to accomplish when you start from some shared understanding. Rarely will you get the dreaded blank stare of total incomprehension when you build out a knowledge exchange from a subject Taylor Lorenz has covered extensively. She is the writer Fortune 500 marketers read.
Now, Taylor Lorenz the brand—that was the subject of the most recent controversy. Should journalists have personal brands? Having a personal brand may be something a contemporary journalist cannot opt out of, while simultaneously being something that interferes with traditional notions of journalism. That is simply where we are at as a society.
The problem with a brands though—they’re tribal. It’s mildly taboo to discuss this because of course every business wants to sell their product to everybody. But brand rivalries are the stuff of legend: Coke vs. Pepsi, Nike vs. Adidas, Ford vs. GM, Apple vs. Microsoft, and so on and so forth. The Media Arts Lab “Get a Mac” campaign (2006-2009) captures the dynamic succinctly:
It’s one thing to cultivate tribalism for Justin Long’s ‘Mac guy’ to sell you a more fashionable computer. It’s entirely another to cultivate tribalism to sell truth. And yet this is much of what mainstream journalism has done since 2016. The brand rivalries are: The New York Times vs. Facebook, Taylor Lorenz vs. Marc Andreessen, Legacy Media vs. Silicon Valley….
Taylor Lorenz the brand is only possible and only necessary because of tech platforms. The old procedural ways of working as a journalist do not apply when every legacy media employee is a war room of one, spiraling after the sometimes real, sometimes imaginary issue of the day on Twitter.
THE SPEED OF SOCIAL MEDIA PRECLUDES THE PROCEDURES OF JOURNALISM
We are a long way from the halcyon days of Walter Cronkite, the Fairness Doctrine, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transparent eyeball, and the Washington Consensus. In some ways, the fact that 20th century American media was so consensus-driven, makes the current state of affairs even more stark. The British press have long been partisan. Everyone knows who reads The Guardian, The Daily Mail, and The Financial Times. They know the partisan and class affiliation of the readers and writers of each outlet and they don’t suffer any illusions about each having political biases and sympathies.
America—the land that invented conmen, yellow journalism, snake oil salesmen, and, yes, grifters—is ironically also the land that longs for bipartisanship, unity, and consensus. (Which goes back to one of my favorite lines: if you want something, it means you don’t have it.) Things like Biden’s presidential run in 2020 and The New York Times “Truth” campaign tap into this rose-tinted nostalgia for simpler pre-social media times. Though again—irony of ironies—neither actually point to the tech as the core of the problem.
This is because both would prefer their tribe to partner with legacy social media companies, rather than regulate the poor product design that is causing the issue in the first place. There have been two big bruh moments in the last year and a half that highlight this. The first was when Twitter censored The New York Post’s article about Hunter Biden’s laptop. What was self-evidently true at the time (the laptop was authentic) has now been confirmed. But of course after the 2020 election.
The second has been Silicon Valley’s participation in Western sanctions against Russia. In the fog of war, those incensed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are not considering the second and third order effects of instrumentalizing civilian tech for war.
As Mike Solana noted in his last newsletter, this is a “mask off” moment for US tech companies:
The concept of a global mono-narrative policed by five Stanford grads from their mansions in Mountain View was an interesting, if alarming experiment. The experiment failed. A third of the world is now closed to American social media platforms for what leaders behind the Silicon Curtain consider purposes of national security.
Russia and China are now outside the American Internet. I presume India, possibly Brazil and inevitably the European Union will follow suit. (TREND TIP: There will be big growth in replicating and/or superseding US tech platforms for specific markets.) The idea that the United States will legislate truth through black box maneuvers within global tech platforms will be unpalatable to everyone, save some Americans. Even allies like the EU will be wary of conceding so much power.
TRUTH ISN’T A TECHNICAL PROBLEM, IT’S A RELIGIOUS ONE
Social media is decidedly pre-modern in many ways. We don’t know who is making the decisions, why they are making the decisions, or even if it is a “who” deciding. (It may very well be an algorithmic “what.”) As I noted in my Spike piece about cellectual Instagram accounts:
The internet is haunted. The fact that it is simultaneously permanent and impermanent seems designed to leave everyone in a state of constant paranoia. Content is a mirage, appearing one day and disappearing the next. Accounts get cancelled, deleted, renamed, purged. Algorithms manage what we see. We’re told this is for our own good. It’s optimised for our taste—showing us more of what we like. This is, of course, nonsense. The Wizard of Oz is behind the curtain, pulling the strings, pushing some things, hiding others—shadow banning.
On some very basic level, truth aspires to give us a picture of the world. Social media companies are uniquely bad at filling this role because they give each and every one of us a personalized picture of the world. I would call these personalized pictures of the world pseudoreality. They are not false per se, but each has its own blind spots, biases, foci.
Some correlate enough to create mutually intelligible pseudorealities. You can call these scenes or networks or cliques or filter bubbles or egregores. The biggest pseudoreality of all is the mainstream media cycle. This was the seed of the original NPC meme. NPC’s (or non-player characters) are people who consume whichever pseudoreality is being pumped by the powers that be at any given moment.
When the CDC says “masks don’t work”, the NPC is the person screaming at me in the grocery store for wearing one. When the CDC says “masks work”, the NPC immediately changes tact, yelling at whoever is wearing one in the store. No explanation really needed. The meme has evolved to The Current Thing, i.e. whatever the pseudoreality insists is the most pressing issue at any given moment.
See Elon Musk’s shitpost below:
Again, by pseudoreality I do not mean false. The issue at stake is not true or false. The issue is power, those five Stanford grads in their Mountain View mansions. As American media gloats over Putin’s faulty intel before deciding to invade Ukraine, we should stop and ask: is Russia the only country with oligarchs? Is Russia the only country with yes men? I’m a corporate consultant—I can tell you whole-heartedly no on both counts…
SUNSET IN THE GLOBAL VILLAGE
People tend to misunderstand Marshall McLuhan’s term the global village. It sounds cozy and multicultural like the famous Coca-Cola commercial “Hilltop.” The song starts, ”I’d like to buy the word a home / and furnish it with love.” That’s the mainstream vibe of the concept.
But McLuhan did not see the global village as an explicitly positive development:
Like primitive, we now live in a global village of our own making, a simultaneous happening. It doesn’t necessarily mean harmony and peace and quiet but it does mean huge involvement in everybody else’s affairs.
I grew up in a small Northeastern town. I understand what he’s getting at. Gossip is a social currency. People are paranoid about their reputations. Historically mob violence was a bigger worry than the courts and rule of law. Sound familiar? It describes social media to a tee.
Can we undo what we have done? Probably not. But increasingly, it feels like many want to mitigate negative effects:
Anti-algorithm: I have a strong suspicion our grandchildren will look back in horror at our current social media dynamics. They will feel about the current crop of legacy platforms the way we do when we read about the unregulated sale of cocaine and heroin at pharmacies in the 19th century. To be specific: I think algorithms in the service of amplification, curation and virality are the issue. We as consumers cannot parse what is organic and what is paid, what is censored and what is promoted—and no “content markers” do not solve this because no one trusts tech to be transparent and honest.
Regulation > TOS: Nobody really knows why or how content moderation happens on platforms. It’s clear it needs to exist, but implementation is a total gray zone. If the Internet is the future of the commons, governments have to take a much more central role regulating it, just like they do for television and radio. Regulations should be public and people should be able to litigate when the tech companies do them wrong. If legal fees bankrupt every social media platform so be it.
Repeal Section 230: If social media platforms want to take on the mantle of being our arbiters of truth—then they have to be punished when people publish outright lies. We are long past the “Twitter is just a micro-blogging site” phase of the Internet. Twitter matters because it is where influential people (media, government, corporate) congregate and generate ideas.
These ideas are first thoughts. If readers think of more, add them to the comments.