For all the ink and pixels wasted on media technology we’ve missed a once-in-500-years sea change who’s primary units of production are two fold: mobile data traffic and impotent rage.
Some will consider it heretical to discuss religion as media but it is impossible to argue that the bible did not provide the narratives around which pre-20th century life coalesced. A bad harvest invoked Job, suffering neighbors were assisted by Good Samaritan. Grace was spoken before meals. The rural population, mostly everybody, took a weekly bath on Saturday and headed to church the next day, the only time they would see non-family members.
The stories changed from the New Testament to Amos and Andy but the purpose and attraction– collective narratives – was the same. Movies, television, again, just an enhanced version of the same thing.
One can argue that internet-based entertainment is just an extension of this trend but one would be wrong. Church, radio, television were all passive – the audience showed up or tuned in when they were told. The Internet is a tool of self-selection.
The last time consumers were granted such an upward spike in empowerment – the printing press/Reformation – things did not go well for a couple hundred years. Importantly, the initial reaction was the same then: you lied to us.
But whatever, things will go the way they go. For our purposes let’s turn to what this new Internet-led empowerment was used for, best described in a brilliant essay by Freddie Deboer:
The internet has provided tremendous functionality, for facilitating commerce, communication, research, entertainment, and more. Yet for a comparatively small but influential group of its most dedicated users, its most important feature, the killer app, is its power as an all-purpose sorting mechanism, one that separates the worthy from the unworthy—and in doing so, gives some meager semblance of purpose to generations whose lives are largely defined by purposelessness.
This is why an increasingly virtual culture needs an economics of social hierarchy. The western world is now wealthy enough that the necessities of life – food, warmth, shelter etc – are provided in extremis and therefore have little economic value. If practical utility is no longer important what does have value are things that make me feel better/of a higher social strata than you. The Water/Diamonds Conundrum goes away.
Let’s posit that the social hierarchy of the Internet (and particularly social media) is scored not by money but by attention and influence. Twitter followers are not just arbitrary votes of support in this reading – they are currency. So, if love and money are by popular consensus the root cause of all murders, and Twitter followers are the new currency, it is no wonder how vicious the shoutfest gets online.
“That’s stupid”, you say. “I can’t spend Twitter followers so the whole notion is stupid. They have no value”. Fair point – online influence carries no practical utility unless your name is Josh Brown or Joe Wiesenthal. New followers won’t get you fed, but that’s what the government’s for, no? The robots tuk’erjerbs, man. You’re not going to let me starve are you?
Denying value to social media also understates the normal, human, Pavlovian response to interaction and acceptance. For one, the potential to more or less design a perfect, if virtual, version of ourselves completely independent of physical attractiveness is deeply, deeply tempting. RTs from television personalities are both largely pointless and a perfectly-designed machine for dopamine production. Most of us are just built that way.
Crap, this is getting too long. I intended to guess at more aggregate economic effects of the virtualization of human interaction. It dovetails nicely with Izabella Kaminska’s insanely good work on The New Abundance (will wealth move online?). Kids are already not bothering to get their driver’s lisence and Google has stolen 90% of the advertising revenue that used to go to print media. Mobile data traffic is still doubling every year. The Wii is only five or six steps away from a Holodeck. Jesus, what happens then?