Life in the Metaverse

This article on the efforts of Big  Tech, specifically META, to corner the market in VR exposes some of the myths of  Web3.0. Zuckerberg’s concept of VR is Web2.0 on steroids, as Jaron Lanier makes clear.

From Tablet:
Life in the Metaverse

Excerpt:

“What’s going on today with a company like Google or Meta is that they’re getting all this data for free from people who don’t understand the meaning or the value of the data and then turning it into these algorithms that are mostly used to manipulate the same people,” Lanier told Kara Swisher on “The Metaverse: Expectations vs. Reality,” a New York Times podcast. For Lanier, the ultimate point of the Quest Pro is not to provide users with a valuable experience but to popularize a tool that can collect their data at the source.

 

The Future Will Soon Be Here

I repost Ted Gioia’s Substack post here because I couldn’t have said it all better myself. As he outlines it,  this has been tuka‘s approach all along. The one thing he doesn’t address is the winner-take-all aspect of creative markets –  why all these YT revenues end up going to a few mass influencers or curators. Blockchain and tokenization are necessary tools to decentralize and distribute rewards for value created.

A Creator-Driven Culture is Coming—and Nobody Can Stop It

By Ted Gioia

“Victory is assured!”

I’m talking about victory for creative professionals—musicians, writers, visual artists, and others who have been squeezed by the digital economy.

You’re probably surprised. Some people think I’m the Dr. Doom of the music scene. And it’s true, I’ve made a lot of depressing predictions over the last few years, Even more depressing, many of these predictions have already come true.

I’ve told horror stories about musicians who lost their gigs during the pandemic, and also saw their music royalties collapse as the audience shifted to streaming. I’ve talked about journalists fired from downsizing newspapers. And filmmakers who can’t get funded to make a movie unless a Marvel superhero is named in the title .

But now I want to tell you the rest of the story. Because the next phase in the cycle is filled with good news.

Victory is assured.

Let’s start by looking at the music business, where the squeeze has been the worst.

Whenever I do a forecast, my first step is to follow the money. And the adage that money talks has never been truer than right now. Those dollars are telling an amazing and unexpected story. Word on the street is that record labels are offering far more attractive terms to musicians than ever before.

“Here’s my craziest prediction. In the future, single individuals will have more impact in launching new artists than major record labels or streaming platforms.”

In the old days, musicians were lucky to get 15% of revenues, but I’m now hearing increasingly about deals that give artists a 50% cut, and in some instances allow them to regain ownership of their master recordings at a future date. The music moguls are positively generous—and (as we shall see) for structural reasons in the business that aren’t going away.

And it’s not just major labels giving more money to musicians. Take a look at Bandcamp, which lets musicians collect almost 90% of revenues from vinyl sales. And I’m hearing constantly from techies and entrepreneurs who are working on similar artist-centric business models. We are only in the early innings of this new game, but the shift is already enough to force huge concessions from legacy music companies.

Artist-friendly platforms are the future of music. And other creative pursuits as well—my own platform, Substack, is also allowing creators to keep close to 90% of revenues. This has spurred a huge talent migration from old media, and not merely for writers—you can find almost every kind of creative professional on Substack, from cartoonists to photographers.

For 25 long, hard years, creative professionals have been told that you must give things away for free on the Internet. But not anymore. Alternative economic models are not only emerging, but are propelling the fastest-growing platforms in arts and entertainment.

This is not only shaking up highbrow and popular culture, but capturing the attention of the next generation of tech visionaries—which is why, in the last year or so, I’ve been constantly approached by startups asking me to evaluate their business plans. This is unprecedented. It simply didn’t happen before the pandemic. But not only are these entrepreneurs trying to figure out what artists want, but they’re actually relying on creator wealth maximization as the focal point for their businesses.

In general, these young techies are smarter than the folks running the music business right now. (That’s a subject I want to discuss at a later date—I call it my ‘idiot nephew theory’ of the music business. But it has to wait.) Of course, many of these entrepreneurs are dreamers who will never go anywhere. That’s always the case with entrepreneurs. But some will succeed, and in a meaningful way.

In fact, it’s inevitable—and for the simple reason that the old institutions have stopped investing in the future. The new guard will take over because the old guard got weak and lazy.

Why is all this happening? Let’s go back to look at the music situation, because this helps us understand the larger picture.

Record labels are getting more generous because they don’t have a choice. They destroyed their own power base and source of influence. They stopped investing in R&D and new consumer technologies back in the 1980s. Twenty years later, they stopped manufacturing and distributing physical albums—and even when vinyl took off, they were asleep at the wheel. Over the same time period, they lost their marketing skills, trusting more in payola and influence peddling of various sorts.

But that’s just a start. Over a fifty-year period, record labels relentlessly dumbed-down their A&R departments. They shut down their recording studios, and let musicians handle that themselves—often even encouraging artists to record entire albums at home. Then they let huge streaming platforms control the relationship with consumers. At every juncture, they opted to do less and less, until they were left doing almost nothing at all.

The music industry’s unstated dream was to exit every part of the business, except cashing the checks. But reality doesn’t work that way. If you don’t add value, those checks eventually start shrinking.

The simple fact is that the legacy music business is living off the past—and will continue to do so until the copyrights expire. For a few more years, they will collect royalties on old songs, and make money on reissues and archival material. They know themselves that they have lost control of the future of music. That’s why, if they have spare cash, they use it to buy up catalogs and publishing rights of music from back in the day. Their favorite artists are dead artists.

But this is not a long-term game. It’s a death wish.

The major labels would like to own the music stars of the future, but they won’t. They would like to act greedy and put the squeeze on the next generation, but they can’t. They simply don’t have the leverage. And never will again.

And who will win if record labels lose? You think it might be the streaming platforms? Think again—because that’s not going to happen. Spotify and Apple Music are even less interested than the major labels in nurturing talent and building the careers of young artists.

Here’s my craziest prediction. In the future, single individuals will have more impact in launching new artists than major record labels or streaming platforms.

Just consider this: There are now 36 different YouTube channels with 50 million or more subscribers—and they’re often run by a single ambitious person, maybe with a little bit of support help. In fact, there are now seven YouTube channels with more than 100 million subscribers. By comparison, the New York Times only has nine million subscribers.

“How could a Substack column outbid major media outlets for new talent? But not only can it happen, it will inevitably happen.”

Most people don’t stop and think about the implications of this. But just ponder what it means when some dude sitting in a basement has ten times as much reach and influence as the New York Times.

If you run one of these channels and have any skill in identifying talent, you can launch the next generation of stars.

And not just in music. This works for everything—comedy, dance, animation, you name it.

Consider the case of MrBeast. Many of you have no idea what I’m talking about, but you need to find out—because MrBeast (or people like him) are going to change popular culture, whether we like it or not. MrBeast, for a start, runs 18 YouTube channels with more than 200 million total subscribers. He now has his videos translated into four languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, and Russian.

What does he do? I’m no expert on MrBeast, but I’m told he’s a good dude, and gives away a lot of money—huge sums, to be blunt. And he can afford to do it, because YouTube channels are low-overhead operations with enormous cash generation potential.

Oh, I forgot to mention that MrBeast is looking to raise capital from financial investors. He claims that his business is worth $1.5 billion, and may sell 10% to get $150 million to fund his future plans.

I’m not even beginning to pretend that MrBeast will use this money to get into the music business. But he might. And if he doesn’t, someone else like him will.

MrBeast has got the cash to shake up the music business—and if he doesn’t, someone like him will
I note that MrBeast only ranks number five in YouTube channel subscriptions. There are other people like him, or will be soon, and they are much better equipped to launch a new music act than any of the major labels.

That’s why musicians can make more money when the distribution model shifts from bloated record labels with huge overhead to alternative web-based platforms. I expect that deals for artists on these web channels will be more like 50/50. MrBeast is known for his generosity, but even if he wasn’t, his business model is much more flexible than anything Sony or Universal Music could ever dream of. These new platforms can afford to offer better terms to creators, and almost certainly will—because if they don’t someone else will.


This didn’t take place during the first wave of YouTube channels, because these influencers (I hate the term, but it’s appropriate in this setting) were focused on making themselves into money-making stars. But the next phase of growth for these people is brand extension, and that’s going to turn them into talent scouts.

I’m focusing on YouTube channels here, but the same story could be told about podcasters—or any other individual with a lock on an audience in the tens of millions. Consider them as the equivalent of the Ed Sullivan Show in the old days. The host of this long-running TV show didn’t have much talent himself, but it hardly mattered—Ed Sullivan was the curator who introduced America to Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and other rising stars. That kind of thing will happen again, but via a web channel or alternative platform.

These individuals can do absolutely everything a record label currently does, and do it better—they can launch new stars, get them instant visibility and gigs, generate millions of views for new songs, attract endorsement deals, etc. The few things they can’t do in-house (for example, press vinyl records) can be easily outsourced.

The same thing will happen in publishing. I’m already seeing a few of the more popular Substack writers using their huge subscriber base to launch the careers of other writers. By my calculations, this can be even more profitable and impactful than a book contract with a New York publisher—benefiting both the sponsoring writer and the new talent.

In fact, I might move in this direction myself. It’s too early, but 2-3 years from now I might start scouting out talented young writers or podcasters and feature them here in The Honest Broker. Everything depends on subscription numbers, but it’s possible that I could pay better than the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.

At first blush, this seems impossible. How could a Substack column outbid major media outlets for new talent? But not only can it happen, it will inevitably happen. It’s the same story as in music. The old guard has stopped defending its base business, and everything is either up for grabs now—or will be very soon.

Newspapers have lost enormous power over the last twenty years. They have lost subscribers. They have lost ad revenues. They have even, in many instances, lost credibility and respect. Up until now, this has hurt writers—who depended on the newspapers for assignments and pay checks. But we are now arriving at the point where the trend reverses.

And this reversal opens up huge opportunities and income potential for smarter, nimbler operators.

I could give many other examples. What I’m describing is also true for Hollywood movie studios, book publishing, and every other field where the old guard has become arteriosclerotic and inflexible.

Okay, let me summarize the whole thing in a diagram.

[Note: tuka is in the blue circle here.]

There’s an elegant irony here. The very same forces putting the squeeze on creators actually serve to accelerate the happy next phase.

This is one reason why I believe karma is at work in the universe. If you run a business that depends on creativity, you can’t punish the creators without consequences. Sometimes it takes a while for the cycle to play out, but it always plays out the same way.

There are many aspects of this story I haven’t covered here. There are all sorts of Web3 angles, and there’s also a story to be told about how platforms such as Spotify will pay a price for squeezing musicians to subsidize their entry into podcasting and other ancillary businesses. But we can look at those on another occasion.

For the time being, I just want you to keep your eyes on the prize. And remember—Victory is Assured!

Creativity and Community

This is the whole purpose [of art], to bring people that don’t agree into the same place where they can agree on their own shared humanity.

This Matt Taibbi interview with Tim Robbins is interesting for Robbins’s views on art and creativity. Emphases in BOLD.

Tim Robbins and the Lost Art of Finding Common Ground

The star of films like The Producer and Bull Durham opens up about two tough years of pandemic politics, and worries society is purposefully phasing out the common meeting space
Matt Taibbi
3 hr ago

After the Covid-19 crisis began, actor Tim Robbins was like everyone else in suddenly having both more time to think, and more unpleasant things to think about. Among other things, as a leader of The Actors’ Gang theater company, Robbins had to work through what living in a world of mandated long-term isolation might mean. What if people were no longer forced into contact with one another?

“I wondered,” he recalls now, “‘What happens when you eliminate the water cooler conversation?’”

Would we miss that “difficult conversation with someone who’s not one of your friends, but a coworker and a human being,” who’s “saying something that is not the way you see the world, but he’s right there and you have to hear it”? Robbins felt we might, because confronting a live human being forces people to use parts of their brain the Internet encourages them to bypass.

“When you eliminate that conversation, and everyone goes into isolation, and has their own little silos of thought, that’s incredibly dangerous for society. Because now you’re isolated to the point where you’ll no longer have any kind of discussion,” he says. Instead, he worries, “You’ll just have that little room you go into where everyone agrees with you, and we all say, ‘Fuck those other people.’”

Years later, the Oscar-winning actor known for left-liberal advocacy finds his thinking has shifted in significant ways. In part this is because the entertainment business remains mired in high-vigilance mode when it comes to pandemic restrictions, with an omerta still hovering over vaccine-related questions. Robbins himself was with the program early, which he now seems to regret. “I was guilty of everything that I came to understand was not healthy,” he says now. “I demonized people.”

However, he soon began to wonder why certain rules were being kept long after they lost real-world utility. For instance, deals struck in 2021 between studios and powerful unions like SAG-AFTRA, the Directors’ Guild of America, and Actors’ Equity barred the unvaccinated not just from working, but auditioning. This maybe, possibly made sense when the vaccines were thought to prevent transmission. But now?

“I get it. I understand the fear. I was there,” Robbins says. “But we’ve restricted people from working for too long.”

For decades Robbins occupied a unique role in American popular culture as a writer, director, and polarizing counterculture figure, like a taller, cheerier cross of Orson Welles and Peter Fonda. His acting reputation for a long time was inextricably (and unfairly, I always thought) tied to his status as a bugbear of the Gingrich/Bush Republican right. I knew without looking that Robbins had to be a central figure in Fox host Laura Ingraham’s 2006 best-selling insta-book about heathen lib entertainers who don’t know their place, Shut Up and Sing. Ingraham in fact described Robbins and former partner Susan Sarandon as “the leading stars of today’s Hollywood elite,” a compliment on the order of being called Mr. and Mrs. Satan. Ironically, Ingraham was mad at Robbins for talking about a “chill wind” of intellectual conformity that began blowing after 9/11, the same phenomenon she herself began railing against when it started to affect conservatives in recent years, and which Robbins is still criticizing now.

Though he’s won acclaim for serious films like Shawshank Redemption and Dead Man Walking, the Robbins filmography is also packed with performances where he goofs on himself by pitching in a garter belt (Bull Durham) or wearing absurd hair extensions (in Erik the Viking — I hope those were extensions)or by giving America maybe its best-ever a portrait of a Hollywood douchebag, a performance that almost had to be career-imperiling in its accuracy (The Player). Robbins always had strong views and was especially vocal during the Iraq period, but his politics never got in the way of helping deliver some of the generation’s most enjoyable films. He even had fun with his own lefty reputation when he played a PBS newscaster taking a break between pledge drives to throw down in the Anchorman brawl.

Nonetheless, he now finds himself mixed up in controversies that place him at least somewhat on the outs with the same Hollywood political culture where he was once a leading figure. Areas of contention include the mandates and the passage of AB 5, a piece of California legislation originally aimed at gig-worker corporations like Lyft and Uber that ultimately forced hundreds of businesses, including theater companies, to offer minimum wages and benefits many claim they can’t afford. It’s a repeat of a controversy from the mid-2010s, when the Actors’ Equity union beat back a lawsuit filed by the likes of Ed Harris and Ed Asner and overrode a 2-1 vote by thousands of its members, who wanted to retain the ability to play for peanuts in a city where exposure is worth more than a few extra bucks on a paycheck.

Robbins worries that in this slew of new shibboleths about everything from vaccines to regulation of cake decorators, music arrangers and theater companies, society is revealing troubling changes in its ideas about what art and creativity are for. He sees hostility to the idea of bringing people together both in the physical sense, as in opening the doors to a theater, but also in the figurative sense of making sure art and entertainment are for everyone, not just for people with correct opinions. With bookstores, museums, theaters, and even water coolers disappearing all over the country, America seems to have it in for common spaces, as if keeping people from talking to one another is someone’s intentional political goal.

“I almost feel like there are forces within our society that just want art to die,” Robbins says.

The interview you’re about to read isn’t a red-pilling story, since Robbins isn’t and won’t ever be anyone’s idea of a conservative. It is however a warning from someone with an extensive enough track record as a progressive activist that he ought at least to have earned a hearing if he now feels he has to say a few uncomfortable things. Mostly, he’s warning about a didactic meanness he senses creeping into both politics and art. This he felt especially during the Covid-19 period, when we drifted from mere health policy into a bizarre Freaks-style collective shaming reflex, stressing the moral and mental unworthiness of people who for whatever reason — there were many — refused official advice.

“I heard people saying, ‘If you didn’t take the vaccine and you get sick, you don’t have a right to a hospital bed,” he says. “It made me think about returning to a society where we care about each other. Your neighbor would be sick, and you’d bring over some soup. It didn’t matter what their politics were, you’re their fucking neighbor,” he says, shaking his head.

“I think we lost a lot of ourselves during this time.”

More below (interview edited for length and clarity):

Matt Taibbi: When Covid-19 arrived, what happened with The Actors’ Gang?

Tim Robbins: We had to shut down, obviously. We went on to a Zoom workshop kind of mode. As an organization, we decided that we weren’t going to lay anyone off or furlough anyone. A lot of arts organizations did. We kept everyone on staff and on health insurance. We found other ways to do our work online with our education programs. Then for our prison project, we started communicating by mail. We would send them packets every month with outlines of exercises they could do on their own. A lot of them would write, and send it back to us, because we wanted to keep the relationship going with the people that we were working with before the pandemic.

So that was great. It provided us an opportunity to hire more returning citizens, the ones that had done their time and were being paroled, which was another bizarre thing — you had guys that were in jail for 30 years that got out right during Covid, and went right back into isolation. Isn’t that insane? But overall, it was a difficult two years.

Matt Taibbi: As re-opening approached, what happened?

Tim Robbins: We were capable of opening last September, but there were still all of these restrictions. I had a problem with this idea of having a litmus test at the door for entry. I understood the health concerns, but I also understand that theater is a forum and it has to be open to everybody. If you start specifying reasons why people can’t be in a theater, I don’t think it’s a theater anymore. Not in the tradition of what it has always been historically, which is a forum where stories are told and disparate elements come together and figure it out.

That’s what it’s been for. People figure out their relationship with the gods, with society, with each other. But at the door, you don’t say you can’t come in, because you haven’t done this or that. I had a problem with that. So I waited until everyone could be allowed in the theater. We opened up with a show called Can’t Pay Don’t Pay in April last year.

I think a lot of theaters had a problem rebounding, because the audiences are either skittish about being in rooms with other people, or (laughs) they just don’t like theater that much anyway. The pandemic was a good excuse to not go!

But the most challenging thing has been dealing with the actors themselves, because there is this skittishness and fear, and it’s still in people. Unlike England — I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time last year in London, and they got back a lot sooner than we did. There was an attitude there, it’s that “keep calm and carry on” thing. You know, we got bombed last night, but we’re getting up today. When they reopened their theaters, they reopened them for everybody. They never excluded anybody. And when they got back to it, their West End was thriving, and continues to thrive today.

Maybe the reason we have problems is that some people are still skittish about being in a crowd with other people, but it could also be that maybe 30 to 40% of theater audiences were told they weren’t welcome. And maybe there’s something in that: when you’re told you’re not welcome, you might not necessarily want to go back.

Matt Taibbi: When you started to question these things, what was the reaction?

Tim Robbins: I totally understood it in the first year. I was compliant with everything. I locked down, I isolated, I was away from people for seven months. I bought into it. I demonized people. I was guilty of everything that I came to understand was not healthy. I was angry at people that weren’t wearing masks, and protesting about it in Orange County. Yet, a month later I was protesting for BLM in the streets with a mask on. A week after that, I kind of had to do a self-check on that. I knew there was a little bit of hypocrisy going on there.

I had a really good friend that died from it early on. I was angry. I was fearful, and I did everything I could to help stop the spread, but also I kept my eyes open and at my age, I think one of the most important things that I’ve been able to do is understand that I’m not right all the time, and I have to check myself and see where the hypocrisy lay. So I started having more questions.

Soon it’s a year on, and two years on, and people are still stuck with these restrictions despite the fact that we now know that the vaccine didn’t stop transmission and didn’t stop people from getting it. Once the CDC changes policy and says basically that both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated are capable of getting Covid, the restrictions don’t make sense anymore, particularly regarding employment.

And there were a lot of people in SAG-AFTRA and Actors’ Equity that were kept from auditioning for the past two and a half years, and really still are today. Their livelihoods are threatened. They can’t participate yet. There’s no rhyme or reason with it. I think people are holding on because there’s still a fear, but it’s too long now.

I’m not against the vaccine, I’m just of the belief that your health is determined by your relationship with your body and your mind. And if you believe that the vaccines have helped you, then all power to you. If for some reason you didn’t vaccinate and you made it through this, all power to you too. You shouldn’t be excluded from society for doing that. I am a hundred percent sure of that. I think that was a mistake. I think it was done out of fear. I forgive it, but to continue it at this point is irrational, in my opinion.

No one has stood up for people who might be immuno-compromised or couldn’t take the vaccine, or people that are just holistic and don’t take any kind of medicine at all. Or people — this is the most important one — people that have had Covid and have natural immunity.

The other thing is, where does this end? How many boosters do you have to get to remain eligible for work? How long do we extend this?

Matt Taibbi: You feel something important has been lost in the last few years. Can you elaborate?

Tim Robbins: These last few years, they’ve taught me so much, about what is right, what is wrong. There’s so much empowerment of people that feel that they are being incredibly virtuous and generous, yet are doing things that are not very kind to other people. I think we’ve lost ourselves during this time. Just a brief stroll through social media and you’ll find that out. (laughs) The internet has become like a bar that you go to, and you open the door, and everyone yells, “Fuck you! Get out!”

Matt Taibbi: (laughs) I’m vaguely familiar…

Tim Robbins: It’s amazing. It’s taught me a lot about human nature, about how easy it is for people to turn on other people, and that when people do things that are destructive to other people, they often think they’re being virtuous. It’s been that way throughout history.

That’s something I already knew as a writer. When you’re making a character, you try not to make it all black and white, good and evil. I really understood much more profoundly what happens with the turn, how people turn. You go from someone that is inclusive, altruistic, generous, empathetic, to a monster. Where you want to freeze people’s bank accounts because they disagree with you. That’s a dangerous thing. That’s a dangerous world that we’ve created. And I say ‘we,’ because I was part of that. I bought into that whole idea early on.

Matt Taibbi: There’s also been a phenomenon of bureaucratic mission creep. Could you talk about how that’s affected your industry?

Tim Robbins: Our union out here, Actors Equity, decided about five years ago to end an agreement that the union had with local theaters here that were under 99 seats. We had a thriving small theater scene in Los Angeles, and Actors Equity decided that they wanted to end that 99-seat agreement. Then they had a vote, and two-thirds of their membership voted to keep the agreement, but the AEA ended it regardless. Producers couldn’t make money off of productions. I think Actors’ Equity has a fantasy that if they close all the small theaters in Los Angeles, a bunch of mid-level theaters will rise up, and there will be more contracts…

On top of that, we had a bill pass called AB 5, which was intended to target gig workers like Uber and Lyft drivers. And Uber and Lyft were wealthy enough to lobby in Sacramento to get a carve-out from that legislation. What was left were small theaters and musicians. They said, “Listen, are you going to try to keep us from rehearsing, or just jamming?”

I almost feel like there are forces within our society that just want art to die. It’s now not only just the scolds from the right, like in the old days when the Moral Majority wanted art to die. Now it’s unions and people that are, again, claiming virtuous reasons for all of this. The truth is a lot of local theater has failed, and the pandemic helped put the nail in the coffin.

Small theater companies of people who just want a way in, in a business that’s so devoid of content. If you’re lucky, you get an audition for a walk-on in a sitcom, and how’s that feeding your artistic soul? So you had a huge amount of actors in Los Angeles that just wanted to do quality work, be in a play where they could get to say real lines by real authors. It was something they were volunteering for, that would keep their instrument sharp. And now they were being told they can’t do that.

Matt Taibbi: To what end, do you think?

Tim Robbins: Listen, Matt, if you told me 20 years ago that there would be no video stores where you could talk to a clerk and see what that person might be recommending, or no record stores where you could go see what’s new in music, or no bookstores in most towns, I would’ve told you you were crazy. But we’re here. This is part of a larger movement away from the gathering place.

Theaters are failing, and movie theaters are not doing so well. Any form of gathering place other than a bar has pretty much been hurting. You know, it’s no surprise to me how well sports have been doing during this whole period. Stadiums are packed because people need community.

I’ve always thought of baseball as a place where I can go and get away from the politics and just sit and high-five some dude that might have voted for someone I don’t like. That’s important.

Matt Taibbi: Art and movies used to play that role, too, but are they being discouraged in that function?

Tim Robbins: Yes. This is the whole purpose of theater, to bring people that don’t agree into the same place where they can agree on their own shared humanity.

That’s the other problem. It got incredibly politicized here. It wasn’t that way in London. What I felt there wasn’t the divide that there was here. I attended a couple of the marches that were happening in [early] 2021, which was when they were under their lockdown. There was a street presence of people who were coming out already, against mandates and passports. I went down and I talked to some of those people and I realized: it’s not a left-right thing there. These weren’t a bunch of National Front-type people. These were old hippies and homeopaths. I tweeted about it and I got this hellish response. I realized that we have been programmed in a different way in this country, to think that if someone doesn’t get the vaccine, they must be a Nazi.

Tim Robbins: I’m trying to understand why we’re in the situation we’re in, socially, with each other. That’s what concerns me the most. I believe that if the vaccine helps you, that’s great. But, I have kind of a hard line on freedom. You can’t over-regulate people’s lives. I don’t know what that makes me, what label that puts on me, but I am an absolutist on freedom.

I’ve done a lot of work in organizing and in protest movements and in building coalitions. Community building is always about an organizer walking into the room and knowing that the people in this room do not agree on everything. But I, as an organizer, have to find the linchpin, find the common thread. And when I find that, I’m going to build the movement around that.

What I’ve been seeing over the past few years has been the opposite of that. It’s going into a room and saying, “You don’t have the right to speak because you don’t agree with our way of thinking.” Or it’s, “You’re an idiot for thinking this or that. Shut up. Get your vaccination.”

You’re not going to build any movement that way. All you’ll do is alienate people. And whether it’s organizing around social justice or criminal justice reform or creating more equity — all legitimate important things that need to be done — organizers who know how to do it don’t create division. They don’t cancel people. Because once you’ve done that, you’ve lost those people forever. You’re not getting them back.

Matt Taibbi: Don’t art and movies try to do the same thing? You’re looking for the unifying theme, the thing everyone thinks is funny, or everybody enjoys? The linchpin that holds an audience together?

Tim Robbins: Trying to find the thing that unites us. Exactly. Right. You’re trying to find something that we all can laugh at or a shared feeling that we can all have.

Dead Man Walking was a real challenge because it was a dance we had to do. I didn’t want to make the movie just for people that were against the death penalty. I wanted to make it for everybody, and I wanted people to have a discussion about it. So we had to give dignity and screen time and respect to the people that had lost their family members, and were for the death penalty. And I thought we did it in a way that was respectful enough so that people, if they did not agree with getting rid of the death penalty, could still watch that film and see their shared humanity in the pain of the mother, of the pain of Sister Helen, in the pain of the killer himself.

That’s the difficult thing to do. But when you do that, then you create dialogue. Helen will tell you that that movie changed the picture for her. Beforehand, everywhere she went, 10 or 15 people showed up. Now she’s got a thousand people coming out, and they have a discussion about the death penalty. You know, we did a play version of it, and we were in 140 universities over the course of 10 years. There would be 30 young people getting together to do a play. And when the play would open, there would be symposiums from the law department, from the divinity school, from sociology departments. They would have discussions and meetings and debates, and the actors themselves would have to play parts that they didn’t necessarily agree with, and have to go into that mindset. And it created a fertile ground for discussion and for growth. People could respect each other and both sides of the opinion.

Throwing your doors open for the public means you throw them open to everybody. And once, no one even thought twice about that. It’s the decent thing to do. Then during the pandemic, I heard people saying, “If you didn’t take the vaccine and you get sick, you don’t have a right to a hospital bed.”

And I just started thinking, “What about all the junkies?” That’s the choice they made, too. It’s their own fucking vein. Are we kicking them out? No. You take care of them.

Matt Taibbi: Smokers, obese people who have diabetes…

Tim Robbins: You save their lives. Because they’re part of us. They may be troubled and they may be having to take these drugs for whatever emotional reasons they are, but what the hell man, you gotta take care of them.

And like you say, it could be that you apply that to obesity, you could apply that to any physical malady that has anything to do with something you put in your body. Well, that’s a choice that you made. Maybe a bad choice, but don’t worry about it. We got you. And then you have the choice as to whether you want to change your life or not.

That, for me, is a functioning society.

The Price of Free

The changes we are seeing with social media platforms reflect the economics of the push-ad-driven model to monetize data networks. If we want free content, we pay for it in other ways; just like with broadcast tv. (And who watches broadcast tv anymore?)

The truth is that the conversion rates for digital ads on social network sites are abysmal, so neither advertisers nor consumers are very happy with push ads. Will I sit through 10 unwanted ads? No. Now I will merely click to different applications until the ads run out = more ad money wasted.

The issue is that with social networks, creators creating content and users sharing it produces much of the value of the data network. “Free” is actually not adequate compensation for social network value, much less worth paying for. But the platforms don’t want users to realize that and hope they have turned their free members into addicts who will now pay with subscription-based models. Perhaps. But there are better ways to create and realize the value of creative content. Word of mouth and trust among like-minded friends is the best advertisement that money can’t buy.

Below we reprint a blog post by Ted Gioia that explains the progressive intrusion of push ads and the Internet “tax.”

The important takeaway is this: The result of all this is that the Internet is turning into the epicenter of crap.”

YouTube May Force You to Watch 10 (or More) Unskippable Ads in a Row
The biggest trick the Devil ever played was convincing people that online stuff is free

Ted Gioia

The biggest trick the Devil ever played was convincing people that online stuff is free. But the Devil always collects, sooner or later—and we are starting to learn the actual terms of this cursed deal.

Consider some recent news stories:

YouTube has been testing users’ willingness to watch 10 unskippable ads on a video. And the ads aren’t spaced out. They come at you, one right after the other, at the outset—because Google wants to be paid first, even if the video sucks.

Nobody wants ads on iPhone, but they’re coming. Executives at Apple are allegedly planning to triple the ad revenue from phones.

“For some Google searches literally the whole screen on Google is ads.”

TikTok can track a user’s every keystroke, and Beijing has “access to everything.”

“Scams are showing up at the top of online searches.”

Snapchat has been forced to pay $35 million for storing and selling users’ biometric information without permission.

Even if you pay for ad-free streaming, Spotify inserts ads in podcasts.

Ads are coming to Netflix too.

Etc. etc. etc.

This is what happens when ‘free’ really isn’t free—but consumers prefer to stay in denial. Go ahead and rob me, just make sure I’m not looking when it happens.

It’s even worse than that. Web users are now hooked on free—and like all addictions, this one is far costlier than you realize at the outset.

You have more leverage when you negotiate an actual price. When I cancel a paid subscription, the corporate provider always comes back with a special offer to get me to reconsider. But how much bargaining power do I have if I refuse to click on those “terms and conditions” that always come with the free stuff?

I’ll answer that for you—none at all.

How bad will it get? YouTube described its ten unskippable ads as a “test”—but this wasn’t done in a laboratory or with volunteers. They just forced it on users, and watched them squirm. And squirm they did.

In fact, one person reported a 12-ad blitz.

This wouldn’t be so bad if it was just one business or sector of the economy that played these games. But this is the de facto business model for the entire digital economy. To maintain the illusion of free, all our online activities are sinking into spam, scam, and sham. Everything from sending an email to sharing a photo gets monitored and monetized by big tech companies—and often you’re the last person to find out what the real price is.

I’ve written elsewhere of how much we would have suffered if AT&T had run the phone network with a Google strategy. You wouldn’t be able to talk on the phone until you first heard a bunch of advertisements first. The restaurant you call for a dinner reservation would have to kickback a share of your meal tab to the phone company. Everything you did on your phone would be more cumbersome and less efficient.

Guess what? That still may happen. The only reason Apple hasn’t already started force-feeding ads on your iPhone is a fear that competitors may not do the same—and they might lose a few market share points. But all it takes is one backroom meeting of dubious legality between smartphone providers, and you will soon start hearing a pitch from the GEICO gecko before you even say hello.

Let me add some comments about advertising—which is one of the most poorly understood phenomena in modern society.

I know more about this than I care to—if only because I spent a lot of time with advertising and marketing people during my lost years, and I learned how they view the world. I even was hired, many years ago, to analyze the financial payback of an expensive TV advertising campaign—a project that took months to complete. I’m probably still tied up in some non-disclosure agreement on that, so all I will say is that I’m not surprised that some of the more powerful brands of the last 30 years (Starbucks, Amazon, etc.) managed to rise to dominance while spending almost nothing on TV commercials.

I would urge you to consider the especially revealing case of the company that sells the most ads (Google). This marketing behemoth waited more than a decade before launching even a single TV ad campaign for its own services.

The bosses at Google are no fools—they understand the value of advertising better than anyone. That’s why they prefer to sell it than buy it.

And then ask yourself: When was the last time you saw an ad agency buy a TV ad for its own business? They have the money to do it, but won’t. Maybe they know something we don’t.

You probably have heard all the familiar critiques and ‘debunkings’ of advertising. I just read another one yesterday by a famous French public intellectual, who almost wept over how marketing deceives and manipulates us. It hypnotizes people with bright colors and broken promises. It enflames our desires for things we don’t need, which we chase after like zombies pursuing a sorority sister in a slasher film—mindlessly grasping for products and services we barely understand.

You’ve probably heard criticisms like this too. But it’s total bunk.

Advertising in the year 2022 doesn’t hypnotize us. It doesn’t stir up our desires. What it actually does is. . . . bore us.

Endlessly. Shamelessly. It annoys us. It irritates us. We would skip it if we could.

That’s why advertisers have to force-feed us these ads—by making me watch the same insurance commercial over and over on YouTube, or clogging up the screen of a webpage with annoying pitches, or (worst of all) spamming my email box with garbage until I’m swimming in spam.

If advertising was really hypnotic and controlling, they wouldn’t need to resort to these tedious tricks.

(By the way, what really enflames our consumer libido isn’t an advertisement, it’s our mimetic desire for what friends and neighbors already own. My buddy at the office has more influence on me than any advertising campaign, and vice versa. This is, once again, a mark of René Girard’s brilliance—he wrote the book on mimetic desire. It’s amazing that some ad agency on Madison Avenue didn’t hire him. He would have risen to name partner faster than Don Draper in a tailored suit, and have earned a lot more than Stanford ever paid him.)

The result of all this is that the Internet is turning into the epicenter of crap. It’s the detention center where force-feeding of marketing messages takes place daily. And when we build up a degree of immunity—learning how to control our irritation while sitting through two or three idiotic YouTube ads—they increase it to five or ten ads before the video even begins.

Here’s another thing the Devil—or the leading web platforms, in this instance—won’t tell you. They want you to be annoyed. That’s right—even if they could make those ads hypnotic, they wouldn’t. Google would love to sell you a premium YouTube subscription in order to avoid all those irritating ads. Spotify wants you to be a paid member. The more boring the ads, the more those technocrats smile.

This brings us to the next misconception about advertising. You are told that rich people with high status pay attention to the advertisements—and run out to buy all that stuff. But the real scoop here is that rich people pay for the premium subscription so they don’t have to watch all that garbage.

That’s real status nowadays—when you don’t watch the ads anymore. Advertising is for the masses, not the elites.

Finally, this explains why so much advertising is for things you’re going to buy anyway—auto insurance, prescription medicine, a beer. This is because even the companies themselves realize they have lost the ability to stir up new demand. All they can really do with ads is reinforce existing behavior patterns.

So if I drank a Budweiser while watching the NFL game last Sunday, maybe I’ll do the same this Sunday. But they could advertise V8 juice at every time out, and I’m still not bringing home a six-pack of that swill to my Super Bowl party.

The bottom line: Advertising in the year 2022 is more Pavlovian than utopian. More a punishment for the masses than a guide to the elites. More an annoyance than a compass for our desires.

This, my friends, is the web we asked for. We wanted everything for free—but what we really got was a swamp where all the costs are still there, just hidden. And the experience we have gained from other industries where prices are mostly hidden from view—healthcare is the most obvious example, but of course, there are others—is that this usually turns out to be the most expensive transaction of them all.

Anonymity Online: A Two-Edged Sword

The real risk is that we go on getting lost in stupid arguments, over shiny but trivial talking-points, and never get the hang of parsing what actually matters in the torrent of information overload. 

 

This essay, published in UnHerd examines the downside of anonymity and the pathologies of social media. And also the dangers of censorship. This is why we have no anonymity on tuka so reputational capital can be valued and rewarded. Some excerpts and comments below.

Why Twitter is So Awful

“…the term “attention economy” was coined… by Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon, in a 1971 article. Simon explored how to build organizations in a world saturated by information, arguing that attention is a key bottleneck in human culture. That is, the more abundant information is, the scarcer attention becomes as a resource.”

Yes, the time and energy consumed by attention are the resource constraints we face with too much information.

In the resulting bare-knuckle war for attention, it’s not reason that wins. Nor is everyone saying that the best, sanest, or most constructive ideas will prevail. Rather, it’s the most lurid (or aggressively state-sponsored) ideas that make it to the surface…

Yes, but nature has empowered us to adapt to a changing environment, and this applies to technological change that shapes our social interactions. We are learning how to cope with global social media that has distorted local human interaction. But one might have made a similar case against the introduction of the automobile. Motor vehicles made life more treacherous, where pedestrians were now subject to new risks. But we learned to regulate car traffic on roads and provide guidelines and behaviors for pedestrians. We learned how, when walking through town, to look both ways. We need to learn similar survival skills for navigating the online, virtual world. One must take control of one’s social engagement. Many have chosen to completely unplug.

The real risk is that we go on getting lost in stupid arguments, over shiny but trivial talking-points, and never get the hang of parsing what actually matters in the torrent of information overload. 

Yes, so one must exert judgment over how to spend one’s precious time. Not everyone will get it, but on a societal level it becomes a reflection of cultural values. Cultural values swing and tend toward the mean of humanity. When engaging online makes us feel less human, we will disengage in favor of human interaction. This is why so many people choose not to engage on Twitter and Facebook. And this is how we control the inhuman evolution of technology. Teach your children well.

How To Fix Social Media (Facebook!)

How to Fix Social Media.

The Wall Street Journal has published a series of articles they call The Facebook Files. One article recently queried a dozen “experts” to discuss their ideas of how to fix social media. We at tuka have been focused on this challenge from the beginning, several years ago, and what these commentators reveal is a converging consensus that the problem with social media is scale and emotional triggering based on the speed of information flow. As Winston Churchill was said to quip, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Social media connections have just made this pathology worse.

Our take has always been summed up with one line: A global gossip network makes no sense. So large, centralized networks of 3 billion users make no sense (i.e, FB). Social networking is person-to-person sharing based on mutual trust. So smaller newworks focused on shared interests make sense. This is what tuka is. Technology can then be harnessed to coordinate these networks in ways that reduce the siloing effect so we can all end up sharing more information based on our trusted networks. So what is needed are policies that break down the network effects of scale to open up the social media space to thousands of competitors, all focused on different community interests. Then the interactions across networks help bring us together willingly.

The other problem we at tuka have cited is the centralization and control of information networks and the immense value they create. Data is gold, and we cannot have a handful of private companies own and control the personal data users create. This is akin to giving your labor away, or slavery. The required changes are to decentralize the network using blockchain technologies so that value created can be measured and distributed accordingly to users.

Several of the experts have accurately recognized the problem and what to do about it. The better ideas have been cut and pasted below.

….

Clay Shirky: Slow It Down and Make It Smaller

We know how to fix social media. We’ve always known. We were complaining about it when it got worse, so we remember what it was like when it was better. We need to make it smaller and slow it down.

The spread of social media vastly increased how many people any of us can reach with a single photo, video or bit of writing. When we look at who people connect to on social networks—mostly friends, unsurprisingly—the scale of immediate connections seems manageable. But the imperative to turn individual offerings, mostly shared with friends, into viral sensations creates an incentive for social media platforms, and especially Facebook, to amplify bits of content well beyond any friend group.

We’re all potential celebrities now, where anything we say could spread well beyond the group we said it to, an effect that the social media scholar Danah Boyd has called “context collapse.” And once we’re all potential celebrities, some people will respond to the incentives to reach that audience—hot takes, dangerous stunts, fake news, miracle cures, the whole panoply of lies and grift we now behold.

The faster content moves, the likelier it is to be borne on the winds of emotional reaction.

The inhuman scale at which the internet assembles audiences for casually produced material is made worse by the rising speed of viral content. As the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman observed, human thinking comes in two flavors: fast and slow. Emotions are fast, and deliberation is slow.

The obvious corollary is that the faster content moves, the likelier it is to be borne on the winds of emotional reaction, with any deliberation coming after it has spread, if at all. The spread of smartphones and push notifications has created a whole ecosystem of URGENT! messages, things we are exhorted to amplify by passing them along: Like if you agree, share if you very much agree.

Social media is better, for individuals and for the social fabric, if the groups it assembles are smaller, and if the speed at which content moves through it is slower. Some of this is already happening, as people vote with their feet (well, fingers) to join various group chats, whether via SMS, Slack or Discord.

We know that scale and speed make people crazy. We’ve known this since before the web was invented. Users are increasingly aware that our largest social media platforms are harmful and that their addictive nature makes some sort of coordinated action imperative.

It’s just not clear where that action might come from. Self-regulation is ineffective, and the political arena is too polarized to agree on any such restrictions. There are only two remaining scenarios: regulation from the executive branch or a continuation of the status quo, with only minor changes. Neither of those responses is ideal, but given that even a global pandemic does not seem to have galvanized bipartisanship, it’s hard to see any other set of practical options.

Mr. Shirky is Vice Provost for Educational Technologies at New York University and the author of “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.”

….

Jaron Lanier: Topple the New Gods of Data

When we speak of social media, what are we talking about? Is it the broad idea of people connecting over the internet, keeping track of old friends, or sharing funny videos? Or is it the business model that has come to dominate those activities, as implemented by Facebook and a few other companies?

Tech companies have dominated the definition because of the phenomenon known as network effects: The more connected a system is, the more likely it is to produce winner-take-all outcomes. Facebook took all.

The domination is so great that we forget alternatives are possible. There is a wonderful new generation of researchers and critics concerned with problems like damage to teen girls and incitement of racist violence, and their work is indispensable. If all we had to talk about was the more general idea of possible forms of social media, then their work would be what’s needed to improve things.

Unfortunately, what we need to talk about is the dominant business model. This model spews out horrible incentives to make people meaner and crazier. Incentives run the world more than laws, regulations, critiques, or the ideas of researchers.

The current incentives are to “engage” people as much as possible, which means triggering the “lizard brain” and fight-or-flight responses. People have always been a little paranoid, xenophobic, racist, neurotically vain, irritable, selfish, and afraid. And yet putting people under the influence of engagement algorithms has managed to bring out even more of the worst of us.

The current incentives are to ‘engage’ people as much as possible, which means triggering the ‘lizard brain.’

Can we survive being under the ambient influence of behavior modification algorithms that make us stupider?

The business model that makes life worse is based on a particular ideology. This ideology holds that humans as we know ourselves are being replaced by something better that will be brought about by tech companies. Either we’ll become part of a giant collective organism run through algorithms, or artificial intelligence will soon be able to do most jobs, including running society, better than people. The overwhelming imperative is to create something like a universally Facebook-connected society or a giant artificial intelligence.

These “new gods” run on data, so as much data as possible must be gathered, and getting in the middle of human interactions is how you gather that data. If the process makes people crazy, that’s an acceptable price to pay.

The business model, not the algorithms, is also why people have to fear being put out of work by technology. If people were paid fairly for their contributions to algorithms and robots, then more tech would mean more jobs, but the ideology demands that people accept a creeping feeling of human obsolescence. After all, if data coming from people were valued, then it might seem like the big computation gods, like AI, were really just collaborations of people instead of new life forms. That would be a devastating blow to the tech ideology.

Facebook now proposes to change its name and to primarily pursue the “metaverse” instead of “social media,” but the only changes that fundamentally matter are in the business model, ideology, and resulting incentives.

Mr. Lanier is a computer scientist and the author, most recently, of “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.”

Clive Thompson: Online Communities That Actually Work

Are there any digital communities that aren’t plagued by trolling, posturing and terrible behavior? Sure there are. In fact, there are quite a lot of online hubs where strangers talk all day long in a very civil fashion. But these aren’t the sites that we typically think of as social media, like Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. No, I’m thinking of the countless discussion boards and Discord servers devoted to hobbies or passions like fly fishing, cuisine, art, long-distance cycling or niche videogames.

I visit places like this pretty often in reporting on how people use digital tools, and whenever I check one out, I’m often struck by how un-toxic they are. These days, we wonder a lot about why social networks go bad. But it’s equally illuminating to ask about the ones that work well. These communities share one characteristic: They’re small. Generally they have only a few hundred members, or maybe a couple thousand if they’re really popular.

And smallness makes all the difference. First, these groups have a sense of cohesion. The members have joined specifically to talk to people with whom they share an enthusiasm. That creates a type of social glue, a context and a mutual respect that can’t exist on a highly public site like Twitter, where anyone can crash any public conversation.

Smallness makes all the difference. These groups have a sense of cohesion.

Even more important, small groups typically have people who work to keep interactions civil. Sometimes this will be the forum organizer or an active, long-term participant. They’ll greet newcomers to make them feel welcome, draw out quiet people and defuse conflict when they see it emerge. Sometimes they’ll ban serious trolls. But what’s crucial is that these key members model good behavior, illustrating by example the community’s best standards. The internet thinkers Heather Gold, Kevin Marks and Deb Schultz put a name to this: “tummeling,” after the Yiddish “tummeler,” who keeps a party going.

None of these positive elements can exist in a massive, public social network, where millions of people can barge into each other’s spaces—as they do on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The single biggest problem facing social media is that our dominant networks are obsessed with scale. They want to utterly dominate their fields, so they can kill or absorb rivals and have the ad dollars to themselves. But scale breaks social relations.

Is there any way to mitigate this problem? I’ve never heard of any simple solution. Strong antitrust enforcement for the big networks would be useful, to encourage a greater array of rivals that truly compete with one another. But this likely wouldn’t fully solve the problem of scale, since many users crave scale too. Lusting after massive, global audiences, they will flock to whichever site offers the hugest. Many of the proposed remedies for social media, like increased moderation or modifications to legal liability, might help, but all leave intact the biggest problem of all: Bigness itself.

Mr. Thompson is a journalist who covers science and technology. He is the author, most recently, of “Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World.”

Does Facebook Really Make Sense?

An essay on social networks and regulation, published by Project Syndicate.

A Facelift for Facebook

One can agree with the explanation of the problem – centralized control of an increasingly valuable asset: information data. I’m not sure a real solution has been proposed yet. When I explain how platforms exploit the collection of users’ personal data for great material gain, I usually get a shoulder shrug. People still fail to appreciate that their data is as valuable as their labor, if not more so. They would not give away their labor for free, so why give away one’s valuable data for a free user page and some simple tools?

At a macro level, a social network like FB makes almost no sense, except as a data mining tool. FB thrives on little more than gossip networks and if one looks at the function of social gossip across time and cultures one realizes a global gossip network makes no sense from a human pov. All the negative effects and few of the positive. As Hill points out, Online Social Networks make sense for small assemblies of friends, families, and interest groups. This is the goal for OSNs of the future. FB “Groups” might resemble the type of content-focused social network that is valuable to users, but, of course, on FB these are exploited exclusively for FB or the administrator of the group. The users get free participation, but little of the value created. A small club of influencers is not the future of OSNs.

A digital license could impose some necessary public goods features, but for regulating audience size, the potential for abuse and centralized control probably outweighs the benefits. Better for the market to solve this problem with competition, but that will probably require some government policy that reduces or eliminates the existing natural monopolies due to network effects. (“Search” needs to be a public regulated utility, while Amazon needs to spin-off its vertical integration. I’m still of the opinion that large social networks like FB will be competed away.)

I would imagine the future would look like many social networks that are decentralized but coordinated in some way so that one doesn’t get siloed. And personal data must be under the control of users with the value of the social network created shared among them. For that one probably needs some kind of a decentralized blockchain solution. Most large, complex systems only become manageable through coordinated decentralization of control. Think representative democracy and Federalism.

Collective Memory and Culture

This is an interesting explanation of how digital networks affect culture.  Comments in RED.

How We’ll Forget John Lennon

Kevin Berger

A few years ago a student walked into the office of Cesar A. Hidalgo, director of the Collective Learning group at the MIT Media Lab. Hidalgo was listening to music and asked the student if she recognized the song. She wasn’t sure. “Is it Coldplay?” she asked. It was “Imagine” by John Lennon. Hidalgo took it in stride that his student didn’t recognize the song. As he explains in our interview below, he realized the song wasn’t from her generation. What struck Hidalgo, though, was the incident echoed a question that had long intrigued him, which was how music and movies and all the other things that once shone in popular culture faded like evening from public memory.

Hidalgo is among the premier data miners of the world’s collective history. With his MIT colleagues, he developed Pantheon, a dataset that ranks historical figures by popularity from 4000 B.C. to 2010. Aristotle and Plato snag the top spots. Jesus is third. It’s a highly addictive platform that allows you to search people, places, and occupations with a variety of parameters. Most famous tennis player of all time? That’s right, Frenchman Rene Lacoste, born in 1904. (Roger Federer places 20th.) Rankings are drawn from, essentially, Wikipedia biographies, notably ones in more than 25 different languages, and Wikipedia page views.

Medium Is the Message: “As a new medium takes over, the type of information being produced changes dramatically,” says Cesar Hidalgo. “Printing was not good for actors but good for playwrights. TV was not good for playwrights but very good for sports.” 

 In December 2018, Hidalgo and colleagues published a Nature paper that put his crafty data-mining talents to work on another question: How do people and products drift out of the cultural picture? They traced the fade-out of songs, movies, sports stars, patents, and scientific publications. They drew on data from sources such as Billboard, Spotify, IMDB, Wikipedia, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the American Physical Society, which has gathered information on physics articles from 1896 to 2016. Hidalgo’s team then designed mathematical models to calculate the rate of decline of the songs, people, and scientific papers.

The report, “The universal decay of collective memory and attention,” concludes that people and things are kept alive through “oral communication” from about five to 30 years. They then pass into written and online records, where they experience a slower, longer decline. The paper argues that people and things that make the rounds at the water cooler have a higher probability of settling into physical records. “Changes in communication technologies, such as the rise of the printing press, radio and television,” it says, affect our degree of attention, and all of our cultural products, from songs to scientific papers, “follow a universal decay function.”

Last week I caught up with Hidalgo to talk about his Nature paper. But I also wanted to push him to talk about what he saw between the mathematical lines, to wear the social scientist’s hat and reflect on the consequences of decay in collective memory.

How do you define “collective memory?”

The easiest definition would be those pieces of knowledge or information that are shared by a large number of people.

Why does collective memory decay matter?

If you think about it, culture and memory are the only things we have. We treasure cultural memory because we use that knowledge to build and produce everything we have around us. That knowledge is going to help us build the future and solve the problems we have yet to solve. If aliens come here and wave a magic wand and make everyone forget everything—our cars, buildings, bridges, airplanes, our power systems, and so forth, we would collapse as a society immediately.

The relative power of scientists has diminished as we exited the printing era and went into this more performance-based era.

In your mind, what is a classic example of collective memory decay?

I thought everybody knew “Imagine” by John Lennon. I’m almost 40 and my student was probably 20. But I realized “Imagine” is not as popular in her generation as it was in mine, and it was probably less popular in my generation than in the generation before. People have a finite capacity to remember things. There’s great competition for the content out there, and the number of people who know or remember something decays over time. There’s another example, of Elvis Presley memorabilia. People had bought Elvis memorabilia for years and it was collecting huge prices. Then all of a sudden the prices started to collapse. What happened is the people who collected Elvis memorabilia started to die. Their families were stuck with all of this Elvis stuff and trying to sell it. But all of the people who were buyers were also dying.

You write collective memory also reflects changes in communication technologies, such as the rise of the printing press, radio, and TV. How so?

Take print. Changing the world from an oral tradition to a written tradition provided a much better medium for data. A lot of people have linked the revolution in the sciences and astronomy to the rise of printing because astronomical tables, for instance, could be copied in a reliable way. Before printing, astronomical tables were hand-copied, which introduced errors that diminished the quality of the data. With printing, people had more reliable forms of data. We see very clearly from our data that with the rise of printing you get the rise of astronomers, mathematicians, and scientists. You also see a rise in composers because printing helps the transmission of sheet music. So when you look at people we remember most from the time when print first arose, you see ones from the arts and sciences.

What did the mediums that came next mean for science?

The new mediums of radio and TV were much more adaptive for entertainment than science, that’s for sure. The people who belong to the sciences, as a fraction of the people who became famous, diminished enormously during the 20th century. The new mediums were not good for the nuances that science demands. For good reason, scientists need to qualify their statements narrowly and be careful when they talk about causality. They need to be specific about the methods they use and the data they collect. All of those extensive nuances are hard to communicate in mediums that are good for entertainment and good for performance. So the relative power of scientists, or their position in society, have diminished as we exited the printing era and went into this more performance-based era.

At the same time, scientists and the general scientific community have not been great at adapting their ideas to new mediums. Scientists are the first ones to bring down another scientist who tries to popularize content in a way that would not be traditional. So scientists are their own worst enemies in this battle. They have lagged behind in their ability to learn how to use these mediums. Sometimes they focus too much on the content without paying attention on how to adapt it to the medium that will best help it get out.

What does your analysis tell us we didn’t know before about the decay of collective memory?

We began by looking at how popular something is today based on how long ago it became popular in the first place. The expectation is collective memory decays over time in a smooth pattern, that the more time goes by, the more things become forgotten. But what we found when we looked at cultural products—movies, songs, sports figures, patents, and science papers—was that decay is not smooth but has two defined regimes.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Then there’s the second regime in which it has a much longer tail, when the decay is smoother, and the attention is less. [This implies that artistic innovation, which departs from the popular, will take longer and a more focused, or niche, audience to catch on; its durability and network dissemination determining how successful it is.] 

I’m surprised how the U.S., a country with people doing so many things, can become so monothematic on such a vast scale.

When we started to think about decay, we realized we could take two concepts from anthropology—“communicative memory” and “cultural memory.” Communicative memory arises from talking about things. Donald Trump is very much in our communicative memory now. You walk down the street and find people talking about Trump—Trump and tariffs, Trump and the trade war. But there’s going to be a point, 20 years in the future, in which he’s not going to be talked about every day. He’s going to exit from communicative memory and be part of cultural memory. And that’s the memory we sustain through records. Although the average amount of years that something remains in communicative memory varies—athletes last longer than songs, movies, and science papers, sometimes for a couple of decades—we found this same overall decay pattern in multiple cultural domains.

In your forthcoming paper, “How the medium shapes the message,” you refer to the late cultural critic Neil Postman who argued that the popular rise of TV led to a new reign of entertainment, which dumbed us down, because entertainment was best suited for TV. Is that what you found?

We found evidence in that favor, yes. Because the fraction of people who belong to the sciences, as a fraction of all of the people that become famous, diminishes enormously during the 20th century. It would completely agree with that observation.

Do you agree with Postman that we’re all “amusing ourselves to death?”

I don’t think we’re amusing ourselves to death. I’m not like that much of a pessimist. I do think life is also about enjoying the ride, not just about doing important things. And new mediums like TikTok, a kind of Twitter for videos, are great for creative expression. People are doing amazing little performance skits on TikTok. The entertainment and artistic components of every new medium are not bad per se, but every medium can be hijacked by extreme people who know how to craft entertaining messages, especially when they want to advance a certain agenda.

What type of information is best suited for the Internet?

It’s hard to think of the Internet as a medium. It’s more of a platform in which Facebook, Twitter, email, and TikTok are different mediums. They each send their own type of message. A picture that does well on Instagram doesn’t necessarily shine on Twitter, where people are expecting something else. The behavior and the engagements are different. Twitter, for example, is about being controversial. You know, one way to get chewed up on Twitter is to try to be in the center! I use Twitter a little, but not that much. I find that it’s a little bit hostile. I’m a family type of guy, so I use Facebook. In Facebook, at least in my circle, you put more detail into comments and are a little bit more thoughtful.

Now people like Elon Musk are in the center of culture. Young people now look up to entrepreneurs the way we used to look up to musicians.

Is collective memory decaying more rapidly because communication technologies are so much faster?

I would love to know that but I can’t. Some people would say collective memory decays based not on calendar time but the speed at which new content is being produced. We forget Elvis because the Beatles came up and we forget the Beatles because Led Zeppelin came and we forget Led Zeppelin because Metallica came up, and so forth. But things become very dear to a generation and people will not forget about them just because new content came in. So decay would be something characteristic of humans, not the volume of content. To separate those two things, we would need to look at content from very different time frames. At the moment, we don’t have the richness of data that we would need to answer that question.

Still, don’t you think the speed at which online information is tearing through our brains has got to be leaving some path of destruction in collective memory?

I don’t know. I grew up in Chile, which of course is small compared to the United States. I came to the U.S. for the first time in 1996. And one of the things that still surprises me is how monothematic American culture can be. In 1996 it was all about O.J. Simpson. Everybody talked about O.J. Simpson. He was everywhere on TV. Just like Trump today, he consumed the entire bandwidth. I’m surprised how a country with so many people, and with people doing so many different things, can nevertheless become so monothematic on such a vast scale. Today we have so much more content than in 1996 because of the rise of the Internet and the ability of people to create content. But look at the percentage of all conversations and online communications that are consumed by Trump. So in that context, I don’t think content is being replaced so easily. I don’t see that much of a rise in diversity. [This indicates the winner-take-all nature of network and popularity metrics. Content creators become famous for being famous.] 

That’s really interesting. Because one of the common criticisms of the current information glut is we have no shared cultural center. Everybody has their own narrow interest and we have no shared cultural bond, no John Lennon.

Is that a collective memory phenomenon or is it because nowadays the guys in the middle of the culture are different guys? Different people come into the center of culture because of the type of mediums that are available. There have been musicians for thousands of years, and for most of that history, musicians have not been wealthy. It was only when there was a medium that allowed them to sell their music—vinyl, magnetic tapes, and discs—that they were able to make money. I think that generated a golden era of pop music in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. And that’s associative to a communication technology that was dominant at that time. Radio and discs were a way to distribute those popular idols’ musical performances. When that technology was replaced by simple forms of copying, like the ability to copy files on the Internet, all that went away. [This explains why the music industry of physical media, with its high-profit margins, is not coming back.] Now people like Elon Musk are in the center of culture. He’s not John Lennon. It’s a very different type of leadership, a different type of model for young people. But Musk’s first job was an online payment start-up. And I think a lot of young people now look up to entrepreneurs the way we used to look up to musicians.

Did you come away from your study with insights into what may or may not cause something to stick in collective memory?

I read a very good book recently called The Formula by Albert-Laszlo Barabas. He says you can equate quality and popularity in situations in which performance is clearly measurable. But in cases in which performance is not clearly measurable, you cannot equate popularity with quality. If you look at tennis players, you find tennis players who win tournaments and difficult games are more popular. So quality and fame are closely correlated in a field in which performance is measured as tightly as professional tennis players. As you move to things that are less quantifiable in terms of performance, like modern art [or music or books], your networks are going to be more important in determining popularity. [This is why we need a human social network that curates and filters subjective content.]

How should we think about quality in media content?

Well, I would say that collective memory decay is an important way to measure and think about quality. If you publish some clickbait that is popular in the beginning, that gets a lot of views in the first couple of days, but a year later, nobody looks at it, you have a good metric. The same is true if you publish a more thoughtful piece that might not be as popular in the beginning because it didn’t work as clickbait—it required more engagement from the readers—but keeps on building readers over time. So the differences in longevity are important metrics for quality. [So unless we have a dynamic social network that can curate subjective contents and filter it into its proper consumer niche, quality becomes an ignored step-child to the popularity of art.]

That goes back to a paper I did when I was an undergrad about the decay functions of attendance of movies. There were some movies that had a lot of box office revenue in the first week but then decayed really fast. And there were other movies that decayed more slowly. We created a model in which people would talk to each other [this is what happens with an OSN] and communicate information of the quality of the movie. And that model only had one parameter, which was how good was the movie was. So the quality of the movie would increase or decrease the probability that people would go watch it. We could then look at the curves and infer how good the movie was, based not on the total area it was shown, or on the total revenue, but on the shape of the curve. That was interesting because there were movies that were really bad like Tomb Raider, which at first was a box office success. But if you put it on our model, you would see that it was just hype, people watched it, hated the movie, and the curve decayed really fast.

Cultural innovation and quality depend on human curation of content and word of mouth through a social network.