I’ve got this thought about how every good idea becomes colonised and domesticated. While domestication can be a good thing, because it potentially makes it more accessible to all, it also robs the idea of its radical, transformatory power.
Colonisation, however, is never a positive thing. It’s about renegotiating existing relationships, often through the lens of power, capital, and hegemonic power.
How related the above two paragraphs are to this article in The New Yorker is questionable. But, to me, it’s related. Centralised social media is colonised and domesticated.
Once upon a time, the Internet was predicated on user-generated content. The hope was that ordinary people would take advantage of the Web’s low barrier for publishing to post great things, motivated simply by the joy of open communication. We know now that it didn’t quite pan out that way. User-generated GeoCities pages or blogs gave way to monetized content. Google made the Internet more easily searchable, but, in the early two-thousands, it also began selling ads and allowed other Web sites to easily incorporate its advertising modules. That business model is still what most of the Internet relies on today. Revenue comes not necessarily from the value of content itself but from its ability to attract attention, to get eyeballs on ads, which are most often bought and sold through corporations like Google and Facebook. The rise of social networks in the twenty-tens made this model only more dominant. Our digital posting became concentrated on a few all-encompassing platforms, which relied increasingly on algorithmic feeds. The result for users was more exposure but a loss of agency. We generated content for free, and then Facebook mined it for profit.
“Clickbait” has long been the term for misleading, shallow online articles that exist only to sell ads. But on today’s Internet the term could describe content across every field, from the unmarked ads on an influencer’s Instagram page to pseudonymous pop music designed to game the Spotify algorithm. Eichhorn uses the potent term “content capital”—a riff on Pierre Bourdieu’s “cultural capital”—to describe the way in which a fluency in posting online can determine the success, or even the existence, of an artist’s work. Where “cultural capital” describes how particular tastes and reference points confer status, “content capital” connotes an aptitude for creating the kind of ancillary content that the Internet feeds upon. Since so much audience attention is funnelled through social media, the most direct path to success is to cultivate a large digital following. “Cultural producers who, in the past, may have focused on writing books or producing films or making art must now also spend considerable time producing (or paying someone else to produce) content about themselves and their work,” Eichhorn writes. Pop stars log their daily routines on TikTok. Journalists spout banal opinions on Twitter. The best-selling Instapoet Rupi Kaur posts reels and photos of her typewritten poems. All are trapped by the daily pressure to produce ancillary content—memes, selfies, shitposts—to fill an endless void.