Everything is social—Part I

[Note: I wrote this three-part post to summarize a larger thesis I have been slowly building up these past months, which may or may not end up being a larger work. For this post, I have removed most citations to academic papers dealing with social media and abridged the text as much as I could. It’s still a large post, so read it at your leisure; there’s no need to binge here.

I have focused on how the structure itself of social media and information technologies affects the arts, like writing, although I first start with visual arts as an example because it’s easier to show, and so you can see it’s a more general pattern. Of course, the dynamics apply to many other areas of culture and public opinion. What I describe here are not laws, more like trends based on digital and social media nudges, and if both artists as well as consumers become aware of them, it’s reasonable to assume they would react or behave differently so as to counteract some of these forces. But how far this could go I do not know.

It goes without saying that this post applies mostly to creative efforts. My overview of social media is mostly negative because I’m focusing here on the effect it has had on the arts and the people who are usually described as digital natives—people that, to be blunt, have been scammed. If your purpose on social media is to follow a couple of gimmick accounts or post pictures of your cat, most of what you’ll find here will not affect you directly. For most online users, social media is a place to lurk, find jokes, and get angry at the news. However, more indirectly, either as a consumer of what other people there create or as a victim of current online discourses, what is explained here will affect you (or annoy you) one way or another.]

SOCIAL MEDIA AS A MICROCELEBRITY INDUSTRY

Everything is social, and that’s why barely anything new is going to come out in the coming decades, especially from those trying to court popular culture, and why the general trend in culture and public opinion is towards simplification and convergence. That is a straightforward statement to make, but to get there requires a somewhat convoluted train of thought, as most people understand the online condition we are in as “natural.” At best, the constraints are presented as a game to rig or beat, not as one to understand.

The first thing to say is that “social”, of course, doesn’t mean what the adjective means in a general context. The word was chosen for marketing purposes because it’s a word that just sounds nice, like the idea that social media “connects people,” which absolutely does not except in the weakest sense of the word. When social media users really want to connect, the first thing they do is bypass social media constraints and try a communication method that is closer to reality: private messages, email, or face-to-face interaction. In fact, if you want a tl. dr. version of what I’m going to say here, keep these things in mind: the value of your social media presence is proportional to how many people want to be in touch with you outside those platforms. Social media and digital self-branding have actually increased the value of real-life contacts, referrals, and IRL networking. For most users, being a digital native and believing in the power organic social media growth for their own “brand” is a waste of time. Nothing beats real-world contacts, and a single friend or contact in this or that industry beats 10,000 followers. Finally, there is nothing “revolutionary,” in the sociopolitical sense (and the technological too), about social media, as fakery and nonsense are its main products.

Now, what has come to define social media is not our social presence there, connectivity, or friendship, even if these things can occur. The defining trait of social media is, first, that it is social only in the sense that it creates an audience, real or imagined, for everything you do, transforming its users into microcelebrities and, for some, into people who seem unable to be alone or exist without being observed. Second, that online content becomes “social” in the sense that most people “work” there for free, as social media is a public repository of open-source intelligence, content, and crowdsourced marketing. And third, that all of this is measured and ranked in terms of “objective” popularity rankings which work both as behavioral measurements (XYZ is what people are doing/talking about because it has that many likes, shares, etc.) and public rewards (people who do or talk about XYZ get rewarded with attention.) So, when someone says that “X is what people are saying” it might mean that X is indeed something people feel a deep need to talk about or just that X is being observed more because it’s what it’s being rewarded with the most attention right now. Of course, that’s as old as humanity since we want to talk what other people are talking about but social media adds new layers of fakery while pretending it’s objective.

To see this more clearly, I’ll show you an example of a real social interaction for those who have forgotten how these things worked, and then I will compare it to its online social-media version:

You and a friend you have not seen for some time meet up. He tells you he has recently developed a taste for science fiction. Conveniently, you know there is a good bookstore that has that kind of material. You both go there, and you show him the three or four bookcases dedicated to the genre (with something like 500-1000 books, half of them classics of the genre.) You spend a while looking through the books, talking about which ones you recommend, the ones he has already read, the ones the bookstore doesn’t have, etc. Finally, your friend buys a couple. Later, back home, he will read the books, perhaps he’ll like them, but once finished with them, he will place them on a bookshelf for future use.

See the things that neither your friend nor you did:

You never checked any website during the exchange. You never looked up the ratings of any book or its reviews. It never crossed your minds to log on Twitter or Facebook to ask anyone’s opinion. You did not have to click through pages and pages of self-published Amazon erotica to find, say, an Asimov’s book—the organization of the physical books was natural and logical, by genre and alphabetic order. The books were not ordered by their sales, with less popular ones harder to find in the back of the shop’s most forgotten closet. You had no way of knowing if the books you recommended were selling well or how many “stars” they had. None of your opinions and comments were, as far as it’s reasonable to assume, based or influenced by any imagined social media audience, and they weren’t logged into any registry for other people to rate, nor were they publicly available. You didn’t suggest something because it would give you more clout. You weren’t thinking about which book would sell your brand better. You didn’t think, as you recommended this or that book, about which one would make for a catchier Goodreads review, tweet, Instagram selfie, or TikTok dance. You never looked at the authors’ social media presence or interacted with their influencers, microcelebrities, and other middlemen. You did not have to worry about the authors’ “beliefs” or their fans. Most importantly, and to sum up, no social media feedback influenced your conversation or thought patterns: You didn’t fashion your advice, opinions, and recommendations to the expectation of future positive feedback or engagement from members of a community you feel you have to please. Any feedback was immediate, its source (the friend,) known and expected, and the interaction was natural. You weren’t, minutes after having said something, worrying about how that message would be received or its possible level of engagement. In other words, the conversation was private, both in the physical and psychological sense. You opinions, words, comments, and behaviors weren’t broadcasted to a public or audience, hoping to attract as much attention as possible or, at least, please a community you are part of.

Natural as the original interaction might be, many online interactions aren’t like that, and on social media some are the complete opposite. A lot of what we do, talk about, or “believe” in is shaped or filtered through social media and, naturally, the Internet, yet those online platforms are designed around interactions that are highly unnatural and do not correlate to how normal people behave in healthy relationships or in a normal society. In fact, one human relationship or domain analogous to social media is that of superstars and celebrities engaging with their fans or with more famous celebrities. Social media has reshaped many of its users into aspirational microcelebrities, with all the competition, meltdowns, fakery, and drama that this entails—but, being micro, with few of their rewards.

Social media (SM from now on) has standardized many human interactions and creative processes into “content” so they can be ranked, analyzed, and commodified. This process is highly destructive (by that, I mean that it changes what it measures) because the way social media measures people’s content is the same way it rewards and encourages them, so SM has a natural tendency to observe, and therefore create, what it rewards.

SM has collapsed online spaces, contexts, barriers, and mediums into a single digital space (yet a personalized one, for all of us create our own echo chambers): on your social media feed, everything from cat memes to radical politics is competing for your attention, and both your mom (if she were following you,) your stalking ex-gf, and some random stranger are put in the same category (as follower/friend). Formal and informal barriers that once existed due to space and time limitations are gone or weakened, and it is possible now for (some) underground artists to show their talents and also for disgruntled individuals to stalk someone and attempt to ruin their victim’s lives, while, decades ago, one would have had to go through layers and layers of social protection and determents to achieve that. If thirty years ago you disliked a product or, against all odds, you discovered that someone involved in its production had “the wrong beliefs” (something almost impossible to uncover anyway) you would have sent a letter to where that person worked, then the receptionist would read it and most likely throw it into the trash, but if not, then the letter would have to be sent to a higher-up, and from there to someone else, etc. Only by attracting huge masses of such disgruntled people (e.g., moms worried about violence in comic books or whatever) or, better, media types, you might have achieved something. In that sense, social media weakens you, that is, the normal user who doesn’t have lawyers, fans, journalists ready to spin for you, or other layers of traditional support.

For similar reasons, you can follow a real-life friend or a Hollywood celebrity, and in both cases, you’d be just a “follower,” as social media is egalitarian in that sense. This gives you access to uncensored, allegedly authentic glimpses into the “real” self of influential people and aspirational role models, most obvious with Instagram and YouTube influencers, but that also applies to the kind of parasocial politician and political/cultural commentator who talks directly to YOU and who can answer your replies, comments, tweets, etc. It’s not farfetched to compare SM to interactive celebrity tabloids that give you the chance of actually engaging with the influential characters, as well as the implicit promise of being able to become like them since SM has no barriers and the famous user got in there the same way you did. Unlike the passive reader of the tabloids or a young boy who sees a Hollywood actor as a distant yet inspiring role model, many social media users actually aspire to achieve a position of influence and prestige or even the same job the influencer has—and many of these actually encourage such hopes as most influencers double as self-help gurus in their own niches.

That social media, and perhaps the current Internet in general, are built on self-branding, brand chasing, and microcelebrities can be seen by the low valuation of anonymous imageboards like 4chan. Those places are anonymous in the strictest of sense, and self-branding, commodification of content, and monetization are virtually impossible in there. It’s not known for how much 4chan sold in 2015, but it’s probably not a lot of money compared to the massive amounts (in the hundreds of millions or billions) paid for other platforms or sites with a fraction of the chan’s user-generated content and traffic. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was just a few dozens or, at most, hundred thousand dollars. That’s what the Internet would be worth it if it were really anonymous and not a source of exploitable content, marketing, and intelligence. And although the usual explanations focus too much on the chan’s extremist viewpoints, racism, and so on, that mostly applies to one infamous board (and with millions of posts, you can find anything you want there.) The real issue is that such places are not easy to turn into commodities, so they are worthless, both in the moral and economical sense.

How does all that relate to the arts, entertainment, and culture? Well, many young creative types, and many of them quite competent, use SM as their primary artistic platform, where both what they create as well as their persona has to survive its many new filters and gatekeeping processes that haven’t so much replaced the old ones as just added new ones. SM is not just a “platform,” a neutral space, or a “tool” as the technologically naive describe these things; it’s a new environment that creates new kinds of social relationships, which will affect not just how things are created or spread but also what is created. SM-based art (or opinions) will not, and cannot, look and feel like pre-social media art. And although for many this can be a boon and an opportunity, and some arts can theoretically improve in this new environment, for many others, this might be a disaster.

CONVERGENCE OF STYLES AND CONTENT

That should work as a necessarily brief introduction to social media. Now, keep all that in mind as the general framework on which a lot of new art and entertainment is, directly and indirectly, conceived, made, and marketed, and imagine what will happen in each of those phases. For the rest of this post, I will mostly focus on visual arts. I’ll talk more about writing in later posts.

Imagine you are a young, aspiring visual artist, what once was known as a “painter.” Naturally, you want to build your portfolio and increase your popularity and reach because that’s how you get a job or convince people to subscribe to your patreon.

The most logical way to do this is to show your skills and talent, but as we don’t have royal academies, ateliers (well, some are starting to reappear,) artist guilds , or a visual canon anymore, choosing what to make or show might be difficult. Sure, you could do like some 19th-century French artists and just paint whatever near you picks your fancy, perhaps the local vistas, a church (or the brothel,) or paint a famous local lady (or, most likely, some prostitute.) Yes, you could do those things, and most likely get 10 retweets from strangers you will never met and who might be from a different country. Or, and your status-attuned amygdala knows this very well, you could, with 1/10 of the effort but x100 the engagement, make some cheap lewd drawing of the latest 10-feet-tall meme lady from a video game*. Or you could make fan art of this or that famous franchise, setting, or “fictional universe” to which people will relate and, therefore, engage with it. Maybe Star Wars, a Marvel movie, some videogame, or something like that. Finally, if you don’t like most current entertainment franchises, you might pick a more niche route or an old-school one and make old-school-inspired fan art, remakes, mods, etc. All these options, although some might be better than others, have something in common: they all use past or present creative products as a direct source, not just of inspiration or even artistic theft, but direct reference and marketing/branding linkage: you create copies, fan copies, “spiritual successors,” or remakes of someone else’s intellectual property. And, most importantly, you broadcast that you are doing so. You use hashtags, tag people from the community, show the original art that inspired it, etc. This applies even when the product you are making is not fan art but your own: books are described and sold as “X meets Y”, videogames are “spiritual successors of X,” and many products are marketed as exactly the same as something else up to the limit that IP laws allow it. This might be done cynically, honestly, or out of desperation.

*In this post I will focus here on SFW content, but I should mention that I could easily prove my point much faster if I just linked to the Patreon top artists, many of whom just draw pop-culture-inspired porn.

For many young artists now, both their learning and self-promoting phase involve ingratiating themselves into fandoms or find an ignored niche to exploit. I’m not saying this is the only way, it might not even be a good one and perhaps in the long run all that extra engagement is worthtless, but, nonetheless, it is what many do and believe one should do. The artist as an observer of people’s real life in their local environment has disappeared (sometimes, along with those environments) and it seems most aspiring artists expect their success to come from the replication, expansion, subversion, or “fixing” of already established imaginary worlds or styles, or by being involved in other equally fantastic mass media fandoms (e.g., politics.)

That is not an irrational belief as there is a lot to gain from framing your creative products as a reference, a metaproduct of something else—this something usually being a massive IP or brand. For example, perhaps you want to paint a jungle, but you are not a grand master of the XIX-century Hudson River School trudging down the Andes or Amazonas, and fearing that your work would not appeal to the average SM user anyway (or, at least, the people in your network,) you paint it using whatever online references you find but add a tiny detail to signify it is actually, say, the jungle moon Yavin 4 from Star Wars. You tag the community, post it on subreddits, and all that so you get a fair amount of engagement (although short-lived, perhaps,) so all is well.

For many, this process of brand ingratiation might felt fake or forced because they might, indeed, like such products, but perhaps not that much that their entire artistic output should be inspired by them. However, this doesn’t have to be a conscious decision—and it’s probably good for the artists’ self-imagine that it isn’t.

The trends towards sameness also exists in each phase of the creative process: in selecting the subject matter, in how the product is spread and marketed, in how it’s framed or presented (the correct “readings” and commentaries,) but also in how it’s made, and, finally, in its life as part of the community and all the content it generates. Although fear of standing out, missing out, inciting jealosy, being blacklisted, and so on reinforce those same spirals of simplification and sameness, these trends are built into the very structure of the standard artistic digital worlkflow and the platforms where such art needs to find a place or community, so one does not need extreme ideological or moral explanations for why some things change (including for the worse.) For example, although Google (easily the primary source of references for artists) is not a social media platform, it shares a characteristic with those: popularity ranking.

This is a difficult thing to explain to people who are not visual artists (even as amateur hobbyists,) as they have very old-fashioned beliefs about how painting is done now, but I’ll try with a couple of examples. Again, going back to a slightly more traditional artist, if you wished to paint something from your local town or city, you’d go out, choose a place and time that seemed adequate, and then you’d paint what you saw or wanted to show. Nature and happenstance, as much as your techinique and style, guided you.

On the other hand, now you’d first google (or look up references on Pinterest, Artstation, and so on) the thing you want to paint, trusting the search engine and its ranking algorithms, to build up a large enough folder of popular references— but, of course, you will not go as far as page 126. You will stick to the first few pages or the most popular artists… just like everyone else is doing. On these first few pages, you will find the popular images whose authors most likely followed a similar process when searching for their own references. So, if you are a fantasy artist who wants or has to design a barbarian-like character, you will not go to your local library and spend hours looking for intriguing images in old history books, or pay for a model, or go to a museum and copy an old masterwork that shows a horde of Goths looting Rome. Especially not when you have a tight deadline and you get paid pennies and someone from Fiverr.com would do the same job for half the price. No, you’ll search “barbarian art” on Google, download the first few images, and use them as references… like everyone else is doing.

All of these are are made in a very similar style with some variations—variations that might have been looked up as their own references, too. Notice than in almost all of them the character is posing for the artist as the ur-reference for all of them was probably that, a male model posing.
Here you have individuals and groups, from the front, side, and back, on foot and on horse—none looking at the “camera.” Each one unique, each one the result of a very specific workflow and unique circumstances. All of them have a background and a scene that either explains what is happening or gives some context. The subjects are not floating in a limbo (granted, adding “rome” to the search probably helped, but you need to understand, I simply couldn’t just look up “goth art.”)

Now, nothing forces artists to use the laziest references they can find. Nothing forces you to trust Google, or Reddit, or Pinterest, or Twitter Trends. But it’s the easiest path, and it’s the one the Machine recommends, to which we have outsourced many of our cognitive functions, mainly memory (and Mnemosyne is the mother of the Muses, without whom Art doesn’t exist.) A different Memory will create a different Art.

Compare the inevitable weirdness of fantasy and sci-fi art from the 70s and 80s to the boring, digital sameness of today, a difference not necessarily due to lack of skill (many artists back then were clearly amateurs) but shrinking and centralization of references, styles, and content to imitate and copy, as well as the obligation to submit to popular fictional products and mental references (e.g., a fantasy barbarian has to look like fantasy barbarian—like what Google shows when you look it up.) The difference between the cover artwork of the old Dragon (D&D) with their more modern versions is pretty telling despite, in some cases, the difference being only 10-20 years.

These are 9 cover from Dragon Magazine (USA) taken at random using random.org, 9 number from 1-250: 58 (1982) 11 (1977) 160 (1990) 66 (1982) 152 (1989) 142 (1988) 23 (1979) 19 (1978) 219 (1995).

These are newer, 9 from 300-400 (2002-2011)

366 (2008) 370 (2008) 318 (2004) 317 (2004) 339 (2006) 399 (2011) 334 (2005) 400 (2011) 380 (2009)

Now, these predate current social media but not the digital marketing economy, digital art, search engines, SEO, search algorithms, etc. The most obvious difference is that the group of adventurers has disappeared, as well as enviromental storytelling, that is, the background, the scene, and the story they told. The individual, usually close up or posing, takes precedence, as well as magical noise and superhero effects (lightning/magic effects.) Newer visual art usually doesn’t tell a story because storytelling is not part of the decission process and creative workflow, especially for the novice artists who get hired for this kind of work. A lot of newer art is prompted and guided, if not directed, by the references it’s going to use, all of that mediated by the current information technologies used to look them up. Photobashed concept art is the most extreme form of this. In some way, some our current art is partially AI-generated already.

[There is currently a Dragon+ magazine. The style is unique in each issue, artsy even, perhaps better in terms of talent, but the general traits here detected haven’t changed that much although the need of the artist to show its individual (quirky even) style balances it out a bit. But most art is still focused on a single individual or element. If anything, it has become more abstract as it has even dropped the comicbook style and the background has completely melted away. It is not an exaggeration to say that many contemporary artists can’t paint a backgrounds and scenes or are intimidated by them, which is not surprising since there is no obvious database for scene references. Interestingly, that means being able to paint landscapes and more complex compositions might be a very useful skill to have now.]

This is also when clothes, armor, and equipment in general became highly fantastical and a signifier of fantasy as a type of genre rather than something a characters wears or uses and, therefore, still following more or less realistic references (with the obvious exception of some sexy women warriors and their chain bikini, that is.) As years went on, and as new artists used *these* new styles as their own references to copy, learn from, or imitate, this trend became even more extreme, although some kind of push against that style might be brewing up. Just google Fantasy Armor Art.

This is how fantasy warriors in older D&D editions might look like:

More or less like historical medieval European soldiers with, perhaps, more leather straps and ornamentation than usual, but each one with some historical basis, each one idiosincratically chosen by the artist from whatever sources were available from a local library, museum, magazine, encyclopedia, history book, and so on.

I am aware that all of this might seem very trivial, but you have to keep adding these trivial instances until they become a mountain and that this process is built into the way young artists are working. Remember, this is a cummulative and iterative process that nudges every phase of the creative process towards a certain path.

As I was doing the finishing touches here, I saw the Star Wars twitter account helpfully posting an image of 50 years of Lucasfilm movie posters, and it seemed relevant as it showed the process of digital convergence and corporate simplification:

For once, 80% of the two bottom rows are just Star Wars, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Movie posters are their own thing, and they have always been highly abstract, but you can see the changes here too. Even when the actors take (for obvious reasons) precedence, storytelling is there even if only because the artist just paints scenes straight from the movies—so that moviegoers can get a glimpse of what they are going to see. But as years go by, background and details start melting away. Abstraction and identifiable silhouettes becomes the norm, the title becomes much more dominant, and after the 2000s, half of the images is just the actors or protagonists posing or walking towards you, or their faces/upper bodies floating in a chromatic limbo. Of course, that’s partially because big brands don’t need to (story)tell you anything in their adds as you alredeady recognize Star Wars. But this style then trickles down to indie products who actually copy it because it’s popular despite being a style that works for big IPs, brands, and movies with strong brand recognition (hence why corporate designs can go increasingly abstract, to the point of using icons or even just symbols.) In fact, for such brands, being too detailed about what the movie is about could be counterproductive; it’s just better to just use an icon or symbol of the brand + actors to generate hype and then let the fans do the marketing and speculation themselves.

In any event, asume you are a young artists learning, and you are self-taught, without access to an expensive art school or contacts in this or that industry. If so, you are most likely going to use other people’s art as references or guides and watch some YouTube tutorials (and you will show what you make on social media because, well, where else?) But which tutorials? The most popular, of course. And why are they popular? You might assume because they are good (and they probably are), but the real, immediate explanation for present popularity in any social media platform (and YouTube works like one even if technically it isn’t) is past popularity (i.e., snowball effect.) Every SM has popularity thresholds, a certain number of followers, views, retweets, or shares beyond which your account or content starts growing more and more due to its own momentum (until it hits a new plateau,) which naturally increases the inequality in attention outcomes (e.g., 2/3 of YouTube videos go unwatched, most Amazon books unread, etc.)

So “your” tutorial (or the artistic style you are imitating, the hot meme you are chasing, etc) will be the same one everyone else is watching and learning from, which people keep watching because it’s the one other people watch, so it’s the one YouTube recommends. It is probably a good tutorial or at least a competent one, but it doesn’t have to be. In the writing community, many popular tutorials or “top 10 tips” are awful, but they are popular.

So, people are following the same tutorials, using the same search engine or websites to seach for the same references, and they show and rate their art on the same platforms, within the same communities, where they see what is popular and hot right now, and, therefore, talked about and rewarded with attention (even if that’s a short-lived reward that, in some cases, feels like punishment.) If there’s a collapse and consolidation of stylistic visions and memetic content, even if it superficially seems to affect only, well, surface, it will affect content too because both things are the same as style IS content. Social media works on popularity, but to be popular, to attract potentially millions of eyes, those millions of eyes have to be made to look at the same things, speak the same language, talk about the same things and in the same way so users can rate and rank each other along the same lines and using the standarized metrics. Although this certainly allows some degree of freedom or space to small artists, it would be foolish to deny that this benefits large companies, large “cinematic universes,” and large communities, probably more than smaller players, many of whom are forced to replicate, comment, or expand on what those larger economic agents do or don’t do.

If you have followed the evolution of digital art styles (or even “aesthetics”) you might have noticed that there is a cargo-cult quality to it that goes beyond simple laziness. If a type of color palette, style, or even some minor post-production effect becomes popular, or rather, appears in a popular product, it will be copied at nauseam and will then appear everywhere, from memes to movie trailers and government ads. That’s how you get those cyan/orange contrasts or VHS after-effects everywhere, something that can only happen when there is a massive database of digital content available where everything is stored and can be ranked, compared, analyzed, and copied, as well as easy (even free) access to the tools necessary to create those copies.

Simplification and convergence are the natural results of mass media, mass consumption, and a digital environment, notwithstanding whatever smaller niches might be able to survive in there. Of course, this also means there’s a counteracting force (or, at the very least, a desire) to find non-converged or niche content/styles, or perhaps even to create something new, but as this is an extremely difficult path, it’s rarely taken. Until it is, naturally.

Oh, you just don’t like people using references or copying styles they like! No, I don’t want talented people to use garbage references by trusting garbage search engines and garbage websites that despite having billions of images only show the most popular 20 (stolen from who knows where,) which then everyone copies, and then everyone ends up doing the same bland, boring, visual pavulum. Do you want good references? Go to archive.org or a similar site and download every Victorian-era book on design. Seriously, just use old books or modern books that use old, non-copyrighted images.

This one is from Arms & Armor: A pictorial archive from nineteenth-century sources, by Carol Belanger Grafton

Google Images (and Google in genereal) is useless, Pinterest is a mess, every place you use to find “art” makes you waste your time, tags don’t help at all, and following other artists is not useful since they are basically showing off to entice people to subscribe to their patreons or YouTube channels. The Internet may remember everything, but its ability to recall what you need is abysmal. You will spend hours waddling through trash while, in a few minutes, you could just pick a good old book or encyclopedia (digitized or not) and you’d have more art to learn from than you could copy in an entire year. There will be no artistic renaissance so long as you let the Machine do the thinking for you. Sillicon brains and their algorithms aren’t good Muses.

LOOPS, SPIRALS, AND CULTURAL CAPITAL

With that little rant finished, let’s go back to what I was saying. If you start saying, doing, or creating certain things in some way to appeal or appease an imagined audience composed of reified social-media rankings, or by following search engine results, you will eventually say, do, and create different things than those you originally had in mind—and you will most likely not even notice the gradual change, the slow degradation of your creative horizons. To be fair, since for many people their own creative impulse is a direct and explicit answer to pre-existing products, it’s not like they would have created much in the first place without them. But still, even for them, getting their heads out of the information and digital loops from time to time would, I’m sure, increase the quality of their art.

In any event, if what you are saying/doing/creating is determined by SM feedback, there’s a high probability that creativity will shrink or (and this is weirder) that culture will get stuck in loops. SM is not a productive technology, it reorganizes and ranks content, so if the information system relies on what is already in there, and if it is very difficult for outside information to enter the reinforcement loops, very few new things will be created except via combination of already existing things: remaking them, reshuffling them, rebranding, finding forgotten niches, etc.

There’s a groundhog day quality to the current cultural existence, at least online (and it’s not clear whether now there can be a popular culture that is not online.) Memes and fads die quickly, true. Drama is everywhere, and the apocalypse is always next Monday, all of which gives the illusion of fast change, but all those things are forgotten immediately and then resurface under a new disguise a few months later, starting a new loop of hype -> disappointment -> amnesia.

There seem to be two main ways forward in entertainment enterprises, and they all point back. Either keep reinventing those popular mass media franchises or IP properties and go for the mainstream appeal, or go the retro way for a more cult classic feeling (although ironically, most of those classics are newer than the mainstream entertainment, half of which is superheroes from WWII, if not older.) Although the latter might be preferable and creates better, usually more “authentic” products, it still relies on the past, and, again, not just as inspiration, but direct brand or commercial linkage.

Incidentally, when I talk about things not being new, I don’t mean new as people think about it. The proper term would be something like “from outside the current feedback loops, IPs, brands, and communities,” but that’s too cumbersome. Star Wars was new when it first appeared even if half of it, in terms of inspirations, was anything but new. And so was The Lord of the Rings, because some of the references and material Tolkien used were so obscure back then, his work felt like bizarre Science Fiction to some people.

“New” in the sense I’m using here means that something exists and becomes known and popular without relying on the accumulated popularity, nostalgia, or explicit connections to some product, fandom, or community which are used as its springboard; that is, it does not use/need fame, buzz, or cultural capital (either their own or someone else’s) to achieve fame or new cultural capital of its own. That is what I mean when I say fewer new things are going to appear now on our SM-centric digital space. Cultural and entertainment products in the social-media age, being part of mass media and therefore limited by more or less by attention, behave in some ways like land, and those who own them as landholders.

A simple outdoors painting, even if following the safest traditional style they taught you at art school, and even if it’s a literal copy of what you are seeing, would here be considered “new” due to its personal uniqueness and for not being, most likely, immediately controlled by social-media feedback loops and preexisting conversations, attention bubbles, or social relevance. A traditional realist novel about whatever is happening in your town or city would also be, probably, new. Maybe not excitingly new, but still unique. And remember, there’s a difference between expanding or commenting on your shared, public culture and monopolizing people’s attention by overextending propietary culture, which is what most popular culture is or has become.

To see the importance of these communities and existing networks, look at these things below. I paint miniatures as a hobby. These are two things I have painted somewhat recently:

The first is a miniature bust (from Alexandros Models) of the famous painting The girl with a pearl earring, and it got 0 likes, 0 retweets, and 260 impressions on Twitter. The second is a miniature of Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer (from Lucid Eye Publications) that, despite being a worse paint job (I painted it, so I can say so,) got 17 RT, 99 likes, and 12,000+ impressions, a lot for someone with fewer followers than some bots. Now, I do not care if the bust got zero attention from online randos since I painted it as a gift for my mother, so whether a possible audience likes it or not is quite irrelevant. However, it’s useful because it tells something about how online engagement works, and I’m sure many artists reading this could give their own examples.

The source of the difference in engagement? Many, including just SM randomness, but an important one might be that one of the pieces activates the learned subcultural references of other social media users in my closest circles, who can reshare that art not just as a sign of artistic appreciation (i.e., “I like this/It’s good even if I don’t know where it’s from or it says nothing about me“) but as a way to point out that they recognize what is being referenced and where that thing come from, so that way their own followers can notice it too (in other words, it’s a product that is part of a fandom or community); the other is just a piece of art that is not tied to any brand or IPs, subculture, fandom, movement, or hot topic, and sharing it profits the average social media user (or, at least, the people in my immediate circle) in no way, at least until (hypothetically) the piece gets traction and joining in the sharing behaviors is not felt as giving free attention but jumping into profitable hype.

Different hypothetical communities might give different results (even the complete opposite, with the former being popular and the latter being ignored) but that is exactly the point I’m making: SM appreciation and exposure are a function of pre-existing references and accumulated popularity that is understood by a community or network, which will reinforce such references and styles, increasing the odds that, at best, the same things (but perhaps better?) will be produced, and at worst, that one ends up stuck in circle jerks and spirals of sameness.

This goes beyond the traditional “people like thinks they know” since this feedback mechanism is immediate and applies to all the steps in the creative process, not just later copycats. For example, when decades ago a new movie or book became popular, it naturally spawned many clones and copies, but that doesn’t affect the creator of the original work or other creators except as an incentive to make sequels. Despite the centuries-long complaint from artists about popular tastes and commercialism, there were until not so long ago still strong incentives for outsiders or middle-sized companies to create different things, as well as for producers and editors to be on the lookout for new talent as public, artist, and editors/managers were distinct roles and it was possible to pick up a talented nobody and elevate it into stardom. In a word of centralized social media, self-branding, and converged online content, there’s little incentive to create something new if the public (or, rather, the influencers and microcelebrities that link public and artists) is subjectively evaluating everything it sees in relation to what they already recognize and what can increase their own SM status within their communities. And there’s certainly not many incentives to search for new talent when the one doing the search could be other artists because they would be finding their own competition—after all, many aspiring artists now market more to other artists than to consumers, a fading distinction in many communities. A common solution for this is cross-promotion, where various “content creators” promote each other, but that’s just a cartel in the attention economy. Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible for something outside this system to break through, because it happens, but it’s difficult, and SM is not a solution to that problem.

In any event, this process of simplification and cultural overexploitation (until you reach cultural desertification?) might apply to all the extremes of the cultural landscape, from the lowest social media drama to an entire multibillion-dollar movie industry unable or too afraid to drop the superheroes genre.

Going back to my miniatures. We are not dealing here with a subtle but statistically significant increase in exposure and engagement but more than 40 times the number or eyeballs seeing what you have created. Not much if it’s a single instance, but what if my social media long-term strategy involved posting each day? If you were someone who wants to become known for his artistic skills in this small artistic niche, or, more generally, one whose social media presence is tied to some business or gig, which route would you follow? Would you join the attention and hype loops and profit (at least until these get saturated) or fight against them and perhaps be ignored (even if, in the long run, you will be vindicated)? The same, of course, can be said of virtually any discussion, debate, community, or argument on SM. That the most universal type of sociopolitical commentary on SM is the “take” rather than actual investigation (even when we live in a world where the open-source intelligence you have access to is immense) is not a coincidence because a take is just another word for commentary, which relies on the popularity or current buzz around the thing you are commenting on so as to maximize your chances of being seen. For similar reasons, artistically, this means that people will tend to join larger communities, enjoy popular content, or try recreating nostalgia for something for which there is an active or potential community.

You could spend months investigating something new, but if you don’t frame your discovery so it can be used by other users in the information ecosystem for their own commentaries and takes, that is, as an extension of current narratives, you will be ignored. Since these hot topics go up and down because of various manias and popularity bubbles as well as their potential for buzz and controversy, it’s only natural that the “discourse” doesn’t seem to advance except very slowly, if at all, and it usually seems to get stuck in loops. And I mean loops quite literally; you could graph people’s interactions and their content and I suspect you would see literal loops developing through time.

The ever-present puzzlement over why someone’s well-crafted tweets, posts, and so on get virtually no interaction while barely coherent shitposts go viral is easier to explain if you understand what I said above. First, jokes and amusing stories are easier to spread, both online and offline, that much is obvious and there’s nothin wrong with that—it is only natural that funny people are popular online. But people are also confused because they still harbor pre-social-media misconceptions about there being some kind of online meritocracy and that effort and reward should correlate like they do, in theory, in many real-life creative enterprises. Social Media does not work on the labor theory of value, and like those people who are famous because they are famous, so does a lot of digital content. Second, social media is not a source of analysis or news (it can be used as such, but it’s not a very good platform for that unless you take a lot of effort curating what you follow, and not even then) but validation and aspirational self-branding. What that means is that one needs to ignore one’s naive tendency to assume that other users (or yourself, for that matter) are detached critics who will praise that which is good and informative with no consideration of what that public praise will do to their own social capital or online persona. This is very relevant when that public is made of other aspiring creators, who can easily interpret the attention they give you as the attention equivalent of credit. In other words, SM as a microcelebrity machine and a source of crowdsourced marketing means that praise might not be about objective (literally, of an object separated from you) evaluation but subjective social validation. In certain communities, if you see something you like, you might reshare it not because it is good or you like it in itself but because you suspect other people will notice and evaluate your sharing behavior and what that says about you.

I have now to say some things about what being popular means. There are two fundamental meanings of “popular,” and they get confused all the time. The obvious one simply measures the objective rate of consumption of a product or how much it sells or a similarly objective metric. For example, in that sense, a TV show is popular if many people watch it. Notice, however, that this popularity does not need to be known to you as a consumer except in the vaguest sense and perhaps as marketing feedback to announce how well X is doing so you are enticed to watch it if you haven’t (in some way, that’s what SM does, but on steroids, immediately, and for everything everybody does as potentially any user can become a marketing node, and any content a product or a source of social capital or an excuse to promote something.) The TV show producers or owners of the tv channel might know the precise data, but you might be totally blind to the exact popularity of something you enjoy.

The second meaning of being popular is that the product has become a source of popularity for the ones who buy or talk about it, or that the object itself or its context has developed a popularity hierarchy or clout. This product may or may not be also popular in the first sense, and this popularity may or may not be tied to a sense of elitism or exclusivity (like in hipsterism.) When nerds complain that their hobbies have become “popular” they might think they use the word in the first sense, but it’s usually in the second. When something loses its underground, punk, or subculture spirit and becomes mainstream or commercial, it becomes popular in the sense that it is now a source of popularity, whether in society in general or within a community. The product may, in fact, be less popular in the first sense, but more popular in the second.

SM popularity presents itself as the first kind since it “objectively” measures the success/reach of content, but it’s more accurate to say it’s popularity in the second sense. Due to the way it ranks visibility by popularity, it mixes both meanings in an incestuous way, with economic incentives corrupting the relationship even more.

Going back to what I was saying. When thinking about why something goes viral or gets copied ad nauseam, you have to remember that what the brain of the SM user is thinking before (re)sharing something is not always, “Is this good, and does it deserve praise? but, “Is this going to make me look good/cool if I share it? Is this what other people are expecting or talking about? Will I get punished/ignored? Is similar content already popular?

Now, when you post something that has taken you a lot of effort, you naively expect it will get more attention, like (perhaps) it would in the real world when you shove something you have made to someone’s face and that thing becomes the sole focus of their attention, but on social media, you have to assume everyone’s amygdalas are thinking “Yeah, that’s great, but what’s in it for me? I have a timeline here overstuffed with all kind of crap, so better do something that really catches my attention or that benefits me in some way.” Hence the need (or, at least, the temptation,) if you are a fairly competent painter, artists, and so on (if you are world-class genius, you can more or less do whatever you want, though) to shape your art so as to be a reference to preexisting things that other social media users will readily share due to the potential clout increase for themselves or so as to be part of a community or conversation. It doesn’t have to be a cynical move as some of you might be reading it. After all, as social animals, we like being part of larger conversations and groups, so it is natural to follow that which is popular, yet, at the same time, solitude, uniqueness, and idiosincracy are necessary for any creative effort.

Also, keep in mind that content (especially text-based) that has taken a lot of effort to create usually requires time to digest, read, and may need extra commentary to help you understand it, so resharing something complex is actually an imposition on the burdened attention spans of your followers/friends/stalkers. You are asking them to stop scrolling down, watching or reading other stuff, potentailly missing out something popular or hot, just so they can read/watch something they can’t even tell if they are going to like or not. Resharing a meme, a gif, or a screenshot of a clickbait headline, on the other hand, has no hurdles attached.

This creation of a real or imagined audience and its response to what you are going to do will apply to many levels and phases of the creative process/business. For example, in a traditional bookstore, it’s irrelevant whether a book you are interested in has “reviews” or has sold a lot. Who cares? It’s a book, and it’s there for you. You read the blurb on the back or you let the cover guide your purchasing decision or something else, but the choice is not social in the sense that you are not being obviously influenced by an imaginary audience or expecting to increase any SM metric by purchasing the book. On Amazon, on the other hand, you might find a book intriguing, you might like the blurb, you might even like the cover art, but if it has zero reviews, your finger might seemingly refuse to tap the buy button, as if there was a force field preventing you from doing that. That force field is the fact that on such platforms, consumption has a social component of mimicry, and your brain has grown used to value things according to their previous or current popularity or the size of their “community,” which is tied to the possibility of having meaningful conversations or social media activity/engagement thanks to said product. And you certainly don’t want to buy something nobody else’s is buying, right? That would be…cringe.

You can obviously have more conversations (although not necessarily better) about Star Wars, which is not just a product but a universe, than about some book only fifty people have read. Many arts and forms of entertainment are not private anymore, at least not on SM, but this is where people expect art to survive from now on, or where the next big thing is supposed to appear, or where you go to find an audience.

Not all media is affected in the same way. Generally speaking, the more objective the quality of standards are, or the more readily apprehensible even to non-expert something is, the less unfair social media rankings will feel. For example, visual arts are, although not perfectly objective (and they obviously fall victim to many popularity fads as I have shown,) easier to evaluate even at just a glance, so the social media users can try being more detached critics. In short, you can hype visual art just by showing it. Look at the most popular SM accounts and you will notice most reshare images.

The attention economy and the digital world favors short, 2-dimensional visual content and video, as well as emotional contagion, but it actively punishes and corrupts texts and complex meaning. Although the postmodern creative landscape allows you to easily create your “own” art by manipulating, converting, or reshaping preexisting art, as this, to be succesful, has to compete in an attention arena, in the end, this might benefit massive IPs, corporations, and other entities who own immense amounts of social, cultural, and attention capital, which you will capitalize on in your own self-branding process. This is not new, of course; it’s a basic trait of Mass Media, as Pop Art showed, but now it can be even more extreme and harder to avoid.

5 thoughts on “Everything is social—Part I

  1. Kay

    Glad you are back! Very interesting work, and rather convincing (which is somewhat depressing). I would have naturally disagreed with a lot of your points, but you make a compelling argument. Really interested in your assessment of written works, were I suspect things are even more abysmal than I previously assumed. Hope you’ll be more active in the future, yours is the only blog I still look forward to reading, the drop in quality re blogs has been tremendous in the past couple of years (and before that things were already bad).

    Hope you’re well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. Some things are really bad, others not so much. A lot depends on your expectations; I believe too much was expected of the online world. And as for creative people, well, some are lucky or position themselves well, but many won’t.

      I might be too hopeful, but I expect blogs might get a bit of a comeback in the coming years.

      Like

  2. That description of social media and how it affects our behavior stings a bit.

    I especially appreciate the distinction between two different senses of popularity, the perverse way in which the second sense can actually lead to the destruction of the first.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anthony

    The bit about fantasy got me thinking about how the main inspiration for fantasy now is RPGs, especially MMORPGs. This is one of the many things that makes me disappointed in the fantasy genre.

    I think that’s a factor of why these covers these days are all based around one central character as well, at least part of why. In the past, having a solitary, menacing, powerful character against an abstract background would probably be considered illustrative of a villain; it being the antagonistic force who sets the plot in motion and has a hand in everything. Today, that’s indicative of “character development,” because as we all know: character development is when you become ludicrously powerful and good at killing things, not (for instance) when you descend into evil from power’s temptations.

    Because RPGs aren’t about going on adventures anymore; they’re about doing your job and getting more powerful. After all, those numbers won’t get bigger on their own. Everything in RPGs’ fantasy is commodified by a world that reflects our consumerist one, gig economy and all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point. Villains did usually stand alone while the heroes banded together. One of the original Star Wars movie posters was pretty much that: the heroes and the looming head of Darth Vader behind.

      The standard movie-like cover of today is also probably cheaper, too. You just need one model to pose for a picture and everything else is brushes and photoshop filters. For a struggling indie artist or cheap companies trying to cut corners, it’s certainly more affordable than an old-fashioned Frazzetta-like painting.

      I have also said many times that fantasy art seems now to be designed with cosplaying in mind. Maybe not consciously, but it is there.

      Like

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