Everything is social III

If the previous posts dealt more with individuals and how we deal with the social media environment, here I will focus more on the groups themselves that have appeared so as to make all those people and information manageable and more rational. To be precise, I’m talking about the “Community,” a word that isn’t just a buzz term but also describes something that is indeed new.

Since SM, and the digital economy in general, works by concentrating attention, one would expect to see gigantic monopolistic points of attention. And although that does indeed happen from time to time, people don’t want to be anonymous, invisible users in groups of millions, so naturally we tend to form subgroups, niches, subcultures, fandoms, and communities. The concentration of attention reappears there, too, but it is somewhat less extreme, and you can find some voice when joining such groups. However, as this means that the actual number of people in such groups has to be relativelly small, per capita economic opportunities also have to be smaller, even if the intensity with which people fight over them isn’t. In some cases they are so small, artists just sell to each other and the community is actually a hierarchy of artists (with the top selling drawing and painting tutorials to those below, for example.) That is logical enough, but it is a surprisingly difficult concept to accept to people, who want their cake (subgroups specialization) and eat it too (access to large undiferentiated pools of customers.) And if you want a pool of customers, you need to cross and overlap communities, but that’s difficult for most people since they tend to speacialize and find niches. You need media to overcome that, not social, just media in general (from mainstream media to blogs or news sites) as these tend to aggregate a lot of content and can connect distinct communities.

Again, as mentioned previously, this explains the utility of politicization and other moralizing and ideological behavior, and drama in general. You could find thousands of examples of this during the “Trump Era,” as people who capitalized on that focus on attention and transplanted it into their, say, hobbies or communities managed (at least for some time,) to get much more attention that they would have otherwise if they had stuck to the narrow interests and pastimes of the group. Unfortunately, that is usually a very aggressive, toxic, if not parasytic behavior, so this growth can be at the expense of the group. And, even if it’s not, this is a power move, so very few people can profit from it.

The common solution, which many artists are aware of even if they wouldn’t be able to put it into words, is to attach yourself to preexisting communities, fandoms, or movements with a considerable size and pedrigree, one that usually traces its origins to pre-social media or even pre-Internet communities, fandoms, etc. I can’t be 100%, but I believe the last point is important. I suspect current social media cannot create long-lasting new communities, and those that it creates tend to be quite toxic. I’m sure there are exceptions, but the trend seems to be that SM-only communities are quite unbearable and that no much nostalgia will appear for products created during the digital economy and the peak of social media. Many of those products are fake and highly self-referential, so even if you can’t, your brain seems to realize when something has been made by a committee or a hack reacting to SM or SEO trends.

What that means is that there is a strong contradiction between the psychological/emotional needs of fans and artists on SM, who want isolated and relatively small commuities so individual members can have a voice or a say, and the demands of the market (or the artists themselves who need to pay bills,) which wants to expand all the time and, therefore, to aggregate hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of fans. At the same time, although many communities would be better off without their constant drama, that drama is how the top positions of influence are actually allocated, at least when there are no clear tests of competence or knowledge or the Community is basically just talking heads, as in common in pseudopolitical groups. But why would there be “top positions” in the first place? Because these groups and communities are not clubs of hobbysts but microeconomies tied, via marketing and job opportunities, to the product being marketed, endorsed, or sold.

One of the most notable changes in subcultures and entertainment during the past fifteen years has been the enrolling of its fans as important marketing agents, something most do for free, but others actually get paid. This has massively blured the distinction between consumers and producers, but also monetized and commodified fandom and all the things they produce, creating SM influencers, and, therefore, a hierarchy. Hence the gut feeling of unease some people feel due to the widespread fakery that permeates many of these communities, and the more they rely on SM, the worse it is. Reread Part I if you want to get an idea of the effects this might have on creativity or how artistic visions can easily degrade or get stuck in loops if they depend too much on current information technologies.

If you are a genre writer (and, really, even “literary” is a genre now,) or even a writer in general trying to survive on SM, you have to combine everything mentioned up to here with the consolidation of intellectual properties and their massive domination over the mental and referential landscape of popular culture.

That is to be expected. The evolution of the writer as a craft has been similar to that of other previously romantic art. The scholar-scientist who single-handedly discovered the hidden laws of the Universe hasn’t existed for almost a century. No matter how much we love the individual genius as a trope and as a symbol, the truth is that many of these geniuses are now aggregated into massive projects run by corporations and States. So have many artists, although the writer naturally resists, not so much due to a superior sensibility but because the writer is incompatible with the structure and organization of modern industry. You can hire thirty visual artists and tie them to their deks churning out characters, animation, and whatnot for the next big project from Disney, Pixar, Bethesda, or whatever. They might complain and resist, but the process can, to some extent, be automatized like that.

You cannot do that easily with writers—not with the good ones anyway. You can dividide the “narrative” of a project and assign each piece to a writer, but the writer as person who has a vision, a story to tell, is an individual and has to work alone or with very few people. In fact, generally speaking, it seems the influence of modern writers in these projects, whether movies or videogames, seems to have been highly negative. The programmer John Carmack is known to have said that story matters in a videogame as much as in a porno movie, but I believe a more apt comparison would be that it’s like exotic spices in cooking: you usually don’t need them, but they can either transform your dish into the best thing you have ever tasted or give you a painful case of aggressive diarrea. Many movies and videogames and other complex projects have been completely ruined by their writers (or narrative designers or whatever title they use,) which seems to indicate there is something very wrong in how writers are hired and how they come with their ideas, although that’s not surprising since there are no clear and quick tests for writing competence, unlike in other arts, and most people can’t tell a good writer from a bad one until it is too late (and some even deny such a distinction exists.) Many are probably hired due to nepotism, networking, or being part of certain cliques. Ironically, that means that those games that are written by the programmers or other non-writing specialists themselves, like in the old times, even if that makes the writing a bit er… amateurish, it is at least not awful and can be fun. At the very least, I’d advise companies to avoid that type of SM writer with a lot of very outspoken ideas and opinions as colorful as their hair. You know the type.

In any event, although the modern organization of culture and entertainment demands industrial-like output, streamlining of content, and standarization of workflows, the very nature of writing flinches at this, for not even the pulps were created like that.

Now, everything that I have been saying up to this point leads to this conclusion: that these massive IPs and brands, or even general online discourses if you want to generalize this logic to other forms of “text”* are not going away any time soon. You might have “X fatigue” but the social media structure as well as the attention opportunities that they afford mean they are still profitable and exploitable. They might change appearance or labels, but they will remain fairly similar in substance. Of course, you are not forced to follow any of that stuff. None of what I have said here is a law—in fact, most are just subtle nudges. Individually, most wouldn’t even be significant. And I mean significant even in a scientific and statistical sense—you would most likely not be able to detect them. Collectivelly, however, they are a deluge.

*There is a peculiar overlap between nerd drama and ideological drama on SM. Not perfect or even very large, but it’s there. I have, in fact, compared both as being “fandoms” in their own way, and both seem to have the same need to create and debate ever-expanding “lore” and engage in quite pointless disquisitions. They are both perfect for armchair talking heads or, for lack of a better term, as cognitive heat sink for bored or frustrated, yet intelligent, males.

Of course, you could follow more interesting people whose brains have not been destroyed by the digital version of an MK-Ultra experiment, but you run the risk of missing out, losing your followers, missing the hype, etc. Or so people fear. In truth, you are not missing out much of value and the missing followers and friends are not a big loss.

You could also do like that Marianne Williamson on Twitter and post pictures of pretty birds to make the platform less vile—at least until a “Community” of bird-posters pops up and you get piled on for posting birds while having the wrong kind of beliefs or are accused of trying to farm attention or for falling out of favor from the bird-poster influencer #1. But I digress.

All this post exists only so I could post this image.

YOUR WORK IN RELATION TO THE COMMUNITIES

Now, this is the universal sales pattern for 99% of self-published (i.e. Amazon) authors: You make most of your sales the first few days thanks to your Internet friends and some IRL friends, then a few more for a week or two. Then nothing at all until your book is on sale again, or perhaps a couple of books here or there if you have a blog or a moderately large number of followers. The earnings you get from all of this are rarely enough to offset what you paid for cover art, proofreading, and so on. The more material you have for sale, the better, of course, so quantity does help a lot, but even then it’s still rarely enough to make a decent amount of money especially since writing takes a considerable amount of time compared to other arts. The pattern is slightly less humiliating for authors published more traditionally, but not that much. Many of those publishers have adapted themselves to the social media world and actively search for prospective authors with an already significant clout, which means that even for some author who are not self-published, their world is starting to resemble that of self-publishing as publishers, producers, editors, and so on expect you to be already popular or do a good chunk of the marketing yourself. Also, as I showed in Part 2, the pattern where every succesful writer is mostly followed by aspirant or fellow writers applies both to self-published authors and not.

But, anyway, that pathetic sales pattern mentioned above, despite being obvious and extremely common, is apparently a trade secret. Very few people will admit that it exists, so a massive survivorship bias sustained on self-delusion permeates many artistic communities since artists understand that one should ever acknowledge defeat or point out structural failures in how the system works because the entire thing depends on aggressive self-promotion and putting on a show of success precisely to generate hype so people can feel good when buying something so they can be part of a larger community, movement, hype, or conversation. On SM, nobody wants to endorse anything made by a loser since you are investing not only your money, but usually your attention too and, for lack of a better term, parasocial capital on a personal brand. To understand some SM dynamics, and at the risk of sounding like a mysoginist, you should think of many SM users like young hypergamic women on the prowl for a succesful man.

There are thousands and thousands of people whose books (or music or whatever) have gone through that sales pattern, yet what I’m saying here is like a dark secret that should not be uttered. Trust me on this: virtually every self-published author boasting about his success is either lying or exaggerating for marketing effects. Otherwise, they’d show hard data, like, Yeah, I have sold 50,000 or 100,000 books or whatever.

The simple truth is most of them have other sources of income allowing them to sustain their projects, or they have secondary gigs in the auxiliary wing of their artistic communities (editing, teaching, etc.) This wouldn’t be bad if it were a hobby community (for hobbies are assumed to be a money and time sink) or authors were more honest about how this works (or, rather, how it doesn’t,) but it’s people pretending to be doing serious business. Probably because they believe the whole thing works (and, to some extend it does) under the logic of “fake it until you make it.”

Which is why, unlike most articles or posts by authors moaning about the dire state of the writing industry, you won’t see much sympathy for them here. Should the public be less lazy and actually make an effor and search for better material, entertainment, and culture? Yes, but the mass public has always been lazy, and since they are not experts anyway, just following what is popular is a fairly easy heuristic. But many authors out there are completely self-deluded and maintain that delusion by lying to other people, to other, younger, aspiring writers. So, little sympathy here because that’s how you get hundreds of thousands of aspiring writers, millions of e-books on Amazon, and nobody earning any significant amount of money—by lying constantly.

So, keeping that in mind because I’m getting sidetracked here, you also have to deal with the existence of sprawling settings, brands, and multimedia franchises that are analogous in their economic organization to that of modern titans of industry (therefore, as aggregators of talent and intellectual property.) They might not produce cars, ships, computers, or jeans, but they produce entertainment and mass culture tied to wellknown franchises and IPs. These occupy a good chunk of the people’s attention and, for many prospective artists, guide what path they will have to take if they want to get noticed or get a job, not unlike if you are a young engineer you probably don’t dream (romantic as this might be) of having your own laboratory like some 18th-century gentleman scholar.

When people wonder why no new things seem to come out, you have to remember that these massive IPs have the accumulated social and cultural capital and community-built “lore” of entire decades, and asking for a new thing is like asking why no new plucky oil entrepreneur has replaced ExxonMobil. Sure, it could happen, but that’s not how things usually work. Granted, entertainment franchises might not be as durable as physical products, but a lot of people have invested a lot of their branpower and effort into trying to make them so. See: the modern fandom.

When you are a Harry Potter or Star Wars fan or whatever, you are not just reading a few books or watching a couple of movies in isolation. There’s an entire fictional universe of tied-in products, metaproducts, fan products, fan theories, and fan conversations about them. Not surprisingly, it has become almost mandatory for starting artists to present their art as linked, in one way or another, to some other work, IP, brand, aesthetic, or community, even if it’s not true. So, even things that could be new will not feel new because the author has to market them as derivative. This linking can be explicit and formal (like someone who wants to work at Lucasfilm to design Lucasfilm products,) fan derivative, subversive, expansive, or even antagonistic, but it has to be there. There are, obviously, exceptions but not many.

“Lore,” as literary fluff is now known, is only meaningful and valuable because other people share it and know about it. It is a social product, yet it’s the foundation of the appeal of such secondary worlds—at least, in our current SM environment. After all, there is a limit to how many fictional universes even the nerdiest nerd’s brain can remember or pay attention to before he starts vomiting blood due to fandom-induced brain overload. You could call it the Fluffbar’s Number. Also, with the consolidation of IPs and brands, many of these companies are making their secondary-worlds a proprietary product while fleeing from that non-proprietary “generic setting” that many of those works (especially fantasy) once were part of.

Now imagine this: you are a young writer who is tired of the current lameness of one of these large franchises, like Star Wars or whatever, so you create your own setting, and you make it unique and creative. You make maps, and side stories, and drawings and whatnot. You, being one of those people who believe online success is a function of quality and that random people are willing to invest the same amount of attention to every little thing that crosses their overstuffed social media feed, publish your work and announce it in this and that social media platforms… but then nobody cares. Nobody cares about your art, or joins your discord, or reads your free samples.

Why? Well, first, why would they? Would you if the roles were reversed? Would you readily buy and engage with something that has no hype, no community, no fanbase? We are not talking about literature here but popular culture. Literature is read in private, for it’s a private conversation between the reader and the writer, and the writer might even be dead. That’s why people ask what books would you bring to a desert island. But we are talking about popular culture here, which is social (of has become.)

Now, you failed because content doesn’t necessarily drive engagement and you made the mistake of assuming there’s such a thing as a neutral SM user, that people who are influential and heavy SM users (the ones who could boost your presence and sales) are open to new content made by outsiders, like neutral critics just waiting to elevate that which is good and artistic with no concern for themselves, rather than digital microcelebrities anxiously on the watch for any newcomer that could upset their SM clout.

Think about this: who is going to spend an afternoon reading, debating, arguing about the “lore” of your new (probably not that new if we are being honest) setting if they are the only ones who know about it? Why devote so much mental power to memorize those new strange fantasy or alien names if there’s not a whole Community with whom you can talk about those people or places. Why invest that much time reading something if there’s no social capital in it? Sure, they might have liked the book a lot, but what’s in it for them, not as real people but as SM users? How can your art increase their Twitter clout, their YouTuber brand, or their Instagram influence? Why would they take a selfie holding your book if nobody recognizes the book?

This is something very difficult to accept for many people, first of all, because of the usual artistic narcissism (yeah, sure, that might apply to everyone else but I’m special), and secondly, because most analyses of culture, entertainment, and their future are made by ideologues.

There is some space for smaller, independent products here and there, that is true, and some writers (it’s debatable whether more than thirty years ago,) will be able to make enough money writing to call themselves professional writers, but this absurd belief in the power of social media and digital marketing as a liberating force that will give a chance or a voice to the close to a million new books each year published on Kindle Amazon is ridiculous. Nobody reads those books; they are published and then forgotten. Amazon doesn’t publish the data on how much the median book sells because it would probably be close to 0, like it was in the digital music industry years ago:

Economist Will Page working with Andrew Bud and Gary Eggleton was able to obtain somewhat anonymized transactions from a “large digital music provider” rumored to be either Rhapsody or iTunes itself. They had so much data, in fact, that an ordinary Excel spreadsheet choked on it.

It was a gigantic sample of… nothing.

80% of the songs had no transaction data: they had sold no copies at all.

“We found that only 20% of tracks in our sample were ‘active,’ that is to say they sold at least one copy, and hence, 80% of the tracks sold nothing at all. Moreover, approximately 80% of sales revenue came from around 3% of the active tracks. Factor in the dormant tail and you’re looking at an ’80/0.38% rule’ for all the inventory on the digital shelf.

“Finally, only 40 tracks sold more than 100,000 copies, accounting for 8% of the business. Think about that – back in the physical world, forty tracks could be just 4 albums, or the top slice of the best-selling ‘Now That’s What I Call Music, Volume 70’ which bundles up 43 ‘hits’ into one perennially popular customer offering!”

Source: Purged: How a failed economic theory still rules the digital music marketplace- 5mag.net

That’s because mass media means mass concentration of attention, notwhistanding whatever niche you might be able to carve out under the shade of the great megaproducts or from tricking other aspiring artists into sustaining your fraudulent self. Digital media doesn’t mean that customers are going to magically develop super brains and be able to rationally compare which one of a million books or songs for sale better fits their inner utility-maximization cultural function. It means they are going to click “Top 20 Bestseller” and buy whatever is there that feels interesting. Ironically, that means they’ll probable check out fewer (and less diverse) options than they would in a physical store.

I believe the limit to how much a digital market can grow in terms of products being available for sale and still be manageable and somewhat profitable for small artists is something like Steam for videogames, which has thousands (but not millions) of games, divided into many genres and subgenres, a fair amount of barriers of entry and few (but not zero) social-media-like metrics and rewards within the various communities. I do believe that a Steam but for books would be an intriguing possibility, and if I had the resources, I would have already made it myself.

In any event, people are going to buy whatever is hot right now in their communities, whatever everyone is talking about. And that is important because these massive franchises are not just products in the traditional sense of the word. They are extended products and, therefore, Communities.

Think about any of the large, sprawling settings or universes that are so common in current popular entertainment: Star Wars, Star Trek, D&D (notice it’s not an abstract ruleset anymore, but a “community,”) Marvel, etc. Although, really, nowadays you can find a social-media Community for virtually anything, from knitting to squirrel hunting. I have to point out that this is a social media phenomenon; it wouldn’t exist either in meat space or more old-fashioned online communities like forums or imageboards. You had Clubs back then, but not “Communities.”

I’m going to use the Warhammer/Games Workshop brand because I know it a bit better, and it’s fairly large but not as large as a Disney IP, so I cannot be accused of choosing only big Hollywood titans. In other words, what I’m describing is a feature of contemporary online culture rather than just entertainment giants.

If twenty or so years ago you played any of GW’s games or you were a “fan” of the “setting,” this is what you did: you bought the miniatures, perhaps painted them and played with them, occasionally you read GW’s magazine (White Dwarf,) and either from reading the magazine or from your friends, you discovered that a new Warhammer novel just got published. If you were into that stuff, you bought it, and maybe you recommend/hyped it to your friends. Maybe you liked it, maybe you didn’t. If you had Internet access, perhaps you joined some old-fashioned discussion board/forum and you got into flamewars about some trivial nonsense (but nobody feared any serious repercussions from such online brawls.) That’s more or less the extent of your involvement with the “community.” There was, in fact, no Community in the current usage of the word, only fellow hobbyists—and a hobby is an intrinsically private activity, social only the true sense of the word, as face-to-face or small-group interaction with little to no popularity contests involved (as represented by most traditional male hobbies.) In fact, if you are part of a modern Community or an influencer, you might find what I said above quite lame and uninteresting. After all, where is the social (audience) component? This is, thanks to social media, what any Community looks like now:

You still have the company making the figurines and the books, as well as the magazine, and the untold masses that buy the stuff for their own enjoyment, but none or few of these are social media influencers so they are not part of the Community. What you do have are the Instagram miniature painters, the gaming influencers, the YouTube painting tutorials, the Youtube guy who explains the “lore,” the Youtube guy who makes resumes of the guys who explains the “lore,” as well as the guy who makes fun of it; you have the community managers, the community cheerleaders, the writers of fan fiction, the artists who make fan art as a way to show their skills, as well as the artist who actually get paid or have patreons to make W40K fan art, both lewd and otherwise; then you have the people who start twitter threats about the need for female space marines or any of the “conversation” one is supposed to care about; you have the dozen or so companies making “alternatives” (i.e. copies) of GW’s miniatures; you have the people who may have no particular interest in the little figurines but like to play the tie-in video games and make reviews of those games or stream them; you also have the cosplayers, both traditional as well as those of the half-naked variety, and all the people earning money in that cottage industry (makers of cosplaying props and whatnot.) Finally, you have the much-suffering writers of the various Wikia and fandom pages, writing the equivalent of an Encyclopedia Britannica of W40K trivia.

Not all these things—perhaps not even most of them— are intrinsically wrong, but that’s how the current entertainment landscape works, as an aggregation of the fandom and its activities, texts, metatexts, commentaries, controversies, copies, clones, fan art, Youtube videos, parodies, memes, cosplays, and imitations as a part of what could be called the “extended product,” “owned” by the nebulous Community, which exists on and, most likely was created thanks to, social media. This extended ecosystem of the Brand has extended the longevity of the product beyond its natural life expectancy as well as fan loyalty, at the cost of authenticity and increased commercialization.

Therefore, it is only natural that many aspiring artists hitch themselves to these artistic conglomerates, directly or indirectly, as a way to kickstart their success or personal brand, not unlike sociopolitical commentators, journalists, and whatnot hitch themselves to a popular narrative or controversy.

However, many of the people in that sprawling ecosystem of the fandom hope, vaguely or very specifically, that their engagement with the Community and the content they create within it will help them somewhat, whether as a clout-chasing self-esteem boost or as actual financial rewards or even job opportunities. If you follow any Community, you will from time to time see how a SM influencer gets hired, usually as some kind of community manager or pseudo-marketing job, although as artists happen from time to time, to. Many professional writers actually started doing fan fiction, and in the videogame industry, some of the best designers started doing mods or maps for Quake, Thief, Doom, UT, Neverwinter Nights, etc. For example, recently I have been playing the game Subnautica, which I recommend, and it felt obvious to me this was a game with a lot of heart and personality. Not surprisinly, I looked up their creators and they had began doing mods for Half Life. I have to point out, though, that many of these fans turned professionals started before SM as it is now existed or for games that are fairly old. There is a strong reluctance now among modern companies to allow any kind of modding capability despite that being one of the few things that has kept that industry from becoming as souless as Hollywood.

I say all that so you don’t think I believe such fan involvement is inherently rotten. It is actually a necessary and heahtly step in the regeneration of any hobby. But that’s the keyword: hobby, not Community. A hobby is authentic, a Community is a fake creation made thanks to SM dynamics and marketing.

So, when a member of the Community gets hired, that can be a good thing for that person might be very knowledgeable of that fictional universe or their skills might be obvious to everyone, but it can also be a result of obvious networking cliques, ideological coteries, and nepotism. In fact, any small proto-community that becomes popular and starts generating buzz will naturally start drawing in content creators, influencers, as well as prospective community managers who see all that fandom as unexploited content and untapped crowdsourced marketing potential. That might mean there has to be some culling, for such small niches cannot sustain that many people looking for an audience or monetary rewards. Backdoor dealings and friendships are the most common and natural way to fix this—and the result doesn’t have to be too negative for the community as a whole. But sometimes, something more brutal needs to be done, and ideological problematization can work well here. The moment something becomes really popular or there are simply too many aspirants and content creators, you will start hearing talks of how the “community,” something that didn’t exist before these people arrived, needs to do better or have a conversation about xyz. That is a power move, as the one who starts the conversation is betting on this making him more relevant or influential or that this will scare/disgust the competition away.

Whatever the specific might be, the point to keep in mind is that most hobbies have changed and there are now very clear monetary incentives, status nudges, and hierarchies at work in many Communities (unlike in traditionally more “horizontal” hobbies.) The widespread feeling that many hobbies are not that fun anymore or that they feel like jobs are a consequence of this.

This kind of commodified fandom with legions of aspiring content creators generate a distinct type of community, and a unique and somewhat sickly feel. You cannot compare any of these social media communities to massive pre-Internet cultural phenomena like, say, The Lord of the Rings or D&D at the peak of their influence (in numbers of actual players, D&D was way more popular in the 70s than it is now.) What we have now is a new creature, one born from the collapse of context, space, and barriers brought by social media, with its transformation of the relatively passive, distant consumer into an active marketing unit and the crowdsourcing of the fans as (usually unpaid) cocreators or, at least, evangelists for the brand. This is achieved by tying the success of their online personas (and any potential gig they can get out of this) to that of the brand/community they are part of. This obviously builds, at best, brand loyalty, at worst, brand dependency. It goes without saying that if you are at the bottom of any of these pyramids, you shouldn’t bother trying to court or ingratiate yourself to anybody or any brand; there’s a freedom that comes from being a nobody. Again, like always, expectations and your mindset matter. If you are just a hobbyist who happens to earn some extra money for showing or promoting what you have always done anyway, congratulations, and more power to you. But, clearly, many people are trying to achieve more, to build an online persona, a brand, and an audience, with the inevitable frustrations that come when such things are not achieved or cannot be achieved.

On the other hand, for those who are old enough to remember this, when you were young in that pre-social media age, if you got tired of, say, Star Wars or D&D, or you just grew up (and got interested in girls, as the saying goes,) you stopped watching/playing/talking about it and moved on. Difficult if your friends didn’t, but not an impossible task, as most people had many hobbies anyway, and it was impossible to engage with the Community (which probably didn’t exist anyway) 24/7. When the extent of the D&D Community is your weekly game, leaving it is no big achievement. You cannot easily do that now (or so people feel,) not if you are one of the people in that massive list above. Your social media capital, prestige, reach, clout, the conversations you can have, your social media “friends,” and so on are tied to the franchise, the brand, and the community with all the discourses, content, media, and drama they generate. That could help explain why some fans seem unable to grow out of certain fandoms even when they become disgusted by them. But that would be something for another post.

For this and many other reasons, you are not going to see many new things replace the great entertainment behemoths anytime soon or why any newcomers will have an immensely difficult uphill battle to even get noticed, especially if they refuse to define themselves in terms of something that already exists or is popular, relatable, or indexable (but very few do that anyway.) At the same time, those who activelly fight against this might be remembered, but that’s an extremely difficult path.

There’s this ridiculous belief in how these big companies will react to the “market” (or how they will be replaced) because they happen to have made a few turds or their marketing has been subpar or because they have made a few “woke” ads. But the market doesn’t exist. Disney is not reacting to the market, is IS the market. They create the market as they act. Who is going to react more to the “market,” a multibillion-dollar entitiy that owns so much a diagram of their properties looks like a Jackson Pollocks’ painting, or you, a little guy with 300 followers. You are the one reacting to the market, to what they do; you are the one talking about what they make; you are the one writing fanfiction of their products; you are the one buying their tie-in products; you are the one engaging with the drama; you are the one creating products in imitation or reaction to what they do.

But, even if they are replaced (and nothing last forever, so they probably will,) the keyworkd here is replacing. Mass media will still define the cultural and entertainment landscape for the foreseable future unless we move to a completely different social and information organization, whether it’s Disney or a current indie destined to dominate the future. It might be a healthier mass media environment, but it will still be mass media.

And what if you are a writer or an artists but are not interested in any of this popular culture stuff? Maybe you are an old-fashioned writer who believes the task of a writer is to depict the reality of their society, not to replicate yet another derivative work of an already derivate fantasy novel (what a quaint idea!) Well, I have some good news (and a few bad ones). The good one is that you don’t have to care about any of this BS and that your potential audience is not tied to fandom fragmentation and segmentation. Ironically, even if your book is just about your small town, you might get more readers than another person trying their luck writing yet another YA post-apoc piece. The bad news is that since a lot of what people read and consume is dominated by that kind of stuff, well, you might have to compete with that, and if you want to thrive thanks to social media, you will. However, I believe this kind of “literary” genre stuff will be more succesful in the coming years.

YOU NEED MONEY TO MAKE MONEY, AND POPULARITY TO BE POPULAR

Popular social media users are astute observer of trends, hot topics, and current commentary because their growth or the maintainance of their relevance is usually spurred and punctuated by well-timed hot streaks of content tied to some controversy or attention vortex. I’m not belittling them (well, perhaps just a little.) Doing that requires some skill and dedication, and some current events do indeed need commentary, but one has to admit that it is a skill, even a type of personality, and that the content they produce is tied to the platform that generates it and the content and events they react to. Most of it isn’t even “real” and the influencers themselves know it, hence the common impostors’ syndrome or feelings of not actually doing anything many of them seem to suffer from.

Social media platforms (and digital marketers in general) know this dynamic where popularity requires being tied to popularity, and how a community requires a community, which is why Reddit made up hundreds of fake users during its first days to present a false image of an active community, so other people would be enticed to join because you only join active communities. But how can any community or project be active if it’s new? You either tie it to a pre-existing hype, fandom, community, or discourse… or just astroturf it (i.e., lie.) Of course, you could also be very lucky, talented, or a Renaissance genius, but I’m going with what is more likely here, generalities and trends (it is your job to break them, if you wish to do so.)

Naturally, the inequality and constant need for an audience on social media create many self-esteem issues in its users, especially for those who depend on it or believe one needs to be there to be noticed—not realizing, probably, that this psychological need for an audience is artificial. In the future, some crumbling communities might resort to using self-esteem bots, like fake users to boost the self-perception and perceived audience of low-status users so as to maintain brand or community engagement at the bottom of the pyramid. This is a far-fetched idea, fit perhaps for sci-fi short story, but spend a few minutes in any online artistic community and you will see hordes of very depressed people, and if this gets out of hand (or if they lash out) this can damage the Community (and, by that, I mean the people at the top.) Keep in mind, most of these Communities are totally oblivious to the fact that more than 90% of their members (if not much more) are unsuccesful, because they keep it to themselves.

Remember though, that this need for an audience is artificial because for a long time people learned arts or hobbies with almost no thought of developing an audience, of being noticed. You learned to play the piano, or wrote a personal diary, or learned to paint watercolors as a hobby or for personal growth and development as a well-rounded human being. There was no audience nor a need for one.

But if the first thought that crosses your mind when doing those things now is “I wonder how much engagement I will get from this?” then you have become a slave to uncaring and distant audiences, to the social approval of people who most likely don’t even live in your real society, your country, town, or city, most of whom not even care that much about what they follow or like except as a way to increase their own meager audiences. If people don’t interact with your paintings or whatever, then change communities (or diversify and find more,) try better places, get better until you simply can’t be ignored, or try it in the real world. It is unwholesome to cherish that time a famous YouTuber or influencer or whatever interacted with your comment or something you made went viral. You should, quite simply, not give a shit, as most of these people your need for an audience relies on aren’t even real.

NOSTALGIA AND FINAL THOUGHTS

When you look back with nostalgia to past entertainment or communities, it’s not just because things were better back then. Indeed, many were much better but, granted, a lot was garbage too. Yet even things that now are objectively good seem tainted somehow, lacking in spirit or authenticity. That can be quite literal as the product might have been designed by marketing studies chasing trends and fads. But the taint also comes from the Community, the Commentators, and (some) Content Creators.

Your nostalgia is for a different kind of social and psychological context, one with fewer mediators, where marketing forces were hidden rather than in your face and disguised as organic fan engagement. You look back with fondness for a time where the “community” was just your friends, a couple of magazines you read, and perhaps the letters you sent to those magazines; when there was no Community in the modern sense, no constant self-branding, hustling, and grifting, nor any need to manage or engage with the Community or with its myriad of gatekeepers, corporate influencers, and “conversations.” You look back, ironically, to a time when you could be left alone, when the distinction between consumer and producer was clear, when not every little act, behavior, or idea was social, and, therefore, observed and ranked, a social pattern that benefits sociopathic individuals.

Your hobby or whatever has become unbearable because the online environment you interact with (the “Community”) is a small pool of influencers and content creators (the average consumer is an almost invisible lurker) competing in an extremely unequal attention/popularity economy and very few self-evident tests for excellence and talent to adjudicate who should be at the top, where people try to outmaneuver each other so as to make their content the one setting the agenda/conversation, and where this aggregation of attention is tied to (or can be tied to) economic incentives or even the odd job offering, and the easiest way to control these opportunities is by creating cliques and setting up as many shit tests and barriers as possible. Of course your hobby sucks now, because that is not a hobby.

Of course, not everything that comes out of a Community is tainted or toxic. For many SM-driven products, the conversations that are born from the surrounding community might be one of its main attractions, and that conversation can be harmless. For many YouTubers, their comments section is as much the reason behind their popularity as their content (and it might even be more interesting.) There is such a thing as healthy online interactions, even if that seems like a shocking statement after having read all I have said here. But here’s the point I have been making in these posts: such a community, healthy or otherwise, creates audience-driven engagement and popularity. That is the new reality of almost all kind of entertainment. It’s social and is built around shared content, in-jokes, memes, buzz, hype, and communities. Maybe not for the average consumer, but as potential creator who needs to make other aware of his or her existence, that is your new reality. The world village might be large, yet it’s also crushingly small, and although the Internet has many small niches, most of them don’t pay well. And as a newcomer, you don’t have any of the social capital of the big players. So, whatever path you will take, whether you join them, fight them, try to replicate their success, or something else, you have to be aware that this is how things work now most of the time.

As for books, and this is mostly a blog about books, you are most likely screwed if you try to succeed purely as a social media native. Of course, some people can succeed even then, and some will, but then again, some people will win the lottery. The game is rigged against you, and you have to come to terms with that. You can use SM to amplify a parallel, word-to-mouth popularity, but it cannot create popularity where there is none unless you fake it or manage to hijack or weaponize one of the many attention vortices that occasionally spawn on SM. Timing is important with these things, but that means your art will have to submit to the bubble-like ups and downs of the Internet, and it’s highly unlikely anythig of oustanding quality will come out of this.

To answer the question that somehow is still being asked, whether you should self-publish (i.e., Amazon) or go a more traditional route (although on SM both are becoming quite similar,) the answer is simple: Almost nobody is making any serious money one way or another, so do whatever is less of a pain in the ass. As hated as traditional editors are by some authors, to get into the writing business back then you only had to convince a few people, the three or four gatekeepers standing between you and the contract. Now you have to convince every individual SM user, or dozens of influencers, becoming then entangled with their dramas and conversations and everything else. So, honestly, pick whichever gives you fewer headaches. Nowadays, except for a few famous writers, not even traditionally-published authors make much money anyway.

Don’t listen to the people who tell you otherwise just because author X o Z is actually really wealthy so you need to learn what he or she did. So is Jeff Bezos, but who cares? There can only be one Jeff Bezos and only one Amazon. The point of any wealthy individual at the top of the pyramid is that, if there’s already one there, that means the seat has been taken. If there are two or three writers making a lot of money on Patreon, good for them, but that means that’s more or less the limit of how many writers fit there. Anyone telling you otherwise, selling you (sometimes, literally) recipes for success is lying to you.

I have to reiterate this because when the dismal state of publishing, self or otherwise, is mentioned, the same kind of arguments are rattled out, pointing out how this or that scheme has made a couple of writers very wealthy, but these articles are always written after the fact, after those succesful writers have already established and walled off their turf. Now what you are reading are the marketers trying to sell you that recipe. It is always the same story, the same fundamental lie: how this or that newfangled scheme will finally give unheard authors the opportunity to… No. It won’t. It’s just a new information-technology gadget to give the early adopters an edge. It may help a few people, which is better than zero people, but that’s it. Unless it’s a completely new platform with a completely different economic model and structure, it won’t change anything fundamental.

People saying otherwise have, pretty much 100% of the time, a vested interest, for they have books, tutorials, seminars, or other services to sell. No detached observer can look at the self-publishing business (or many social-media-centric artistic enterprises) and say, “Why, yes, this is a healthy business community. I’m sure banks are lining up to give these people loans!”

The simple fact is that no easy path will give you money, success, or attention to 99% of you. Anyone promising you otherwise is lying to you and has something to sell you.

Don’t get what I’m going to say now the wrong way, but I’m not writing all of this for the average writer of literary shoverlware. If author #8362 fails and her paranormal romance novel that is indistinguishable from thousands of others doesn’t sell… well, that’s not really a tragedy. My fear is that, among the piles of self-published nonsense, there might be a forgotten, ignored gem. This is what can happen when you publish your book online:

Many people wonder why the great new novel has not been written, or why (as I have been doing here) no new things have been written. Well, I have given many reasons, but what if it has been written. It’s not like someone is checking every item in that warehouse. Granted, odds are that if you open any random box, what you will find in there won’t be very interesting, but what if it is. The Internet is not an omniscient critic that rationally ranks and rewards creative people in a perfectly fair way. Most of it isn’t even seen, listened, read, or watched. This ranking is made by people; there is no AI parsing all that data. The accuracy and fairness of this ranking system most likely breaks down once you surpass a certain number of products, say, a hundred, not unlike how any job opening with more than a certain number of applicants becomes nonsense. Quality products (or applicants) falling through the cracks because the system doesn’t have the accuracy required to detect them or perhaps is biased against them is a likely event, or an inevitable one, I’d say. It is for those people that I’m writing this.

Don’t do this to yourself. Don’t send your book to what is, at best, a gigantic warehouse or, at worst, a dump. Or, at least, be aware that this is what those places can be. If you are a good writer, you shouldn’t do that unless you are ready for you book to be forgotten or you are fine with just selling to those few people who visit your site, blog, or whatever. When evaluating your SM or clout potential, you have to be dettached and forget your artistic narcissism: If you came across someone like you on SM, would you actually be intrigued or hyped to buy his or her stuff, to engage with it? If you are being honest, the answer is probably no. And if that is the answer, then you’ll have to search for alternatives.

You have to pick your poison (or create a new one): do you prefer to deal with the BS and petty preferences of a few annoying editors and their long-delays, or the BS and insane behavior of Internet nobodies and influencers in exchange for immediate gratification? Whatever route you choose, do not discount small or medium-sized publishing houses, because these will become more important as people get tired of waddling through piles of lit shovelware and some artists realize that the short-lived and instantaneous gratification that comes from seeing your book for sale almost immediately is not worth seeing it disappear a week later or having to put up with so much SM nonsense.

If you want to rely on Internet SM attention, keep in mind that you’ll need potentially millions of eyeballs to make that work. But the value of any random viewer or follower is very small. While a small-budget cinema film, radio station, or TV channel with a few million viewers can sustain many jobs, YouTube accounts with millions of viewers might not even be able to sustain themselves unless they set up a Patreon or get sponsorships. So, we have a Superstar economy with McDonald’s salaries.

You do not need to sell millions of books to make a bit of money (and you might not even care about money) but you might actually need to sell tens of thousands if you rely on e-books or humiliating $1 price tags. If such an amount of sales is supposed to come from “organic” social media influence, it’s a mathematical certainty that only very few people will be able to achieve that. And if you don’t care that much about money but care about attention or artistic relevance, then you have to deal with attention concentration anyway. Any online guru that fails to disclose these facts when selling you his books or courses is lying to you. There might be useful tricks here and there, but there is no method to “beat the algorithm,” there is no marketing secret, there is no secret trend that is really hot right now (if was hot months ago, perhaps, but not now.) In fact, the secret recipe for online success is branding yourself as an expert on such secrets, as someone whose success is replicable, an aspirational role model, a guru. Those are the people actually making money.

Now, for a certain type of creative endeavor, this lack of attention is not much of an issue. I might raise a skeptical eyebrow when I sometimes see what becomes popular on certain visual art cliques circles, but I don’t really care. If I paint miniatures, and one, or two, or three, or two dozen don’t get much attention, I can always paint more. And, besides, it’s a hobby I enjoy, and I would do it even without social media (that is, without an audience.) You can draw or paint something in a relatively short amount of time, too, and the reaction (or lack of) can be imminent. But although you can paint as a hobby, there are not many “writers as a hobby” as the act of writing is inherently tied to the expectation of having a voice and it takes considerable time to write anything. After all, you can pick up a brush, follow a few Bob Ross tutorials, and paint a few things, but you can’t just do the writing equivalent of that and churn out a few novels. And if you write because you believe there is money in it, just leave now. This is not the era of the freaking pulps, when authors actually got paid very well.

A common complaint in fantasy is that many books read like people translating their roleplaying games into literature (I mean, there’s actually a genre about that, litrpg.) Weird thing is, right now, you’d probably have a larger audience (your players) if you keep your story as a game (or even stream it) than if you write it as a book. It would also be quicker to make and probably more fun. Who knows, maybe Critical Role has had an unexpected positive effect and now young people want to stream their games rather than what was common years ago, write them.

In my view, the explosion in amateur content that we have had since the early-to-mid 2010s has been a bubble. And despite everything that has been said about small authors creating their own markets and big publishers disappearing, the latter are still here and will still be here. Who cares if millions of kindle books are sold each year if a million new ones are published each year too? That might be profitable for Amazon, but not for the average writer. What matters is the per capita information, which is (not) surprisingly difficult to find.

So, who will write in the future? My guess is, fewer people. At least, professionaly. At the same time, like centuries ago, many writers will write expecting little to no monetary reward, so it will be, again, a kind of aristocratic hobby. And as for the “Communities” and the alleged new world that the Internet and social media were supposed to usher? I believe that, although it will take some time, many will die and that, ironically, many arts will try (succesfully or not) to go back to how things were organized twenty, thirty, or forty years ago, if not much earlier, like those artistic ateliers that are reappearing and use XIX-century teaching techniques. In fact, it might be how the distinction between low and high culture will be defined in the coming years. Low culture will be SM-driven content and mass mainstream while high culture will be made by people working in the equivalent of guilds or produced by companies and businesses with high barriers of entry. That is only a possibility, of course, and not the easiest one nor the most natural.

Whatever happens on SM, remember: You don’t have to care.

5 thoughts on “Everything is social III

  1. Kay

    Wow, this whole series of articles was something! It feels like you said nothing I didn’t know before and yet still can’t quite process.
    Don’t have anything really to add, just want to say thank you for writing this, and i hope you will in the future you’ll write more, there is no other blog like this one, and have never seen any one so far dare address this issue even to a tiny extent the way you did!
    Probably the part that hit the hardest was the way SM has tainted things, so to speak. I always have a nagging feeling of discomfort or that something is off even when I find there’s some development or progress in some niche that interests me ( like s&s, etc.) and I could never figure out why the hell it didn’t excite me, or that my gut reaction was to get as far away from it as possible (like, hey, this shit I always wanted to get published and noticed and have some kind of community—there it is, why the hell does it leave a bad taste in the mouth?).
    Guess now I know why.
    Thanks again emperor, hope you are well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. In fact, there is quite a bit of social and psychological literature in many of the things I have said, but no unified description. And most clearly avoid stepping on any toes. The guy who wrote the paper on Twitter inequality is the only paper I have seen on such a basic concept. It wouldn’t surprise me if there is some kind of pressure for scholars to not study this deeply, as you can get into some wacky rabbitholes.

      As for the feeling of unease, yes, that is natural and perhaps inevitable if you get all yours news from social media as it’s a marketing platform. It would be like getting all your information from ads or ads disguised as news. Eventually, you’d feel sick.

      A simple solution is to step back or away, or not get the news directly from the producer, who is the main marketer. Of course, for amateurs and indie products, that’s difficult.

      Like

  2. Anthony

    When I think back to the past, something happened in 2014 that shifted society into something different; into another “zeitgeist” if you like. I don’t know what that was, but it was when religion became uncool, and all sorts of insane ideas started becoming acceptable.

    It started off with the cringe that was more acceptable to mock: bronies, fedora-wearers, otherkin, xenogenders, hentai addicts… but now they’re Discord and Reddit moderators, and if you don’t want to get banned there, (or really any other major platform) you pretend that stuff’s normal.

    And to an extent it is indeed normal; because the ones who didn’t get invested into looney stuff instead made a commodified fandom their religion, the “validation” of such communities being an almost church-like environment which rewards the piety of consumption and disparages the heresey that is disengagement. Watching lore-videos, podcasts, roleplaying sessions, e-girl livestreams, etc. is like how church-people sit on a pew all Sunday morning and cause traffic-jams all afternoon; it’s how they worship.

    I daresay that’s one of the reasons that creative output is in decline as well; given that the judgement of social media is no doubt on creators’ minds, they’re probably too concerned about their supply of validation to risk it with anything controvestial or off-topic.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Sensor Sweep: Pulp Covers, Black Sails, Starship Troopers – castaliahouse.com

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