The Future of Media
Macroculture and microculture go to war.
Ted Gioia, the great jazz and cultural critic who now writes here at Substack, published a very interesting piece on the future of media. Because the media landscape is so determinant of much of what happens, it’s worth thinking about this issue. It will have a profound effect on all of us. And Gioia is a very smart commentator.
Gioia discusses the divide between “macroculture” (legacy media and entertainment) and “microculture” (independent content creators). He says that macroculture is in decline, as evidenced by the wave of job cuts in the industry, and that microculture is booming, based on a series of stats around creator revenues. His view, “Legacy media is collapsing at the very moment that alternative platforms are booming.”
He also believes that macro and micro culture will increasingly be in conflict. Today’s macroculture is run by people who, unlike in the past, don’t value microculture and are indeed hostile to it.
The next point I make is very important. So I’m going to put it in boldface.
This hostility and ignorance of entrenched institutions is the single biggest difference between the new alt culture and the old counterculture. In the 1950s and 1960s, entrenched elites took the counterculture very seriously. They learned from it. They treated it with respect.
The microcultures of today get none of that. My general sense is that Hollywood and New York wish all these alternative voices would disappear.
This really is a war. I’m not exaggerating.
He also notes that microculture creators depend on Silicon Valley platforms (and vice versa), but that those platforms too don’t necessarily care for microculture.
Ted would like to see more cross-pollination back into macroculture from microculture, as occurred in the counterculture era, and more macroculture hiring of people from outside their bubble.
The piece is very much worth reading to think about these dynamics.
This is another example of the bigger pattern of failing institutions vs. attempts at replacement structures. You see it in how venture capitalist Balaji Srinivasan talks about shifting away from legacy structures to blockchain (in theory decentralized and institutionless). Or in how people talk about “exit” from society to homesteading or seasteading or charter cities or something similar. My ideas around becoming illegible fall into this category. In the Negative World, the institutions are unhealthy and often hostile, so escaping from underneath of them is an imperative.
The problem, and I think Gioia would agree, is that these alternative structures like microculture are not a full substitute for macroculture. A country with a failing legacy media (or other legacy institutions) and dependent upon upstart content creators (or other alternative structures) will not be a healthy one.
I will discuss a few of the problems with this.
1. The Rise of Superstar Economics
Today, in both macroculture and microculture, financial returns follow a power law distribution. That is, there are a handful of people at the top like Taylor Swift (macro) and Mr. Beast (micro) who get stunningly rich. A slightly bigger group like David Brooks (macro) and Matthew Yglesias (micro) do very well for themselves. A bigger but still very small group of people like the editor of your local newspaper (macro) or me (micro) basically make a living.
But the vast majority of people make ramen noodle money. Either they fail completely to sustainably break into the industry (like most aspiring actors in the macro world) or can’t even pay the rent with their earnings (content creators in the micro world).
More and more of the returns in many domains of society have been flowing upwards to the superstars. This has profound effects, because…
2. Eat What You Kill Model
Microculture, for example, is an example of the “every tub on its own bottom” or “eat what you kill” model. That is, each micro-creator only earns what he directly can merit via the marketplace. This is not a sustainable model for healthy media.
The macroculture world allows, in theory, cross-subsidization. That is, the commercial hits can subsidize the more artistic money losers. This used to actually happen. For example, it was widely reported at the time of his death that Cormac McCarthy barely sold any books for the first 25 years of his career, up until All the Pretty Horses. But publishers kept putting out his novels, including what are now viewed to be classics like Blood Meridian. McCarthy also got a MacArthur genius grant to help keep him afloat.
A world of microculture only world is unlikely to ever nurture and sustain the careers of people like McCarthy. Though of course macroculture does much less of this cross-subsidization today than it used to, at least in terms of underwriting genuine quality.
And only macroculture has the financial resources to financially enable deep research and journalism. In a microculture only world, we’d never never have something like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, because there would have been no publishing companies to fund him to write it.
Microculture incentives are to create whatever generates clicks and subscriptions. The vast majority of microculture creators are financially unable to do anything other than this. Also, microculture creators have to be constantly pumping out content, which is stressful in its own right and dramatically reduces their capacity to do research or work on more serious projects. One of the reasons Gioia is able to be a superb microculture creator now is that he spent decades of pre-work doing the reading and practice that allows him to produce high quality content today.
Again, macroculture isn’t doing what it used to in terms of underwriting quality, but unlike most microculture, at least it could.
3. Silicon Valley Will Put the Squeeze on Microculture
Another problem for microculture is that virtually all microculture creators are using quasi-monopoly platforms from Silicon Valley to make their money. Historically, this has been a bad place to be. As Byrne Hobart put it, “If you build a business on someone else’s platform, in the end you’re either doing R&D for features they’ll add or you’re setting yourself up to cede them your margins.”
These platforms are typically very generous to creators, users, etc. in their early days in order to attract them to the platform. They might even subsidize the creators. Uber effectively subsidized its service to attract drivers and riders, for example.
But once they’ve built their monopoly, they can change the terms to start putting the financial squeeze on creators. We’ve seen this play out all too often. For example, Facebook dramatically reduced organic reach (i.e., showing people your posts if they like your page), forcing people to pay to play. Amazon did something similar.
These companies can change their algorithms or fee structures at will, and that tends to disfavor most microcreators, who are almost by definition benefitting from the current structures. Elon Musk’s feud with Substack is a good example. Most media platforms of both the macro and micro variety are seeing big drop offs in social media traffic, as the platforms decide they don’t want people following links offsite anymore.
While Gioia recognizes his, he seems to believe there’s a reciprocal dependency of the platforms on microcreators. This is true in aggregate, but not the individual level. The Silicon Valley platforms and their owners/executives have vast wealth and financial resources. They don’t need you for anything, and can certainly absorb losses much longer than any microculture creator could.
Gioia is also on Substack, which is still in its golden age for creators, which may be affecting his views. The odds of this remaining the case for the long term are slim.
4. Microculture Has a Shelf Life
Lastly, most microculture creators have only a limited window of time in which they can be successful. It’s like professional athletics in that way.
A mommy blogger, for example, is only going to have a big audience during a certain window of life. Most Instagram influencers or Youtubers are wedded to a particular generational appeal or cultural moment. They won’t be able to keep doing the same thing forever. They will at a minimum have to pivot, which is very difficult to do. There’s always a new generation and a new wave creators coming up.
This creative ferment is wonderful in many ways. But it’s not good for culture if this is the main model.
Macroculture has to make the same pivots. The difference is that it has the financial resources, brand, and audience reach to bring the new to market quickly. They’ve got facilities, support infrasturcture, etc. Whereas new microculture creators have to start from scratch and often spend years of toil building an audience and capabilities.
I’m glad we have Substack. Without the end of gatekeepers and the rise of microculture, I wouldn’t have this career. But we also need healthy macroculture at places like the New York Times. A collection of Substackers, Youtubers, podcasters, etc. can complement macroculture, but can’t fully replace it.
The problem, as Gioia points out, is that macroculture is unhealthy, arrogant, and hostile to the new ideas, models, and creators that might help reinvigorate it. Peace is better than war, but war is what we’ve got. In this environment, microculture is the option we have on offer.
It’s similar for other legacy institutions. They are very important to a healthy society. There’s no way to readily replace them. Yet they are frequently failing, impervious to reform, and often hostile to those who might have a better answer. In this environment, alternative structures are too often a necessary compensating approach.
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A related piece from my archives.
Cover image credit: PngArts.com