#149: Listen, the Snow Is Falling

A few years ago a friend and I were hanging out and decided we should both try posting something to Instagram that would get zero likes (or as few likes as possible). I didn’t win the game—my post sadly racked up 9 likes, which is hard to understand if you look at it—but the exercise evokes an age-old question: What’s the point of posting or creating something that isn’t meant to be liked or even seen at all, especially when doing so isn’t part of some dumb game? Concepts like Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame (1968) and Chris Anderson’s Long Tail (2004) raised the possibility that notoriety and audience sizes would become more evenly distributed as creative output itself became more heterogenous—until eventually we’d each be broadcasting our own perfectly unique material to only ourselves and maybe our close friends and family (in fact, Anderson praised this exact condition in his Long Tail essay: “As fast as Rhapsody adds tracks to its library, those songs find an audience, even if it's just a few people a month”). Of course that arrangement was never sustainable: The Long Tail is a paradise for consumers, not producers, and we’re all increasingly both, so a new compromise became necessary. Today, the Long Tail manifests itself as Twitch streamers who spend years broadcasting to no one, anxiously awaiting the moment when the view counter finally ticks from zero to one. The minimum tolerable amount of recognition is clearly higher than what the Long Tail promises.

In his memoir Black Postcards, Dean Wareham recounts Galaxie 500 playing a show to an audience of six indifferent bar regulars during a snowstorm in Boston, earning $12 to split among three people. Almost any punk or indie band’s memoir includes a similar story, and it’s easy to translate this situation to its digital equivalent—but is playing to an empty bar really the same as streaming to no one (even after controlling for Galaxie 500’s eventual success)? The physical world can accommodate emptiness and silence, or at least acknowledge them; online, those voids are just filled by other people’s content, and thus vanish instantly. A rock show with no audience is a palpable (if minor) tragedy—something notable enough to include in a memoir. A post with no engagement, by contrast, is simply nothing at all, difficult to apprehend much less discuss or remember. John Cage, describing his famous silent composition, 4’33”, said, “The piece is not actually silent...it is full of sound, but sounds which I did not think of beforehand.” Everything on the internet is actually like this, but that quality is so ubiquitous and uniform that it’s impossible to appreciate.

The Instagram post I described above had value outside the context of Instagram itself: By deliberately failing, my friend and I gave ourselves something to laugh about over beers. It would have made no sense, however, if we couldn’t readily switch between different levels of reality—if we were fully immersed in the platform and untethered from any external context. As we all approach the state of being fully online, with no other way to be together, content and reality converge, and unseen or unliked posts become another form of isolation. Everyone knows that follower counts, engagement metrics, and audience size aren’t correlated with quality, but they’re not perfectly uncorrelated either, and nobody wants those numbers to be zero. When we need to speak and not just listen, the Long Tail fails us. In this time of widespread physical isolation, viral events like Tiger King or the Bernie Sanders meme function as proxies for public space: the experiences we can all collectively share and inhabit. Maybe if we could have parties and attend concerts—if we could partake of the more evenly distributed collectivity that the physical world normally offers—our need for shows like Tiger King would diminish accordingly. Anderson’s original Long Tail essay was published the same year that Facebook debuted, when many of us were just embarking on our journey as full-time amateur content creators. He writes, “Unlike the CD, where each crap track costs perhaps one-twelfth of a $15 album price, online it just sits harmlessly on some server, ignored in a market that sells by the song and evaluates tracks on their own merit.” What do we do when it’s not just tracks sitting ignored on some server, but people? It’s not as harmless then.

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Reads:

  • Another incredible essay by Elena Burger—about how physical retail is alive and well despite the narrative that the pandemic has killed it altogether. A nuanced examination of the history of brick-and-mortar retail, the mall as technology, and the factors other than e-commerce (like permitting) that have impacted the industry recently.

  • The internet didn’t kill counterculture—you just won’t find it on Instagram. “In the internet era, true counterculture is difficult to see, and even harder to find—but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

  • How Nothingness Became Everything We Wanted. “One of the most disturbing psychic features of 2020: that a substantial portion of the population could float on in a state of lulled passivity, even in the middle of a global disaster, thanks to those who could not.”