#177: Country Feedback
In a recent episode of his podcast, Sean Monahan described a phenomenon he called “the West Elm Calebificiation of content” in which media and internet discourse converge on a narrow range of meme-like topics. Monahan offered a compelling theory about why this happens, going beyond the usual social media fatalism: “Publications used to give people money to go do stuff…When there’s no budget for people to do anything besides sit in front of their computer, all that gets covered is the churn of the Twitter trending bar or the churn of the TikTok For You Page, and a lot of that is purely a problem of funding.” This reaches beyond conventional wisdom, which holds that the quality of internet content (and culture in general, with which it is increasingly synonymous) is a direct and inevitable result of the platforms that distribute that content, and of those platforms’ interaction with human nature. Twitter and TikTok facilitate algorithmic virality and cultural flattening, one might assume, because they are designed to pick up whatever topic is getting attention and accelerate its ascent, with hordes of users chasing that momentum by posting their own takes and meme variants. From a broader perspective, though, you’d have to be insane to believe that a topic as hollow and tedious as West Elm Caleb—or any of countless other trending topics that have briefly dominated the internet lately—was destined to command mainstream attention for any amount of time. If the medium is indeed the message, West Elm Caleb is a brutal example of that.
What Monahan usefully suggests is that West Elm Calebificiation only became possible due to a cultural void created by a redirection of money away from a certain type of media production—one that, importantly, enabled people to leave their homes and gather information about the outside world. Well before 2020, there was a creeping belief that such adventuring was becoming unnecessary, even frivolous, and that the internet was a sufficiently rich and comprehensive information source to replace most others, which ultimately led to widespread reporting about events that had happened on the internet (epitomized by the headline format, “People Are Talking About Topic X”). The physical world, in contrast, was parochial, full of individuals trapped within their own blinkered perspectives, a source of bias that anyone could overcome by logging on. By transcending our geographic limitations and submitting to the hive mind, the liquid marketplace of ideas would presumably guide us toward higher truths. Sadly, that process didn’t work and the higher truth they guided us toward was meta-discourse about TikTok testimonials describing bad dates with some 25-year-old dude who lives in New York—a true feedback loop, with no available mechanism for collectively downvoting the whole conversation and starting over. The pandemic obviously made this worse: It revealed the limitations of fully-digital life, but it also demonstrated that it’s too late to easily change course, now that the prior era’s infrastructure is dismantled. The West Elm Calebs will continue until morale improves.
The concepts of reality and “IRL” no longer neatly align with what happens in physical space, yet the traditional definition of the real world—what you encounter when you leave your house—still furnishes the internet’s necessary raw material, the calories that nourish it. As online experience feels increasingly unhinged or deranged (and it really does now), this malnutrition is a clear reason why. Last month, Bruce Sterling said that he had “underestimated the creative fertility of big, messy, public events.” He continued, “People know what they oughta do and want to do, and they can conspire about it on Discord or Zoom, but some element of intellectual contagion has gone missing along with the quarantines…Plague society suffers a famine of civic engagement.” This feeling of cultural entropy is palpable now, especially online. A long time ago, in an essay about the enduring value of cities, I wrote that digital space “is the next front in the civilizational war on entropy that we have always been waging….The internet may absorb certain time-honored functions of the city (and it’s already doing so) but there is a limit to how far this process can go…Like suburban sprawl, the tendency of the digital world is toward entropy, endlessly piling up data and discarding nothing. Without the restraining and ordering effects of cities, that world will eventually become a Library of Babel, a channel muddled by bots talking to bots.” Returning to Sean Monahan’s theory, there is another important parallel between digital content’s current entropic state and suburban sprawl: Both phenomena appear natural on their surface, but both are entirely artificial, the products of redirected money and the resultant voids—suddenly too late to fill with something different.
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