Earlier this week I published an essay in the Dirt newsletter about the cultural role of geography as content in the post-pandemic era. My primary example of this was Dimes Square, a Manhattan micro-neighborhood that has essentially memed itself into existence—a relatively ordinary stretch of a few gentrified blocks in Chinatown whose online presence has imbued it with a powerful aura. Just this week, at least three other articles about Dimes Square were also published, suggesting that the topic has suddenly become ripe for discussion. The response to this new flood of commentary, which is essential to the neighborhood’s very existence, was a collective groan, suggesting that the topic is in fact overripe, and it is this tension that makes Dimes Square the perfect Twitter topic: People are ashamed to talk about it while simultaneously finding themselves unable to stop, scolding one another for amplifying a topic that seems fake but becomes more real every time someone else weighs in. As the momentum grows, this discourse becomes a truck with failed brakes, careening down a mountain road as bystanders watch in horror.
This discourse also lays bare the internet’s pervasive subjectivity. People who weigh in on Dimes Square must explain their own relationship to it, qualifying whether they consider themselves part of the scene and thereby exposing themselves to criticism from others who suspect them of misrepresenting it (those others, meanwhile, are unlikely to have any superior claim upon the boundaries they are enforcing). All digital content, from the New York Times to an anonymous Twitter account shilling an NFT project, is now presumed to reflect an individual’s or group’s specific perspective, limited at best and biased at worst, but always with an agenda to promote, however innocuous. This is the age of sponsored content, grifting, astroturfing, cults, psy-ops, and ubiquitous branding—the age of fake things that become real simply by enduring long enough. Versions of this have always existed, but today it is all deeply embedded in the very fabric of internet-mediated reality; on social media, the self is the ultimate message behind everything, and content is rarely disconnected from that message. Cryptocurrency pushes this idea to its furthest limits, encouraging “an internet where everything is increasingly for sale and content must embed its own marketing within itself, in order to maximize its financial return.” Scammers like Anna Delvey and the Fyre Festival planners are increasingly folk heroes because they explore the contours of this fraught landscape more thoroughly than anyone else.
“It is no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner,” Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1964. We are all direct participants now. Subculture, in its traditional form, requires a dominant mass culture that it can opt out of. Everyone agrees that the internet has splintered that mass culture into a million pieces—an ongoing process—which means that subculture is now both ubiquitous and unattainable. On its surface, Dimes Square looks like a 20th-century subculture, but that’s just part of the performance. It’s more accurate to call it a supraculture: a reconstitution of the bygone trope in a world where there’s nothing coherent to rebel against, where embracing the spoils of gentrification looks better than uncomfortably accepting them. Pretending to be rich is now cooler than pretending to be poor. As with social media itself, the content of such a scene, artificial or real (or both) is just an array of individual selves that collectively overpower whatever else they might have to say. My friend Reggie recently tweeted that the endgame of algorithmic social media is “is every individual buying ads for themselves to boost their visibility.” When this finally happens, it will be impossible to pretend that there is any other message to express on those platforms, and starting over will be the only way out.
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Last week’s subscribers-only issue was about the urban soundscape, liminal spaces, and why everyone wearing headphones is a sign of a failed environment.
The deadening effect of self-storage on the urban environment. “Many of us might not be so different from our objects, sitting in wait for the day we might finally be adequately housed.”
The rise of ambient music as a commodity on streaming services, redeployed via “chill” playlists in the interest of specific objectives like sleep or productivity.