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I'm Beginning to See the Light
“In the next few years,” Kyle Chayka tweeted yesterday, “the last desperate search for shreds of authentic local culture will convulse the globe as the internet consumes every interesting quirk and scales it up to the size of TikTok.” That all-too-plausible prediction fits well alongside Chayka’s concept of AirSpace and his observations about overtourism, each examining how social media has come to shape the physical world (or at least vent its noxious exhaust there) instead of merely reflecting it. If AirSpace represents the homogenizing tendency of globally scaled algorithmic platforms like Instagram and Airbnb, which herd everything they touch into aesthetic alignment, then TikTok’s impact seems like the opposite: the cultivation and amplification of difference by a desperate horde of content creators scouring the ends of the earth for new material. The latter ultimately has the same entropic effect as the former, reframing local nuances as temporary viral microtrends that diffuse through culture, form the basis for a thinkpiece or two, and then recede back to their original modest scale. This may be ephemeral but it is pervasive and ongoing. In the contemporary landscape, the punishment for being authentic is becoming someone else’s content.
The internet’s informational abundance is often described in terms of “post-scarcity” but that’s only true to the degree that you live your entire life online (and considering the natural constraints on social resources like attention and status, it’s not really even true then). Otherwise, the abundance in one domain just creates bottlenecks in others, as overtourism, the urban housing crisis, and countless other supply/demand mismatches seem to attest. Content is the fuel that we must continually pump into the insatiable engine that is the internet and we’re well into our fracking and Amazon deforestation phase, constantly anxious that the internet will run out of external sources and finally be asked to produce its own meaning internally, and ready to sacrifice anything at its altar to avoid finding out. Writing about airports, Greg Lindsay coined Kasarda's Law of Connectivity (named after airport expert John Kasarda): Every technology that circumvents distance electronically will increase our desire to travel it ourselves. That is, the internet is better understood as a sophisticated marketing strategy for reality than a reality unto itself—something that used to be obvious until we talked ourselves out of it.
The illusion that the internet and “real life” are two separate universes has been thoroughly dispelled by now, but the nature of their interaction is complex and evolving. The social media era seems to have already peaked, as I predicted at the end of last year, calling our present moment a “saturation point of cultural self-consciousness that represents the fullest possible synthesis of reality and our digitally mediated perception of it.” The metaverse concept was dead on arrival; there’s nowhere left to go but outside. And that’s what we’re doing: TikTok is the social network for the internet’s decadent era, embodying the worldview that becoming viral content is the highest calling, the end state to which everything aspires and strives. You visit Italy not to enjoy yourself but to help Italy fulfill its destiny as a meme. (TikTok is more like cable TV than a social network anyway, further supporting the hypothesis that everything is cyclical.) It seems like there’s nowhere to go but back, although that never really seems to happen. Maybe we’ll finally scrape up every last crumb of potential content, uncover the fresh layer underneath, and give ourselves permission to start over, with everything somehow “authentic” again.
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Another great one from Kate Wagner, about the misuse of the world “gentrification” and the need to decommodify housing. “Gentrification is not an abstract moral failing—a kind of transplant’s original sin—or an imported aesthetic worked into the fabric of a neighborhood. It is a result of money and power.”