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Do we live in a society without a counterculture?
I read this recently and it got me thinking:
It’s from Ted Gioia’s article, “14 Warning Signs That You Are Living in a Society Without a Counterculture.”
It doesn’t seem true at first. Even though you could argue that mainstream culture is full of imitation, it's not necessarily new. And we have more cultural variety today than ever before — more independent blogs and bloggers, more YouTube videos covering every possible interest, more podcasts for every political opinion, more great musicians on Bandcamp, and on and on. Every constituency is represented to a degree on some corner of the internet.
All this variety is a historical shift, at least in the United States, when you consider the suburban sameness of the 50s and 60s. From Paul Graham’s "The Refragmentation:"
One of the most important instances of this phenomenon was in TV. Here there were 3 choices: NBC, CBS, and ABC. Plus public TV for eggheads and communists. The programs that the 3 networks offered were indistinguishable. In fact, here there was a triple pressure toward the center. If one show did try something daring, local affiliates in conservative markets would make them stop. Plus since TVs were expensive, whole families watched the same shows together, so they had to be suitable for everyone.
But when I went looking for alternatives to fill this void, I found practically nothing. There was no internet then. The only place to look was in the chain bookstore in our local shopping mall.
Saying “we live in a society without a counterculture” sounds ridiculous the more you think about it. How could it possibly be true, especially when you consider the past? And a lot of the 14 "warning signs" are general enough that they've always been true to some extent.
But somewhere between your 38th Marvel movie and the millionth Heard-Depp trial rehash video, you might start to believe it. Even if it isn’t new, even if it’s easy to escape, and even if it’s not that bad, a cloying sameness occupies the cultural mainstream. It seems impenetrable, same as ever. But it’s especially surprising given how much creative work today exists outside the mainstream.
It is a jarring contrast. At no point in history have people created so much with so few channels for consuming their work. Most consumers get their content through a narrow straw — TikTok’s “For You” page, the first page of Google’s search results, Instagram’s explore tab, miscellaneous streaming sites, and so on. Many lifetimes worth of creation get aggressively filtered down into a (very optimized) stream of content.
Because social media services are now the promoters of mainstream culture, that culture is effectively fueled and guarded by metric-driven algorithms. So even as users create a wealth of content, only the work that engages the best makes it onto the front page. Which means that all popular content has something in common, i.e. whatever characteristics resulted in positive metrics.
Why do recipe sites have a thousand words of pablum before getting to the recipe itself? There are plenty that don’t bother with this, but you’ll never see them on the first page of Google. They just don’t rank as well per Google’s search engine optimization rules, which reward length.
Why do so many Youtubers have that annoying open-mouthed smile in all their thumbnails? Or similarly exaggerated facial expressions? There are plenty that don’t, but your metrics look better if you have an exaggerated facial expression in the thumbnail. As a result, your video gets shown to users frequently.
Why do they all end their videos with “remember to like and subscribe?” Because it works, and Youtubers who don’t do it generally have fewer subscribers and generally get fewer views.
Why don't they make movies like they used to? Because, as Matt Damon explains, the death of the DVD and the rise of streaming sites means that movies have to make most of their money from the initial showing (or other avenues like merchandise, I guess). It's possible to find movies not optimized for these conditions, but they are increasingly rare.
There are probably a ton of symptoms like these, where the popular content we consume has an eerily homogeneous quality no matter how different it all is in practical terms, and no one can really pinpoint why.
No matter how personalized or optimized the content you see, its inclusion in your feed is still driven by engagement, revenue, dwell time, and other metrics, and these apply constraints on what can make it into the cultural mainstream. Not only in terms of what the content contains, but also in terms of how it’s framed and packaged.
This phenomenon isn’t new. What I’m describing is just a set of standards used to filter what makes it into the cultural mainstream. However, the capacity to enforce culture in such a rigorous, automated, and aggressive fashion is unprecedented. Imagine if all creative work was evaluated mathematically on its clickbaity-ness before it was allowed to become culturally relevant, and that’s my sense of where we are now.
Of course, we have a counterculture — many of them, in fact — but they are systematically excluded from seeping into the mainstream for the above reasons. Presumably at some point in the past you could convince enough tastemakers to allow new kinds of creative work to be published, making the counterculture part of plain old culture. As long as there existed a class of tastemakers — editors and producers and the like — you could do it. Not personally and not right away, maybe, but over time and with enough consensus.
Now the tastemakers are gone or impotent, replaced by automated systems that optimize for engagement and revenue (within whatever constraints of safety and integrity that each company applies). I’m not sure how any countercultural work would make it into the mainstream at this point or how the mainstream could shift going forward. It’s possible you’ll look at YouTube’s home page 10 years from now and you’ll still see exaggerated expressions and open-mouthed smiles everywhere. And I’m not talking about exaggerated expressions and open-mouthed smiles, really, these are just the obvious outgrowths I can identify.
Of course, it’s not all bad. Who knows what we missed because creative work went through a manual filter before becoming popular? But a tradeoff has been made, and the “let people enjoy things!” crowd doesn’t quite understand what’s happened. It’s like if the only restaurants on Main Street became McDonald’s and people got annoyed if you complained.1
You can see this shift even in the rise of the word “content” itself. From Ted Gioia’s article: “The banal word ‘content’ is used to describe every type of creative work, implying that artistry is generic and interchangeable.” It kind of is, if you believe what I said about metrics and how they enforce a mainstream culture.
Into this mess steps ChatGPT, which makes generating human-level content effectively free. ChatGPT has problems with accuracy, if only for now, but it doesn’t have to be perfectly accurate to create popular content. It needs to be human-quality and perfectly optimized for whatever metrics each channel uses to rank, which it can do at zero marginal cost. This was not possible before.
It’s possible that ChatGPT is the beginning of artificial general intelligence or that it will upend Google’s search business despite Google’s considerable moats. I don’t know enough to say either way.
But imagine a world where search-engine optimized blogspam was infinite. Or a world where making an “Animals Asking for Help Compilation” viral video was trivial and free. Or a world where generating viral tweets would take zero effort.
Would that result in the creation of a new paradigm for determining what becomes popular? Or is that a world where we end up in an infinite loop where “content” begets “content” with no possibility of escape in our popular culture? Or something else entirely? It is difficult to say, but I think we’re about to find out.
Not sure where I first read this line, but I didn't come up with it