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How Everyone IPO'd in the 21st Century
Welcome to my first post on Substack. You probably don’t even remember signing up for this, it’s been so long between shifting over here from Mailchimp and sending my first “newsletter.” I’m Eugene Wei, a former product exec at places like Amazon, Hulu, Flipboard, and I’ve kept a personal blog Remains of the Day since 2001, offering what I like to think of as “Bespoke observations, 80% fat free”, though the amount that is fat will vary depending on your tastes in technology, media, and all the other random topics I write about.
I used to use Mailchimp to just mail out every one of my blog posts since people had largely stopped using RSS and many people didn’t want to bother checking when I’d posted anything new.
Substack will allow me to selectively choose when to email my blog posts out, allowing my mailing list and blog to be separate entities. I'll still likely send all my blog posts via my Substack, but while I hesitate to consider myself in the newsletter business—I know, I know, another newsletter to clog your inbox, on top of the countless podcasts you already can’t keep up with—I’m still noodling over what types of things I might send exclusively via Substack. Every medium has its unique strengths, and depositing a bit of writing in the inbox of someone that granted you permission to do so has an intimacy that feels different than just posting to my blog.
Of course, if you are having second thoughts or still don’t remember why you signed up, the unsubscribe link will always be included at the bottom.
Sorry for the long hiatus. I've been doing some formal advisory work and a bit of angel investing these past months, and so more of my writing has been private. Regardless, it’s been much too long since my last post Status as a Service.
More than that, though, the Internet, with all the status games and incentives I wrote about in my last post, began to feel like an obligation that started whispering in my ear from a permanent porch on my shoulder. I needed a break from reading all the takes, most of all from the ones I felt myself forming in response to every next event, of which there is no end. The internet can cajole you into feeling as if you only exist through the act of posting.
Jia Tolentino writes in her great essay collection Trick Mirror:
As more people began to register their existence digitally, a pastime turned into an imperative: you had to register yourself digitally to exist.
The dream of a better, truer self on the internet was slipping away. Where we had once been free to be ourselves online, we were now chained to ourselves online, and this made us self-conscious.
As a medium, the internet is defined by a built-in performance incentive. In real life, you can walk around living life and be visible to other people. But you can’t just walk around and be visible on the internet—for anyone to see you, you have to act. You have to communicate in order to maintain an internet presence.
To try to write online, more specifically, is to operate on a set of assumptions that are already dubious when limited to writers and even more questionable when turned into a categorical imperative for everyone on the internet: the assumption that speech has an impact, that it’s something like action; the assumption that it’s fine or helpful or even ideal to be constantly writing down what you think.
I tweet, therefore I am? Internet participation can feel like being on tour in perpetuity, and the feedback loops can feel like a noose, one that you tighten yourself.
I once complained that everyone on Twitter sounds like a fortune cookie if they gain enough followers. I actually understand the set of incentives that encourage that, but my concern is at what level of compression of thought on Twitter does any bit of specific wisdom get squeezed out of an idea?
Sometimes I wonder if the natural asymptote of an increasingly popular Twitter account is a parody of that same account. Could we train a GAN on some of the more prolific and consistent Twitter accounts to create Westworld-like clones, indistinguishable from the original? Could we create a parallel Twitter where these simulations of iconic accounts would live on in perpetuity, dispensing compressed nuggets of advice that straddle the line between profundity and banality, interacting with each other, believing that they and all of their peers were humans? Maybe we are all destined to become bots.
A long hiatus is a good test of what you truly miss, however, and I do miss the masochistic act of hammering a piece into some usable shape, and I miss the give-and-take with my readers. Thoughtful discourse hasn’t left the internet, it just isn’t happening in the public squares, for a variety of reasons I’ll dive into this month.
After my last post on Status as a Service, I received a lot of thought-provoking email, and in the ensuing months I’ve chatted for many hours with all sorts of people from operators to investors. I plan to spend some of my next few posts to respond to the most common points and questions my readers raised. A lot of these ideas have been renting a sofa in my head these past few months, and I need to Marie Kondo my brain cache.
I appeared on Peter Kafka's Recode Media podcast earlier this year to discuss Status as a Service. Peter has long been one of the journalists I follow on media/tech news, and podcasting has allowed him to be even more prolific and discursive on the topic; we all benefit. And while I love that podcasters can just show up with minimal equipment and start recording, it's always fun to go into the Vox studios, into a noise-proof room, don headphones, and speak into a high-end microphone. Rarely do I feel as, dare I say it, high status. Check out our conversation for a sense of how I've been updating my views on status as it relates to the tech sector.
I titled this column Status Update because it was another of the titles I considered for my previous post. I always found it apt that Facebook referred to its posts as "statuses." That so many people use their posts to try to "update" their status—usually to try and raise it—made the term "status update" just too wonderfully loaded.
If you think of social networks as programmable interfaces, then each post on the network updates the contributor's status in a way that makes the nature of status on that network self-describing. You can even think of the impossibly long feeds and databases of all these social networks as one massive blockchain that all users are furiously writing to, trying to establish consensus around their relative status in the community.
My two principles of status were inspired, in part, by the two axioms of cosmic sociology from the science-fiction novel The Dark Forest, the second in Liu Cixin's epic Three Body Trilogy. Those two axioms:
First: Survival is the primary need of civilization.
Second: Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.
I've always appreciated how the entire trilogy of novels derives, in part, from just those two axioms, though it takes some time for the reader to understand just how. In part, Status as a Service (StaaS) was an attempt to see how far I could extrapolate from just two axioms.
On to reader feedback. One point I heard from quite a few people was, “I don't use [insert social network of choice] for status.”
Of course, not everyone uses every social network purely for status, and as I noted in my piece, there are two other axes on which a social media services can construct a healthy business, utility and entertainment (I'll cover those axes in future posts as there are specific reasons I settled on those three in particular). Just as I would never claim that everything people do is in pursuit of status, no social network operates entirely on that dimension. And, of course, not everyone needs status from a network. Beyoncé doesn't need social media to earn status, she merely uses social media to harvest her already prodigious social capital. Your mileage, as compared to Beyoncé, may vary.
On the other hand, when I hear people claim they aren’t status-seeking, my initial thought is, “Okay boomer.” Well, perhaps that’s not quite right, but something along those lines. What it reveals is just how negative a valence the word "status" and the adjective "status-seeking" have today. Perhaps because we've long thought of status as a relative standing, and status competition as a zero-sum game, we find "status-seeking" personally threatening and distasteful all at once.
However, when I talk about seeking a sense of self-worth, a feeling of belonging and achievement, people have only positive reactions. Are those behaviors so easily titrated apart? I'm skeptical. But to all of you offended by being called "status-seeking," I apologize and applaud your lack of ego. I'm not saying that because I mean to raise your status, but...ah never mind.
The most common question I heard in response to Status as a Service was what spurred the piece. While it’s often difficult with fiction to pinpoint the origin of things, with an essay it’s easier to retrace the journey, or at least to point at specific ingredients.
One of the itches that spurred the piece was that my previous essay Invisible Asymptotes had me puzzling over why various social networks had collided with the shoulder of the S-curve after some prolonged period of hockey stick growth. Metcalfe's Law and the basic network effects theories that dominate discussion of networks would predict otherwise. While I offered some light exploration of the asymptotes for various social networks in that piece, it felt as if a giant variable was missing in the equation. The concept that best solved the equation in my mental backtests was status.
I also focused on status because, since it was my missing variable, it felt like the least understood aspect of social networks. I suppose that is tautological in structure, but it’s also endemic to mining for a new explanation for some phenomenon. There's always a risk in conjuring a single variable to make any equation work, but for argument's sake, I held the other variables constant and used status to the fullest extent possible, in search of its limitations.
What seems clear and almost obvious in hindsight is that not all nodes on a social network are equal, and that different configurations of those nodes also matter. The quantity of nodes and connections isn’t sufficient to measure the value of a network alone. Two networks of similar size in nodes and connections may differ widely in stability and potential and kinetic energy. Status differences can be thought of as differences in the size of nodes and the configuration of them.
One of the critical forms of pattern recognition for anyone studying, investing in, or running these networks is learning which arrangements of what types of nodes are stable and which are inherently brittle or even volatile. That requires understanding a network’s status dynamics.
Much of my work advising companies recently has been helping them to understand which type of network configuration makes the most sense for the business they are in. While the past can be full of patterns that are about to implode, there's much to glean from studying previous network collapses because status dynamics remain, like much of human nature, fairly consistent across time. Digital anthropology is underrated.
For example, long ago, night clubs and dating apps understood that a successful marketplace equilibrium almost always begins with women as the supply side, not men. That's why if you're a guy you have wait in line for a long time just for the privilege of paying a cover charge at many clubs; meanwhile groups of women are ushered in for free. How do you bypass the line as a group of men? By paying for bottle service, contributing to a very particular stable social equilibrium inside the club (not to mention a profitable one; witness the surge in % of floor space devoted to bottle service booths in Las Vegas clubs this past decade).
Any multi-sided marketplace veteran or observer now understands much more about how to sequence their efforts, and whether to focus on the supply or demand side first and why. Bill Gurley appeared on Patrick O'Shaughnessy's Invest Like the Best podcast and spoke to the differences between monogamous marketplaces, where two parties match exclusively for a long-term relationship (for example, finding a nanny for your children) and marketplaces where people just match up for a single transaction (Uber, for example). Li Jin and D'Arcy Coolican of A16Z have written several pieces about network effects which continue to fill in the nuance between the platitudes.
Despite all that, the industry still has a ways to go in incorporating status into its operations. One of the clearest ways this manifests is in the metrics most social networks monitor and report on. Almost all of them aggregate a lot of individual user behavior into aggregate stats. However, just as it's very dangerous to munge cohorts into one lump, failing to understand subgroup status dynamics and configurations among a giant social network disguises a lot of what's actually going on. The trends of the group can diverge from the actual dynamics of various subgroups. Your stats could be growing, they could be declining, and yet you have no idea why. Some competitor comes along and starts stealing market share, and yet on the surface they look like a smaller, subpar version of your network.
The topic of how social companies should analyze their networks is a topic worth a book in itself, and it's clear that we're very early in that journey. Many social networks continue to have no idea when they are about to hit a wall, with less visibility into the future than a club owner who comes in night after night and notices, gazing across the dance floor, realizes one night that the joint has lost its heat. When people refer to Facebook as a boomer ghetto, they're referring first to a decline in social capital, which precedes the loss of human capital
More on this soon, but for the remainder of this update, I want to look back at the 21st century to date and marvel at one of the greatest changes in civilization, one wrought by first the internet and second by the rise of massive social networks.
One way to understand the impact of these public social networks on humanity is to think of this as the era in which humans took their personal thoughts and lives public at scale. Billions of humans IPO'd, whether we were ready for it or not, explaining why the concept of a personal "brand" became such a pervasive metaphor.
In another era, most of us lived in social circles of limited scope. Family, school, coworkers, neighbors. We were, for the most part, private entities. Social media companies quickly hit on the ideal configuration for rapid network growth: take the interaction between any two people and make it public. Conversation and information-sharing became a democratic form of performance art.
One reason social networks quickly converged on this as the optimal strategy and configuration is that the majority of people on any social network merely lurk. By making the conversations of the more extroverted, productive nodes public, you sustain the interest of that silent majority of observers with what is effectively crowd-sourced (read: free) content. The concept of 1/9/90 is that a stable equilibrium can be achieved in a large network if the shouting class, the minority which entertains the much larger but silent majority, is given enough quantifiable doses of affirmation (likes) to keep the content spigot flowing. As these large public social networks grew, even many who were previously modest began taking the stage on social media to karaoke to the crowd. Live fast, die young, and leave a viral post.
Just as there are many advantages to being a public company, becoming a public figure carries all sorts of upside. Once your ideas and your self are traded publicly, anyone can invest and drive the value of those goods higher. If you’ve ever written a viral blog post or tweetstorm and gained thousands of followers, if you’ve had a YouTube video picked up by traditional media and found yourselves interviewed on the local news, you’ve felt that rush of being a soaring stock. Social networks not only provide public liquidity for anything you care to share on them, they continued to tweak their algorithms to accelerate the virality quotient of their feeds. In a previous generation, Warhol quipped the duration of sudden fame was 15 minutes, but social media has made that the time it takes to become famous.
The problem is that, like many private companies who find the scrutiny of public markets overly stringent, many of us were ill-equipped for "going public" with what were once private conversations and thought. It's not just those who made enormous public gaffes and got "canceled." Most people by now have experienced the random attack from a troll, the distributed judgment of the public at large, and have realized the cost of living our lives in public. Most celebrities learn this lesson very early on, most companies put their public-facing executives through PR training, but most humans never grew up under the watchful gaze of hundreds of millions of eyes of Sauron.
That dread we feel when our thoughts and selves are traded as public goods is the unease that comes from rendering the personal transactional. Public companies are restricted in what they can say publicly. The same is true for people who take their selves public. The markets punish companies that stumble, and the judgment of the masses is no less harsh for individuals who do their thinking out loud on social media. This new form of public backlash has even earned its own moniker: cancel culture.
One of the most famous and iconic incidents of cancel culture was the tweet that "blew up Justine Sacco's Life." As soon as I mention it, almost any student of Internet culture knows the tweet.
Before boarding the last leg of a flight from New York to Cape Town, Sacco wrote to her 170 Twitter followers at the time:
"Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!"
By the time her flight landed, she had what might be the closest experience to traveling to an alternate universe on a plane since the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815 on the TV series Lost. When Sacco's flight landed and she emerged from the runway into the airport, her phone reaching out to handshake with the network, she stepped into a timeline in which she was an international villain.
Justine Sacco must have felt like Jack on that beach in the pilot of Lost, wondering where she’d landed and what the hell had happened. In fact, in hindsight, perhaps Lost is more compelling as the story of a bunch of people who’d been canceled, all stranded in some social media purgatory to try to atone for their sins.
Nowadays, it's a common occurrence to see someone inadvertently place a tracer on themselves online and summon the collective brimstone and fury of a global mob on themselves. But, if you're old enough to remember the pre-internet, pre-social-media era, try to fathom how a single relatively unknown citizen of the world like Sacco could write or utter any sentence of just sixty-four characters and ignite anything remotely comparable to the fury of millions of total strangers from across the globe.
I'd argue that such a feat was impossible in a previous era. The only way someone like Sacco could even reach that many people back then would have been to broadcast such a message through a mainstream media channel like a newspaper or television network, all of which were under the control of a select group of gatekeepers who would've never broadcast her joke in the first place (remember, I'm talking about even the pre-Fox News era).
We've had no shortage of dystopic futures that warned of mass surveillance, but not many of them described a future in which you could destroy your own life with your own words. The Twitter "What's happening" prompt box is like a command line with the power to, among other things, obliterate your life. Such is the power of a megaphone that can reach most of the civilized world. Who's up for global open mic night? What could go wrong? Wheeeeeeeeee!
After I read the Three-Body Trilogy, the first metaphor that leapt off the page was the idea of Twitter as The Dark Forest. Many public figures had already gone radio silent online, the downside was so severe. Yancey Strickler recently wrote about this idea of the internet as Dark Forest, and if you're not worried about having that metaphor spoiled, click over and give it a read.
Just as the SEC regulates what public companies say, social norms regulate what a person can say on social media. PR training today begins for all of us once we get our hands on our first smartphone. It's little surprise that just as many companies now stay private for longer, many people have retreated to private messaging groups, taking their thoughts back into the shadows, while those who stay public learn to code messages in memes or language so opaque and Straussian that even political dissidents would be impressed.
If your feeling on all this is, good, these people got what they deserved, I understand. Some people who’ve been canceled have written some truly abhorrent things, some of it even illegal, and sometimes it can feel like we live in an age of hyperefficient social Darwinism, a hyperactive white blood cell army patrolling the alleyways of the internet in that distributed swarm style the internet made its own.
But the exact definition of “cancel culture” matters. The closer the social mob is to enforcing the values you believe in, the more just it feels. The more divergent the values of the mob, the more you feel attacked by an army of trolls. I’m not opposed to new forms of social capital regulation enabled by the internet, but social mob behavior can be a mass of unthinking, blind, rage. Like a real-life mob, just bigger, and faster moving. That’s a frightening phenomenon.
As we approach the year 2020, and we look back on two decades where billions of people went public, I’m equal parts astonished and horrified. I imagine a time traveler appearing to a citizen of the pre-internet era in a new age Monkey’s Paw fable, and asking that person, “I can grant you one wish, what do you desire?”
And that person would look at the world around them, all the people going about their business, strolling past and paying them no heed, and they’d say, “Make me famous.”