Commodity Kardashians

Commodity Kardashians

Technology does not want to replace you. It wants to make you interchangeable.

I'm back from a wonderful vacation in Switzerland and now working full-time on my next book. I'll share more about it over the next few weeks.

Technology does not want to replace you. It wants to make you interchangeable.

We spend a lot of time worrying about a future in which we don't need to work. We should also worry about a future in which we still need to work, but we get much less in return.

The pre-industrial world was full of artisans, laborers, and serfs. Serfs and enslaved people were gradually liberated, partly because the economy necessitated it. And laborers, with the help of machines, ended up producing most of the goods that artisans previously made.

In the pre-industrial world, if you needed a shoe, garment, or carriage, you went to someone who knew how to make one. In the industrial world, these goods were produced by companies that employed multiple people that didn't know how to make these things. All they knew was how to make a specific piece, to complete a specific task that was combined with others along a production line.  

But humans managed to escape. Manufacturing jobs (and manufacturing in general) play a much smaller role in advanced economies. More people are doing so-called creative work. These people believe that they are closer to the artisans of old than to laborers. And they have a point. But their current position might be untenable.

The recent upheaval at Instagram is instructive. The social media platform is making changes to its feed. Instead of showing you posts from people you follow, it shows you more posts that it thinks you'll find interesting. This doesn't seem like a big deal. But it is. And some people are angry about it. Two of the most-followed people on Instagram, Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian, were quick to protest against this change.

What are they afraid of?

As I previously wrote, their first concern is that this change severs their direct connection with their audience. Kim and Kylie accumulated millions of followers who chose to see whatever they posted. The new algorithmic feed means their audience will only see more posts that Instagram thinks they want to see, rather than posts the audience explicitly chose to see. This creates an opportunity for new creators to get exposure at the expense of established celebrities like Kylie and Kim.

At first glance, this feels like good news. More opportunity for other people to win at the expense of those who already have too much.

But there's a second concern that bodes ill for all creators. The shift to an assumed-interest feed (rather than an expressed-interest feed) means it's harder for anyone to build a lasting audience. This shift doesn't simply weaken existing winners; it undermines the ability of anyone ever to win.

Social media feeds have always been cruel. A tiny minority of people monopolize most of the attention. And everyone else is fighting hard to become those people. But once you get to the top, you've made it — you can make a living, launch a cosmetics brand, and sell sponsored posts.

The recent changes to the algorithm point toward a world in which no one can stay on top. Each day, each moment, a piece of content might go viral. It might earn someone something. But that someone will have a limited ability to gain any security from their success. Their next post will still depend on whether the algorithms think that specific post is interesting, regardless of how many people like their previous post.

In the business world, companies often try to "commoditize their complements" — to undermine the pricing power of any products that are used in conjunction with their own: TV manufacturers want content to be cheap/abundant so that people will spend more on TVs; content producers want TV sets to be cheap so that more people can consume content; Microsoft encouraged the emergence of cheap IBM-compatible computers to sell unique software at a higher price; Netscape open-sourced its browser to increase internet usage and sell more expensive software for web servers.

You get the idea. Instagram is doing something similar. It encourages more creators to make all creators worthless. Instagram doesn't want users to have a relationship with Kim or Kylie; it wants them to have a relationship with Instagram. This way, if Kim of Kylie ever chooses to move to another platform, no one would care. And that new platform will likely follow the same playbook anyway. That playbook gives all of us a chance to shine for a few moments, but it diminishes our odds of keeping the lights on for more than a short while.

Last year, I spoke to Scott Galloway about the similarities between media stars and all other professions:

"The future of work is not a game that you simply win and then rest on your laurels. We’re all becoming movie stars. We have the potential to make 100X more money than before because of the internet. But all the anxieties of being a star come with that as well.
We hit a home run today but we have no idea what we’ll do tomorrow. There is a certain percentage of people every year who are going to make more money than ever before, but whoever belongs to that little pool of people is going to change constantly. It’s going to be a very cruel and anxiety-ridden world even for the most successful people."

Have a wonderful weekend.