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Algorithms reward conformity; humans are different by default.
Hello from Porto. Thanks so much to Danny Giacopelli for his expert recommendation of the amazing francesinha (Portuguese Sloppy Joe); Iolanda Carvalho for a locals view of Lisbon and John Tonelli for cluing me in on the fancy hot dog called a cachorrinha at Gazela. Any other tips, send them my way: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bring on the humans
Covid was a wake-up call. We’re alienated from each other, our work, our institutions, even ourselves. In early Covid, as my wife and I were exiled in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, I thought this was a crisis that would reignite our connection to each other as humans. I remember in April 2020 watching the Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli sing “Amazing Grace” from an empty plaza in front of Milan’s Duomo, with cameras panning the empty streets of major cities worldwide. It was a reminder of how much we had already lost, with far more loss to come, but tinged with hope that a better world would emerge. Over the weeks and months, I kept thinking we’d learn something about ourselves. The pandemic brutally made clear we didn’t appreciate humanity nearly enough.
It’s admittedly hard to be optimistic on this front, considering a senseless war that continues and the mind-boggling reality that 20% of Americans believe mass shootings are staged. If there’s ever a wake-up call that we need to appreciate humanity more, it’s people sending messages to grieving strangers demanding they pry open their child’s casket.
Covering advertising for many years, I would be told one cliche repeatedly: It’s a people business. This was a standard line of defense as tech platforms encroached closer and closer to the cosseted preserve of media, a hand-crafted affair that, to be fair, left itself ripe for disruption by not modernizing and starting from the position of what’s best for the audience. In the end, software did eat media, and machines triumphed over humans.
The media business capitulated to the logic of tech, worshiping at the altar of efficiency gains and the idea that bigger is better. Humans became simply an aggregation of data points to be sliced and diced in the hopes of hijacking their attention. The failure of the scale era is starkly laid bare by the fate of BuzzFeed, a bellwether company of this era, built explicitly for a platform world. Its valuation is now less than half of the $700 million in venture capital it raised.
The question of what comes next has always hung over the digital media business. I’m struck by how many are simply exiting. They’re betting that publishing as a business is unworkable. Better instead to use it as glorified content marketing for the tech overlords and a front for e-commerce businesses. There are bright spots. The pivot to subscriptions has stabilized many publications’ balance sheets. The pandemic economic boom has trickled down to a surprisingly robust ad market the past two years. Tech platforms are under fire across the globe, with big publishers lining up for payouts strongarmed out of Big Tech by governments. Limits on data collection and ad targeting hold the promise of shifting power ever so slightly toward context versus the crude see-a-cookie-hit-a-cookie logic of digital advertising. Covid turned out not to be an extinction event for the media business, helped along by unprecedented trillions pumped into the global economy. That bill is likely coming, as the economy faces the very real possibility of a downturn if not outright recession as central banks tamp demand.
I don’t believe there’s one future for publishing. Humanistic publishing is about taking a different path. It rejects the proposition that the logic of Big Tech requires scrambling for the biggest scale and profits possible. It treats the people who create the product with the dignity they deserve, as well as the humans who appreciate the product. It accepts smaller, simpler, slower and more nuanced products. Much of it is imperfect – I actually appreciate the copy editing notes, and sorry, Deirdre, for misspelling your name – and it admits that cheerfully. It doesn’t rely on manipulation or growth hacks. There’s no space for dark patterns and adversarial business models that seek to turn the knobs and dials to see just how much mayo can get put on the sandwich without people complaining. It puts the human at the center of the process, both in its creation and in the product. Algorithms reward conformity; humans are different by default.
The reason so many journalists are alienated from their work is they were sent into the content mines to churn out undifferentiated content designed to appeal to algorithms. There’s not much meaning in that. It can seem that media organizations these days are in a perpetual state of crisis, with circular firing squads going after colleagues in the Twitter and Slack fighting pits. Too often the profession let down journalists. Time and again, “the business side” made decisions that led to journalists losing their jobs. There is a profound lack of autonomy. Here’s how Defector’s Alex Sujong Laughlin describes working on the Normal Gossip podcast.
“I’ve worked on too many projects funded by Silicon Valley bros who are interested in growing bigger and faster at all costs — including employee burnout, literal health consequences in workers, layoffs, and more…The last several years have been hell — do you really want to spend the small amount of energy you have left over making something you aren’t proud of just to chase metrics? We would rather make a great show with fewer episodes that gives people some reprieve from the hellscape outside, and conserve what’s left of our energy to care for each other, our loved ones, and our communities. Like Kelsey says all the time, we are not machines. We are humans!”
I believe people want to be connected. Humanity still matters. Brunello Cucinelli has advocated for the concept of humanistic capitalism as a middle ground between the bounties of capitalism and the crassness that caused workers like his father to work hard and sacrifice, only to be humiliated and discarded. I know this feeling because I’ve experienced it. We live in a world of absolutes; many would prefer to throw away capitalism and try something new. I can understand that impulse, considering how capitalism as practiced in its extreme version treats people as inputs or commodities, a means to an ends of profit margins and capital gains for a few, layoffs for the rest. Cucinelli, who has built a $2 billion brand selling expensive clothing, believes there is a better way.
“I wanted a company that made healthy profits, but did so with ethics, dignity and morals; we are listed on the stock exchange, I wanted a company that had a balanced and gracious growth. I wanted human beings to work in slightly better places, earn a little more in wages and feel like thinking souls at work.”
This notion of a “post-luxury world” is profound. If the Japanese are prioritizing meaning and a slower life over the rat race of Tokyo, pay attention. “Post-luxury is more human, more honest, more raw, more naked,” said the Japanese brand United Arrows cofounder Hirofumi Kurino. The reality of coming to grips with climate change is mass production and overconsumption will become societally uncool. True wealth is a mindful, meaningful life that’s rooted in bettering humanity, not accumulating ever more points so you can spend more time shitposting on Twitter.
My guess is we’ll see more of this thinking take hold in publishing. It doesn’t mean swearing off a profit motive. Cucinelli is doing just fine. In fact, more meaningful media products should be more valuable. There will be a scramble for the commanding heights of VR/AR, Web3 and the metaverse. Our sense of humanity will continue to be stretched and stressed. There’s always an opportunity to go in a different direction, to choose a more human path. Next week, I’m going to detail what humanistic media products look like.
The flaw that causes many horrible bosses to act horribly is usually a lack of self awareness and empathy. The coming downturn will lead to more such behavior, since a rising unemployment rate will shift the balance of power once again from the worker side. The return to the office will be a major front in this battle, as the Boss Class doubles down on their outdated conception of the “ideal worker.”
Peter Kafka has a great new newsletter. This week’s includes excerpts of a podcast he did with the Ringer’s Bill Simmons. The part that caught my eye wasn’t the bit about whether Simmons was fired by ESPN, but hot described 90% of programming choices coming from instinct. Data is a nice input, but instinct born from experience and picking up signals is more powerful.
Good to see Highsnobiety find a new home with Zalando. The tie-up makes a lot of sense, particularly since both are based in Berlin. Will be interesting to see how the two businesses intersect, and whether Zalando’s e-commerce expertise can assist in the difficult transition from media company to commerce company with media.
Not a surprise that news avoidance is a rising behavior tracked in the latest edition of the Reuters Digital News Report. This can be traced in large part to a long-held newsroom culture of negativity bias and a more recent shift to catastrophism that sees dangers everywhere, even in a summer vacation trip.
Simple is nearly always better, and that includes how you frame and price your subscriptions. I’ve seen a tendency on the features side to add all kinds of extraneous extras in the hope of creating “perceived value.” The downside is a lack of clarity.
Thanks for reading. Next stop on this Euro summer tour is Cannes. I’ve usually gone with a million things to do, including daily podcasts and a daily Cannes Briefing, along with the regular meetings and panels and whatnot. This year, I’m taking a less frenetic approach, although I did agree to go on a submarine.