Technology is ruining civilization #2: The soullessness of the “like” economy

Real-time analytics and “likes” have a lockhold on marketers — and, now, us. Here’s why and the repercussions.

For the first time since advertising was invented, it’s possible to measure positive audience feedback.

But the measurement is crude and doesn’t permit negative, lukewarm or ambivalent feedback. That’s on purpose of course. In short, there is no assessment of value based on complex, nuanced criteria, the sort which would ordinarily be included in a long form book review or runway report. (Even the TripAdvisor system is better than the one-dimensional system of Facebook likes.)

“Likes” do not equal expertise; but there is no system which does objectively quantify expertise or quality of thinking. Consequently, the “like” system has no competition and reigns supreme among advertisers and publishers.

But it’s still the only thing we have. And since it’s better than nothing, marketers and companies tend to assign way way way too much value to it — to the point where traditional experts have been sidelined in favor of influencers with huge follower numbers.
Our news funnel is dominated by feeds and push communications, increasing the power of social media at the expense of traditional experts (unless of course those experts have a big social media following).

The fact that news, brands and products are being discovered primarily via social media feeds or push communications, rather than web browser (via Google search), is yet another blow to the expert whose thoughtful, well-written critical content resides on the latter. These days and most of the time, you retrieve a long form article because it was mentioned in some form of push communication, for example, an email newsletter from a newspaper or a post within the social media feed of a friend you’re following.

Besides those daily staples like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal which you might keep open all day on your browser, how often do you independently decide to log on to a new website without first having come across the link in a feed or push communication? I refer to leisure reading, something which is not entailed by school or your professional responsibilities. Today, for example, I looked up a brand’s website because I saw their handbag worn by a famous blogger I follow on Instagram. Similarly, I googled an artist because my friend snapped and shared their street art on her Instagram account. If you look at any one of your open browser tabs on your computer right now and trace the referral chain, 80% of the time, that tab is open because you clicked or followed up from a social media post or newsletter.

If information and brand discovery take place primarily through social media, then, obviously, accounts with huge numbers of followers will be seen by more people, even if those individuals or posts are mediocre and inexpert.

Experts basically have to put up or shut up with this new system of validation because, again, there aren’t very many other forms of external, objective validation (except an industry-beating CV — and that only works if the CV practically levitates).

Brands and marketers see all those likes and are comforted that they are doing their jobs well — or if not well, escaping censure for taking unwarranted risks.

These same marketers generally hew to formulas which duplicate past historical successes — resulting in an endless churn of well-rehearsed, tried-and-true pabulum (e.g., inoffensive Instagram posts featuring glossily groomed thirty-something women who are almost as pretty as models but not, wearing ensembles of matching designer clothes or ingenious high-low pairings, which show just enough fashion IQ to create an air of adventure and risk-taking without losing the vibe of the popular girl-next-door. For every Anna Della Russo, there are at least 1000 such innocuous would-be fashion pin-ups on Instagram.)

If you’re wondering why you, consumer, are so exhausted and uninspired, it’s because statistics have replaced originality and risk-taking while subjecting you to a homogeneous tsunami of drivel every waking minute of the day. It is this combination of too much of nothing special at all which is the true crisis of modern consumer media.

I end this essay by posing two major questions:
How do we introduce creativity back into the system (for the great mass of talented designers and creatives who don’t have the same access to capital or bully pulpit as, say, visionary Elon Musk)? What’s the future, if any, for traditional experts (besides getting on the social media bandwagon) — or are we already relegated to the same destiny as the dinosaurs?

At what point does the consumer understand that all of this abundance is actually just a sham illusion?