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Links on Status and Culture - January 2024

Links on Status and Culture - January 2024
The first month of 2024 is over, friends. Did you finish 1/12 of your goals? (Calendar by Akio Hasegawa)

Read to the end for a longer essay critiquing Ted Gioia's idea of Macro vs. Micro cultures that explains why we get confused about niches and countercultures

Personal News

I’m spending 2024 writing a new book — a cultural history of the first 25 years of the 21st century. Here is the announcement in Publishers Lunch:

The idea is to use the narrative people-driven storytelling of Ametora to address the big social questions raised in Status and Culture. In just the small amount I’ve written so far, I’ve already noticed something interesting: many of the century’s major value shifts happened long before the internet became ubiquitous! Smartphones may have accelerated these changes, but the internet is not fully to blame.

A few other recent things of note: 

I did a piece for Dwell’s January/February 2024 issue about Japan’s dwindling stock of buildings made in the “signboard architecture” (kanban kenchiku) style. (This category is so obscure that the publication could not find any stock photos and had to use my smartphone shots.) The author Junya Miyashita did a great book on these buildings a few years ago, and I hoped this would raise awareness and boost preservation efforts in Japan. But in 2023, Tokyo developers razed two historical buildings from the Meiji Period: the Tōnyūsha restaurant in Ningyōchō (featured in the Dwell piece) and the brick Ueno bar, Once Upon a Time. It's absolutely infuriating.

I wrote a long-ish piece for Popeye’s February 2024 Style Sample '24 issue about the attributes of people with good taste and profiled six people who dress authentically (here’s one bit of it about Chris Black from How Long Gone.) This may be the first fully bilingual article ever in the history of Popeye.

Status and Culture got shoutouts in The New York Times piece “24 Things That Stuck With Us in 2023” and Evan Osnos’s recent The New Yorker magazine piece “Rules for the Ruling Class.”

Oh, and I made a nine-song mix of original 8-bit-inflected hard techno tracks called Teleport Tokyo. Listen on Soundcloud.

New cultural analysis: Filterworld

Congratulations to The New Yorker’s Kyle Chayka on the release of his second book, Filterworld — an extremely smart explanation of how algorithmic feeds have shaped global taste in the last decade.

The book is full of important ideas (so I’m not spoiling the entire thing here), but one of its most important conclusions is that humans end up valuing culture more after putting time and effort into discovery. This may not be surprising, but we need to accept it in order for us to understand how to improve culture as a whole.

The problem is that we really don’t want this to be true. We wish our aesthetic tastes to be identical to the literal taste in our mouths, in that we enjoy things for their intrinsic value. A canonical ballet should be good the way that a chocolate malted milkshake tastes good. And if the actual content of the stimulus is what matters, scarcity shouldn't matter. A great T-shirt is still great if there are a million of them in the market.

The problem is that all human preference and pleasure, even flavor, are contingent on context and experience. And one important context is that we like some cultural products more when we work to acquire them. This is likely related to status: at an unconscious level we connect the belabored discovery process with scarcity. Time is an important signaling cost. Algorithmic culture that effortlessly pushes culture to you, therefore, is bound to create less meaningful and valuable culture. Chayka writes, “I worry that [lean-back consumption’s] fundamental passivity is devaluing cultural innovation as a whole, as well as degrading our enjoyment of art.” That’s correct! So what will we do about it?

Status Struggles: Micro and Macro Culture

Music historian and critic Ted Gioia is one of the most astute observers of contemporary culture, and he’s so prolific on Substack that it’s hard to keep up. But I want to pause for a second and look at his recent essay: “In 2024, the Tension Between Macroculture and Microculture Will Turn into War.”

Gioia’s main thesis is that we can divide culture into two warring groups: Macro (i.e. mass media, legacy media) and Micro (i.e. influencers, creators, new media platforms). The main story of the last few years is that “the microculture is the source of all the growth in media, and micro cultural figures such as Mr. Beast are posting revenue and viewership numbers that rival the major studios and publications.” The Macro culture won’t accept this outcome, of course: “The clash has reached some kind of brutal tipping point. I believe it’s about to turn into war.”

I wholly agree that we are living through a struggle for cultural influence between a declining mass media and a rising internet. What I find unhelpful about this Macro vs. Micro phrasing, however, is the reduction of the entire cultural ecosystem to a simple binary. The story of the last fifty years of culture is the expansion of microcultural groups, and not properly seeing the intra-Micro divides renders any analysis totally inert.

The ecosystem breakdown was already like this around 2005:

  • Macro: Mainstream-ready content created for large audiences by major TV and film studios, record labels, major newspapers, and monthly magazines
  • Countercultural Micro: Content made under avant-garde, experimental, or otherwise non-mainstream aspirations that tinkers with the underlying conventions of form and content in an attempt to push the medium forward; this culture tends to be championed in élitist media enjoyed by small but influential educated audiences
  • Minority Micro: Culture created within identity-based minority communities that had long been excluded from mainstream participation: e.g. early hip-hop, latin music, gay club culture
  • Laggard Micro: Cultural tastes among white lower middle-classes that hybridize stable folk traditions with popular trends at the end of their cycles, which tend to be loathed by macro gatekeepers: e.g. country music, Nü Metal, Larry the Cable Guy

Macro culture often borrows from all three Micros when (1) they need a bit of cultural refresh to provide novelty to mainstream fans, or (2) they see potential crossover opportunities. So David Geffen signs Sonic Youth and Nirvana, Universal Music partners with Def Jam, and Carrie Underwood wins American Idol. By the early 2000s, the overall splintering out of consumers (often into many nano groups) allowed Micro groups to start creating relative market "hits" even without Macro acceptance.

Now with the rise of monetized platforms on the internet, there is a new kind of micro unlike the other groups: a Macro-taste Micro made up of amateur creators who operate as independent small-scale production but possess broad, crowd-pleasing mainstream tastes. There is nothing countercultural or subcultural about Mr. Beast, and with large YouTube revenues, he can create videos equal in quality to low-level Macro production. And unlike the other Micro groups creating things in leftfield or marginalized tastes, Mr. Beast doesn’t require audiences to open their minds to enjoy his content. It’s just mass-ready Macro entertainment made at Micro scale.

So when Gioia writes, “This hostility and ignorance of entrenched institutions is the single biggest difference between the new alt culture and the old counterculture. In the 1950s and 1960s, entrenched elites took the counterculture very seriously. They learned from it. They treated it with respect.” This statement doesn’t make any sense because you can’t compare the old Countercultural Micro with the new Macro-taste Micro. In fact, the four Micro groups have nearly nothing in common other than their smaller audience size. The Countercultural Micro hates the Macro-taste Micro, and vice versa.

The better way to understand what is happening in culture is to look at the dynamics among these four Micro groups:

  1. Despite losing its monopoly on content creation, Macro still enjoys a strong legacy of legitimacy. But they're correctly anxious that this legitimacy may collapse.
  2. Ample social and cultural capital once gave the Countercultural Micro a monopoly on feeding innovations into the Macro. This group lost its "cool" in the last two decades, and influences the Macro much less than before.
  3. The average “new” amateur creator is Macro-level Micro, and this is where all the energy lies. Few in this group even think they should aspire towards joining the Countercultural Micro.
  4. Since the 1990s, the Macro has started embrace Minority Micro culture, and this reduced marginalization means less radically distinct content emerges from the Minority Micro worlds.
  5. Audiences raised on internet platforms no longer distinguish between Macro and Macro-taste Micro content in a meaningful way.

Now we can see the exact location of the coming war: between the Macro and the Macro-taste Micro. They both make similar outputs but have the thing the other one wants: Macro wants audience and revenue, Macro-taste Micro wants legitimacy. And Macro tastemakers don’t have much respect for Macro-taste Micro groups because they are direct competitors without being a clear source of innovations for refreshing taste. 

Status struggles often lead to periods of incredible creativity, but this particular battle is unlikely to spur much innovation. Both groups will try to outdo each other in winning larger audiences, so they'll just appeal to pre-existing tastes.

This framing also helps us summarize one of the most important stories about why the internet feels disappointing: it promised raising "Micro" voices as if they were Countercultural and Minority Micros, and all it did was create an overwhelming Macro-taste Micro group.