“Who’s the leader of the modern civil rights movement?” my dad asked me over sushi.
“We had Martin Luther King Jr. Who’s your guys’ version of that?”
I told him that Shaun King was probably the closest. But even coming off of my lips, I knew it wasn’t true. The truth was that I followed Shaun King on Facebook, that I connected with his posts and looked forward to seeing them whenever they came up on my feed. He wasn’t the biggest influencer, he was my biggest influencer.
It drove the mainstream media crazy that there wasn’t a leader of Occupy. They spent a lot of precious interview time covering the movement to democratize wealth and power by asking the many who called themselves co-organizers to pinpoint the key instigator, the—“yes, sure, you’re all leaders but who is the leader”.
What type of peasant would crowdsource their restaurant choices to a bunch of randos instead of consulting a Zagat? Why would you visit a YouTube channel that only has 110,000 followers when an Emmy-nominated show is playing on channel 7? Why would you even bother reading this blog when it’s the beginning of the month and the staff at the New York Times is kind enough to let you read any ten articles you want before the pay wall goes up?
The masses are dead, and they’re not coming back. The internet killed them. Down with it is the concept of singular leaders. Leaders don’t lead masses anymore—they lead pockets. All of us follow a bunch of different pockets. Our friends haven’t even heard of most of them.
We used to share a culture. Back when there were only 3 channels on TV, no network could afford to run a show that didn’t have mass appeal. Edges were liabilities, because your intended audience was everyone. So exceptional wasn’t the goal: adequate was. What you ended up with were sitcoms about so-called “average American families” that were crafted—intentionally—to be generic.
If you were trying to sell something, your best bet was to run ads during those generic shows—everyone would be watching. And how would you win over that heaping, faceless mass? Certainly not by being something weird or specific—something a small group would be fanatical about, but might not be for everyone. You needed to be something that would be for everyone! And how would you convey that? By being the biggest. By being chosen by authorities (“The makers of 25 automatic washers recommend Tide!”…“More doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette”)
We can start to see that the instructions we gave to journalists to “be neutral; fashion yourself as an authority; get placed on the biggest network” weren’t about some unyielding allegiance to impartiality. They were the foundations of the industrial business model. Offend too many people and lose the mass. Lose the mass and get scrubbed off the limited number of on-air channels.
In the post-industrial age, the riskiest thing you can do is to try to be for everyone. We’re living in an age of tribes: not just political tribes but those of bloggers, speakers, and creators who step up to share a message that means something to a relatively small and distinct group. There’s no limit on the number of YouTube channels we can follow, and someone with 5,000 true fans could have more influence than someone with 500,000 tepid ones…so no need to sand down your edges to try and be the voice of a movement. That isn’t a thing anymore. We’ll probably ignore you if you try. We’re not trusting our new leaders because they’re “authorities” but because they’ve built a secret clubhouse and invited us in. “Neutrality” doesn’t grant them influence—emotional labor does.
News networks are responding to the death of the mass by becoming increasingly partisan. By increasingly stoking our anger at, and fear of, the other side. It’s not some ethereal moral mystery—it’s their attempt to fit into this new world of tribes while still maintaining a heaping mass of viewers enough to stay on primetime.
How far left or right you skew is a very narrow and flat view of what a tribe can be. Next week, I’ll talk about what the news of the future has the potential to be. It’s way cooler.
So when all these pearl-clutching New York Times journalists and CNN hosts warn us that the internet is sending us down a dangerous spiral into a post-truth world, they’re smushing two things together:
- the more-recent concern of “how do we stop malicious actors from spreading lies to vast swaths of the population,”
- the steady dissolution of their perceived authority over news and the telling of it
And when establishment politicians warn us that ‘social media is polarizing us’ when the candidate they and all their colleagues recommended still loses, they’re smushing two things together:
- the fact that that social media is polarizing us
- the fact that nobody gives a shit what the establishment recommends anymore
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