In the beginning there was the egg. In January of 2019, an Instagram account called world_record_egg posted a stock photo of a brown chicken egg and launched a campaign to get more likes of the photo than any online photo before. The record holder at that time was a snapshot on Instagram of Kylie Jenner’s daughter, Stormi, which got more than eighteen million likes. Within ten days, the number like an egg had exceeded thirty million. It remains at the top of the chart to this day, with over fifty-five million. The account’s creators, who came from the advertising industry, later teamed up with Hulu for a mental health PSA where they “crack” the egg due to social media pressures. The egg arc was the epitome of a certain kind of contemporary Internet success: gather a large enough audience around something – anything – and you can sell it to someone.
For Kate Eichhorn, a media historian and professor at The New School, the Instagram egg represents what we call “content,” a word that is omnipresent but difficult to define. Content is digital material that “may be circulated solely for the purpose of trading,” Eichhorn writes in her new book, “content“It is part of MIT Press’s “Basic Knowledge” series for rhetorical studies. In other words, such content is flexible by design, it is best to travel through digital spaces.” Type, medium, and form are secondary concerns, and in some cases, they seem to disappear entirely. One piece of intellectual property inspires the frenzy of feeding podcasts, documentaries, and offshoots of miniseries. The streaming television service’s individual episodes can be played as long as the film runs. Paintings by visual artists appear on social media alongside influencer-style vacation photos. It’s all part of what he calls Eichhorn “the content industry,” which has grown to include nearly everything we consume online. Invoking the massive influx of text, audio, and video that fills our feeds, Eichhorn wrote, “Content is part of a single, indistinguishable stream.”
Over the past decade, a number of books have attempted to assess how the Internet affects us, and what we should do about it. Eli Pariserfilter bubbleAs of 2011, he demonstrated early on the smoothing effects of digital nutrition. After Facebook and its ilk became more mainstream, pioneering technologist Jaron Lanier wrote a book titled “Ten reasons to delete your social media accounts right now“(2018). Shoshana Zuboff’s book,”The era of surveillance capitalismPublished in the United States in 2019, A Diagram of the Systemic Problems of Mass Data Absorption. Eichhorn’s is one of a new group of books that focus their attention on the user experience more directly, diagnosing the increasingly dysfunctional relationship between the individual individual and the hypothetical crowd.
Once upon a time, the Internet relied on user-generated content. The hope was that ordinary people would take advantage of the web’s low barrier to publishing to publish great things, simply driven by the joy of open communication. We now know it wasn’t quite done that way. User-created GeoCities pages or blogs have given way to monetized content. Google made the Internet more searchable, but in the early 2000s, it also started selling ads and allowed other websites to easily integrate their ad units. This business model is still what most of the Internet today relies on. Revenue does not necessarily come from the value of the content itself but from its ability to attract attention, and draw attention to ads, which are often bought and sold through companies like Google and Facebook. The rise of social networks in the 1920s made this model even more dominant. Our digital publications are becoming focused on a few cross-platforms, which increasingly rely on algorithmic algorithms. The result for users was increased exposure but a loss of agency. We created the content for free, then Facebook mined it for profit.
“Clickbait” has long been a term referring to shallow and misleading online articles that exist only to sell ads. But on the internet today, the term can describe content across every domain, from unflattering ads on an influencer’s Instagram page to pop metaphor designed to manipulate Spotify’s algorithm. Eichhorn uses the instrumental term “content capital”—a fable about “cultural capital” by Pierre Bourdieu—to describe the way fluency in online publishing can determine the success, or even existence, of an artist’s work. When ‘cultural capital’ describes how tastes and reference points confer a particular niche, ‘content capital’ implicitly refers to the ability to create the kind of additional content that the Internet feeds on. Since much of the audience’s attention is directed through social media, the most direct path to success is to grow a large number of digital followers. “Cultural producers who may in the past have focused on writing books, producing films, or making art must spend significant time producing (or paying someone else to produce) content about themselves and their work,” Eichhorn wrote. Pop stars record their daily routine on TikTok. Journalists post ordinary opinions on Twitter. best seller InstaPoite Ruby Kaur publishes reels and images of her typewritten poems. They are all caught up in the daily pressure to produce additional content — memes, selfies, dirt — to fill an endless void.
The dynamics Eichhorn describes will be familiar to anyone who regularly uses social media. It does not lay the groundwork for our understanding of the Internet so much as it shows, in eloquent terms, how it created a brutal race to the bottom. We know that what we post and consume on social media seems increasingly empty, yet we are powerless to stop it. Perhaps if we had a better language for the problem, it would be easier to solve. “Content generates content,” Eichhorn wrote. As with the Instagram egg, the best way to accumulate more content capital is to actually get it.
Eichhorn’s sense of the way forward is unclear. It succinctly refers to the idea of ”content resisters”, who might consume vinyl records and video clips instead of Spotify and Instagram. But such solutions seem strange, given the degree to which the Internet has become such an integral part of our daily lives and experiences. Like many technologies that came before, it seems to be here to stay; The question is not how to escape from it but how to understand ourselves in its inescapable wake. In his new book,The Internet is not what you think it isJustin E. H. Smith, professor of philosophy at Paris City University, argues that “the current situation is intolerable, but there is no turning back either. Smith wrote that a great deal of human experience has been ironed out into a single “technology portal.” “The more you use the Internet, the more your personality becomes a brand, and your subjectivity turns into a vector of activity that is planable through algorithms.”
According to Smith, the Internet is actually attention-limiting, meaning the profound aesthetic experience that changes the person who participates. The business model of digital advertising only stimulates shallow and brief interactions – the consumer’s gaze predisposed to absorbing a logo or brand name and not many other things. Our feeds are designed to “induce potential attendees to move from one monetizable object to another,” he writes. This has had a killer effect on all kinds of culture, from Marvel movies that improve attention minute by minute, to Spotify’s automated recommendations pushing one similar song after another. Cultural products and consumer habits alike are increasingly aligned with the structures of digital spaces.
The Internet Is Not What You Think It begins as a negative critique of life online, particularly from the perspective of academia, an industry that is one of its crippling victims. But the second half of the book advances in deeper philosophical investigations. Smith wrote that rather than being a tool, the Internet might be seen as a “living system”. It is the fulfillment of – albeit disappointingly – a centuries-old human aspiration for interdependence. Smith tells the story of Frenchman Jules Alex, who in the mid-19th century popularized a kind of organic internet made from snails. Perhaps drawing on Dr. Franz Mesmer’s theory of “animal magnetism,” which posited a universal magnetic force that binds living things together, it was based on the idea that any two snails that had mated remained linked over great distances. The technology – a telegraph-like device that uses snails to send purported messages – was a failure, but the dream of instant wireless communication survived until humanity realized it, perhaps at our expense.
Smith searches for the Internet’s most effective metaphor, a concept that encompasses more than the emptiness of “content” and the addiction of the “attention economy”. Is it like a post-snail telegraph? Or like a Renaissance wheel device that allowed readers to browse through multiple books simultaneously? Or maybe like a loom that weaves souls together? He doesn’t quite land on an answer, though he does end up realizing that the internet interface, and the keyboard that gives him access, is not so much an external device as an extension of his research mind. To understand the intertwined self, we must first understand the self, and it is an ongoing endeavor. The ultimate problem of the Internet may not stem from a separate technology but from the Frankenstein way in which the invention of mankind has exceeded our own capabilities. In a sense, the Instagram egg didn’t fully hatch.