Today's guest essay is by my friend Nikhil Sethi. He’s a designer at Apple, proud Georgia native, and absolutely wonderful book club host. (Together, we’ve read Pachinko, The Overstory, and The Remains of the Day, which are all excellent.) Nikhil has also accomplished the intimidating feat of publishing his newsletter, Splash, for over 100 weeks in a row—it’s observational and often touching, and I especially like this celebration of daydreams.
Nikhil’s essay revisits Neil Postman’s seminal book Amusing Ourselves To Death in the age of social media. This is the perfect follow-up to yesterday’s discussion with Sarah Frier (if you missed it, read our recap here). While Sarah explained the business models and incentives driving product decisions, Nikhil dives deep into the way users interface with Instagram, and how that shapes the quality of our public discourse.
🤳 branding ourselves to death
By Nikhil Sethi
In 1985, American educator Neil Postman published his seminal work Amusing Ourselves to Death, exploring the effects that mass communication technologies have had upon American society.
Postman chiefly argues that our form of communication serves as the lens through which we see the world:
Whether we are experiencing the world through the lens of speech or the printed word or the television camera, our media-metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for what the world is like.
Every new technology creates new metaphors. The advent of writing’s media-metaphor expanded human memory beyond a singular life, questioning the role of memory and the very nature of knowledge. Old ideas inspire new ones, all of which can outlast any person. To apply Postman’s principles to today, we must understand the societal changes that have enabled the rise of our most important medium: social media.
In Postman’s time, television was America’s chief source of news, entertainment, and even religion. News broadcasts created an air of authority while breaking down current events into decontextualized news nuggets, seconds away from a commercial break. The rapid topic switching and engaging visuals entertained the audience rather than giving a complete picture of what was happening. In this television-centric society, everything is entertainment. If thinking isn’t rewarded like entertaining is, why would anyone care about thinking?
neoliberalism and social media
Over the past 40 years, neoliberalism—the idea that every aspect of society are markets and every person a consumer—grew to dominate the Western world. Under neoliberalism, everything becomes a competition between individuals, and that’s the shadow under which social media has evolved. The web started with interest-based communities and morphed into factories for content, with enough transactional metrics (likes, reacts, and retweets) to become their own kind of markets, competing not just for money, but for attention.
Since Postman’s time, we’ve moved from a television-based society to a social media-based society. Yet, many of his qualms have survived the jump.
Everything is entertainment? ✅
Lack of context makes it difficult to discern serious from superficial? ✅
The largest difference between the television-based culture and the social media-based culture is that creation is no longer a one-way street. For the first time, everyone is and can be a creator. Yet advertisers have significantly more impact than they ever did before.
Ads still bookend content like commercial breaks do, but they also appear through sponsored content (sponcon), in which individuals craft themselves into brand vehicles—influencers—to peddle whatever product an advertiser wants. The followers, a captive audience, then learn that this is the way that the platform is meant to be used: to turn themselves into a brand that can serve as a sponcon vehicle.
When creators become popular, they must decide whether or not to be “influencers.” It seems like a choice between making free money or not. Yet, the reality is that becoming an influencer means essentially becoming a small business—considering things beyond just making the content that brought them the popularity in the first place.
What you end up with is a feed of content that consists of ads, sponcon, content meant to look like sponcon, and content that was influenced by sponcon. It’s impossible to figure out what is advertising and what isn’t. In a television culture everything was entertainment, in a social media-culture, everything is advertising.
the rise of insta-activism
Unlike television, which had few major UI changes during its prominence, social media is a constantly changing beast, with the potential to generate culture-altering shifts on any given day. Tech companies constantly add and remove features, without necessarily considering what downstream effects they may have.
In 2018, Instagram enabled users to share posts to their stories. Before, all native sharing of posts happened through direct messages or through the Explore page. With this development, Instagram posts now had the ability to go “viral,” and exist as their own units outside of an individual’s feed.
These features enabled the latest form of activism, in which graphic designers turn social messages into beautiful slideshows to be shared far and wide as a reaction to the US’s constant state of social unrest.
The constraints and incentives of Instagram have had an intense effect on how politics is presented. Each slideshow looks like a marketing campaign for DTC liquor or maybe a type of gluten-free cereal. Aesthetics cannot be divorced from content, giving social movements the same platform and perceived relevance as the new car freshener one tap away.
Only a single frame of a slideshow can be shared per story, meaning that these slideshows need to be able to make sense by themselves, and the graphics must appeal to as many people as possible. It evokes the concept of “context collapse”: the idea that virtual spaces force users to cater to a variety of perspectives and people at once, diluting the content in pursuit of universal understanding. In the face of these impossible constraints, what information is left?
When all of this content is so deeply distanced from context, do aesthetics matter more than quality? Does authority come simply from who has the most savvy graphic designer? We saw this in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, when the reformist “8 Can’t Wait” campaign took off and led abolitionists to counter the campaign with infographics of their own. Even if that rebrand helped the movement, it’s inevitable that fake news will soon begin circulating in the same manner, complete with pastel colors and playful blobs. When that happens, will new, similarly branded campaigns be needed to dispel rumors? With the limited amount of context we receive, will we even be able to identify the misinformation?
This new form of activism represents an overall shift in communication and the longevity of Postman’s criticisms of television-centric culture. As information continues to be offered in contextless, haphazard ways, it becomes nearly impossible to fully understand and properly engage with major issues that face our society.
where do we go from here?
Unfortunately, the most deleterious effects of things like social media or television happen on a mass scale, and are dependent on the actions of the majority rather than the few. Sure, you can delete your account, but it won’t shift anyone else’s media-metaphor. There’s no simple way to change the behavior of millions of people.
As long as we live in a neoliberal society, business models define the nature of every new medium. The internet followed in television’s footsteps by focusing on advertising, but that doesn’t mean that future mediums have to sustain the same way. The rise of subscriptions and smaller approaches to financing the web suggest that other models could exist and influence the next big medium. In this way, we hold the power. The ideas that we share and cultivate could eventually propel the next medium to define our society for years to come.
how does this thinking about media and mediums influence your work as a designer?
Nikhil: When I was looking for a job, I made a conscious decision to work on enterprise software. A ton of consumer software is in the market for people’s attention or aims to nudge them towards actions that might not benefit them. Instead, I work on simplifying complex tasks in enterprise software — aware that my work needs to match the norms of the media that users are accustomed to and constantly attempting to match their mental models.
do you use instagram in your personal life?
Nikhil: I used to spend hours creating the ideal aesthetic for my grid, both on my main account and my design account until I inevitably burnt out. I don’t have the Instagram app on my phone anymore and mainly use it to watch the stories of a few friends, occasional messaging, and inspiration searching every now and then.
can you tell me about a book you loved this year?
Nikhil: Reading They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib was one of the highlights of my year. It’s an essay collection that uses pop culture as a lens for Abdurraqib to understand the world around him and his entire life and upbringing. I loved how he was able to teach me about some of my favorite things (pop punk, basketball, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On), while bringing me into his life through gorgeous prose. 10/10.
Find more of Nikhil on his newsletter, Twitter, or Goodreads.
📺 Automation, meritocracy, reality TV: Kyle Chayka explains TikTok better than anyone
💰 The checkout flow for Trump’s “Election Defense Fund” is something else
♛ Why chess drama The Queen’s Gambit is next on my watch list
📘 Satisfy your Tumblr nostalgia with this open-access book on the platform’s culture
🍑 In honor of the Biden admin and Nikhil’s home state: a Blorgia fancam
💝 a closing note
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