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Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair
This week: Meta and Instagram
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Down Round, which I’m co-hosting with Raph Dixon of The Meeting Tree, will be more or less adjacent to The Terminal in coverage, unpicking whatever’s going on at the intersection of tech, culture and business. Also, it’s only twenty minutes long! Bear with us as we experiment and find a format and flow that works, and feel free to email me with your feedback.
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Back in October, just after Wall Street Journal dropped a trove of leaked internal documents from Facebook, The New York Times published a story headlined “Facebook Is Weaker Than We Knew”. The thesis of the piece, drawing from those documents, was that Facebook — then on the precipice of its rebrand as Meta — was much further over the hill than most assumed, riven with internal fractures, and bleeding users and attention to challengers like TikTok.
At the time this seemed like somewhat wishful thinking, considering how profitable the company was, and how deeply it had insinuated itself into both the structure of the internet and culture more broadly. But this week, the prediction seems to have been broadly vindicated. in multiple ways. Meta has announced its first quarterly decline in revenue:
For the first time in nearly a decade, Meta’s explosive growth has come to a halt, as the Facebook parent company forecast its first decline in revenue since it went public.
Meta, in its second-quarter earnings report on Wednesday, said it expects third-quarter revenue of between $26bn and $28.5bn – lower than the $30.52bn analysts predicted.
Part of that is thanks to Apple, which last year decided to give consumers the right to opt out of ad tracking across apps via a simple prompt box — a decision which has blown a $10 billion hole in Facebook revenue so far, and has also hit companies like Snap and Twitter. Part of it also thanks to Zuck and co’s huge investment in the metaverse — losing $2.8 billion in Q2 — which exist now mostly as a kind of vaporous promise of revenue growth over the horizon rather than a place people actually want to spend their time.
But the more interesting Meta story this week was the consumer uprising over the company’s attempts to turn Instagram into a TikTok clone in a vain attempt to copy its success. Instead of being an app where you look at photos your friends have posted, Instagram was initiating a rapid pivot into being a content firehose more interested in showing you random video memes and trends from creators you don’t follow.
It’s understandable why they want to do that. As I wrote a few weeks ago when these changes were being forewarned, the entire topography of the internet is shifting away from replicating real-life social networks in favour of short-form video in a never-ending feed. “Two decades of innovation in social networking, mobile technology, content creation tools, algorithms, AI, user experience has converged in a singular feed of video,” writes Troy Young at People vs Algorithms. “People love video. It just took a little time to get everybody to this point.
But what Meta didn’t count on was that people would viscerally hate the change and disagree that Instagram should be more like TikTok, and that it wouldn’t have the political capital to enact the pivot against their will. This led to Insatgram boss Adam Mosseri having to post a hostage video defending the changes; admitting they would go ahead despite the fact no one seemed to admit to wanting them. The fact that it was basically an irresistible commercial imperative which would go ahead regardless of opposition was implied.
Perhaps the biggest sign of the looming peasant revolt, and sort of broadly instructive about the whole situation, was when the Kardashians shared a viral post which demanded the company “make Instagram Instagram again” by dropping the pivot to video and focusing on its core business of displaying “cute photos of my friends”.
For Instagram, the Kardashians are tantamount to an anchor tenant. They basically wrote the playbook for what it means to be a successful influencer on the platform. Obviously they don’t actually give a shit about the Instagram algorithm showing less photos of friends and family, given their personal relationships are completely alien compared to those of a normal person. Instead, they care about the entire mode of creative production that has sustained their celebrity for a decade being yanked out from under them.
The new leisure class currently being generated and showcased by TikTok has particular skills and vibes they lack. Unfortunately for Kim K, being able to convincingly lip sync to Doja Cat and do weird dances choreographed by bored Midwestern teenagers is table stakes for the incoming generation of idle nouveau riche. When it comes to LA’s first family, the transition to Instagram Reels isn’t just an annoying interface change and reformation of feed logic — it’s a completely new paradigm they are materially unsuited to exploit.
Anyway. Today, Instagram announced the changes would be wound back and delayed. Mosseri told Platformer that users can expect the pivot will come at some point, but the company will go back to the drawing board to figure out the execution.
There are a couple of things I find interesting about this whole saga, which seems to have achieved a level of social resonance far beyond your average social media interface change
The first is that Meta seems to be facing many of the same pressures afflicting the rest of our institutions. It can be instructive (if a little limiting) to think about giant tech platforms as being like nation-states, and you can make out many of the same political dynamics play out. Politics across the West is in a period of profound stagnation, where everything only barely works and none of our institutions retain the legitimacy or capacity to do anything about it. Seeing Meta be incapable of pushing through a change like this, even though it seems existentially important to its continuing survival, it’s hard not to see a parallel. In conjunction with the fact its only forward momentum is towards the metaverse — which looks shittier and shittier every time they show it off — it looks like a spent political force, despite its massive capital.
The other thing that was interesting was the user reaction, which was quite intense. You can sense the same technological anxieties currently troubling digital elite like the Kardashians afflicting the non-famous too, like the whole edifice of human communication is being shifted towards a register they aren’t built for. Being able to produce a viral TikTok or Reel for an audience of strangers seems like a skill — useless for the vast majority of human history — that our interhuman discourse is being rewired to emphasise, purely because it is more engaging.
It’s not hard to see why people react strongly to that. That, or the fact they — like me — are sick of seeing Instagram show them terrible crowdwork videos by bad comedians they do not follow. Either one.
That single section went on a lot longer than I anticipated it would, and absorbed most of the wordcount of this newsletter. Have this as consolation:
A great read about crypto from Noah Kulwin at The Baffler. Connects the current endemic culture of grift in the space to the savings-and-loans scandals in the 80s and 90s, which I guess is an obvious connection but I hadn’t seen it articulated so well as here.
Josh Dzieza of The Verge has a great read on AI-assisted authors, who create “high-speed, semi-automated” genre fiction. Because tools built on AI models generally have very short memories — GPT-3, for example, only remembers roughly the preceding 1,500 words — they can’t actually write novels, because they can’t keep track of characters and events beyond a certain point. These authors, who largely work at chugging out self-published genre lit for Amazon, use the AI to help them increase productivity.
The sad death of the music snob in the face of the algorithm. “Pre-internet cultural elitists distinguished [themselves] from the masses not by deciding what was good, but by having better access to the sources of taste and then merging them into [their] own identity, thereby becoming a beacon for others to follow."
On the debates about AI sentience that have cropped up over the past few months, and why the mere fact we ask those sorts of question is telling. “The debate over whether LaMDA is sentient or not overlooks important issues that will frame debates about intelligence, sentience, language and human-AI interaction in the coming years.”
An anonymous VFX artist goes in on Marvel in a piece for Vulture about the punishing special effects pipeline they have created in an attempt to support their insane volume of big budget content. (It follows a similar Reddit thread.) Labour issues in VFX are interesting, and particularly pertinent now we’re being told that virtual worlds and metaverses are the next evolution of the internet, and someone has to build those. Also, Disney and Marvel have built basically the biggest content empire in history, and clearly are having problems maintaining it at acceptable levels of output and quality.
Reuters has a feature trying to understand how a “former leftie” fell into a far-right internet rabbit hole and ended up threatening to kill US election workers. It’s one of those stories that is perhaps more interesting as an artefact than for what it contains, in that the guy in question is so far from normal in every respect that it’s difficult to draw any broader lessons from his journey. Interesting, though.
Absolutely insane story about a plagiarism scandal. You walk away from this one with a sense that there is something deeply broken in the publishing industry. Some truly weird narcissists throughout.
On the “hot, strenuous and unsung” people who maintain the world’s cloud computing infrastructure.
On “posthuman architecture”: “Home today is less a protective shelter but an embodied interface”.