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The Week: container ships, dead websites and movie magic
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Welcome to this week’s free edition of The Terminal. Apologies for the lateness of this one – I’m clumsily trying to tinker with the schedule a bit. Here’s what I’ve published over the past week:
Part one of a series on Web3 — looking at what it is, what its advocates say it will be, and what kind of political project it might be. [$]
A look at the weird subcultural drama about Neopets and NFTs. [$]
Are the vaccine-hesitant an actual, discrete constituency? [$]
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There’s a global shipping crisis happening, driven by a number of things including Covid shutdowns and a phenomenal increase in container demand. It’s one of those things that has kind of been a consistent background conversation for the better part of 18 months in certain sectors — like microchips, for example — but is really coming to a head now.
Rather than prattle on at length here, I might just link some good stories / listens from people who know better than I do:
A good episode of Odd Lots interviewing a logistics CEO.
“This is how the shipping crisis ends” at Business Insider.
One through-line you get among all of these is just how patchwork and fragile the global logistics system is. I don’t just mean in the macro sense that the on-demand economy has left us with razor-thin tolerances and delicate supply chains that can easily be rocked by something like Covid, which is true. I think the Ever Given incident in the Suez Canal gave people a real sense of that, too.
But! Also the fact that it just isn’t the well-oiled machine that you might expect, and is made up of such a crazy patchwork of formal and informal contracts and agreements that it’s a wonder it doesn’t collapse more often. This quote from the podcast I linked above sort of captures the feel of the whole discussion for me:
You go to your nearest light switch and flip it on, and it's just so reliable. And what you're actually doing when you flip that light switch [is that] there's a power plant somewhere, that's actually generating a little bit more power just for you, like you're actually controlling an enormous machine somewhere. And there's this incredibly complex, automated electrical grid that's providing you that power.
And I think we imagine that when we buy something there's the same sort of thing that must be happening — like this automated system that's all connected and an order is automatically placed back to the factory. But in fact it's a bunch of people on phones and shipping pieces of paper around the world, duct taping, forwarding emails.
We call our industry ‘freight forwarding’ but I'm like it should be called ‘freight email forwarding’ because you’re just kind of shuffling PDFs around the world and trying to make things happen.
A duh moment
As has been exhaustively described elsewhere, the creator economy tends to organise itself much like every other digital market economy: the gains accumulate at the top. It accords with Clay Shirky’s Power Law — also cited in the Axios story — which goes like this:
In systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome.
Shirky’s law was originally imagined for the blogosphere of the early aughts, but you can see many of the same distributions emerge in these new, shiny creator networks.
This isn’t unexpected. But it definitely butts up against the marketing promise of new creator platforms, which is that you can convert audiences into a sustainable business — and maybe, just maybe, crack it big while you’re at it. What you get instead are big creators making solid bank, a substrate of creators either eking out an okay living or at least a decent side hustle, and then a whole bunch of people below scrabbling for peanuts.
What will be interesting to see, I think, is how creator platforms negotiate that reality in the future. In conjunction with phenomena like subscription fatigue in a post-Covid world, I think platforms like Substack will have to imagine new ways of both keeping people subsCcribing, but also making the enterprise seem valuable and worth the time and energy investment for a wider range of writers.
Did I mention you can become a subscriber to this newsletter? I think it would help my ongoing thinking about new economic models of the internet if you all worked together to make me a Substack trillionaire.
Relatedly: I liked this post from Ben Shepherd at The Commercial Experience about what kind of newsletter-focused media company he would build these days.
This tweet is what inspired me to read more about the obviously very stupid but also revealing Neopets NFT controversy, which I wrote a bit about this week.
One of my pet obsessions is old internet communities which were big in the 90s and 2000s but, rather than folding or undergoing some kind of managed decline, persist through some kind of half-life. Neopets used to get billions of pageviews a month and was basically a folk religion for a whole bunch of kids around the world, who mostly learned about it through word of mouth on the playground.
Now there’s a few thousand people still dicking around on a site that hasn’t been updated for modern web standards and, in many cases, simply doesn’t work. You can see these sorts of relict populations everywhere online, but I wonder to what extent they’ll still exist in the future now that everyone has been shepherded onto like five sites.
The people hath spoken
I have less than zero interest in wading into the Dave Chappelle/Netflix thing, but this genre of tweet always seems to pop up as supporting evidence in one culture war or another. Someone will present the ratio between critic and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes to show that the critics (elite, aloof) are out of touch with voters (salt of the earth, plainspoken).
This was once ammunition for arguments specifically about films themselves. For example, people have long pointed to this disparity when it comes to Zack Snyder superhero movies, which fans argue are actually phenomenal art which resonates with the masses more than biased critics. But it seems to have wandered beyond that domain into being considered a helpful indicator for understanding popular opinion generally — in this case, that ‘the people’ as a unit broadly agree with Dave Chappelle on gender.
Forget for a moment the general opposing argument — that the Rotten Tomatoes score can be easily brigaded by people who are unusually invested in culture warring — and it still has a whiff of the hyperreal about it. It’s very easy to laugh at people for whom diverse representation in Marvel movies is a vastly important political goal, but it seems like there are a lot of people on all sides who see consumer culture as an arena where politics is done, and that a percentage score on a movie review site might be a useful heuristic for understanding it.
I was on The Meeting Tree podcast talking about Afterpay and NFTs. A very fun chat. Important correction: for some reason I casually said that NFTs point to an image hash when I should have said they (generally) point to a hyperlink. I regret the error, but everything else I said is 110 percent true. Maybe more?
A good critical view on NFTs as they pertain to gaming, I particularly liked this line: “But the social forces they draw on are real, and deep. A thirst for reclaiming ownership in a world that doesn’t let you own anything shouldn’t be underestimated.”
A good read on Alden Global Capital, the rapacious hedge fund gutting media across the US.
Weird story about a “cast of fictional influencers on TikTok”.
I liked this piece in Slate about the influence of Slack on workplace culture. I’ve never worked anywhere where bosses hate Slack, but I think it makes interesting points about how it generates a kind of parallel power structure where people who are funny or ‘good at Slack’ gain outsized influence within organisations beyond their title or role.
I think this is like the ninth lengthy feature I’ve read about the Covid lab leak theory. I doubt this question ever be definitely resolved, but I’ll continue to read 10,000 word stories pontificating on it until I die.
I’ve never actually thought too much abut Change.org and what it does, but this newsletter makes interesting points about it being a tech company masquerading as an activist organisation, and the tensions that generates.
Good bit on the anti-trafficking movement, which often overlaps with evangelical churches and conspiracy circles, shifting focus to Afghanistan following the withdrawal.
Great story on Próspera, the “libertarian startup city” in Honduras. I am really liking Rest of World, which digs into tech stories across the world, particularly the Global South.
I studiously avoided reading or learning anything about the whole alt-lit thing when it was big, for my mental and spiritual health, but I do recall the Marie Calloway situation. Good read on that.
Enjoyed this on marmalade. Dunno why. Sue me.
Seen, read or imagined anything this week you think would be interesting to the assorted geniuses and dreamers who subscribe to The Terminal? Drop it in the comments below.