The Use of Abandoned Shells

September 18, 2010 — 21 Comments

Picture a movie poster for a film that wants you to think it’s artsy. (here’s one) It probably features the laurel leaves icon. These markers originally symbolized a handful of important film festivals. Then it became important for every city, even neighborhoods inside cities, to have their own film festival. There also the significant differences in the “winners” and the few dozen or even hundreds of “selections.” The festival laurels conjures to the viewer the implicit value associated with scarcity despite the potential vast gap between the connotation and reality.

This is what George W.S Trow called the “use of abandoned shells.” In a world of no context, invoking the image of great things is very powerful, even if those things are fractions of what they once were. As media has fragmented and become abundant, we become more dependent on symbols. We turn to markers that are hollow. Why? Because there are no alternatives. There is no new sense of scarcity—that this matters because it was one of the few that made it.

One of the potential promises of the internet was the idea that all the great stuff being created by people in every corner of the world would be collaboratively filtered and recommended to us. The reality has been somewhat different. Our filters have utterly failed us. Or, we have failed ourselves. It’s natural that algorithms that are supposedly more in tune with what we “like” would be incapable of judging the things we do not yet know we desire. Our resentment towards “editing” or “editors” undermined the skills and authority in the process of recommendation, leaving us with only algorithms (or aggregation without endorsement) And we celebrate algorithms because they seem great compared to nothing.

You write a book. Or release a movie. Record an album. Sell a product. A blogger at the Los Angeles Time’s reviews it, what does your blurb about it say? It says “‘A true gem!’ – LA Times”. You hide the qualifier. You shouldn’t need the superlative at all. Collaborative filtering should have got it to your audience.

The bill of goods we’ve been sold is unsatisfying. It’s false too. Because the reality is most blog posts came from press releases, planned announcements, conferences, “leaked” documents, spokespeople, filed lawsuits, launch dates, the interview circuit—pseudo events. This was supposed to go away when everybody was a reporter. We have more boots on the ground, authentic artists, the long tail…

There are hundreds of these hollow shells whose meaning has fallen away while the demand for their association has risen dramatically. We need them badly. This isn’t my opinion; this is apparent in how we continue to return to them despite championing their demise. It tells me that deep down we have trust issues. We love our blogs and self-publishers and yet we don’t believe them. We pretend to want an economy of abundance where all content is all of equal quality—everyone is an artist and deserves their muse. Secretly, we crave to hear what is good, what is worth our time, that someone smart looked at this and placed it in its proper context. We salivate for this and the marketers exploit and pander to it.

What these people are trying to do is trying to find some, any, stamp of approval. They desperately need something that says “this is not like those other things.” You’d trust just about any print publication before “as featured in the Huffington Post” but in a pinch it’ll do. Especially before you bothered competing on merits or the importance of the subject matter. The other day I saw a book that had been blurbed by people without titles after their names. It was not because their reputation was self-evident. The author knew what he needed and an empty allusion to it was better than nothing.

In case you think its just marketing materials, look closely. Reporters use what I think are best called “substance words” to give status to flimsy stories. The weaker the subject, the more blogs lean on words like exclusive, official, “documents show”, “we’ve learned”, or “sources say.” Nicholas Carr complained that in line linking is a cognitive distraction but he’s actually been tricked by the swindle; often it’s to evoke the image of direct sourcing when the connection between the speculation and the facts is tenuous.

Try to think about music as more than just a set of prescribed notes. It’s the interplay between the notes, the resonance of the various sounds coming together and a sense of a generative order. Now, try to think about it back the other way. It seems empty—not like music. Banks have rules to limit their exposure to risk. They may require investing in bonds above certain ratings, capping the amount of leverage traders can use or hedging assets in one industry with assets of similar value in another. This ideal portfolio becomes a kind of symbol of risk-avoidance, an allusion to the past when finance was comprehensible, when it is really a simulacrum. Welcome to the economic meltdown of 2007-2008. Or, an oil rig has safety reporting mandated by their lawyers or government regulations. Each of these guidelines is designed to the end of not having to think about surprises anymore. The notes are hit, the end state is experienced but in the middle is reality where shells become inadequate or meaningless or feigned. Just like putting laurel leaves on a movie poster.

So it’s hypocritical and bankrupt and a lame part of our internet culture. Why should that matter. For starters, it becomes a lot more common as media gets worse because crap needs to be dressed up. Critically though, it lays a subtle but pervasive distortion over our reality. Everyone is selling and conning and we hardly even know it. Our emotions are being triggered by simulations—unintentional or deliberate misrepresentations—of cues we’ve been taught were important. We read some story and it feels important, that the news is real and the principles of reporting took place, but it’s not. Each part of it was an illusion stacked on top of a slightly less illusionary notion until the final product floats as its own self-creation.

But most importantly, it’s a ponzi scheme that is running out of new investors. It’s more than just ironic to see products from new media depend on old media for credibility. After a time, the old symbols cease to mean anything. They’ve been taken for all they are worth. Apart from a handful of exceptions, there isn’t anything coming to take their place. Concepts like iterative journalism trade on bad incentives. They favor what is now, over brand, reputation or trust. (the root of the power of what they usurped). In algorithmic editing every featured piece is replaceable by another (and it in turn by another), leaving the aggregator with no authority to call its own. We’ve taken the infrastructure of context for granted and lost the imperative generate more of it.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

21 responses to The Use of Abandoned Shells

  1. I’m reminded of the warrior in apocolypto that literally wears the husk of an impressive kill ( http://picasaweb.google.com/philxhendrie/Apocalypto#5323637205913054162 ) whenever I see someone wrap themselves with verbiage like a comfort blanket. A humorous instance is the attention given to product packaging, just google “unboxing” to see what I mean. It is so common and pervading one worries readers would overdose on the pure uncut product.

  2. What blogs and news sites do you recommend that we read for thought-provoking ideas?

    I am subscribed to a multitude of feeds on Google Reader but 98 or 99% of them aren’t worth reading the headline let alone the actual post due to pointless fluff and building suspense out of nothing. And generally when I click on one to read the full article, there’re enough cognitive tricks to make me realize it was all a game anyway. Well, too bad I don’t buy anything I absolutely don’t need – advertising doesn’t work on those who don’t purchase.

    • Like I was saying, there aren’t many. I’ve liked this site recently:

      http://authenticityhoax.squarespace.com/

      • I’ll browse that site. The title alone seems like it has promise, but I’m not judging anything. Hopefully it delivers.

        Have you ever read TheLastPsychiatrist(.com)? My brother pointed him out to me about a month ago and I got the vibe that this dude was intelligent. However, the more articles that I read, his views became more apparently biased or flawed or both. Kinda like Freud, I think you’d have a field day with that site. Same thing with The New Yorker – Close Read blog. They get caught up in their own framework or paradigms that they lose focus on the big war and end up stuck, unable to transform themselves.

        ” Reporters use what I think are best called “substance words” to give status to flimsy stories.” – Yeah, dude, you nailed that on the head. Unfortunately, it works on the masses and brings in revenues. People do this in their everyday lives, too, to make events seem more important than they really are in the overall scheme of things.

        You obviously have some pretty deep thoughts on different issues in life. And the ability to connect-the-dots with ideas which I personally think is the most important aspect of reading/thinking. Keep it up, man. I haven’t found another blog this , yet, and the search continues…

        I think you should write a book.

  3. I’m afraid my reading comprehension isn’t good enough to grasp the general meaning of this. Are you saying that the kind of merit people try to look for in their work is judged upon symbols that are actually meaningless?

    • Sure, people do it in their own work and lives (I call that The Narrative Fallacy) but the reason you might be missing the general meaning is that I wasn’t making a general point. I’m simply saying that we live in a media world that desperately needs context and authority but can’t find any because we destroyed it and haven’t created new sources. As a result, we couch new things in old terms that are really just husks of what they once were.

  4. I’m actually excited about this because the whole thing is probably going to come crashing down during our lifetime. People from our generation are going to be the ones that create the new positions of authority after the blogs and twits cannibalize the old guard.

  5. fuck.
    please ryan post your amazon whislist.

    I can’t keep up with you .Your post are far more harder to comprehend for me this year , english being my second language .And i have to use the dictionary on your site only,becouse you bring down sentences and ideas to single words, that are unfamilar to me. But i like that .

    • Hey Bep,
      I had the same problem if you look up at my post, and English is my first and only language. For a long time I didn’t apply myself in school and reading/math, so my analytical skills became really poor, but as I focused more and more, my vocabulary and comprehension increased.

      You speak very well for having English as a second language, and you are further along than a lot of people, so I’m actually envious.

  6. “So it’s hypocritical and bankrupt and a lame part of our internet culture.”

    Have you heard the expression “Web of Intent”? Might be another trend I’m way behind on, but I heard it here first:

    http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/08/17/the-greasy-fix-it-web-of-intent-vision/

    Do you think “the democracy of the click” totallyfailed as a way to highlight authentic content in the long tail of the web?

    Do you think people would actually choose to throttle their experience of the web? I’m with you in seeing the problem as related to our “internet culture” but don’t you think that it goes a whole hell of a lot deeper?

    Thanks for writing.

    • That is a fantastic article. I need to print it out and think about it. Email me if you want to chat in a couple days

    • Thanks for posting that article. It seems like this school of thought–typified by Jaron Lanier’s ‘You are Not a Gadget,’ which I picked off of Ryan’s delicious (thanks, enjoyed it)–is growing in popularity.

      The ‘throttling’ of people’s web experience was the part of the article that made me smile. We have algorithms, data streams, recommendation engines–now we just want ways to return to real life…Do we need smart people devising ways to babysit our web activity, or do we just need to realize that we are happier when we spend less time online?

  7. i’ve been having this same problem as of recently. Magazines like The Atlantic and Slate often try to write articles and make them sound amazing through their manipulation of the language when they’re not actually saying anything, and I usually just read the first paragraph on an article before I decide it’s a waste of my time. Way to nail it.
    English is my second language too, but I learned it young, so it’s all good.

    • That is because in pageview and iterative journalism the headline matters more than any other part of the article. Whether or not the body actually delivers on this promise is mostly irrelevant. Again, this is why it’s impossible to build reputable brands out of that model.

  8. “The pedestrian ‘push’ buttons at New York’s intersections don’t actually work. They were deactivated in the 1970s when computer-controlled automatic traffic signals were installed but left in place because removing them is too costly. Apparently most ‘close door’ buttons in lifts don’t work either. But give us a button and we’ll press it, not because the button works but because the sense of being in control makes us feel good (when subjects are crammed into a lift for example, those closest to the controls show lower stress levels).

    Feeling in control doesn’t mean that we are in control, but who cares? As Slartibartfast said in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “I’d rather be happy than right!”

    — “The lunatics are running the asylum”, Dylan Grice, Société Générale, 2 September 2010″

  9. Ryan,

    Great post! I stopped reading and watching the news and I also only read blogs and view TV channels that will put my mind at a very healthy positive state. I know someone that is addicted to watching the news, and he is always in that “fear state of mind” and is constantly worrying.

    This can be toxic because then people form a belief system and take action based on that belief system. If you are going to be in fear by being exposed to too much media crap than you will make decisions based on fear. I wish more people were aware of this, especially what you write about.

    Hope you are having an amazing weekend!

    Cheers,
    Nabil

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