Idea strength, cringe, and the media environment

In “Belonging > Innovation”, I pointed out a shift in the quality of culture, which I described as “trending toward a sort of stable, vaguely satisfying mediocrity”. In the three years since, the trend has only intensified, and others have begun to notice.

At the time, I was only able to sketch out a handful of symptoms, but now I think I see the underlying dynamics a bit more clearly.

It should surprise no one to learn that the 2010s saw an inversion in the relationship between media providers and media consumers. The falling cost of tools and distribution led to a media explosion, while the amount of attention stayed comparatively flat. The result was a massive increase in competition among media providers.

Sounds great for consumers, right? More competition typically means more innovation — more strong ideas. But the exact opposite occurred. The shift in the attention economy caused an explosion of weak ideas.

To explain how, it’s necessary to define what I mean by idea strength.

Strong ideas are focused. They take risks, the results of which are high variance: more often very good or very bad. True artistic risk is also reputational risk, which makes it harder for the artist to deny they were trying hard to accomplish A as opposed to B, C, or D. Strong ideas are monopolistic. They attempt to hijack attention. They force you to choose between paying attention to them and paying attention to something else. Strong ideas have low context dependence, a property that makes structure-preserving transformations possible. In other words, “covers” of a strong idea are highly recognizable — their internal structure doesn’t disintegrate when their context is changed. Finally, strong ideas have a correspondingly strong empathy load. This may or may not mean that they attempt to communicate specific experiences or emotions, but it definitely means that they feel like the product of a mind with a point of view.

Weak ideas, on the other hand, are diffuse, risk-averse, and consequently much lower variance. The defining quality of weak ideas is their mediocrity. Weak ideas are “fine”. They carry low artistic and reputational risk, which lends plausible deniability to the artist’s intent. Weak ideas do not force any kind of attention commitment — the consumer misses nothing by “playing the field”. Weak ideas are highly context dependent. They fall apart like a deep sea creature when pulled out of their native context. Finally, weak ideas have a low empathy load. They feel as much like the product of an algorithm as they do the product of a mind.

Idea strength is moderated by its perceptual context: the environment in which people not only perceive media, but also perceive each other perceiving media.

Perceptual contexts behave like networks. Increasing the number of interconnections increases the sociality of the network — the ability of each “node” to monitor and respond to the others. A highly interconnected network exposes each participant to feedback about their consumption habits, the tribe they belong to (or would like to belong to), and their standing within it. In this scenario, anonymity is an imperfect defense. It may protect one’s reputation, but it does little to silence one’s inner model of what others think.

In this way, perceptual contexts contribute to preference falsification. The more one is socially rewarded for preferring X over Y — even anonymously — the more one “genuinely” prefers X. The price of preferring Y is derision, disapproval, and lowered status; not only for the artist, but also for the “stakeholders” — anyone who perceives their work, is in turn perceived, and so on.

Idea strength is a function of risk in context. So what is the price of a failed artistic bet? According to Sarah Perry, it’s cringe:

At its most general, cringe is the experience of witnessing failed emotional manipulation: a theater productions’s failure to induce suspension of disbelief, a joke followed by silence, a grandiose boast that fails to impress.

When artists become more socially connected to each other and to consumers, bold choices get riskier. Every mind in a perceptual network is a vector for cringe. As the network grows more interconnected, the potential for cringe increases. An artistic risk that might have been low in a less connected environment becomes high. The degree of complexity of a network is therefore the extent to which artistic risk within it is socialized. The result is a kind of aesthetic evolutionary pressure, limiting what consumers have an incentive to consume and what artists have an incentive to create.

If degree of connectedness plays such a large role in idea strength, how has it changed over time? Toby Shorin’s analysis is spot on:

The flow of cultural products in the pre-internet media environment was unidirectional: media channels (network hubs) broadcast toward consumers (terminal nodes in the network), and consumers could only receive visual media, not broadcast it themselves.

When Shorin refers to the “shape of the media environment”, he basically means the arrangement of the plumbing through which media flows.

Before the internet, media mostly flowed one way, from a few major producers to all consumers. Access to social feedback was minimal and almost entirely “IRL”. No TV or stereo had a comment section. If one never brought up one’s preferences in face to face conversation, it was possible to never learn what others thought about them. As a result, there were far fewer reasons for consumers to apply a procrustean filter to their inner life, and fewer opportunities to “take a side”. Artists, lacking fast audience feedback about their work, optimized for competition with their idols and peers, leading to more experimentation and consequently more variance. Because it was so hard to police each other’s reactions to a given work — not to mention establish aspects of that work as continuous markers of tribal identity — audiences were freer to enjoy the experience of being surprised without feeling pressured to interpret that surprise as a betrayal. Cringe was much less of a concern because the technology to “go viral” overnight did not yet exist, so downside of artistic risk was low. The experience of media was primarily illegible and personal.

Now, in the internet era, media can flow from anywhere to anywhere. Shorin continues:

The internet has enabled a truly distributed and multidirectional network, in which any node can be a content creator, broadcaster, and consumer. 

Attention has not scaled with media. Instead, attention is mostly conserved, but spread across multiple streams of media at once, with the most social stream — the form of media that allows people to see and be seen — in the foreground. Creative choices are therefore governed by what the artist believes about their chances of supplanting that foreground stream with their own work. A successful bid for the foreground means one’s idea is truly strong. A mistaken belief that one’s idea is truly strong is likely to end up causing cringe, and thereby a total failure to capture sustained, positive attention — perhaps even earning widespread derision. A successful bid for the background means only that one’s appetite for risk was low; one risks less cringe but gains less attention. As Perry puts it: “A strong cringe reaction may be a good sign, compared to mere boredom.” An artist with a high tolerance for embarrassment (or a savvy audience) may capture sustained attention by intentionally optimizing their work for cringe. Herein we see the rise of layered irony, and the concept of “irony levels”.

The contemporary experience of media is primarily legible and social. Social media incentivizes making all inner experience legible so it can be shared. But it’s often impossible to resolve the urge to affiliate and the urge to accurately portray one’s inner experience, so the urge to affiliate usually wins. To effectively compete with the social stream, one’s work has to be more powerful than the experience of belonging to a tribe in a time of great intertribal conflict. It’s much more strategic to cooperate with the social stream instead, which explains the rise of fandoms-as-culture and the popularity of MMO games like Fortnite.

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