March 31, 2020
Last April, Jia Tolentino wrote an article for The New Yorker that reviewed my book, Digital Minimalism, along with Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing, which came out around the same time. Tolentino’s piece thoughtfully weaved many different strands of observation, each of which is worthy of its own dissection.
There was one point, however, made in one of her final paragraphs, that I wanted to highlight. Tolentino, reflecting on what her life was like during the month she experimented with the digital declutter recommended in my book, wrote the following:
“It occurred to me that two of the most straightforwardly beloved digital technologies—podcasts and group texts—push against the attention economy’s worst characteristics. Podcasts often demand sustained listening, across hours and weeks, to a few human voices. Group texts are effectively the last noncommercialized social spaces on many millennials’ phones.”
This comment was made in passing, but I think it’s profound. An argument I’ve been advancing for a while is that the social media behemoths that currently dominate the internet are unique in economic history in their combination of massive market valuations and cultural dispensability. Hundreds of millions of people use Facebook, Instagram and Twitter every day. Few of these users, however, need these services to live a thriving life.
The underlying decentralized protocols of the internet existed before these services and will exist after they’re gone. Competitive methods to seek entertainment or connect with family and friends can leverage this fundamental technology to find audiences. In this scrum, disruption can easily arise, which is why the success of podcasts and group texts is so important. They’re an inconvenient reminder that you don’t need massive, addictive, Orwellian, cumbersome platform monopolies for people to find deep value in the internet.
(For more on these alternatives, see, for example, the article I wrote for The New Yorker a month later about indie social media platforms.)