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Stop Smoking The Algorithms
On Distribution In The Algorithm Age. Also: Summer of Protocols, Excel Art, and Feedback Loops
Spotify this week announced that musicians can accept a lower royalty rate to get an algorithmic push.
This sucks. Artists are already getting paid pittance in the streaming era. Now, having cornered the market, Spotify is reaching its final stage of “enshittification”: scraping out its surplus to its shareholders.
Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.
TikTok is, at the moment, the most monkeys at the most typewriters you’re going to find on one platform. And it’s scaring everyone. But it shouldn’t! And if Spotify can’t just be Spotify, a stable, growing, incredibly profitable hub for a very specific kind of user interaction with music, with audio, then, truly, what is the point? Put another way: Why even try and build different platforms at all if they’re all just going to become video apps?
Now that Spotify controls a large portion of music distribution, they can do this. It’s got me thinking again about distribution in general. New technologies often introduce a two-fold effect:
It increases the long-tail of access.
The big players get bigger.
The power-law distribution just keeps power-law-ing.
There’s more music than ever, but the likes of Taylor Swift and Drake takes most of the money.
There’s more books than ever, but Colleen Hoover has 8 of the top 25 print books sold in the US in 2022. She sold 14 million print books in 2022.
There’s more YouTubers than ever, but Mr. Beast is (almost, supposedly) a billionaire.
There’s more of everything, but popular things also get more popular.
There’s always been an opportunity cost to niche content. It takes more time to find, and the community you can connect with is smaller. The benefits of niche content is two-fold if you are willing to find it: satisfying individual interest, but also finding deeper connections with people.
Niche content is deeper. Your community is stronger and you have deeper connections.
Mainstream content is shallower. You can connect with more people, but the connection is thinner.
“Did you watch Ant-man?” will get you more conversations. But, “are you ready to cry with the new A24 film?” will get you an interesting conversation if you can find it.
Tangentially, it’s why niche communities are often afraid of “jumping the shark”, because it reduces the value of the connections they made with the people in that community. New technology that changes definitions and grows the base of creators gets resistance because it can destroy existing networks.
But, we’re still kind of stuck in a strange place. A strange paradox. There’s a lot more stuff that could be quite popular, only if they were popular. There’s a lot of “good enough” content out there, thanks in part due to technology + the web.
Back on music, I follow this curator call “The Bun” on TikTok that finds musicians on Spotify with low monthly listeners. And it’s fucking great music.
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It’s why the artist would take this choice on Spotify, sacrificing lower royalty rates to get into the world where when you are popular, you can stay popular.
That’s the frustrating crux of the matter. The “middle class” of creators are missing. It’s part of a larger thesis in how the web completely changed how status games got played around culture.
And frankly, I don’t know how to solve this problem? Should it be solved even? I think we’re still better off having a longer long tail at cost of bigger big creators. But, can it be better? One solution that reappears is to go back to reinvigorating local communities alongside algorithm. Move away from mostly online, platform-mediated relationships, and back more to human-curated, personal communities. Alongside all the discussion on why depression and suicide rose among teenagers, maybe we’ll come to see the algorithmic age as the smoking of this generation.
Maybe, the way through, back to saner distribution and a saner world without tossing away all the benefits of this era, we need to stop smoking the algorithms and get back to touching more grass. Keep the long tail, but stop gorging on the supersized. Spotify is not our saviour.
Summer of Protocols
Ribbonfarm and co is hosting what looks to be an amazing summer program, called “Summer of Protocols” (from May 1 to Aug 31)
The Summer of Protocols is an 18-week program that will run from May 1 to Aug 31, 2023, and aims to catalyze broad-based and wide-ranging exploration of the rapidly evolving world of protocols. The program has four objectives:
To catalyze wide-ranging study of humanities/social science aspects of protocols
To increase public literacy and awareness around protocols
To broaden technical discourses beyond siloed protocol communities
To stimulate artistic and literary explorations of protocols
The goal of this program is to help accelerate and broaden the study of protocols by bringing together a diverse group for a summer of collaborative study, speculation, research, design, invention, and creative production around protocols.
I love that that it also includes a cohort of people who has to develop/use/interact with the core protocols being developed.
While I’m still full-time writing + working on Untitled Frontier, I’ve been very, very tempted to potentially make time to join it. Mostly, because I keep thinking about protocols anyway, and potentially could incorporate some fiction to it. Alas, too much fun, too little time. If you are free, you should definitely join the program.
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Historic Ocean Treaty
Pretty cool news. 30% of the oceans to hopefully become protected to preserve marine life. It reminds of Becky Chambers’ “Psalm For the Wild Built” where humanity rewilds and lets most of nature redo its thing.
Corridor Digital & Rotoscoping AI
I quite enjoyed this from Corridor Digital.
They made a video of how it was done:
As expected, like the spread, Marmite, people love it or hate it. Me, I just get excited that we might get to see more cool stories being told by more people.
It gets more exciting as people have started experimenting with ControlNet, making transpositions, easier.
One thing I like about the more niche side of NFTs is that people get to hopefully make a living from obscure forms of digital art… like making art in Excel.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie Trailer
You know. I did not expect to get hyped for this film, but this looks so incredibly fun and full of eye candy and nostalgia. I can see this being a hit with all generations. I’ve played Mario games for most of my life and looking forward to this.
Cid Rim - Feedback Loop
The song that’s been on repeat this week is aptly: Feedback Loop (a friend of the algorithm).
Take a leap of faith with me
Look behind what you can see
Take a leap of faith with me
What must be must be
I haven’t been as terminally online as I usually am the past few weeks, spending time with family and friends in South Africa. I leave with as much love as there was sunshine.
See you all next week! Enjoy the sunsets!