Above are a series of tweets by Marc Andreessen, cofounder of Netscape, that he sent as a way of previewing his firm’s $50 million investment in Buzzfeed. In them, Andreessen makes the argument that trust in the U.S. media has declined over the last 50 years because of Watergate.
For those of us who research trust, this is a familiar argument. But it’s also an inaccurate one.
Anatomy of A Tumblr Trend part 2: the semantic network map
So Tumblr’s got this cool feature where, if you search for a tag, it gives you 3 related tags that are (presumably) most commonly used in combination with your search term.
So I searched for the 2 Tumblr trends I’m currently interested in - street goth and health goth - and followed these links to see what they connected to. This creates a kind of semantic network, a way to diagram how people on Tumblr link different style subcultures, based on the top three most-associated terms neighbouring each term.
The result: my crude map above, scribbled on a piece of paper.
The interesting thing: street goth and health goth aren’t connected.
They link only at the second degree, through “fashion” - which is supergeneric. People aren’t connecting the two terms any more closely.
Instead they split off with their own sets of associations. Health goth gets associated with normcore (K-HOLE’s term that’s been bizarrely adopted by mainstream fashion) and seapunk, the Tumblr trend that broke out into brief celebrity with Rihanna et al last year. This then links up to a much more visually-oriented (i.e. non-fashion) set of concepts - vaporwave, pale - ending up at net art and web art.
Meanwhile street goth is all about Hood By Air and Pyrex (labels), then “blvck”, streetwear, then trill, dope & other street slang.
So it looks like we’ve got here is two separate communities.
What separates them? Funnily enough for two monochrome aesthetics, it’s kind of black and white.
While both tags are a long way from monoethnic, street goth connects into hiphop streetwear culture which draws most directly from black culture. Whereas terms around health goth - normcore, hipster, grunge - are much whiter.
That’s really interesting.
Oh hey great, I got this one.
1) Instead of having song lyrics that are imagistic and aesthetically driven, trying far more to evoke a mood or emotion than to convey specific meaning, have the lyrics tell stories about particular, consistent characters, preferably an ensemble of different characters that hit multiple demographics and sometimes don’t even talk to each other. This way, instead of having an intense, personal experience with a song, groups of people can gather together to watch these stories, and talk about the stories and characters afterwards, while they are waiting to pay for more stories.
2) Instead of having short songs that reward repeated listenings, make songs an hour long and have them fail to resolve narratively at the end, so people will pay a premium to get the next piece of the story as soon as possible, and each song is only worth consuming once.
3) Instead of just talking about sex and violence, actually show the sex and violence. Stop releasing songs as audio and only release videos, and in the videos have a mostly-clothed man give the high hard one to a naked woman while shooting a bunch of dudes and saying something like “you get what’s coming to you.”
4) Instead of having pop music be transparently and joyously about the emotions and experiences of a particular state of openness and vulnerability we choose to call “youth,” have it be self-consciously dark, like the stuff teenage boys are into when they’re play-acting their way toward adulthood: random but natural brutality, anti-sentimentality as strength, collective enterprises doomed to fall to the obsessive efforts of uncompromising lone wolves. Like comics in the 90s!
5) Maybe sell ads somehow?
I’m launching my portfolio site today at mbarthel.com. It features overviews of some of the major academic and journalistic projects I’ve done, complete with interactive visualizations (and even a video game). If you’ve ever wondered what the hell it is I do outside of this Tumblr, it may be of interest! Please pass it on to anyone you might know who’s hiring. I’m looking for a Data Scientist, Research Analyst, or related position in a marketing or consulting firm in Chicago or NYC.
Religion is a system of morality, but it’s also a system for forgiving lapses in morality. If you mess up, it’s not good, but there are ways of fixing it: say your Hail Marys, make amends, do a mitzvah, go on pilgrimage, and you will be cleansed, your balance restored in the book of life. Laws are absolute but it is expected they will be broken. There is capacity in the system for error; the system is built around the need to accommodate error.
Such capacity seems absent from our public discussions of morality. In trying to make sense of the current horrors, we’re eager to take sides, and make our arguments through moral absolutes: this side has violated this law, and so is entirely in the wrong. But such a system of multiple consistent moral absolutes is inherently unsustainable. Even within a list of 10 Commandments, it’s easy to think of ways they might conflict: if your father orders you to kill someone, if you have to sleep with someone who’s not your husband to avoid stealing food to feed your family.
There are essentially two ways of dealing with this issue. One is to come up with a very small number of moral absolutes, things that matter more than anything else. You could decide, for example, that spreading democracy matters more than anything else, and pursue policies that advance this goal even if they violate other basic moral laws. This seems, to me, inevitable: endorsement of any moral value as absolute necessarily entails an assumption that all other values are not absolutes, and can be violated as long as you are in pursuit of this higher goal. As such, endorsing multiple moral absolutes seems inherently contradictory. You only get one; maybe two.
The other way of dealing with it is the way organized religion mostly does: through a system of forgiveness or cleansing. But such possibility seems beyond the pale within our public discourse around political, economic, and cultural morality. Moral violations here are essentially unforgivable. This makes sense if the whole enterprise is governed by clear moral absolutes (individual freedom, pacifism, market logic, equality, the Constitution, self-determination). But if these moral absolutes are unsustainable or contradictory, then lacking such an out is a clear route to paralysis, irrelevance, or at least incoherence. Religions forgive sins without asking for total self-abnegation, but instead allow some public ritual with a cost less than those of your sins to stand in as a good-enough recompense. It’s not really enough, but we’ll let it be, because there often is no real compensation for the wrongs we do.
We seem to lack a popular vernacular for discussing the morality of systems. This is a problem, because we’re increasingly talking about our systems as actors in and of themselves: the media, popular culture, industries, the market. (This is in addition to long-recognized institutions like the state, religions, and so forth.) The media do something; culture doesn’t do something. Corporations are legal people. States commit atrocities. They do. They commit a thousand smaller sins too. The problem is that this is inevitable. Systems are qualitatively different from individuals. Individuals can, theoretically, go about their daily lives without harming anyone. Systems cannot. Because systems suck up so many resources, and because they have responsibilities to so many people with necessarily conflicting interests, any action they take will inevitably harm someone, somewhere. There is no getting around this, no moral absolute we could enforce that would prevent it. So how do we deal with it?
In the past, we’ve been reluctant to assign morality to systems, because this seems to absolve individuals within the system of responsibility for their actions; if it’s the fault of “culture” or “the media” or “the market,” then somehow no one goes to jail after a monstrous wrong. This is understandable. Students in business or public policy programs are often wildly unhappy about having to take ethics courses, because what they would learn there conflicts with their overriding goal of being successful in their careers. An ethical decision, after all, will sometimes be one that conflicts with self-interest. (This is why we have ethics, and not just self-interest.) This is a problem, and it certainly serves us well as a society to have individuals within these systems thinking carefully about the impact of their actions.
But those of us outside these systems—what constitutes “the public” in any given situation—have no knowledge about the intentions, situations, or even actions of individuals within that system. We often do not know why a given action was taken; we only know that the action was taken, and we know the results of that action. How, then, do we judge these actions without resorting to the language of moral absolutes? It seems we need a morality of systems, a discourse that would allow us to make nuanced assessments about the actions of aggregated or collective enterprises. We have been nothing if not successful in identifying these systems’ sins. But how do we allow these systems to repent?