A Week in The Life of the End of Technology
ALSO: the BILLION DOLLAR YouTuber
Where to start on the disaster that has been November 2022 so far?
I think I’ve said enough about Elon Musk and Twitter. And I’m not even slightly tempted to cover the Mastodon surge. I made a half-hearted joke (on Twitter) where I called Mastodon “Masturbaton” because it was just full of journalists self-promoting. But crap as that one-liner might be, that’s a serious problem for both Mastodon and Twitter.
Twitter has always had an outsized influence compared to its cultural cut through. It has about 206 million daily users, compared, say, to about 1.62 billion on Facebook. But it is a place where news breaks and where journalists, from political hacks to tech reporters, hang out and gossip. And so it has that thing that Musk so cherishes: the sense of being a public square. Mastodon may prove to be similar, but just made up of broadcasters and almost no consumers.
This is a bit of a challenge in the world of digital media. The evolution of YouTubers and podcasters has made the output function easier and more desirable. Growing up in the 90s, every kid I went to school with wanted to be a footballer or an astronaut or a train driver (train driving is the quintessential job for the child’s imagination). Now they all want to be YouTubers. This speaks to the explosion of the format, of course, but it also speaks to the way that, with increasingly low barriers to access, the number of pure non-broadcast consumers goes down. And media needs people who are happy just to consume.
But a bigger, or at least earthier, story this week has been the huge lay-offs at Meta, the artist formerly known as Facebook.
Meta has reduced its workforce by a staggering 13%, meaning that 11,000 employees are out of a job. (That 11,000 figure constitutes a number greater than the entire Twitter workforce, for scale). Twitter has, since the Musk takeover, announced almost 50% cuts to its staff, entailing 3,700 layoffs. Other tech sector layoffs: Amazon is cutting 10,000 jobs (less than 1% of its total workforce, but a larger slice out of its non-warehouse/delivery workers), Lyft is losing 700 workers (13% of workforce), Stripe is ditching 1,100 employees (14% of workforce), Robinhood is laying off 23% of its staff, Coinbase is cutting 1,100 workers (18% of workforce). And so on.
This is an industry wide response to a nightmare few years for tech, but also an apparent recognition of the over-recruitment that happened during the fat years. Meta’s job cuts are bringing the company’s workforce down to levels that were considered normal a couple of years ago, before the HUGE investment in the Metaverse. To some extent, these layoffs are a correction for the hay that was made when the sun was shining.
But the reality is that nobody I read or speak to on this subject believes that the layoffs are done. Most tech companies have looked at slimming down by 10-20% (with the big glaring bird-shaped exception) which is likely to ease shareholder scrutiny, but not end it. If I worked at any of these companies, I wouldn’t be taking out a huge mortgage right now.
Anyway, this newsletter is about digital media and not the turbulence in the tech industry. But I find the idea that we are heading towards a new hierarchy of social media hard to believe. In the early days of social media, the days of MySpace and Bebo and Hi5, there was a perception that you iterate or you die. And lots of companies didn’t evolve their offering, and therefore got drowned by the tides. Facebook was perceived as the first company to buck that trend and create something that was too big, too deeply ingrained in everyday usage, to fail. And they bought well: the acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp have acted as a hedge on the main platform. But equally, the higher-ups at Facebook have been scared that their project has not iterated enough in recent years, and faces the oblivion of becoming a boomer hellscape. Hence the pivot to Meta and the investment in the metaverse.
Now, I’m not saying that Zuckerberg is wrong, because, if he thinks it, it’s probably true. But the hierarchies of social media have been entrenched for a long time now. The upstarts, the newcomers, like Snap or TikTok, have found themselves nestled into a portfolio of apps, rather than drinking anyone’s milkshake. Snap, for example (the company that owns Snapchat), has pivoted to become a communications tool for Gen Z; a WhatsApp service for a generation who find the idea of having a searchable history of messages “lame”. TikTok, on the other hand, has snuggled in alongside Instagram. The former has the raw, addicted user base; the latter has some mechanics for monetisation. And so neither can kill the other.
What’s allowed this expansion, rather than reshuffling, of the hierarchy, is the change in user habits. Smartphone ownership has surged in the past decade, and people are spending more and more time online. Even 10 years ago, the idea that people would blithely spend 5-10 hours a day online would’ve seemed dystopian. Now it’s a reality.
More time means more time to fill. But time is also a limited commodity. Even in the metaverse, where the idea is to turn your waking life into a wholly digital experience, users still need to sleep, to eat, to walk the dog. How much more than 10 online hours a day can a human do?
And so perhaps we are now approaching a point where things start to get ultra-competitive again. Personally, as a Luddite, I don’t see why any technology company should want its users to be online that much (surely that sort of patent addiction devalues them as customers from all sorts of perspectives?). But the panic is setting in. Look how quickly Instagram responded to TikTok, and how quickly TikTok has responded to BeReal. It’s all just a game of musical chairs, where, at the moment, the only people left without a chair are 10-20% of the workforce.
I find this all quite depressing. I am considering starting a podcast called The Ned Ludd Radio Hour, and beginning a movement for anti-technology technologists. Who’s with me?
After the paywall: MrBeast conquers the world!