In the beginning there was the egg. In January 2019, an Instagram account called @world_record_egg posted a stock photo of an ordinary brown chicken egg and launched a campaign to get the photo more likes than any online image ever had. The record holder at the time was an Instagram shot of Kylie Jenner’s daughter Stormi, which had more than eighteen million likes. In ten days, the number of eggs shot up to over thirty million. It tops the list to this day, with over fifty-five million. The account’s creators, who came from the advertising industry, later teamed up with Hulu for a mental health PSA in which the egg “cracked” due to social media pressure. The arc of the egg was the epitome of a certain kind of contemporary internet success: gather a large enough audience around something — anything — and you can sell it to someone.
For Kate Eichhorn, a media historian and New School professor, the Instagram egg is representative of what we call “content,” a ubiquitous but hard-to-define word. Content is digital material that may be “circulated solely for the purpose of circulating,” Eichhorn writes in her new book, “Content‘, which is part of MIT Press’s ‘Essential Knowledge’ series of pithy monographs. In other words, such content is vapid by design, the better to travel through digital spaces. “Genre, medium and size are secondary concerns and in some cases they seem to disappear altogether.” One piece of intellectual property inspires a nourishing frenzy of podcast, documentaries and miniseries offshoots. Single episodes of streaming TV can last as long as a movie. Visual artists’ paintings appear on social media alongside their influencer-style vacation photos. They’re all part of what Eichhorn calls the “content industry,” which has grown into just about everything we consume online. Eichhorn evokes the overwhelming stream of text, audio, and video that fills our feeds, writing, “Content is part of a single and indistinguishable stream.”
Over the past decade, a number of books have attempted to take stock of how the Internet affects us and what we should do about it. Eli Pariser’sThe filter bubble”, from 2011 showed the homogenizing effects of digital feeds early on. After Facebook and its ilk became much more mainstream, pioneering technologist Jaron Lanier wrote a book called “Ten Arguments to Delete Your Social Media Accounts Now(2018). Shoshana Zuboff’s book, “The era of surveillance capitalism”, published in the US in 2019, outlined a diagram of the systemic problems of mass data absorption. Eichhorn’s is one of a new generation of books that focuses more directly on the user experience, diagnosing the increasingly dysfunctional relationship between lonely individual and virtual crowd.
Once upon a time, the Internet was based on user-generated content. The hope was that ordinary people would take advantage of the web’s low barrier to publishing to post great things, motivated simply by the joy of open communication. We now know that it didn’t quite turn out that way. User-generated GeoCities pages or blogs gave way to monetized content. Google made the internet easier to search, but in the early 2000s it also started selling ads and allowed other websites to easily incorporate its ad modules. That business model is still what most of the internet relies on today. Revenue does not necessarily come from the value of content itself, but from its ability to grab attention, to get attention for ads, which are usually bought and sold through companies like Google and Facebook. The rise of social networks in the 1920s only made this model more dominant. Our digital messaging was concentrated on a few inclusive platforms, which increasingly relied on algorithmic feeds. The result for users was more exposure but a loss of agency. We generated free content and then Facebook mined it for profit.
“Clickbait” has long been the term for misleading, superficial online articles that exist only to sell advertisements. But on today’s internet, the term could describe content in anything from the unmarked ads on an influencer’s Instagram page to pseudonymous pop music designed to play up the Spotify algorithm. Eichhorn uses the potent term “content capital” – a riff on Pierre Bourdieu’s “cultural capital” – to describe the way smooth online posting can determine the success, or even existence, of an artist’s work. While “cultural capital” describes how certain flavors and reference points lend status, “content capital” denotes a aptitude for creating the kind of supportive content that the Internet feeds on. Because so much public attention is directed through social media, the most direct path to success is to cultivate a large digital following. Cultural producers who in the past may have focused on writing books or producing films or making art now also have to spend a lot of time producing (or paying someone else to produce) content about themselves and their work,” writes Eichhorn. Pop stars log their daily routines on TikTok. Journalists are spouting banal opinions on Twitter. The best selling instapoet Rupi Kaur posts scrolls and photos of her typed poems. They’re all trapped by the daily pressure to produce additional content – memes, selfies, shitposts – to fill an endless void.
The dynamics Eichhorn describes will be familiar to anyone who uses social media with any regularity. She doesn’t break the ground in our understanding of the Internet, but clarifies, in eloquently blunt terms, how it has sparked a relentless race to the bottom. We know that what we post and consume on social media feels increasingly empty, and yet we are powerless to stop it. Maybe if we had a better language for the problem, it would be easier to solve. “Content generates content,” writes Eichhorn. As with the Instagram egg, the best way to accumulate more content capital is to have it already.
Eichhorn’s sense of a way forward is unclear. She briefly points to the idea of ”content resists,” which could consume vinyl records and photocopied zines instead of Spotify and Instagram. But such solutions seem strange, given the extent to which the Internet is embedded in our daily lives and experiences. Like so many technologies that came before, it seems to be here to stay; the question is not how to escape it, but how to understand ourselves in its inescapable wake. In his new book “The internet is not what you think it is‘, Justin EH Smith, professor of philosophy at the Université Paris Cité, says that ‘the current situation is unbearable, but there is also no turning back’. Too much human experience has been brought together in a single “tech portal,” Smith writes. “The more you use the internet, the more your individuality turns into a brand and your subjectivity turns into an algorithmically plotable vector of activity.”
According to Smith, the Internet actually limits attention, in the sense of a deep aesthetic experience that changes the person who is engaged. The business model of digital advertising only encourages brief, superficial interactions — the gaze of a consumer ready to take in a logo or brand name and not much else. Our feeds are designed to “propel the prospective visitor further and further from one monetized object to the next,” he writes. This has had a dampening effect on cultures of all kinds, from Marvel blockbusters that optimize minute by minute for attention, to automated Spotify recommendations that push one similar track after another. Both cultural products and consumer habits are increasingly adapting to the structures of digital spaces.
“The internet is not what you think it is” begins as a negative critique of online life, especially from the perspective of academia, an industry that is one of the disrupted victims. But the second half of the book continues into deeper philosophical investigations. Rather than a resource, the Internet is best viewed as a “living system,” Smith writes. It’s the fulfillment of an age-old human pursuit of interconnectivity – albeit a disappointing one. Smith tells the story of the Frenchman Jules Allix, who popularized a kind of organic internet of snails in the mid-nineteenth century. Perhaps based on physician Franz Mesmer’s theory of “animal magnetism,” who postulated the existence of a universal magnetic force connecting living things together, it was based on the idea that two snails docked over great distances with remained connected. The technology — a telegraph-like device that snails used to supposedly send messages — was a failure, but the dream of instant, wireless communication persisted until humanity reached it, perhaps to our own detriment.
Smith searches for the most effective metaphor for the Internet, a concept that encompasses more than the emptiness of ‘content’ and the addictive nature of the ‘attention economy’. Is it like a postcoital snail telegraph? Or like a Renaissance wheel device that allowed readers to flip through multiple books at once? Or maybe like a loom that weaves souls? He doesn’t quite come up with an answer, though he eventually admits that the Internet’s interface, and the keyboard that gives it access, is less of an external device than an extension of his inquiring mind. To understand the networked self, we must first understand the self, which is a ceaseless effort. The ultimate problem of the Internet may not stem from its discrete technology, but from the Frankensteinian way in which humanity’s invention has exceeded our own capabilities. In a way, the Instagram egg has yet to fully hatch.