The audience is the message

Last September, the leader of the free world had an important message for everyone. I’ll let the tweet do the talking:

What prompts a 73-year old man to tweet a cat video in the middle of a busy day?

To answer that, I’d like to introduce a concept from media theory and then offer my twist on it. In his 1964 book, ‘The Extensions of Man’, the Canadian philosopher, Marshall McLuhan, coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’. Marshall’s contention was that in analyzing media, the medium through which a message gets transmitted is often more important than the message. Consider the following:

  • Television lends itself to storytelling. Given its ability to engage multiple human senses, the ideal way to engage an audience on television is to transform content into a plotline with attractive actors. (Imagine a channel on TV with a black screen where a voice reading the news - clearly such a channel wouldn’t get many viewers. However, people happily listen to audio-only news on their radios)

  • Instagram is tailor-made for narcissistic selfies. Visual mediums like Instagram are participatory and require the observer to fill gaps. Beyond what is in the image and the caption, the viewer is left to construct a narrative in their head around the underlying story of an image.

  • TikTok, with an algorithmic newsfeed as the default homepage, lends itself to our innate desire to become a celebrity. Short content coupled with an evolving newsfeed means that anyone can have ‘six seconds of fame’. Such optionality is no longer available on Facebook or Twitter where the most popular accounts are generally set in stone. Thus, TikTok distributers new social currency everyday which is why so many people end up getting tempted to join in one of those silly dancy routines.

Overall, Marshall’s theory makes a lot of sense - the structure of the medium does play a defining role in the nature of messages. However, in my opinion, there is a more powerful force at play that shapes modern media tools. The audience.

The internet allows each of us to get our 1000 true fans. Large creator platforms armed with VC money and noble taglines of ‘empowering’ more content creators. Consider this graphic from a16z:

Let me illustrate my point with a very personal example.

Substack, the platform I use to publish this newsletter, is one such enabling platform for modern creators. And it definitely helps. Even though I have always known how to set up a Wordpress blog and connect it to a domain, I was previously too lazy to do it. After Substack came on the scene, I decided to start writing on a whim as mostly a challenge to myself. Over time, I’ve garnered a small ‘audience’ of mostly tech/finance folks. A blog that I had randomly called Tech learnings has had its 2 minutes of fame. I have received some support and praise from people I respected on the internet. Crucially, this has compromised my ability to write on most topics. A deep cynicism has overtaken my ability to publish anything. I would much rather write about anything but technology. But now I have to wonder if my audience would rather hear cynical takes on tech or life in general. I would much rather talk about history, religion or philosophy. But I am certain that isn’t what my audience would like to hear.

Obviously, I don’t actually lose sleep over these decisions. I mostly deal with it by writing but not publishing anymore. However, having gone through this very personal experience, I now understand why Trump chose to tweet that cat video. He obviously wanted the media’s attention. And naturally CNN and MSNBC gave it to him by having a whole panel discuss whether it was befitting for a President to tweet such stuff.

It’s also why Hannity can’t bring himself to criticize even the dumbest of Trump’s behavior. It’s why Elon Musk refuses to admit fault even after his snarky takes on Covid-19 have been clearly proven wrong. It’s why Masayoshi Son calls himself misunderstood like Jesus. It’s why Paris Hilton puts on a thin voice in public everyday despite actually having a thick, shrill voice. It’s why someone as smart as Jordan Peterson gets drawn into gender pronoun debates. It’s all the audience. The internet allows us all to get our 100, 1000 or 100,000 true fans. However, before we know it, we become slaves to this very audience.

Now, all of this doesn’t really matter in the general sense. However, this pandering that we all do to an imagined audience has one severe consequence. It diminishes the quality of our creative work. It homogenizes our output towards what we think will be palatable for those who follow us today or might follow us in the future. As a result, new ideas and perspectives mostly get shelved aside in a weird 1-1 social game that we play with ourselves.

To emphasize my point, I will end with a quote from the memoir of the Swiss-French mathematician, Alexander Grothendieck:

“In those critical years I learned how to be alone. But even this formulation doesn’t really capture my meaning. I didn’t, in any literal sense, learn to be alone, for the simple reason that this knowledge had never been unlearned during my childhood. It is a basic capacity in all of us from the day of our birth. However these three years of work in isolation[1945-1948],when I was thrown onto my own resources, following guidelines which I myself had spontaneously invented, instilled in me a strong degree of confidence, unassuming yet enduring in my ability to do mathematics, which owes nothing to any consensus or to the fashions which pass as law..By this I mean to say: to reach out in my own way to the things I wished to learn, rather than relying on the notions of the consensus, overt or tacit, coming from a more or less extended clan of which I found myself a member. or which for any other reason laid claim to be taken as an authority. This silent consensus had informed me both at the lycee and at the university, that one shouldn’t bother worrying about what was really meant when using a term like” volume” which was “obviously self-evident”, “generally known,” ”in problematic” etc…it is in this gesture of ”going beyond to be in oneself rather than the pawn of a consensus, the refusal to stay within a rigid circle that others have drawn around one-it is in this solitary act that one finds true creativity. All others things follow as a matter of course.

Since then I’ve had the chance in the world of mathematics that bid me welcome, to meet quite a number of people, both among my “elders” and among young people in my general age group who were more brilliant, much more ‘gifted’ than I was. I admired the facility with which they picked up, as if at play, new ideas, juggling them as if familiar with them from the cradle–while for myself I felt clumsy, even oafish, wandering painfully up an arduous track, like a dumb ox faced with an amorphous mountain of things I had to learn (so I was assured) things I felt incapable of understanding the essentials or following through to the end. Indeed, there was little about me that identified the kind of bright student who wins at prestigious competitions or assimilates almost by sleight of hand, the most forbidding subjects.

In fact, most of these comrades who I gauged to be more brilliant than I have gone on to become distinguished mathematicians. Still from the perspective or thirty or thirty five years, I can state that their imprint upon the mathematics of our time has not been very profound. They’ve done all things, often beautiful things in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they’ve remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birthright, as it was mine: The capacity to be alone.”

Much like Grothendieck, we all must learn to be alone and do original work only for ourselves. I’m still trying to learn it.

P.S: I’ve stopped doing Links of the month. But I highly recommend this piece on Data Standards by Auren Hoffman