In the beginning, there was the egg. In January 2019, an Instagram account called @world_record_egg posted a photo of a plain brown chicken egg and started a campaign to get the photo more likes than any image online before. The record holder at the time was an Instagram photo of Kylie Jenner’s daughter, Stormi, which had over eighteen million likes. Within ten days, the number of eggs soared past thirty million. It remains to this day at the top of the ranking, with more than fifty-five million. The account’s creators, who hailed from the advertising industry, later teamed up with Hulu for a public service announcement about mental health in which the egg ‘cracked’ due to social media pressure . The egg arc was the epitome of a certain kind of contemporary internet success: gather a big enough audience around something – anything – and you can sell it to someone.
For Kate Eichhorn, 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 “can circulate only for the purpose of circulating,” writes Eichhorn in his new book, “Content,” part of MIT Press’s “Essential Knowledge” series of concise monographs. In other words, such content is tasteless by design, the better to travel through digital spaces. “Genre, medium and format are secondary concerns and in some cases seem to disappear altogether.” An element of intellectual property inspires a frenzy of podcasts, documentaries and miniseries. Single episodes of streaming TV services can last as long as a movie. The visual artists’ paintings are popping up on social media alongside their influencer-style vacation photos. All are part of what Eichhorn calls “the content industry,” which has grown to encompass just about everything we consume online. Referring to the overwhelming flood of text, audio and video that fills our feeds, Eichhorn writes, “Content is part of a single, indistinguishable flow.
Over the past decade, a number of books have attempted to take stock of how the internet influences us and what we should be doing about it. “The Filter Bubble” by Eli Pariser, from 2011, demonstrated very early on the homogenizing effects of digital flows. After Facebook and its ilk became much more mainstream, pioneering technologist Jaron Lanier wrote a book called “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” (2018). Shoshana Zuboff’s book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, published in the United States in 2019, mapped out the systemic problems of massive data absorption. Eichhorn is part of a new generation of books that focus their attention on user experience more directly, diagnosing the increasingly dysfunctional relationship between the isolated individual and the virtual crowd.
Once upon a time, the internet was all about user-generated content. The hope was that ordinary people would take advantage of the low barrier of the web to post great things, motivated simply by the joy of open communication. We now know it didn’t quite turn out that way. User-generated GeoCities pages or blogs have given way to monetized content. Google made the internet more searchable, but in the early 2000s it also started selling ads and made it easy for other websites to integrate its ad modules. This business model is still what much of the internet is built on today. Revenue does not necessarily come from the value of the content itself, but from its ability to attract attention, to draw attention to advertisements, which are most often bought and sold by companies like Google and Facebook. The rise of social media in the 1920s only made this model more dominant. Our digital release focused on a few global platforms, which increasingly relied on algorithmic feeds. The result for users was more exposure but a loss of agency. We generated content for free and then Facebook leveraged it for profit.
“Clickbait” has long been the term for deceptive and superficial online items that only exist to sell advertisements. But on today’s internet, the term could describe content in everything from unbranded ads on an influencer’s Instagram page to pseudonymous pop music designed to play around with the Spotify algorithm. Eichhorn uses the powerful term “content capital” – a riff on Pierre Bourdieu’s “cultural capital” – to describe how mastery of online display can determine the success, or even the existence, of the work of an organization. ‘an artist. While “cultural capital” describes how particular tastes and points of reference confer status, “content capital” refers to an ability to create the kind of ancillary content that the Internet thrives on. Since so much of the public’s attention is channeled 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, producing films, or creating art now have to spend a considerable amount of time producing (or paying someone else to produce ) content about themselves and their work,” Eichhorn writes. Pop stars are recording their daily routines on TikTok. Journalists rattle off banal opinions on Twitter. Instapoet bestseller Rupi Kaur publishes reels and photos of his typed poems. All are trapped by the daily pressure to produce ancillary content – memes, selfies, shitposts – to fill an endless void.
The dynamic described by Eichhorn will be familiar to anyone who regularly uses social media. It does not so much break new ground in our understanding of the Internet as it clarifies, in eloquent and direct terms, how it has created a brutal race to the bottom. We know that what we post and consume on social media seems 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 begets content,” writes Eichhorn. As with the Instagram egg, the best way to accumulate more content capital is to already have it.
Eichhorn’s meaning of a forward path is unclear. She briefly notes the idea of “content resisters,” who might consume vinyl records and photocopied zines instead of Spotify and Instagram. But such solutions seem strange, given the degree to which the Internet is integrated into our daily lives and experiences. Like so many technologies that came before it, it seems to be here to stay; the question is not how to escape it but how to understand ourselves in its inevitable wake. In his new book, “The Internet is not what you think it is”, Justin EH Smith, professor of philosophy at Paris Cité University, says that “the current situation is intolerable, but there is no no going back either.” Too much of the human experience has been flattened into a single “technology portal,” Smith writes. “The more you use the internet, the more your individuality turns into a brand, and your subjectivity turns into an algorithmically traceable vector of activity.”
According to Smith, the Internet actually limits attention, in the sense of a profound aesthetic experience that changes the person who engages in it. The digital advertising business model only encourages brief, superficial interactions – the gaze of a consumer ready to absorb a logo or brand name and not much else. Our streams are designed to “encourage the potential viewer to move from one monetizable object to another,” he writes. It’s had a dampening effect on all sorts of cultures, from Marvel blockbusters that optimize minute-by-minute attention, to automated Spotify recommendations that push one similar song after another. Both cultural products and consumer habits increasingly conform to the structures of digital spaces.
“The Internet Isn’t What You Think It Is” begins as a negative critique of life online, particularly from the perspective of academia, an industry that is one of its troubled victims. But the second half of the book progresses to deeper philosophical inquiries. Rather than a tool, the Internet could be considered a “living system,” Smith writes. It is the fulfillment of a centuries-old human yearning for interconnectedness, albeit a disappointing one. Smith tells the story of Frenchman Jules Allix, who in the mid-19th century popularized a sort of organic Internet made of snails. Perhaps inspired by the theory of “animal magnetism” by doctor Franz Mesmer, which postulated the existence of a universal magnetic force linking living beings, it was based on the idea that two snails which had copulated remained linked on great distances. The technology – a telegraph-like device that used snails to supposedly send messages – was a failure, but the dream of instant wireless communication remained until humanity achieved it. perhaps to our own detriment.
Smith searches for the most effective metaphor for the Internet, a concept that encompasses more than the vacuity of “content” and the addiction of the “attention economy”. Is it like a post-coital-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 land on an answer, though he does come to recognize that the Internet interface, and the keyboard that gives it access, is less an external device than an extension of his searching mind. To understand the networked self, we must first understand the self, which is an unceasing effort. The Internet’s ultimate problem may stem not from discrete technology, but from the Frankensteinian way in which mankind’s invention has exceeded our own capabilities. In a sense, the Instagram egg hasn’t fully hatched yet.