cautionary tales: the good shit

It’s hard to write about digital culture. You’re typically dealing in exceptionally complex technicalities or the vague abstractions we’ve come up with to pin them to the page. Parodies and satire like those found in the Professor Jeff Jarvis Twitter account and Silicon Valley have mined this territory to great effect, thanks to the abundance of empty jargon that proliferates in this space.

But it is possible to write well about these topics. Look, for example, at Anna Wiener in n+1.

But this office, of a media app with millions in VC funding but no revenue model, is particularly sexy. This is something that an office shouldn’t be, and it jerks my heart rate way, way up. There are views of the city in every direction, fat leather loveseats, electric guitars plugged into amps, teak credenzas with white hardware. It looks like the loft apartment of the famous musician boyfriend I thought I’d have at 22 but somehow never met. I want to take off my dress and my shoes and lie on the voluminous sheepskin rug and eat fistfuls of MDMA, curl my naked body into the Eero Aarnio Ball Chair, never leave.

This is the high, the first hit, the feeling that demonstrates why people chase this life in the first place. Then, inevitably, the comedown:

WE HIRE AN ENGINEER fresh out of a top undergraduate program. She walks confidently into the office, springy and enthusiastic. We’ve all been looking forward to having a woman on our engineering team. It’s a big moment for us. Her onboarding buddy brings her around to make introductions, and as they approach our corner, my coworker leans over and cups his hand around my ear: as though we are colluding, as though we are 5 years old. “I feel sorry,” he says, his breath moist against my neck. “Everyone’s going to hit on her.”

I know that this is good writing because I already find myself forgetting – that didn’t happen to me. I wasn’t there. That’s what clarity can do for you. That’s what it means to have chops.

Now, let’s look at another missive from the land of the digital, “Your Media Business Will Not Be Saved” by Vox Media’s Josh Topolsky. Topolsky is not so much one for teak credenzas and the feeling of sexism condensing on your skin. He’s more of an idea man. In this piece, Topolsky shares with us a sage wisdom, like Prometheus carrying fire down the mountain: the media companies that survive won’t be the ones that put out the “cheap shit.” The media companies that survive will be the ones who put out the “good shit,” the “real shit.” Such is the insight on which empires are made.

Think of Wiener’s words, and then think of these:

Compelling voices and stories, real and raw talent, new ideas that actually serve or delight an audience, brands that have meaning and ballast; these are things that matter in the next age of media. Thinking of your platform as an actual platform, not a delivery method. Knowing you’re more than just your words. Thinking of your business as a product and storytelling business, not a headline and body-copy business. Thinking of your audience as finite and building a sustainable business model around that audience — that’s going to matter. Thinking about your 10 year plan and not a billion dollar valuation — that’s going to matter.

Let’s try an old trick of mine. Let’s rearrange some of the sentences in this paragraph, swapping objects and verbs between different sentences. Like so:

Compelling talent, new ideas that are real and raw, brands that actually serve or delight an audience, new voices and stories that have meaning and ballast; these are things that matter in the next age of media. Thinking of your platform as more than just your words. Thinking of your business as an actual platform, not a delivery method. Knowing you’re more than a product and storytelling business, not just a headline and body-copy business. Thinking about your 10 year plan as finite and building a sustainable business model around that finite plan — that’s going to matter. Thinking about your audience and not a billion dollar valuation — that’s going to matter.

So, let me ask you: is the original meaningfully different from this? Does the original contain more sense? If you stuck my version into that piece, would you even notice the difference? And can you imagine doing anything similar with Wiener’s piece? Which piece has left you with something of value as you navigate a world of ideas? Which made you feel that rare, exquisite feeling of another human being pulling you out of your life and into theirs? Which is the good shit?

And while we’re on the topic of how the market rewards only the deserving – which of these, do you think, will end up getting more clicks?