Even if TikTokstagram works, it won't

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Meta’s In A Bind

Meta, for the first time since it went public 10 years ago, is losing money. In an earnings report this week, the company announced that its quarterly revenue is down since last quarter and its profit has dropped as well. Per CNN Business, across the board, the company is in “decline”. The not super great earnings report arrives only four months after the company reported that Facebook, still its flagship product, was losing users for the first time.

The company is clearly floundering, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg is trying to keep focused on the future. The Oculus Quest 2, which is Meta’s main VR headset, has sold about 15 million units since it launched in 2020. PCGamesN, a British gaming site, noted that this is actually more than both the Xbox Series X and Series S, which I think is an interesting way to think about the VR headset — as a competitor to video game consoles. Though, I’m not entirely convinced Zuckerberg sees it that way, seeing as how The Verge reported that he told Meta employees this week that, actually, they’re definitely not existentially threatened by TikTok, but actually in “very deep, philosophical competition” against Apple to build the metaverse. Sure, bud. You’re definitely in the same league as the company that made my computer, my tablet, my headphones, my phone, and, thus, the camera I use most often, and provides a service that allows me to seamlessly share content between all of them.

According to The Verge report, Apple’s new option that allows users to limit the way third-party apps use their data has cost Meta $10 billion. As my friend Guardian journalist Alex Hern so succinctly put, “who would win, the most advanced advert personalization and targeting infrastructure ever built, or one checky box.”

Meanwhile, Instagram, the grotesque mutant begging for death in Zuckerberg’s basement that he continues to inflict his unholy experiments upon, is adrift in a tidal wave of bad press. In the earnings call this week, Zuckerberg said that algorithmically-recommended content would account for 30% of both the Facebook and Instagram news feeds. Zuckerberg referred to this content as “A.I. recommended,” which I think means that it won’t be based on your social graph, follows, or likes, but some mysterious hodgepodge of a bunch of factors. Curious about what kind of new forms of political violence we’ll get with this new system.

Head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, told Platformer’s Casey Newton this week, in response to the negative user reactions, the company was going to turn off the much-hated full-screen mode it was testing. But the majority of Mosseri’s responses to Newton were largely pushing the argument that Instagram wasn’t randomly pivoting to video, but that video is what people want.

“We could just not enable videos. We could not try to make our video offering as good as our photo offering, or as good as the competition's video offering,” Mosseri said. “But I think that would be a mistake. And I think that over time, that would mean people use Instagram less.”

Let’s be clear. Executives like Zuckerberg and Mosseri have been saying shit like this about video for two decades now. Pretty much every four years, the head of a tech company, instinctually sensing the end to his own relevance, assumes that, suddenly, the internet will become television just in time to fix all of his company’s problems. Usually this coincides with some hot new video app that’s caught everyone’s attention.

The fact that Meta has picked Instagram to become its new TikTok is an admittance of at least one of the following: The company doesn’t think they can realistically launch a brand new AI-based video app because their brand is too toxic and irrelevant with young people. Or they simply don’t know how to make a new app from scratch because they literally never have before and, because they can’t acquire anything because of increasing antitrust scrutiny from the FTC, they’re sacrificing Instagram because it’s the closest thing they have to a “young person app”.

It’s a real head-scratcher! Young users, in particular, want to post spontaneous photos on an app like BeReal, share more formal ones on Instagram, post a few disappearing stories, maybe jump into their neighborhood or college Facebook Group and catch up on local gossip, then scroll through TikToks and text their friends their favorites, then maybe jump over to a fandom or hobby platform like YouTube or Reddit. They want an internet of trends and experiences happening over multiple platforms and within multiple social circles. It’s something that Meta could, theoretically, lean into by just adding more apps.

But it’s also possible that Meta literally doesn’t want to run a pluralistic online ecosystem of small targeted apps that isn’t bloated and weighed down by their everything-all-at-once philosophy. I mean, this is the company that acquired WhatsApp, a messaging app so powerful that it basically powers whole countries in the global south and their big idea for it was just, uh, give it stories.

All of this is to say that Meta’s in a bind. Now, mind you, I don’t feel bad for them in any way and they brought all of these problems on themselves, but it’s hard not to think that we’ve reached some kind of end here. Even if TikTokstagram works, Kardashians be damned, and they successfully make AI-sorted shortform video work for them, I’m pretty convinced we’re watching the final chapters of this company’s story.

Earlier this week, Axios’s Scott Rosenberg put forward an interesting argument. “The era in which social networking served as most users' primary experience of the internet is moving behind us,” he wrote. “This leaves a vacuum in the middle — the space of forums, ad-hoc group formation and small communities that first drove excitement around internet adoption in the pre-Facebook era.”

Rosenberg said that the internet is separating into messengers and discovery engines, with a gulf in the middle for genuine social networking. It’s a compelling idea, and definitely an exciting thing to think about, but I also think that gulf in the middle has already been filled actually. I think we already exist in a post-Facebook world. Cross-platform influencers, creators, fandoms, and communities are popping up, using multiple apps to organize and socialize. It’s a chaotic mess, but it’s also exhilarating.

ByteDance, Meta’s actual competitor, understands this really well. In fact, you know what ByteDance is launching soon? A new app called Kesong. It means “croissant” in Mandarin and it’s a lifestyle and hobby platform that will support a social e-commerce ecosystem according to the South China Morning Post. And you know what kind of media it uses? Photos and text. That’s right, ByteDance is launching an Instagram lol.

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Ryan Murphy Fans Are Going On Strike

What is the relationship between commercial media properties and the fandoms surrounding those properties (I ask, stroking my comically large but wholly invisible Karl Marx beard)? How has that relationship changed in the last 15 years with the advent of platform capitalism and an increasingly savvy and self-aware generation of young fans? Is active participation in a fandom the equivalent of labor? 

A hint in the direction of an answer to those questions and sundry others might be found in the recent announcement by The AHS Zone, an American Horror Story fan account with over 40,000 followers, that they and many affiliated fan accounts plan to go on strike, actively refusing to promote the currently-ongoing prequel series of the franchise, unless information of the upcoming 11th season is released through official channels. “Before we are news accounts, we are fans,” they say. “And [...] we’ve grown bored of having to excite ourselves.” 

To the untrained eye their announcement might look like an absurd demonstration of fan entitlement, along the lines of the various Game of Thrones petitions circulated and Star Wars shitfits thrown of late. But I think there’s something a little bit different happening here. They aren’t demanding any sort of change to the show’s storyline or casting; they even acknowledge that the last season sucked but that they want to continue standing by it. The issue is not with the canon itself in this case. It’s with a perceived burden being placed on the fan update accounts to do the hard work of marketing a diminishingly popular show. 

Update accounts, which you might be familiar with from that time a Swiftie went to jail, are a different side of fandom than your average personal/individual stan accounts. Run by an admin or group of admins, they’re unofficial and active outlets for franchise news. In some ways they resemble legacy publications devoted to breaking news, but the AHS Zone account, for example, also posts throwback content about past seasons and aggregates news from the creators’ and actors’ other projects. This is promotion based on what other fans care about, not restricted wholly to a property’s specific current marketing priorities, and can lead to update accounts being important clearinghouses for content like leaks and scandals as well as vital links in the chain of word of mouth. 

Plenty of fan accounts are given exclusive access in exchange for promotion to a wide audience — Taylor Swift was at one point the queen of this, and, just last week at San Diego Comic Con, Amazon invited a bunch of Lord of the Rings superfans to a bougie brunch with the stars of the new Rings of Power show, in exchange for tweets. Seeing stuff like that go down, while their franchise of choice gives them bupkis, it’s no wonder the AHS girlies are feeling fed up. And with labor power floating atomized through the Gen Z air like the smell of orange chicken samples in a Trader Joe’s, taking action via a strike (or “silence” as they put it) makes sense. 

Knowing close to nothing about AHS, I can see clearly that it was at one point enough of a juggernaut to generate and sustain the near-dozen global update accounts listed in the strike tweet. It doesn’t have the same cultural dominance now, and also apparently sucks, which makes it harder to be a fan, especially one who has striven for years to act as semipro evangelist. Instead of giving up the ghost, though, as would be their right, the AHS accounts, well aware of their standing in the ecosystem, have done something interesting by making their play. 

I’m not saying they’re right, per se, or going about this in a productive way, but it certainly reflects a particular unique moment in the history of the fourth wall. Fan studies scholars Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larson, writing in Fandom at the Crossroads in 2012 about creator-fan relations, noted then that TPTB (The Powers That Be) were “increasingly moving toward models of audience engagement that integrate social and economic exchange.” Fast forward ten years and that move has been fully made. Symbiosis achieved. To a huge extent, content creators depend on fan activity on social media, not only to promote their work but even just to understand how it’s performing in the absence of analytics. 

Because of that fundamental interrelation, simplistic arguments like “all fan activity is labor and should be compensated” or “fandom is a subversive, anti-capitalist activity that should only exist with in its own gift economy” is no use to anyone, let alone fans. Update accounts and many others take a lot of work to run: that’s just a fact. When that fannish feeling starts to curdle because A) the canon sucks now B) nobody seems to care about it anymore and so C) your passion-borne gig begins to seem like a total drag, of course the natural urge is to find a way to reverse that decay by leveraging your position. The hail Mary of the AHS accounts might end in pain or in progress, but either way, it reflects a particularly 2022 self-awareness and understanding of the fan’s potential within the commercial matrix. 

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