The Nexus of Content, Commerce, and Culture

Relationships between content  commerce  and culture“Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.”

[J.K. Rawlings]

     Content, commerce, and culture are three elements of the modern battlefield for attention — a scarce resource that costs us in energy. To the person who pays it, attention is a cost. What we “pay attention” to is as important as how we pay it

    People don't seek content, nor they call experiences that way. Although we buy and sell things and we interact, we don't think of those actions in the abstract, as commerce. Culture is also something we experience and drive, but we don't stop to wonder whether we're doing one and/or the other as we go about living our lives.

    The simplest definition of content is the words and symbolism we use to communicate. Commerce is not just the buying and selling of goods — com and mercium literally meaning merchandise together. The word also means an intellectual exchange or social interaction — a useful definition to understand the role of commerce in shaping culture, and being shaped by it.

    We practice culture in what and how we acquire and maintain knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits. 

    The interaction between content, commerce, and culture creates the stage of modern day drama.

Once upon a time…

    In October 2003, a 19-year-old Harvard University student is dumped by his girlfriend. Back to his dorm, the student writes an insulting entry about his ex girlfriend on his LiveJournal blog. He then creates a campus website called Facemash by hacking into college databases to steal photos of female students and allowing site visitors to rate their attractiveness.

    After the traffic to the site crashes parts of Harvard's computer network, the student receives a six-month probation. Facemash's popularity also attracts the attention of two Harvard upperclassmen and their business partner. The trio invites the student to work on Harvard Connection, a social network featuring the exclusive nature of Harvard students and aimed at dating.

    With the help of a friend who lends him seed money, the student creates Thefacebook, an online social networking website that would be exclusive to Ivy League students.

    The site launched on February 4, 2004. A week later the controversy started#. More hacking would follow the email accounts of Harvard Crimson editors using data obtained from Facebook logins, as well as a later hacking into ConnectU.

… there was a world made in our image

    Mount Olympus was the lightest and most worshiped mountain of Greece. The Greeks put parts of their nature in the Olympus so they could talk to them and understand the self. The gods were living their lives with a similar rhythm to mortals, obeying rules, abiding customs and gathering from time to time in Zeus' palace for small conferences. 

    Twelve Olympians represented different aspects of human nature — Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and Hestia or Dionysus#. Zeus and the other Olympians took over after a ten-year battle with their predecessors, the Titans, who included the first twelve children of Gaia (Mother Earth) and Uranus (Father Sky).

    The Titans had ruled during the Golden Age, and comprised the first pantheon of Greek deities. Mnemosyne, Tethys, Theia, Phoebe, Rhea, and Themis were females. Oceanus, Hyperion, Coeus, Cronus, Crius, and Iapetus were male. Eventually, Cronos, child of Uranus, overthrew his father. Cronus's children — i.e. the twelve Olympians — in turn took over. Or so goes the story#.

    Each of the twelve who ruled from Mount Olympus can help us talk about the characteristics of human nature, following the great Greek tradition.

    One in particular can help us talk about the mind and how it tricks us into embracing things that make us fragile. Profit at all ends makes us fragile and this thinking hides in mathematics, language, and in the human condition.  

    It was Hermes, or Mercury for the Romans, messenger of the gods, that tricked us. He had other duties, including being god of travel, commerce, communication, borders, eloquence, diplomacy, thieves and games.

   The son of Zeus and the nymph Maia and the second-youngest Olympian, just older than Dionysus#, Hermes was “the divine trickster” and “the god of boundaries and the transgression of boundaries, … the patron of herdsmen, thieves, graves, and heralds.”

    Among the symbols associated with Hermes was the caduceus, a staff entwined with two snakes, also the adopted U.S. medical insignia. In 1929, Bernice Engle noted how the long-standing and abundantly attested historical associations of the caduceus with commerce is inappropriate in a symbol used by those engaged in the healing arts.

    In Scientific Monthly, Stuart L Tyson says:

As god of the high-road and the market-place Hermes was perhaps above all else the patron of commerce and the fat purse: as a corollary, he was the special protector of the traveling salesman.

As spokesman for the gods, he not only brought peace on earth (occasionally even the peace of death), but his silver-tongued eloquence could always make the worse appear the better cause.

From this latter point of view, would not his symbol be suitable for certain Congressmen, all medical quacks, book agents and purveyors of vacuum cleaners, rather than for the straight-thinking, straight-speaking therapist? As conductor of the dead to their subterranean abode, his emblem would seem more appropriate on a hearse than on a physician's car.

    In Italy we use the rod of Asclepius the healer#.

    Our story takes place in the U.S. from where it makes its way to the rest of the world that uses social media. One company in particular has taken the world by storm, dealing in ephemera, giving people a place where to put their words and symbols — “content” — to have social interactions  — “commerce” — and impact culture.

Technology is also made in our image…

    We have an operating system (OS) that runs applications. Our brain, where supposedly our mind resides, runs and regulates our functions. In personal computing, we also call the hardware plus basic software that allows it to operate a platform. 

    A social platform is a web-based technology that enables the development, deployment and management of social media solutions and services. It provides the ability to create social media websites and services with complete social media network functionality. As Techopedia defines#:

A social platform exhibits a social media network's technological and user-specific characteristics. Technologically, a social platform provides markup language for creating native applications, an application programming interface (API) for third-party application integration and a backend admin console for managing the entire user base and preferences.

From a user's perspectives, a social platform enables communities, sharing of content, adding friends, setting privacy controls and other native social media network features.

    Facebook is one such platform. Since the very beginning, it was conceived to create interest by sharing words and symbols, information and pictures about people with people. In fact, its business model depends on collecting the information people generate and ensuring that advertisers can access much of it. 

    “Making the world more open and connected” is Facebook's brand promise. But to maximize its business model, the company needs to keep people on its platform, creating and clicking on content — the prompts and tools are designed for that purpose.

    It's a high performing business model. In 2016, The Motley Fool# noted the impressive user growth:

Looking beyond monthly active users, Facebook really excels when it comes to daily active users. An incredible 1.18 billion people use Facebook every single day. Even more, daily active users are increasing at a faster rate than Facebook's monthly active users.


Measured by daily active users as a percentage of monthly active users, Facebook's engagement was 66% in Q3, up from 65% in the third quarter of 2015 and 64% in the same period two years ago.


User growth and engagement clearly remains one of Facebook's strengths. And given that every additional active user on Facebook's platforms increases the value of the platforms themselves, this is good news for investors. Facebook's network effect should keep users logged in — and competitors at bay — for years to come.

    Facebook is very sticky.

… and all it asks us is to be more human*

    In 2006, Time magazine's Person of the Year was “You.” It meant to recognize “the millions of people who anonymously contribute user-generated content to wikis such as Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, and the multitudes of other websites featuring user contribution#.” Blogs were a thing of the past, it was about being social with our creativity and generosity.

    The hook worked. Social networks in particular redoubled their efforts to attract contributors by helping them move in, make a home on their platforms, put their name front and center. Their promise to connect us included giving us a megaphone.

    Once people got high on the feeling of being personally noticed by others, especially if those others were family and friends, Facebook tweaked the algorithm. The social network built its riches by increasing adoption through organic reach and then switching to a pay-to-play the attention game.

    It's an artificial construct that works really well in a world that has forgotten the value of capitals — intellectual, human, societal — and reduces everything to a conversion into cash, money, soldi… sold. There are many things money can't buy in the human experience, but the current interpretation of commerce makes them invisible.

    How we pay attention is part of being human. To be human is to be reasoned, purposeful, emotional, Ianguaged, time bound, and mortal, I read somewhere. We are not our content, and it's not just about commerce, though the conversation part activates us.

    Our attention is an investment when we pay off our humanity to create, sing ourselves into existence in our god-like story. We don't think about it that way.

What we talk about…

    It's not just about ego. Although we do want to matter, leave a legacy. Our need to express ourselves to attract a mate, to have friends, build community are embedded in our DNA. Because of our instinct to survive. By extension, our artifacts, the product of our work, say something about us.

    Art doesn't have a universal definition, but there's a general consensus that art is the conscious creation of something beautiful or meaningful using skill and imagination. Whenever I got in trouble in Greek class, I would refer back to etymology to save my bacon.

    “Art” is related to the Latin word “ars,” which means art, skill, or craft. The first known use of the word was found in 13th-century manuscripts. However, the word itself and its other variants (artem, eart, etc.) have probably existed since the founding of Rome. We think of art in three ways — as representation, expression, and form.

    Plato first developed the idea of art as “mimesis,” which, in Greek means copying or imitation. Making a representation or replication helped give value to a work of art. Art as expression became important at the end of the 18th century. The work of art was meant to evoke an emotional response. The formal aspects of art became more prominent with the abstract movement in the 20th century.

    Today, the three modes of definition come into play to experience and value art. But we stopped valuing artists for the intrinsic qualities of the experience of art, putting more of the focus on the commercial ends. Words and symbols reduced to marketing ends.

    To make good on its business model, Facebook does two things really well:

1./ it reduces content, the product of human thought and the creative contribution to a commodity

2./ it doesn't respect privacy

   The conversation around privacy has been happening since 2004. We might be at an inflection point for policy, regulation, or some kind of solution to help with downstream consequences, but the issue itself has been a problem in the making for 14 years.

    Maybe the solution involves treating Facebook the company as “information fiduciary,” as Jonathan Zittrain suggests in a NYT op-ed#. [h/t Noah Brier] It's a concept we typically associate with professionals who handle sensitive information.

    This kind of power involves trust, but it's also a legal contract — “a fiduciary […] at its core means that the professionals are obliged to place their clients’ interests ahead of their own.” Legal scholar Jack Balkin says# social networks' “relationship of knowledge about, and power over, their users” should make us consider them “information fiduciaries.”

    Says Balkin:

The fiduciary must take care to act in the interests of the other person, who is sometimes called the principal, the beneficiary, or the client. The client puts their trust or confidence in the fiduciary, and the fiduciary has a duty not to betray that trust or confidence.

    Maybe the answer is some version of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the Digital Millennium Privacy Act (DMPA). Zittrain and Balkin proposed what it would look like in a joint article at The Atlantic in 2016#. It's a tangible enough concept, and we'll see whether it develops into a solution.

    But privacy is only half the equation when we talk about Facebook and other social networks. Because what we're talking about is also intellectual, human, and social capitals — part of the value of which we express in the arts and other creations. What we talk about…

… when we talk about love** 

    The conversation around pushing humans to create more and more to stay in place, to bend words and symbols as offerings to the gods of click-bait in exchange for fame reduces content to commodity, and it depreciates the creators' value along with it.

    This is not getting much attention because commercial interests monopolize the topic toward a view of how organizations and brands can get more of it. The crisis of attention tends to be a very personal issue, with some generational honorable mention. For example, many have called Facebook addictive, “as harmful as alcohol or drugs for millennials.”#

    Young people's change in behavior is alarming, they say. Screen time takes attention away from other tasks, and creates unpleasant feelings when stopped. So much so that building on the tradition of low tech patenting by prominent executives like Steve Jobs, former Facebook executives have admitted they don't let their kids use social media.

    But it's not only self-reflection and the ability to build community in real life that are lacking — it's also a certain sense of one's worth by constant comparison with the sanitized lives of peers busy being awesome. Reducing the words and symbols that are human creation to commodity is rubbing off on the humans whose identity is wrapped into the words and symbols they use to create.

We get the culture we create

“Art is the signature of civilizations.”

[Jean Sibelius]

    Constant exposure to a certain kind of environment interacts with and changes our nature. Social media has been rewiring society through constant contact mediated through what publishers and marketers call content. Copy, images, videos, and sounds are constantly vying for our attention.

    Facebook deals in ephemera. The company that has gotten hooks into our lives is having a hard time figuring out how to bend the technology to serve the human, rather than the other way around. As Louise Matsaki says in Wired#:

The ephemeral-messaging debacle is not the only time in recent weeks that Facebook appears to have not completely thought through how a well-intentioned, but quickly rolled-out, feature might impact its user base.

    We also grapple with the trade-offs. We want to trade in more than one value. Commerce includes social interaction, after all. Dan Pink says To Sell is Human. Everyone is in sales — whether we're selling a product or service, or just an idea.

    In fact, selling an idea is some of the most skilled kind of selling. Persuasive talk goes hand in hand with human nature. Dating back to the 4th century BC, Aristotle's Rhetoric influenced the development of rhetorical theory.

    But persuasion is a presentation of ideas. So much spilled ink and tracked pixels over the broadcasting of an end result. So much on “use value,” or maximizing the fragility of minds at the expense of humans natural antifragility#.

    Art is carrying this conversation for us. It's the comedians, the creators of words and symbols for the sake of representation, expression, and form, that are carrying the torch of resilience and robustness dispatching from the edges of culture.

    “All civilizations suffer shocks; only the ones that absorb the shocks survive,” says humanist Stewart Brand. Much is at stake, yet we're trading off the challenging pleasures of art for the easy comforts of entertainment. Poetry is our salvation.

    Says Rainer Maria Rilke:

You have not grown old, and it is not too late

to dive into your increasing depths

where life calmly gives out its own secrets.

   As our gods of mythology and technology, this is what we crave.



*A reference to Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants

**A reference to Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love