Beware the Shtick
Avoiding "audience capture" in the new information economy
Hey everyone! This week we’re looking at how we evaluate the voices that we invite into our lives. Let’s get into it!
From the Ages
Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.
I may have introduced the concept of Audience Capture...you have to put out poisonous tweets for the people who follow you, who you wish would not follow you...you have to make sure, in some sense, that they understand that you're not there to flatter them. It's important to have a certain amount of antagonism, at a healthy level not at a psychotic level, with one's own audience…I don't want them to say: "Oh, well Eric said it so we can stop thinking." [I make] an active attempt to avoid those who would capture me...How do you avoid being captured by your own incentive structure?"
— Eric Weinstein on Rebel Wisdom
We are about midway through our 30-day digital declutter. Out of necessity, I’ve allowed email to be one of the few digital tools that I'm using this month, but I’ve tried to put limitations in place because I know that even my inbox can be a source of distraction. The declutter also offered a great opportunity to opt out of many of the newsletters that have provided more noise than value.
As I began The Great Unsubscribing, I noticed a common theme. The voices that I was choosing to tune out had all begun to focus too heavily on a single issue. They had developed a shtick and, even in the cases where I mostly agree with their central stance, I could unsubscribe and feel confident that I would not be missing anything new.
This type of shift in writers and creators can come from a number of different motivations, although the polarity of the COVID debate created a more precarious landscape than ever for those with a public voice. Shawn Stevenson of The Model Health Show podcast (someone whose two books and past podcasts I still recommend) began to talk almost exclusively about the sins of big Pharma and the mismanaged public response to COVID. Even though I agree with much of his central premise (though not his more recent conspiratorial musings), I wasn’t finding anything new. This shift might have come from his strong personal convictions, or it could be the result of an increasingly prevalent concept known as “audience capture,” which motivated him to give the people what they wanted. He began to serve up more of his best-performing content rather than pursue the broader holistic health and nutrition message that used to characterize his show.
Though the COVID era seemed to make audience capture an especially easy trap to fall into, we can find similar capture in nearly every other cultural issue. For example, those who stand firmly in one dietary camp (veganism versus meat-eating) and those who take a hardline position on one side of the political debate are equally incentivized to shift their messaging toward topics and tactics that they know will please their audience.
This is nothing new. Audience capture has been possible long before the age of the internet creator. Writers and editorial institutions have always had to battle between seeking outright truth regardless of public sentiment and the desire to pander to a large audience. While I love that the Patreon and Substack monetization model creates a direct relationship between a creator and their audience, it also amplifies the allure to give that audience more of what they want and expect. This is as true for the vegan blogger and the Paleo podcaster as it is for the political pundit and the COVID-era commentator.
Avoiding audience capture might be too much to expect in the new internet creator landscape. While the new information economy gives many more voices a chance to shine and make a living as writers, video creators, or cultural commentators, we also lose something in the process. National newspapers and TV stations used to manage some semblance of balance and nuance with an editorial staff and a commitment to publish opposing views side by side. Rather than these features being built into an institution, this burden now falls on the individual creators or on us as the consumers. We must now select the voices that we tune into and tune out from a nearly infinite set of options. Some will inevitably traverse this precarious landscape better than others (Shane and I, fortunately, have each other and he certainly set me right about an earlier draft of this very newsletter). The occasional inflammatory video might be fun, but ultimately they are empty calories—we come to them for a sweet treat, not substance. The Digital Declutter has provided me with a nice inflection point. I’m now trying to prune the voices that make up my information diet so that only level-headed and nuanced views remain. Like spring cleaning or trimming bushes, this seems to be an essential periodic practice for the modern news climate.
It’s not too late to join us for the final third of the digital declutter by becoming a member (sign up here). You will still find great benefit in 10 days of more intentional tech use.
Thanks for reading this week and sharing this with someone who would enjoy it.
Life is too short to be normal,