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The oldest trick in the book is to take something that lots of people are talking about and engage with it briefly and in a shallow manner in order to talk about what you want to talk about. Anyhow: I, too, read the New York magazine “Vibe Shift” article and thoroughly enjoyed the way it made me feel like a visitor from another planet checking in on a doomed civilization. I found the essay great in the way that really well–executed travel writing is great: You get a look at places, people, and culture that you don’t belong to but it also plucks at some string inside you that vibrates at a true frequency (even if the resounding tone sounds like the phrase You’re old as dirt now). I’m fairly certain that reading the vibes essay to my grandparents might put them in the hospital, and yet the feeling of a culture you once belonged to or at least understood shifting subtly and then not so subtly under your feet is basically a universal, disorienting feeling in accordance with the slow march toward the grave.
But it’s this secondary observation from the ~vibes discourse~ that’s stuck with me:
As I warned, my preamble was all a clumsy ploy to talk about something else, which is that idea of the declaration of a trend coming before the actual trend … or before we can really grasp the trend.
The metaverse and Web3 discussions fall pretty solidly into this category for me. Both are big, proposed cultural and economic shifts, orchestrated and pushed forward by powerful companies like Facebook (Meta, if you’re a narc) and sundry venture capitalists and technologists. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the way that Web3 boosters frame the technology using a FOMO narrative. We are building the future; you’ll eventually be dragged into it, even if you can’t see it yet. It’s a powerful recruiting argument. Also, you get tweets like this:
Both metaverse spaces and Web3 technologies certainly exist (some are even culturally relevant, like the Bored Ape Yacht Club stuff), but at this moment, according to many of their biggest proponents, the technologies are prototypical—a proof of concept for a coming paradigm shift. When pinned down on the deep inaccessibility of Web3 projects, true believers suggest that it’s early days. (There are also arguments, like this one from Web3 critic Molly White, that the technologies have actually been around for quite a while and have yet to find mass utility, beyond being traded as speculative assets.) Metaverse hype is driven by a similar message of cultural inevitability. Facebook has sunk $10 billion into the project, which has sent a clear message to countless brand-activation experts that, yes, they do need a metaverse strategy. It leads to bleak shit like this:
But the bone-crushingly forced brand activations and broad feelings of “nobody asked for this” don’t really matter. Nor does the fact that the metaverse isn’t a new concept. What is more important is the notion that this particular future is mostly unavoidable, and it is both lucrative and savvy to have a hand in building out its particular architecture and cultural norms today. We don’t really know what the trend looks like in our lives or the way that it will shape us, but we know that the shift is under way. And so we have a decision to make—whether to participate in that culture or to deny or decry its existence, despite the fact that we really don’t know what its final form will take. It’s all very weird!
Because we’re talking about technological products and services and not, say, fashion or the downtown bar scene, perhaps this is an unfair characterization. New technologies need time for adoption and to have their impact on the world. Most people who watched Steve Jobs unveil the iPhone didn’t immediately think about the transformative power of an App Store, etc. I realize that some part of technology involves a small handful of people building the future and dropping it into peoples’ hands while telling them: Here is the future. You’re welcome.
The difference I’ve personally experienced with many Web3 projects is that, while I have experienced vague pangs of FOMO, I haven’t yet experienced that sensation of anything (digital or physical) futuristic dropping into my hands. I know boosters will vehemently disagree with me, but I feel that much of the crypto conversation and hype is a reversal of the usual cycle. Instead of a technology achieving mass adoption and creating a culture in its wake, much of the crypto movement is a durable culture that is waiting for its mass-adoption product and trying to spin up technologies that augment the culture. Now, I realize that one can make a compelling and true argument that the wealth generated by and the popularity of bitcoin and Ethereum can be classified as mass adoption** of a technology (blockchains) and that the culture surrounding crypto is proof of the cycle behaving normally. But once again, the language coming from Web3 boosters suggests that the digital currencies are just the building blocks for something even more revolutionary that will upend our lives and economies. Here’s where I see Web3 as a culture in search of its killer technological application.
But also: Maybe this general acknowledgment of a culture or trend arriving before it actually arrives is just how things work now. It feels pretty much in line with the way that information—and therefore culture—travels through online networks in 2022. A lot of what feels like culture or subculture right now definitely doesn’t feel formed in a top-down fashion. But it also doesn’t feel uniquely bottom-up, either. It’s more of a series of actions and reactions to those actions. A piece of content might go viral, but the quote tweets or duets or reaction videos and the attendant joy or outrage cycles are what, in aggregate, seem to set the culture. An aggregation of vibes. Nobody is truly in control of it, but … everyone is? I dunno, man.
A week or so ago, I read an interview with the writer Chuck Klosterman about his new book on the 1990s. When asked what drew him to the subject, he said:
It feels as though the 1990s weren’t just the last decade of the 20th century but sort of the last decade, period—the last decade with a fully formed and recognizable culture of its own.
In a separate interview, Klosterman threads this notion into theorist Mark Fisher’s idea of the “slow cancellation of the future,” or the idea that, “culture is systematically unable to produce anything genuinely new.”
Since, I’ve seen pushback on Klosterman’s idea. I imagine he’s right and wrong at the same time. An effect of the internet on culture is that it fractures monocultures into endless, often obsessive and inscrutable subcultures. And while many of those are not recognizable to outsiders, they are instantly recognizable to the point of being life-affirming and all-consuming to insiders. From a 40,000-foot view, very little looks fully formed, but at the microorganism level, each amoeba contains its own carefully constructed worlds.
But also: These cultures and subcultures rarely stay still long enough to adequately capture or describe them. Sometimes, the work of describing the thing actually kills the thing (the fact that I’m even trying to hash all this out in written form will likely strike those who grew up exclusively in these subcultures as cringey). I rarely learn about a new internet subculture or TikTok trend or whatever via explainer posts from an outsider. In fact, I rarely, formally learn about them at all. I simply open up a series of apps and the content eventually finds me via a series of glancing blows over time until I realize something—that is usually not even for me—exists and has been fully formed for some time. It’s not recognizable until it is (for me, it’s usually only recognizable once it’s old enough to no longer be a trend). Is that the definition of a vibe? I don’t know. It could just be this:
But if current culture does move in this perceptible-but-imperceptible, phantom-like manner, then it makes sense that we can sense trends before they appear. I don’t necessarily think this is a good or bad thing. It’s just … the context of an internet-mediated life. In some cases, this makes life chaotic and fun and worth living. We’re all kind of building the plane as we fly it! In others, it opens up the door for grifters and hustlers to hijack big parts of culture and bully us into their preferred idea of the next big thing. Or maybe this is just the age-old tale of the wordcels debating a fake vibes discourse while Web2 burns. Who’s to say? Live by the vibe; die by the vibe.
** I'll cop here to not really defining "mass adoption." Cryptocurrencies are definitely being traded and talked about in large numbers. Though it does seem that the wealth they generate is consolidated. Research highlighted by the Wall Street Journal shows that 0.01% of bitcoin holders control 27% of the currency in circulation.