Coded, informal communication — significant messages buried inside innocuous messages — has long interested me. I don’t mean things like “NX398 VJ899 ABBX3” that the NSA might deal with (though that’s related). I mean things like this:
You: let’s get coffee sometime
Me: Sure, that’d be great
We both know that the real exchange was:
You: let’s pretend we want to take this further
Me: yeah, let’s do that
The question of how such coded language emerges, spreads and evolves is a big one. I am interested in a very specific question: how do members of an emerging subculture recognize each other in public, especially on the Internet, using more specialized coded language?
The question is interesting because the Web is making traditional subcultures — historically illegible to governance mechanisms, and therefore hotbeds of subversion — increasingly visible and open to cheap, large-scale economic and political exploitation. This exploitation takes the form of attention mining, and is the end-game on the path to what I called Peak Attention a while back.
Does this mean the subversive potential of the Internet is an illusion, and that it will ultimately be domesticated? Possibly.
Mining Subcultural Attention
Manipulation of subcultures through the Internet has been limited to date because the tools are still very new. The mining of large reserves of attention — the largely one-way kind directed at work, beautiful sunsets, or the manufactured pop celebrity du jour for instance — is now a mature science.
Social attention though, trapped within relationships, is the shale oil of attention mining. The institutional world has not yet learned to efficiently mine the attention that is locked up today within subculture-scale social interactions.
As they learn over the next decade, today’s garden-variety subcultures will turn into docile and domesticated micro-markets for businesses, and micro-constituencies for politics. They will cease to be subversive threats, much as the old labor movement, which formed as a reaction to Gilded Age capitalism, ceased to be a threat within about a century. The world moves faster now. The new models of subcultural collective action, I predict, will last less than a decade or two before they become irrelevant. All attention that lives within subcultures is now vulnerable to external control.
Their weakness is that they seek to externalize their structure into digital institutions. Loose and transient P2P network institutions perhaps, but still institutions, due to their reliance on externalized trust, impersonal organizing principles and most importantly, social scaling.
They rely on the power of numbers rather than intelligence. Smart mobs are still mobs. As we will see, they are vulnerable to control, and attractive targets for attention mining. Rather ironically, most of the mechanisms required to observe and control subcultures are being invented by subcultures themselves. External forces are merely stepping in to co-opt them.
But let’s return to coded communication. That’s where our journey begins.
Impersonal Secret Handshakes
The bulk of coded communication is designed to sustain the polite fictions of civil society, to limit relationships to the depth of immediate transactions, as in the example I started with.
But a proportion of such communication goes the other way: it serves to deepen relationships. Some of this is a matter of widespread convention and ritual, like the classic would you like to come upstairs for a drink? This one is not particularly interesting, because there is no content beyond the accepted meaning of the ritual incantation. It is visible culture, not invisible subculture.
More interesting is coded communication that allows members of a subculture to recognize and interact with each other, without an institutional context.
The most common way to do this is to use a linguistic motif that signals membership of a subculture, via reference to a recognized subcultural text.
If I use the word discourse in a specific way, it will signal baseline membership in postmodernist-pretender subculture.
If I begin an essay with the words: You can check out of Facebook any time you like, but you can never leave, the dropped reference signals a basic awareness of American music to others with a comparable awareness, but seems merely like an odd turn of phrase to others (my parents for instance, would not get this reference).
If you understand the coded message, you’ll respond with a coded message of your own that shows that you got it (perhaps using a phrase like always-already in the first case, or with a reference to a different classic song in the second case).
These are impersonal secret handshakes and have existed forever. They are based on shared cultural texts like the lyrics of Hotel California or immersion in the peculiar vocabulary of an academic subculture.
Hipsters might distinguish themselves from generic pop-culture aficionados by dropping references from Haruki Murakami novels instead of Hotel California, but it is still an impersonal secret handshake, since it is based on recognized common knowledge (stuff that everybody knows everybody knows) within an existing group, defined by its core texts.
The membership precedes the mutual recognition, and the secret handshake serves to validate membership of the group rather than knowledge of the text. The text is a social object with a limited role (note that the manufacture of social objects is slowly becoming a codified science in its own right, a development that is part of the ongoing colonization of subcultural attention).
Impersonal secret handshakes are fundamentally weak, and the groups they protect are vulnerable to infiltration in very basic ways. Since the group is defined by impersonal texts that serve as common knowledge, strangers can acquire knowledge of the same impersonal texts and become pretenders (such as trustafarians faking poverty to gain access to hipster culture). Some subcultures are much easier to penetrate than others (the cute-kitten-picture subculture for instance), but they are all vulnerable.
Vulnerable to what or whom? To answer the question, we need to switch gears and talk about patterns of social organization for a bit, and where subcultures fit in the larger scheme of things.
Patterns of Social Organization
We are used to thinking about the global social order in terms of a class-culture matrix. This is the scheme upon which institutional social order — the world of nation-states, corporations and religions — is based. When you rebel, this is the scheme you try to disrupt. Both types of groupings rely on recognizable markers and boundaries to distinguish themselves from others, and cryptic in-group behaviors and language to sustain necessary opacity.
When a great deal of power is involved, cryptic in-group behaviors can give rise to a refined inner core of formal institutional secrecy, creating a hidden social order. Though they increasingly seem ludicrous today, secret societies have always been an essential part of maintaining the social order, becoming more or less visible in concert with the waning and waxing of institutional power.
This class-culture organizing scheme is best understood as a global matrix. It is global in scope because it documents mutual recognition between maximally-distant parts: the Chinese Party-Member/Non-Member distinction is recognized globally, as is the American Republican/Democrat distinction. It is a matrix because it is understood in ordered, visual-spatial terms. Class is horizontal, culture is vertical. This abstract visual ordering induces a literal geographic ordering. So rich and poor, black and white, sort themselves out at every geographic scale from town to nation, fractally embodying a fundamentally simple scheme.
There is another type of social organization, based on subcultures, that has historically served as a check and balance to the power of the class-culture matrix.
Contrary to popular belief, subcultures are not vague constructs. They have a precise, if negative, definition: a subculture is a pattern of social order that is not worth codifying and institutionalizing for the purposes of governance or economic exploitation, under normal circumstances. So subcultures have historically relied on their obscurity, illegibility and unimportance to ensure autonomy and security.
The very existence of a subculture is only known to neighboring subcultures. This limited local visibility suggests that the world of subcultures is not a matrix, but a web. Classic Rock fans can tell Punk Rock apart from other kinds. It all sounds the same to a non Rock-fan. Imperceptible distinctions that make no difference in the larger scheme of things.
Under abnormal circumstances, when seditious sentiments are brewing in the subcultural web, the zero-sum game of power swings in its favor, causing a reaction from the class-culture matrix: increased and more visible action by the hidden institutional order to restore the balance.
When slums start to seethe, the secret police gets going in not-very-secret ways.
If the slums win, subversive subcultures become institutionalized, and displaced ones turn into subcultures. If the slums lose, things stay roughly the same. Either way, the scheme of social organization remains the same: a balance of power between an institutional class-culture matrix and a subcultural web.
This is the world we are used to, and this is the world the Internet is changing. The subcultural web is now being made legible and governable under the harsh light of Facebook Like actions. Just in time too, since the returns on coarser forms of political and economic exploitation are now rapidly diminishing. Obama’s victory in the last Presidential election, and the penetration of entities like Groupon into local food subcultures, are just the early signs of where we are headed.
This is a contrarian conclusion. Most commentators today are arguing that the subcultural world is getting stronger, more incomprehensible and increasingly ungovernable.
This is a mix of an illusion, a poor sense of history, and the effects of a temporary learning phase on the part of class-culture matrix institutions. The world of subcultures are about to be comprehensively explored, mapped, tamed and domesticated. The larger the subculture, the faster it will fall.
The subcultural web looks increasingly incomprehensible (and therefore stronger and more ungovernable) to you and me as humans. It does not seem incomprehensible if you peer at it through the increasingly sophisticated instruments of digital governance. Facebook is to marketers and politicians what Google Maps is to travelers.
The poor sense of history is due to the passing of the last living generation that experienced truly terrifying levels of global conflict. Twitter revolutions pale in comparison to World Wars and the immense conflicts of the nineteenth century.
Which brings us to the only serious reason behind the temporary resurgence of subcultural power on an overall downward trajectory: learning lag in the institutional world.
The Taming of Subcultures
I remarked earlier that subcultures are sub-institutional in resolution. There is no Federation of American Hipster Societies with a national president and member organizations each with their own chairpersons, badge-printing machines and envelope-stuffing volunteers. There is no Annual National Hipster Convention that attempts to influence elections, and no zoning ordinances and tax laws that specifically target hipster neighborhoods. And perhaps most importantly, there is no master email list of hipsters that you can use to survey and promote.
But just because subcultures lack impersonal institutions in the traditional sense does not mean that they are personal patterns of social organization. They are not. They are merely illegible to the class-culture matrix working with pre-Internet tools.
Since they only serve a subset of the functions of formal organizations (relying on the class-culture matrix for basics like cars and underwear), they need fewer pieces of externalized infrastructure.
Shared common knowledge texts are often enough. Secret handshakes serve the purpose of one-to-one mutual recognition, and three-way introductions are enough to allow small local groups to cohere. Dress codes, popular haunts and the active-use texts change slowly enough that secret handshakes suffice for all information diffusion. No envelope stuffing or email lists are needed. Punishment for defection — shunning and expulsion — is generally weak and local, because the value of membership is generally weak and local (friends to hang out with, parties to go to, a local economy of favor trading).
Before the Internet came along, it was the sheer number and insignificance of local subcultures that made governance too expensive to bother with. The risk of the rare seditious uprising could not justify the cost of more fine-grained pre-Internet governance mechanisms.
Businesses sold a modest selection of mass-produced shoes for instance, and produced more of the varieties that sold better. It wasn’t particularly useful to know that hipsters liked Converse sneakers. For politicians, a coarse color-coding of Red and Blue states (in America) and a certain amount of county-level intelligence sufficed to inform election campaigns.
The Internet though, has changed all this. It has allowed subcultures to scale (by moving their secret-handshake institutions online), and become more valuable in the process. While mass-manufactured celebrity cultures have been weakening, we are not returning to pre-mass-media patterns of local culture. Instead, we’ve evolved to mega-subcultures that scale without developing institutions.
And at the same time, the visibility of subcultural behaviors has made governance and exploitation much cheaper and easier. You don’t have to go to a specific neighborhood, in specific clothes, and drop specific references. You can sit at your desk, dress any way you want, and fake your way into any subculture. Long enough to sell a whole lot of shoes.
It will not take long for businesses and politicians to completely master this game.
The outcome is inevitable. Subcultures will be comprehensively tamed. Institutional sociopaths within the class-culture matrix are now in a position to detect and take control of subcultures before they even come into existence. This will lead on to control over the very inception of subcultures.
The Fabrication of Subcultures
Subcultures are vulnerable because they form around shared common-knowledge texts (even if the shared text in question comprises nothing more than a particular vocabulary of new urban slang). In Web terms, today’s invisible — to all but the eye of Big Data crunching AI — pattern of preferences is tomorrow’s subcultural small world on the global Interest Graph. And tomorrow’s Interest Graph is next week’s Social Graph.
The day is not far off when Amazon will be able to predict, based on book-sales correlations in a given geography, the formation of a new subculture before the first defining event (say a party where an origin-myth is created) ever takes place. It won’t be long before influence mechanisms emerge, to complement the detection mechanisms.
Today, naive marketers try to clumsily set up online communities framed by their products or services, to attract target subcultures, and generally fail.
Somewhat smarter ones try to “own” relevant conversations, based on identifying core subcultural texts that are adjacent to the product-positioning conversation (the classic example is: want to own the teen tampon market? Set up a community for girltalk). This is marketing-by-peripheral-vision.
The smartest ones try to infiltrate and co-opt existing subcultural communities online.
But all these mechanisms have had very limited success. Because they are all about taming wild subcultures.
But once marketers working with Big Data get ahead of the cultural curve, you can expect the balance of power to shift decisively in their favor. From detecting subcultures before future members themselves do, to actively seeding, breeding and shaping desirable subcultures, is not a big leap to imagine. It will be a world of pre-cognitive marketing, run by quants in data vats.
Taming will turn into domestication.
Today, the marketing machine can at best put its muscle behind a Justin Bieber and create coarse, large-scale culture whose manufactured nature is obvious to all but the dimmest of observers.
Tomorrow, it will be able to create tiny, niche cultures whose members will either sincerely believe that the subculture is their own creation, or ironically not care that it has been manufactured for them to find through engineered serendipity.
A sort of Moore’s Law of cultural fabrication will get underway, and it will eventually be capable of etching an entire subculture within a few city blocks.
Heck, let me go out on a limb and make a Moore’s Law type prediction: the size of the smallest manufacturable subculture will halve in size and transience every 18 months. In 10 years, we’ll have a microprocessor moment: the ability to etch culture at a one-city-block-for-one-month level of resolution. Working in concert with neo-urbanists, the new marketers will be able to pack a thousand domesticated hyperlocal subcultures in every major city, and entirely reprogram it culturally every few months, to sell a new crop of products and services.
That future (either utopian or dystopian, depending on where you stand) is a ways off, but we’ll get there.
Three of the four companies that dominate the Web today: Facebook (Like patterns), Google (search patterns) and Amazon (purchase patterns), are equipped with extremely powerful cultural early-warning radars, based on massive data flows. Data flows so massive that only large institutions within the class-culture matrix will have the power to crunch them into usable intelligence.
Apple, the fourth company, curiously does not have the capacity to lead the zeitgeist this way. Their historic competitive advantage — the mind of Steve Jobs — has turned into a serious weakness with his passing. Because he was preternaturally good at following the zeitgeist, Apple squandered its potential to lead it. A key kind of cultural early-warning radar (based on music tastes) was ceded to startups. It was cheaper to let Jobs stay one step ahead of other gut-driven pre-Internet marketers than to invest in assets that could be exploited by less-talented post-Internet data-driven marketers, capable of staying ahead of culture itself.
This is why Bruce Sterling was right to label Apple an example of Gothic-High-Tech zeitgeist following rather than zeitgeist leading, but I believe he is wrong in thinking that all marketing is going to be this way; much of it is now going to get ahead of the zeitgeist and actively shape it, within the decade.
As a revealing sign, it is noteworthy that subcultures have already been subverted so completely that they voluntarily self-document their doings online on privately-owned platforms. Every party or group lunch is now likely to be photographed, video-taped and archived online as part of collective memory. Group-life streams and grand narratives are out there, for the reading.
If you’re not paying, you’re the product. Indeed.
But the nitty-gritty aside, the conclusion is inevitable. The subcultural web is now open for colonization. It will retain a potential for very coarse and rough kinds of subversion (#OccupyWallStreet is sort of the Swan Song of subcultural power). This potential will soon peak, and then begin to decline.
The Fortune at the Bottom of the Attention Pyramid
How big is the potential value of subcultural attention mining? The rumored valuation of the Facebook IPO provides a hint: $100 billion. That suggests a market that is big enough — when you consider all players — to move global GDP a few percentage points. Is that a lot or a little? Depends on your frame of reference.
One way to frame the value is to imagine a pyramid of social groupings, representing various levels of social attention (not attention devoted to the non-human world).
At the bottom you have 7 billion little pools of individually-directed attention. At the very top, you have a single point, the group called humanity. There are moments, like 9/11, when all available attention floods to the top.
One organizational rung below, you have perhaps 18 groupings at the coarsest resolution level of the global class-culture matrix: the three basic social classes (rich, middle-class, poor) times the half-dozen or so major civilizations.
Then you have perhaps 700-odd nation-class groupings, and so on down, past cities, kinship groups, traditional family-societies and various other kinds of groupings that were long ago domesticated and subsumed within the class-culture matrix.
At some level of resolution, past a gray transition zone, the class-culture matrix gives way to the untamed subcultural web. The gray zone is moving relentlessly downwards, domesticating the subcultural web and subsuming it within the class-culture matrix.
This is not like the fortune at the bottom of the C. K. Prahalad pyramid. This is the cultural equivalent of the “plenty of room at the bottom” remark by Richard Feynman, which serves as inspiration today for the entire field of nanotechnology.
Except that there isn’t plenty of room. Though the social space occupied by the subcultural web is vast, it is being domesticated so fast that we can expect complete colonization within a decade. Recall what happened with the nineteenth-century railroad boom in America. Settlement processes that had been crawling painfully along for three and a half centuries, suddenly accelerated and finished the job within a few decades (the marker was a major 5-year depression that began in 1873).
So from that perspective, $100 billion seems both reasonable and not particularly large. It seems like a market that should take no more than a decade to occupy. At that point, I’d expect Facebook to turn into a mature company with declining margins.
At that point, we will hit the limit I called Peak Attention. Once all subcultural attention is mined, only two kinds of attention will remain: the attention currently trapped within personal relationships, and the attention controlled by individualist instincts.
Both are likely to be resistant to industrial-scale attention-mining techniques. All genuine subversive instincts will retreat to these lowest two layers of the attention pyramid: groups of size one and two respectively (there are likely around half a trillion one-on-one relationships in the world; I’ll leave you to figure out why).
We will move past Peak Attention, and a new game will begin.