Peak Attention and the Colonization of Subcultures

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.


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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. OK Hubertus, tell us about the new game’s Bigending.

    The true subversives might not be using Facebook. How will such techno Luddites be tamed?

    • If you hide or fragment your identity, you remove yourself from the social web. You become literally a kind of outlaw, in the Scandinavian/Germanic sense: someone who can be ignored, discriminated or killed without repercussion because one is not connected to anyone who might exact a weregild or bloodprice. When an employer googles you, an absence becomes increasingly suspicious, and as time goes on, being a ghost online becomes an ever more statistically credible signal of incompetence or deviance.

      The alternative? An offline social web which can replace the forfeited opportunities, with safeguards against Internet use. As it happens, I was reading yesterday about the Christian Dominionists, who have next to no Internet presence, and who partner up to watch each other’s Internet usage so they don’t stray, on that demonic tool, to such secular vices as porn. They can get away with this because their confreres offer enough opportunities that they aren’t too penalized by being refuseniks.

      • @gwern: As to your first point, I think the way to avoid that is to choose strategically the ways in which you interact with the system. So while you are fragmented in some ways, in ways that allow you to take advantage of the infrastructure you need you are an active participant.

        As to the second point, I suspect you overestimate the willingness of dominant social orders to tolerate acts of subversion that can’t be, at a minimum, infiltrated and monitored. We have a few classes of people in the U.S. in recent and modern history who might fit this kind of offline social web you’re talking about, with varying levels of internal support, and each evoking varying reactions from the dominant social order. Two such classes, while politically diametrically opposed, nevertheless have similar structure: hippies and these right-wing militia-style cults (or the like). The other class is the homeless, as I suggested in my earlier comment. Of the three, two can already be effectively marketed to, even if their consumption patterns don’t match ours. In fact, because they are outliers, they are easy to spot: only certain kinds of people, we can assume, are interested in buying the supplies that might go into a personal bomb shelter, such as lots of shelf stable food, bulk quantities of batteries, etc. To the extent that this is done by unconnected individuals, nuclear families, or at most a small group, most of us will be happy to look the other way (though look back at Ruby Ridge and Branch Davidian for evidence of how that can turn out).

        Aside from this, there will be a growing difficulty in sequestering oneself from the network, since points of interaction may or may not be within your immediate control. If everyone around you is lifelogging, it should be trivial to determine later that you visited somewhere, even if you have no personal access points in the network yourself. It might even be possible to determine your buying habits without your participation. Pay in cash? Fine, but the store has cameras, and all of your fellow shoppers have them too, and any number of them are pointed at you, guaranteed. The point is, you won’t be able to escape sensors, and permanent escape is unlikely to be tolerated.

        Just my 2 cents on it.

        • Not to mention the growing economic difficulty of surviving off the grid. In fact, the more you want to get off the grid, the more you must return to very collectivist modes to survive. Individuals who don’t want to join communes will find it much harder to survive without technology.

          • Humans don’t appear to be sociobiologically designed to live individually. We’re coping in these massive social superstructures we’ve created, but only because we maintain microgroups (no longer based solely or even mainly on kinship).

            How are you defining technology when you say individuals cannot survive without it? Are we talking about social networking websites, or the use of fire? If you mean the kind of technology that made it possible for H. erectus to perpetuate substantially, then I must agree.

  2. One thought that keeps coming to me time and again (especially when reading this site) is a line from WarGames: in a rigged game “the only winning move is not to play” at all. However, this is not a good strategy if one actually wants any of those infrastructure benefits (the roads and the houses and the underwear). Economic participation, I am betting, is something that pretty much any country, but especially the U.S., expects of its citizens. True economic checkout is punished pretty harshly here, what with squatter, camping, public sleeping, loitering, and other such laws pushing the social dropouts to the periphery and denying them even minimal infrastructure.

    So I suspect we will all end up either developing coping strategies to minimize our contact with the game structure, or we will openly embrace it and sink into homogeneity.

    • It is not so much an expectation as a condition created where such economic-non-participation becomes impossible, because most people lack the necessary skills. Society is an offer you can’t refuse.

  3. Hence my never having signed up for MySpace or Facebook, my reluctant trial of Google+ (likely to end in violent deletion), and my witting use of throwaway pseudonymous digital personae; I misdirect or refuse as much marketing as possible. What refuse does make it through is filtered and blocked using ad-blocking extensions, filtering web proxies, and heavy-strength email systems such as those provided by

    All of this to say I have watched this colonization of the Internet by the disingenuous for many years now, and there is a kind of person (subculture? ha ha?) that does not cede agency or attention in this space so easily.

    Where do you think a non-entity such as Anonymous fits in here?

  4. I’m sure you realize that “meta-ness” of your post, although I am unsure if you intentionally omitted it.

    I’ve been a regular reader of Ribbonfarm for a few months now, but only recently have I begun to peruse the comments. As you made aware in your post on introductions and again in your discussion of adding a forum to the site, Ribbonfarm itself has developed its own distinctive subculture flare, complete with common texts, and “handshake” vocabulary.

    I’ll expect to see ads and recommendations for globes, hourglasses, gyroscopes, and The Organization Man on facebook/google/amazon any day now.

    • Well of course. That’s what sparked this post in the first place. I am trying to keep the value growing without necessarily having it coalesce into an externally exploitable “subculture.” Which is one reason I am wary of doing forums, but enjoy doing transient “field trip” events.

      But it’s a problem I’ll probably have to take on more squarely, by the time this site experiences its next doubling in traffic/subscribers (which should be in about 18-24 months if things keep up).

  5. If this comes to pass, I anticipate an explosion in practices of Social Steganography. If teens can manage it, I’m sure the rest of us will catch on.

  6. @vgr

    Great post.

    Reminds me of some ideas I developed recently (reposted from twitter)

    I think you are touching on the cross over between linguistics and subculture.

    One of things i’ve been thinking about is how are words defined ?

    The definition of a word – is just a list of contexts in which it is used

    i.e. we define words by the contexts within which they are used.

    There is a finite list of words in the dictionary there fore there are a finite list of contexts we have experienced and categorised with words.

    If you overlay these contexts with the social idioms of their usage – you end up with the subcultures you define here.

    A separate unrelated thought.

    When reading a book which has a high level of mental imagery – e.g. Game of Thrones.

    Do you think the Starks have a scottish accent ? I’m certain lots of UK readers do.

    Subtle hints within the text, lead to a shared mental imagery amongst the reader


    I used to think mathematics gave us our deepest insights into who we are… inow think language does


  7. When I first joined Facebook, about three years ago, it was to facilitate a family reunion. Two old friends had been pushing me to join them in a Zynga game called Farmville, and, since it was easy at first, I complied. The time involved grew and grew. The way Zynga draws people into its games and keeps them playing reveals a great deal about human nature and the manipulation of subcultures, but that’s not what this comment is about.

    I no longer play Farmville, but I run across many people who play or have played the game. It’s amazing the way people light up when someone talks about how their handled their bees, or how upsetting it was when a stallion spent the night in their barn without producing any foals. Suddenly, I’m part of an “in” crowd (albeit out-of-date), and the people who have no idea what we’re talking about roll their eyes, look at one another and become part of another identifiable subculture: people who have never played Farmville. The naive admit they played, but they never owned a stallion and haven’t played since before the bees appeared. They are shoved off to the side a little.

    It’s a powerful force.

  8. reads like an example of this process.

  9. You may be underestimating the degree to which subcultures are also “resistant to industrial-scale attention-mining techniques”.

    I won’t quibble with your overall thesis, however I do think it is misleading to analogize subculture marketing based on big data to the commercial marketing directed at broad lifestyle groups. Subcultures will not be nearly profitable enough to entice an Amazon, Google, or Facebook to address them directly. The big corporate players will only manage the data layer and will increasingly outsource that data layer to external parties who will control all details of subcultural marketing campaign.

    That role is very different from the role of a Nike or a Procter & Gamble – companies that actually designed the products and controlled the marketing messages directed at their targets. By contrast, you are describing an ecosystem in which the product and marketing message is controlled by someone much closer to the targeted subculture. These parties will need to be reasonably conversant in certain subcultural subtleties in order to spot the relevant information in the mined data.

    In that sort of ecosystem the amazons, googles and facebooks occupy something that looks more like an infrastructural layer than a traditional consumer marketing organization. The best analogy is the role that the government plays today. The big data behemoths will build the digital/attention equivalents of the laws, the courts, the monetary system, etc. They will provide the backbone that mediates attention marketing…and like the government they will take the equivalent of a tax (commission) on some portion of the activity that flows through their jurisdiction.

    At the same time though they lose the ability to fully control the markets they create, just as the gov’t can no longer dictate arbitrary policy decisions without inviting a massive feedback response in the form of unintended consequences. This is not to say that the gov’t itself disappears – assuming it doesn’t destroy itself – it just gets pushed even further up stack and retains relevance with regard to only the most abstract or ideological issues (a process which is already well underway).

    • Well… yes.

      Didn’t mean to draw an analogy between the two types of marketing. The processes and industry structures for tar-sand or shale-oil mining are not the same as the ones for regular oil drilling.

      I do think though that the new marketing will have as much or more power as the old. Just because other forces (including the individuals and subcultures themselves) may be gaining more power does not mean that other forces are not gaining relatively EVEN more power. It’s like incomes and income inequality increasing at the same time, across the board. Except with ‘liberty.’ There’s more actual liberty being created, but the growth-share of marketing forces is likely to be more than that of other forces in the medium term.

      • I see where your going though I still want to emphasize that this greater power accruing to marketing forces is of a categorically different sort…

        With regard to income inequality, the rich man and the poor man both possess the same rights and responsibilities. The rich man simply has greater means with which to enjoy those rights. For the most part – in the US at least – we don’t presume that the rich man has greater and/or more comprehensive responsibilities to society, as a result of his wealth.

        My argument above is essentially that the big data players – in order to achieve the sort of ubiquity you suggest – must necessarily be platforms. It will not be possible to achieve both breadth and depth as a centrally managed enterprise. And when you become a platform the sort of power that you accrue is categorically different. Greater influence comes with explicit expectations of greater responsibility. Platforms are answerable to their affiliates in a way that does not apply to industrial/consumer businesses and their customer relationships.

        So I am arguing that we have to acknowledge something analogous to “the consent of the governed”. If the market evolves as you describe, it will be – in part – because the subcultures invited the marketers in, which I think lends a somewhat different tone to the piece.

  10. Hmm, I think some elements of this are plausible, and definately fit a marketer’s approach to social groupings; a new set of screens to put advertising on, a new and more specific model of social practices to slide your product into; but I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a hidden compound in your concept of “attention”.

    In other words, when people start applying this stuff, they are likely to find that there is more to this “attention” than what meets the eye. This goes along with the problem of the consumptive potential of these micromarkets; will these marketers be willing to mobilise these groups, rather than seeking further production efficiencies to make tiny margins on specialised goods?

    • “when people start applying this stuff, they are likely to find that there is more to this “attention” than what meets the eye”

      I’m thinking that the “MORE” you are eluding to is the sheer organic-volatility endemic to a network-effect based sub-culture(consumer). Ten years out is an evolutionary eternity in internet meme time.

      As McLuhan points out, push a process far enough and it will flip into its opposite, from a tool into an impediment.

      Under organic network conditions the consumer will rapidly evolve a much more effective media-ecology third-eye. A collectively cynical media-ecology tipping point may trump any degree of corporate resource superiority simply because they will have lost the advantage of hiding in plain sight.

      The sheer magnitude of corporate time/attention lock-down opportunities will likely be too irresistible. This will most likely led to overplaying the big-data mining-hammer, flipping the hidden ground of public perception management into a mass-reaction foreground meme of f**k you too counter punching.

      We can still dream can’t we !

      • I was actually making a pun! In that attention is a constructive mental activity, not passively receiving knowledge but making things with it.

        You can see this kind of process by comparing certain kinds of “linkbait” articles with the infamous wikiwalk or what Venkat calls the archive insanity marathon (or something similar).

        There are articles that have been superficially designed to be “attention grabbing”, but they don’t actually deal very deeply with the mind: Their hollowness leads to a quick petering out of interest, (along with a sense of disillusionment if you’re new to them) whereas content that engages with people in a less cynical manner, or at least in a more productive and complex manner, is attention generating in that it creates a surplus of mental activity that pulls you through onto other things. This continues until you reach deeper physiological limits, like being physically tired, go off to use the information in some way (even if it’s just conversation) or task switch onto something else.

        This quality is related to the intentional history of the reader/observer, and means that if you want to tap it you have to start creating all kinds of projects and activities as a byproduct. Look at alternate reality game advertising! Just in order to sustain thinking about one product they have to create another one for free that is sometimes more compelling!

        But I think your observation is probably true too, and I expect to see it happen via either periodic stock-taking disconnections, as happens now, or embedded ironic vertigo-toned self-commentary sliding into all kinds of media sources, frequently flipping into protest or jamming.

        Business integrity may come to be seen as a way to avoid the processing/filtering requirements of sustaining this auto-nihilism. Or they may just continue to play around the edges of “it’s for the kids”, trying to use “innocence” as a shield against revealing their own dodgyness. But the issues companies like disney have gone through in the past few years suggest this strategy is also coming up against it’s own phase transition.

        Interestingly I don’t imagine these kinds of reactions to happen as one big singular complaint about data mining itself, but in waves of applied statistical psychology, as different clusters of insights are exploited and reacted to. But we’ll see.

        Although I wasn’t thinking about that at the time! That’s the virtue of vague sentences, with suitable plugins and extensions, they can represent all truth!

  11. I think that your gothic high tech vision is more real than some are willing to acknowledge. The following article suggests that the Occupy Wall Street protests were the effect of such an attempt: “Among the many reasons that made the feat surprising—the pitfalls of collective action, widespread anomie on the left, etc.—was the fact that Adbusters has been trying to pull this off, or something like it, for over 20 years. The magazine, founded on the premise that the advertising techniques of advanced capitalized societies could be employed to subvert the structures of capitalism itself, has long made a habit of churning out pithy rallying cries and calls for days of protest. ”

    I don’t know that data from attention mining will be the route through which this will occur. I picture the execution of subculture colonization like the famous example of Bernoulli’s principle in which students try to fill a large bag with air from their lungs. The secret is to put your mouth a bit farther from the opening of the bag than expected, allowing the pressure differential to push additional air that wasn’t expelled from your lungs.

  12. Assuming it didn’t affect their membership numbers, I wonder how the structure of subcultures would be affected if individuals paid facebook & twitter & ‘the next big thing’ for access instead of being the product sold to advertisers.

  13. I’ve been reading Ribbonfarm for a few weeks now, and I just want to say thanks for the insights, and that I love it. It was this article that inspired me to comment – or more accurately, the comments of this article. I’ll let Venkat roll his eyes over the fact that I found the blog via the Gervais Principle stuff (I’m not even really an Office fan, but after reading the series of posts I had to go back and analyze the show in that context, creating a kind of feedback loop of increasing interest in both the show and this blog).

    Anyhow, two things occurred to me in response the comments here: 1) is it possible that so-called ‘ghosts’ online – that is, people who do not have a true social media presence and are not participating in life-logging – will have special opportunities available to them, such as public faces for any number of movements/groups/etc? Because, after all, it is easier to create a false history on the Web than it is to redact it. Additionally, the skills required to ‘ghost’ may make one useful as a kind of social media mercenary, with tasks such as infiltrating certain social networks to plant an idea, disrupt, or gather intelligence.

    2) In future, it may be someone’s job to be a sort of proxy social media personality – that is, be paid to act out the social media presence of important, wealthy people as they grow up, so that his or her ‘social media’ standing is good, and he or she is seen to participate in all the appropriate subcultures and memes. I’m thinking of this as more in-depth and involved than today’s e-marketer updating a celebrity’s blog… This would be a good job for our social media merc in my point #1 above, as well.

    P.S. Yes to a forum!

    • Isn’t the first part a plot point in the Bourne movies, that Jason Bourne’s previous identity really had no relevant personal history to speak of, and therefore could adopt this new identity without anyone taking notice of any incongruence? I suppose that might be a fairly standard element in “secret agent” type movies though I seem to remember the Bourne series emphasizing it explicitly. Might be getting my movies mixed up though…

  14. Just because Facebook has built a system for analyzing these subcultures doesn’t mean they have been able to do anything with the data. We are still waiting for Freud to emerge from the Facebook compound or the Googleplex and tell us the real truths about our selves and social organizations and what we want.

    In my experience FB is used more as a tool for subcultures to sell themselves to themselves. There is a lot of money in this, but when you try to take it, all those broke hipsters will just leave for another platform. It’s not as hard to build a social network as it is to get any cash from it.

  15. Linguistic anthropologists call this “maintenance communication”, or communication where the content of the discussion is less important than the symbolic nature of the conversation itself. For example: talking about the weather.

    I recommend this book to find out more:

  16. I’m a new reader of RibbonFarm so just trying to get up to speed in the conversation, but would venture the observation that people have different sets of attention vectors available at different prices. The true subculture appeals to the “existential attention” which has a very high marginal price, while the commodification of the subculture appeals to the (hipster’s) “symbolic attention” with a lower price. These can all exist together if the commodified subculture is still leveraging existential attention. Greenpeace and the massification/commodification of various environmental movements come to mind. More evidence is the premium price hipsters put on the embodied, off-line experience of the subculture (witness the price of a ticket to Burning Man and the costs people pay for festivals). Interesting data on this from last year was both the success of Occupy subculture to replicate itself by leveraging the existential attention of a few in many places by embodying physical protest in fixed sites, and the simultaneous failure to massify by failing to leverage the less-expensive symbolic/political attention of the many in a few places (via media).