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This Week in Discourse: Politics Goes Bananas
Plus: How Social Media caused the Hollywood Strike, and Glorbo!
Welcome! You survived to Sunday! There was a boatload nonsense on the internet this week, so let’s jump right in.
The Discourse Goes Bananas
The social internet is home to a lot of niche political ideologies. Especially on the more text-based social media like Reddit or Twitter, you’re likely to run into weird political positions that nobody you’ve ever met in real life holds. This is the magic of the internet - it brings insane people together, amplifies and supports their insanity, and then delivers them straight to your screen. And while the side effects of this can range from ‘being mildly annoyed at furries’ to ‘QAnon now exists’, sometimes it also leads to incredible discourse.
This week, Very Online Socialists were fighting about bananas.
Socialism itself has gone from fringe nonsense to semi-mainstream, thanks to the power of the internet and Bernie Sanders. But there are many strains of socialism that remain firmly in their ‘internet nonsense’ phase, and we got to see one of them on display this week. The above tweet kicked off a week-long discourse about whether or not anyone would get to enjoy bananas after the socialist revolution, and whether eating bananas is problematic. It’s not obvious from the picture, but Malcolm Harris is arguing it is a good thing that nobody in the northern hemisphere will ever be able to have bananas under True Socialism.
The drama spanned multiple days and dozens of posters, with another notable center of controversy here:
The banana discourse is worth paying attention to because it’s a picture perfect example of one of the most quietly important ideological battles taking place today. Left politics is split between pro-growth leftism and degrowth leftism, and the two tribes are wrestling over the metaphorical steering wheel of what leftists should believe about economic growth. The pro-growth camp is by far the bigger camp in the real world and argues that socialism can and should deliver economic prosperity and growth to all people in a fair and sustainable way. This camp also has a mainstream equivalent of non-socialist center-left thinkers - the ‘abundance progressives’ or ‘supply side liberals’ like Jerusalem Demsas, Ezra Klein, Derek Thompson, etc.
The degrowth camp is much smaller but includes quite a few notable personalities on Twitter. They argue that under True Socialism, material living standards for many people must decline. But this is just, say the degrowthers, because economic growth simply can’t continue forever without horrible side effects like climate change or oppression. This group saw the conservative critique of leftism - “These leftists just want you to be poorer and hate nice things!” - and said actually, that’s exactly right, yes, we definitely want to make you poorer and we do hate nice things.
I hope it won’t surprise you that I am firmly in the mainstream, center-left, pro-growth camp. My political bias aside, it’s incredibly funny to watch a a group of idiots on Twitter argue that your entire continent simply won’t get to have basic consumer goods and that this is a selling point for their ideology. I’m trying to imagine this kind of speech in the real world, from a real human politician on a real stage - “If elected, I will make sure you don’t get to enjoy things! Enjoying things is bad!”
Predictably, the main characters in this drama eventually revealed that this was more of a point they like to yell at other people rather than a point they follow in their own lives:
While all of this was deeply funny, the degrowth movement has been growing1 and it’s genuinely important that they never get anywhere near the handles of power. They’re dead wrong about every major belief they have, and their ideology would immiserate billions of people. We can decrease carbon emissions while growing the economy. International trade and globalization decrease poverty. And there’s absolutely no reason to think that in a socialist word, tropical nations would for some reason stop exporting produce to countries in cooler climate. It’s all just nonsense. I’m grateful that degrowth is still incompetent enough to think ‘You should not ever have bananas’ is a winning political message.
Social Media as Harbinger of Strikes
As per usual with this blog, I find ‘Who is right and who is wrong?’ to be the least interesting question here. There are plenty of words being spilled on that elsewhere on the internet. What’s more interesting to me is why - Why is this happening now? Why do these strikes seem so bitter and likely to stretch on for so long? And I think the answer has something important to do with how the social web has developed.
Hollywood’s labor disputes are almost always tied to changes in technology. In 1960, the hot new technology was home television. TV ownership was expanding rapidly. Entertainment executives realized that if they simply played movies on TV which had already been filmed, they wouldn’t have to pay those actors and writers a second time. Actors and writers both went on strike to demand residuals, and won. In 1980, an actor’s strike was precipitated by the growth of home video as a revenue stream.
Now in 2023, streaming dominates the media landscape. Transformative AI may be just around the corner. Once again actors and writers are striking to make sure they get a slice of the new technological pie, and once again the studios are resisting heavily. But this strike is significantly different from the strikes in 1960 and 1980, and less likely to have a happy end for the writers and actors.
To see why, it’s useful to zoom out from the individual technological trends and look at the overall state of the visual entertainment industry. In 1960, entertainment was booming. Television was growing extremely fast and movies were healthy. In 1980, television was still in the midst of the cable expansion and movies were about to boom into the age of blockbusters. In both previous major strikes, the entertainment industry was growing and adding new sources of revenue. Studios and talent were fighting over a growing pie, and when the pie is growing there’s always a deal to be had that can enrich everyone.
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Today’s entertainment industry is not growing. Far from it. Television ratings have been in a death spiral for more than a decade, as more people cut the cord and rely solely on streaming.
Likewise, movie box office receipts were devastated by COVID. The industry hoped that things would bounce back to normal after the pandemic subsided, but that hasn’t happened. We’re now past the pandemic, but it COVID seems to have caused a real discontinuity in people’s entertainment behavior. These numbers are brutal:
Whether you look at worldwide or domestic box office, numbers in 2022 and 2023 remain far below pre-COVID levels. And there’s no real indication that things will get back to those levels. What we’ve ignored here is the rise of streaming services, but streaming service profits are not nearly enough to make up for the utter devastation of TV and movie revenues. In fact, most streaming services aren’t even profitable.
If people aren’t watching movies and TV, what are they watching? What’s causing this? YouTube, TikTok, Twitch, and other video services online. Tom Cruise’s movies used to have to compete with other movies and television. Now he has to compete with all of that, as well as every past movie available on a streaming service, as well as every single content creator on the internet. A great deal of the disappeared money that studios and talent are fighting about is now in the hands of MrBeast or PinkyDoll.
Unfortunately for the actors and writers, this seems like a long term shift rather than a fad. That money’s not coming back. This is the new reality of the technology and entertainment landscape. And that means this strike is likely to last longer, be far more bitter, and end with a worse outcome for actors and writers. It’s relatively easy to strike a win-win bargain in a growing industry. But when you’re fighting about how to divide the pie, and the pie is shrinking… you’re going to be in for some pain.
Quick Hits and Insane Bits
Lots of other news this week:
One bright spot for Hollywood has been the absolutely killer opening of both Barbie and Oppenheimer, which will both end up making giant piles of money. What makes this a social media story is that while both films are well made movies with big name stars, the formal marketing for both was overtaken by the gigantic viral Barbenheimer trend. The internet (without any input from the studios) simply decided that Barbie and Oppenheimer opening on the same weekend was funny. And that we needed to make thousands of memes about combining the two films and that everyone should go see both. And they did! You can see how effective Barbenheimer was as an idea by the many reports of Oppenheimer theaters filled with pink.
Threads has seen declining activity since its absolutely enormous starting weekend, and the commentariat are split on what this means. Casey Newton at Platformer gives five reasons to still be optimistic about the future of Threads. Ryan Broderick disagrees and says “I think Threads is structurally incapable of supporting culture and will continue to fade into weird obscurity.” I’ve definitely decreased my usage, and I’m still in wait and see mode.
World of Warcraft players on Reddit noticed an AI content farm that was using AI to scrape reddit comments for quotes and write articles with titles like “Fortnite/Halo/World of Warcraft Players react to _____”. They decided to trap the AI by posting about a fake character named Glorbo, and sure enough the AI took the bait. The most beautiful part is this direct quote from the AI-generated article:
World of Warcraft (WoW) players are eagerly anticipating Glorbo’s introduction and the potential impact it will have on the game. Reddit user kaefer_kriegerin expresses their excitement, stating, ‘Honestly, this new feature makes me so happy! I just really want some major bot operated news websites to publish an article about this.’
Posts and Links
If you want to see what major news sites will be reporting two weeks ahead of time, this is the place to be. Three weeks ago we wrote about bizarre meme stock subcultures on reddit. This week in FastCompany - the same.
This week’s moment of cute: Man ambushed by pack of kittens
Fun fact - Ronald Reagan was the president of SAG at the time of the 1960 strike.
If you’re out of the loop - ‘Spez’ is the username of Reddit’s CEO Steve Huffman. The final image is the Reddit mascot being guillotined.