Issue #36: Memes and Belonging

"Very often, when leaders repeat things over and over, they are preparing you for when that meme actually emerges in reality." — Timothy Synder

The Future of Belonging examines how we can redesign tools and remodel approaches to fulfill the basic human need for belonging over the next decade as loneliness, alienation, and exclusion become more pervasive. If this newsletter was shared with you, please thank the sender. I invite you to subscribe and join the community as well.

I’m thrilled to bring Part 2 of my interview with Elena Giralt. Last week, in Part 1, we spoke about redefining optimization and new sources of value creation. This week we’re getting into new models for capturing the new value created. We explore the pervasiveness of memes beyond digital content, and more as a lens to understand new modes of constructing our organizations, businesses, movements, and other entities that create an even larger tent for individuals to get involved.

The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

EG: So, one reason that optimization functions are so popular is because there's a really easy way to build a business behind them. You can tell people, “Hey, you want the most whatever?” Then somebody will pay for it. So, when we consider radically new models of exchanging value, they will not always fit the mould that we've typically seen in the post-industrial age. Consider the way we venerate corporate structures and corporate legacies like the Rockefellers and business as a paternal mirror of the state. “America is strong because her corporations are strong” or “America is strong because her business people and the leaders of the given generation embody the strength of our country's identity.” Those models are going to change. 

One signal that I think is particularly strong is Jack Dorsey having an R&D team dedicated to decentralizing Twitter. So much of the internet is built on open source technology with a handful of companies capturing a lot of value from building on top of that. There are better systems or there are more efficient and rewarding systems that could be applied to that and some of them happened to be decentralized models. So how do we exchange value differently or what are different models that we haven't thought of before. 

All of this leads me to ask myself — maybe this is the closest to belonging — is thinking about how narratives shape business models, culture and history. “Narratives” shape social expectations, they have typically come from a central authority like a church or a state. Since the internet, the generation of narratives is much more participatory. Where we are now, we can think of it as “meme as the culture”. 

There's nothing more resilient than a meme in that it spreads itself. It kind of adapts, finds little crevices that it can poke into. It's like a fractal.

Let’s consider the language we use - “memes go viral.” We're going to get a lot better at understanding how these “viruses” — thought viruses, social viruses spread and contract. Memes can be scary because like real viruses, they spread rapidly and can be pretty dangerous. But then again, these “narratives” are also really interesting because these systems tend to be very resilient. There's nothing more resilient than a meme in that it spreads itself. It kind of adapts, finds little crevices that it can poke into. It's like a fractal. And that's really powerful and pretty disruptive to traditional models for belonging.

VM: Thank you so much for breaking that down. The line that you had about “memes are the culture”, I think that is the headline that we all should be thinking about, um, yeah.

EG: Meme as a business model is another one. 

VM: I mean that's TikTok. It’s our first meme business model where it's newfound ways of duplication and shapeshifting.

EG: Yeah, so when I think meme as a business model, I think Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, and a lot of the original influencers got that way because they made themselves a meme. They also were able to fracture different parts of themselves. They made themselves into a product and then they split that product into many different products.

VM: Is it possible for business models that actually respect or honor or that can see and capture the new value being created from this? Where are you seeing models where this is happening? When you think about new models for providing new incentives able to capture value from different sources, the version 2.0 of optimization functions, where have you seen models that have worked? And what should we be looking at in terms of new models? What are some of the pros and cons or implications of those new models?

EG: Yeah. One thing I've been thinking about recently is co-ops. It doesn't have to be new. It can be an old framework that just now has the internet behind it. That’s crazy, in and of itself.  REI is a cooperative business model. Visa used to be a semi-cooperative model. A lot of people don't know that. So the story of Visa is quite crazy and quite capitalist but also very cooperative. So all these banks decided, “yo, the default rate for this newfangled thing called credit is actually huge. We need to fine tune it so that we can actually make money from this myth of credit.” Credit is a really beautiful interesting collaborative thing in it’s own right, that we both agree on the myth of future money or the faith of future money.” By the way, Visa is no longer a cooperative model, I believe they shifted to a more traditional corporate structure.

We should look at cooperatives as kind of a human superpower. In that guise, most of the models that I've been excited about are thinking about cooperatives enabled by the Internet. There's this group called Zebras Unite. A lot of their guiding principles are based on this notion that Silicon Valley shouldn't be optimizing for unicorns.

There's this company that I love called Althea. They're trying to close the digital divide by bringing internet connectivity to rural communities. The way that they do that is with an old fashioned mesh network. Mesh networks are really cool and pretty resilient.

Then on the crypto side of things, Vanessa things couldn't be more weird and they couldn't be more crazy and they couldn't be more fun than the world of cryptocurrencies. So there's this trend called yield farming, which at first sounds a lot like a Ponzi scheme.

VM: Speaking of faith and money.

EG: Exactly! But it’s so much more. So yield farming hinges on a similar premise as credit card reward programs - the more you use the platform, the more yield you get back. You can get 2% back or 5% back. Then you have to ask yourself, “Okay, 2% of what? What are we getting back? How is that an endless pool?” But this is where it gets interesting. Check out the case of Uniswap. They basically figured out how to incentivize “good behavior” on their platform (a decentralized exchange) in a sustainable way in a quasi equitable way.

VM: Very cool. I used to work in international development. And so I just remember all the micro lending and how that just upended how people understood, the nature of money and what it could be used for in those contexts. Now we have widespread conversation about things like UBI and universal cash transfer.

EG: What is crazy is that UBI four years ago was heretical. It was insane. It was just like, “Oh, how could you threaten America?” Now Andrew Yang ran on it and basically COVID relief was the pilot for UBI. It's crazy to think how fast these things are going. Another thing with the micro lending example is that it goes back to incentives. The ugly side of micro lending was “If we don't control for the APR or the interest rates”, micro lending very quickly becomes loan sharks or payday loans.

VM: Yeah, I think the other thing they found out accidentally, because everyone figured out that micro lending was cool. There were a lot of options. And so people would go out to get micro loans from a lot of different lenders. They'd be creditworthy at a single point in time for any given lender but collectively what they were was a credit risk. Which is just terrible for the social fabric of it all and points to interconnected systems, incentives and everything that you're highlighting as well. Just to close, when you think of the meme as a business model, and then potentially belonging, and the world that we could be in, what is a world in which meme as a business model or even meme as culture look like?

With meme as a culture, I think we have to sit with ourselves and understand how much control we want to give to the collective and how much control we want to protect for the individual.

EG: Yeah. Oh, I think it goes back to something I mentioned earlier, which was this future could be very scary if everybody has competing incentives or competing memes, or it could be very harmonious if we all kind of settle on one thing. With meme as a culture, I think we have to sit with ourselves and understand how much control we want to give to the collective and how much control we want to protect for the individual. Because in a scary world like feudal medieval times, or even antebellum South, those periods are defined by lack of individual control but stability. Then we find ourselves where we are now, where it's an overwhelming amount of individual control, at least in digital spaces, but it's super frenetic. I think collectively, it's important to figure out where the middle is as it relates to belonging. I think understanding that depends a lot on the historical and cultural legacy inherited by the group. You and I can both exist in a digital space. But we bring our own cultural and historical legacies to that space. And that's why, something could be a trigger warning for you and I can say, “You're being too sensitive. You're being too, blah, blah, blah.”

What if we open sourced everything?

We could improve that experience by spending more time investing in infrastructure that's the collective good. There's something else called the Ostrom principles that I just discovered recently. They're these eight principles for managing public goods written by Elinor Ostrom, one of two women to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics. If we look at Wikipedia as the source of knowledge, Wikipedia is great in that a lot of people use it. It's not as great in that a small group of people produce a vast majority of articles on the platform. But that model is good enough right? We can see that and say, “okay, what if we had similar infrastructure for education, right?” What if we had similar infrastructure for health? What if we just open sourced all of our patents? What if we open sourced everything?

That goes back to what we were talking about at the very beginning. In order to do that collectively, we would have to optimize for something else. As it relates to belonging, do we all want to belong to one human hodgepodge or is there beauty in the individual or smaller networks of belonging that we create? But, like tending a garden, a garden can only hold so many different species and so many different flavors. We’re understanding how there's a finite number of resources that all of these things have to feed off of or feed from each other. Vanessa, you summarized this beautifully in one of your posts describing parasitic, cooperative, mutualistic organisms. Some memes are mutualistic, some cannibalize one another. If we're thinking about “meme as a culture”, we can ask ourselves, why do hateful, racist memes spread faster than others? I think it’s because one powerful way to belong is to define yourself by who you agree to exclude.

VM: Yeah, I think you're saying makes sense. I've been talking a lot more about belonging and I think it's this principle that a lot of us just forget. That belonging doesn't happen by accident; it happens by design. So in a white supremacist context, the reason why White people feel comfortable in that context is that all of that is designed, everything from the social relationships and economic relationships to cultural value. All of that is designed in such a way to make white people feel comfortable and prosper. And so, I think, to your point, to have something counter to that, there needs to be other designs available or other designs that are at scale where we are all either mutually agreeing to or that seem attractive for other reasons and for other values.

EG: We have to think about “universal belonging” as something humans have never done before. We got on the moon before we've been able to love our fellow man. The narrative of supremacy of any individual group persists for survival reasons, tribal reasons that have been on this earth a lot longer. It's what has facilitated civilization at scale. 

VM: One of the things I saw that I thought was so intriguing was an anthropological review article which, to be honest, I did not read the entire entire thing. Basically the length of it is just showing a number of different proof points. The overarching piece of it is that Steven Pinker got it wrong. As humans, we are not inherently warlike. Because of reasons of survival, we do come together to share resources and not necessarily kill each other. Part of the narrative shift that I think you're having is the piece that we've never really truly done this before, where we all truly come together. Some of us have come together for certain purposes and then fallen apart. Or come together for a certain time and space or under duress. But I think also the second part of it is our differences in our conflicts are not innate to us. To a certain extent, those differences in and of themselves are choices. A lot of that is also by design. Some of the beliefs like “you can't be trusted with it is” adds a scarcity mindset.

EG: Let’s take a contemporary example, the argument that we can't fund a public healthcare system because we don't have enough money. But, oh, in one month, we printed a bajillion trillion gazillion dollars. I think these narratives are crumbling down, but we need to act quickly to replace it with something else.

Comment below:

  • What are examples of memes as a business model or culture that build belonging that you’ve seen?

  • What are some emerging narratives that can replace those that are crumbling?

  • What would be some of the implications or consequences of a world where we open sourced everything?

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