I learned a number of hard lessons in my first year after college. One of the best came from my great uncle. Visiting him and my aunt at their Manhattan apartment, I told them about my aspirations as a writer. My aunt expressed genuine enthusiasm and support for my terrible work on politics, music, and whatever else I was blogging about at the time.
But my great uncle approached the subject with his characteristic sharpness: “I’m not very interested. Young people, on the whole, aren't very interesting.” My aunt laughed and chided him for being so harsh. He smiled and said that of course he’d read it because I’m family, but then he issued this sobering challenge: “At some point, you need to be able to answer this question. Aside from the fact that I’m your great uncle, why should I care about what you have to say?” At 22, I didn’t have an answer. “You don’t have to answer me right now. But you need to figure it out. You have enough cheerleaders already.”
My mom and grandfather (the cheerleaders he was referring to) weren’t happy about this, but my great uncle was right. Like many people in their early-20s, I had an outsized ego and false sense of my own intellectual abilities. I deserved to have someone pour cold water on my illusions. And it made something abundantly clear, something which society seems dead-set on forgetting. Professionally and artistically, if you seek to create work that endures and means something to other people: You are not enough.
Your personality isn’t enough. Your ability to go along with the shifting passions of your fashionable clique isn’t enough. Your desire to belong to some interesting social scene or build your brand as some “deep thinking” outsider isn’t enough. Your insistence on sharing unsolicited and obnoxious opinions isn’t enough. If your creative and professional output relies on your sense of self, what does failure become? Death?
As with so many other aspects of today’s social milieu, this dynamic has its roots in the 2008 financial crisis. The proliferation of personality as a core competency tracks with the economic mirage that predominated after 2008. As Derek Thomson recently wrote: “With interest rates near zero, many investors were eager to put their money into long-shot bets. If they could get in on the ground floor of the next Amazon, it would be the one-in-a-million bet that covered every other loss. So they encouraged start-up founders to expand aggressively, even if that meant losing a ton of money on new consumers to grow their total user base.”
This was all unsustainable. Even in normal times, you can’t build a robust economy by flooding the market with cheap capital to fund start-ups that sell the ludicrous notion that repackaged taxi and food delivery services are “innovations”—provided the labor is done by insecure contract work. But these weren’t normal times. The destruction of working-class and middle-class wealth and earning potential that came with the housing crisis was devastating.
It didn’t help that the previous decade saw manufacturing employment crater from over 17 million in 1998 to less than 12 million by 2009, even as the population went from 275 million to 306 million over the same period. Much of this was thanks to the normalization of trade with China, sold on the lie that this would lead to liberalization in Beijing. In previous recessions, like those in the 1970s and 80s, there was still enough of a domestic productive base for workers to return to. But such options had thinned severely by the late-2000s.
The recovery in manufacturing after 2008 was slow-going, reliant on large, upfront capital investment. While there was growth in some sectors, and the picture gets complicated when you consider output, a lot of money that could’ve been used on cultivating domestic production went into crap. It was the economic equivalent of skipping toast for breakfast and just eating the entire can of jelly in one sitting.
This situation reached its apex during the response to the Covid pandemic. Unbelievable amounts of money were printed to keep the financial system afloat and society from collapsing from shelter-in-place orders, lockdowns, school shutdowns, business closures, and all the other measures that we now know probably weren’t necessary. As the example of Sweden bears out, a more targeted approach would’ve made more sense. Instead, it was the golden age of the central banker, making the money printer go brr to keep a less productive economy from bleeding out.
A modern economy requires a mix of goods production, white-collar service work, public sector administrators, and some dynamic and perhaps off-kilter ventures. Far from being the result of “the free market” left totally on its own, this requires the robust support of central governments, and either a civic-mindedness or at least a set of attractive incentives on the part of investors. The most cursory reading of the history of 19th-century industrialization bears this out. A healthy economy takes real strategic work that channels market forces without strangling them.
And so it is with an individual’s career and creative output. Against the backdrop of the recession in 2008 and the tepid recovery, we had social media. By 2008, anyone over 13 could use Facebook, Twitter was up and running, and Instagram was just over the horizon. In the mid-2000s, social media operated mostly as harmless fun in the mode of the old internet of chat-rooms, forums, and message boards. It didn’t serve much business value, unless you were a metalcore band on MySpace with gauges and sick breakdowns.
But in 2006, Facebook launched its NewsFeed feature, which generated a page that contained everyone’s statuses, posts, and updates. I remember the uproar this created at the time, with giant groups protesting against this seemingly creepy and invasive feature. This was laughed off a few years later, but I think time has shown the initial response to be correct. In 2007, Facebook started using ads, and by 2012, you could no longer just list your favorite bands, books, movies, and other interests. You had to “Like” or follow dedicated pages.
Like two trains running side-by-side, the economic situation of shallow investments fueled by low interest rates was accompanied by the cultural situation of shallow displays of self-commodification and personal branding. The phenomenon of the social media influencer, the YouTube celebrity, and the hot-headed blogger or podcaster showed how there was money to be made by just “being yourself.” It no longer mattered if you actually had some expertise to lend the world, so long as your personality attracted people to the content.
During the early-2010s, I ran a political blog and a friend chided me on how even-keeled and reasonable I tried to be. He advised me to be more extreme and inflammatory so I could stand out and get more attention. When an article got some decent readership numbers, people encouraged me to stick with that article’s topic to maximize my engagement around that topic. Funny enough, it was an article defending violent video games and gamers more broadly, more than a year before Gamergate occurred. I’m glad I didn’t choose that as a personal “beat.”
These were the twin pressures acting on people in social media: be aggressively outrageous to get attention, clout and, eventually, money; and become the person who never shuts up about one specific thing. These pressures eventually birthed the eldritch horrors we recognize in the digital media writer, Twitter personality, and TikTok influencer.
And with the election of Donald Trump and the incentives activated by the wider network around the Democratic Party, this evolution accelerated into the archetype of the floating, deracinated, politicized online personality. In the 2000s, these entities were quarantined in the labs of Something Awful and 4Chan. The emergence of economic value into de-anonymized social media platforms in the 2010s was the lab-leak event of the personality ethic.
There was the Tea Party dress rehearsal on the right from 2009-2012, but that was much more limited in scope. And personality has always been an essential component of all media, from the stage, to the radio and the television screen. But the ability for anyone to mount a pedestal for the entire world to see makes a genuine difference. And if you make it possible to monetize being obnoxious and myopic in equal measure, a lot of people will take that opportunity, especially if there’s a lot of play money floating around.
This helps explain how so many people are able to glide from one set of extreme political ideas to another, all within the space of a few years. It also explains why some of the same people felt the need to turn your favorite online music, film, gaming, art, or literary space into torture. Additionally, it shows why a lot of professional cultures in business and academia became a cross between a circus and a daycare facility.
When all you have is your personality to rely on for your career prospects or artistic output, every pool is the deep end, and you can’t swim or tread water forever. Eventually, you’ll start sinking under the weight of the positions you took in 2014 vs. those in 2017 vs. those in 2020. And you’ll drag everyone else down with you—well, everyone you haven’t alienated already. This is why when a beloved online personality flames out, changes teams, or deactivates for three days, their stupid little cult acts like they just found their guru floating dead in the compound’s koi pond.
Again, the circumstances of the pandemic brought this situation to a climax. With white-collar workers and school-age children shuttered inside, this was the golden age of the online personality. People had to pass the time somehow and find someone to tell them it was going to be okay, or that it was time to be mad, scared, and prepare for the collapse of civilization. With stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment support injected into the economy, there was money to burn on “content” of all sorts. If you had a personality and could stay focused for long enough on one subject, this was your time.
Did it matter if 90 percent of your grand pronouncements were workshopped in a group chat and totally contradicted what you said three months earlier? No. People were lonely and on edge, they needed some kind of bond to replace the in-person bonds they (apparently) had to sacrifice. And thus the tentacles of that shape-shifting monster were sunk into all of us. Well, all of us who didn’t have to keep working onsite and keep the world going.
For the so-called “essential workers,” it’s self-evident that personality isn’t enough. If you have to pick up garbage, solder copper pipes, bag groceries, or keep a bridge from collapsing, no one cares how “based” you are. Your customers or supervisors don’t care that you’re so good at “being vulnerable.” It doesn’t matter if some loser with a picrew avatar said you were “valid,” you have a job to do, and your prospects sink or swim on you performing that job.
This isn’t a screed against “email jobs” or “creatives.” Every economy that has existed has required some sort of administration. This is true of feudalism, mercantilism, modern capitalism, and every attempt at socialism or communism. And this will continue to be true, regardless of the mode of production. Also, so long as people place sentimental value in the arts, there will always be a potential economic value there as well.
The time of low interest rates has ended. And while there will always be some garbage sold as the key to unlocking the Promethean spirit of Western civilization, I think the wider enthusiasm for this will be muted for some time. This also means that the world of business, media, academia, and other institutions will have to lean down and focus on value and performance. Administration will remain necessary, but largesse will not. As for the arts, after years of discord and tearing things down, we may find ourselves needing to genuinely support great work for its own sake again.
To retain professional and creative value in this new world, you have to show real skills and dedicated years of genuine interest and expertise in a field. Even when money’s tight, it’s hard to dispense with someone who’s good at the job and has long-standing institutional knowledge. But it’s much easier to ditch that one person everyone secretly hates, and now there’s an economic excuse. I’m sure friends and family think you’re very special. But that’s just not enough.