This will be the last Terms of Service newsletter for 2022. I am taking a few weeks off to travel, rest, and gear up for what will be a very busy first few months of 2023! My next book The Wolf in Their Pockets will be published in March, and as soon as I get back in January you will start hearing more about that.
Until then, I want to share with you some of the best articles I read this whole year. Enjoy!
1) The Perils of Audience Capture
Far and away the best article I read all year. Just a tremendous reflection on the perils of the internet and developing a “platform” or online persona of any kind.
This is the ultimate trapdoor in the hall of fame; to become a prisoner of one's own persona. The desire for recognition in an increasingly atomized world lures us to be who strangers wish us to be. And with personal development so arduous and lonely, there is ease and comfort in crowdsourcing your identity. But amid such temptations, it's worth remembering that when you become who your audience expects at the expense of who you are, the affection you receive is not intended for you but for the character you're playing, a character you'll eventually tire of. So the next time you find yourself in the limelight of other people’s gazes, remember that being someone often means being fake, and if you chase the approval of others, you may, in the end, lose the approval of yourself.
2) ‘I Lost My Mom to Facebook’
This one was written by my friend Patrick Miller for The Gospel Coalition. Patrick captured so much of what I write about in my upcoming book The Wolf in Their Pockets with such clarity in this article.
Like every other pastor in America, I’m wrestling with a new challenge. Artificial intelligence—using neural networks and sophisticated machine-learning algorithms—is shepherding my church into the valley of the shadow of death. The algorithm, to misquote Psalm 139, has searched them and known their hearts. It tests them and measures their anxious thoughts. It has woven digital models of them in its silicon womb so it can sell their everlasting data to the highest bidder and keep them addicted to the online platform it serves.
Pastors need to be aware that every day of the week their church members are being instructed—and, most likely, their mentor is an algorithm. Is it any surprise that the human shepherds are losing to the digital ones?
3) I Didn’t Want It to Be True, but the Medium Really Is the Message
Ezra Klein channels some McLuhan and Postman in this opinion piece at the NYT.
We’ve been told — and taught — that mediums are neutral and content is king. You can’t say anything about television. The question is whether you’re watching “The Kardashians” or “The Sopranos,” “Sesame Street” or “Paw Patrol.” To say you read books is to say nothing at all: Are you imbibing potboilers or histories of 18th-century Europe? Twitter is just the new town square; if your feed is a hellscape of infighting and outrage, it’s on you to curate your experience more tightly.
There is truth to this, of course. But there is less truth to it than to the opposite. McLuhan’s view is that mediums matter more than content; it’s the common rules that govern all creation and consumption across a medium that change people and society. Oral culture teaches us to think one way, written culture another. Television turned everything into entertainment, and social media taught us to think with the crowd.
All this happens beneath the level of content. CNN and Fox News and MSNBC are ideologically different. But cable news in all its forms carries a sameness: the look of the anchors, the gloss of the graphics, the aesthetics of urgency and threat, the speed, the immediacy, the conflict, the conflict, the conflict. I’ve spent a lot of time on cable news, as both a host and a guest, and I can attest to the forces that hold this sameness in place: There is a grammar and logic to the medium, enforced by internal culture and by ratings reports broken down by the quarter-hour. You can do better cable news or worse cable news, but you are always doing cable news.
4) The Internet Killed Mainstream Culture
Rex Woodbury’s newsletter is easily one of the three best newsletters I get each week, and this article is a good example of why.
The fact that internet is vast, uncharted territory—anyone can take a hold and move culture—means that culture is becoming more diverse. Awards shows, meanwhile, remain stuck in the mostly-white, mostly-male media world of old. (See: #OscarsSoWhite, Adele’s 25 beating Beyonce’s Lemonade, or The Weeknd’s boycott of the Grammys.) The diversity of modern culture is unequivocally a good thing. But that comes at the cost of more fragmentation, the loss of a cohesive cultural language. And that fragmentation can be interpreted in different ways. Maybe instead of reading The New York Times, you now read Breitbart or subscribe to a Substack: that could be celebrated as more personalized, individualistic, gatekeeper-less media; or it could mean that you’ve sequestered yourself in your own algorithmic echo chamber, exposed only to the people and ideas that reinforce your own worldview. Both can be true.
5) The Age of Social Media Is Ending
Is the title true? Maybe. It is perhaps a bit overstated for shock, which the author would probably concede. But Ian Bogost is definitely onto something in this piece for the Atlantic.
Social networks’ evolution into social media brought both opportunity and calamity. Facebook and all the rest enjoyed a massive rise in engagement and the associated data-driven advertising profits that the attention-driven content economy created. The same phenomenon also created the influencer economy, in which individual social-media users became valuable as channels for distributing marketing messages or product sponsorships by means of their posts’ real or imagined reach. Ordinary folk could now make some money or even a lucrative living “creating content” online. The platforms sold them on that promise, creating official programs and mechanisms to facilitate it. In turn, “influencer” became an aspirational role, especially for young people for whom Instagram fame seemed more achievable than traditional celebrity—or perhaps employment of any kind.
The ensuing disaster was multipart. For one, social-media operators discovered that the more emotionally charged the content, the better it spread across its users’ networks. Polarizing, offensive, or just plain fraudulent information was optimized for distribution. By the time the platforms realized and the public revolted, it was too late to turn off these feedback loops.
6) The Internet is Changing Again (And a Chance for the Church)
Another article written by a friend. This one is from Ian Harber. Ian does a great job of simply explaining how the internet is changing and what impacts that has on church leadership. He is actually riffing on the Patrick Miller post I linked above. Really great piece here.
That said, there’s another layer to this that I want to add that I believe is significant and it’s this: the internet is changing right now, again.
When I say “the internet” what I’m referring to is the handful of apps that the majority of people use to connect with others. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, and a handful of others that you might want to start adding like BeReal.
When I say it’s changing right now, I mean that TikTok has changed the game, and everyone else, especially Instagram, is trying to catch up. TikTok’s algorithm is completely different than the algorithms we’ve seen before on what’s now being called “Legacy social networks” like Facebook and Instagram (owned by Meta).
7) Podcasting Is Just Radio Now
I really loved this long piece in Vulture about how the line between podcasting and radio is really starting to blur to the point of invisibility. Podcasting is something I want to spend more time investigating, perhaps in the second half of 2023.
It’s been almost eight years since Serial dropped. An entire industry has roared to life, drawing in Hollywood studios, corporations, celebrities, and billions of dollars. But the blockbuster podcast — a subgenre or prestige tier essential to the medium’s rise as an artistic force — is in a serious funk. Your phone is full of podcasts, I’m sure, and maybe you’ve convinced a friend to add one of your darlings to their queue. But when was the last time a single title was being dissected by everyone you know?
For some in the business, the medium’s diminishing ability to drive such moments poses an existential problem. What does it mean for podcasting as an art form if it rarely inspires widespread critical discussion? “Let me put it this way: The Bear was a hit,” said Fowlkes (now a podcast talent agent with the Gernert Company), referring to the summer’s breakout TV show. “It was in the conversation. Nothing in podcasting right now feels like it ripples outside of the bounds of people who already listen to podcasts.”
Merry Christmas to all of you! It has been a joy to continue writing for all of you this year. I hope you have a great few weeks, and I will see you in January!
Great collection! I can’t wait to read these. Thanks! Have a great holiday season!