on the creator economy, knowledge workers, and new platforms

a free-flowing conversation about the future of the internet, in collaboration with Severin Matusek of Co–Matter.

To say that the last year has shown us the potential of the Internet to lead revolutions and halt them is to say very little at all. Today, I’m excited to share a conversation I had with a peer, Severin Matusek (the author of one of my favorite reports recently, the Post-Social Media report).

In our conversation, we cover many changes, trends, and talk about broadcast versus community platforms.

Nikita Walia: The biggest thing I've been really thinking about I think for the last few years, we've all kind of longed for the internet to be smaller, and I think that only proved to be more true through COVID. You know, with people doing their Zoom dance parties and all of that. So in your opinion, how much of that do you feel is going to be enduring? How much are we just going to back to our regular life? Are people really going to change their digital behaviors to be less broadcast?

Severin Matusek: Well, I think a lot of things will fundamentally change and are changing. Because I think, as many people said before, the pandemic has accelerated digital shapes across a very wide landscape. You know, us, in our bubble, of course we can video call for years, but it's quite exciting for a lot of people to actually do that kind of stuff. I think the word Zoom became became a verb like Skype has become maybe 15 or 20 years ago. Right?

NW:Yeah.

SM: But now, it's for a certain culture opportunity into a bigger call, where Skype was a synonym for calling anyone on the internet for free 20 years ago. So I think that's going to stick, that a demographic, from very young people to very old people, are accustomed to Zoom calls, to video calls, to working from home. And I think that's going to stay. I also think the whole ‘work from home’ trend of course is going to stay, because so many people I’ve talked to in the last few months actually really appreciate the life that they have now—they’re very well off, well paid, and privileged of course. But people who have an extra room in their house and can work from home and don't have any more of that constant trouble.

And the whole movement of moving now on the countryside and moving back to their parents' place or wherever people came from, I think it's going to stay. Because it was probably in the making for a long time, but... Basically, what happened last year was sort of a cultural revolution that nobody consciously made happen, but it just happened because of circumstances and I think a lot of the elements that have changed over the past year and a half are going to stay in one form or another.

At the same time, personally, I feel like I just want to go out there and be in the real world again. Right? But I honestly think once this is possible, there might be like a blooming phase of a few weeks or a few months where everyone is doing that and then we're all going to go back to where we came from. So alone at home, like we do now.

NW: Yeah. 100%. And I also think, to your point about last year sort of being a revolution, I really think that if we had five more 2019s and last year would have been normal, I don't think many people would finally have become as disillusioned as they are now with capitalism just... Especially with knowledge workers, I think that class especially has had a very reflexive reaction to the pandemic. I don't know if you saw that article in the New York Times.

It was going around. It was kind of annoying. But it was about the whole phenomena of rich knowledge workers like moving in with their parents or just like... quitting their jobs and exploring. Which again, very limited purview of the world, but I think a lot of people are asking themselves what is the point of all this. And I wonder if how much that even extends to social media. Acognitive dissonance that I've been having... I'm Indian. Obviously I live in the States. I have very little family left in India; I do have some. And it's such a cognitive dissonance that I have, my life is going back to normal here in New York, I'm fully vaccinated, and look at what's happening to India. It's really also just a very Western view of the world. You know? The rest of the world is going to be suffering from COVID for a long time.

SM: Yeah. I mean, obviously even in the Western World, it's not the end of the story, I think. I mean, I have no clue. Right?

NW: 100%.

SM: Yeah. Now, we're all getting vaccinated and it's summer again, where everyone is just, "Well, we're over it." But who knows what's going to come. So we're just going to have to live with that.

NW: 100%. And I don't think people live with uncertainty very well.

SM: Yeah. I agree.

NW: As a result of this shift, do you see brands changing the way that they're going to tap into internet culture?

SM: I have to say this is my very personal perspective, which is really shaped by how I, individually, see the world and which might not be a reflection of what's trending right now. I think there's one type of brand that jumps on the next big thing quickly, right?

Like it was TikTok last year, it was Clubhouse early this year, and the next thing is going to come for sure. The more and more brands, when compared that social media maybe 10 years ago, where a lot of legacy brands and older brands really had trouble understanding social media and needed tons of agencies to get into the field social media with the narrative of like, "People are talking about you anyway, so you might as well join the conversation." I think those times are over.

A lot of big brands now have their teams in place, that can react and that don't need like two years to convince the CEO to go on TikTok. So that happened. And actually what happened is that a lot of the big brands are even some the best that handle social media nowadays. Because maybe they have to have people that cater that normally they have bigger chains. When you look at what's going on, there's a lot of Burger King, there's a lot of these big brands, that actually do a pretty good job at influencing internet culture and being part of it. I think part of it is that those kind of brands, that understand how social media works and are able to jump onto the next trend very fast, have the right people in place to really understand it in a culture and be part of the culture in the right way.

And then, I think there are other brands, which I'm more personally interested in, they basically feel like, "Well, social media going to stay. But it's really just a new form of advertising. It's really just like mass marketing and broadcasting at a new scale and a new level." So the whole promise of what a certain generation like me thought what social media might become did not happen. And we have to acknowledge that. And it's fine. But me personally, and I think some startups, some brands, other people out there, we're now I think that's what the social media report is about that I wrote last year, we are looking for an alternative. And I don't know what the alternative yet is, but it's certainly not the next big hyping platform that attracts millions and millions of users within a few days.

So it's more like these niche communities that maybe have a few hundred people that really focus on something that's really specific. Or as well I think the other trend that might be connected to some part of internet culture is I think more and more brands understand also the larger zeitgeist that people want brands to make a change in the world. They want brands to be conscious of climate change, they want brands to be conscious of inequalities, of racism, and so on. And of course social media is one way to address that, but I think what I'm more interested in is brands who understand they are in a position to effect change. They have this role, and they are expected to be in this role and look for tools beyond social media to make an impact. And that is open to exploration. I saw Patagonia is always like a prime example of this. [Social media has] been very powerful, and that's where I'm still excited and hopeful. But we have to find new ways to use it beyond the traditional platforms that we all became very used to.

NW: 100%. I mean, to your point about it's not going to be the next platform that's the big thing. It's going to be about unlocking some way to connect with people really directly. I completely agree.

I think the challenge that nascent platforms like TikTok have put on brands is to actually behave with the platform, rather than Instagram, which you said is very much like a broadcast channel. You're just throwing ads on there. 

It’s almost impossible to win on creator-driven platforms without tapping into the culture of the platforms themselves, which empowers creators in new ways and challenges brand teams (that are often stretched too thin) differently. It’s going to be a wild ride, but I think it’s nice to see people behaving with the internet instead of against it.

SM: Yeah. I think one problem that it always comes back to as well is how do brands measure impact in the end? When it comes to new forms of using the internet, to connect with people or to have a relationship like with niche communities, that's a much harder sell. Like how do you sell to someone, "Hey, do you want to invest 100k into connecting with 150 people?" They're like, "Okay. Well, might spend this money elsewhere where it could reach millions." But that's where companies and executives have to shift their mindset, because this is not about reaching people or grabbing people's attention, which is the thing we're all tired of, but it's really about involving people in the value creation of something. Or the product creation of something. Or tapping into the expertise of people joining in from around the world.

I think all of us have to make a personal choice in the future of do we want to work for the internet or with the internet? Because obviously we can't work without the internet. Right? That would be stupid. We can, but it would be a bit Luddite. But I think a lot of people that I know, from the start of economy to end of economy, potentially we're all people working behind a screen or thing that only exists within a screen, with entirely virtual ecosystems. Which might be great, because I think the internet is just developing into this parallel world that is equally exciting as the real world at some point. And of course the two worlds connect to each other all the time. For me personally, it's a question I ask myself, "Do I want to work for the internet, or do I want to work with the internet?" Because honestly after this year, I'm more interested in seeing people in real life and making things happen in real life, where people come together in this world and we don't look at screens all the time.

I think maybe one other trend that I've been reading about that I think is going to be true and going to grow even more is that, yeah, the sort of knowledge worker that works on the internet, it might turn into something that you live in a small village, not in a big city, you have you're eight hours a day online job, but then you use the rest of your time to actually do things in the real world. Like you join a local club, you get active in a local community, you have a farm, you have a garden. So we might go away, and I think that it could happen, to a future where, yeah, an eight-hour workday is going to be a past thing of the past. Maybe we're just going to work four hours a day on the internet in that way.

But yeah, maybe it's going to be a mix of creating value online and earning money for that, maybe even earning virtual money for that, but then for the... day,... the rest of your day in creating value offline, which might not be related to a job but to something else that provides a lot of value, like tending a garden of vegetables, being active in your local community. So maybe it's going to be a mix of those.

NW: I think for people that set their own schedules, some of that has already started. Like there's another studio here that I know that very publicly has like a four-day work week. I very recently, like from May, I've set a studio policy that our office closes at one. On Fridays, if we manage social, things will get posted, but like emails are being responded to. I think people are like, now that like work is home and home is work and everything has folded onto itself, I think we've all had a very reflective reaction of, "This cannot be the way to live like the next 30, 40, 50 years of my life." 

I had that to some extent like a few years ago when I quit my job and started my own practice, but I think even more this year too largely the work I do is satisfying, but I was like, "This can't be the only way to live a life." And I think a lot of people are going to have that realization. I think to sort of round out our conversation, the last thing is really just the trend cycle. I know like sort of infamously, there is like a 20-year trend cycle, and now a big cognitive dissonance I've had is I've seen kids on TikTok romanticizing 2011. 2011 is when I was in high school; I'm not even 30 yet. You know? And the whole trend cycle is getting shorter and shorter. So how do you see the trend cycle accelerating or changing? And how much of it do you think is purely driven by the internet and the fact that people's communities are getting nicher and nicher and how much of it is just capitalism at work?

SM: I think what you said is interesting, but when people were reminiscing about 2011, you know it could be that this now a generation that has grown up in quite a digital world, which means that all the memories, everything we've created, are all digital, right? So it's much easier maybe to be nostalgic or unravel things from the past, because they're online. Versus our times took on things that are from like the 90s, which are harder to access. I think when it comes to infinite trend, maybe my answer is definitely see that these niche communities are become big. Right? I think, I mean, maybe it become big like is a paradox. But yeah, more and more people that I know, including myself, the only way I actually still engage online is in niche communities. I don't even engage on social platforms anymore. I realized actually only yesterday that it took me years, but I have entirely cut out the habit of social media now of my life. Like when I'm at laptop, I still check maybe Instagram and Twitter two or three times a day and LinkedIn, but social media has completely disappeared from my phone, and I don't even think about it anymore. Which is amazing to me. I wanted that since so many years and I couldn't make it happen. So I realized, "Okay, maybe I'm really out of it." Which is great. But what I'm actually into, I'm into niche communities, like I'm part of two or three where 60 to 100 people paid to be part of a community with a certain goal. A lot of knowledge sharing, trading knowledge, I'm finding like-minded people. That's the kind of stuff where it just adds a lot more value to my life. I think this happens across the board.

The other trend I think, that I'm not exactly sure how much of a trend it actually is, is like the creator economy. Because everyone talks about it right now, and I'm not exactly sure it's not just the next big scam in a way, right? Like I see a lot of like... I think Facebook issued this statement a few days ago when they announced their goal is bring all into audio and creator tools. Which is basically exactly the same narrative as social media 15 years ago. Like everything is going to be more democratic, people are going to have more opportunities, we're all going to be richer and happy and so on. And you just know that's not true. Right? Very, very few people are going to make good money on it, and the 99.9% are going to struggle making anything than the creator economy. That's exactly what it's going to be, I think. I'm not exactly sure about the creator economy, but it's still exciting that, I think, more and more tools and companies emerge that in some way or another empower people to do something. Right? But overall, I think the biggest part of the larger internet trend that the era of free is kind of over. That more people are willing to pay for more stuff on the internet, but also that more people are dependent on getting paid on the internet. The more tools that are emerging... And the free version of the internet, the internet kid, it's going to be like this wild Google jungle where all your data is going to get caught. It's going to get basically abused from beginning to end. That's what it's going to be at.

NW: I think something that I've always kind of struggled with, and especially around like... Social media makes celebrities out of regular people without any of the protections that celebrities are afforded, whether it's literal safety or it's a PR team to groom them and keep them out of trouble. And that's disconcerting. And you see that happen over and over, and people end up with their feet in their mouths or they end up being doxxed. And it's scary. I just read this article the other day about this teenager that got like two million followers on TikTok, and then she got a really scary stalker and he just wouldn't leave her alone and police couldn't do anything about it, and she just left the platform. I think that's the underbelly of this digital fame that no one speaks nearly enough about.

And I think the other part of it is it's very much like a blueprint now, and I think it's a blueprint that honestly was set by the Kardashians, of what modern fame is. And it was really funny, I was actually watching the Kardashians last night, because I think they're just a fascinating study in culture, and that's why I love to just see them. And Kim says, "I want to make a TikTok for my next campaign. Because something I try really hard to do is keep up with the times. Because I have to change with the world." And I was like this is the moment of like the many years that I've observed them of like them acknowledging their awareness of this system, because I think they always just kind of blow it off.

But all of that is to say, I think all of these YouTube creators, whatever, they're doing the same thing the Kardashians did. They're licensing their name to a bunch of things. Like what's his name? I think Mr. Beast or something was running that like Ghost Kitchen on DoorDash, where it was just like burgers that was selling. And I don't eat influencer burgers, but they sold out, so you know, it's for somebody. I think there's that and then there's of course Substack and all these platforms that are emerging, where people are kind of taking the power back into their own hands. Especially like journalists are now making so much more money on Substack than they ever did on their publications.

SM: Hmm, yeah. It's going to be interesting I think what happens to journalism and journalists, because I see that as well, journalists being very successful from Substack. I don't know. I think there's always a chance. Yeah, we tend to forget how much structure and safety often large corporations provide, right? I think this is maybe something that's also in some way trending, where a lot of people in the past few years have been independent or freelancers, et cetera, and then the pandemic hits hard and they realize that, wow, they're really struggling to get by. So people are starting to find a traditional career path and a traditional job attractive again because of the security and the safety. So maybe something that will happen to journalism. Because I don't know, I wish everyone the best, but I think it's all an incredible amount of work to serve a community of paying subscribers and make them happy. And to do that alone, or with maybe a few people that you can barely employ, I don't know, it's going to be tough.

NW: Yeah. And also, this is really far out there, but like you said, the structure of a news organization also has a certain level of ethics and fact checking and all of these things involved, and I'm not saying every journalist on Substack is doing this, but how does that change you from like what a fake news farm is doing? What is the structure in place? What is the barometer you're holding yourself to? Because everyone's journalistic ethics, they're probably slightly different as an individual report, but across like the New York Times or the Washington Post, you can expect a certain ethic or political alignment. And I think that's something that's really interesting and scary to think about too. Like how does change you from like an Alex Jones? You know?

SM: Yeah. Totally. But overall, I find it very hard to think about the future right now. You know? Because it's so much... We're so co-dependent on whatever is out there that it's impossible to predict a future right now.

NW: One of my friends calls this the for now normal. And I think that's the best way to refer to this period in our lives. It's just eh for now normal, and we don't know what's coming next. And we just know that whatever came before is somehow gone.

SM:Yeah. It really influenced how I personally work with brands. Because in the past, before COVID, it was like, okay, you can see certain streams, certain trends, and try to understand them. And you can somehow build a strategy that might work for like three or five years without a patient. Right now, any strategy work that I do which is completely on, okay, this is what is happening now, but we have to play super flexible, just if you're... and see what you're going to do. Because no one knows.

NW: 100%. And I think the best strategic work that you can do, like you said, it's very much nimble and agile and has a general ethos, but can shift. And I think more people need to be flexible about the idea that we will all need to pivot very quickly.