Hope everyone had a great week. I added a brief audio intro above, but the real content starts here.
Our last post was a beginning of sorts. But it was not our first newsletter. It never went out by email, and an un-mailed letter doesn’t count. A finicky formality? Perhaps. But should we act like barbarians, leaving our civilizing structures to crumble in the wind?
Never! So this, I insist, is Post Number One.
The baneful provenance of Post #1
Post #1 was supposed to be a lot of things. My plans were grand. They were so grand that I coughed out 4,000 words in the anguished effort to manifest them. That writing even sounds like it might be good: the implicit cosmology of the business world, Musashi’s Void, the ultimate ends of mankind. But a list of keywords does nary a blog post make, and however I struggled, the final product was just too crappy to share.
But the orphaned chunks weren’t all bad. So they shall compose this letter.
Our content, therefore:
I. A micro-case study on the social media careers of ProZD and Joji.
What is it? A first-pass analysis of two interesting social media careers, which I interpret as capitalizing on low material and high spiritual/emotional barriers to entry.
Who should read it? People who are modeling the career opportunity landscape. Startup people, people trying to hustle, maybe sociology people.
II. A dialogue on implicit philosophy.
What is it? A dialogue with brief commentary, suggesting that the ‘non-philosophical’ do plenty of philosophy.
Who should read it? Anyone who hasn’t heard this idea before, or who might want to dissolve pretenses around intellectual identity.
I. Micro-case study: ProZD and Joji
I think I’ve identified a new(-to-me) type of career arc. I found two clear examples of it, which is enough to characterize a category.
The first is ProZD. He’s a YouTuber with 2.35 million subscribers, at the time of this writing. He makes ultra-short and hilarious videos, kind of like Vines I guess. Here’s an example [6 seconds]:
It seems like he got started by cranking out a metric fuckton of these videos, and spun this into a whole career. Now he does voice acting for shows that go on Cartoon Network. For the kind of stuff he seems into (anime, video games) this seems like a great gig. Also, he’s pretty young, and probably well-placed to get much more involved with games, movies & TV if he wants to.
How hard was this to do? These short videos cost fuck-all in terms of production cost. He didn’t even have to buy a decent camera. Though that’s not the whole of it; the guy is also funny, clearly enjoys performing, and he has a great voice.
What I love about this case is that the cost of launch is almost nothing. I guess there’s video editing to do and ideas to think of, but it doesn’t even seem like ProZD had camera lights early on. Though of course, there’s also the ‘hidden’ up front investment in becoming a hilarious person. Not to mention the challenge of consistently putting yourself out there for years at a time.
Imagine yourself in his shoes. Maybe your friends think you’re funny, but you have no idea if the internet will like your stuff. How do you feel about putting dozens of videos of yourself online, screeching and yelling and doing dumb impressions of anime characters or whatever? ‘Haha it’s just stupid internet videos?’ I call bullshit. There’s a real boldness here, and an absence of shame. Really performative people seem to figure out how to eat that fear and convert it into fuel.
The second example is arguably even more impressive, and definitely more bizarre. Check out this guy [30 seconds]:
His name is Filthy Frank. What? His old videos have titles like ‘vomit cake’, ‘hair cake’, and ‘human cake’. Disgusting! Apparently he started that Harlem Shake meme.
It goes without saying that this guy is completely unafraid. Just look at that pink suit. Like ProZD, he’s incredibly performative, and whether or not you like his content, it was funny (or horrifying) enough to become extremely popular.
So what did this Filthy Frank monstrosity blossom into? Enter Joji:
Brooding, sensitive, emotional. Not Filthy at all. His music is pretty great too:
I’m no scholar of the works of Filthy Frank, but the shift in production quality and social respectability is diametrical. You can barely tell he’s the same guy - though if you squint, you can perhaps detect a nihilistic throughline.
What’s cool to me about this case is that, once again, we have a career path which, while emotionally challenging, is insanely easy to get into in a material sense. I don’t want to downplay the effort involved; video editing takes time, and popularity generates its own tasks. As with ProZD, there’s the work of finding and developing something people want to engage with. In Joji’s case that talent has a musical character, which takes years of work as well.
These paths aren’t necessarily low-effort. For an entertainer, apparent effortlessness is part of the product, which belies backbreaking labor done in private. Much of this labor is of the emotional/spiritual variety. It might be that this psychic difficulty is the main barrier to entering the space.
One thing that helps is that these guys clearly love their work. It’s quite hard to produce great content without loving what you’re doing - though as all lovers know, love is pain as least as often as it’s fun.
How reproducible is this route to success? Should bold, funny, and pain-tolerant people seek social media careers?
Perhaps not. One might compare social media to something like Hollywood, with its notoriously brutal funnel, in which bajillions of hopefuls migrate to LA just to spend decades working at coffee shops. Someone in that cohort may ‘make it’ every now and then, but it ain’t gonna be you.
But it’s not a perfect analogy. The key difference is in up front cost. Hollywood hopefuls might spend years in acting or singing classes, get four-year degrees at top acting schools, pay agents, or sacrifice opportunities for other types of knowledge, work experience, and credentialing.
But ProZD and Joji-types, insofar as they represent a real category, rise through decidedly non-institutional means. (Of course it’s possible that these specific people had rich and powerful relatives or something like that - I haven’t researched in enough depth to know for sure. Hasn’t seemed like it from a quick check.) Early on they were probably just funny people who sharpened their craft by fucking around with friends. Then they filmed it and put it on the internet. In the Joji case, there are also singing skills to account for, and I’d bet that both of them did a bunch of networking with other social media people to get where they are. Still, compared to the Hollywood entertainer path, this approach is quite compatible with the simultaneous pursuit of other careers, on the off chance that you don’t make it big.
Another objection says that internet success is always due to ‘dumb luck’. This kind of skepticism is often one-sided, totally doubting the relevance of skill and virtue, while putting absolute faith in the power and predictiveness of random chaos. This is usually just saltiness in the clothes of epistemology. I tend to believe that skill, wisdom, cleverness, and boldness are real and operant factors, a least when properly matched with an adequately fertile social context.
I don’t want to argue that factors outside one’s control never determine one’s fate in social media. Perhaps of every 100 equally talented and driven people, only 2 are randomly picked for victory - it’s hard to say. I don’t think social media success is something everyone should do, or even something that more people should do. Perhaps it’s overcrowded; perhaps the iron is no longer hot.
But I found these examples interesting. There are at least some indications that, for people with a certain character & skill profile, there are routes to career success that are non-soul-crushing, highly customized, and which don’t involve incredibly expensive early bets, of the sort that demand impossible foreknowledge that one’s dice-roll will work. It seems like social media can be a great playground and laboratory for starting an interesting career.
We will now completely shift direction, to the very different topic of philosophy. This is a great time to stretch your legs or grab a glass of water.
We’ll be here when you get back.
II. Implicit philosophy
We enter in media res, overhearing a conversation between two old friends, by the helpful names of Alice and Bob.
Alice: Hey Bob! Want to chat about philosophy? I’d love to hear what you think.
Bob: Philosophy? I’m sorry - I don’t care much for things like ‘noumena’ or ‘the Veil of Ignorance’. I don’t even have a philosophy.
Alice: Intriguing! But on that last point, a bit unconvincing. Surely you have views on the nature of the world, knowledge, and other such topics?
Bob: Nope! None of that for me. To be frank, I think those questions are a waste of time. We can’t figure out high and mighty questions. It’s better to just act.
Alice: An interesting view! But despite your protestations, perhaps we’re already discusssing the topics that interest me. For instance, while you’re skeptical of ‘philosophical’ pursuits, surely you believe we can figure some things out? This morning you found your way to the grocery store, for example.
Bob: Well, of course! But I can see the store, it’s just down the street. Even if I were blind, I could use sounds or touch. But this is just common sense. When it comes to ‘ideas’, there’s nothing to smell, see, hear, or touch. Worldly things can be figured out, but nothing grounds these abstract explorations.
Alice: So you’re saying that there’s an important separation between the world of ideas, and this other class of ’real’, sensory things?
Bob: You could say it that way, I suppose. There’s a space of things which can be known, and a space of things which can’t.
Alice: But the nature of the cosmos cannot be known?
<Alice continues to draw out Bob’s views, helping him explicate the slowly developing picture. Before long:>
Bob: …And therefore, we end up with categories of things that ‘are’, and things that ‘aren’t’. Those things which ‘are’ can be encountered by senses like smell, sight, and touch, but these ‘higher rational faculties’ don’t have any physical interaction with the world of ‘things’. It’s only physical interaction that can convey what things are. Therefore, <philosophy philosophy philosophy about how you can’t do philosophy.>
I wonder if people will find the illustration convincing! Alice & Bob are fictional, but I’ve had conversations almost exactly like this with people IRL.
And you can try it yourself. Grab someone who will give you the time of day, who doesn’t consider themselves ‘philosophical’. If you’re willing to patiently draw them out and know what you’re looking for, most people can be helped to articulate vast numbers of metaphysical and epistemic claims. They won’t have indexed these ideas as ‘intellectual’, and may want to downplay their relevance. But these views often turn out to be surprisingly self-consistent, and even map on to notable perspectives in the philosophical literature. It turns out that your mom is a skeptic, the postman is a solipsist, the dentist is a dualist, etcetera.
Why does this matter?
I’m very interested in the ways that implicit assumptions guide action. The default case is that upstream of one’s deliberate thoughts and intentions, live a set of overdetermining factors, in the form of implicit views, assumptions, fish-in-water effects and ambient social pressures. Understanding these semiconscious, hard-to-look-at governing intuitions is hard, but crucial to living an agentic life.
The Alice & Bob dialogue attempts to demonstrate the phenomenon when it comes to philosophy, but the same phenomenon reappears in political and social spheres. ‘Non-political people’ can be especially at risk of acting as the unwitting agents of political and social forces beyond their conscious reckoning.
I originally wanted to wrap this up with a quote. The quote is well-phrased, clear, and probably uncontroversial in terms of its actual content.
But let’s be honest: a sober minded thinker who hopes to be taken seriously never likes to quote Ayn Rand. Her ideas may have once enjoyed a more direct line of influence to broader society, but those old telephone wires are fried. In our social context, it may be fruitless to try to articulate the actual value of Rand’s contributions, as many well-meaning people are quite opposed to her, usually pre-intellectually - which is a fancy way of saying ‘for approximately no fucking reason’ (or ‘social pressure’).
In college I would ask people what they thought of Rand, and remember several of them smugly noting that her work was utter trash, not moments before these deeply thoughtful critics would reveal that they had never actually read her! Alas. I envy no one the task of recuperating Rand’s public image, and am no longer a veritable Randroid of good stock myself. I’ll be the first to cede that Rand’s followers can be quite terrible and there’s a great deal to criticize in her work and in her worldview.
That said, there are some nuggets of wisdom in her cantankerous pages. So I will end with this:
“As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation—or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown.”
Remember: there’s no point in quoting this to your friends. Don’t bother reposting it to Twitter. It will have to be be our little secret.