“The greatest discovery of the 21st century will be the discovery that Man was not meant to live at the speed of light.” – Marshall McLuhan
It’s been a long time since I’ve reached the end of a feed.
Growing up, our family computer was in the back corner of the living room, tucked away from the couches and TV. Sitting in that corner felt like its own little world, and the internet felt just as cozy. I’d log on in the morning before anyone else was awake and just surf, looking for things to do. There were still only so many posts, so many memes, and so many new sites and projects to explore in a given week. Single memes would dominate the zeitgeist for months, a lifespan practically unheard of today.
Compared to today, the early 2010s media machine moved at a glacial pace. In 2023, our collective attention span has been whittled to the width of a newsfeed, our cultural memory is as fleeting as a TikTok. The onslaught of content is unrelenting; production tends towards infinity.
Much has been written about the nature of new media: it’s free, remixed, algorithmically distributed, and infinitely generated. But I’m more interested in the next question: as internet-native media takes hold, what business models remain? What does an internet-native “media business” actually look like?
Amid this backdrop, a new paradigm – which we’ll refer to as "luxury media" – is emerging. This unique framework for internet-native media businesses, underpinned by a story of community and patronage, offers the next frontier – and a return to the past – in a rapidly shifting media landscape.
When we refer to media, we’re referring to the vehicle through which information is delivered. TVs are media. TikTok – or algorithmic video feeds – are media. Books are media. When we discuss content, we’re referring to the information being delivered, the stuff packaged within the media: the news story is the content of the television medium, the corn kid is the content of TikTok, the words inside of the book are the content delivered by the book as the medium.
Marshall McLuhan’s essay “The Medium is the Message” tells us that the rules and design of the platforms we use to produce, distribute, and consume media change the content itself. The nature of TikTok as an app, for example, unlocked entire forms and genres of content that we hadn’t seen prior to 2016. The nature of media fundamentally impacts our relationships with ourselves and each other.
The New Models duo extends this idea, offering us the concept of “platform physics”:
Importantly, each era of technology has a unique “physics”—a term we use to describe the hard-coded mechanics and incentives of every media platform, whether digital or analog. Users are as bound to these conditions when operating within a given platform as they are to gravity when walking on Earth. Platform physics are the ways in which a medium’s design determines a piece of content’s nature, the content’s “natural motion” through a network, its recipients’ responses, and the various nth order effects of this content being in circulation.
The internet has created the most effortless networked media environment we have ever seen. ChatGPT and other LLM tools have significantly increased the rate of content production; AI quickly shapes a user’s jumbled thoughts into content fit for whatever medium they desire. Algorithmic feeds allow for global content distribution at the tap of a screen. Content can be remixed, commented on, shared, liked, and repackaged with close to zero strain.
When content is infinitely replicable, frictionlessly created, and instantly distributed, then the content itself matters far less. The “physics of infinity” moves content even further to the background, forcing users to focus a layer above.
What is that layer? In a world of infinite content, what media is truly valuable?
We no longer lack tools for creating content. When content production and distribution is infinite, the important aspect is its primary function in crafting and proliferating culture*.* In other words, the value of content today comes primarily from its use in cultural production.
In his discussion of the evolution of brands in the internet age, Toby Shorin argues in “Life After Lifestyle” that the market has evolved to a place where culture is the product itself:
In the new cultural economy, the culture is the product. It is composed of practices, ideas, and discourses. Products are auxiliary, supportive, but not the main event.
When content production is infinite, we’re left asking, “What is this all for?” An abundance of content leaves us with a dearth of context and meaning. Under the physics of infinity, media doesn’t need to be a vehicle for delivering more content. Instead, it should act as a lens through which we sensemake with content, and as a container for capturing and utilizing it.
In “Holographic Media”, New Models argues that the media we’re looking for is community:
We might even say that the community itself becomes a form of media, a holographic filter through which every platform is accessed and where individuals with strong connections across multiple communities become literal interfaces for information.
In many ways, this is an obvious conclusion. Community is defined by shared passion, active learning, and collective practice. Rafa, in his essay “Community Unchained,” takes this a step further saying that:
Community, as a new form, challenges our current notions of media. Like net art from the 1990s and early 2000s, “it is neither materialistic nor immaterial” [...] As Wassim Alsindi pointed out: “The medium is now an assemblage of the message AND the messengers, enmeshed and entangled together.” [...] The shape of Community Media is still emerging, but the initial pattern of its content form is already used. It is a digital content experience composed of relationships, inventories, and mind-space.
Communities exist as filters for information and as mediums of collective production. Community formation takes content as input (curation as a form of sensemaking) and outputs more content in the form of cultural production (creation as a form of cultural practice). People become the platform, and the focus of media shifts to what we do with the information at our disposal.
Community is internet-native media. Yet the vast majority of creators and publications are still built around the value of content. It’s no wonder why today’s digital media businesses are deeply broken.
As this piece is being written, VICE Media is filing for bankruptcy. Much of the media industry saw job cuts across the board, including at Gannett, NPR, The Washington Post and more over recent months. In April, BuzzFeed announced that its Pulitzer Prize winning digital news outlet BuzzFeed News was being shut down as part of a cost-cutting drive by its corporate parent.
Independent internet-native creators leverage the internet’s frictionless content creation and distribution, but they’re still trapped by traditional business models like subscriptions and advertising.
A subscription model is based on the promise of the production of future gated content. A publication or creator is paid to continue production, not necessarily for past production. We saw this firsthand at AMA, a creator growth agency I co-founded in 2019. Creators were only rewarded if they kept chugging out newsletters and videos. Extended breaks in content production resulted in high subscriber churn.
The subscription access business model results in a creator’s dilemma. If their best content is paywalled, how will they demonstrate the value of subscribing to new readers? If their best content is paywalled, subscribers have no way of accurately assessing the quality of a creator’s work.
Likewise, advertising powers free distribution on the internet, but introduces external stakeholders. The incentives transition to making content the best product that it can be for advertisers, taking the form of clickbait titles, outrage-inducing stories, and opens the door to censorship.
The longstanding struggles of digital media businesses drive home the fact that internet-native media requires a fundamentally different business approach. Monetizing content assumes that the value is held in the content itself. Under the physics of infinity – frictionless content creation and distribution – the marginal value of every additional article, tweet, meme, podcast, post, book, painting, etc. asymptotically approaches zero.
Instead, value accrues to the layer of cultural production – to the community. Internet native business models must be designed for this reality. An internet-native media business allows content to be freely accessed and distributed while leaning into the value of the community’s sensemaking, context, and cultural production.
Let’s recap: as content creation and distribution tends to infinity, community emerges as true internet-native media. Community is an exercise in cultural production, and communities filter content proliferate a specific point of view. The role of the community, then, is to create and curate cultural artifacts in-line with their collective point of view (POV). Dirt founder Daisy Alioto would call this "the business of taste," where a community’s taste is their primary differentiator.
Products sold on the basis of their taste are traditionally recognized as luxury goods. When we buy luxury goods, we are buying the story more so than the utility of the product. From the Acquired podcast episode on the conglomerate fashion house LVMH:
Ben: Right, because to your point of what makes a luxury brand by the most traditional definition of luxury, different from premium, defensible, is the fact that it is more desirable than its function alone, and that people believe that desirability is durable among generations. The way the implementation that you create that durability is often through place and story. If you own the place and you own the story, you own the reason why someone would believe in the longevity of that brand to opt into it at these price points.
Traditional business models no longer work in the internet age because they’re dependent on monetizing access to content (production) or selling ad space (distribution). The business of internet-native media shouldn’t be primarily concerned with either of those things. People must pay to support a specific POV – a subculture.
This is what we call luxury media: a framework for the economic sustainability of internet-native media.
To get more concrete, luxury media implies a three-pronged approach to media monetization:
SPACES: Permissioning access to spaces. Communities will exist in one or many (semi-)private spaces (Discords, forums, physical clubhouses, etc.), each with their own platform physics. Members will pay fees to the governing organization in order to access these spaces and participate in conversation and community activities.
ARTIFACTS: Communal minting of cultural artifacts. Infinite content implies a renewed importance of trusted publishing. Public, community-curated feeds act as magnets to the brand. Communities will mint content or create products to be collected and used by others who want to support their POV, powered by the blockchain. These cultural artifacts will be luxury goods, community-crafted as opposed to computer generated.
COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE: Gating the hivemind. The conversation and activity of these communities will become deeply representative of their unique POV and knowledge. Over time, these communities will become content themselves for a new medium: artificial intelligence. AI models tapping into community data will have access to otherwise private knowledge and POVs, creating opportunities for communities to get paid for opening access to their hivemind, and for new forms of collective creation at scale.
This framework implies a return to patronage – we are not paying for utility, we are funding the story, the taste, the culture, and its support and proliferation.
Ironically enough, patronage is an even older media business model than advertising or subscriptions. During the Renaissance, patronage was symbiotic – it afforded patrons cultural capital and social prestige, while providing creators the resources needed to produce their work. This system underscored the societal and economic value placed on art and knowledge, and the role of patrons in shaping cultural narratives.
Today, the term patronage has even taken on modern commercial implications. Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon enable creators to appeal directly to their audience for support. Consumers become active contributors to the creation process.
Patronage made a comeback with the rise of blockchains, specifically through NFTs. For the first time, artists and publications could allow fans to collect their digital content in the same way they could collect merch, memorabilia, or physical magazines. Folks wondering why people drop hundreds of dollars on an image they could view for free should look no further than patronage – collectors are supporting a subculture and publicly signaling their association with it.
A move towards patronage signifies a return to media's roots as a luxury – a good that is appreciated for its cultural value and the communal identity it fosters, rather than its individual utility.
In a luxury media landscape, the traditional roles of creator, curator, and consumer are being redefined. Artists are not just creators but are now stewards of cultural communities, leveraging their individual legitimacy to direct communal conversations and brands. In the Age of Average, where mediocre content is abundant, creators become artisans, crafting high-quality cultural artifacts on behalf of their communities.
Concurrently, audiences shift from passive consumers to active co-creators and patrons, effectuating their preferences by voting with their dollar while also producing and curating content that they believe aligns with the collective POV.
Luxury is only exclusive in a monoculture. A luxury media landscape implies an abundance of opportunities for people to discover and support subcultures. This requires a profound change to our relationship with media — a change in consumer philosophy just as much as creator or producer.
Community requires us to take an active role, curating content that aligns with our POV and producing what we want to see more of. People become the platform, and the focus of media shifts on what we do with the information at our disposal.
In this new paradigm, our choices hold power; we shape narratives, build networks, and create cultural value.
Building a business around internet-native media is a return to luxury.