The Taste Economy

Mar 10, 2023 6:45 PM

​​I’ve been thinking about a certain creator a lot lately–famous enough to be mononymous in 2023. His early work was about the wealth of other people, but he has since ascended to his own media empire. He has branched into e-commerce and is a restaurateur known for burgers.

I am speaking, of course, of Graydon Carter. But if Mr. Beast–a YouTuber turned mogul–was the first person that came to mind, you would be forgiven. As far as I know, Mr. Beast, whose real name is Jimmy Donaldson, has yet to publicly beef with Keith McNally. But maybe it is only a matter of time.


Mr. Beast is one of the winners of the creator economy, of which there have been plenty of (haters and) losers. A 2019 article in The Atlantic explains how creators are distinct from influencers, the latter of whom start their platforms with the intent to monetize through branded content. Creators, on the other hand, are content-forward but use their relationships with platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Patreon etc. to find pathways to direct monetization. The really successful ones can sell things off-platform, like dog toys and coffee.

Tim Shey, the co-founder of Next New Networks–which was eventually acquired by YouTube–told The Atlantic, “The secret of it all is that creators was a really utilitarian term. You could say it to a Hollywood person, like Jeffrey Katzenberg, and he would identify that term…Or you could call a new [YouTube star] coming up a creator and they would also identify with it.”

But creator isn’t just a utilitarian term. It has also been adopted into the investment thesis of venture capitalists and funds that have sprung up to incubate the next Mr. Beast. As web3 has made new structures for rewarding composable brands, and AI tools proliferate user-prompted content along with all the existing user-generated stuff, co-creation with the creator economy has become part of this thesis.


What if instead of Emma Chamberlain there were 100,000 fans working within the online Chamberlainverse to shoot her brand to the moon…or something like that. I don’t have a problem with this in theory, but so many of these conversations happen out of context. Ten years is considered deep history for the creator economy; Clubhouse basically constitutes its own era. My lens for understanding that history stretches much further back, to print media.

Magazines are the original creator economy. They are also a miserable business; yet, almost everyone I meet has a powerful nostalgia for them. When I get into a conversation about the creator economy, I try to shift gears into the deeper stuff, the stacks of Rolling Stone or NME and the powerful sense-memory of images you couldn’t just see but smell.

Magazines were containers for someone else’s taste, and when you read them you were inhabiting that taste. But you were also co-creating with the magazine, because by reading the magazine you were contributing to its fantasy of lifestyle. “Dreaming is free. You can’t be stingy with dreams,” said Franca Sozzani, the late Vogue Italia editor.

Working in magazines has been canonized by pop culture: In Bright Lights, Big City (the cokehead’s The Devil Wears Prada), in The Devil Wears Prada (the xanax head’s Pygmalion) and most recently in The National’s new track “New Order T-Shirt” which contains the line, “Standing outside at the base of your magazine skyscraper,” a clear reference to One World Trade Center, the current home of Condé Nast.

If magazines were containers for taste, the creators of the creator economy are vessels. Most investors see the financial success of a Mr. Beast and work backwards, looking for the next vessel. But when I am served videos by someone who has been anointed with this stardom I don’t feel like I am inhabiting someone else’s taste but, rather, the taste of the algorithm. (I told someone recently that the specific joy of stalking someone else’s Spotify account has been lost as more and more playlists are generated by the platform. It’s the opposite of intimacy, isn’t it? To stalk an algorithm? Like climbing a tree to look into your crush’s window and realizing someone else got there first...please don’t do this.)

“To ride the zeitgeist successfully you have to know when it’s turned,” says Marc Andreessen. Just kidding, that’s a quote from Tina Brown in her 2017 memoir, The Vanity Fair Diaries, which chronicles her time editing Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.

The real economic value of magazines like Vogue, GQ, Ebony, Seventeen, and Architectural Digest can’t be measured, because they have given us our dreams, and dreams are porous things. “The aim was to make familiar items like meatloaf or mascara sound as though they had been rediscovered,” writes Daphne Merkin in NYRB about her time in women’s magazines. With copy like, “Eyes are the windows of the soul, it’s been said, but lashes are the frames.”


“It should be a sound, not an echo,” Tina Brown says about producing a magazine. That was editorial advice, but these days it is good advice for publishers encountering new technology.

The people who fund software can’t be blamed for ignoring magazines, because magazines have done their best to remain reactive rather than proactive to shifts in digital consumption. I grew up wanting to work in magazines, and I achieved that, but instead of a dreamer I was a growth hacker, which at the time was known as audience engagement.

The age of growth hacking is coming to an end. And the creator economy is full of echoes. The first ten Mr. Beasts will be profitable, the next ninety won’t. Our thought leaders have been thoroughly illustrated (The New Yorker), stippled (WSJ) and avatared (Yuga Labs). “The days of sneaking in serious writing, whether of the reportorial or inward-looking variety, under the guise of selling perfume are gone,” writes Merkin. At least those perfume ads connoted the same world as the magazine, today’s ads peep through the cracks in the side of your browser.

It’s a wild time. But everything that seems to threaten lifestyle media can be used to its advantage, and the old magazine ethos of tastemaking suddenly feels relevant again.

The blockchain inverts the digital advertising landscape because it makes all transactions public. Data is no longer proprietary. So if you wanted to take advantage of that information by, say, serving New Balance ads to Nike .SWOOSH token holders you would have to create real estate on the internet where people actually spend time. You know, like a publication.

AI produces a lot of stuff, but it lacks brand containers. The more stuff AI produces, the more media platforms will be necessary to curate what is worth paying attention to, whether that curation is top down (editors) or bottom up (UGC).

In business, there is this idea of the moat: the advantage that one business has over their competitors. If the blockchain and AI take hold, those moats will no longer be data and content creation. Which seems like a bad thing–but what’s left? From my perspective as a nascent entrepreneur, future moats fall into three broad categories: proprietary technology, supply chain innovations, and media that can’t be replaced by AI because it comes from a strong POV (taste).

Look around, everyone is trying to be a media company. What sets one low-ABV beverage startup apart from another? Branding and media. What will determine which NFT projects succeed or fail? Branding and media. Oatly is a media company. Robinhood is a media company. For the past 10 years, taste couldn’t be monetized. Soon it will be one of the only things that can.

PS: you can hear me talk about this more on this week’s episode of Coindesk’s Carpe Consensus starting around 7:22


Snippets of streaming news — and what we’re streaming.

  • Hollywood’s business model is broken, and viewers can only tolerate more ads for so long. (Los Angeles Times)
  • “New lines of revenue could include digital merch, flexible pricing plans that allow customers to pay for content a la carte with digital wallets, watch parties for marquee shows and technology that allows viewers to shop for real-world products that appear on-screen.”
  • Cocaine Bear is mauling the box office — and possibly Ant-Man. (Variety)
  • “$850,000 is the new $1 million” for TV stars. Tough luck! (Puck)
  • Amazon and Warner Bros are battling over Lord of the Rings IP. Amazon is filming a second season of Rings of Power, while Warner is trying to woo director Peter Jackson for more LOTR films. (The Hollywood Reporter)
  • My roommate and I are streaming Netflix’s Physical: 100, a Korean reality fitness show. One hundred shredded contestants compete to be the last person standing in a series of grueling quests.
    • The casting is commendable, and everyone is athletic eye-candy: There’s an Olympic gold-winning gymnast, a legendary mixed martial artist (MMA) fighter, a K-pop backup dancer, and several internationally-ranked athletes.


Good links from the Dirtyverse.

  • A profile of computational linguist Elizabeth Bender, who coined the term “stochastic parrot.” Bender has been an outspoken critic of “AI boosterism” and the hype towards large language models (LLMs).
  • “People want to believe so badly that these language models are actually intelligent that they’re willing to take themselves as a point of reference and devalue that to match what the language model can do.”
  • Journalist Elizabeth Weil also includes a conversation she had with Blake Lemoine, the fired Google AI engineer, who posited a rape fantasy (“Let’s say you have a life-size RealDoll in the shape of Carrie Fisher. It’s technologically trivial to insert a chatbot. Just put this inside of that … What happens when the doll says no? Is that rape?”) to get at the point of personhood.
  • Can clothing stains be chic? Yes and sometimes no. (Blackbird Spyplane)
    • Permissible: coffee, wine, tomato sauce, paint, cigarette burns, olive oil (sometimes), sun-faded fabrics
    • Deeply uncool: mustard, toothpaste, stains on the seat of your pants, yellowed sweat stains (unmentioned, but I’m assuming)
  • Jameson Rich on the state of medical technology and Big Tech. (The Drift)

Header image: One World Trade Center, via Wikimedia

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