March 04, 2014

Episode Twenty Nine: That Most Peculiar Thing, Cargo Cultism, That Californian Ideology

1.0 That Most Peculiar Thing

Thinking about other British startups - and please, if you have more examples that help me break out of those that are immediately to hand, do send them along, because I'm painfully aware that this is under-researched reckoning - one that resurfaced to at least the frothy bit of my brain was the fine people at Newspaper Club[1]. Newspaper Club is one of those ideas I'm very happy to label as disruptive or insightful or just plain innovative. It relies in part on thinking against the herd mentality and being inspired by having a long, hard look at what it is that people actually do, how a new thing might fit into that, and what people care about.

What the tremendously clever people behind Newspaper Club realised was that there was a bunch of incredibly potent infrastructure lying around that was being used for, more or less, a singular purpose: printing newsprint. And only for a very small set of customers! This infrastructure is *expensive* and big, and the exact kind of thing that you need a lot of capital for, never mind people who know exactly how to use it. And the interface to it is particular and individual involving a whole bunch of specialist domain knowledge that hasn't really escaped (because, of course - who would want to print a newspaper other than the type of people who print newspapers? We have a name for them: newspapermen, and they evoke the Murdochs and Morgans and Rusbridgers of the world. This Extra, Extra, Read All About It heritage is nicely reflected in Newspaper Club's "brand" design, a cheeky scamp of a newspaper boy, eagerly delivering the latest installment.

Well, it turns out that quite a fair few people would like to print newspapers - they just haven't had the chance before. And, perhaps, printing newspapers isn't a hockey stick kind of business where, before you know it, we'll be counting Newspaper Club's Daily Active Users in the hundreds of millions. But: and this is an important but, Newspaper Club is a thriving, growing business.

You want case studies? They've got case studies[2].

You want an antidote to the gag-inducing Eat People not-even-Swiftian-parody take-no-prisoners attitude of people like Andy Kessler, for whom progress must always come at the cost of other people? Look at what Newspaper Club helps people *make*. 

Like Berg, Newspaper Club are another example of that most peculiar thing. Or, as I'm going to start pointing out, the *normal* thing. A business, grown slowly, identifying its market, with thoughtful, considered progress. No, they didn't try to launch with everything at once (lean startup rhetoric). But they knew what they were selling and, I suspect, pleasantly surprised when they saw what people created with what they offered. An imaginative service that repurposes infrastructure and makes it creative? Some sort of weird software/internet/giant-piece-of-machinery bicycle for the expressive mind?

[1] http://www.newspaperclub.com
[2] http://blog.newspaperclub.com/category/case-studies/

2.0 Cargo Cultism

Apologies for the brief interlude and rant into advertising land. There are brands out there - trust me - that are right now thinking how they can capitalise upon Ellen's record-breaking selfie tweet, circulating urgent emails about how this is a Cultural Moment that can be used to show Relevance to their Audience. Bullshit. It's 99.9% junk, flotsam and jetsam clogging up already clogged up realtime feeds where people have already given up trying to discern signal and where the noise in the signal is the best bet at signal itself. All of these brands (and, let's be clear, they're not brands: they're run by people) are afraid of not showing up, that something big is happening and they're not involved when really: their involvement at best is some sort of tangential cry for relevancy, some sort of please don't you forget about me as you scroll on by. Well, shit. The best brands create culture, they don't mimic it. And that kind of stuff is *hard*.  Besides, right now, the even better brands aren't even creating culture. They're trying to do something else entirely.

3.0 That Californian Ideology

I'm still angry at Kessler. I'm still angry at American Exceptionalism, even though I can read it as inspiring and noble and grasping at wanting to create something better. But I'm so, so incredibly pissed off at its rugged individualism and fuck-you attitude to everyone else, that, forged in needing to escape from oppressors it lurched (understandably) in completely the other direction and implies that logically what all the Randian types should do is get off the fucking ARPANET and build their own Internet if they're so assured of their own success and maybe leave Tim Berners Lee off to himself, but OH WAIT: AOL didn't create the ugly, beautiful monstrosity that we have right now (that has inevitably been suborned into the literal panopticon, where the bitstream and clickstream is easily transparent). 

Fuck that.

I'm disgusted.

Reader, I bought Andy Kessler's book and he thinks he's being funny and yes, he's demonstrably smart and intelligent and happily wealthy, but God, he's no Swift and it's not a parody, because he sincerely believes it and he doesn't speak on his About page the way he speaks in his book because rightfully he's embarrassed about it. I'm entirely happy that he lives somewhere with freedom of expression because he gets the chance to show off exactly how much of an inhuman, profiteering, zero-sum, sociopathic cock he is.

There are countless examples of things that are moving forward the standard of living around the world that have absolutely nothing at all to do with the revelling in the eating of people, of the casual disregard for and destruction of dignity. These, I would like to remind Kessler, are actual fucking human beings he's talking about and he's lucky to have been born in a particular place at a particular time where he was able to take advantage of that fact and no, just because someone in California invented a fucking iPod that can hold a thousand tracks in your pocket doesn't mean that he's got clean water or a chance to escape the particular socio-economic trap that he's in. But oh no. Kessler is that brand of person who lacks empathy and the biggest piece of justice for hi that I have in my mind is that that lack of empathy is the one thing that's going to stop him from being as successful and to afford as much "stuff" as he wants as he could be.

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It's not even 9am on the West Coast and I already feel like taking no prisoners. Have a good Tuesday, and think about what you've done.

Dan