Mainstream, not meme

Quick Read: The next time you see something labelled as a meme, ask yourself if it is actually actually the expression of a mainstream culture (or counter culture) albeit within a specific societal context. Calling something a ‘meme’ strips off the necessary nuance and clouds comprehension. So – it’s mainstream, not meme.

1: r/Wallstreetbets

Would I expect to find Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates or Warren Buffet on r/WallstreetBets?

Unlikely.

After all, why would some of the world’s richest people fancy a speculative bet on fundamentally weak stocks? So I would be surprised if they’d even know, much less care about stonk memes.

Park that thought and we’ll be right back.

2: The 3-Ladders of Social Class

Alex Danco’s “The Michael Scott Theory of Social Class” has been one of the most thought provoking posts that I have read in the recent past. A highly recommended read in case you haven’t yet.

In it, he speaks about ‘Michael Church’s 3-ladder system’ and how once you recognise it and its constituent dynamics, you cannot unsee it play out across demographics and domains all around you. He writes:

Several years ago, Michael Church wrote a neat summary of the American social class system, and how the traditional metaphor of “climbing the ladder of social class” is wrong in an important way. There isn’t one single ladder; there are three – each with different values, norms and goals. You have the first, and largest ladder, Labour. Next, you have the “Educated Gentry” ladder that corresponds to what we typically call the Upper Middle Class. And finally, you have the elite ladder.

Climbing the labour ladder means making more money. At the bottom are really tough jobs, typically paid hourly, informally, or with tips. Above that there are stable, but modest blue collar jobs; then high-skilled or good Union-protected careers. Finally at the top you find “Labour leadership”, which doesn’t mean being a union boss, but means, “You’ve made it. You own stuff. You drive a new F-150, you have income properties, you enjoy nice things.”

If you’ve made it to Labour leadership, you are by no means hurting for money. But you have not actually escaped the category of “economic losers”, because the Labour ladder does not create paths to leverage. That is the fundamental difference between how the labour ladder works versus how the elite ladder works. The people on the labour ladder fully understand this. (…)

Skipping the middle ladder for a second, we move to the Elite ladder. The Elite ladder has a lot in common with the Labour ladder: it’s straightforward. You move up by getting more money and more power. The only fundamental difference is that you climb the Labour ladder by working hard, whereas you climb the Elite ladder by acquiring leverage. (..)

The middle ladder works completely differently from the other two. This ladder isn’t about money or power; it’s about being interesting. You climb this ladder by being more educated, and towards the top, by having costly habits and virtues. 

At the bottom is also a transitional layer: it’s how you get onto this ladder if you weren’t born there, often via Community or 1st generation College. Above that is the upper-middle class Petite Bourgeoisie. Higher up the ladder are “elite creatives”, people with obscure or virtuous-sounding PhDs, notably interesting lives, or Blue Check Marks on Twitter. (They may well earn less money than those below them on the ladder – this ladder isn’t about income.) At the very top of this ladder is an exclusive group: “Cultural leadership”. The litmus test for attaining this group is, “could you write an opinion piece in the New York Times.” 

Source: The Michael Scott Theory of Social Class. By Alex Danco

When I accept this construct even at a broader level, I’m tempted to posit the following.

Just as there is no single ladder, but three – each with different values, norms and goals, there is no single cultural construct, but (at least) three – each with different values, norms and goalsthat correspond to each of these social/societal ladders (this is diversity in cultural constructs that is over and above the conventional manifestations of cultural diversity that we usually recognise around the dimensions of region, religion, ethnicity etc). The idea here is that culture is contextual to its underlying societal ladder.

This might sound obvious (and it is to a large extent). But when we accept this thesis, one should also accept the corollary – there is no one counterculture. Because, different people relate in different ways to what is labelled as counterculture in popular discourse. For, what might resonate with me as a ‘cultural norm’, or what might appear to me as an artefact of an emerging counterculture in my social/societal context, might appear as an entirely different thing (or sometimes might not even be evident) for someone on a different societal ladder living with different constructs/conceptions of culture. So the emergent idea for me here is that counterculture is contextual to its underlying ladder (vs being a universally applicable relic of time).

Caroline Busta in her thought provoking article recently said that The internet didn’t kill counterculture—you just won’t find it on Instagram. I’d add a little further to this argument and say that I may, after all, perhaps find manifestations of counterculture on Instagram – but only I ; while others may perhaps find that on Reddit and others on Clubhouse.

The Internet has only siloed the contexts where the drivers of the (counter) cultural forces emerge and the canvas on which the strokes of (counter) cultural expressions takes form and shape. That’s why for people who worship at the altar of NYT Op-eds or meticulously follow the blue checkmarks on twitter, the Gamestop short squeeze would have come as a sensational meme or ‘breaking news’, while for those that are on r/Wallstreetbets it was just another day when a topically relevant cultural expression found its restless voice.

Gully Boy, Source

That’s why when the rest of India was enjoying it as a Bollywood movie on Netflix or Amazon Prime, the artists in the slums of Dharavi were discovering and finessing their craft through TikTok (now banned in India) and ShareChat.

3: Gamestonk!!

And that’s why I find Elon Musk’s tweet revealing.

When even those like Hedge Funds that have an existential stake in the emergent buzz cooking up in the worlds of Reddits and Robinhoods were caught unawares of the power of the ‘Gamestonk’ phenomenon, an unlikeliest person seems to have not just understood but also arguably played an influential role in the unraveling of a grassroots phenomenon on r/Wallstreetbets.

After all, that’s the world’s richest person showing that he is more culturally attuned to what is cooking up among the crowds versus anyone else that one may expect to care. He seemed to be able to see something as a mainstream force of a cultural expression – that has just been waiting for its time within a societal context – versus just as some amusing meme unleashed by Robinhood frenzy.

In a parallel universe he might have been a true blue marketer (which he perhaps already is albeit a wealthy one) or better still ……….. a President of a nation state*.

*Did you know that Elon Musk holds triple citizenship? US, Canada and South Africa. (source)

Narrative Violations and Narrative Primitives

Quick Read: Sometimes narratives could have ‘violations’. And sometimes, what might at first appear to be a ‘violation’ could prove to be intrinsic to its narrative. Knowing the former from the latter could help unlock great value – across verticals or contexts.

Making sense of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is said to be difficult.

It is considered by many to be one of the most revered and feared compositions in Jazz history. In fact generations of Jazz musicians are known to approach ‘Giant Steps’ as the pinnacle in Jazz improvisation.

Why? This video could provide a delightful crash course of an answer.

Or take Afrobubblegum – the new film genre redefining on screen representation of Africa.

It refers to fun, fierce and frivolous African art that has joy and hope at the centre of it. The pioneer of this style, Wanuri Kahiu a TED fellow and a Kenyan filmmaker says “We’re so used to narratives out of Africa being about war, poverty and devastation. We believe that Africa is joyful and full of pride and respect and hope,” and continues to champion the need for such art that captures the full range of human experiences to tell vibrant stories of Africa.

And tell she did!

In 2018, Wanuri Kahiu’s story of young lesbian love, Rafiki, made international headlines for being the first Kenyan film programmed at the Cannes Film Festival in 71 years of French Riviera cinema history.

What is common between Wanuri Kahiu’s ‘Afrobubblegum’ and John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’?

The genre of Afrobubblegum or the Jazz track ‘Giant Steps’ standout because they ‘violate’ the popular narratives around their respective art forms or subjects. They are examples of what venture capitalists call Narrative Violations.

Narrative Violations

While the term could seem like a fancy jargon to reference the essential characteristic of what makes something a ‘contrarian bet’ to a VC, I should admit that it serves its semantic purpose of helping us put a label on something specific through descriptive and non ambiguous terminology.

Perhaps it is this pull that made Geoff Lewis and Eric Stromberg – the founders of Bedrock Capital – write a manifesto for their firm titled ‘In Search of Narrative Violations‘ stating the following..

Some recent ‘Narrative Violations’ listed on Bedrock Capital’s manifesto letter

The letter in its entirety is eloquent and makes for a great read and ends on an inspiring note saying..

“..As our keystrokes hunt for the next narrative high, thousands of possibilities that will never be remain trapped beneath our fingertips. When we allow popular narrative to dictate who, where, and what is worthy of our time or capital, breakthroughs that could transcend remain overlooked, underestimated, or simply fade away.

Against all odds, a few brave entrepreneurs violating the narrative today will come to define profound new truths tomorrow. We’re on a mission to find them

To be clear, the concept of ‘Narrative Violations’ has also had its fair share of critiques for being too reductive. It was even declared 2019’s ‘VC Bingo’ buzzword of the year.

Nonetheless, I find the concept to be a clarifying filter that helps me process or question most things with a healthy dose of scepticism and encourages me to seek out edge cases in popular rhetoric, including say even that around the concept of ‘Narrative Violation’ itself.

Why?

Consider this question.

What if, sometimes, narrative violations are part of the narrative?

i.e., what if a ‘violation’ is actually an inherent part of a larger pattern that constitutes the narrative itself? Like say, a recurring motif that becomes apparent if only one were to step back and consider the big picture. Being able to see if and when that is the case could help us identify emerging paradigms and recognise how such paradigms propagate.

For e.g., after the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, Carlota Perez published her seminal book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital arguing that the ‘burst’ was completely normal and qualified it by drawing patterns from four similar epochal periods over the last two centuries: the industrial revolution, steel and railways, electricity and heavy engineering, the automobiles and mass production.

Across each of these periods, she pattern matched its associated moments of ‘crash’ (the equivalent of the dotcom bubble burst from 2000) and recognised such instances as inalienable parts of larger cycles that play out over several decades (as opposed to say some inexplicable violations to the popular narratives of their times).

Source: Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital,2002

The master stroke of her framework is that it inherently provisions for moments of ‘big bangs’, ‘bubbles’, ‘crashes’ and then again necessary ‘recompositions’ as part of a single unified narrative that cohesively explains the interplay between financial capital and technological revolutions. And then continues to shine a spotlight on how this narrative seemed to have repeated itself across ages almost inviolably.

(Bonus reads: Two of my favourite thinkers, Alex Danco and Ben Thomspon have recently used Carlota Perez’s framework to write about Debt Financing and Paradigm Shifts in tech. Highly recommended reads indeed.)

To reiterate, a key takeaway for me here is the idea of the narrative as a paradigm that propagates.

Such a narrative construct that propagates needs to be essentially indivisible, should have a full self contained arc of a structure to serve as a standalone story if need be and be able to play out as a cohesive whole even with trivial variations in contexts or actors.

Matthew Ball has a term for this – The Narrative Primitive.

In one of the most intellectually stimulating podcasts I have listened to in the recent past, Matthew Ball joins Patrick O’Shaughnessy to discuss movies, the Metaverse and more and refers to the concept of ‘Narrative Primitive’ to explain why the worlds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Star Wars stand out as expansive and immersive. The following lines from the podcast’s transcript shine light further.

… “how would you have told the story 80 years ago if you had all the tools available? How are those stories going to change in the next 10 years?” And in some instances that is unlocking what you might call a narrative primitive, that’s perhaps some of the reasons why the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the tales of Star Wars are so expansive today, so immersive.

Now, when I consider these two concepts – Narrative Violation and Narrative Primitive – together, I am tempted to posit the following.

The essential insight that rock star traders, venture capitalists and story tellers possess is this – they know a good narrative when they see one. And more importantly they have an eye for a narrative violation. Because they think in narrative primitives.


Noteworthy ingredients – that may or may not have gone into the making of this blog post:

[Featured Image: Pendulums on freepik]