In 2024, the Tension Between Macroculture and Microculture Will Turn into War
And I can already tell you who will win
A reader asks:
How do you see the next 5-10 years of culture unfolding in America? Specifically, as it relates to the trend of micro-cultures continuing to erode a sense of unification the old-world mono-culture used to influence (seeing the same television shows as your neighbors, etc).
So I respond….
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The Battle Between Macroculture and Microculture Is Turning into a War
I’ve hesitated about writing on this topic—partly because I recognize my bias. I operate in the microculture. It pays the bills around here.
But I also spent many long years in the macroculture, and have scars to show for it. So I might actually be the right person to offer analysis and forecasts on this matter.
I’ve seen both sides of the equation.
And I made the switch voluntarily. (In fact, I’ve turned down every offer from large media institutions for the last three years now.) So my views are based on considered judgment, not necessity.
In any event, I can’t really delay any longer. The clash has reached some kind of brutal tipping point. I believe it’s about to turn into war.
The fact that 2024 is an election year will escalate the conflict. Just wait and see. But even right now you can feel the ground shaking.
In just the last few days, we’ve seen the following:
Spotify announced the layoff of 17% of its workers two days ago. This is the company’s third round of layoffs this year.
At the Washington Post—where owner Jeff Bezos is trying to get rid of almost a thousand journalists—workers have announced a 24-hour strike. But I doubt this will influence an owner who is already losing money every day he keeps the newspaper afloat. He probably hopes the writers stay home permanently.
Hollywood is in freefall, and even the end of the recent writer and actor strikes can’t hide the problems. Disney head Bob Iger allegedly claimed that the new contract “will be the last deal ever and that AI will be advanced enough at the end of the contract to never bother with either group again. He thinks they will be desperate to take a deal next time.”
Meanwhile the marketplace is rapidly shifting towards alternative video platforms (as made clear by the chart below, shared by my filmmaker nephew Mike Gioia on his new Substack). Mike, who has worked both in Hollywood and on YouTube projects, remarks: “It’s difficult to understand how these two systems exist at the same time. And maybe they won’t much longer.”
I believe that microculture creators are growing much faster than even these numbers indicate.
“This seems impossible. A single individual living in Greenville, North Carolina defeats enormous global corporations with tens of thousands of employees—and does it every month.”
In 2021, we aggregated data from 50 popular creator platforms on Stripe and found they had onboarded 668,000 creators who’d received $10 billion in payouts. We refreshed that data in 2023 and found something surprising: the creator economy is still growing about as fast as it was in 2021. Today, those same 50 creator platforms have onboarded over 1 million creators and have paid out over $25 billion in earnings.
In other words, legacy media is collapsing at the very moment that alternative platforms are booming.
I’m doubling my audience in 2023 (up more than 120% year-on-year), but the Stripe numbers indicate that this is happening everywhere in the alt culture.
Let’s look at a case study.
Some readers get angry every time I mention MrBeast—but if hearing his name upsets them, they are in for longstanding agita. The pace of the Beast’s growth is getting faster all the time—which seems to defy all logic, but it’s true. He now picks up more new viewers in a single month than major cable networks have in total after decades.
Okay, he’s not doing erudite stuff. I don’t claim otherwise. (If you want smart microculture fare, your best place to start is here on Substack.) But that makes MrBeast’s achievement all the more impressive—because he’s taking the exact same formula used by huge corporations (essentially reality TV concepts) and doing it much better.
And he also does it with more positive impact—because he gives away huge sums as part of his mission. (This also gets some people angry, and they will say it’s all done for publicity. But the dollars are the same no matter the motive.)
This seems impossible.
A single individual living in Greenville, North Carolina defeats enormous global businesses with tens of thousands of employees and decades of experience—and does it repeatedly every month. But that’s exactly what’s happening.
The most curious part of this is how people working inside the macroculture are the only folks who don’t understand what’s going on.
I see this firsthand. I hear every day from people asking me to share what I’ve learned from running a successful Substack. But the folks approaching me are all involved in new media platforms.
I never get asked a single question about Substack from mainstream media people (although they are always asking me to contribute). They obviously believe that they have nothing to learn from the microculture.
And it’s not just my personal experience. Look at the hirings:
CNN needs a new boss so it hires someone from The New York Times.
The Wall Street Journal needs a new editor-in-chief, so it hires somebody from The Sunday Times.
Gannett needs a new editor-in-chief, so it hires somebody from NPR.
News Corp needs a new boss, so it hires the owner’s son.
Disney needs a new CEO, so it just hires the old CEO for another stint.
This is sheer idiocy. It’s Einstein’s definition of insanity.
At this juncture in history, you must fill openings in stagnant old media by hiring people who understand the rapidly growing new media. The data is clear on this—if you want to grow, you need to learn from podcasts, YouTube channels, Substack, Bandcamp, Patreon, and all the other success stories.
But it’s not happening. The macroculture is frozen. It has forgotten how to maneuver. It definitely has forgotten how to learn.
How is this going to play out?
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First, some history….
In the beginning, all culture was microculture
You knew what was happening in your tribe or village. But your knowledge of the wider world was limited.
So you had your own songs and your own stories. You had your own rituals and traditions. You even had your own language.
But all these familiar things disappeared when you went off into the world. That was dangerous, however. That’s why only heroes, in traditional stories, go on journeys.
You learn on the journey. But you might not survive.
But all that changed long before I was born.
In my childhood, everything was controlled by a monoculture. There were only three national TV networks, but they were pretty much the same.
When I went to the office, back then, we had all watched the same thing on TV the night before. We had all seen the same movie the previous weekend. We had all heard the same song on the radio while driving to work.
The TV shows were so similar that they sometimes moved from CBS to NBC, and you never noticed a change. The newscasters also looked pretty much the same and always talked the same—with that flat Midwestern accent that broadcasters always adopted in the US.
The same monoculture controlled every other creative idiom. Six major studios dominated the film business. And just as Hollywood controlled movies, New York set the rules in publishing. Everything from Broadway musicals to comic books was similarly concentrated and centralized.
The newspaper business was still local, but most cities had 2 or 3 daily newspapers—and much of the coverage they offered was interchangeable. Radio was a little more freewheeling, but eventually deregulation allowed huge corporations to acquire and standardize what happened over the airwaves.
When I went to work in an office, back then, we had all watched the same thing on TV the night before. We had all seen the same movie the previous weekend. We had all heard the same song on the radio while driving to work.
And that’s why smart people back then paid attention to the counterculture.
The counterculture might be crazy or foolish or even boring. But it was still your only chance to break out of the monolithic macroculture.
Many of the art films I saw at the indie cinema were awful. But I still kept coming back—because I needed the fresh air these oddball movies provided. For the same reason, I read the alt weekly newspapers and kept tabs on alt music.
In fact, whenever I saw the word alt, I paid attention.
That doesn’t mean that I hated the major TV networks, or the large daily newspaper, or 20th Century Fox. But I craved access to creative and investigative work that hadn’t been approved by people in suits working for large organizations.
The Internet should have changed all this. And it did—but not much. Even now the collapse in the monoculture is still in its early stages.
But that’s about to change.
If you don’t pay close attention, the media landscape seems pretty much the same now as it did in the 1990s. The movie business is still controlled in Hollywood. The publishing business is still controlled in New York. The radio stations are still controlled by a few large companies. And instead of three national TV networks plus PBS, we have four dominant streaming platforms—who control almost 70% of the market.
So we still live in a macro culture. But it feels increasingly claustrophobic. Or even worse, it feels dead.
Meanwhile, a handful of Silicon Valley platforms (Google, Facebook, etc.) have become more powerful than the New York Times or Hollywood studios or even Netflix. It’s not even close—the market capitalization of Google’s parent Alphabet is now almost ten times larger than Disney’s.
But here’s the key point—these huge tech companies rely on the microculture for their dominance.
Where is Facebook without users contributing photos, text and video? Where is Google’s YouTube without individual creators?
In terms of economic growth or audience capture, the microculture has already won the war. But it doesn’t feel that way.
First and foremost, Silicon Valley is a reluctant home for the microculture. To some extent Alphabet and Facebook are even going to war with microculture creators—they try to make money with them even while they punish them.
So Mark Zuckerberg needs creators, but won’t even let them put a live link on Instagram and limits their visibility on Facebook and Threads.
Alphabet needs creators to keep YouTube thriving, but gives better search engine visibility to total garbage that pays for placement.
Twitter also claims it wants to support independent journalists—but if you’re truly independent from Elon Musk, your links are brutally punished by the algorithm.
This tension won’t go away, and next year it will get worse. The microculture will increasingly find itself at war with the same platforms they rely on today.
And legacy media and non-profits are even more hostile to emerging media. Go see who wins Pulitzer Prizes, and count how many journalists on alternative platforms get honored.
I’ll save you the trouble. They don’t.
And the same is true of all the Guggenheims and genius grants and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and all the rest. If those are your goal, don’t even consider launching a YouTube channel.
And on the rare occasions when a microculture phenomenon does get covered by a big legacy media outlet, it’s almost always an attack or some mystified description of a strange rite among the unwashed masses.
Consider the recent attempt by Hollywood Reporter to publish a list of the most important people in podcasting. This is a great idea for a story—except that Hollywood Reporter is so out-of-touch that it can’t really figure out what’s happening in podcasting.
As Ryan Broderick points out, the list was “a weird, sloppy mess.” He reaches the conclusion that there’s a “real Internet” and the “media’s idea of the Internet”—and they seem to be diverging. Big things happen, but legacy media has no clue.
The next point I make is very important. So I’m going to put it in boldface.
This hostility and ignorance of entrenched institutions is the single biggest difference between the new alt culture and the old counterculture. In the 1950s and 1960s, entrenched elites took the counterculture very seriously. They learned from it. They treated it with respect.
The microcultures of today get none of that. My general sense is that Hollywood and New York wish all these alternative voices would disappear.
This really is a war. I’m not exaggerating.
And just wait until election year, a few days away, when all the fired journalists dismissed by the monoculture start competing against their bureaucratic former employers. How do you think that’s going to play out?
This doesn’t mean I want war. Peace is preferable to war—and for both parties.
The shrinking monoculture would benefit from the fresh air of these alternative voices. Just like I benefited from the artsy films and underground presses of my youth.
But to benefit, they need to stop hating and fearing.
I’m still puzzled why NPR and CNN and Harvard and other legacy institutions haven’t set up on Substack. But they clearly have zero interest in doing so—even if they could make money and expand their audience.
Yet these same institutions launched on Threads the very first day. They couldn’t sign up as soliders for Mark Zuckerberg’s new empire fast enough.
They are clearly more comfortable working with a billionaire Silicon Valley technocrat than anything that smells of indie or alt views.
Here are search results for some leading institutions on Threads. These elites won’t participate here, but they happily work with the plutocracy.
I find this quite revealing.
But the story gets stranger. That’s because Mark Zuckerberg hates news links—he actually prefers indie creative contributors (especially if they upload free scrollable media). Even worse, Threads has been a disaster for everybody—and has already lost more than 80% of its active users.
But inside the institutional monoculture, they don’t even notice.
They deal with each other, not us. It’s like the major award shows: a disappearing audience and collapsing ratings are inconveniences—but they don’t lead to any soul-searching. And, especially, won’t change business as usual.
Of course, you can’t survive over the long term by shrinking and firing. And that long term isn’t quite as far away as it once seemed. The events of the last week, listed at the start of my article, make that clear.
And if (or when) total war does break out, I can easily predict the winner. The microculture has all the advantages—although that’s not a story you will read in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.
The microculture is the source of all the growth in media.
It’s already the source of most of the revenues.
Growth at many alt media outlets is still accelerating, so the gap between macro and micro factions is going to get much, much wider.
Alt media has huge influence on the public in ways most elites can’t even begin to grasp—because they operate in an echo chamber that shuts out this reality.
This alt audience is forming into actual communities with a surprising degree of cooperation and solidarity—which amplifies this emerging power.
Every round of layoffs at mainstream media creates new entrants into alternative platforms. The old guard is inadvertently training and launching wave after wave of new competitors.
But here’s the kicker—even the biggest potential enemies of microculture (those billionaires in Silicon Valley) need it for their own survival.
So the outcome of this war is already determined. The only thing that remains to be seen is how we get there, and how quickly.
My guess is fast. Very fast.