On the contracts into which we enter when we use certain apps, read certain media, or engage with certain devices
Gentle Rodenians Worldwide —
Hello from the tail end of Japan Swelter Summer. The humidity broke a few days ago and everything is crisp and glorious and markedly less soggy. I am obsessed with humidity — my home is filled with hygrometers. I have a dry case for camera equipment and my one pair of fancy leather shoes. My friends send me the latest in dehumidifier news. Few people fully understand the implications of runaway humidity. What an odd thing to care about, you may think. But spend a summer in certain corners of Japan and you will suddenly care very much. A comfortable life is contingent on very narrow bands of humidity:temperature ratios. 60% humidity and 22 degrees Celsius is excellent. Crest 70% and 26 degrees and you have just bought a ticket for a mold dance. But increase airflow and the mold can be mitigated. Airflow is underrated. A stagnant room is screaming to be reclaimed by nature. Of all rooms, my bathroom has the best airflow. Its airflow is beautiful, a masterwork. Were you to toke a cigar in my tub the smoke would perform elegant acrobatics all about the volume. You would be awed by the flow. There are no mold issues in the bathroom.
Hi, I’m Craig Mod and you’ve signed up for Humidity Monthly, a monthly newsletter on all things humid. Just kidding. (Although I could very easily write such a thing.) You’ve signed up for the Roden Newsletter, which has no explicit theme and threatens only to inspire you to one-click unsubscribe.
This issue is an expansion on my lectures at Yale this past summer. It’s 4,000 words long. It’s an essay about “contracts” — and I don’t mean the formal things we sign upon joining a company or getting a divorce, but the more implicit contracts we enter into with a piece of media, software, or an application. Contracts can become proxies for thinking about “media accounting:” What we gain or lose by engaging with different media and mediums. Consider this missive a little bit of Media Accounting 101.
I meant to send it out before I ran off to Qazaqstan (some photos here from an underground rocket bunker), but … it just took more time than expected to flesh out. It’s still not all there but what are newsletters for if not half-realized thoughts on complex issues? (I appreciate any and all feedback.)
Next Roden will be simpler, camera focused, a little more hodgepodgey. Promise. This is a one-note edition.
Printed books have a very clear contract into which we enter when we purchase them. I wrote about this in passing a few weeks ago over in Ridgeline:
We buy a book, we know what we’re getting. There is no other “business model” at play. No other information being (necessarily, relatively) sold. This clarity of contract is especially lucid in physical form. The book has edges. The transaction has edges. The transaction completes. Given time, we complete the book. It has an ending. Contracts are clear. Usually, there’s no tracking.
At Yale, my goal was to give those in attendance (70 or so publishing CEOs, marketing, editorial, and PR folks) a better understanding of how the general immutability and simplicity of the contract of books fits into the broader media landscape. I set out two points.
The main adversary of book publishing is: Anything that eats attention.
Publishing has always been a game of competing for attention. Any number of media inventions have threatened to finally eviscerate the book market: radio, movies, television, et cetera. But smartphones tip the scales unlike any previous object. They do so by placing into our pockets a perfect, always-at-hand vector for lopsided user contracts, arriving in the form of apps and websites.
These suboptimal contracts are most obviously exaggerated in what I call “appholes.” That is, any app / service / publication whose business is predicated on keeping a consumer engaged and re-engaged for the benefit of the organization (often to the detriment of the mental and physical health of the user), dozens if not hundreds of times a day.
A simple heuristic for determining if something is an apphole: Any “free” app built around advertising models tends to become one. Especially if they’ve taken on a lot of venture capital, further exacerbated (and exasperated) if they’re a public company.
Instagram is a great example. The more you scroll, the more money they make. Keep this in mind the next time you find yourself scrolling mindlessly — take a second to consider the agreement you’ve entered into with the application. What’s keeping you there? Why are the algorithms showing you what they’e showing? What benefits are you accruing? For what are are you trading that time and mental energy?
— a senseless series of actions that span minutes, hours, days, consume years, and add up to nothing or almost nothing, and that benefit (ideally: tranquility, growth, curiosity) no one but the company (in reality: engagement, ad views) who owns the container in which the loop takes place.
Because of market dynamics and the way public companies are graded, the general equation of business morality is broadly MoreMoney = Better. Driven by this, the apphole methods of consuming user attention become more aggressive. A once simple contract (“connect with your friends online,” “post photos with cool filters,” et cetera) into which we may have entered with a free app begins to change by small degrees when that app or publication is pushed to increase profitability.
(Aside / Footnote: It should be noted that even the founders of these initially benign apps self-delude. When Instagram sold to Facebook they were promised sovereignty. No company pays $1B to allot the acquisition target eternal sovereignty (this is both nonsensical and somewhat amoral of the company in the context of public markets — the duty of Facebook in this deal is to make shareholders more money); companies issue the promise of sovereignty to get the deal done. (Much of the work of being a CEO is convincing talented people that illiquid stock options are edible.) And Instagram did have a few years of relative internal independence, that is until Facebook needed them to make more money, causing both co-founders to fly off on magic carpets made of diamonds.)
These appholes are often dopaminergic. They are built to amplify reward seeking behavior, releasing unpredictable hits of dopamine: Another like. A DM. A new QAnon video in a sidebar. A “related article” about vaccination dangers. Yet another story by an influencer in yoga pants.
Publications fall into this bucket as well. The New York Times is a partially dopaminergic publication. That is, the success of it as a business is still contingent on readers looking at a lot of ads. It’s also dependent on subscriptions, which is why the writing is usually high-caliber; quality is necessary to convert casual readers into subscribers (hyperbole is necessary to multiply ad views); becoming a subscriber is often a proxy vote for quality. But the Times makes a significant portion of its profits from ads, so eating your attention is still good for the organism. Hence, click-bait headlines. And horrible, horrible election needles: “interactive real-time content machinery” adjacent to ads from which you can’t avert your gaze. Of course, The Times is not the only publication that functions like this. Most legacy or incumbent news organizations do, too.
When these incumbent newspapers were print only, there was only one way to “enter” the content: Through the front page. The front page was all you could see on the news stand. Once you bought the thing, you were converted to a paying participant. Make note: Design and contract parameters go hand in hand. When the front page is the only entry point, only a single page of the publication requires hyperbole to convert passers-by to readers. Online, every article becomes a potential entry point. And so there is an incentive for pervasive hyperbole in order to “convert” eyeballs in service to ads and the consumption of more attention.
The contract a reader enters with The Information is very clear: We pay, they write. Enough of us pay so they can keep writing. They write in a way that provides value via knowledge (ostensibly leading to smarter business decisions or investments on the part of the reader), not shock. Their model is not contingent on us looking at their writing from morning until night. Once a day is more than enough. Entry points are limited. It’s a very healthy model for all parties.
As The Information says on their about page:
Quality stories breed quality subscribers. As our subscriber community grows, we’re investing aggressively in our team and reporting. We believe this formula is far more scalable than relying on traffic or conferences, and it’s totally—100 percent—aligned with our readers.
Our contract with The New York Times is more slippery. Yes, we pay and they write, but also, they take our viewing patterns, biases, reading habits, estimated income and sell that to advertisers. That’s a weirder contract. And one into which most people don’t realize they’ve entered.
All of this attention eating is relatively new. It is, as I said above, largely reliant on the smartphones in our pockets. The rise of appholes and this scale of attention consumption and lopsided contracts is one of many unintended consequences of the last ten years of internet growth and pocket supercomputers. (Or: Some of the greatest minds of our generation were lost to invasive ad tech.)
Consider the contracts of these two images.
People on a train today:
People on a train 100 years ago:
Superficially these images look similar. But the contract of these two objects couldn’t be more different. The printed newspaper of 1919 had edges, ended. There were ads but they were passive, not active members of the reading experience. They were not reading you. You paid. You got some paper. The paper did not continue forever.
Most readers may be too young to remember this, but once upon a time, even television ended. There was an implicit contract in that eventually you’d be allowed — nay, forced — to sleep. Like, you’d be watching some late-night show (so I’m told) and the broadcast would just … finish. Caput. The national anthem would blare and then the broadcast completion tone would wake any fools still perched in their living room Lay-Z-Boys.
I’ve given Netflix’ guff over the past year and folks have called me out on it. Yes, Netflix has some great shows. (Have you seen “The Good Place?” You should.) I’m a subscriber! But ignore the output for a second and let’s just look at the numbers — the 30,000 ft view — to try and understand the media accounting going on and why the company may operate as it does.
Netflix is a $134,000,000,000 market capped company with 6,000+ employees. Competition is rapidly rising: Disney+, Amazon Prime, HBO Go / Now, Apple TV+. Netflix is a public company. The mandate is they must continue to grow. Netflix can’t lose us as subscribers, but they also can’t charge much more. And so, one imagines an internal mandate decrying: Netflix must become a downtime habit humans cannot live without. The service must become a teat, an irreplaceable and inexhaustible binge conveyance. Unsubscribe? Unthinkable! Their current strategy in achieving this is to produce an endless profusion of well-funded shows. Some of which are superb.
Compare with Criterion Collection. Both services are technically nearly identical: Monthly subscriptions that allow a customer to watch, from a vast catalog, a moving image on any of their devices at any moment. But, again, the numbers. Criterion is a: $33,000,000 / year business with 40 employees. Scale matters. No, Criterion won’t be producing $100,000,000 TV shows, but as a service, a company at their chosen scale, they can operate under a sustainable ethos of: Deliver one amazing piece of classic, independent, or foreign film a week.
These contracts manifest most clearly in design. Browsing Netflix is an endless sensation of falling forward into ever more content. Previews auto-play. As soon as one episode in a series ends, the next begins before credits finish rolling. If there’s no other episodes in the series, random trailers begin to play. The very design of Netflix itself is constructed to reduce your ability to a) think about what you want to do, and b) step away from the service. It’s designed to be a boundless slurry of content poured directly into your eyeballs. In a way, it’s training us to never step back or even consider, say, reading a book or going for a walk. The binge is dopaminergic to the max, satisfying some odd completionist instinct.
In breathless doublespeak, Hastings has said, “Binge-watching is great because it puts you in control.”
Most important to recognize: The scale at which this system is operating, the original contract you felt you had entered into, and your relationship to and sense of contract with the service today.
Now go browse Criterion.
There’s clearly value in both models. Netflix, in producing its infinitude of video will invariably create some classics, give voice to folks who’ve yet to be voiced. And Criterion, in time, will help us wade through the muck for gems.
The publishing industry has similar analogs: Big publishers produce lightweight bestsellers, the profits from which find their way into more complex and challenging, less commercial books. However, the big difference is books (mostly) don’t autoload themselves into your head; they require a constant opting-in on the part of the reader.
Worth noting: I don’t think a company like Netflix has to operate at its current extremes and could be more balanced; my example above may be somewhat binary, but companies can choose to occupy greyer zones.
The takeaway: The contract — emotionally, physically (bingeing is a as much a physical decision as it is mental) — with Criterion is far simpler, clearer, and I’d argue, healthier in the long term than the contract we currently enter into with Netflix.
“Media accounting” is a kind of self-awareness. This kind of accounting is necessary for us to understand where objects like the book fit into contemporary life. Understanding the objective contracts into which we enter, how they may have come about, and how they’re evolving helps us demystify why physical books (and, similarly, vinyl, analog film, et cetera) not only remain compelling, but become more compelling the more their digital twins grow vast and fuzzy.
Back at Yale, my second point:
Our goal as publishers should be: To make it easier for readers to choose the habit of (longform) reading.
To recap: **The adversary of books is anything that eats attention — appholes. The way to fight appholes is by helping potential readers habituate the very act of reading. **
Habits are tied to identities. So the goal should be to convert the identities of wanna-be readers into full-fledged bag-o-books readers. Our goal is not to get someone to read a single book, but become a reader.
That said: I have no idea how to reliably do that!
I can only share how I’ve converted myself into a more fervent reader:
I always have a Kindle Paperwhite in my bag. I dislike much about this device. It is a device of sadness, of unrealized potential. But, it is also a device (in my case) with a bunch of good, long form articles and books on it. The battery lasts for weeks. It is always in my bag because I never want an excuse to not be engaging with a long form piece of text. I want it to be as easy to reach for a book as it is to reach for my phone. I choose the Paperwhite because it’s small and light.
In service to helping me read more books, I’ve also turned off all non-tool apps on my phone. All I can do on my iPhone is check Google Maps, text, and read email. I use Freedom to block all media, social and otherwise. Using this combination I’ve read more books this year than I have in the past three combined.
James Clear’s book Atomic Habits has had a profound effect on the way I understand many of the patterns I’ve constructed in my life over these last five years. I had intuited what was and wasn’t working, but Clear’s book gave me a framework for understanding why. You should read the entire thing — it’s truly a no-bullshit example of the self-betterment genre with tons of actionable items.
Here are two big takeaways that are relevant to our contracts, appholes, and books discussion:
True behavior change is identity change.
“Motion” is the act of researching; “action” is getting your reps in. Never mistake the two.
James makes the argument that identity change (via an ever increasing belief in both your goal identity itself and the processes by which that identity is formed) happens as a cascade of incremental 1% changes in positive or negative directions. Opportunities for this percent change present themselves dozens of times a day. The best way to guarantee success is by preemptively engineering systems to reduce friction for positive habits, and increase friction for negative ones. Carrying a Kindle and blocking most media on my phone are two core pieces to my system of maintaining, believing in, and strengthening my identity as a “reader.”
If habits define identity, then given the amount of time so many of us devote to reloading Twitter, opening Netflix, checking reddit, et cetera, are most of our identities that of media addict?
I suspect most folks reading this would not want to self-identify as an Instagram addict or Twitter combatant or Netflix binger. (Tinder profile: “I enjoying scrolling through Instagram for several hours a day, picking fights with bot farms, and bingeing away my ability to get a full night’s sleep. Hopelessly romantic. Vegan. Vapers, swipe left.”) But most wouldn’t shy from self-identifying as, say, a reader.
We’re amicable to calling ourselves readers for the same reason we want to identify as rock climbers or marathon runners or exceptional parents or selfless children or humanitarians or folks who’ve written thoughtful and considered books — because these activities carry with them an implicit sense of self-betterment, typified by being active (as opposed to passive). To climb El Capitan requires dedication, discipline, focus — and yes, some insanity. To be a good child means taking care of a parent, calling, remembering, participating. The implied (and attractive) corollary of cultivating those qualities are that you’re a more perceptive, present human, experiencing and living life with a certain (healthy / obsessive) fullness.
Sustained reading of long form texts and books is perhaps the most “active” of all basic media consumption. Philip Roth, in 2009, prognosticating the death of the novel, smartly points out:
To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by – it’s hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities.
I love this: “If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really.” Meaning: To truly read (and, I might add, write) is to commit and maintain focus long enough to live fully within the world of the book (as opposed to ten second dips in and out, as we mostly do with much online media).
William Styron put it well:
A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end.
The critical insight is that deep reading is an active exhaustion, the result of burned calories, not the passive exhaustion of an underused body and mind.
Patterns among those of us who love reading and identify as “readers” show a predilection to physical books. At Yale, Nihar Malaviya, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Penguin Random House U.S., put up a slide titled: “Formats have been shifting over the years — but have been somewhat stable recently.”
Of note: 39% of Americans read only print books, and 29% read a mixture of digital and print. Only 7% read digital-only. (24% simply don’t read books.)
There are likely a number of factors for this. An obvious one: Publishers deliberately set the price of digital books sometimes higher than physical books, especially with new releases. Or at least barely lower than the cost of a physical book. Because we perceive physical as having more implicit value (resaleability, for example) a rational consumer picks the physical edition over Kindle edition given the same price, doubly so given same or next day delivery.
But I suspect there is also an unconscious bias growing towards simpler contracts. And a physical book provides the simplest contract of most media today. Simpler contracts often (but not always) mean that the object or app or piece of media has our best interests in mind (that’s why the contract is simple; the befuddling nature of complex contracts is a feature for the company defining the contract, not a bug), simpler contracts make it easier for us to do “action” as opposed to “motion.”
James Clear’s definition of “motion” would include: Searching for books to read, queuing them up in the Kindle, getting samples, reading reviews. (Similarly: Fighting bots on Twitter, mindlessly bouncing around on YouTube via the algorithms.) These actions can trick us into thinking we’re doing work when we aren’t. Therefore it’s not identity building; it’s charlatanism to call yourself a reader if all you do is collect Kindle samples but never finish a book. Action is doing the actual reading. And a paper book — because it is free from outside intrusions, especially compared to reading Kindle books on an iPad or iPhone — helps us succeed at this action component of identity building.
The hardware Kindle is not ideal, and Amazon itself (as almost any company operating at that scale) is ethically fraught, but in my case, I find significantly more value in having a number of book options always with me (via a hardware Kindle) than carrying multiple physical books. If I only read physical books I wouldn’t read as much. When I finish a Kindle book I love, I almost always buy a physical copy to doubly support the author / publisher, and for archival + field-of-vision reference purposes.
The biggest adversary of book publishing is appholes. And the collective goal of publishers should be to do everything they can to foster the habit of reading. Articulating and amplifying the benefits of reading would help convert non-readers into readers, would help make the choice to engage in active media (vs passive media) 1% easier.
In this essay I’ve been talking about books but I believe video content (along with all other forms of media) can be made more active with healthier contracts; not all video has to devolve into lowest common denominator binge passivity.
(This is also a good point to remind: It’s not the technologies that are inherently positive or negative in their ability for us to build rich identities, but rather the actors wielding the most scale on a given platform.)
Choose active media, set yourself up to succeed by building systems to cultivate positive habits, but most importantly: Take a second to think about the contracts you’ve entered into as you go about your day. Are those contracts you’re happy with? Did you realize you had entered into them?
Jia Tolentino’s opening piece in her most excellent Trick Mirror takes us through how the web changed over the past twenty years:
“At ten I was clicking around a web ring to check out other Angelfire sites. At twelve I was writing five hundred words a day on a public LiveJournal. At fifteen I was uploading photos of myself in a miniskirt on Myspace. By twenty-five, my job was to write things that would attract, ideally, a hundred thousand strangers per post. Now I’m thirty, and most of my life is inextricable from the internet, and its mazes of incessant forced connection — this feverish, electric, unlivable hell.”
“Unlivable hell” might be a bit much, but what I read between her lines is that the contract changed, shifted slowly beneath us, until our work and lives became defined by something we don’t wholly understand, and never really opted into. The good news is that it’s all relatively early in this game. Dire as it may seem, none of these contracts are fait accompli. I believe we all have more autonomy than we may think.
Plus!: Sitting outside all of this digital contractual complexity is the simple, boring, blissfully inert physical book. Given its plainness, it may be the most magical of all our contemporary technologies. It exists simply to be still, cannot be optimized, will never know us, and though a body is still while reading, the mind is active, telepathy is happening, and — when the book isn’t infuriating garbage — a sense of self-betterment and hope pervades as we turn the final page.
Phew. Sisters and brothers and others. Still there? That’s a lot to throw into your inboxes this wonderfully low-humidity Tuesday morning. (OK, I’m lying; I wrote that intro a week ago and just yesterday an insane typhoon front blew through, bringing 36 degree weather and 100% humidity; once again, it is gross, the Rhizopus are multiplying with joy) I’m posting this here — in Roden — because I’m not entirely sure about the shape of the thing above.
Thoughts? Comments? Am I being unfair to Netflix? Should anyone give a shit about the feelings of a public company? (I empathize with the employees!) Is it our (ethical? social?) duty to increase scrutiny on these large scale contracts?
I didn’t talk about video games, but I love that Apple Arcade is doing away with loot boxes and similarly duplicitous game mechanics. In one fell swoop they nullified a bunch of vague and nebulous contracts.
As always: Huge thanks to all the members that make these kinds of decidedly non-commercial essays possible.
p.s., I leave you with a photo of a hallway deep beneath Baikonur, secure, chilly, dry, mold free, and with a very simple contract: When the nukes go off, here you’ll be safe.