Personality is the force majeure of the internet.
When I used to travel, I’d skim through the USA Today left outside my hotel room each morning. But I’ve actually never done the digital equivalent by typing “nytimes.com” into Safari. Instead, I get news directly from @MKBHD and @benthompson.
Why? Why do I follow people and not brands online? I wondered.
For one, hot takes are more interesting than edited corporate drivel. I like the added context people provide. I like the back and forth, the personality, the arguments, the flaws. This isn’t new. Hitler and Churchill both rode cults of personality into power. So did Caesar.
But until this century, you would have had to buy your own printing press to widely distribute pamphlets, or pay the NYT to run full-page ads to appeal directly to the public.2 Newspapers had distribution monopolies and thus were de facto curators. “All The News That’s Fit To Print,” the NYT reminded us at the start of each and every day.3
Now that I see all the news that isn’t fit to print, I wonder Why’d you leave that out? Why’d you choose that headline? What else is being censored? I don’t trust the masthead. I don’t even trust the journalists. Usually I seek out the subjects directly on Twitter.
The New York Times and NBC and Walmart used to pick what we read, saw, and ate. Two brothers in San Antonio decided that commuters across the country would hear Rush Limbaugh every morning on their way to work. If a ketchup company wanted their product on shelves, they had to convince buyers in Bentonville to stock their bottles.
But then came the 747, the shipping container, the 18-wheeler, and, as a final death blow to distribution monopolists everywhere, the internet. Stories weren’t limited to 22-inch sheets of paper, voices weren’t crammed between 87.5 MHz and 108.0 MHz, and products weren’t stuck on transcontinental rail tracks.
Distribution’s commodification has changed everything. It’s given rise to Warby Parker, Casper, Away, and other somewhat predictable direct-to-consumer businesses. Why pay leases and middlemen when you can pay the Instagram Tax instead? Kidding, kidding, I love DTC brands.
I’m not surprised I now buy products directly from the source. But I am surprised that I no longer trust Macy’s to carry the best shoes. I’m surprised I no longer trust the NYT to decide what’s “fit to print.” It turns out the old distribution monopolists weren’t curators by skill, but by chance.
As the ease of distribution increased, the number of choices we had exploded exponentially. I don’t trust Macy’s buyers or NYT’s editors to help me navigate all those choices. They are nameless and faceless to me. Instead, I trust personalities that I like online.
We’re in a multi-decade shift from trust in institutions to trust in people.
ESPN is being replaced by Dave Portnoy. Sephora is being replaced by Kylie Jenner. The Tonight Show is being replaced by Joe Rogan. HGTV’s shows are being replaced by Demolition Matt.
In the early days of DTC, I thought there would be a need for a “Curation Brand,” a Trader Joe’s of online grocery. Something like Brandless (RIP). I’ve been waiting.4 So far, no brand has emerged that I trust to maximize price and quality for me.
Perhaps that will change. But so far, it’s personalities that dominate online. They curate for me. I trust them because I know them, or at least I have the illusion of knowing them. I’m willing to hear what “the influencers” have to say and I’m willing to buy what they’re selling.
I can’t say the same about the distribution brands of old.
A few predictions:
funny because I write both accounts :)— Sahil Lavingia (@shl) February 7, 2020
Benjamin Franklin in particular was famous for distributing his ideas on pamphlets during the American Revolution. Cornelius Vanderbilt frequently took out full-page ads in New York newspapers to complain about the federal government and corruption.↩
Wirecutter does this. I rely on Wirecutter heavily to make about any purchase, lest I drown in a sea of choices on Amazon. But I’m surprised there isn’t a brand that I trust to just buy everything from directly.↩
Last night, as we waited outside for the table ahead of us to finish dessert and pay, the hostess walked out with two glasses of champagne. “I’m