Memes, Brands, and Missions


Today’s topic is brands vs. memes. I made a transcript as well, using Descript, which you can find below. Apparently I spoke 1751 words in ~11 minutes. Wow, this is a high-leverage way to do “writing”. Also, I begin thoughts with “So…” a lot apparently.

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Breaking Smart short-format podcast.

So today I want to do a little bit on the relationship and connection between brands and memes. So brands and memes are somewhat similar concepts. They both refer to ideas and constructs that are designed to attract attention. Brands, they are a classic marketing concept and produce artifacts like, you know, taglines and logos and advertisements, and the idea is that if you establish a good brand, you will attract attention to your product or service. The right kind of attention from the right kind of people, and they will believe the right things about whatever you're selling. So that's positioning. So you want to project a certain perception and the brand is how you produce that perception. So that's a brand.

On the other hand, you have memes. So memes are little fragments of culture. So here I'm talking about internet memes, not memes in the sense of Richard Dawkins, which is kind of a broader evolutionary concept.

So memes in the sense of internet culture.

So these are fragments of information generally borrowed from say popular culture, and then recoded to communicate a different message.

So there's a fundamental ironic element to the creation and propagation of memes. While there are “original” memes, so to speak, where you actually create the content and message along with it in general when we say meme, we are talking about a little fragment of content appropriated from some other source, and then recoded with a new message. So that's why you can have for example that little scene from Game of Thrones where you have the Sean Bean character saying something like “one does not simply do blah blah blah” and then you can fill in the blanks blah blah blah of it with whatever you want. So you can say for example, “one does not simply stop climate change”, right, and that becomes a meme. So most memes have that format. So like brands, memes also attract attention. They attract attention in a very focused way towards something, and that something has a perception it wants to project that may or may not harmonize with the second recoding that the meme is imposing.

So in the case of The Game of Thrones meme you could say that it harmonized very well with the television show, right, because anytime an audience is having fun with your show, taking fragments of it and recoding it in a fundamentally friendly way, it's doing good for your brand.

On the other hand brands and memes can also have a hostile connection. So you might for example produce a little bit of culture that then gets appropriated and gets recoded in a way to mock you. An example of that is Trump when, he had one of his, I think first executive orders, and he held up that little booklet-like thing where his signature on his signed executive order was visible, and people had a field day with it. They took that open-book kind of artifact and then put all kinds of other messages in that. So that's a hostile meme.

So that's the relationship between a brand and a meme, and it can range from friendly to hostile. So the question is if you are a marketer in the internet era, how should you relate to memes around your product and/or service, whether it's a product or service in the traditional commercial sense, or personal brand around your online persona, or whether you're a celebrity?

Whatever it is, you have to decide how your brand relates to any potential memes that are around you. So that's the challenge, and the picture I have accompanying today's podcast is a little pyramid that I think models what's going on very clearly.

So it's a pyramid with three layers. I love three-layer pyramids.

The top layer is labeled Mission. That's blue. The middle layer is brand. That's in yellow. And the bottom layer is memes, that's in red. And below the bottom layer. You can see that in the left half I’ve sketched a little stone wall, which I have labeled the brand wall, and that's to keep out hostile wild memes. And on the right-side bottom of the triangle, I’ve put in kind of a porous boundary, and that's like an osmotic membrane, and that's to let in friendly wild memes, and have a kind of like good back-and-forth dialectical relationship with them.

So this visualization, what I'm trying to get at here, is you can have two kinds of relationships between your brand and the memes that might be associated.

So the left half of the pyramid I've tried to illustrate what I call the top-down authoritarian model of relating brands and memes. So this I think of as trickle-down memetics by analogy to you know, trickle-down economics. So what is trickle-down memetics? It starts at the top with a manifesto-style mission. That then trickles down into a bureaucratic brand and then the bureaucratic brand tends to produce cultural artifacts that in the best-case scenario will produce anemic memes. And in the worst case, of course, you're trying to, like, fight a war with the wild internet culture, and you will end up attracting very hostile wild memes.

On the right side, you've got what I'm labeling the bottom-up anarchic way of relating brands and memes, and this I think of as bubble-up missions, and here it's easier to start from the bottom.

So it starts with a friendly relationship with wild memes that might already be around your product even before you attempt any positioning or explicit branding, right? So this might seem unusual to a traditional marketer who starts thinking with like, you know, a name, brand, positioning all these like central commitments that you might start with, but it is very familiar to anybody who makes a living on the internet.

You might have a name. Or you might have your own name as a person, but fundamentally, your marketing positioning does not even start until you've kind of like developed a dialogue with the memes that form around whatever you're doing. So the bottom layer is friendly wild memes sort of making it into your own sort of governed meme space and creating a robust base of memetic potential for you, and this then bubbles up and creates a charismatic brand, and that further bubbles up and creates what I think of as a culture-code style mission. And here the reference is to this book I read recently — I’m going to mispronounce this name — Clotaire Rapaille, I think. It's a French name, but it's a book called The Culture Code and it talks about how you can uncover the code underlying any brand through the right kind of research. And this is a little bit of a dated book, it predates internet culture to some extent, but it applies with double force to branding and positioning in the internet era. So that ends up giving you a bottom-up anarchic kind of relationship between brands and memes.

And as you might expect a manifesto-style mission might give you, a lot more of a clear articulation of values you sincerely and earnestly believe in. Aspirational values for your company. But fundamentally the top-down structure of trying to go from there to a perception basically turns you into a bureaucratic organization, with at best an anemic meme culture around you.

Whereas if you're willing to actually play ball with the internet in its wild state and kind of like, make yourself a little bit vulnerable really by creating a semi-permeable osmotic membrane instead of a wall between you and the internet, then there's a chance that friendly wild memes will grow around your product. And of course the product has to be good for this, and then that'll create sort of a foundation from which you can pop-up a charismatic brand and then from that you can sort of do some research and uncover the culture code underlying the charismatic brand, and that's what ends up becoming your mission.

So most brands of course don't do either the top-down authoritarian or bottom-up anarchic in a pure form. They do some mix; a little bit of this a little bit of that, but fundamentally, I think what's happening on the internet today is that the anarchic bottom-up style brand-and-meme relationship is taking over. So if you're not able to do that, you're giving up so much upside potential in the, you know, potentially harmonious, positive-sum relationship between you and the internet, that your product is just not even going to pop. It's going to like languish in obscurity.

So top-down authoritarian marketing is sort of a diminishing returns curve. And the old-school Mad Men style marketer, the kind of people who really want to impose their authority on the brand, and really control the message and the optics of the brand, they may succeed in a certain sense, in that nobody says things about the brand that they don't want said. But the cost of that might be nobody says anything at all. Nobody pays you any attention at all. Whereas if you're willing to give a little bit of agency, cede a little bit of agency to the wild internet, you may not completely have control over the narrative, but the narrative could be very friendly to you.

And even though it might not create the kind of crystal-clear mission you're hoping will drive your company strategy and positioning forward, it will instead create a much more generative culture code that you can use as potential energy to do a lot more powerful things.

So that's my little spiel on two types of relationships between brands and memes, and the two types of missions that go along with it and missions. And missions of course are where marketing is an activity connects with the rest of the company.

So, let me know what you think, and especially if you can think of very good examples of one or the other style of doing things. I'll see you again next week.

Planning to Start, Planning to Finish


This week’s podcast (12 minutes) is on a crucial difference, between planning to start, and planning to finish.

  1. We talk a lot about the difference between more and less planning, on the spectrum between full waterfall and full agile, and like most of you, I share a bias towards less planning.

  2. It is a difference that goes beyond software. In novel writing, for example, people talk of a difference between plotters and pantsers, people who work out detailed plots versus those who make up a story by the seat of their pants.

  3. Plotting increases the probability that you’ll stick the landing in a satisfying way, but pantsing increases the chances of the activity having a liveness to it, a narrative vitality. That’s the real tradeoff gestured at by waterfall/agile conversations.

  4. Over the years I’ve realized that a different distinction, within planning, is probably much more important: between planning to start, and planning to finish.

  5. Planning to finish is the familiar kind, where you plan all the way to the end and the terminal condition is the completed state of the activity. The finish line, the deadline, the checkered flag.

  6. Planning to start though, is the more important kind for any creative work. The French phrase mise en place, a favorite of Hercule Poirot, gets at this. It roughly means “setting the stage”, especially with reference to cooking preparations.

  7. When you plan to start, you get to the starting line rather than the finishing line, by setting the stage for a more creative, improvised phase. You can call it getting to the starting line, or as I prefer, by analogy to deadline, the lifeline. A condition where a zombie set of parts is assembled together in a way that makes it come alive.

  8. The difference relates to what Scott Adams called the difference between systems and goals. When you plan to start, you undertake planned activities to end in a functioning system where habits can flow.

  9. Another connection familiar to many of you is to James Carse’s notion of finite versus infinite games. Planning to finish is playing a finite game to win it and exit it. Planning to start is working to enter an infinite game and continue playing it.

  10. Whatever you choose to call it, you should probably spend more time thinking about this difference than about how much planning to do, which is often a much simpler question.

Following the Scenius


Hello from my new home in Downtown Los Angeles! This is another short, unrehearsed, unscripted, unedited, single-take 10-minute podcast episode. I think I’m going to be experimenting with this format for the rest of the summer at least. Some of you prefer text and have asked for transcripts, and I’ll figure out a low-effort way to do that eventually, but until then, you’ll have to make do with brief tldr show notes if you don’t want to listen to audio.

1/ Breaking smart often means breaking into technology scenes, and this is not a one-time deal. It means keeping an eye on how the action is shifting and following it as needed to stay in the game, which means breaking into scenes repeatedly.

2/ A scene with active technological evolution has what musician Brian Eno called scenius (scene+genius). In my opinion, the key symptom of active scenius is that keeping up with technological change, and with the people driving the change, becomes the same thing.

3/ When the two become different, you end up with a zombie scene that’s just a lingering memory of a more generative era. Social networking and idea networking turn into separate activities.

4/ So how do you follow the action? I like to think of scenius as having 3 main dimensions: social, geographic, and most important, technical. Or, who is doing it, where are they doing it, and what they are doing. You have to track the action along all 3 dimensions, but most people only manage 1 or 2 dimensions of tracking.

5/ If you just track 1 dimension, you’re barely alive, so I won’t say much about that. Things get interesting when you at least track 2 of the 3 dimensions of scenius.

6/ The worse case is if you track scenius geographically and socially, but not technically. That makes you a scenester. You do the same thing in new places, with new people, while being indifferent to whether the action revolves around blockchains or machine learning or cleantech.

7/ You either don’t care, or lack the ability to keep up with the content of the action, so you stick to the social layer.

8/ Slightly better is if you track the action geographically and technically, where you follow the story of a technology trend as it evolves from garage-startup scale to global dominance. This is something like a journalistic mode of tracking the action.

9/ The best 2 of 3 case is if you track the action socially and technically, but not geographically. In that case you’ll age-in-place with an era of technology with the key people driving it, and either turn into a rent-seeking member of the elites if you succeed, or a precarious hanger-on if you aren’t.

10/ But if you track all three, then you’ll always be wherever history is being made, and hopefully playing at least a footnote-part in helping make it. You don’t necessarily have to move physically, but you do need to become mindful of the who, where, and what of the action, and get yourself wired to it through information, virtual participation at least.

11/ Of course if you have the right mix of capability and luck going for you, you might lead the action instead of following it.

12/ Personally, I don’t actually like that level of intensity of participation, so I like to hang back a little bit from the heart of the action, along all 3 dimensions, so I can get the headspace to think about the philosophical, cultural dimensions of what is happening. But I do like to know what’s happening, who is doing it, and where.

A Wabi-Sabi Technology Age


Since many of you have been suggesting for years that I do a Breaking Smart podcast, I figured I’d do a little experiment and try out the podcasting widget in Substack. If this works well, I’ll start mixing things up a bit and do a mix of text posts and podcast episodes.

This is an unrehearsed, unedited, live 10-minute recording. Apologies for the 15 seconds of siren noise outside my apartment at around the 6:22 mark. I’m not sure exactly how you’d get the podcast into your listening app, but presumably there’s a way. I think I’m supposed to do stuff to submit it to Apple or something. Here’s the podcast feed URL if that helps:

In this first short episode, I talk about how the Digital Age embodies a wabi-sabi approach to technology, where the Industrial Age embodied an ethos based on the pursuit of a “like-new” state. Let me know what you think!

Some links for stuff I talk about are below the image.

Image Credit: Kintsugi bowl, CC-BY-SA 4.0 by Ruthann Hurwitz

Show notes:

Can "Tech" Die?

Is Tech immortal or can it die?

I can’t recall when we all first began to collectively refer to the computing-powered high-technology sector, based primarily on the US West Coast, as simply “Tech” (I’ll drop the scare quotes but keep the capitalization for the rest of this essay). I think it was shortly after the 2000 dotcom crash. I do, however, have a theory about why we started doing that, and why we might soon have to stop.

Tech is obviously not the only locus where technology work, or even high-technology work, gets done.

Even the idea that Tech dominates software is shaky. I recall someone pointing out (this was admittedly about 15 years ago) that Lockheed Martin, an old economy aerospace company, writes and manages more code (and more complex code) than almost all Tech companies. But nobody has Lockheed Martin in mind when they use the word Tech without qualification.

On the other hand, Tesla is Tech but Ford is not. The former fundamentally views itself as a computer company that builds cars, while the latter views itself as a car company that might use computing (including advanced computing for driverless/EV car projects).

Other weirdness: IBM’s membership in Tech is increasingly suspect, while many companies that seem to be doing non-computing-centric things like synthetic biology and drones seem to qualify.

Apparently, a prominent role in the history of computing is no guarantee of inclusion in Tech. And not being primarily about computing or software is not a certain disqualification.

So what’s going on here?

What Makes Something part of Tech?

Though it’s tempting to conclude that the use of the term Tech in such a narrow way is arbitrary parochialism on the part of Silicon Valley (plus major outposts here in Seattle and a few other places), that’s not the reason.

Not least because everybody, not just the people within Tech, participates in the consensus to call it Tech, seems okay with the term, and has fairly good pattern recognition around what belongs in the set and what does not. Nor do technologists outside of Tech seem to particularly mind the apparent appropriation.

The charge of parochialism is also simply not true at least within technology in a broader sense. Most good software technologists I know are also generally interested in all kinds of technology and engineering, going on anywhere in the world. Technologists outside of Tech are also generally interested in the technology of Tech, and in learning from it.

What matters in whether or not something is part of Tech sector is not how much, or what sort of technology work is going on in a sector, but who drives it.

The dominant feature of Tech is that technologists, rather than sales and marketing people, or politicians, are generally in the driver’s seat.

Even when sales and marketing people are apparently in the driver’s seat, what’s driving them is demands from technology leaders in customer companies. One way or the other, every important decision in Tech is ultimately made by actual technologists (whether well or poorly is another matter). Even in the much-maligned world of AdTech, the algorithmic foundations are complex enough that engineers, rather than advertising professionals, end up making most of the key decisions.

All Tech is One

In applying this theory of Tech, you have to ignore organizational and product boundaries, and look at entire ecosystems and stacks, along lines of interoperability, OEM relationships, talent mobility, and M&A activity.

Tech is an overall pattern of strongly internally entangled economic activity by means of which pieces are dynamically bundled together to create services and products actually used by people. End-user capabilities emerge of the growing soup of deeply interconnected potentialities that is the Internet.

For instance: buying something might involve all 4 of the big Tech companies (see a recommendation on Facebook, search for reviews/blogs on Google, buy it on Amazon, from an Apple or Microsoft device).

Theories like Ben Thompson’s Aggregation Theory help track the details of how and why this plays out, but the headline is: Tech is a single, connected, hydra, within which technologists make almost all the decisions that matter. Because they’re by definition the only ones keeping up sufficiently with the nature of the potential coming online, and thinking about what to do with it, to make decisions at all.

And if you learn enough to meaningfully participate, hey, you’re a technologist too. You’ve been assimilated by the Tech Borg.

The existence of a specialized VC sector is a sign that an area of technology is part of Tech. When technologists are in the driver’s seat, patterns of return on capital acquire a certain generic predictability (in terms of time horizons and rates) that allows for an efficient kind of investing.

A good sign that a technology is not part of Tech is that it does not fit the venture capital investment profile. This generally means it is evolving too slowly, or with too low a return rate, for technologists to corner most of the decision-making authority. That in turn means other actors will muddy the picture, creating unmanaged uncertainties in risk profiles, time horizons, and return rates, making VC-style investment harder.

When you wander out of Tech proper, you better have clever alternative investment models and vehicles to work with, because the VC playbook won’t work (something that a lot of idealistic technologists who want to solve “real problems” find out the hard way, after they fail to raise VC money for their — often very good — idea).

When the economy is in a Tech phase, it almost doesn’t matter if non-technologist actors in the economy — lay people, labor leaders, politicians, courts, religious leaders, entertainment celebrities, environmentalists, humanists — act successfully to regulate bits and pieces. For every attribute of Tech where technologists cede some control, two more attributes seem to come online that non-technologists don’t even know about until it’s already too late.

For every domain fenced off from encroachment by tech, three others are willing to let it in to gain an advantage over the fenced-off domain.

Tech is a growing agency pie, and a Techie could be defined as someone who is participating in a way that they’re gaining agency faster than secondary actors can take it away. So Tech is simply the collection of all such Techies in a densely connected social graph participating in making the first decisions about what to do with emerging new technological potential.

It is when this process slows, and others begin to catch up and infiltrate the Techie network, that Tech becomes Not Tech.

Tech is not technological activity per se, it is a rate regime of technological evolution, defined as “fast enough”, and a necessary and sufficient condition to be a technologist in Tech, or a Techie, is simply being able to keep up.

How fast is fast enough?

When 95% of the population is being left behind, complaining “too fast!” The bulk of the population being left behind is not a bug in Tech as a social process, it is the defining feature.

When they stop complaining and start acting en masse, that’s when it’s no longer Tech.

What Makes Something “Not Tech”?

Companies that are not part of Tech, no matter how much technology they build, and how advanced or software-driven it is, have all consequential decisions made by non-technologists. This is because new agency is not being created by technologists faster than it is being taken away from them.

For example, in the defense sector, politicians decide what weapons systems to buy, and fight over where to build them. The weapons systems are merely politicians’ means to other ends, like creating jobs. Even military professionals, let alone technologists, don’t get as much say in the key decisions as they’d like.

In the US healthcare industry, decisions are made by politicians, insurance companies and doctors, in that order.

In education, decisions are made by teachers (often unionized), politicians, and parents, in that order.

In Hollywood, decisions are made by financiers, Chinese leaders, and creative artists of various sorts. In that order.

In general, the more mature a sector, the more key decision-makers will look like either financiers or politicians. Agency over technology flows from technologists in Tech to financiers and politicians via a sort of (American) football-shaped curve, where the width of the football determines the diversity/range of decision-makers (who bring with them a diversity of interests and expectations across a growing range of time horizons and patterns of “return”).

We’re starting to enter the middle of the football now, with Tech losing ground to Everybody Else. Some pieces of Tech have skipped the middle entirely and landed straight in the endgame, with bankers and politicians vying for agency.

Software Eating the World

Why do we say “software is eating the world”? Arguably, “healthcare is eating the world” is a more justified statement, since it is gobbling up a growing share of the economic pie.

Or perhaps “finance is eating the world”, since more and more of the developed world economy in particular is starting to look like finance by other means. Every kind of value is being financialized, every kind of asset is securitized, and every large company looks more and more like a bank with every passing year.

The thing is, while other kinds of decision-makers occasionally enjoy phases of monopolistic decision-making agency over large swathes of the economy, they have no real active means to drive the rate of the process by which they gain agency. They can’t invent a bigger pie for themselves. The best they can do is resort to fraud for a while.

They have to wait for Tech to mature (ie slow down enough) and the game to come to them. Healthcare eats everything in proportion to increasing longevity and aging populations (or fraudulent medicalization of naturally healthy conditions). Finance eats everything as other kinds of risks are squeezed out and the sector becomes ripe for “harvesting” through financialization (or of course, fraudulent “growth” again).

During the installation phases (cf: Carlota Perez) of major world-eating technologies driven by Moore’s Law type exponential dynamics, Tech has a unique potential for proactively growing its power over world history. Software eats the world at the rate engineers figure out ways to apply the potential of the underlying fundamental technological improvement curve (Moore’s Law).

Something similar happened with printing, with steam, with electricity, and with oil. And now it’s been happening for 20 years with software.

In the last 400 or so years, there’s always been a relatively active “eating” tech at work in the world, being driven by the technological imagination, limited only by how clever people are capable of being, and driving the history of the world faster than any other competing force.

In one sense, Tech is just a faster-than-human phase in the evolution of new technological capabilities, when the internal constraints and capabilities of emerging technologies serve as stronger forcing functions and levers of value creation than any competing external force.

Or more precisely, in a Tech phase of technology, the impact of the right engineering decisions overwhelms the impact of almost all other decisions — social, financial, marketing.

Faster processors, lower-latency networks, more memory, lower bug rate, faster bug resolution rate, declining cost curves (Moore’s Law being the big one), automation feeding on itself: all these features of technology in a Tech phase conspire to empower engineering decision-making over other kinds.

If you get every other kind of decision wrong, but get the engineering decisions mostly right, you can still win. On the other hand, if you get the engineering decisions wrong, but every other kind of decision right, you’ll likely lose.

What’s more, the success or failure of individual products or companies is almost irrelevant. It’s all one giant soup of improving engineering, and anything valuable developed anywhere has a decent probability of migrating through the ecosystem and finding a good home in some product, in some company, or in the open-source world. Give or take a few years and a few more enabling conditions to click into place somewhere in the overall ecosystem.

Technology is Tech during the periods that it is single, connected, indefinitely sustainable game driven by an open culture of strong engineering decision-making overwhelming everything else.

This is neither good, nor bad. It just is, and soon it might not be anymore.

Can Tech Die?

Tech does not every really die, except with civilizational collapse and species extinction. It can, however, go dormant for long periods of time, especially within specific geographies.

But for the last 400 years or so, Tech has never entirely gone dormant in the world at large. When China quit the game, Europe took the lead. When European leadership flagged, America took over. Some think that now that American leadership is starting to show signs of fatigue, China will take over the lead again.

I have my doubts. One big reason is that while China (the state) can drive technology, it cannot allow Tech qua Tech to exist as a Promethean, ungoverned force in the world. Ironically, even though Chinese political leadership is dominated by engineers, they are the opposite of technologists. They are technocrats. Technology-powered bureaucrats who want to slow technological evolution to a presumed-natural human pace. Chinese leaders may want software to eat the world politely with chopsticks rather than forks, but that is a “with Chinese characteristics” distinction without a difference as far as Tech is concerned. Software going to finishing school to learn table manners for eating the world.

So China won’t save Tech. The rise of China is in fact a sign of the slowing of Tech.

Tech can’t die short of human extinction, but it can go dormant everywhere for a time — a long time — bringing on a sort of technological Dark Age ruled by non-technologists. You don’t need technological evolution to stop for this to happen. It just needs to slow down enough that non-technologists can take away agency faster than technologists can create it.

If and when then this happens, “breaking smart” will no longer be an accurate descriptive phrase for participation in the leading edge of technology, because it won’t be evolving fast enough to be Tech. When that happens software won’t stop eating the world, but it will go from wolfing it down in huge gulps to nibbling politely, using the right forks or chopsticks for everything.

The process may be smart, but Tech won’t be breaking smart from its own past and the history of the world, creating a gap between the necessary and the possible for the imagination to flourish and serendipitous amounts of new wealth to emerge.

Some would see that as Golden Age, one where finally things have slowed down enough that devil-possessed technologists have been put in their place by wise artists, environmentalists, lawyers, politicians, and bankers.

I think it would be a tragedy of course. One that has already begun to unfold in many parts of the world. Because when technology stops eating the world, people start eating each other.

Loading more posts…