ALL ABOUT THAT OPTIMIZATION
Growing up in the suburbs of the midwest, I was a consumer and connoisseur of all processed cheese products. There was Cheez Whiz (mind the z’s) for broccoli and potatoes, Easy Cheese (my all-time favorite) for Ritz Crackers and pigs-n-a-blanket (Oscar Mayer cocktail weiners & Pillsbury Crescents only!), and of course, the pantry staple: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Kraft Dinner (as it was originally called) was born out of the Great Depression and became increasingly important during WWII when there was rationing of milk & dairy, a need for longer shelflife, and simplicity in preparation since many women went to work outside of the home and had less time for domestic duties (#gendernorms). In the 80s in suburban Illinois, most of that, save for the working mother, wasn’t applicable anymore, but still, Kraft with its processed cheese was all we knew when it came to mac & cheese as a proper meal. I thought it was delicious and you couldn’t have told me otherwise. It didn’t matter that by the 80s the wartime-scarcity thinking that created the boom of the processed food was no longer needed, we were hooked on this idea of “the modern meal” and packaged and processed was a staple in the majority of American homes.
Processed foods aren’t all bad or all good, but the two things all processed foods have in common are money & time, or more accurately: they’re cheaper to produce & purchase, and they’re faster to prepare. Their goal is optimization: of dollars, of shelf-stability, and of user experience.
THE (SOCIAL MEDIA) WORLD IS FLAT
And when I reflect on the motivation behind processed foods, I find a parallel between current-day digital marketing plans, which also aren’t all good or all bad. The metrics we track to understand if we are succeeding in the digital space ask: what’s the cheapest customer acquisition cost, that creates the longest lifetime value customer, while still staying relevant to search engine optimization. The fact that we focus on these metrics isn’t necessarily all good or all bad. The problem tends to come when they become a narrow lens through which we view the possibilities of our marketing and more specifically the content we’re creating to optimize those metrics.
We are all now familiar with the fact that Apple updated its iOS last week which sent some waves of concern through the small business community that relies on digital advertising for growing their business. Much is being written about the impact this might have for those that rely on those mediums for large percentages of their growth. The growing consensus that I’ve read is that it’s a good time for small business owners to get to know their customers better and consider their other opportunities for marketing their business. Most tend to stress that even if you’re thinking of a workaround with the privacy update, it’s not a viable long-term solution.
Last week there was also an interesting conversation being had about social media over on the Dazed Podcast between Jia Tolentino (of Trick Mirror glory) and Charli XCX. It’s a discussion that has been circulating about the flatness of Instagram and how it’s destined to become (or has already become) the next Facebook (i.e. for “our parents”) and that the real action is now on Tiktok (#whocankeepup). Jia goes on to say that the thing about Tiktok that will keep it creative is that it can’t be strategized. The problem with that is that within the same week, Crocs already proved her wrong with their own comeback strategy focused solely on Tiktok.
FOLLOWING THE SPIRAL AND REVISITING CRÆFT
So where to go from here? In her book, The Mystic Spiral Jill Purce teaches us that there’s no going back. Ceramicist Michele Quan has a lovely excerpt of the book on her site that states: To actually go back would be to go against the order of things, to get sucked into the downward vortex. Nobody wants that! And Jill’s website goes onto explain: The spiral is a natural form of growth, and has become, in every culture and every age, humanity’s symbol of the progress of the soul towards eternal life. As the inward winding labyrinth, it constitutes the hero’s journey to the still centre where the secret of life is found. As the spherical vortex, spiralling through its own centre, it combines the inward and outward directions of movement.
When we think about the optimization of the digital world, and the flatness that resulted in the pursuit to optimize it, we’re thinking about that outward direction of movement. But if we follow the spiral back inward, is it possible that a revisiting of (not a returning to) Cræft to guide the way? Alex Langlands, the author of Cræft, explains that the Old English word signified an indefinable sense of knowledge, wisdom, and resourcefulness. In his book, he goes on to explain that Cræft is a form of intelligence and ingenuity that can shift in accordance with the changing world. He speaks a lot about the industrialized world and how mass manufacturing has robbed us of the quality that cræft can return to us: contemplation.
DECOLONIZING YOUR MIND
What’s so surprising to me is that when I speak to entrepreneurs about changing their approach to social media, I am often met with a genuine lack of understanding of what’s possible. The conversation isn’t about the need to leave social media, but how content, in general, might be approached to be less Krafty and more Cræfty. And when I was reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s essay about corn I found insight into why most people can’t remember what it means to be Cræfty and that has to do with the colonization of the mind and what happens with our narrow focus of online living. Though in this passage she’s talking about the colonization of corn, I couldn’t help but see the similarities of the approach of big tech to small business: Colonization is the process by which an invading people seeks to replace the original lifeways with their own, erasing the evidence of prior claims to place. Colonists take what they want and attempt to erase the rest. Conceiving of plants and land (substitute small businesses) as objects, not subjects—as things instead of beings—provides the moral distance that enables exploitation.
And this colonization isn’t surprising after listening to the conversation on Your Undivided Attention about how there is a similarity between hypnosis and using social media. When you’re in that state, I don’t think you realize how much perspective you lose about what’s possible in your creativity. This is why the approach of cræftiness feels all the more necessary now. That’s the beauty of the spiral, the gift of the update from Apple, and the opportunity to revisit what’s possible if you spend the time with your own intelligence and ingenuity.