I’m friends — as much as someone can be friends with another human they’ve never met in person — with a peer manager at my company. He is a sweet and decent person. He has been tasked with the unenviable job of running our “user acquisition” team, after the previous manager quit, in part, because of feeling “burned out”.
I’ve written about “user acquisition” before, and much of what I said about it then, at my previous company, still applies now, at my current one. User acquisition, in the digital space, is the business of getting people to click on ads. Why someone finds a particular advertisement enticing enough to click on is, of course, almost unknowable. But, in advertising, the psychological question is often substituted with the mathematical one. Instead of asking, “why does a person click on an ad?”, we ask, “how often does this group of people click on this ad?” The answer to that question is far more knowable — we simply have to “target” our advertisement at the demographic of interest and let the laws of statistical regularity do their work. In the span of a few hours, or, at worst, a few days, you can have thousands of prospective customers view your ad, and, if all goes well, a few percent will click on that ad. The ratio forms the “clickthrough rate” (CTR), a fundamental metric in digital advertising.
So the problem of acquiring users reduces, in large part, to the problem of maximizing the clickthrough rate for the population we care about. (For ecommerce, that population might mean middle-aged mostly female shoppers; for gaming, that might mean young, mostly male hardcore gamers.) The clickthrough rate varies with the digital platform used for advertising (Facebook, Youtube, TikTok, etc.), with the population being targeted, with the bid submitted to win an advertising auction, with the particular content of the advertisement itself, but, most of all, with time. The nature of digital advertising — the fact that advertisements lose their effectiveness with age, and that the advertising platforms are highly opaque and dynamic, constantly changing their algorithms for targeting and auctions — means that the tactics that maximized the clickthrough rate months, or even weeks, ago may not do so now. Much of my friend’s job is, every month, to present charts of numbers like CTR and explain the ups and downs. But that explanation assumes that these wiggles can indeed be rationalized. It is rather like “technical analysis” in the stock market: divining the patterns in a system so complex that it defies such divination. But it would be unsatisfactory for my friend to say, with shoulders shrugging, that “the wiggles were bad this week”, and leave it at that. So instead he tells stories. Everyone, including the CEO, expects this: we, as a species, would rather discuss mythology than epistemology.
The task of stitching together a coherent narrative is quite stressful, especially when the wiggles are bad. My work friend was talking to me about this topic a few days ago, and he seemed daunted by the task. He is also the kind of person who oozes anxiety and neuroticism. He starts sentences only to stop them midway, and then criticizes himself audibly for having a thought that is so “obviously” incorrect. He tends not to seek (reductive) simplicity and order out of complexity, but to try to contend with it until it inexorably overwhelms him. He works so hard he ceases to be productive but he could not imagine it being otherwise. He tightens himself into a ball of tension before these monthly storytelling sessions and tries to slowly unwind after they pass without incident. He was telling me, in fact, that to improve his mental health he had taken up meditation. He found it had a calming but short-lived effect. He wanted to go further, to get a work therapist, or other sort of counseling, and was wondering what I thought of the idea.
I was reading a fascinating essay in Harper’s called “The Anxiety of Influencers”. Barrett Swanson, a young academic — or at least young by academic standards — decides to profile TikTok influencers at “Clubhouse FTB—or Clubhouse For the Boys—one of the most popular collab houses that have sprouted up in Los Angeles”. A “collab house” is exactly what it sounds like: a place for these influencers to collaborate to create viral content for TikTok. The business model connects back to our previous discussion of digital advertising. As Swanson explains, “In exchange for posting three to five videos per week to the Clubhouse social-media accounts, the boys receive free room and board, plus whatever brand deals they can get based upon their “relevance.””
Influencers attract audiences which can be targeted to sell products, like the ones my company makes. So, an influencer with a larger or more desirable audience can command a larger salary. These young adults — kids, really — seem almost overawed by the amount of money they receive:
When I ask the boys to describe the amount of money they receive from brands, they use words like “absurd” and “absolutely ridiculous.” For instance, Christopher Romero just did a TikTok video for a Louisiana-based chicken franchise called Raising Cane’s,2 for which he and his girlfriend, Madi, were paid $14,000 and $60,000, respectively. The video features no stylized pyrotechnics, no rococo ballet of intricate choreography. Instead, the couple does that cutesy Lady and the Tramp–type thing, where they each start munching on one end of a chicken tender until they meet in the middle for a kiss. About this brand deal, Christopher says, “I’m obviously grateful, but it’s honestly crazy to me. Like, yo, this is a ten-second video, and you want to give me how much money? And Raising Cane’s is already a big brand by itself—everyone knows how good it is, so I’m wondering, like, why do you even need this?
Swanson writes eloquently about the ways in which the lives of these influencers intertwine and overlap with his own. The connections between the influencer economy and the academic one are surprisingly profound. The precariousness of the job, the constant need to produce new ideas and “content”, and, most of all, the disillusionment associated with teaching kids critical thinking and life skills through the academic study of literature and then seeing what they do with the other 165 hours of their week, which, to a large extent, involves producing or consuming social media content.
(“Several times throughout my trip, I think I can see the toll this takes on them, a kind of pallid desperation that flickers across their faces. At one point, Brandon comes over and says, “The scary thing is you never know how long this is going to last, and I think that’s what eats a lot of us at night. It’s like, What’s next? How long can we entertain everyone for? How long before no one cares, and what if your life was worth nothing?” Wasn’t it precisely this kind of sadness that my lectures on Keats and Toni Morrison were trying so desperately to foreclose?”)
At one point, Swanson explains that his job of professor at a Wisconsin university has slowly transmuted into one of therapist:
In the past ten years, my email correspondence has been increasingly given over to calming down students who are hyperventilating with anxiety—about grades, about their potential marketability, about their Instagram followings. The previous semester, for instance, during a class on creative non-fiction, twenty-four of my twenty-six students wrote about self-harm or suicidal ideation. Several of them had been hospitalized for anxiety or depression, and my office hours were now less occasions to discuss course concepts—James Baldwin’s narrative persona, say, or Joan Didion’s use of imagery—than they were de facto counseling sessions. Even students who seemed happy and neurologically stable—Abercrombie-clad, toting a pencil case and immaculate planner—nevertheless displayed unsettling in-class behavior: snacking incessantly during lectures, showing Victorian levels of repression. The number of emotional-support service animals had skyrocketed on campus. It seemed like every third person had a Fido in tow, and had you wandered into my lecture hall when we were still holding in-person classes, you might have assumed that my lessons were on obedience training or the virtues of dog-park etiquette. And while it seems clichéd even to mention it, the students were inexorably—compulsively—on their phones.
It is a cruel irony that all parties involved in digital advertising need this kind of emotional support, that the anxiety cultivated by digital advertising suffuses the system: from the advertisers, like my friend, to the content creators, like these young men, and finally to the consumers, like Swanson’s students, the ones whose eyes are glued to the screen and whose purchasing power props up this economy. Each is compelled to anxiety by the wiggles of numbers they can’t control: the clicks, the views, the shares, the followers, the likes, the bids, the engagement, the relevance, the dollars.
It also brings a wry smile to my face that the “de facto counselors” are simultaneously contending with their own doubts. Swanson writes about his “Churchillian spells of depression”, his naivete in assuming that he “could influence, in however small a way, the shape of the next generation”, and his realization that his “prospects for getting tenure rely, in large measure, on student evaluations, meaning that…I have lately begun to overhear myself talking to students with the same deferential manner as a RadioShack manager.”
I can’t say I’m much better. My user acquisition friend sought me out because I am preternaturally calm, because I act as if work does not produce such tension in me, because I silence those self-critical thoughts that he vocalizes. But it is not so simple. If I am calmer than he is, it is only because I am so deeply cynical about and disillusioned by this work, and by work in general. It is easy to have a flat affect when you have largely detached yourself emotionally from the outcome. I am sure that, if I cared as much about telling a pleasing story as he does, my weekends would be spent in a similarly neurotic and frenetic state. I have not found a way to cope so much as a way not to care.
In the past I have played therapist for several of my coworkers, friends, fellow graduate students, and the like. People sometimes seek me out because, in my better moments, I appear to have everything together. And I try to indulge them by listening respectfully, asking intelligent questions, and offering advice that seems reasonable, like something Dear Prudence might say. But who am I to lend emotional support? And, perhaps more importantly, is emotional support even what we need? It is true that we might be able to cope more easily with the stresses of work if we meditate more or hire a therapist. It is also true that better social media habits might restrain us from our worst excesses, and that, if these Clubhouse boys were smart, they would think about what skills they possess that might survive the fading of their looks. But the problem with these suggestions — and I am as guilty as anyone else for making them — is that they prescribe an individuated response to a systemic issue, and that the burdens they impose on the individual might only exacerbate the problems they are trying to solve. If the problem has to do with the demands that work imposes on our lives, how can the solution be to carve out a few more hours — hours that don’t exist — for therapy? If the job is what makes my friend anxious and emotionally disturbed, if it is what amplifies his neuroticism and bleeds into his home life, then shouldn’t these emotions be encouraged rather than suppressed? They are telling him to stop, and he doesn’t want to listen. But is that his fault, or ours?