Last week Metalabel dropped its biggest release to date: a new digital magazine exploring creative collaboration called Public Record. I’ll share more about this release in a moment, but first I want to go deeper behind a big piece I wrote for the launch called “How culture is made.”
How culture is made
“How culture is made” tells four stories spanning centuries that show how creative collectives have shaped the world — from the Royal Society to Dischord Records to the Guerrilla Girls to my own journey to the metalabel concept.
I won’t regurgitate the piece here, but its main takeaways are three observations about culture creation:
1) Culture isn't made overnight — it’s created over time and through dialogue.
2) Cultures and subcultures aren’t created through a single moment, they’re created through a catalog of activity.
3) Cultural shifts are often outcomes of collective effort.
Since Ideaspace readers have been with me on the Metalabel journey since the start of the year, I want to go deeper into the thinking behind these realizations.
Culture labels V1
The metalabel idea was born out of a sense of loneliness I felt while pursuing the Creator Economy trap of producing high volumes of content in an attempt to be noticed. As “How culture is made” details, these feelings inspired me to explore forms of collective creation. Those explorations became an essay called "Culture Labels V1" that I never published, but shared privately with creative friends and that organically led to the creation of Metalabel.
I recently re-read that original essay and found several sections that feel especially relevant eighteen months later. (If you’d like to read the entire original first draft, I’m making that raw Google Doc publicly available here.)
In my original draft I theorized that until recently there have been three distinct eras of cultural production:
- Family culture era: Dawn of human history until now. Culture is largely defined by the patriarch and the ancestors of a family. The family’s rules must be followed and justice is handled internally. The family era remains powerful, but began to decline with the growth of individualism somewhere around 1000 AD.
- Religious culture era: Since early humanity, spiritual and metaphysical ideas have guided human cultures. But during the medieval eras the church influenced all aspects of human behavior, from sex to whom you could marry to rising individualism. The church remains a powerful institution for influencing human culture.
- Market culture era: From the dawn of capitalism to today, markets have been the increasingly primary means of setting, reinforcing, and changing culture. In the market era, culture is shaped by what gets sold and how it gets sold, though the outcomes are largely defined by who owns the markets and the amounts of capital behind them.
In both the clan and religious eras, cultural norms were frequently not-optional and imposed upon others. In the market era, cultural norms are based more often on preferences rather than coercion. However the choice of preferences was (and in many places still is) set by overseeing institutions of various kinds — companies, governments, and so on.
The power of the first two cultural eras (and also the third, but less so) is that living participants weren’t present for their genesis creation. Familial and religious customs are established contexts that we enter as babies and that give our worlds shape and form. This gives them immense power — a kind of magic.
The market culture era began to change this. Power moved away from institutions and towards attractive demographics, marketable sub-groups, and what the customer says is right. Because the market was largely controlled by the same classes as the previous cultural eras, the changes brought about by the market culture era were significant, but still limited compared to the era we find ourselves in today.
The internet culture era
In contrast to these past eras of cultural creation, I theorized that we’ve entered a new internet culture era. Quoting again:
In the new internet culture era we get a mishmash of all previous cultural production eras rolled together, with an extraordinary technical layer that turns them into something fundamentally new.
The magic of internet culture isn’t in its permanence or connection to the past, it’s the opposite: the magic of internet culture is that it’s changing, always, right in front of us. In the internet culture era we are the wizards behind the curtain. Our attitude towards culture and how much of it we see is entirely different than in the past. We can’t help but to see internet culture as well as see through it.
While new, the internet culture era shares many similarities to our past:
- Like the family culture era, internet culture is often created and defined within siloed groups with a key leader — not unlike a patriarch — guiding and inspiring the action within.
- Like the religious culture era, internet culture is often top-down and imposed on the populace by major tech platforms seeking to establish technical and social canon. Their choices create the lived reality we experience on the web.
- Like the market culture era, internet culture is primarily driven by populist ideas. What gets the most upvotes and likes is what gets attention. Most platforms function as, in effect, cultural marketplaces where products, ideas, and norms are voted on, pantomimed, and manifested by the public.
Where the internet culture era takes these norms and institutions further is opening up who gets to decide what’s in the market, and by redefining what the market itself is and what forms are dominant within it.
Each era has its distinct set of norms, challenges, and forms. In the internet culture era, a new set of forms are taking shape:
In the internet culture era our new institutions are still being formed, but what’s become clear is that our primary challenge today is sifting through all the ideas, cultural norms, and potential paths forward made possible by the web. This has made the curator (or the aggregator) an increasingly powerful form. More and more these curators are using a new format to promote their work: a form I call the culture label.
There are many kinds of labels: record labels, fashion labels, publishing houses, art galleries, production companies, and so on.
To date, we’ve thought about the different kinds of labels as distinct from each other. Rarely do we see a book publisher and a record label compared that deeply because their industries are so different. But both are fundamentally doing the same thing.
A label looks out into the world with a specific point of view they’re looking to manifest through projects they apply their resources to. If they’re a label that specializes in grizzly horror movies or that releases specific microgenres of electronic music from certain regions, this is the lens through which they see the world and ultimately the lens they’re inviting other people to see the world through, too.
When we see the work of labels from this wider view, we get a better sense of what they’re doing: they’re creating culture based on their lens, incrementally, with each release they make. By bringing together the resources the projects in their worlds need (funding, collaborators, materials, curatorial attention), labels help projects they’re culturally aligned with while putting them in a context that creates more understanding for the work.
Culture labels reflect and project a desired reality onto the world.
Identifying this form — which I later renamed a “metalabel” — was an attempt to explicitly observe the patterns through which cultural beliefs and norms are set.
Life after lifestyle
One of the people I spoke with several times about this concept last year was my friend, the writer Toby Shorin, who two weeks ago published an excellent piece called “Life after lifestyle” that focuses on how culture was used as a form of marketing over the past decade, and expresses concern about a shift towards a new explicit creation of culture, with Metalabel cited as a primary example. Toby writes:
In 2022, the term “culture” has taken on an unquestionable positive moral valence. Along with the veneration of “creators,” “creating culture” has become impossible to disagree with, and the word “community” is blessed with a similar halo of virtue. Some companies have made this the core of their brand positioning. Cultural creation is, for example, a pillar of projects like web3 creative community Friends With Benefits, or Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler’s new company, Metalabel. The triviality with which these words are deployed belie the seriousness of their origin point. “Culture” may be used to refer to “tradition” (as in “other cultures”), or it may be used to refer to the vicissitudes of music and art trends, but it is neither of these things: “culture” is a social engineering project.
This is something that Toby and I discussed several times last year, as I recounted in my second-ever metablog published internally for the Metalabel team (which I’m also making public today):
Today Toby and I spent two hours walking in the rain around the city. He and I've been talking about Metalabel for a while and he's always believed the idea is powerful, but he's also been skeptical that basically shitty people are going to use this to do shitty things. There should be more intention behind the tool rather than just allowing something that will perpetuate what might be a lot more crap in the world. We talked a lot about that, and I took his passion seriously.
He also expressed feeling upset at the idea that a group like Extinction Rebellion [who I wrote about in my initial Culture Labels V1 essay] might call itself a label. He felt that was reductive and that putting a music label and activists on the same plane was flattening things in a way that took away something that was sacred, and that the intention behind something matters just as much as the form. Making Metalabel about the form of the label risks negating all the different things that happen inside a group that makes one group better to be a part of or producing more good in the world.
In those conversations Toby was sensitive to the idea that culture was something that could be deliberately created for two reasons: first, that my idea of culture flattened what’s considered culture in a way that was harmful, and second, that by creating a tool that would help others manifest their cultural views it could lead to the creation of bad, insincere, and potentially exploitative forms of culture.
One specific point we differed on that highlights this tension was whether the activists Extinction Rebellion — who I specifically cited as an example of a modern culture label — were a model of this form. Here’s how Toby explains this in “Life after lifestyle”:
Yancey says that metalabels are like startups for “any kind of cultural project: from art to activism to community projects to efforts to establish new points of view.” But a record label like Factory Records is very different than an activist group like Extinction Rebellion. XR promotes culture of a fundamentally different sort. The knowledge they share is awareness of climate disasater, the people are leaders and participants, the places are government centers where activism takes place, and the practices are demonstrations and nonviolent civil disobedience. You may not agree with Extinction Rebellion’s approach, or even its premise, but you cannot deny that it is qualitatively different than a record label, and that its purpose is somehow higher. If Extinction Rebellion is creating culture, it is inculcating a “type of person” who cares about something greater than him or herself, and who takes action in service of all beings.
The same day Toby and I had this debate a year ago, I spoke with two of the leaders in Extinction Rebellion who are also friends of mine. Here’s how I recounted that conversation in my metablog:
Immediately after Toby and I spoke I had a phone call with Clare (cofounder) and Charlie (creative director) at Extinction Rebellion. Midway through our conversation I said I was just talking with a good friend of mine who expressed concern that Extinction Rebellion was being framed as a label. It's something I’m sure you've thought about, so I'm curious how you think about it, I asked them.
Clare, cofounder of Extinction Rebellion said yeah, she's thought about it too. But honestly, they want to be more part of the mainstream of culture. From her perspective, when Extinction Rebellion first started they were a part of the mainstream culture. But over time they got moved more into activist alternative culture and became something that regular people couldn't participate in. It was something you could only do if you were pure, if you'd never taken a short-hop flight. This purity demand she saw as a death sentence to activist movements. She very much wants Extinction Rebellion to be a part of culture, because in her mind that will make them easier to engage with and ultimately there's a bigger mission that's about getting people to become more active about the climate.
I appreciated the critique and I appreciated being able to have this conversation directly with the people leading this effort, and to learn that they saw more danger in being seen as sacred than in being a part of the cultural mass. It reveals how value systems differ depending on what you prioritize: the tactics or the outcomes.
This is not new, it's newly seen
As I look at all of these pieces together – How culture is made, Culture Labels V1, and Life after lifestyle – I sense that we’re getting closer to the truth about who we are, how we become who we are, and what’s at stake.
Humans have always been involved in creating, affirming, or following cultural norms, knowingly or not. What’s different about today is that it’s possible to not only be aware of what’s happening, but to tip the cultural scales in one direction or another provided that, as the “How culture is made” piece theorizes, you're committed to doing it over time, with a catalog of work, and collaborating alongside a group of people who see the world the same way.
These dynamics are not new. But because of the reality of the internet culture era and the identification of theoretical structures like the metalabel, they’re being newly seen and thus able to be more directly influenced. We’re learning how to shape the world in deeper, more powerful, and yes, one could argue, more sacred ways.
These are contentious shifts for good reasons. There’s a lot at stake. People have aesthetic, ideological, and other kinds of objections to changing norms and values in the world around us in ways that some will see as valid and others will see as invalid. I greatly appreciated Toby’s critical questions and still do. Where perhaps he and I disagree is whether it’s responsible to equip others to more directly shape the cultures around them, or whether this carries outsized risks.
“Culture” is not an unqualified good, but I do believe equipping groups of people to come together and manifest a cultural belief that they share is closer to one. Especially if the form used to do this elevates multiple voices and results in a continuing cultural dialogue between the group and the world at large.
In the metablog I wrote a year ago after speaking with Toby, Clare, and Charlie, I wrote:
What these conversations really led me to think is that the curation of Metalabel is even more important than I had been thinking. The curation of metalabels shouldn’t be according to tastes and aesthetics, but according to a lowercase morality. Not like everyone has to be virtuous, but who we choose to invite on and what we choose to hold up and what company we're putting other labels in is something that’s really important that we get right.
Growth is something to be very cautious about. We want a slower process of trying to give a shit about the right things, trying to create more equitable forms, advocating for ways that labels can be more transparent and can be more democratic or can be more responsive, ways this model could be improved. Those are things that need to be front and center of our thinking. We‘re trying to create a model that’s an improved iteration on what was already here. That’s the reason to do this. That’s why this project is worth pursuing.
This mindset, which embraces both the emerging possibilities of the metalabel form as well as an opinionated approach to how we reintroduce the form to the world (influenced by my conversations with Toby), guides our work with Metalabel. When culture can change so quickly and with little warning, gaining a firmer grip on the cultural wheel feels all the more important.
Thanks to Toby Shorin, Clare Farrell, and Charlie Waterhouse for the great conversations, as always.
Culture Labels V1 — the previously unpublished draft that led to the creation of Metalabel
How culture is made — a new essay on Public Record exploring cultural creation across history
Life after lifestyle — Toby Shorin’s essay on culture
Introducing Metalabel — the essay that first introduced the metalabel concept
Public Record updates each week with interviews and insights from metalabels and creative collectives, as well as quick, visual-heavy overviews of collectives past and present called Spotted.
For those of who you have been wondering what I’ve going on about this whole year, there's now a single page that explains what metalabels are, diagrams how the metalabel engine operates, and gives examples of metalabels IRL. What’s a metalabel? is well worth your time.
What do you think?
I’d love to hear what you think. What about this excites you? What about it makes you uncomfortable? How do you think culture gets made? I'm all ears.
Peace and love my friends,
I can't speak about culture "at large" but next week I'm going to have a live discussion and Q&A with a community of designers about the question "Can we design a corporate culture?".
I obviously have few strong opinions but not a definitive answer on that, and I'm curious about what questions and ideas the designers will raise.
I haven't read the "Life after lifestyle" essay yet but I agree about the risks of a sort of "culture-washing" if I interpreted it correctly: the idea of corporate culture in particular has been rendered flat and fluffy by many companies for employer branding and recruting purposes, for example.
We need to make corporate culture tangible again, I think.
We need markers, reference points. I like the framing of knowledge+people+places+practices that you mentioned. I like the old Netflix definition of culture as who you hire, fire and promote: it's simple, but it makes the underlying complexity more tangible.
I'm also inspired by the idea of curation.
I toyed with the idea of calling myself "organizational archeologist" recently and one of the things archeologists do is to curate what they find along the way: and that's something that I do regularly, making people and teams aware that their team or corporate culture allows some behaviors while punishes others — to what end?
(OK, bye, I have loooots of reading to do on this topic 🙂)
One of the most relevant pieces on what culture really means and how we can continue to build a better future as a community.