Decoding a Social Phase Change

WallStreetBets isn’t a mob, hack, or saga. It’s an indicator of renewal and reinvention.

“In well-established democracies like the United States, democratic governance will continue its inexorable decline and will eventually fail.” This warning didn’t come from a populist-inspired Reddit message board. It’s a prediction from one of America’s leading social scientists, Shawn Rosenberg.

Rosenberg, who earned degrees at Yale, Oxford, and Harvard, predicted in 2019 that Western-style democracies would continue to shrink, and those remaining will become shells of themselves. Taking democracy’s place? Populist governments offering voters simple answers to complicated questions.

This forecast suggests others must figure out how to help the public take on more complex tasks, extending beyond politics to new forms of media, technology, and finance. Collectively, we don’t believe these changes will come from “the top.” According to Gallup, every institutional anchor — medicine, religion, news, governance, and finance, experienced a steep decline in public confidence as access to information increased.

Perhaps more telling, ethnographic research we conducted last year with the Institute for the Future illuminated new DIY sensibilities across these sectors, fueled by technology, to address new wants and needs. Billions of dollars in venture investment, not to mention billions of hours of our collective attention, now manifest in new wellness segments, digital worlds that mirror the real one, and a new universe of micro platforms like Robinhood and Discord — all upending the status quo.

There’s not much more to contribute to the analysis of the GameStop arc — other than it’s more evidence to suggest we’re on the verge of an empowerment moment — maybe a renaissance moment — fueled by public dissatisfaction, anxiety, and available technology.

There’s not much more to contribute to the analysis of the GameStop arc — other than it’s more evidence to suggest we’re on the verge of an empowerment moment — maybe a renaissance moment — fueled by public dissatisfaction, anxiety, and available technology.

The Shift from One Thing to Another

An idea borrowed from physics explains what’s happening. “Phase change” is a physical transition between states of matter like solids, liquid, and gas. It has since been used to describe transformations in other fields, particularly the effects of artificial intelligence and social networks.

Silicon Valley veteran Bill Davidow extends the concept even further to social phase change. He writes extensively on the “Autonomous Revolution” one whose depth of change has been seen a few times in world history. He says, “when major structural transformations combine and interact over extended periods, they change institutions and norms so completely that an entirely new form of society emerges.” Significant transitions, like the one we’re in now, come with new infrastructures, commerce, governance, and belief systems.

Through this lens, media commentary labeling WallStreetBets as a mob, hack, or saga isn’t just factually wrong. It overlooks a market rupture, another example of a cultural shift, and the desire among millions of retail investors to build an alternative investment movement.

The last decade in American media is illustrative of the long-term impact of alternative systems at work. Case in point: Feeling shortchanged by the media establishment, Andrew Breitbart was the first to fuel the political “undermedia” movement that shifted the balance of power around the world.

Following his lead, over roughly a decade, a continually expanding network of networks featuring Fox, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, and other high-traffic sites took shape with its own political, financial, and media wings. It featured digital street warriors, data science nerds, science-deniers, race-baiters, and eventually the president of the United States. Steve Bannon, then Breitbart’s executive chairman and guiding spirit following Andrew Breitbart’s death, said, “We think of ourselves as virulently anti-establishment, particularly ‘anti-’ the permanent political class.”

In addition to an insurgent ethos, designers behind the ascendant right-wing media also understood social-technology alchemy far better than the establishment. They understood the chemistry of information changes as it is processed digitally. As John Wihbey, author of The Social Fact explains, “Information blends into the architecture of digital applications, social platforms, and automated programming interfaces or data pipes. Content that was once seen as breaking news became just information in the eyes of the audience — a commodity that has less value in the marketplace, as it is no longer in any sense exclusive,” to a mass, unified audience.

We now know that the fusion of communications technology, its inventive use, and ideology of change eventually led to two different, incompatible media worlds. What is less known: one is oriented for a TV age, the other optimized for social engineering. Political leanings aside, it’s important to understand the differences that can inform disruption in other sectors.

In the case of media, form factors differ considerably.

Decoding the Next Cultural Turn

Since 2000, patterns we track at Weber Shandwick suggest that structural communications change occurs roughly every five years. Each turn, influenced by technological innovation, creates culture shocks that ripple across politics, media, and commerce — and requires a new way to think about public engagement.

Let’s take an example from the chart above. 2020 gave us a clear sense of what “THREAT” orientation feels like. How did it manifest? Intentional misdirection and ineptitude made access to reliable information close to impossible. The public square splintered into opposing camps, feeding off conspiracy theories and hardened ideology that turned violent in online forums, cities worldwide, and the U.S Capitol. The manipulation, disinformation, and bullshit forced us to turn to each other through private networks, shared virtual experiences, purposeful microplatforms, and beyond — to make sense of what’s happening. Isolated by COVID, life itself even morphed into a video game for some.

Now 30 days into a new decade, how might we think about “RENEWAL?” To quote Marshall McLuhan, the breakdowns will lead to breakthroughs. For now, we’ll see more of the “screw-it-I’ll-go-my-own-way” ethos that sears the edges of institutional standing even further. As Martin Gurri says in Revolt of the Public, change has an anti-system, anti-program, anti-ideology dress code.

For now, we’ll see more of the “screw-it-I’ll-go-my-own-way” ethos that sears the edges of institutional standing even further.

In the gap of unresolved issues in politics, media, or markets, super-empowered communities will exert power to fill the voids. Think of GameStop as last week’s episode of the We-Should-Have-Seen-It-Coming Show. Insurgent thinkers will continue to build momentum outside current institutions and seek even greater autonomy from existing systems.

It’s necessary to dissect what’s behind the empowerment movement: a culture of unrest, shared interests, and hyper-connected communications. Participants in forums like WallStreetBets expertly use social networks, convene on alternative platforms (off-the-radar of mainstream media and pundits), and devise unthinkable ideas that become real in a matter of hours.

What’s blindly apparent to those deep in the game will be an aberration to those who are not. Alternative social networks and gaming will profoundly reshape ecosystems, with effects, like WallStreetBets’ market influence, to monitor closely. We’re still VERY early in a build/rebuild phase that will take on wholly different forms — both technically and culturally — than what we have now.

Futurist Alvin Toffler said, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

So as we think about what’s in store as more news overwhelms our senses, remember physics. Our understanding of water — no matter how in-depth — doesn’t inform how we deal with ice.

If you haven’t already, check out this summary of our Coherence Crash research on making sense of events in 2020. Subscribe to the Media Genius newsletter for continued updates.

Chief Innovation Officer, Weber Shandwick

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