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SocietyJuly 12, 2021

We are all becoming Extremely Online


Shit You Should Care About started as an Instagram account run by three young women from Blenheim. Now they’ve collaborated with The Spinoff to make the best show about the internet on the internet. 

You might not have heard of Miquela. She’s an influencer, a pop star, a little bit of an activist, her profile largely driven by social media. This describes many newly-minted celebrities in this era, and has done since some time in the early ‘10s, when social media became ubiquitous. 

The difference between Miquela and the average influencer is partly her prominence – she has 3m followers, a record deal and is represented by the world’s biggest talent agency. But there’s another key difference – Miquela is not a real person. She’s ones and zeros, she’s a brand, she’s an art stunt, she’s a commercial asset.

She’s a robo-influencer, made by a team of creatives at Brud, a transmedia studio funded by Sequoia – the venture capitalists behind Google, Apple and dozens of other world-changing businesses.

Global fame, a wildly interesting backstory and backed by a business which might shake the world – so why haven’t more people heard of her? Because the very thing which made her possible – the rise of social media – also precipitated a rapid decline in influence and reach in what has come to be known as legacy media. The old system of newspapers, linear TV channels and radio stations previously dominated information transmission, and meant most of us consumed much of the same stuff. We agreed on the same facts, knew the same stories, loved and hated the same celebrities.

User generated content, social media, streaming video and smartphones – tech plus the internet – have birthed a wild pace of behaviour change. The era of top down control, with editors and programmers deciding what we watched and heard has for many been replaced by platforms operated by tech giants and controlled by algorithms instead. 

When this happened, we essentially cleaved society in two. On one side, an older generation which largely inhabits the old world of media and communication, and still consumes linear television, radio, newspapers, magazines and maybe their digital outputs. The other either came of age in or adopted the behaviours of the social web, and are highly engaged in creation and consumption of content driven through platforms like Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat and sometimes even Facebook.

The cut is not clean. There are plenty of older people in the latter camp, and a few younger people who consume and discover through legacy media. But the divide is very real, and confronting for a society which was once unified by its media consumption, and is now starkly divided by it. 

Yet by the very nature of any social and algorithm-driven platform, huge phenomena can be missed. They’re enormous in one subculture, demographic or region and all but invisible in another. Plenty exist in response to another – Miquela is not just an intellectual and technical achievement, she would also not have been imaginable without the rise of influencers, which in turn barely existed prior to Instagram. 

This is the coming world, a blizzard of disorienting new technologies rising and disrupting, sometimes changing the world forever, sometimes only appearing to do so, and lasting only a few weeks. This year alone has seen the rise of NFTs as an asset class, the meme stocks phenomenon, and a survey showing nearly one in 10 New Zealanders own some variety of cryptocurrency. And that’s just what’s happening in finance. As well as making us uncomfortable and disoriented, it also provides extraordinary opportunity and room for innovation.

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One example of this is Shit You Should Care About (SYSCA) – an Instagram account with over 3 million followers, which is also a global news platform. And a Harry Styles fan account. And was founded in the back of a Vic Uni lecture theatre, by three women from Blenheim. 

Led by the force of nature that is Lucy Blakiston, SYSCA is one of the boldest and most exciting presences to emerge in New Zealand’s media in years. In part due to its own enigmatic nature. Is it a news platform? Or an influencer? How should we conceive of an audience at that scale which is globally distributed? 

There’s a link between those questions and Miquela. She – or those who control her – has DMed SYSCA. And that interaction kicks off the first episode of Extremely Online, a brand new show produced by Hex Work Productions for SYSCA and The Spinoff and funded by NZ On Air. 

Extremely Online’s very existence will be confronting for some: until relatively recently, NZ On Air only made work focussed on TV and radio, but this show is made with Instagram as its primary platform. The distribution is driven by a massive NZ social account which has just one in 20 of its followers located in New Zealand. Yet because their audience is largely under 30 – notoriously the hardest to reach for any legacy media – it might also be one of the most popular local current affairs shows for that audience.

It’s a lot, but the show is easy to approach. This is largely down to an extraordinary effort in crafting the work – Blakiston is joined by her SYSCA collaborator, designer Liv Mercer, along with Hex Work Production’s team of director/editor Isaiah Tour, producer Sophie Dowson and production manager Jin Fellet. As you’ll see from the first episode, everyone involved has walked into a brave new format and gone a long way above and beyond. 

Because there’s a lot of internet, the season runs long. For the next 24 weeks we’ll be posting a new episode each week, covering a different freaky, intellectually and culturally fascinating part of life online. It will debut on SYSCA’s Instagram and social channels on a Friday, then on The Spinoff’s YouTube and social channels the following Monday, and will cover topics like crypto, how artificial intelligence often turns out to be racist, and whether or not robots will have taken over the world by 2045 – all in SYSCA’s inimitable style. 

It will help you make sense of this coming world, no matter how online you are.

Extremely Online is made with the support of NZ On Air.

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