The 17th century French moralist François de La Rochefoucald observed in his Maximes: “In the misfortunes of our dearest friends we always find something not wholly displeasing unto us.”
So there was more than just the tang of sweet Schadenfreude in the air during the recording of the latest episode – 63, no less – of the Small Data Forum podcast.
For some of our dearest friends from the past six years of our data-ish ramblechats put in an appearance, like the cast of a mash-up musical all jostling for attention and approbation in light of their latest misdemeanours.
The Trump-ton riots
Take a bow, Donald Trump. Thomas notes that the results of the U.S. mid-term elections were perhaps not quite as the pollsters had suggested, with the Democrats holding onto the Senate and the House of Representatives still in the balance. Thomas notes that Nate Silver on the 538 podcast before the elections gave the Republicans a 55% chance of taking the Senate – essentially just a coin toss – while the Democrats had just a 16% chance of holding onto the House – “still one bullet in Russian Roulette”. So perhaps the pundits weren’t caught that short after all.
Sam wonders (with some encouragement from Neville) whether we might be seeing a regression towards the mean of moderate politics, with almost all Trump’s endorsed politicos failing to win (most notably the media medic Dr Oz) and his “opponents” in the Republican Party doing much better than expected, despite not-so-veiled threats to expose them (step forward Ron DeSantis in Florida).
Sam calls bullshit on Trump as THE living embodiment of the Fundamental Attribution Error, quoted on our (other) favourite podcast The News Agents as saying explicitly before the mid-terms “any success is down to me; any failure is down to others”.
Trump truly is the Jose Mourinho of politics.
The fallback of the far right?
But it’s not just Trump’s nominees who have faltered. Since we last met, the Truss-Kwarteng-Rees-Mogg junta has been booted from leading the U.K. Government, Johnson failed to garner sufficient support for a comeback, and Bolsinaro has been beaten at the polls in Brazil by comeback kid Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Yes, Italy still has is Nuova Fascista PM, Giorgia Meloni, and the British Government still features Cruella de Braveman as Home Secretary (though mercifully not “Sir” Gavin Williamson as Minister Without Portfolio, sacked for a third time by a third pm, this time for bullying rather than incompetence).
For Neville, the mid-terms paint a gloomier picture of utter polarisation, though there’s a crumb of comfort that it’s now becoming clear that there is separation and division between Trump and the Republican Party. We recorded this episode the day before POTUS 45 had threatened to announce his intention to run again in 2024, though his “strategists” might be thinking twice given the previous week’s performance at the polls. “Where are the young, dynamic Democrats?” he laments.
Thomas bemoans the fact that AoC is STILL too young to stand to be POTUS, but is more concerned at the trend of “angertainment”, foisted on the world by shock-jocks from the not-lamented Rush Limbaugh onwards. Thomas finds no substance in the theatrical, conceited vitriol in modern media politics, likening Alex Jones and Infowars to be nothing like real life and more akin to wrestling. The media-politico axis is just about driving attention to generate advertising dollars.
A musky aroma
Which brings us – and Sam – rather neatly to Elon Musk and Twitter (aka social media’s white elephant), and – Yoda-like – Musk encouraging twits to vote Republican to bring balance to the Force.
More than somewhat reluctantly, Musk has finally taken $44bn control of “the world’s public square”, though he seems intent on trashing it. From charging $20 a month (no, $8! – bargain) for the blue (actually white) tick accreditation, to the advertiser stampede away from the platform, sacking thousands, dispensing with the board to becoming the only shareholder and director, to regulatory concern … it’s no wonder that the modern-day Tony Stark is openly talking about closing Twitter down altogether.
Neville reports on an early Musk investor and loyal supporter discussing the Chief Twit’s psychological make-up on BBC Radio recently, urging listeners not to write him – and his plans for Twitter – off quite yet. “He will make good on it,” apparently. This leads to a discussion and Neville enlightening Thomas and Sam on Mastodon which might just be the next Good Place. We learn about decentralisation, instances, and a federation of independent instances akin to the EU – plus a familiar look and feel.
It’s not the last time in this episode that Neville is our educator. It’s also not the last time where we have a very sharp division of opinion, with Neville particularly (with support from Thomas) saying that Twitter going “Phut!” would represent a serious blow to future historians.
Sam differs saying that the loss of the Twitter firehose since 2006 would be no loss whatsoever, arguing that all those racist conversations in the pub that vanished into thin air by virtue of not being recorded or mediated were no loss either. Neville cannot agree, and though he doesn’t say anything, Sam gags at Thomas’ comparison to the loss of the Twitter firehose to be akin to the loss of the Library at Alexandria. Perhaps watch the pod on YouTube to see the physical manifestation and gurn of Sam’s disagreement.
Mobilising the yoof vote
Thomas moves us on (and back) to consider why Trump-backed Republicans did so poorly in the mid-terms and Biden’s Democrats did so relatively well. He points to an apparent absence of a Gen Z, youth wave helping the Dems, as just 28% voted.
Neville points out that, though the proportion was small, the Dem vote was more solid than in other demographics. Sam draws parallels with declared voting intentions in the U.K. For although the Labour-Tory split is still 49%-28% despite somnolent Sunak’s steadying the ship following the tragedy of Truss, among 18-24s Labour support is in the 70s and Tory in the teens. There doesn’t need to be a huge number (or proportion) of younger voters voting to effect a significant electoral outcome.
And back in the States, the repeal of Roe vs Wade led to a significant swing among women of all ages from Rep to Dem, despite the Democrats not overtly making abortion and a woman’s right to choose a pivotal electoral issue.
Ever the voice for change, Thomas suggests that the youth vote could grow on both sides of the Atlantic were there a change from first-past-the-post polling to a (more) proportional system of representation, leading to the emergence of more progressive alliances. Just like almost all European (and other) democracies worldwide. Sam believes this is not impossible, with the Labour Party conference voting in September to commit a future (new) Labour government to a proper referendum on PR. Neville believes it’s a case of “not yet”.
FTX – WTF?
We turn inexorably – with a fresh helping of Schadenfreude – to a new character making his first (and perhaps last) appearance on our podcast: Sam Bankman-Fried, whose name must be up there with a chance of winning nominative determinism of the decade.
The self-styled ‘King of Crypto’ saw his FTX cryptocurrency exchange come crashing down in the week before recording, another example of a business built on sand.
With Bitcoin and Etherium trading at their lowest level for almost two years (down 70%) and Der Spiegel reporting that NFTs typically lose more than 90% of their value, perhaps the world is finally coming to see that much of the virtual digital ecosystem is just a bit too meta.
That’s without mentioning (oh, I’m just about to) Meta’s 70% share plummet in the past year after what AdContrarian Bob Hoffman calls “the worst rebrand in history”, 11,000 job cuts by the Zuckster, Microsoft shares down a quarter, and Tesla’s by a half.
NFTs – a guide for dummies
FTX (aka WTF?) brings Neville back to the plate as educator, and an eloquent, informed five minutes or so on NFTs – what they’re for and what their appeal may be. We learn about digital assets that can’t be replicated; virtual, verified, and trusted collectibles with provenance; the move from artists to brands getting into and excited about NFTs, from Tiffany to Mattel, and a San Diego car wash chain and its virtual scavenger hunt; how emails mentioning NFTs in the subject line get a 71% open rate; and, Anthony Hopkins selling a thousand items of his career memorabilia – his “eternal collection” – for between $325 and $1,100, a tidy haul of around half a million bucks.
Both ingenus are grateful for Neville’s exposition.
Thomas gets the verification and trust piece, though feels we might have heard it all (or at least some of it) before in the Cluetrain Manifesto.
Sam, meanwhile, argues that the overwhelming majority of consumers actually don’t give a fig for brands (whatever marketers and consultants might claim) and are incredibly promiscuous in their shopping repertoires, particularly during a cost-of-living crisis which is here for a generation.
He also finds holes in the social psychology of consumerism and display of NFTs through which coaches and horses could be driven: we buy stuff from artists, brands, celebrities we admire in order to show them off and what they go on to say about us for our choice, but how is that possible with NFTs?
While we hit the hour mark and can’t carry on in this episode, Neville suggests printing them out as a phygital compromise. This is most certainly a topic to which we will return.
We leave these show notes with a discussion between the modern-day Waldorf and Statler, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, talking about the FTX crisis and some of the darker corners of the NFT world. Thomas shared this exchange with us 20 minutes before curtain-up.
Buffett – who knows a thing or two about capitalism and consumerism – says that much of this world produces nothing of value and is populated by people (like Bankman-Fried) “of less than stellar character … charlatans”. Munger, meanwhile, goes one step further, saying “Somebody’s trading turds and you decide you just can’t be left out”.
In the end, perhaps we’ll come to reflect on the veracity of the truism: you can’t polish a turd.
Listen to episode 63: