When It All Falls Down

kanye west
We’ve been through this before: The Kanye tantrum, the hyper ego, the abusive language and behavior. Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images
Baratunde Thurston
October 30, 2022

I don’t like paying attention to Ye (formerly known as Kanye) for the same reason I don’t like paying attention to Donald Trump or Elon Musk or the guy who used to flash people on the streets when I was in college. Ye wants us to pay attention, and engages in sensational acts to maintain that attention. 

People like Ye, in fact, are the embodiment of an attention economy on overdrive. It’s shock jocks plus TikToks, where value is measured in meme-ability. But now Ye has crossed one line too many in his lifetime of cumulative line-crossing. His relationships with Def Jam, JPMorgan Chase, CAA, Balenciaga, GAP, Vogue, and even TJ Maxx are dead. Skechers escorted him from the building last week. I just wish they put him in their wheelie shoes and rolled him out because that meme would have broken the internet. Athletes have left his Donda Sports agency. And then there is Adidas, the world’s second largest sportswear manufacturer, whose creative partnership with Kanye generated about $250 million in profits this year. Kanye’s decision to purposefully promote anti-semitism while in a lucrative relationship with the German company, founded by a literal Nazi war profiteer, had a predictable outcome: the deal is off. 

We’ve been through this before: The Kanye tantrum, the hyper ego, the abusive language and behavior. In 2018 he said Black people in America being enslaved for 400 years “sounds like a choice.” In 2020 he boldly went where no self-respecting (or educated) Black man had gone before and attacked Harriet Tubman, saying, she “never actually freed the slaves,” and “she just had the slaves go work for other white people.” He also donned the MAGA cap and promoted former President Trump, saying he admired his “dragon energy.” 

More recently, he wore a White Lives Matter shirt with Candace Owens, shipped boxes of the dumb attire to unhoused people on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, and announced his intention to buy her husband George Farmer’s depopulated “free speech” social media network, Parler. That t-shirt nod to white supremacism earned him a seat at Tucker Carlson’s corrupt table. We’ve heard of “level up” but can you “level down?” Carlson kept the Fox-friendly white nationalist parts but cut out the flagrantly anti-Semitic bits. Ye inflicted more pain on the family of George Floyd and every human being with a heart when he falsely claimed he wasn’t killed by Derek Chauvin’s brutality but rather fentanyl. On Friday he proved that apologies can be worse than the offense, saying, “I know what it feels to have a knee on my neck right now.”

We’ve heard the mental health excuses before, but I’ve known people with similar mental health diagnoses as Ye. Their struggles are real, but they don’t use their struggles to undermine civil rights movements and embolden hate groups in the process. They don’t have the attention of the world’s media during their meltdowns. They don’t benefit from the billions of dollars worth of business deals that Ye has enjoyed and because of that, they can’t even dream of accessing the quality healthcare Ye has access to. In other words, we know mental health is not an excuse. 

But behind the latest round of outlandish and ugly outbursts, there is a hint of something like a business strategy. In September, Ye told Bloomberg he wants out of all his corporate relationships so that he can go independent and have direct access to the people, or a direct relationship with the consumer, without the pass-through infrastructure of a corporate layer. But his contracts at the time with GAP and Adidas prevented that clean break. In the recently published-then-pulled Drink Champs interview, Ye taunted his business partner. “I could say anti-Semitic things, and Adidas can’t drop me. Now what?” Well, we’ve seen now what. For Ye, he got out of his contracts. He got a little more free. 

The consequences for others have been the opposite. Because of his cultural authority, Ye has given permission to the worst-behaving among us. His latest antics have emboldened disinformation campaigns, another trait he shares with Musk. I’ve seen it in the online comments sections and in the real world, including the people standing in a Nazi salute holding a banner that read “Kanye is right about the Jews” over Interstate 405 in Los Angeles. In Jacksonville on Saturday evening, “Kanye was right about the Jews” was projected across the TIAA Bank Field at the end of the sold-out Georgia-Florida game. Thanks to Ye, those subject to the abuses of white supremacy and anti-Semitism are less free. 

The man who talks so much about opening schools in his mother’s name is unable to recognize the basic lesson that hurting others to get what you want is wrong. Even now, as he teases his return to business as an independent operator, I see his remaining fans saying, “Ye’s playing chess, not checkers” as if his behavior is to be celebrated and replicated because it might be good for his business. But nothing could be more ignorant or sick than sacrificing entire groups of people—Jewish people and Black people—as pawns in a game that’s only ever seemed to be about him. 

Meta in the Metaverse

Things have not gone smoothly since Mark Zuckerberg unveiled his own avatar likeness and pronounced Facebook’s pivot into the metaverse as, well, Meta. The stock is down some 70 percent from its highs last year and the culture remains skeptical about not only the future of virtual reality, but also Facebook’s purported position as a market leader in that future universe. Regardless of what happens, it won’t be for lack of trying—or at least spending. This week, the company revealed its division dedicated to building the metaverse has lost more than $9 billion this year and expects to lose much more next year. That’s after losing $10 billion in 2021! 

This big, multi-billion-dollar swing is a testament to the mountain of money Facebook-now-Meta has been generating for years thanks to its massive core advertising business. But there are signs that this mountain is starting to erode. Third quarter revenues were down four percent to just over $27 billion, and it’s the second quarter in a row of year-over-year losses, representing a new trend for the dominant company. Seeing the big spending on an unproven metaverse business while the golden goose looks like its best eggs may have already been laid has jolted investors enough to drive the stock price down 22 percent this week alone. 

Why is this happening? The revenues are threatened by an even more efficient attention mining operation, TikTok, which is eating Facebook’s demand while Apple’s new anti-tracking rules have slowed the company’s ability to wring profits out of the human activity that remains on its platforms. Meta is also spending multiple companies’ worth of money on an idea that’s usually relegated to the research and development labs of other businesses. This could be brilliant, but I doubt it is. It could be a business disaster in the making, and I hope it’s that. I won’t try to hide my feelings on this. I think this company long ago provided a useful service to connect friends but then realized the best way to monetize human connection was to manipulate human behavior and extract human data by selling those preferences and behaviors to advertisers who wanted to further manipulate behavior.  

To be clear, I’m not against all metaverse exploration. I think video gaming in 3D immersive environments is fun. I’ve done it myself—on an Oculus!—and have been blown away by the intensity of the experience. I think an “industrial metaverse,” or what Nvidia’s C.E.O. Jensen Huang calls an “omniverse,” holds promise. The basic idea here is that we can create “digital twins” of parts of the real world in a computer simulation and use software to model likely outcomes based on changing circumstances. Companies like Siemens are helping firms put their manufacturing facilities in a metaverse to test processes virtually before committing to full real-world implementation. I recently learned that the city of Amsterdam, for instance, has a digital twin environment that uses live traffic data to help better stage police and emergency medical resources around town. (Meta, for what it’s worth, touts how its technology can be used to help surgeons perform procedures or offer students far more immersive experiences.) 

Much of what we know about the formerly looming and increasingly present climate disaster is due to modeling of reality, not yet in a metaverse, but in highly complex computer models that share the same spirit. I think we can use these technologies to design more efficient, climate-friendly businesses, cities and more, and if we can use the virtual world to help improve the physical world, I’m all for it, which is why I’m also excited about augmented reality and bringing additional context to our real-world experiences. That context could be artistic or commercial or civic—it would be great to activate my smart lenses and look at the buildings in my neighborhood to see which developers own most of them or to look at my elected officials and see, well, which developers own most of them!

But I’m not sure that’s Zuckerberg’s play. The rhetoric in his public statements, including the recent Meta Connect 2022 event, is about “being able to connect” and “being able to do more and be more present.” My own take is that his big idea seems to be this: he’s got a few billion people on his existing platforms, but those platforms aren’t growing fast enough in revenues and profits. Too many of his subject’s lives and monetizable activities exist on platforms he doesn’t control (like the mobile phone). And his legacy services have become troublesome from a regulatory and reputation management point of view—inspiring political violence and teen suicide isn’t a good look. Zuck sees himself as a technologist and an engineer, so he wants to go engineer something, not get bogged down in the petty human challenges of his creations. So he will engineer and pre-colonize a new land, “the metaverse,” and migrate his billions of users into this new world where he’ll be able to exert newfound controls and newfound taxes on all our newly monitored and manipulated behaviors. No thanks, dude. 

There’s one other world-shaping billionaire I could spend time on, of course. Elon Musk now has control of Twitter, so we’ll soon get to see if his vague pronouncements about free speech (more please) and business model innovation (let’s copy WeChat) actually improve the experience and profits of the service. In the immediate aftermath of him closing the deal, racist trolls excited about the new Chief Twit drove use of the N-word up 500 percent, and Elon himself shared an article promoting conspiracy theories about Paul Pelosi, so that’s not a great start.