Twitter, Google, a New Business and Sufjan Stevens

It’s been a difficult month for the Internet. First there was the whole SOPA and PIPA fiasco (I apologize for filling your Facebook and Twitter news feeds with politics, but it was really really important), and now Google and Twitter are selling out.


Google is introducing what it calls, “Google + Your World” to its search results, which it claims will make search results more personalized. What it will really do is incorporate (only) Google+ posts into its search results, forcing people to use/switch to Google+. In the past, Google’s search results have been sacred. Even with the introduction of AdWords and AdSense (Google’s pay-per-click advertising arms) it was not simply a “buy the top spot” system; Google evaluated your bid price, how relevant your site was, how you used certain keywords, etc. to determine where you would appear in the sponsored results. Now Google is showing that it is willing to sell the integrity of its search in an attempt to gain more traction with Google+. In other words, Google sold out.


Not to be outdone, Twitter began searching for new markets and new users for its micro-blogging service; the same service that was behind much of the arab spring, that was the tool that has been used to topple governments, and that has proved to be the voice of the people 140 characters at a time in fighting against tyranny.

Yet Twitter has found it difficult expanding into some new markets, since some governments are used to controlling everything people see, read and hear. Governments (rightfully) realize that if people are able to communicate without using their funneled and warped systems, the truths they are trying to suppress may leak out and start causing problems.

So how does Twitter go about solving this problem? It recently released a policy that individual countries could censor, tweet by tweet, what was deemed unlawful in that country. Instead of Twitter changing countries, countries are changing Twitter. In other words, Twitter sold free speech in exchange for new users.

I fear the reality is that we are waiting for another organization brave enough to not sell its integrity when it comes to changing the world, even if, for companies like Twitter and Google, selling great ideals might be extremely lucrative. We are waiting for new forms of media and news so as to not be held down by the “big six” media conglomerates that hold a vast majority of the means of communication in the United States. We’re waiting for new forms of communication that will not allow themselves to be tarnished in order to make an additional buck.

New Business

In my loads of spare time (har), I’m now building a new business. Our goal is to democratize the news — to take the power of publishing journalism out of the hands of organizational structures and “the big six,” and to give it, for the first time ever, to ordinary people at the grassroots of the world. There are a lot of obstacles to doing so, as well as many that I’m positive we’re yet to see (they say sometimes naïveté is your greatest strategic advantage), but more than anything I’ve ever done in business I’m hellbent on fixing this one. It feels like everything I’ve always loved and been passionate about is coming together into one product, into one opportunity.

But I digress. The thing that I think about a lot now is the intersection of values and monetary potential. In other words, how much is X worth to you?

I used to think this was largely an issue created by those who didn’t understand how business and economics work; that when the art school kids say, “The businessmen drink my blood,” that was just because they didn’t understand. Then, slowly but surely, I began to see the real/dark side of the communications industry, as well as many others (including search engine marketing and the secondary ticket market).

From media moguls knowingly pushing laws through Congress that would be harmful to creativity and society as a whole but protecting their intellectual holdings to companies that look strikingly like what we’re trying to do be bought out by one of the big six for $10 Million and subsequently dismantled and shut down the next day, you constantly have to ask yourself what something is worth to you.

Sufjan Stevens

Maybe that’s part of why my favorite song lately has been, “Come On, Feel the Illinoise!” by Sufjan Stevens. The lyrics are incredible, and the song seems speaks to me on a different level somehow. I’ll leave you to ponder on the interpretation, and to wonder what (fill-in-the-blank) is worth to you. For Sufjan, (as well as for many of those who, like me, are studying advertising), it’s art. But it could be anything.

The two parts of this song explore the tension between art and commerce. The first part, by examining the 1893 World’s Fair, questions whether we have progressed through our creations or actually taken steps back due to our obsessions with consumption. The second part becomes more introspective by looking at artists themselves and how they fit.

For a little background, the World’s Fair of 1893 was very influential on American consumerism. The fair was a look back at the 400 years since Columbus’s voyage to the New World, and it attempted to show just how far we had come. By imitating the architectural style in Europe, it created the White City, which tried to show Americans that the U.S. could compete with Europe on a cultural level while at the same time be celebrated as a leader in technology and education. The Fair offered scholarly exhibits with great thinkers and educators of the time (Dewey, for instance), but Americans who visited (over 27 million) were more impressed with the Midway — an amusement park with Ferris Wheels, international singers and performers and new products such as Cream of Wheat, Pabst beer, Aunt Jemima syrup and soft drinks. In a sense, the fair ushered in the idea that enjoying oneself was done through the consumption of material goods. Everything in today’s culture, from the power of advertising to Disney to amusement parks, can easily be traced back to the World’s Columbian Exposition.

In the song, Sufjan mentions in the first line having some motivation to comment on society, but when he spots the advertising he is taken over by it. In the next line, the speaker is calling for, in the midst of great confusion and anxiety, entrepreneurs to lead us to the promised line instead of solely seeking for the profits that are the result of promoting this consumeristic attitude and lifestyle.

In the next set of lines, he seems to be asking, “Can’t our dialogue with each other better connect us rather than advertising and products?” It emphasizes the question by urging us to think on our own (“put it to your head”).

In the next set of lines, Sufjan specifically refers to products introduced at the fair but then points out in the lines beginning with, “Oh Great Intentions” that these advertisers seem to have no knowledge about the ramifications of the kinds of images they create. “Have you degraded us?” the speaker asks. Again, the speaker is thinking hard about what image is presented and what consumerism has done.

The reference to Frank Lloyd Wright drives home the point, because his creations were independent of the mainstream architects of his time. He attempted to show us what we had forgotten — that the true sign of progress is our ability to think on our own. He reminded us that we should constantly work to advance our current thinking not imitate what’s already been done.

In Part II, the speaker moves to his own art, mainly his writing, and through his visit with the ghost of Carl Sandburg, begins to think about how his art should come from his heart, not from what’s already been done.

The two parts try to show how all of us need to look within ourselves and think on our own, rather than try to be taken by the loads of advertising, products and profits that may come our way.


One thought on “Twitter, Google, a New Business and Sufjan Stevens

  1. Austen—I stumbled on this post through a Sufjan search, and saw your thoughts on “Illinoise.” If you’re studying advertising and Sufjan, you may be interested to read a chapter from my musicological dissertation. The chapter is called: “Portrait of an ‘Indie-Folk’ Artist: Anti-Commercialism and Romantic Genius in Sufjan Stevens’s _Come on! Feel the Illinoise!_” I discuss the song in the chapter, and Sufjan’s position vis-à-vis commercialism, branding, and marketing. If you would like to email me, I’d be happy to send you a pdf. All the best,


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