Metalabels will be the tastemakers of the internet
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November 18th, 2022

Originally published on quorummedia.xyz on October 25, 2022.

Writer: Samantha Marin

My college writing class took a tour of The New Yorker office instead of having class one day.

We all got on the 1 train, which is a straight shot down the west side of Manhattan. I remember trying to dress up a little bit, but of course none of us had anything actually nice enough to wear hanging in our dorms. We waited on the quiet mid-day train and chatted about the class books while watching the stops creep closer and closer to the One World Trade Center stop nearly at the tip of the island.

The train stop lets you off in dramatic fashion. You get off inside the Oculus building, which kind of looks like a cross between a spaceship and a white porcupine that landed from outer space between the modern skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan. From step one, you're in a place completely different from normal life—or at least what is normal to the vast majority of the world that doesn't spend their time in downtown New York. You have to prevent yourself from craning your head back and admiring it, or else you'll look like a tourist. It was a shock to the system coming from the rickety old halls we spent our time in classes up north.

The Oculus Building sets the tone for walking into The New Yorker office.
The Oculus Building sets the tone for walking into The New Yorker office.

Our professor brought us into the lobby of the One World Trade Center, which has the modern, clean, uppity feel you'd expect out of a big fancy glass building with a nickname like The Freedom Tower. There were  security guards in suits and ties hanging out behind desks. They took our pictures one by one, printed us one-time passes with barcodes, and let us through the turnstiles that gate off the elevators. We all got into one elevator (I think there were only a dozen of us in that class) and took the ear-popping ride up to the Condé Nast floor.

"We used to have our own floor," my professor said when we got off. "But Condé Nast is smaller now, so we share it with Bon Appétit." We all wandered into the hall, seeing the old New Yorker covers lining the walls.

Our professor led us down the corridor and into the main area where the writers and editors worked. This was mid-day on a pre-pandemic Wednesday, so everyone was at their desks. There were stacks of books and papers everywhere. It had a pretty normal office-y vibe except for the wrap-around views of lower Manhattan from the windows.  

We went into the head Fiction Editor's office, which was small and cozy and seemed like a place to sit and read fiction from pre-published editor's copies of books all day.

A conversation around how people get started at The New Yorker broke out. We asked my professor and the fiction editor eagerly—we were Juniors after all! "Real life" was close!

The answers from the staff were all friends-of-friends, I-went-to-grad-school-with-so-and-so, met-at-a-reading-in-Brooklyn type thing. Lots of MFA grad school connections. You know, things like that.

The fiction editor said, "The New Yorker doesn't even post writing jobs online, it's all recommendations." Quizzical looks. Clarification from my professor:

"You need to know someone."

And suddenly everything lost its sparkle and the wraparound views weren't so stunning anymore.

This might sound like a college kid learning for the first time that nothing is a true meritocracy in this world, even though the College Board SAT and tone-deaf political ads about the middle class American dream tell us that meritocracy is alive and well. But this experience turned on a deeper light bulb moment for me, which has been dimly burning in the back of my mind through my DAO journey, and has been ignited into a bonfire with the creation of the Quorum metalabel.

Old school media is extremely gated. There's a password to punch in, then there's a gate that requires a key, then there's a tunnel that you need to know a secret code to enter, and then you walk five miles, and then you arrive.

Anyone who's tried to work in film, music, fashion, or writing knows about these layers of gating.

That's why Youtube and Soundcloud and indie labels and Etsy and fan fiction and Substack have been so revolutionary: they open up opportunities for people who don't have the password and the key and the secret code to squeak into the ranks of the old-school tastemakers. This is the promise of web2, the individualism, the I-don't-need-The-New-Yorker-to-make-money-writing dream.

The dream is good. It's created an explosion in creativity from people who would've been blocked out previously. It's opened up entire new worlds of media so you can go down a niche rabbithole of anything you want for hours and hours.

But we've lost a really important thing when we got rid of the old labels and replaced them with ungated, open content creation: tastemaking.

The tastemaking crisis of web2

Taste is about preference. When someone has "good taste" they have well-refined preferences. Taste sounds like a snotty term that a sommelier uses, but we all have tastes, even if we're not talking about taste in full-bodied reds from Northern Italy. We have taste in music, taste in design, and taste in literature (even if your literature is banger twitter threads, that's still taste).

The internet makes it much harder to curate your own taste, or to even know what your own taste is, through the noise of everything being fed to you 24/7.

It might take hundreds of hours of watching Youtube videos and subscribing to channels, all the while feeding the algorithm more data, for you to find your "taste" in Youtube videos. It might take fifty different Substack recommendations from ten different people to figure out what your taste in long form essays is.

Taste curation has basically disappeared with the internet we know today.

I see metalabels, or small and extremely value-aligned media DAOs, as a possible solution to the crisis in tastemaking.

A lot of web3 media thinkers talk about the curation layer of media. How curation is the new creation. How decentralized media is more about curating the good stuff than actually creating the good stuff.

That layer is exactly what old media brands like The New Yorker do—they tell you what their idea of good taste is.

I see metalabels as a way for emergent web3-native brands to be the tastemakers and the creators all in one.

Metalabels are groups of creators who share the same worldview and come together to release work under a common brand name. Quorum is a metalabel, currently with just one writer (me) and one podcast host (Brandon). So, we're not really tastemakers yet. We're not even really a metalabel yet—that's where we're going.

The future of Quorum and of metalabels generally is to be a tastemaker like The New Yorker while still achieving the creator autonomy of platforms like Substack. Metalabels can be the holy grail of high quality content and freedom of creativity.

This holy grail is a small circle of creators, all creating content that's super aligned within the same realm of taste, while still retaining their own creative autonomy within the bounds of the brand.

The holy grail of content, plotted on x and y axes

Let's look at that holy grail: more opportunity and freedom for creators yet a tastemaking layer applied on top.

I'll explain the axes using the medium of writing as my baseline (but, swap The New Yorker for Disney and Substack for Youtube and you have the same idea, just different mediums).

Few can create: The New Yorker

Has a small team of writers and editors who come in through the password-key-tunnel method. Readers see the same names on the bylines week after week but come to know those writers like friends. Writers can create together or at least enjoy working side-by-side and don't have to run their own businesses—someone else handles the marketing.

Advantages:

  • Readers know who/what to expect

  • Can filter for talent or highly specific writing style

  • Writers can work on the same piece for a long time and still get a salary

  • Writers have the joy of creating with other skilled writers

  • Very little to no spammy or thin writing for SEO/affiliate marketing

Disadvantages:

  • Limited perspectives

  • Shutting out dissenting opinions and minorities

  • Writing can become dull/neutral so the brand can please a wide audience

  • Innovation and new ideas are slow

  • Always feels a step behind

  • Bureaucracy is inevitable

Many can create: Substack

Anyone, anywhere can become a full-time writer on the internet, making six figures writing any newsletter you can imagine. Writers can get as niche as they want to fit their specific audience. The ceiling of possibility is limitless, but you're running your own show and trying to out-compete other writers.

Advantages:

  • Diverse perspectives across the platform

  • Fresh ideas

  • Writers can write and publish a story in the same day with no red tape

  • Writers can niche down to fit their audience and interests

  • Your background/resume/connections/ability-to-know-the-password-at-the-gate don't matter

  • Dissenting opinions encouraged (but often segmented and radicalized by the algorithms, unfortunately)

Disadvantages:

  • Noisy

  • Can't filter for quality/talent easily

  • Overrun with copycats, and even bots for shorter form content (Twitter)

  • Isolating for creators

  • Zero-sum competition for attention

  • Ideas get recycled to the point where they're no longer original

  • Spammy or thin writing for SEO or affiliate marketing purposes

  • Writers need to write and run a marketing business at the same time to make money

Tastemaking done for you: The New Yorker

There's a "vibe" that everyone who reads it knows. You can say "That's a New Yorker story" with confidence. There's a certain echelon of writing that's allowed and everything that doesn't meet it lands on the cutting room floor. There's an extremely specific editing style that builds and refines readers' taste in essays, poetry, and short fiction.  

Advantages:

  • Readers can refine their taste without tons of extra work

  • A coherent narrative and worldview is presented

  • Writers have editors they can trust to make their work better

Disadvantages:

  • Usually need to subscribe or pay to receive it (an advantage or a disadvantage depending on where you sit)

  • Can become radicalized especially if it's a small group creating it

  • Can become snotty/exclusive/too uppity

  • Taste standards are slow to change

Manual tastemaking: Substack

Readers have to go hunting for the best writers, and writers have to work hard to find their audience.  Of the 100 newsletters a reader finds, they probably stick with two of them. But those two newsletters are so niche and specific to their interests that they don't just passively scroll through them—they love them, so much that on average 22% are willing to support via Patreon.

Advantages:

  • Readers and writers can create a super unique taste profile for themselves

  • Joy and thrill of discovery

  • Can go as niche as you want

  • Refine for yourself as your interests change

Disadvantages:

  • Takes a ton of time, research, and SEO to matchmake readers and writers

  • Requires both writers and readers to already have some idea of what their taste is

  • Hard to know what's marketing copy and what's not

  • The taste profile is probably at least partially fed to readers by the algorithm (not as much choice as you think you have)

Metalabels are a place where creation is wide but tastemaking is tight

Qualities that metalabels have:

  • You don't need a secret code to get in. You just need to create high quality content that readers enjoy. More like Substack.

  • There's a unified brand and general taste bracket that the creators all fit into. More like The New Yorker.

  • Creators have freedom within their niche. There's no editor coming in and telling you to put the ö in coördinate (this is a real thing The New Yorker does) or slashing your piece onto the cutting room floor for reasons unknown to you. More like Substack.

  • You have colleagues/co-creators to share ideas with and go through deep creative work together. No more creator economy isolation. More like The New Yorker.

  • You can work/write/create when and where you want. No need to live off the 1 train in Manhattan. You can hold another job and write on different platforms without feeling like you're competing. More like Substack.

  • You can share marketing and sponsorship resources so you're not running a whole business and doing the emotional and intellectual labor of creating all by yourself. More like The New Yorker.

  • You can write and publish something in the same day. Fast ideas, fast innovation, no red tape. More like Substack.

  • You can reach a wider audience with your work because it's bundled into a brand reaching a wider taste bracket than you can reach in your niche. More like The New Yorker.

Metalabels can combine the best of both worlds.
Metalabels can combine the best of both worlds.

Metalabels can play more freely between the two extremes of content

Any metalabel can tip closer to Substack or closer to The New Yorker. The key is finding that happy medium that works for the specific metalabel.

I imagine many metalabels will float around, trying to find their place in the axes of creation and tastemaking.

Metalabels in their early days will probably look like this:

Metalabels scattered all over the map.
Metalabels scattered all over the map.

Metalabels will be all over the two axes for awhile. Maybe they'll always be all over them. The thing that's exciting is that they can play more freely between the two extremes in ways that The New Yorker or Substack cannot.

Metalabels as media DAOs

Many metalabels will be run as DAOs. They'll issue a token, gate membership based on NFTs, have a multisig (or many), hold on-chain votes followed by automatic on-chain execution, and call themselves media DAOs before they call themselves metalabels.

I also see a possibility where multiple metalabels sharing the same worldview all come together into a media DAO. Or possibly going the other way—a media DAO splitting into various metalabels.

The evolution of solo creator to metalabel to media DAO.
The evolution of solo creator to metalabel to media DAO.

But, many metalabels probably won't operate as DAOs. They might stay firmly planted in fiat world. All that matters is that we're experimenting with the structures that work for metalabels and not reigning them in too tight too early.

Metalabels have a ton of potential. And I can't wait to grow Quorum as a metalabel and see where it goes.

We did pre-web1 and web1 media: The New Yorker.

We did web2 media: Substack.

It's time for web3 media: metalabels.

Recommended Reading

Episode to check out:

The first episode of the DAO Toolkit went live on Monday! Brandon and I chatted about shiny object syndrome and cultivating focus in the DAO space. Give it a listen here.

Quorum is a metalabel for creators shipping work about DAOs. Check out Quorum’s newsletter, podcast, and Twitter.

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