Gray Goo

Tags: jay, social, gifs

When creating content that must be simultaneously optimized for posting to Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Vine, Youtube, Medium, Snapchat and of course your own site, there's a risk of it all turning into a homogenous gray goo.

A What?

Gray goo is a concept that emerged out of futurism as a hypothetical consequence of technology and was later embraced by science fiction writers as a doomsday scenario. The standard example goes like this: we invent nanobots - microscopic robots - to clean up oil spills on a molecular level. Since we need billions of them, the only practical way of doing that is to design them to manufacture themselves. Using the oil as a fuel, copies can make copies. As a result, we create simple agents that have two instructions:

  1. Eat carbon.
  2. Make copies of yourself.

And at that point the world as we know it is destroyed.

Once they consume all the oil, the nanobots' instructions would remain, and they would move on to find other sources. The more they eat, the more they duplicate. We've basically created a virus that eats all living things, turning everything into more nanobots - gray goo.

Just a few more instructions to the nanobots could prevent that scenario, but the idea is just that simple replicators can be enormously powerful when the math is given time to run (just look at the creation of all living things on planet earth as exhibit A). Putting an agent with a simple set of heuristics or needs into a system of competitive replication, and letting it run, can lead to those heuristics amplifying exponentially and a gray goo scenario as a consequence.

Back to Social Media

There are several factors driving a similar, if much lower stakes, scenario in social. There's now a whole science on memetics that studies why some ideas spread fast and wide while others don't, and since shareworthiness is the key value of a social post, anyone who's making them is surely learning and following the patterns that make memes successful.

Add to that the constant need to sell (Capitalism is another major gray goo system in which we're all agents). Which isn't a bad thing, but it does shape everything in a certain way. Since all content basically has the same objective, it all starts to have the same voice. B2B or CPG, a soda company or a political campaign, every brand is starting to sound awfully similar to one another. Snarky, but family-friendly. Silly enough for millennials but ironic enough for Gen Xers. Deeply concerned, but of course, forever optimistic.

The formatting of the different platforms is also a major factor. Their APIs are so locked down, only content fitting the thinnest criteria of each can fit through. Design is the first casualty. Typography and layout are stripped away. Any novel forms of interactivity are of course rendered impossible. You get a visual, a headline and some text. That's it.

Worse than that though - it's not enough to keep just one or two platforms fed. You never know where you might get traction, so you have to hit all of them, or at least as many as you have the budget to fill, which even for big brands is too much to keep track of. So what do we all do? We cross-post. Now, not only do we have to fit our content into the limitations each single platform, but the COMBINED limitations of ALL platforms in the tiny Venn sliver where they overlap.

The result?

Well, everything's starting to look a little gray and gooey, isn't it? Tweets are getting more visual. Instagram posts are getting more memey. LinkedIn is now basically Reddit. It's all blending together.

And what's the end game? Where is it all leading to? When you combine text, images, memetics, capitalism, snarkiness and video, what do you get? What does gray goo look like when it has achieved its final form? 

We must recognize them before they destroy us. The End