Here’s a recent addition to the long list of “stuff that happened in 2018 that mostly flew under the radar because of, you know [gestures vaguely around]”: Former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre and the rapper Soulja Boy were tricked by a group of white nationalists into recording anti-Semitic videos. Wow! BuzzFeed reports:
A group of white supremacist YouTubers are using a new app to pay celebrities to create videos where they make coded anti-Semitic statements — and then the YouTubers use those recordings to promote hatred on the internet. The videos were made using Cameo, where users can pay to have celebrities record a personalized message for them… [Favre’s] video is loaded with coded anti-Semitic language.
It sounds nuts to say that Brett Favre was taken advantage of by white nationalists to spread anti-Semitic memes. But that’s only because you think of Brett Favre as a very famous football player. If you think of Brett Favre as a social network, well, it makes complete sense to say that Brett Favre was taken advantage of by white nationalists to spread anti-Semitic memes. And I’m here to tell you that Brett Favre, in 2018, is a social network. A very primitive social network — but a social network nonetheless.
If you’re not familiar with it, Cameo is an app that allows you to hire moderately famous people (think reality-show contestants and one-hit wonders) to record personalized videos — a birthday message for a friend, say. You select your celebrity and write instructions for the video message; the celebrity decides whether or not to record the video you’re asking for. If they approve, you pay a fee (Favre videos go for $500), and the celebrity records the video and sends it to you. You now have a video of, say, Bar Rescue host Jon Taffer congratulating your niece on graduating from Tufts. Or whatever.
It’s a fascinating app not just because of its bad science-fiction satire uncanniness but because of what it tells us about the future of the social internet. And, indeed, depressingly, “Brett Favre unintentionally recorded an anti-Semitic video for $500” is less a weird aberration than exactly what we should be expecting from the platform era.
What is the platform era? We live in the platform era. This is the kind of thing you can say airily to men in fleece vests at mountain conferences, and receive grave nods in response. The platform era! What is a platform, exactly? In the context of Silicon Valley, a platform business is one that facilitates exchange between parties. It provides the foundation, environment, and rules for those exchanges. Most of the most famous start-ups of the last decade or so are platforms: Uber is a platform that facilitates exchanges between drivers and passengers. Airbnb is a platform that facilitates exchanges between hosts and guests. Social networks like Facebook are particularly interesting platforms because they facilitate more than one kind of exchange: user to user (that’s what makes them social), but also user-to-advertiser and developer-to-user. Sometimes platforms charge money for entry (as Facebook does to advertisers); sometimes they takes a cut of whatever transactions occur on the platform (as Airbnb does to hosts); often they will do both.
This business model is extremely attractive to venture capitalists, for obvious and long-established reasons — it’s better to own the marketplace than it is to trade inside it. Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and, increasingly, elsewhere are encouraged to think in terms of platform models, since platforms tend to be the only kinds of businesses that can generate the short-term outsize returns that make the venture-investment racket worthwhile. Sweetgreen, to name one example, recently announced its intent to “evolve from a restaurant to a food platform.” This is platform thinking. Fleece-vest types like to say that platforms “create” or “unleash” value: by connecting otherwise unconnected people to do business with one another, and by putting otherwise un-monetized assets (your empty apartment, say, or your idle attention) to work in a previously nonexistent or difficult-to-access marketplace.
Cameo, if it’s not obvious, is a platform, in this case not for connecting widget buyers with widget sellers, but for connecting “people who want to see famous people do things” with “people who have fame.” “Fame” is an asset that Brett Favre owns 24 hours a day, the way an Airbnb host might own her apartment. But like that Airbnb host, who leaves her apartment empty when she’s gone for the weekend, Favre isn’t wringing every last cent out of his asset — there are many hours where he’s just sitting around being famous all by himself. Cameo puts this otherwise nonproductive fame to use, by connecting him with willing buyers.
That’s not particularly cutting-edge, as Silicon Valley platforms go; in some ways Cameo is just the Raya version of Fiverr. What makes the app genuinely interesting is that it turns its participants into mini-platforms themselves. That is, Favre is not just a participant in a platform; through Cameo, he becomes a platform. And not just any platform, but a social network. He is, after all, facilitating social communication between two or more people (the person requesting the video, and its intended recipients), and charging access to do so. This isn’t, necessarily, unique — on Instagram, a moderately famous person can make a living as a platform connecting advertisers to their followers, and putting to work the previously nonproductive fandom and boredom of Instagram browsers — but only on Cameo is it quite so literal. Favre (like Soulja Boy, like Andy Dick) has turned himself into something resembling a corporeal Twitter.
And if Brett Favre has turned himself into Twitter, well, why should we be so surprised that he’s unwittingly spreading anti-Semitism? Obviously, Brett Favre doesn’t have as many features as Twitter or Facebook; he’s more like a Whatsapp than an Instagram. But his misfortune is a good lesson in the weakness of platforms as communication technology. The white supremacists who paid Favre for the video “hacked” the Brett Favre platform just as racist trolls “hack” Twitter or Facebook, taking advantage of his desire to make a buck and his inability to keep track of mutating memes. Openness and lack of qualitative judgment, essential factors in his ability to make money on Cameo, became vulnerabilities. At least, unlike his social-network peers, Favre quickly acknowledged his faults and apologized.