Post-Ascending Authority: Response #2
The second response to our Post-Ascending Authority statement from Services Unknown comes from Silk Agency founder and freelance writer Lillian He.
Ascending authority: the idea that our structures of cultural influence are being inverted, shifting from top-down to bottom-up. In my world, it’s a concept that young ambitious advertisers have been in love with for years. It means our work is relevant, right? Instead of brands dictating the culture followed and pursued by their consumers, instead of men in boardrooms defining what is cool for young audiences, we are now entering a new status quo where the young audiences influence the brands; their behaviours and preferences and livestreams and Instagram feeds, the endless content and data they generate uniquely directly shaping the corporate output of our times.
But is it that easy? Who really has the power in this picture?
We have come to understand collaboration as markers of the democratisation of cultural authority, used as evidence that digital space has given the man on the street more power and influence over the wider cultural cache than in generations past. But full story: those are marketing buzzwords. They are trends appropriated by advertisers, corporations, the same old traditional established gatekeepers who have figured out how best to tell the post-millennial story. Essentially, tools developed for brands and agencies to convert and co-opt this perceived shift in power.
Undeniably, digital media has made subculture more disseminable and accessible than before. But on the flip side, it has also made it easier for the established authority to manage and manipulate this space.
Fashion is often held up as the prime example for ascending cultural authority in media. Ten years ago in the wake of financial crisis, as retail industries struggled and failed to connect with audiences, young disenfranchised tastemakers became early celebrity fashion bloggers. Instagram hadn’t been born yet, but girls made prolific Blogger and Wordpress sites to share their everyday outfits and thoughts, becoming influential and effectively crafting an online subculture that combined the traditional aspirational messaging of fashion media with real accessibility. But look how trite and contrived that all sounds now in 2018. When blogging has become industrialised, when fashion brands drop huge budgets on influencer marketing – often much more than traditional media spend.
In terms of culture, this isn’t a power shift, it’s a feedback loop.
I like to think it’s all for the best. The bleeding edge of culture only exists because it constantly needs to keep moving further out, more quickly, creatively and excruciatingly than before. I still like the term “ascending authority,” because although it’s been attributed to this big climactic power shift which is a false construct, the word “ascending” implies a sort of discreet and infinite continuous crawl, which feels more accurate. Because this is the thing about “youth audiences” and “tastemakers” and “subcultures,” for all the buzzwords and adspend and data and digital strategies, as much as established authorities and systems will always inevitably co-opt, appropriate and monetize their trends and tastes. They move fast. It’s an endless cycle but the more interesting, ascending, challenging cultural spaces and stories are swallowed up by the existing structure, the more there will always have to be something even newer, younger, fresher, stranger, more stimulating, more marginal to keep moving onto.
As much as we hype it, there is no big new structural revolution that’s suddenly happening to culture because of millennials, smartphones and the internet. But cool weird creative kids never needed one, they were the revolution. They still are. Variables may change, but the struggle stays infinite.