The Creator Economy is the Asylum We're Being Raised In

Engaged communities like the Swifties are data-rich ecosystems exploited by surveillance capitalists.

The Creator Economy is the Asylum We're Being Raised In

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Author's Note: I've been writing notes about the intersection of Taylor Swift, surveillance capitalism, the dangers of the creator economy, and my daughters for almost two weeks. This newsletter is a distillation of those notes - lightly linked from one section to another. It's a thought experiment mixed with analysis.

Because I try to be honest about my process and motivations, I will say: Within these notes, the reasons I left Substack begin to peak out. A hesitancy about creator community building starts to bud. The unsettled feeling I have about how White women world-build spreads.

I can't pretend the leaving, the hesitancy, the rejection of that world building has been without professional cost. Every day, I wake up and wonder if leaving Substack, and the model it's creating for creators, ruined my career. My bank account tells me it has. I hope I am wrong because I like money and writing and writing for money.

I am working through the reasons I left Substack because leaving has cost me a lot. It's good to work through all of that! Important, even. But it's a very particular motivation. And I want you to know this piece was written with it in the back of my fuzzy mind, even when I thought I wasn't thinking about it.

Still. I don't write much about myself in this piece because it's not about me. And even though I write about Taylor Swift, it's not even really about Taylor Swift. Or it's not JUST about her.

It's about the way good things like songs, community building, and connection are being exploited by an increasingly entrenched power structure. It's about how songs, community building, and connection are mined by people who want to nudge reality. It's about what that reality might be. Or already is.

These are polished notes—starts, stops, and middles. That doesn't mean it wasn't a lot of work—it was almost two weeks' worth! But there are gaps, sentences that should be paragraphs, threads unpulled. All of this will be attended to in greater detail throughout many pieces over the next few months. This is a long conversation. I am glad you and I are having it. (That's what reading and writing is - a dialogue.)

My two oldest girls stayed up for the midnight drop of Taylor Swift’s double album, The Tortured Poets Department. Self-declared Swifties, they both love Swift the way many teens do - completely. They know that completely doesn’t mean uncritically.  (Counter to the narrative spun by adults, I’ve found teens are pretty sensible about love.) The next morning, I woke up to a very mixed album review split across dozens of texts on the family thread.

summary of the texted review

My daughters loved several songs. They also interrogated clunky lyrics, smothering synth, and how power changes impact. Swift has always written autobiographical lyrics. But she is no longer a sixteen-year-old girl with a fervent fan base; she’s a billionaire with an empire. Should she still be writing songs about identifiable people? Wasn’t she potentially putting those people in harm’s way? 

They were flabbergasted she told off her fans for their reaction to her relationship with Matty Healy. Their confusion had little to do with the details of that relationship - they haven’t followed it very closely. Instead, it made them question her silence on other issues. If she’s willing to upset her fanbase over a guy, then why isn’t she willing to upset her fanbase over more important things? Even in little ways! Like, why wasn’t she willing to wear Artists for Ceasefire pins on all her award gowns? 

Taylor Swift may be Mother, but I am a mother of Swifties. And I have some concerns.

My kids’ texts were more discerning than the fawning Rolling Stone review I read after school drop-off. It’s a matter of incentives, perhaps. My daughters give Swift their attention and money. They tend to be thoughtful about what Swift offers in return. Publications like Rolling Stone tend to use Swift to capture attention and money. They are thoughtful about what they owe Swift. 

I am thoughtful about Swift too. Taylor Swift may be Mother, but I am a mother of Swifties. And I have some concerns. I know that attention turns to devotion. And I understand how easily devotion can be exploited and weaponized.

My kids sing Taylor Swift songs with their eyes closed, traversing a Swiftian universe where Swift’s life is all matter, force, and superstructure. Eras are worlds kept in orbit by the gravity of Swift’s expanding star. Each Era is seeded with lore, Taylor’s Version of real-life events. There are artifacts too. Red scarves, Fuck the Patriarchy keychains, mirrorballs, cardigans. People looking for something to hold can purchase reproductions on Swift’s website for a limited time only. 

Swifties often orient themselves in Swift’s universe by choosing a favorite Era. When we took our girls to the Eras Tour, I could discern the Swiftian coordinates of other attendees by their clothes. Rep Swifties wore snake fishnets. Folklore Swifties floated by in gauze. Speak Now Swifties wore purple flowers, one apologized for bumping into me with, “It was enchanting to meet you.” 

I love to communicate with Easter eggs. I think the best messages are the cryptic ones. - Taylor Swift

Swifties are tasked with discovering the lore Swift hides in her liner notes and lyrics. Working together on message boards and group chats, the community creates a collective memory. Once all the lore is known, the Universe and its creator will be understood. The release of each new Era adds complexity to Swift’s cosmos while also drawing Swifties one Era closer to that final enlightenment. 

Swift’s development of the Swifties anticipated our current era of Artist as Community Leader. In this era, creative industries have been gutted by an apathetic DoJ and vertical mergers. Creative work doesn’t scale, so it is not valued by shareholder capitalism. Online communities are data-rich consumer ecosystems that can scale across platforms, so they are valued.

Recommended Reading
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff

Surveillance capitalists extract data from community interaction and commoditize it. This is why VCs are pouring billions into the Creator Economy. They don’t care about creators, culture, or real community. They care about the data generated by the intersection of creators, culture, and community. Fervent communities produce the richest data, especially communities like Swifties, where purchases and posts are often tied to a sense of identity. All of that data is used to create prediction products, like algorithms, that nudge user behavior. 

Fervent communities produce the richest data, especially communities like Swifties, where purchases and posts are often tied to a sense of identity.

In 2012, studies conducted by Meta’s own scientists showed that prediction products can spread social contagions that impact the real world, all without user awareness. And that was before the widespread adoption of LLMs.

Large language models require huge piles of training data. Many of the largest have already been trained on what can be scraped from the entire history of the internet. Community data, whether on a single platform or dispersed amongst many, is constantly updated and deeply engaged. There is always something new to extract from a community. 

I don’t think Swift nurtured the Swiftie community for the data. I think she understood early on that communities are regenerative. Being the single focus of an audience is an exhaustive pressure. A community is a network; members interact with each other when they want to focus on Swift. Community members create and maintain community culture. Swifties buy vinyls, cardigans, and concert tickets to express their community membership, along with supporting Swift. That's helpful if you're an artist that wants to...I don't know...sell 19 variants of the same album.

A Pilgrimage to a Taylor Swift Shrine
I wrote about being dropped in the middle of Swiftie culture when I attended the Eras Tour. It was an incredibly positive experience.

It’s very difficult to create a large, dynamic community around creative work alone. Parasocial interactions, like Swift's hidden messages and easter egg hunts, provide enough mass to keep a community together. A PSI is an illusory experience that makes a person feel like they are having a reciprocal interaction with a public persona. PSIs aren’t inherently negative! If you ever watched Mr. Rogers talk to you from a television screen, you were experiencing a PSI.

Repeated PSIs can lead to a parasocial relationship. A parasocial relationship informs a person’s identity, spending, values and perception of reality. If you cried when Fred Rogers died, you might have been in a parasocial relationship with him. (Raises hand!)

The impact of a parasocial relationship depends heavily on the public persona. Mr. Rogers told me to look for helpers. That exhortation impacts my perception of reality to this day. Even in 2024, I still look for helpers. And because I am looking for them, I see them. 

Taylor Swift mostly tells my kids about Taylor Swift. The real people in her songs are covered with only the thinnest layer of lyrical abstraction, a veil meant to be pierced by observant Swifties. Swift’s songs often reference public events - a famous paparazzi image, a Twitter feud, a scandal. When she shares Taylor’s Version of those real people and events, she creates a canonical version of them. The collective memory of her community reshapes itself to adhere to the canon. 

Swift doesn’t put narcotics in her songs, she puts secrets in them.

Most Swifties are content to simply log the new lore. But others hold up their end of the parasocial relationship. Their friend has been wronged, so they retaliate. They swarm the subjects of Swift’s work with emoji heart bracketed harrassment. Swifts songs are always streaming and so the swarming never stops. To be the subject of a Swift song is to have your life changed.

Swift’s critics often cite her habit of mining her life for lyrics as her great weakness. The Swiftie response to that criticism might be, Only women are told the details of their lives are scraps of gossip that can’t be transmuted into art. A Swift-cynic might note that studies show confessions are an effective way to reinforce parasocial relationships. Swift doesn’t put narcotics in her songs, she puts secrets in them. I am neither a Swiftie nor a Swift-cynic. So I guess I’ll just say…it can be both. 

People have been writing about Swift, parasocial interactions and Swifties for years. But I think something has changed as Swift has scaled. Or, more accurately, the Swifties have scaled. They’ve become a precious resource mined by surveillance capitalists wielding Swift’s image and influence. 

My friend's life was ruined* by a Magnolia Network Home Makeover. *made worse for quite a while
Magnolia Network is not just programming. It’s a point of view and a promise.

Swift is a billionaire. But there is also a lot of money being made by people around her. According to Dan Fleetwood, President of Question Pro Research and Insights, “If Swift were an economy, she’d be bigger than 50 countries.” Her presence can lift stock prices and economies. That is a lot of power accumulating around one figurehead. And it’s not neutral. 

Let’s talk about the Eras Tour. It's a huge problem that she partnered with Capital One for her concert series. You had to have a Capital One credit card to access her presale! I don’t think she should be encouraging her young fans to get credit cards with predatory interest rates so they can finance a concert ticket?? I mean, how long will an 18 year old Swiftie be paying the interest on her tickets?! But that almost seems like a quaint concern at this point. 

While Swifties are singing with their eyes closed, their personal data is being extracted by conglomerates. LiveNation-Ticketmaster is a monopoly that controls huge swathes of artist management, concert promotion, ticketing and live venues in America. From at-home ticket purchases to in-venue pretzel purchases, Swiftie consumer data can be scraped and then turned into predictive behavior products.

Related Reading
Going to a Show? Prepare to Surrender Your Data
You may be listening, but Big Business is watching — and collecting your data to learn your concert-going habits

And here is the most vital difference between the era of Mr. Rogers and this current era of Swift. The parasocial interactions people have with Taylor Swift are filtered, fragmented, amplified and algorithmed through surveillance capitalism.

Surveillance capitalism exists to change reality, both through perception and action. So it should be no surprise that what comes out the other side of Swift’s partnership with surveillance capitalists is increasingly untethered to this universe or the one Swift built. 

A long-time lurker in Taylor Swift communities, I’ve been unsettled by the potency of a newly poisoned kind of parasocial connection. More and more people seem certain that Swift’s easter eggs are hidden in plain sight to distract from the real code she’s sending out. Every outfit, every lyric, every post is a drop waiting to be decoded. 

The parasocial interactions people have with Taylor Swift are filtered, fragmented, amplified and algorithmed through surveillance capitalism.

I’ve seen several Swifties with otherwise normal posting histories claim that Swift’s recent batch of poorly reviewed songs are bad on purpose. Those who truly love her will dig through stale synth and bad metaphors to find the message she’s hidden for her true fans. It’s all a little…Qanon. 

I wish Swift would save her community from the asylum she’s letting surveillance capitalism build around them. How would she do it? I don’t know. She could start by making data privacy demands of her partners. She could pullback from parasocial engagement. Or! Keep the parasocial stuff, but also start being transparent with her fans about the machinations of power. She could do a lot of things.

But she is just a billionaire. And billionaires have a hard time ceding the power they have over people. They need help from legislators, who seem unwilling to help billionaires divest from power.

The Swifties? Well, they are legion. Maybe they’re going to need to free themselves.

Of course, most Swifties are not posting conspiracies or harassing strangers online. They are just listening to her music with their eyes closed, like my kids. Still, it would be foolish to assume my kids’ reality won’t be impacted at all by the power accumulating around and through Swift. So I listened to The Tortured Poets Department for a week, trying to understand what this new Era was framing in my kids’ heads.

Every Era has a color. Debut is green. Reputation is black. Lover is pink. I think TTPD’s official color is gray. But it should be white. Because this is the White (Woman) Album.

Too Tortured Too Poet

Thematically, it’s all over the place. Is she in an academic department or an asylum? Is she in an asylum because she’s Too Tortured Too Poet? I don’t know! I do know that Swift is throwing a White lady tantrum on the album. She’s a child when talking about being victimized, poor baby! She’s a girlboss when she’s heartbroken but still doing her job, get it girl! She’s an animal in a cage exploited by a paying audience, cat sound. She’s everything but accountable. 

In TTPD, Swift mines language and tropes associated with mental illness. She then forges them into a kind of shield against her critics in her lyrics and liner notes. That alone would be worth interrogating, especially within the context of class and White women weaponizing their tears. But then she goes on to expose the alleged mental illnesses and addictions of identifiable people!

So Long, London is a particularly grim example of Swift's willingness to extract from other people's lives. She alleges that an identifiable person suffers from depression. Then she goes on to accuse this person of sacrificing their relationship with her to their depression. In the TTPD Era, mental illness is a choice for everyone but Swift, I guess.

Swift sings about race, for the first time as far as I can tell, in, I Hate it Here -

My friends used to play a game where/We would pick a decade/We wished we could live in instead of this/I'd say the 1830s but without all the racists/And getting married off for the highest bid/Everyone would look down 'cause it wasn't fun now/Seems like it was never even fun back then/Nostalgia is a mind's trick/If I'd been there, I'd hate it

I think Swift chooses the 1830s because it’s towards the end of the Romantic movement. And I think she is saying it’s impossible to romanticize the Romantic movement when you consider its context. But that is a very difficult conclusion to arrive at for two reasons:


The lyrics are imprecise. Racists exist now. In the 1830s, there were racists AND the entrenched, legal institution of chattel slavery. Collapsing chattel slavery into “all the racists” is like, I don’t know….saying you’d like to live in "1930s and 40s Germany without all the antisemites." Collapsing the Holocaust into "all the antisemites" feels like the kind of erasure an antisemite might engage in.


The context provided by the album itself. I Hate it Here is track 23. On Track 6, But Daddy I Love Him, Swift tells off her fans for being upset she dated a person who’d been publicly racist. As my kid said in one text, “Wouldn’t it have been worse if there hadn’t been pushback?”

And then on Track 24, thanK you aIMee, Swift sings to a bully she calls Aimee. In the chorus, Swift sings to Aimee,

Everyone knows that my mother is a saintly woman/But she used to say she wished that you were dead

And then in the third verse she lilts, 

I don't think you've changed much,/And so I changed your name and any real defining clues/And one day, your kid comes home singin'/A song that only us two is gonna know is about you

The capitalizaion in thanK you aIMee identifies Kim Kardashian, Swift’s long-time chosen foil, as the nemesis in the song. Kardashian shares four children with her former husband, Kanye West. In early 2023, Kardashian posted a video of their oldest daughter dancing to a Taylor Swift song. Which Swift seems to reference in her lyrics. 

I guess I don’t care one way or the other about Kim Kardashian. But her daughter is a ten year-old Black girl growing up in an incredibly racist country. And a White billionaire just released a song about her own White mother wishing that little girl’s mom was dead? And then, in the closing lyrics of that song, the White billionaire said she is going to weaponize that little girl’s love of Swift against her own mother?  How is this not career-halting stuff?

Related Reading
Is there a Right Kind of White?
Spoiler alert: The answer is no.

Okay, so Swift’s a White lady writing about her life with stereotypical White lady blinders on. She's not the first. What makes this different? I'll tell you!

Swift is not just a singer anymore. She’s diversified across platforms and industries until she’s become a reality shifter. Her album is a White lady tantrum that will be abstracted and restructured across industries, data sets and algorithms. Of course it is going to be used to nudge behavior. And it will be used to excuse behavior that needed no nudging at all.

In 2024, all women are being stripped of rights, including White women. But as a group, White women have a lot of power. Especially in an election year. They "form the largest single bloc of the electorate at 40 percent, and the largest subgroup of women voters.” Fascism is rising. The racist reaction to BLM continues to metastize. It’s projected that the presidential election will be decided by women voters.

And I don’t know….I just keep feeling like But Daddy, I Love Him is one second away from becoming the anthem of White women who don't want to cede power and are done pretending they care about "all that woke stuff."

I forget how the West was won/I forget if this was ever fun/I just learned these people only raise you to cage you/Sarahs and Hannahs in their Sunday best/Clutching their pearls, sighing "What a mess"/I just learned these people try and save you/... cause they hate you/Too high a horse/For a simple girl to rise above it/They slammed the door on my whole world/The one thing I wanted

On The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology, there's a song called Cassandra. It's referencing the Trojan princess and prophetess from Greek mythology. Swift sings, So, they killed Cassandra first 'cause she feared the worst, and tried to tell the town.

That's not what happens to Cassandra.

In the myths, Cassandra is a beautiful Trojan princess. She is so beautiful that even the god Apollo wants to sleep with her. He tries to woo her with gifts, including the gift of prophecy. When she still denies his advances, he curses her always to prophesy but never to be believed.

King Agamemnon and his brother, Menelaus, lead the Greeks to war against Troy. They claim their war is justified because Menelaus’s wife, Helen, is hiding behind the city gates. These guys use women to justify a lot of things.

Just as it seems the Greeks might be too exhausted to go on, Cassandra warns her fellow Trojans that their city is going to fall. They do not believe her. Troy falls. Cassandra is captured by King Agamemnon. She will not be able to refuse him the way she once refused Apollo. The gods are cruel, but men are worse. Agamemnon sets sail for his kingdom, with Cassandra loaded onto his ship with the rest of his bounty.

In Agamemnon's absence, his wife, Clytemnestra, rules. She holds a knife behind her back, waiting for him to return. You see, ten years earlier, there was no wind to carry Agamemnon's Greek fleet to Troy. He thought the winds were still because a god required a sacrifice. So he laid his and Clytemnestra’s daughter on an altar and slit her throat. Her name was Iphigenia. For a decade, her mother has waited to avenge her.

Related Reading
Altar Bound: Men Who Hide Behind Pulpits and Priesthood
A woman had no authority and so she had not rights and deserved no rites.

When Agamemnon arrives home, Clytemnestra kills him. For their daughter, yes. But also because she does not want to cede power. Clytemnestra then kills Cassandra. What was Cassandra's crime? Just her forced association with Agamemnon. Neither Clytemnestra's pride nor ambition will allow Cassandra to live. Far-sighted Cassandra, who has never had the power to protect herself or others, becomes collateral damage in a power struggle. That’s the tragedy.

I am not sure it makes sense to map Taylor Swift onto any of these characters. Her songwriting implies she sees herself as a Cassandra, but she's too powerful for that to work. Clytemnestra was ambitious, powerful and vengeful. But she was also against sacrificing young women for fair winds. Neither Swift's business practices nor her lyrics demonstrate that particular value. Now King Agamemnon? Well. There's plenty of reasons he doesn't work too. But also...

Historians have theories about real-world events that inspired the stories we have about Troy. Some think the war really happened. It wouldn't have occurred because of a woman named Helen.

Instead, it's likely King Agamemnon - or whatever real king that name represents - wanted to take over Trojan trading routes. The historical Troy sat at the intersection of his known world. He had commercial power and wanted more. If you control the trade routes - the pathways that facilitate the exchange of people, resources and ideas then you can control almost everything.

In this real-world version of the Trojan war, I am sure there were plenty of Cassandras. And I am sure many of them were collatateral damage in the quest for domination. They always are.

(Gosh, I am never getting on Swift's PR list now, am I? Sorry to my daughters.)

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