I SPENT HALF A DAY with Alex Wolf, the award-winning tech speaker, brand strategist, and author of “Resonate: For Anyone Who Wants To Build An Audience,” in her hometown of Brooklyn, New York and I left with more questions than answers.
Wolf was open and gracious, and we shared ideas about everything from which kinds of gentrification are welcomed events, to early starts in tech as designers of our own Myspace pages.
Wolf is a respected tech philosopher who doesn’t require or seem to need your institutional credentialing; her regalia is her ideas. She has an unusual understanding about human nature and our insatiable march toward singularity that, ironically, compels you to enthusiastically join the parade as you tread down her networked rabbit-hole of iMovie powered YouTube videos and newsletter releases. If you watch her lecture on why millennials feel unaligned with their age, you will then watch her sermon on the science of attention and hyper-stimulation.
Then, you’re hooked, and all of a sudden realize a need to not necessarily put your phone down every once in a while, but to at least be conscious of the fact that you’re holding it. She’s a reminder that manufactured experiences via mobile devices are increasingly indistinguishable from reality and intentionally designed that way.
The questions I was left with were not about Wolf, but about us as a society. Perhaps now that I think about it, each question could be answered by asking just one: Has technology already reprogrammed our humanOS (human operating system), and we’re yet completely unaware or worse, unconcerned?
How’s This for a Strategy?
Years ago, before you were reposting screenshotted motivational quotes on Instagram and not crediting the authors, Wolf had amassed a following of over half a million millennial women by providing content that helped them feel like they weren’t alone in the world and had what it takes to be successful. Her handpicked and curated social posts turned into a business, BossBabe, which is a subscription-based online community for this same demographic that she would sell before turning 25. Today, Alex consults some of the biggest companies in the world on their marketing strategies.
“Sell a product people want. Sell a non-shitty product. Sell something that’s not ads,” Wolf said to me just before we sat for lunch at The Osprey, a swank American restaurant inside the swankier 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge.
“To see Apple invest so much in taking on Netflix all to get people to stare at a screen — all to have people watch more. I’m over it,” she said.
Her takes on real entrepreneurship are steeped with the sentiment that “innovators” today are spending too much time trying to figure out how to sell more ads and not enough time trying to figure out how to sell actual products. Not even Apple is safe from her reprimand.
“Isn’t content a product?” I asked. “I think it’s both,” she responded. “The production of it is definitely a service, but the merchandis-ability is the product. When cable hit, they realized they could make a toy for every show. If you weren’t making a toy, then you could at least promote a product. So, content is a marketing vehicle of the big media companies. They know they can use it as the vehicles to sell the actual product.”
My brain flashes to vivid images of Soulja Boy standing up for himself on “The Breakfast Club” morning show to defend his “actual products.” I ask Wolf if he’s doing it right. “Yes, he is,” she responds, in the most inflexible tone I’ve heard her speak in all morning.
“I’m tired of people trying to play Soulja Boy for being an entrepreneur on some crabs in the barrel type shit… What’s better, if he was to have another platinum song? What’s gonna help young Black kids, if he had that song or if he had actual money from the products he sold to put them in private school?” Wolf said.
“It’s not about the individual. People think they’re just putting the money in their pocket, and yes, that’s happening. But, on a grander scale, when we talk about generational wealth, what it really looks like is building businesses, accumulating resources and using it to hire people and contribute to making change. We’ve made selling your own shit really not cool, but selling other people’s shit cool.”
Alex Wolf is Like Taking Both the Blue and the Red Pill
Neo: Why do my eyes hurt?
Morpheus: You’ve never used them before.
In 1999’s classic movie “The Matrix,” the guide, Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne), offers his prospective student and the likely chosen one Neo (Keanu Reeves), the option to consume either of two pills. The blue pill, once taken, will cause the techno-dystopian story to end and thrust Neo back into the society from whence he came as a mere cog in the system, unenlightened to the dark machinations that control the world.
The red pill, however, will reveal to him just how deep manipulation and puppetry extends into the world packaged often as conveniences and pleasantries in plain sight. You know, like the idea that Facebook is free.
Wolf and I are of the same dichotomy, I found; equal parts capitalists and artists. The purple pill we’d ingested provides an understanding that getting along in this world, for our own sanity, requires remaining true to the ability to be exceptional in our art while also knowing how-to, and having no shame in capitalizing on its value. It would not be unlike us to champion the idea that the world should be woke to the fact that marketers create things to consume us; commercials, “Likes,” and fluffy pillows for instance, but likewise and without shame, hawking our own ingenuity to target audiences, no matter how many others choose instead to rhyme like Common Sense. We didn’t make the rules but might prophesy for profit.
“A lot of artists just think about their taste,” Wolf said to me over the best fries I’ve had in a long time.
We were exchanging stories about artists and their often tumultuous relationship with money.
“They’re not thinking about how having a satisfied customer (purchase your art) means you can have a medium of exchange, money, so you can go live your fucking life,” she said. “Even with the biggest fashion lines in the world, to me, they’re some of the best muses because they have to balance their taste with the market. They know that they have to make women feel beautiful at the end of the day or else this whole thing isn’t going to work.”
Wolf does her homework, spending her days studying economists of yore and ideas on the human condition that go beyond Maslov. She’s as much way ahead as she is highly present. She sees us 15 years from now holding whatever permutation of the iPhone is the future wave.
In her animated lectures about technology, social media, and effective marketing, which you can easily find on YouTube, she’s not ringing an alarm to warn us about what becomes of our technical compulsion. She is, however, revealing the future and describing who we’ll be as our current trend line suggests. She wants us to get their knowingly. To consciously decide if where this string terminates is what we actually desire for ourselves. If you, likewise, play to win, she has gems on how you can take full advantage of this moment in time.
The Case for Engineering Cultural Capital
We waited in the lobby of the hotel for our photographer who was running about an hour late. While we passed the time at a long modern rustic table near the front desk, I think back on something she had said earlier that morning. She’d lived in the Bay Area in her mid-teens and didn’t move back to New York until her early twenties.
“It was an empowering experience to leave New York. It made me appreciate it on a different level, but California is a weird — I have a lot of family there and I’ve been going there my whole life, so I feel weirdly connected to it, but there’s a lot about it that I don’t like. I don’t like how taxes are so high but the homeless population is so bad. I don’t like the tech culture and the lack of aesthetic culture, like fashion; beauty, if I’m being honest. Those types of things are not specifically appreciated in the Bay. It’s like, ‘Here’s your Patagonia, and get on the BART and shut the fuck up.’ I think beauty is a really essential part of life.”
So, I asked a question that had been percolating in my mind since that revelation and was finally able to fully articulate. How is it that the cultural capitals of our society — places like Atlanta, Chicago, and New York — trail the Allbirds-infested San Francisco in actually capitalizing on the culture?
“We just love people who can build technology, and they get the privileges in this economy and in the world, period,” Wolf said. “We don’t question the unintended consequences that come with giving young kids in a garage or in a frat house so much money and power. They don’t understand the value of cultural capital. So, they’re not invested in it and don’t understand the ways you can leverage it in an economy as much as they understand how to get people to stare at a screen. But all the cultural capital people, like those in music and entertainment, they’re really frustrated with the lack of power they have in today’s technological landscape and they don’t underestimate the cultural capital. That’s their business. But they need the talent. They need the engineers who only want to work at Google and Facebook — but they don’t want to work at Atlantic [Records] or Translation [a branding agency founded by Steve Stoute].”
War, Kings, and Alex Wolf’s Genius
Wolf shared the story of Felix Somary, an Austrian-Swiss banker born in 1881 who is widely credited for having predicted World Wars I and II as well as the 1929 stock market crash which led to the Great Depression. His ability to foresee and share these events were long before even governmental powers even realized that there would be conflict by merely studying the flow of money and economy of the region.
“The people highest up, you assume that they’re the most plugged in. In fact, they’re the least. They find out last. My experience has been that I’ll talk to the CEO of a tech company and ask ‘What are you going to do about this?’ and, ‘What are you going to do about that?’ They’ll be like, ‘What?’ But see, when you’re a king, the only people you’re talking to is other royalty. When you’re a billionaire, you’re not talking to anyone down here. I thought that if you had that place of power, then you must know what was going on. But in fact, you don’t. It’s always people at the ground level who really know what’s happening.”
Her ear to the street has not gone unnoticed, even if Silicon Valley won’t “@” her. Alex Heath, a reporter who covers Facebook, tweeted on December 10, 2018 at 12:35pm a note describing how a video Alex Wolf wrote, produced, and narrated about Snapchat and their strategy “succinctly explains how many inside the company see their philosophical approach to product vs. Facebook.” It’s been retweeted 33 times. This is big kudos, the kind you hope for when you produce work for free. You hope someone notices and that your take adds to the conversation. But, he didn’t attribute the work to her but glossed over her contribution. Why not tag her? Why not mention her name? He’s a journalist, and crediting your source is 101.
It would be different if Wolf didn’t already have to fend off the academics who might side-eye her credentials. This is why documentation, to her, is paramount. This is why you write blog posts, publish videos on YouTube, and send emails to your list — to have a record of your foresight. Proof that you saw what was coming before anyone else knew what was what.
“Money talks. So, if you have proof that what you’ve said has been right consistently, then you have proof. And, that’s a very entrepreneurial thing. Academics and entrepreneurs have never gotten along. There’s one thing to do research based on data, and another to do research based on living — going out and seeing the interaction. Academics tend to be very bookish,” she said.
Wolf has proof. In 2018, she wrote of her attempt to end her “iPhonese” by returning to the simpler days of keying “3” on the keypad twice to achieve the letter “e,” and the satisfaction derived from slap-shutting to end a call by trying to, however failing to, reactivate her i833, Baby Phat edition. To her, these basic clamshells were more humane alternatives to the bright and multi-thousand pixelated screens we stand in line for hours on end to secure. A year later, Motorola would announce the updates to and return of the best-selling flip-phone off all time, the Razr.
In September 2018, Alex called the “Like” button an “outdated remnant of pre-mobile internet that got exploited to feed the vicious demands that come from tending the advertisement business model.” Going further to say, “The ‘Like’ button sort of reminds me of those DVD players that had a VHS portion attached to it; I mean, sure, it’s there but do we even need it? And, is it worth it to still keep it around?”
On Friday, November 8, 2019, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri announced that it would start hiding “Likes” from public view, thereby depressurizing the platform.
You can see how someone who’s had to protect their personal confidence and the fact that they knew what they were actually talking about from a constant barrage of, “So, where’d you go to school?” queries.
“I hope this doesn’t sound corny, but after a few months I had talked to someone who was a pretty established manager in the art and music space, and I told him a lot of these stories of people not giving me credit and doing these weird things, like I don’t know if its in my head or if they’re really just pushing me out. And, I told him I really feel invisible,” Wolf said. “Keep in mind that this is a really successful manager who manages very successful artists and is used to dealing with people when they’re down. And, he started sending me Wikipedia’s of superheroes that could make themselves invisible. He said ‘I want you to think about your invisibility as a power.’ So, after some thought I said, ‘Well, I think that is the power because the same thing about the king who really didn’t know what was going on.’ The king is never going to pay attention to this person, and that gives me an advantage. They won’t see me coming.”