Every city changes you. San Francisco tells you to be powerful, LA tells you to be famous, Boston tells you to be smarter, and New York tells you to be richer.
In the words of Paul Graham, “every city whispers something.” So when you choose to live in a city, you’re also choosing what kind of whispers you want to hear. Even if they’re subliminal, the whispers of cities are so influential that innovation has historically been clustered in small pockets. The cities we inhabit strongly influence our odds of success. As Paul Graham wrote: “How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot… Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.”
Now, the same thing is happening on social networks: each one whispers something. Twitter tells you to be witty, Reddit tells you to be clever, Facebook tells you to share your everyday life, Instagram tells you to be glamorous, and TikTok tells you to be entertaining.
Social networks are cities for the digital world.
They’re hubs for debate and discussion, each with a unique culture, where businesses are built, ideas are shared, and friendships are formed. Like cities, social network behavior is shaped by the dominant social hierarchy. In cities, that hierarchy is measured by what shows up on billboards and who gets invited to the best parties. On social networks, status is shaped by engagement and follower counts. Users see the benefits of social status and morph their identities to better align with what their favorite platforms reward.
With cities and social networks alike, the whispers of culture initiate a positive feedback loop. In Los Angeles, the lust for fame attracts talented actors and turns them into even better actors who can please the studio gatekeepers. Likewise, TikTok attracts people who can already captivate people and turns them into algorithmically-optimized entertainers.
Ambitious people cannot resist the siren calls of social status. Chasing the splendors of success and attention, we become more like the platforms we use most often. So when you choose to follow somebody, you effectively give them permission to brainwash you one post at a time. To be sure, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The whispers of Twitter have pulled me towards the world of ideas and improved my writing tremendously. Likewise, the whispers of TikTok have turned dance, song, and short-form storytelling into lucrative pursuits for our status-seeking selves.
Paul Graham is correct when he says that ambition precedes direction. Young people are usually ambitious before they know what they want to be ambitious about. They know they want to do something great, but they don’t know where to direct that energy. Maybe they’ll become a rockstar, maybe a CEO, or maybe a writer. When we don’t know what we want to be, we mimic the people around us. During this critical moment in time, while we’re still figuring out what we want to do and who we want to become, we should ask ourselves: “What whispers do I want to hear?”