The Tchotchke Internet

The Tchotchke Internet is a social media landscape of digital flair and knick-knacks, a direct evolution of the freemium user experience. It’s the small ways that users can spend money (or make money) to have a better experience on social media. It’s Reddit Gold, Discord Nitro, Twitter Super Follows, celebrity verified checkmarks, premium Zoom calls, NFT galleries, Ethereum domain names in your bio, Fortnite skins, Roblox Robux, personal Minecraft servers, custom Twitch emotes, Linktree URLs, cryptocoin giveaways, Clubhouse invites, and social media partner programs.

People are spending a lot of money to express themselves online and most of what they’re paying for is basically the digital equivalent of an emo kid’s backpack covered in Hot Topic pins, random little digital artifacts that bely some kind of personal identity.

Ryan Broderick

It’s a clever, and I think apt, name for how the internet has shifted recently, and continues a trend we’ve been seeing for a while around virality, monetization, and content creation. We’ve been talking about “influencer culture” for a while, and I think this is a (perhaps inevitable) continuation of that trend. I think that the “digital flair” is definitely an attempt at status signaling, but also an attempt for some to feel like they can still express themselves and be part of the larger dialogue. As the nature of discourse on the internet increasingly feels like broadcasts (one-to-many, and largely in one direction), having little ways to make your mark feel increasingly important.

Some of the examples Ryan cites serve practical purposes, don’t get me wrong – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with paying for services you value, and if doing so nets you a few additional benefits, that makes sense. But that doesn’t mean it can’t serve multiple purposes. It can act as tchotchkes, and it can also act as identity markers, a way for others to quickly decide which internet cliques you’re a part of. If you’re posting crypto giveaways and have an Ethereum address in your profile, people are (probably rightly) going to assume you’re part of the crypto scene.

That isn’t particularly new, of course: we’ve been self-selecting into groups since there have been groups to select. Even in the earlier days of the internet, there were things like “geek codes” people would put in email and forum signatures, as a way of signaling what kinds of geek we were and what we were into. I think the biggest difference now is that many of these signaling methods now center around money or affluence. They usually cost money to get, or imply money and access. Again, that isn’t new, but when affluence becomes the centerpiece of status, it makes for a bad time for everyone else.

Which means soon there will be very few places left online — if there are any at all anymore — where all users have the same basic set of tools at their disposal and are, in theory, free from some kind of class hierarchy. And as this stratified user experience continues to spread, I think forms of digital flair will only become more popular — your cryptopunk NFT profile pic, your custom Fortnite skin, or your custom short-form video filters.

Ryan Broderick