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The Two Paths to Power

5 min

Technological acceleration widens the gap between the two paths—and raises the stakes.

There are two paths to power: top-down and bottom-up.

Both paths are fairly well known, but the popular understanding remains superficial.

Technological acceleration widens the gap between the two paths—and raises the stakes.

The Difference Between Top-down and Bottom-up Paths

Does a project have to receive the approval or sponsorship of an already influential entity? If so, it’s on a top-down path to power.

Does a project do whatever it wants—never asking for approval—in the hope of spreading through word-of-mouth and cultural contagion? If so, it’s on a bottom-up path to power.

The top-down path correlates with lower volume and more stock put into each work. A geneticist might say the top-down path is “K-selected.”

The bottom-up path correlates with higher volume and less stock put into each work. The bottom-up path is “R-selected,” as it were.

Examples of the top-down path are highly concentrated around Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. From Washington DC to New York City, all the way up to Harvard—these are the quintessential institutions of the top-down path to power. The west-coast entertainment complex rippling out from Los Angeles is the other primary top-down path in the United States.

One defining feature of the top-down path—and its Achilles’ heel—is its dependence on scarcity in broadcasting capacity. If there are only a small number of microphones, but many people want to broadcast, then microphone owners will extract rents from aspiring broadcasters. Young people will move to LA, NYC, or Boston, and they will slave away for approval from a select number of power-holders. And it may be rational if it’s the only way to get the microphone.

The Relative Payoff of the Two Paths Over Time

Anything that increases access to broadcasting capacity tends to decrease the payoff of the top-down path relative to the bottom-up path. Not only because it is possible to obtain a microphone for oneself, but because, if one can sufficiently impress anyone else, those people can tell their friends through their own microphones, too. There is still a filter in the bottom-up path—someone has to love what they’re hearing!—it’s just no longer a small number of specific executives in specific places.

Of course, we already know that social media enables bottom-up sensations, but social media is only one example of a historical gradient that goes back to Martin Luther. Even in living memory, cable television had the same effect as social media, though to a smaller degree. The most well-known case study is Alex Jones, a bottom-up sensation who started his career through public access television. See Alex Moyer’s upcoming documentary for an excellent segment on Jones’ bottom-up beginnings.

Social media has proliferated bottom-up pathways in more domains, and it has increased the relative payoff of the bottom-up path, other things equal.

Youtube stars and Soundcloud rappers are perhaps the most prominent examples of the bottom-up path today. Podcasters and writers too, although the power accrued by these types is, on average, more modest in the top-down and bottom-up modes alike.

There is nothing new or profound in observing the existence of bottom-up internet sensations. Still, it is generally under-appreciated how the two different power processes are categorically distinct—and politically conflictual. The conditions that drive success in one do not drive success in the other; the results of winning can be quite different, even when the inputs are similar; and the holders of top-down power are often at war with the holders of bottom-up power, in ways that remain opaque to most observers.

Consider the fact that, recently, Youtube management made a series of significant policy decisions giving priority to the Youtube content of network news companies. If you’ve ever noticed the prevalence of Jimmy Kimmel clips and acronyms like NBC and ABC in the news category, even though you’ve never cared for or subscribed to these entities—now you know why. Here is an example of top-down power holders capturing a bottom-up power center. Few realize this happened, and even fewer understand the underlying politics. I only know this thanks to the independent research of Mark Ledwich, a reader of the newsletter.

Most people today have mental models that over-index on the top-down path. It’s all we knew through the 20th century, until very recently. Global instantaneous data sharing and machine-learning discovery algorithms were only very recent boosters of the bottom-up method. These things are still so new that we hardly understand how distinct and specific is the bottom-up path, let alone how to navigate it or strategically pursue it. However, if we look closely, we might begin to make a few suggestions.

Reverse-Engineering the Bottom-up Path

The defining characteristic of individuals who rise to power through the bottom-up path is that they publish high volumes of work with high variance in quality. SoundCloud rappers are a great example.

Compare a rapper like Lil’ Peep (who blew up via Soundcloud in 2015) to Kanye or Jay-Z (who blew up by getting “signed”).

Jay-Z, from 1995 to 2020, published a total of 133 songs. That’s 5.3 songs/year.

Kanye, from 2003 to 2021, published a total of 207 songs. That’s 11.5 songs/year.

Lil’ Peep, from 2014 to 2017, published a total of 270 songs. That’s 90 songs/year.

On Youtube, you see the same thing with people like David Dobrik and Casey Neistat; their daily uploads surpass the total lifetime output of traditional videographers in a few years. Bottom-up creators gain skill through fast repetition, no doubt, but at the beginning, their work is very much like throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Whereas top-down creators typically have a limited number of chances to impress a specific set of individuals.

The Kanye documentary Jeen-Yus is a fantastic look inside the top-down path right before its eclipse by bottom-up platforms. Kanye was stuck in a top-down path in the early 2000s, but as the historical tide is turning under his feet, you can watch him grasping for bottom-up leverage to increase his top-down chances. He had to hustle, producing his own buzz and securing his own TV appearances, to win the endorsement of Dame Dash at Roc-A-Fella. Kanye was almost never signed. Had Soundcloud been generating rap stars in the year 2000, Kanye likely would have been uploading 90 songs a year for as long as it took.

Another peculiar feature of the bottom-up path is roughly zero penalties for low-quality outputs. Since there are enormous rewards for hits, the rational strategy is high volume: optimize for variance.

ȘȈǤƝȘ 66: Variant Judgment
“Nothing is more original, more oneself than to be nourished by others; only one must be able to digest them.” —Valéry
See my short essay, Optimize for Variance

The bottom-up content game is similar to venture capital in this regard. The high volume of early, crappy work is, after a few hits, recast as the underdog history, proof of vision and discipline, and the hero’s journey—even if nobody ever consumes or enjoys the old crappy work.

Finally, we can understand theoretically why some types of work will find the bottom-up path preferable to the top-down path sooner than other types of work. YouTube and SoundCloud—video and popular music—represent the most accessibly stimulating media for the largest number of people. Video and popular music resonate with the oldest parts of the brain. Sophisticated work in philosophy and science is less accessible, of interest to fewer people, and harder to enjoy, so it will take longer for the bottom-up path to beat the top-down path. But it’s already begun, so it will happen, it will just take longer; the point is to appreciate why, to see there are good reasons for it to take longer. Halfway between the two is journalism. And there we’re watching the bottom-up path supplant the top-down path accordingly, not quite as fast as in the rap game, but faster than in academia.


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