‘Good Enough’ Rules the World
This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.
During a pandemic, it’s great to have Amazon, Netflix and TikTok at our fingertips. And their success shows that good enough is plenty good.
Maybe you’ve heard that old saying: Content is king. The idea is that must-have, exceptional entertainment, information and technology rule the land. I’m not sure this was ever true, and it’s definitely not now. What rules instead is “good enough.”
Amazon might not have that one thing you want to buy, but it’ll have five other things that are perfectly fine substitutes. Good enough is why I recently sat through multiple episodes of a bad old television series. Good enough is why Apple is combining multiple not-must-have digital services into one. Netflix, TikTok and YouTube are powerhouses of the good enough economy.
They have a small amount of great stuff and lots of perfectly fine stuff, and they package it in a convenient and affordable way. That’s useful.
The power of good enough is underappreciated, I think, because it seems like an insult. It’s admitting that mediocrity is OK. But it is!
The good enough economy does, however, speak to the balance of power between those who create stuff and the gatekeepers that distribute it.
The internet made it easier for people everywhere to show the world the music they created, the cat toys they made in their spare time or the entertainment they shot on an iPhone. But because anyone can create anything, it’s hard for any one thing to get attention.
That’s why companies that can assemble mass numbers of people in one place — Facebook, Amazon, YouTube, Netflix and others — have become our kings. They are Harry Potter-like sorting hats organizing the sea of entertainment, information and products.
If you draw enough eyeballs to one place, each individual movie hit, online celebrity or star video gamer matters less. If the video app TikTok didn’t have Charli D’Amelio, one of its biggest draws, some of her fans would freak out. But most of them would be happy with everything else that’s still there.
Did “Tiger King” get a lot of attention and eyeballs on Netflix because it’s amazing TV, or because Netflix made it front and center to its 200 million subscribers? When one of the world’s most popular video game stars couldn’t thrive outside a hugely popular video game website, it showed that the companies that assemble an audience can outweigh the draw of a superlative star.
I don’t want to underplay the draw of superstars and must-have programming. The National Football League might single-handedly be keeping the American television industry alive, for example. Some individuals are singular content kings.
But mostly, for companies that assemble big numbers of people and make it easy for all of us, the aggregate wins over the individual. A lot of good enough is better than a little perfect that is most likely hard to find or costs extra.
The funny thing about online life is that two poles exist. The good enough economy sits opposite the “passion economy,” which Ben Smith, the media columnist for The New York Times, wrote about recently. Digital services like Patreon and Substack give musicians, podcasters, drawing teachers or newsletter writers a chance to make a living from a relatively small number of passionate fans.
So content does rule, sometimes. And so do the websites that amass an audience of billions with stuff that’s good enough.
Apple’s midlife crisis
Companies don’t just try to sell us what we need or want. They also try to sell us what they need us to buy.
On Tuesday, Apple talked up a dizzying array of products, including new and upgraded versions of the Apple Watch, iPad and combinations of monthly subscriptions to things like Apple’s music service and new Apple-created virtual fitness classes.
Apple now has approximately 1,031 things for sale — you know, approximately — many of them added in the last few years.
To understand why, you need to know that Apple is having a midlife crisis.
Popularizing the smartphone was a gold mine for Apple. It still is. But the mine is slowly running out of gold. Around the world, smartphones are becoming basic necessities like refrigerators, and fewer people are excited to rush out every year or two and buy another $1,000 iPhone.
This is fine. But it’s not fine for Apple. This company pretends it doesn’t care about money, but yeah it does. And companies like Apple have to make more money year after year, which is harder to do when the gold mine starts to run out of gold.
So if Apple struggles to sell more of what had been a relatively small number of precious products, one solution is to make way more products. Something for everyone.
That may help us understand why Apple until 2018 typically released one new iPhone model each year — and it now has four. It’s why over the last few years, Apple also started to make television series, sold news and video game subscriptions, offered a credit card, pitched a home speaker and is experimenting with combining its online subscriptions.
A lot of this stuff might be great — or (COUGH, COUGH) good enough. And we want companies to come up with new ideas. But when you see these products, also imagine Apple whispering, “Please buy more things from us.”
Before we go …
Yoga teachers versus a conspiracy theory: Some yoga instructors and other people interested in wellness are concerned that the QAnon conspiracy theory is gaining traction in their community. My colleague Kevin Roose explained in a new feature called “Daily Distortions” that QAnon supporters using the language and sensibility of a New Age healing workshop helped broaden the conspiracy that falsely claims that a cabal of satanic pedophiles and cannibals runs the world and wants to undermine President Trump.
It’s easy to snark, but Kim K is powerful: Celebrities including Kim Kardashian West and Leonardo DiCaprio said they would protest what they see as inaction by Facebook against misinformation and hate speech by not posting on Instagram or Facebook for 24 hours. An organizer said this celebrity freeze was one step in a broader pressure campaign against Facebook, wrote my colleague Kellen Browning. Others called it an ineffective performative gesture.
Maybe singular stars do top “good enough”? My colleagues have a fun and thoughtful set of short essays all about how the internet fractured and remade what it means to be famous. Academics and geologists are famous. Nail artists and hedgehogs are stars. And you can vote for the most relevant celebrity. (Academics are leading right now.)
Hugs to this
We all — including this raccoon — deserve to hug a teddy bear. (Thanks to my colleague Liam Stack for finding this one. Yes, there is literally a hug in today’s “Hugs to this.”)
We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at email@example.com.
If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here.