3_Trends_Vol.4: Dr. Jamie Cohen: Digital Carbon Footprints, Retcon + Open Community Tools


3_TRENDS is an interview series with experts who have their ear to culture, identifying the overlooked ripples turning into swells.

Jamie Cohen (JC) has a PhD in Cultural and Media Studies with a focus on immersive tech, memes and visual culture. Jamie founded and directed a college degree in New Media, wrote a guidebook on the subject, and promotes digital literacies. He's the co-host of the Digital Void podcast.

MK: Jamie, what’s been on your mind?

Digital Carbon Footprints

JC: NFTs are confusing to many people. Are they art? Receipts for the art? What’s blockchain? What’s a Beeple? While this is confusing, a side effect is the omnipresent side discussion that accompanies this discourse: Climate Change.

NFTs are minted on the cryptocurrency blockchain and that means two things: cryptocurrency has to be mined using a lot of electricity, and servers have to be maintained using a lot of electricity. Allegedly this overall energy expenditure is larger than the entirety of green energy. Regardless, in the face of climate collapse, carbon emissions, ice sheets fracturing and rising oceans, NFTs are spurring discussion for these issues. Climate change is probably the most important discussion to be having right now and the trend of NFTs is raising that awareness.

MK: Controversial, emergent tech as a trail head of arguably more important issues should not be taken for granted. That tech’s environmental impact is top of mind for even just a second now, should not be let go of. According to researchers, the creation of an average NFT has the footprint of +200kg of carbon, which equates to driving 500 miles in a gas car.

Alongside NFT’s, the pandemic has also been a tailwind in this discussion. While, there’s been a +70% increase in internet usage amid the pandemic, 48% of consumers worldwide now say said the pandemic had made them more concerned about the environment. Linking our ethereal online activity to our physical earth is tricky, but necessary. And it’s happening.

Netflix’s carbon footprint in 2020 was 1.1 million metric tons, which doesn’t even include emissions via internet transmission or devices from streamers. Along with Netflix, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon all have made pledges to go neutral in the next 10-20 years. Google has been neutral since 2007.

A great early signal of visualizing the connection between our online behavior and carbon is clothing line, Organic Basic’s “Low-Impact Website.” This minimalistic version of its site eliminates data-heavy videos and editorial photos, opting instead for illustrations, and runs on green energy from Denmark’s windmills. It’s on brands to proactively lean into this trend — otherwise, expect the mobs soon.

Retcon & Overpacked Narratives

JC: The 2020’s are shaping up to be an era of both correctives and consciousness in narrative storytelling. Retcon, or “retroactive continuity,” is the act of repairing temporal or time-situated narratives to better fit the present moment, adding depth, additional awareness and progressive consciousness into the foreground.

Originally stemming in the early 2010’s from sites like Tumblr, the action is now fully engaged on streaming platforms with original programming and purchased syndications. Streaming channels like Disney+ and Apple TV+ present new programming, overloaded with as many social issues as possible without throwing the narrative off track. For purchased syndication, some of the streaming channels are re-thinking how we engaged with media in other eras, adding content tags or encouraging conversation about past behavior. Whether this is a temporary moment or part of a longer trend, it’s apparent that audiences are interested in this elevated narrative style.

MK: The rise in retcon as a result of increased content, particularly reboots, prequels, sequels, and universes — to me — poses a tension between viewer and creator. If by definition retcon is deployed to ensure continuity and keep viewers satisfied, this frequent grasp of control often results in glaring or cringe corrections, doing more harm than good.

I also wonder if retcon endangers fan fiction as now there’s less up for interpretation or the imagination.

Much like there are script supervisors on sets — those who ensure prop, hair or set continuity — there seems to now be a need for universe supervisors. While I haven’t watched, I immediately think of the Saw franchise, whose fans attest various directors didn’t watch previous installments, resulting in countless plot holes.

Further, that there are countless articles and videos outing oversights across the Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon worlds — like the same actor playing different characters — feels like the scrutiny here is only heating up.

Open Community Tools

JC: Clubhouse, Instagram Live, and Twitter Spaces are live, real-time experiences that are presented in an unedited way, but are still a one-to-many broadcast system. By comparison, there’s Discord, akin to Slack, that incorporates a variety of interactive tools. Discord found its space among gamers using it as a backchannel for live-streaming or gaming and later utilized by podcasters to enable realtime chat with the creators — usually as a premium, paid perk for a subscription.

Recently, Sidechannel, a collaboration between eight journalists, has given rise to the multi-community who use Discord like the chatrooms of the 1990s or AIM in the early aughts. The community is empowered to self-organize and create their own space. These interior Discord communities organize watch or reading parties, book clubs and event reactions. It’s many-to-many realtime conversation. The only downside is that with so many online, it can get overwhelming. 

MK: It seems like anyone still hastily copying Clubhouse missed the real opportunity to think like Discord and go beyond the one-to-many dynamic. The Discord approach feels more appealing at this point as there’s something soothing about the “we’re all here, all the time” component. In a moment of increased isolation and desire for spontaneity, knowing that’s there’s always going to people live, online in an interest-based environment is valuable... more so than a handful of “experts” speaking down to an audience. Further, I think people are tired of this hierarchal dynamic where one’s following and social proof determine their status.

To zoom out, I’m optimistic the trend of open platforms rise. More specifically, platforms which don’t inhibit, restrict, curb, or guide “desired” behaviors, but ones which lay out the tools, resources and features that only enable communities to freely self-organize and interact however they wish.