I have a half-developed idea that the world nowadays lives more second-order than it used to.

I started thinking this when pondering a curious fact – when you ask people how the economy is doing, the majority of people say it’s doing poorly. But when you ask how people are doing personally, they say they’re doing well. There’s a disconnect between how people personally feel and how they feel like things are going in general. This disconnect extends to the business level also – you ask business owners how the climate is and they say it’s terrible, but you ask them how they see the outlook for their own businesses and they say it’s good. It’s weird. Paul Krugman rails against this a lot (most recently here), attributing it partly to Fox News focusing on fear-mongering and exclusively negative reporting. There’s probably a little to that, but I also think it’s more complex. I think nowadays a lot of us don’t base our opinions on how things are going for us, but how we perceive it to be going for other people. And because of social media, we get a lot of impressions about how other people feel. Which is in some sense logical – the entirety of others’ feelings says more about the collective than my own. But if what everyone shares is how they think other people feel, you have this weird second-order society that’s based on the perception of what others think, not one’s experience.

To me, crypto is the apotheosis of second-order. It blows my mind a bit how much Bitcoin has come back but whatever, this is not a judgment on Bitcoin itself. What is incontrovertible is that there are no fundamentals to crypto – its price is purely based on what people think other people think of it. It’s pure second order value.

It’s happening with sports also. Derek Thompson brought this earlier this year on the Bill Simmons Podcast where he observed that with his own sports following, he reads and listens to sports media much more than he actually watches sports. It’s interesting enough to post a transcript:

“I probably listen to hundreds of hours of NBA podcasts every year. Do you know how much basketball I watch before May? Like probably 20 minutes. This year at my best friend’s bachelor party we watched the 4th quarter of a Knicks game at our AirBnB in Florida – that’s it. So I was doing the math on this and I was like my consumption of professional basketball is 100 hours of Ringer podcasts about basketball to every 20 minutes of watching the actual NBA. That’s a 300 to 1 ratio of analysis to actual sporting events. And on reflection I was like this is kind of psychotic behavior. It’s totally counterintuitive, I can’t even explain it to myself. In one interview I said it’s kind of like the NBA is a piece of audio gossip for me, it’s like a reality show that lives in my ears for six months that transforms into a live sport every spring.

And if this is common – and I get the sense that it is kind of common that a lot of people have this kind of relationship with sports – I wonder what it means for the economics of sports media from a consumer standpoint. Because there’s a way in which I am not actually NBA fan. I am a Ringer podcast network fan who becomes an NBA fan for the playoffs. And I don’t know how this cashes out for some sports wherein people become dependent on and reliant on analysis for their entertainment but they don’t actually watch the underlying product. Like how – if you’re Adam Silver – do you deal with the fact that attention to and enthusiasm for the NBA might be going up up up up up but ratings are barely budging. It’s a really bizarre phenomenon and so this mismatch I find more common and Incredibly interesting where people are becoming sports fans without consuming the sport.”

That’s really interesting and really true. I myself spend more time consuming sports analysis than sports itself. Kids these days (the ones who follow sports at all instead of video games) don’t watch a lot of sports, they follow stuff from highlights on TikTok or YouTube or wherever. Even the kids that play video games, I think many of them watch gaming streams more than they play the games themselves. They’re all second order experiences, experiences about experience rather than the experience itself.

Why is this happening and what’s it all mean? No clue. But it’s really odd to me.

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