In the early 1970s, the beloved counterculture figure Hunter S. Thompson embraced the term Gonzo Journalism to describe his unique style of gritty, oddball writing. He borrowed the term ‘gonzo’ from editor Bill Cardoso, who explained it was a local Boston term synonymous with weird or bizarre. Going back further, the word appeared in various European languages with definitions ranging from goose to rude to fool.
This August, author Chris Guillebeau, known for his best-selling book The $100 Start-up, will release his newest work of nonfiction, Gonzo Capitalism: How to Make Money in an Economy That Hates You. In it, he details how younger generations are abandoning traditional employment and entrepreneurship in favor of carving out niche livelihoods within the decentralized environ of digital commerce that allow them to maintain more control over their lives. For those entrenched in the traditional economy, these creative, unorthodox methods often seem weird and foreign, hence Gonzo Capitalism.
From independent online punditry, to OnlyFans’ democratization of porn, to the sort of renegade investment strategies used in the Game Stop short squeeze of 2021, there is no doubt there has been a rise in the unconventional entrepreneurialism Guillebeau describes. However, what goes up must come down, so let’s take a look at the pros and cons of forging a unique path in today’s marketplace.
The Post-Pandemic World
Prior to Covid and the havoc it wreaked on local, national and global economies, the shift away from traditional professions was already a growing trend. Whether you chalk it up to the sludge of late-stage capitalism or the disruption of the marketplace brought on by the digital revolution, one thing is clear: People were already beginning to awaken to the reality of the minefield that is conventional employment and were choosing to instead, embrace a new, digitally based self-reliance.
Then came the lockdown. Small businesses across the country were shuttered, many to never reopen again, much of the remainder employing measures of extreme austerity just to hang on. Meanwhile, corporations thrived—especially those in the business of the armchair shopping experience. Online retailer and corporate megalodon, Amazon.com grew by 220%. The traditional realms of American entrepreneurialism were being devoured outright while those of us fortunate enough to keep our jobs barely batted an eye. We had our government checks to buy our bright, shiny things from Amazon. Thank you, Jeff Bezos.
But amid the carnage came a new birth—or at the very least, a coming of age for this fledgling reboot of entrepreneurialism.
Mass unemployment. Boredom. Internet access. These were apparently the elements required to take this new avenue of commerce described first in The Icarus Deception and now again in Gonzo Capitalism from the fringe to the center of culture. Brick and mortar nearly died, but the independent spirit lived on to fight another day, albeit more chaotically than ever. Foulmouthed gamers bested the sharks of Wall Street at their own game. Musicians held concerts from their living rooms. Journalists left the networks for Substack. A gal in Texas (who shall remain nameless) made a fistful of cash selling snaps of her feet to creeps on Reddit. In the new paradigm, the person became the product; the product retained control of its own means, and it sold itself directly to its target audience. No middlemen, no producers, no filters. Actually, strike the last one. There were a lot of filters.
However, if the pandemic taught us one thing, it is that everything we think is stable and safe may be crushed under new conditions at any moment. While it might be hard to imagine how another pandemic or global market disruption could upend something like getting paid to play video games for an audience, it must be considered as a possibility. While Gonzo Capitalism is itself a smart strategy in the new world, specific business models should be viewed as vulnerable to the ever-looming unknowns lurking in the future.
Pander or Perish
Since this new form of digital entrepreneurialism relies upon an audience receptive to novelty and uniqueness, it has a strong opponent in the psychology of a digital world. Human beings began developing social strategies long before we were human beings. These strategies included validation and affirmation, which strengthened social bonds. However, these strategies were not developed in a social environment which could rapidly distort the economics of validation and affirmation. Social media has created a new type of tribalism, in which easily given and received affirmation and validation have distorted the functions of those social strategies.
One major consequence of these perturbations in our social framework is an increase in conformity. When it becomes too easy to get the validation and affirmation we all require, the tendency to join groups of people who are predisposed towards one’s ideas and beliefs increases, while the benefits of maintaining a unique self diminish. This leads to feedback loops of validation and affirmation which threaten to strangle uniqueness and novelty, without which, the strategies of these digital autonomists will either perish or be consumed by larger business interests.
You have undoubtedly pondered the threat which artificial intelligence poses for human productivity, but for the digital creator, there is yet another threat, and that is AI’s ability to produce so much unimaginatively generated content that it obscures everything else. Think of it like this:
You have a library containing a thousand books. Most of those books present relatively normative information, and only a small percent contain the sort of uniqueness and novelty required to expand your perspective. Let’s be generous and say the latter is about ten percent. This is not a big deal, because it is entirely possible you will read all one thousand books, and thus absorb the uniqueness and novelty of the one hundred outliers in your library. But what happens when your library grows to ten thousand books? How about a million? At some point, as your library grows, it becomes possible you will never encounter any of the ten percent of books that shift perspective and catalyze personal evolution.
Herein lies the problem with handing content creation over to a semi-sentient machine. Arguably, it will eventually spew out so much repetitive work that the sheer noise of it will drown out everything else, including the work of this new caste of digital creators. Artificial intelligence doesn’t just threaten to replace us; it has the potential to drown us in a sea of sameness.
In an economy which is increasingly dictated by an increasing aversion to risk, a neurotic development which is antithetical to capitalism, the digital entrepreneur who is willing to take big chances stands to benefit to varying degrees of success. But the shifting sands of technology, economy and social paradigms provide no certainty. It is therefore essential that those working outside of traditional market norms remain flexible, adaptable and willing to diversify under the ever-increasingly rapid developments of the modern world.
The explosion of innovation and continually shifting legal paradigms this industry has seen over the last two decades has taught the players here to always stay on their toes, and avoid getting too comfortable with any specific model. This emergent sector of influencers, creators and self-employed digital nomads, AKA, Gonzo Capitalism, can provide a fresh perspective on how they might expand their methods and strategies, but it is also a harbinger of how even great new ideas can quickly become obsolete or create unexpected liabilities. To keep up in this world requires eschewing the comfort of familiarity and adopting a willingness, nay passion, for considering the bigger picture and being able to imagine possibilities, both favorable and detrimental to one’s business and personal pursuits.