Snoopy was everywhere when I was growing up, in the early 2000s. On TV, the cartoon beagle appeared as a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and starred in the holiday specials my family watched; in real life, his statues were all over Saint Paul, Minnesota, a hometown I share with the Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. After I left for college, Snoopy largely disappeared from my life. But recently, I’ve started encountering him all over again, on social media.
The TikTok account @snooopyiscool, also known as Snoopy Sister, went viral earlier this year and has more than half a million followers. Other Snoopy videos on the app regularly rack up thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of views. This online resurgence, primarily among young people, has mostly been fueled by short, shareable Peanuts clips set to surprisingly apt contemporary music. In them, Charlie Brown’s intrepid pet beagle tags along on the kids’ adventures—they often face some sort of problem but aren’t always left with an easy solution. Sometimes Snoopy is a help, and sometimes he’s a hindrance; other times, he’s on his own adventures. Regardless, Snoopy has always been defined in part by how emotional he is. Some fans say that his personality speaks to their inner child: He plays pretend and dreams big, while finding joy in little wins such as receiving a full bowl of food. But Snoopy’s grand feelings also reflect his existential side—a reminder of the comic’s original gloomy tone, the perception of which was softened and sanitized over subsequent decades. It seems that a new generation is finally seeing Snoopy for who he really is.
Despite featuring an adorable dog and his rich fantasy life, Peanuts always had bleak philosophical themes. In the early years of the strip, which first ran in 1950, cultural critics called Schulz a “pop existentialist,” according to Blake Scott Ball, a history professor at Huntingdon College and the author of Charlie Brown’s America: The Popular Politics of Peanuts. The comic “was about the difficulty of existing as a regular human being in the 20th century … just how hard it is to handle the immensity of problems that faced us, and hold all that together with your daily concerns,” Ball told me. Schulz posed serious questions in his stories—about armed conflict, for example, in the era of acute atomic-bomb fears and the beginning of the Vietnam War—but left the answers unclear. In one scene, Snoopy wears his aviator outfit and compares being trapped in his doghouse to being imprisoned.
A few years ago, advertisements for a software service named Monday.com seemed to be suddenly everywhere online. This ubiquity didn’t come cheap. An S.E.C. filing revealed that the product’s developers had spent close to a hundred and thirty million dollars on advertising in 2020 alone, which amounted to roughly eighty per cent of the company’s annual revenue. The resulting blitz generated more than seven hundred and twenty-two million views on Monday.com’s YouTube channel—an audience larger than the preceding four Super Bowls combined.
This outsized investment makes sense when you consider the changes that have taken place in the productivity-software market. Monday.com claims to help knowledge workers collaborate better: “Boost your team’s alignment, efficiency, and productivity by customizing any workflow to fit your needs.” This objective might sound dry in our current moment of flashy social apps and eerie artificial intelligence, but helping organizations manage their workflows has proved to be surprisingly lucrative. Trello, one of the early success stories from this category, was launched in 2011 as a side project by an independent software developer. In 2017, it was purchased by Atlassian for four hundred and twenty-five million in cash and stock. Another workflow-management service, named Wrike, subsequently sold for $2.25 billion. For its part, Monday.com went on to leverage the user growth generated by its advertising push to support a successful I.P.O. that valued the company at over seven billion dollars.
What’s striking about this new generation of productivity software is not so much what it does, but what it doesn’t do. Until recently, most business applications focussed on providing faster and more powerful versions of the tools that knowledge workers were already using to accomplish their daily tasks—electronic spreadsheets were better than paper accounting ledgers, e-mail is better than fax machines. The new productivity services, by contrast, can’t be used to directly execute work. Their purpose is instead to help better organize these efforts. Monday.com allows you to arrange “items,” described by various properties such as “status” or “percentage complete,” onto “boards.” You can then visualize the work described by these boards in various useful formats. Trello offers something similar, capturing items on virtual cards that can be dragged around into different vertical stacks. One stack might contain the tasks a team still needs to handle, while another might contain those already accomplished.
What do “arpeggiated synths and light-up dancefloor grooves” sound like, exactly? MusicLM has an answer.
Over my 15-year career as a music critic, I’ve devoted thousands of hours to the art of translating music, imperfectly, into words. Now, thanks to an AI tool from Google called MusicLM, I can translate words, imperfectly, into music.
The results can be startling.
For fun, I tried feeding in some prompts from Pitchfork’s album reviews. Here are just a few words that a writer recently used to describe a song: “arpeggiated synths and light-up dancefloor grooves.” Simple, right? Effective. You can almost hear it. Well, actually, you can hear it:
Like many instructors, Janani Umamaheswar occasionally checks Rate My Professors to monitor her course reviews. The site offers a loose barometer of how you are doing as a teacher, especially early in a career in academia. Since users post anonymously, including criticisms and rants, the site can also become a fount of anxiety.
When negative reviews do appear, any professor might speculate: How often are people checking my page? Could this reflect poorly on my future employment? And in particular, who posted the criticism? They might run down the mental list of students who received low grades or did not get a requested extension or rarely spoke in class. They might wonder if a user is even a former student or if they ever took their class at all. After all, the anonymous nature of Rate My Professors means there is no surefire way to verify or screen people who write reviews.
Until 2019, most comments under Umamaheswar’s profile on the site had been positive. Or at least constructive. She had been on a tenure track for four years at her previous university. But that winter, Umamaheswar, then an assistant professor in sociology at Southern Connecticut State University, began noticing strange remarks: “Textbook only discusses crimes of the poor. I get discriminated against all semester. I felt like I was in Germany in the 1930s with my grandparents,” read one, with a class rating of “awful” and a score of one out of five. More comments followed into early 2020: “This is the worst professor I’ve ever had.”
Some reviews on her profile seemed particularly off-kilter: One claimed that Umamaheswar had been dishonest about going to school in Canada. (She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Toronto.) Another alleged that Umamaheswar had a “tyrannical authoritarian ideology” and accused her of “discrimination against students with prior substance abuse histories.” (She had no idea what this referred to, and as a woman of color, she made intentional efforts to make her classrooms feel safe and inclusive.)
We were on the patio of a middling Los Angeles taqueria when Ursus Magana tried to talk me out of writing this story. A hirsute fireplug of a man with a slew of anime tattoos, Magana wasn’t worried that I’d spill any awful secrets. In the months since I’d first messaged him on Instagram, he’d been endlessly candid about his life as a talent manager for emo rappers, goth TikTokkers, and OnlyFans creators. He just thought I was wasting my time on a project that seemed unlikely to excite the social media algorithms that mean everything in his world. “Do you know how hard it is for an article to go viral?” he warned. “I mean, articles never go viral.”
Perhaps fearing he’d bummed me out by implying that my career was pointless, Magana put off eating his last brisket taco to whip up a blueprint for how he would guide me to stardom. It started with me ditching journalism to focus on churning out daily TikToks in which I’d offer tips about storytelling. Magana’s talent management startup, 25/7 Media, would ensure eyeballs for this content by enlisting its 60-plus clients to drive traffic my way. Once I’d built a decent fan base, 25/7 would produce a weekly podcast featuring my candid conversations with up-and-coming digital creators. I’d then parlay that success into a “big swing”: a how-to book or Netflix series that would land me a spot on The Tonight Show and a lucrative endorsement deal with, say, a manufacturer of ballpoint pens.
I’m enough of a realist to know Magana was flattering me and that I’m much too boring to pull off any of what he proposed. But he delivered his pitch with such confidence, such zeal, that a dreamy little piece of me couldn’t help but see myself telling witty anecdotes on Jimmy Fallon’s couch. And when I caught myself flirting with that fantasy, I grasped how a genuinely talented young artist must feel when Magana lays out his plan for making them the richest person in their family by the age of 19.
Magana and his colleagues at 25/7 have made good on that grandiose promise enough times to prove that, despite any semi-delusional schemes for my future, they know what they’re talking about. In an entertainment industry still dazed by the chaos of digital platforms, Magana has emerged as a fairly reliable rainmaker.
The creator economy is projected to be worth $480 billion by 2027. In many ways, that figure represents an enormous redistribution of wealth: a tide of ad dollars and other revenue ebbing away from established studios and publishers, and flooding toward individual creators and the technology giants that host their work. But the corporations are the only ones on a secure footing in this arrangement. If individual creators want to stay afloat for longer than a brief moment, they still need managers to help them navigate the algorithmic churn.