The History and Social (Media) Influence of the Cheese Sandwich


Being some thoughts after reading Fred Wilson’s The Big Five of Social Media and Mocked and Misunderstood. With thanks and apologies to Redcliffe N. Salaman, author of a fantastic book.

Shortly after Fred posted the two items linked above (both of which you should review now if you haven’t already), I found myself with a couple of hours of driving time in a car full of sleeping family. It was dark and quiet, and in my post-holiday daze I came to realize that I see the two posts as linked, though they may or may not have been intended as such.

Not to bury the lede too deep, I realized that Fred’s big five actually cover two distinct eras of “social media;” further, both eras were mocked and misunderstood in their day — as is a new generation today — and there’s an obvious reason for it: cheese sandwiches.

So let’s begin. Allow me to present the big five (plus two) of social media, in cheese sandwich terms.

The Big Five Plus Two:

Blogs: “Today I ate a cheese sandwich, and it brought the feelings I’ve been having into perspective. First…”

YouTube: [Video of someone making a cheese sandwich while rapping about it.]

Facebook: “Emma just ate her first cheese sandwich!!!”

Twitter: “So hungry. Cheese sandwich FTW! #cheesesandwich #ftw”

Tumblr: [Picture that a good photographer took of a cheese sandwich, attribution lost somewhere in the first 1,482 reblogs.]

Foursquare: [I’m at a restaurant that serves cheese sandwiches.]

Kickstarter: “I would like to hand-deliver a cheese sandwich to every resident of Lost Springs, Wyoming.”

[Editor’s note: if you choose to make up your own cheese sandwich entries for Geocities and pre-music-explosion MySpace, I won’t try to stop you.]

The Big Five and the Eras

Blogs and YouTube belong to an early, barely recognizable, era of “social media.” With the benefit of hindsight, what was being established was that someone with a reasonable amount of talent (and/or luck) could find an audience online.

I myself had a few hundred people reading an earlier incarnation of this very blog in the early ‘oughts, despite an erratic posting schedule and a habit of drinking heavily before sitting down to write. We were learning that — while it helps, a lot — it doesn’t take a massive organization to create something that will interest an online audience. You, a person, can make something that interests other people.

Twitter and Tumblr belong to a later era, when we were (or perhaps still are) learning that someone with a reasonable assortment of interests can find a community online.

On these services I follow, and am followed by, people I don’t expect to ever meet in person, but with whom I share interests, obsessions, or possibly just an aesthetic that I can’t quite define. I don’t create everything that I toss into the pool for this community, but I share it in the belief that it will spark something in this self-selected group.

Facebook I’m less sure about. While it certainly deserves its slot in the top five, Facebook seems to have taught us that the membrane between offline and online is rather more permeable than some of us thought, both for better and for worse.

Or maybe that’s just me.

In any case, Facebook is an interesting blend of the two eras, and time will tell whether sitting on the fence between online and offline is a benefit or a detriment to Facebook in the long term. [Editor’s note: you remember that Facebook has existed for less than eight years, right?]

The Mocking and the Misunderstanding

So finally we get to the really interesting part: the common thread across all of these services is that they’re about people. Sure, YouTube broke out with an SNL video, and corporate content plays a significant role these days, but double rainbows and firecrackers stuck places that god never intended are still huge, and the ability to upload your own dumbass video keeps it going day to day.

And that’s the thing: any consumer online tool or service that isn’t immediately and directly focused on extracting money from its users and audience is going to be slapped with the cheese sandwich label.

Consider that Pinterest (and Svpply, maybe possibly) may escape the mockery, because it’s pretty clear how they could extract money from people, even if they’re not doing it yet.┬áBut you take a look at Foursquare and Kickstarter and the cheese sandwich catcalls start up almost immediately, because these services are more focused on people doing things than on people paying for things.

This is particularly amusing because I strongly believe that Foursquare and Kickstarter have much better potential to make significant amounts of money in the medium and long term than many other popular services out there today. Even doing the basic Kickstarter arithmetic suggests that they’re already doing better on cash flow than many other “hot” startups.

As was pointed out by many commenters on Fred’s post, being mocked and misunderstood certainly doesn’t correlate particularly strongly to being a huge success as a company. Just remember to consider the fact that the many facets of cheese sandwiches can be worth money to a lot of people.