Everything is Kayfabe
And what is not, will soon be.
If there's one word that can explain the present and more importantly, the future more accurately than anything else, that word is “Kayfabe”.
It's an important mental model, perhaps one of the most important ones today, and once you understand the concept of kayfabe, there's no going back.
This essay explores what kayfabe is, what I think the consequences of it growing will be, and in the end, like all great essays, tells you exactly what you can do to take advantage of this phenomenon.
We start with one principle -
EVERYTHING IS KAYFABE. WHAT IS NOT, WILL SOON BE.
That’s the bold claim, and I will use this essay to back it up.
In many ways, this essay can be dangerous if you start labelling everything, like literally everything, as kayfabe. Nothing can fit perfectly into one definition.
But if you're reasonably intelligent, your logical response to everything that you see shouldn't be "It's Kayfabe”. But in case that it is, you'd be more right than wrong, and almost exactly opposite to what the consensus does - and they're more wrong than right.
Like everything in life, there's a balance and there's always some nuance, and kayfabe is one of those topics that's incredibly nuanced because you can't really label something as kayfabe and also totally fake. Because it never is 100% fake. And that's the beauty of kayfabe.
From professional wrestling to culture wars, everything is kayfabe.
From all podcasts to all influencer dramas, everything is kayfabe.
From the state to the network, everything is kayfabe.
Everything is kayfabe and what's not- will soon be.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, what is - kayfabe?
(If you're already familiar with what kayfabe is beyond just the dictionary definition of it, you can skip this section and jump straight into III.)
Kayfabe is a pro-wrestling term - a word that means "fake" or "scripted". Nobody can agree on who came up with the term or why they call it kayfabe, instead of just "scripted" but kayfabe is more nuanced than just something that is scripted.
When something is scripted, as in movies, you know that the thing is fake.
You're aware that everything you're seeing in a movie is 100% fake, and it's all about entertainment.
But kayfabe isn't the same thing as something being 100% scripted. Kayfabe requires you to either consciously or subconsciously suspend disbelief. It's great if it's subconscious - as it often is, but even when it's conscious, when you know something is fake but still continue to pretend that it is real, that's when kayfabe is most powerful.
It might sound like a hard concept to grasp at first. How can you just pretend that something is real, when that thing is clearly fake?
Millions of people who watch wrestling shows like WWE/AEW/NJPW/TNA already do.
Professional Wrestling, also termed as "Sports Entertainment", a multi-billion dollar industry- is entirely scripted. Everybody knows that the WWE matches are scripted, and everybody is in on the joke, and still - it thrives on because it is - and I cannot emphasise this enough - insanely entertaining.
Kids start out believing that it's real, but then realise that it's not, but even then, just like people still watch movies knowing it's scripted, people keep watching wrestling despite knowing that it’s scripted.
But wrestling is not just scripted. It’s kayfabe, and that’s better than it being scripted.
That’s what makes it better than movies and TV shows. In Breaking Bad, no matter how much Bryan Cranston improvises something, Walter White just won't start cooking meth in his free time, but in wrestling, the lines are often blurred.
For example, there was a WWE storyline in the 90s where Kevin Sullivan's wife - Nancy was shown to leave her husband and live with Chris Benoit.
In those days, it was assumed wrestlers never broke character in public, which meant rivals can't be seen together - which meant Nancy & Chris (two actors who are literally acting in public) went out in public together as this storyline was going on, and even shared the same hotel rooms (allegedly).
The storyline ended soon, but Nancy left Kevin for (no surprises here) Chris Benoit soon after this, and married him.
This story didn’t have a happy ending.
If kayfabe wasn't given as much importance, perhaps this entire series of events wouldn't have happened.
Triple H, real name Paul Levesque, current COO of WWE, was married according to a storyline to Stephanie McMahon, the daughter of WWE co-founder Vince McMahon. A few years later, they married for real.
This is not uncommon in movies. Sometimes, actors discover that they're made for each other while shooting a movie and get married in real life. But the difference here is - they don't continue playing their characters from the movie years later - which is exactly what happens in wrestling.
Here’s Stone Cold Steve Austin being pranked for the TV show Punk’d - (Starts at the 14 minute mark)
And if you watch any Stone Cold promo, and the way Stone Cold was talking to the guy in the video, the interactions are almost indistinguishable from the character he plays.
Triple H himself was punished for “breaking kayfabe” in the 90s, when he hugged his opponents after the cameras stopped rolling because they were having their final match in WWE. This moment, known famously as the curtain call moment, was captured with mobile cameras at the time.
Skip to the 15 minute mark of this video to watch the interview (or watch the whole video, it’s a great one) -
In the interview, you can see him referencing that he was punished for hugging his friends. But, who is speaking this? Is it Triple H the character, or Paul Levesque the person?
The honest answer here is - nobody knows. That's what makes wrestling so entertaining. Sure, there are always real life dangers - where wrestlers can and do get injured while in the ring, but the characters they play often don’t remain in the squared circle.
Sometimes, the characters take over. Sometimes, the people take over. Reality is often too strong to ignore, and that’s why kayfabe is so uniquely entertaining.
So, wrestling is kayfabe. What else is?
Our seamless connectivity is the primary reason why kayfabe will continue to increase every where, and we’ll all be happy consumers of it. It has never been easier to manufacture kayfabe, and you don’t even have to be on the same timezone to do it effectively. Everyone will do it, and many have started already.
Brands and corporations were the first ones who figured it out.
There’s a story for who a viral ad is intended for, and a meta-narrative for who it’s actually meant for. A good rule is - if an advertisement occupies your thoughts for more than a minute, it was probably kayfabe. If there’s controversy around it, it was definitely kayfabe.
For example, it is really, really hard to get more than 100 people to talk about Bud Light - but with the right ad, it can become the trending conversation for a whole nation of millions -
“But people were fired over this ad? Surely, that wasn’t planned?”
Who knows? It’s fun to speculate, but think about it - what is the purpose of an advertisement? Looking at the above chart, what is the greatest advertisement Bud Light has ever produced?
Brands like Gillette, Disney, Nike & countless others have followed the same playbook - and the market has responded favorably. As long as you don’t get “cancelled” by your core customer base, there’s profit in every controversy.
And it’s not just brands. The world of podcasting, a revolutionary new space that was supposed to empower independent conversations, is entirely kayfabe.
Every podcast is kayfabe. Surely, you wouldn't go to a podcast where the host is adversarial, and even when they are - there are clear financial motives for it being adversarial.
You don't think things are cut out from the final edit? You don't think questions are pre-discussed, topics are exchanged beforehand? Of course, they are.
You're already talking to someone with the intention of putting out the whole conversation in public - which means, no matter how casually you're speaking with someone, how “raw” you are - there's always the thought of the invisible audience at the back of your head.
You're not there. It's not just you and the other person. It's you, the other person and the whole world. It's all kayfabe.
And remember, it's not all fake. That's the point of kayfabe - that the lines between reality and fakery are often blurred. If you listen to a podcast where the host is adversarial - it's safe to assume that people would stop visiting that podcast unless there are some other incentives at play.
A prime example of this all the masculinity podcasts that bring on female OnlyFans creators, and demean their intelligence & question their worth, leading to short clips that go viral on X accounts like Clown World.
You'd assume that such a podcast wouldn't continue for long, but it's thriving, gaining millions of views every time. Why do the women keep showing up to get berated? The obvious answer to this - is that they're seeing a sharp uptick in their subscribers every time they're going on such shows, and thus, even though the masculinity pods are claiming to liberate men from the shadows of porn addiction to help them work out and make money - in reality, they're doing the opposite.
Tim Ferriss - a guy who I have immense respect for, has one important constraint that he goes for - for everything he creates- which is “What would a CEO of a Fortune 500 company think?” (19 minute mark of this video)
This constraint doesn’t just exist for good ol’ Tim, but every single “brand-friendly” YouTuber & influencer you follow. Brands don’t want their ads next to something that doesn’t repeat the party-line, and they certainly don’t want their ads next to something that can be considered NSFW.
It makes sense, but what does having such constraints do to freedom of expression of individuals as a whole?
Brands are where the $$$ are. It’s how most things remain free, because your attention is what’s being purchased.
However, this does leads to a world where there is no authenticity first - and a homogenous variety of creators later who all repeat the same things.
Behind every advertisement of athletic greens & nordVPN, there’s a subtle admission of defeat - a thankful prayer to the corporations in exchange for the invisible duct tape on your lips.
And it still works. Nobody really cares about what Tim thinks of the Ukraine war, and we’re collectively glad that the forces of kayfabe compels him to stick to his lane.
It's all kayfabe. And you're the happy consumer of it all.
Do you see it yet?
There’s kayfabe everywhere, even where you work. Especially where you work, if it’s a team larger than 15 people.
And corporate kayfabe spreads.
LinkedIn is a weird social media that takes the language of the corporate world and broadcasts it out in public, shamelessly basking in the glory of neutral speech. Corporate speech, something that has been mimetically improved over the years to produce just the right words that's non-confrontational- and yet, says exactly the right things, has flourished because how efficient it is, despite how cringe it all sounds when you hear it for the first time.
"Can you take this on if you have any extra cycles?" Instead of "Do the work. I know you have free time"
Instead of, "I'm quitting because you are a bad manager", it's "I'll be resigning and one of the primary reasons for my departure is the lack of adequate support from the relevant leadership in my department"
Instead of, "I worked hard and got a lot done last year. Where's my raise?," it's "In light of my stellar performance over the past year in which my work has created a considerable positive impact & helped us all achieve our goals, I'd like to discuss what that means for me from a financial perspective."
It's all kayfabe, and the second best place to learn this esoteric language is from LinkedIn - where all the best minds of the corporate machine speak in corp-speak, never offending anyone, never challenging thought beyond what’s “appropriate”, never beyond the norm and always safely within the overton windows.
This is great.
I'm glad we as a species managed to figure out how to navigate the intricacies of human relationships in the cubicle world where status hierarchies are constantly in flux between those who do the work vs those who talk vs those at the right place & at the right time vs those who married their boss's daughter, and so on, and we managed to develop just the right language to keep us working in similar places for 50 years that prevent us all from collectively killing ourselves in the meanwhile.
Corp-speak was inevitable, in many ways. It may be a speech that's layered with lies to make everything neutral, but if you consider every lie as something rotten - eventually the rot has to spread. Just like if you tell a lie, you have to keep telling lies to cover up for that lie, and every lie you say only increases the number of lies you'll say in the future - corp-speak ends up corrupting every institution that lives with it and takes every institution away from the truth.
It can still work. Politeness is always better than being an asshole, but hiding impoliteness in neutral language - “to soften the blow” is rarely a good idea for anyone involved because what starts out as politeness ends up as lies to cover up truth - specifically truth that no one likes to hear.
It doesn't happen automatically. Most of the time, in places where the founder is still in charge, it may not happen at all as there's always that one person who is not afraid to pursue and speak the truth against all odds, but on a long enough time scale, every institution goes through this phase where it's finally all kayfabe.
Politics is a unique institution where everything is literally kayfabe, and one of the reasons why it’s always a few degrees away from the truth. Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota who used to be a WWE wrestler, once claimed that politics is just like pro-wrestling, and that the rivals all go to the same dinners together.
Kayfabe makes sense. While a supporter of the democrat party might want a supporter of the republican party to literally die, the leaders of both parties can be imagined to be very good friends behind the scenes, in the same way as rivalling actors are really “co-workers” who make the movie.
Kayfabe will increase not because it is “good”.
Kayfabe is profitable.
There's a well known Russian game called Werewolf where there's 10+ people, and one of them is a game manager who makes sure that the rules aren't flouted, three are wolves and the rest are villagers. People sit in a circle and play this game, and no one knows who the wolves are. There’s a night phase where everyone has to close their eyes and look down, and the wolves have to coordinate to killing someone, while in the day phase, the villagers have to decide who the wolf was. Even wolves participate in this discussion, pretending to be villagers.
It’s kayfabe, with only one neutral person - the game manager, who see both the wolves and the villagers.
Wolves always win this game, slowly killing off every villager, showing that an uninformed majority will always lose to the informed minority.
Read that again - An uninformed majority will always lose to the informed majority.
In an age of psy-ops, where your attention is the currency, where mass protests can be organised at the drop of a tweet, do you really think that what you and everyone else around you are thinking of is just coincidence or is it because some entity, whether that’s a person or a group or a brand or a corporation or a state wants you think that way?
It is no one’s best interest to keep you fully informed. Rather, it’s the opposite for many.
Are you choosing to allocate your attention somewhere you uniquely want to, or are you allocating it where some entity wants you to? And if you are - what is something that you're not paying attention to? What is something that no one is? Where is the algorithm not leading you?
There’s a plethora of great movies, books and music out there - more than you’ll be able to finish in this lifetime. Is the latest documentary that is “very controversial” worth your attention? Or is the discourse about the “current thing” worth your time and attention?
As kayfabe becomes more and more known, I predict that people - people who are often just mini-institutions & incorporated entities like YouTubers or writers, or simple influencers, will all leverage kayfabe.
Here are some of my predictions of what will definitely happen as kayfabe, or even the fuzzy concept of it, start becoming more mainstream -
People will be cancelled in kayfabe. Some might even pay to be cancelled, like a wealthy person who might wilfully orchestrate their own cancellation - just to find out who their true friends are and weed out those who aren't ride or die.
It might not even be cancellation, but just a “downfall”, just like heroes in every movie go through a phase where they’re suffering, people will manufacture this reality and they will manufacture their comeback. Letting everyone else decide their fate is inherently inefficient, and smart and capable people will figure out how to manufacture repeated Hero’s Journey character arcs of themselves to the public.
Cancellation mobs will themselves be weaponised, led to cancel their own idol, only to find out later that it was all kayfabe. Those quick to cancel are inherently the kind of people who don’t do their own thinking. If anything causes a heightened emotional reaction, its always a great idea to analyze both sides, but cancellation mobs consist of midwits who see this, often subconsciously, as a means to signal virtue. Harmless tweets of “Thoughts and prayers” are fine, but “showing support” to perpetually self-proclaiming victims is not. Thus, midwits are most vulnerable to kayfabe, and they’ll continue believing that things aren’t kayfabe just like the 6 year old who continues watching wrestling thinking it’s all real.
Everyone else will know it’s all kayfabe, but continue enjoying it all the same.
Psyops will be stacked. Multiple kayfabe dramas that compete for your attention, all juicy and exciting, all manufactured to distract from the important yet uninteresting truth, will proliferate. There might even exist studios and corporations built for the sole purpose of manufacturing these. Some exist today, known as PR agencies, but a superior “truer” form will emerge - even though it just might be known by a less radical name.
YouTubers will take full advantage of this.
Non-consensual collaboration will rise - the kind of collaboration between a lesser known YouTuber and a large YouTuber where the large YouTuber doesn't give their consent but the smaller YouTuber rallies their audience to spam the larger YouTuber anyway. In kayfabe, this might just be all planned by both YouTubers and there might be a rivalry, a rap battle, a boxing match, and in the end, everyone wins - even their combined audience who will enjoy every second. Some of them might doubt it, some might even see through it, but they'll still buy the pay-per-view ticket.
Dramas will be manufactured. Everything that stirs emotion will be engineered carefully, in gated discords and X group chats. There will be internal fights and invisible power struggles. You’ll only see the finished product.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see something real. Phrases like he/she “broke character” will become common.
The internet will help breed a new reality and we'll all love it.
The cyberspace will thus accelerate kayfabe. It’s happening now. As more wake up, it’ll continue to mature.
And there's nothing you can do other than enjoy it.
Well, there's actually two things you can do.
Like every trend, you can choose to stay ahead. While knowing what's kayfabe, what could be kayfabe, and what's definitely kayfabe are indispensable concepts, creating kayfabe is more powerful.
Staying ahead of the curve is an advantage.
No matter what industry you're in, you're already likely doing it. Likely partaking in it, likely promoting it, and likely creating it & consuming it already.
Now, go ahead and actively create it.
Kayfabe is an art. Master it, and be an artist.
Consciously, creating kayfabe for good, you can excel and do it better than those who are not - so it is not morally wrong. Because you know how it works, and can train people to know how it works - you won’t be fooling yourself in believing lies, which is one of the only drawbacks of kayfabe.
If you feel like it's fake, and not fake in the same way like you're different people to different people, but fake in the same as deceitful - as lying to people, then by all means- understand that you can do it and be as transparent as possible.
Tomorrow, you can adopt a catchphrase for yourself - or your online persona.
From "World's greatest moderator", to "Zero cost to consumer scientific information" to “Top G” to “Learn to code” there's already several out there. As long as you treat your kayfabe as art, nothing's stopping you from treating your public persona, or pseudonymous public personas, as characters.
Here's a step-by-step toolkit -
Step 1 : Decide who you want to let in. Who are the characters who should be playing their part? The best plan is to just do it solo. The fewer uncontrollable variables, the better. The lower you can take certainty, the better.
Step 2 : If you've let others in, make the end state clear. Regardless of what happens in-between, both of you (or everyone in your group) should have your own version of the safe word. Kayfabe can and will veer into reality. What's off bounds will not remain off-bounds. What's the end state? What's the goal? Is it more eyeballs? More money? Just a story? Define it, and make sure it concludes.
Step 3: The goal is to be a main character that makes others the main character. In a world where everyone's trying to be the main character, you as the creator of kayfabe have to make sure there is escapism for the audience. The audience has to relate. They have to care about what's being created, and they have to feel like if they replaced you with themselves - they'd imagine that happening.
Step 4: Stay consistent. If you decide to play a character that's well versed in quantum electrodynamics, you can't go to a podcast and fail to derive a simple formula. Your character is you. You're just not playing a movie when your life's one.
Step 5: Don’t be afraid to look stupid. Don’t be afraid of being a laughing stock. Bigger is the man who is willing to look like a fool in front of the crowd that he’s trying to win over. Any character you play will have moments where you’re pushed against the wall, when it’s simply easier to just display your intelligence or technical prowess to shut up the critics. That often ruins the story you’re trying to create.
That’s all. The last point is an important one as it also highlights how you can choose to not partake in kayfabe - which might make for a boring existence, but probably a more fulfilling one- Be technically great.
If you’re a mathematician, programmer, scientist, or just anyone working on sufficiently hard problems, you probably don’t care about the emergent civilizational games that everyone’s playing. That’s good, but I still think that the characters you hide can find an audience if you take the kayfabe to the screen - as many have surely done in your field alone.
To be great, is to be a master of all arts. Kayfabe is one of the greatest arts of our generation as a whole.
Everything is kayfabe. What is not, will soon be.
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