Elixis Technology

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AI Isn’t The Thing Killing Artist Jobs, And It’s Not A Replacement For Them Either

Elizabeth Technology November 8, 2022

Picture that you’re a carpenter. You’re designing a long desk for a client. They want it made out of mahogany, and they want it to be solid. Preferably, they’d like it to be 70’s style. They don’t want the edge to still have the bark on it. You quote them for the time and materials going into the project, and they start backpedaling. Your expertise costs too much for them, and there’s a machine making tables out there for 50$ a pop. Sure, it’s not the right wood, it’s not solid wood, it wiggles, and if you want to order another one it’s going to be different from the first one because the results are very inconsistent, it also snatches designs (with questionable legality) from other carpenters to mash into this mess, including designs that leave knots in strange places in the veneer – but it’s only 50$. If you look closer, it’s not even sanded – it doesn’t know what sanding is, it just knows “tables are smooth” so the sanding is someone else’s job once the machine understands the table to be ‘smooth’ by its own metrics, some of which the end requestor can’t see. It’s using veneer to make this table, though. It’s difficult to sand without punching through. The customer doesn’t know how hard fixing it is going to be.

None of this makes the machine’s table as good as the table you could make, but because the machine is there and it looks functional, upper management (that doesn’t understand the problems with it) are using it to justify haggling for an insultingly low fee from you, the skilled tradesperson, because “a machine is going to take your job if you charge too much”… even though this same thing happened with cheap, overseas sweatshop labor that promised mediocre products at an incredibly cheap price, and it didn’t poof your job out of existence then. They aren’t convinced of your worth, so you guess the machine won. You can’t make the table at that rate without losing money. Their strange table arrives, upper management pretends to be happy because there’s a bit of pride involved, and everyone is slightly unhappier than they would have been if a machine had never been lumped in with human carpenters or posited as a replacement. This machine has screwed up the calculus that goes into ordering tables, because it does in fact make tables, but it takes a human touch to make them really good and exactly like you wanted. Heck, even those poor folks machining IKEA furniture could make something better, albeit at 80$. No, the machine is dirt cheap, and so it won.

Some companies may take note and go with a human carpenter, some may not – either way, this machine is not the death of carpentry. It’s changed the environment, and human carpenters will once again have to prove their worth in the face of industrialization, but it’s far from the end.

This is what’s happening with AI art.

It’s not as communicative as real artists, it’s not capable of building an unusual or interesting scene the same way people are (it is essentially creating an average out of everything it’s been fed in order to meet your prompt). If you like what you got but you want something tweaked, good luck; you’re not going to get the same picture twice with just the stuff you wanted fixed out of an AI. It’s inconsistent to a fault. It also can’t produce a new style that isn’t composed of other styles. ‘Every style is made of other styles’ you may say – yes, but not like this. Rothko, Monet, and Klimt may all be pulling from old masters, but you’d be really stretching it to say they’re all alike. AI, as it stands right now, can’t make a new style the way artists can. Is it possible for a machine to produce something new off of terabytes of harvested data? Maybe – but not today. Not tomorrow, either.

And yet, some are heralding it as the end of the traditional artist because it sometimes spits out stuff that looks good, just don’t look at the hands or teeth. AI art is not what’s killing art jobs, it’s the companies that mistake the AI for a cheap ticket out of paying for labor that are killing art jobs. When they realize what they’re getting, they’ll have a choice to make – go back to paying the artists, or settle for slightly uncanny, difficult-to-standardize art made by AI.

Some will go for the worse product, and some will not. The future is unpredictable, and maybe the wobbly table machine gets much better, maybe it doesn’t, maybe it starts charging a fee to use, etc. Humans may not be able to do it as cheaply, but they’re at least promising some sort of quality and consistency, and they can respond to minor and major tweak requests without redoing the entire piece.  

The AI art does not win by default just for existing.

Qwerty Board – Why?

Elizabeth Technology November 3, 2022

The Typewriter

A typewriter works (roughly) like this: you press a key. On the other side of the keyboard, a key hammer, via a series of internal springs and levers, lifts to the paper. Right before it does, a ribbon with ink on it is pushed up by mechanisms inside of the machine, tied to the ones you’re activating when you hit the keys, and the end of the key hammer smacks the ink, imprinting it into the paper in the same shape as the hammer’s head, which is the same as the key you pressed.

Does this sound complicated? It is! And all of it is purely mechanical.

Initially, the typewriter’s keys were laid out in two rows, alphabetically. The design had some small updates, but it had one very consistent, very annoying issue – striking two keys next to each other with too small of a gap between the key presses meant those keys would hit each other and get stuck, which was annoying to stop and fix. The Qwerty board not only separated the most commonly used letters to avoid the keys getting stuck, it also did so in order to slow down the typist. The first iteration of the keyboard was too efficient to use efficiently!

The New Keyboard

There’s a term for using old designs for new items, or why we kept the qwerty keyboard even as computer keyboards removed the mechanical issue at the heart of qwerty design – it’s known as a skeuomorph! Skeuomorphs are items that take design features from older versions of themselves to make the newer version less confusing, scary, or difficult to learn. For example, the first phones with buttons arranged the buttons in a circle to make the transition easier from the old rotary phones.

Typists of the time were used to qwerty, and so qwerty is what ended up on the electronic keyboards in front of the first consumer computers. Specialist keyboards like stenography machines and split kinesis boards are entirely different beasts and developed on different evolutionary pathways.

Alternate Layouts

Dvorak is interesting, and the most common letters are in the home row, so the hands travel less while typing. Despite this, it’s not significantly faster – it forces the typist to use both hands on almost every word, and takes practice just like Qwerty.

Colemak keyboards are much the same, in a different orientation. Even more of the typing takes place on the home row on a Colemak keyboard, so much so that it might be a disadvantage!

This leads to the Workman keyboard, which is designed not to be mostly on the home row and instead, the keys are clustered together according to commonality – this results in less movement than the Colemak keyboard. While less space between keys sounds like it would lead to less movement, it doesn’t! Not with home-row centered typing. The H + E combo on the Colemak in particular was awkward to hit. The ‘E’ key is in about the same location as the ‘K’ key is on a Qwerty board. With a bit more space between the most commonly-typed-together letters, the Workman keyboard is quickly picking up a fandom.

For now, though, Qwerty is the default!

Algorithm Hook-Mush

Elizabeth Technology November 1, 2022

An inability to see the words for what they are instead of ‘hooks’ has led to a bizarre scattering of videos asking questions to nobody in particular. Algorithms encourage it.

“Why is Nobody Talking About….?”

This, as an opening line for a video, is fine in a vacuum. But it’s not applicable to every situation: “Why is Nobody Talking About [This Thing]?” implies that knowledge of the mystical “Thing” is common and there’s just not a lot of discussion around it. If this is how you introduce the concept, that’s why nobody is talking about it.

For example – a video is circulating around TikTok about ‘mini loaf pan lasagna’. It’s a mishmash of different ideas that have been around a minute, sure (using zucchini instead of noodles, using a smaller pan to make the lasagna, using a bread pan specifically) but this exact mix of ideas hasn’t spawned before. Cool, the video serves as a proof of concept that you can really alter a lasagna to the point of being nearly unrecognizable and it will still be, in spirit, a lasagna. However. The video starts off by asking why ‘nobody is talking about mini loaf pan lasagna.’ They’re not talking about it because A) the person making the video may as well have just invented it, and B) despite being a constellation of ‘alternative lasagnas’ crammed into one being, the final product does not introduce new ideas. While I’m sure it was a fine meal, it’s not virally stylish. It’s just food. In a real sense, it doesn’t do anything worth talking about, and that’s fine! It’s easy, attainable food, and it doesn’t need to be a discussion topic for a bunch of random strangers online.

Good places to use this hook are places where there’s either serious revelations, ideas or themes that get overlooked in discussion of the thing, or places where it makes sense that you ‘should’ have heard about it but nobody in the media at large is discussing it. For example – Puerto Rico has had a brutal monsoon season and the entire island is without power as of September, 2022. Why is nobody talking about it? Or, if you’re sick of disaster news and want industry gossip for TV shows instead, the Amazon LOTR reboot is absolutely riddled with flaws, because they rely on non-union labor to produce the costumes, to work the camera equipment, to write the script, to style the hair and create the incorrectly lit CGI monsters, etc. and it all looks horrible! All of it looks rushed beyond belief because there’s no unions to set reasonable timeframes! Why is nobody talking about that?  Why does the GoT prequel suck up all the fantasy discussion?

You can’t just use this hook willy-nilly. Hooks have to make sense in context! Similar hooks are “Y’all don’t want to talk about…” or “…but we won’t talk about that,” which are usually set ups for debates in the comments (which is good for content interaction metrics). This, like the “nobody is talking about…” hook, relies on A) the discussion item being common knowledge and B) the discussion item being debatable in a way that’s not going to go nuclear in the comments. Or blow up in the poster’s face.

A Simple Sentence. And a Statement Regarding a Quality of the First One.

Notice that some sites have developed a formula for their headlines? Usually, it’s two simple sentences. If I were to apply it here, the title of this article would be something like: “TikTok Posters Are Using The Same Hooks. Online Magazines are Starting to do the Same.”  

This headline is great at conveying news about things like studies, where the second sentence can build off the first. “A Study Found Cats Love Catnip. That’s Great News for Catnip Companies”. Or, it can notice a trend in a market place: “We’ve Reached Peak Wellness. Most of it Is Nonsense.” (https://getpocket.com/explore/item/we-ve-reached-peak-wellness-most-of-it-is-nonsense?utm_source=pocket-newtab) for example. It’s punchy, simple, and most importantly, distinct.

 It is not good for everything. Firstly, the second sentence in this format is almost always the same length as the first – it becomes completely impossible to convey any nuance that may exist in the article, and while regular headlines have that issue too, this headline has compressed itself to pug-like levels in order to keep your attention. As a result, the headline can imply things it doesn’t mean, or sink into black-and-white distinctions that color the reading of the actual article. It’s punchy, and it’s better than a lot of clickbait styles commonly used for headlines, but it’s far from being a universally useful option.

Other, similar structures include “Do(n’t) X during Z. Here’s Why.” Which runs into a similar problem of painting a picture that’s much too simple for the article. CNN says “Don’t Shower During a Thunderstorm. Here’s Why.” The New York Times says “The Fed Appears More Optimistic Than Some Investors. Here’s Why.” But if you just read the headline, you’ve gleaned all the information (you think) they want to tell you, and they’re relying on your burning sense of curiosity to entice you to click, log in or sign up, and scroll through a wasteland of ads to learn why you shouldn’t shower during a thunderstorm or why the feds are optimistic. But that’s a lot of work, and most people won’t.

Special Mention: Algorithmic Internal Monologue

The first comments on funny, viral TikToks are often just a meme that’s hot that week. It may apply, or it may not, but either way it ends up near the top. The second comments are the hot meme from last week. A channel has to actively curate a community that can make funny, unique jokes, because if it doesn’t, those end up at the bottom in favor of the comments the commentor saw somewhere else, peeled up like a sticker, and applied at random. The funny thing about this is that it’s not actually all that effective: the commentors doing this make the same comment on a whole selection of their FYP (for you page, the ‘front page’ of TikTok) videos, and eventually, like a broken clock, sometimes they get it right and end up with a ton of hearts.

A similar phenomenon is the habit of asking the video creator for permission to do something that seems obvious. “Can I leave out the sesame seeds if I’m allergic to sesame?” on a recipe video, or the flipside, “I don’t have hot glue. Can I use Elmer’s glue?” instead. The youngest age TikTok allows on their platform is 13, and these are the sort of questions that should be resolved with a moment of thought or googling. Instead, because TikTok rewards these comments just like it rewards those hooks, they post the thought the second they have it. The content machine demands content, getting likes on a comment triggers the part of the brain that likes to gamble, and as such they keep posting until they accidentally ask something insightful.

Other honorable mentions include asking why people handling food aren’t wearing gloves (which is a Googleable question, but the short answer is that clean hands washed according to SafeServ recommendations don’t taint food, and gloves can provide a false sense of cleanliness), comments from laymen that question the knowledge of an expert in a craft in a way meant to start a slapfight in the comments for interaction points, or comments that ask where to get a nondescript item such as a plain white T-shirt or blue mug.

Write hooks and comments that make sense, not hooks and comments that ‘create engagement’. You can’t ‘create engagement’ with algorithms alone, the audience has to be able to engage!

Why are Youtuber Sponsored Products all so… Weird?

Elizabeth Technology October 27, 2022

The Process of a Sponsorship

In the past, sponsorships relied on the star power of famous people to advertise their brand. Sometimes this came with money – Nascar sponsorships pay for equipment and some of the driver’s salary so they can put their sticker on the car. Sometimes it came with publicity – getting put on the Wheaties box was a reward all it’s own. Sponsorships were generally mutually beneficial, and combined with an ordinary ad campaign, could do good things for the brand perception. The star has to align with the brand, of course, and it works better if the brand is not significantly bigger than the sponsor is, but it’s an alright way to spend advertising money.

YouTube Stars

The definition of ‘famous’ has changed over the years, and with it, sponsorships have too. At some point, accepting a sponsorship (especially in the music scene, and especially for certain products) was seen as being a sell-out. If you had a sponsor, that sponsor had some control over your behavior. As such, traditional old-media stars started to put some distance between them and their products. It was a point of shame to be taking spokesperson deals from cat litter brands or OTC pharmaceutical products as a well-known actor or actress unless you owned the company. Tabloids and the early internet at large would take it as a sign that they were slipping, losing ‘real’ filming deals, needing money. Of course many still took sponsorships, and some went overseas to do it to avoid alienating their main audience while still getting that sweet sponsor money, but over time, sponsorships retreated and more ordinary commercials came back in vogue. Sponsors spent money making sure a can or box of their product was on screen during a scene in a show, but that money was going to the people producing it, not to any of the actors or actresses on the stage (except filtered through a paycheck).

New media, aware of the idea and also many of its problems, stepped in to offer new ad slots in new places. Instagram influencers gladly promote skincare products and herbal teas from brands that may not be well-known (or FDA approved) but had the money to pay for a social media post. Getting sponsored became a point of pride, because it meant that an influencer’s audience was large enough to warrant paying them to use it. In fact, it became such a point of pride that some even fake sponsorships (and no, they don’t get paid for doing this free advertising) to indicate status and popularity, but that’s a different article.

Youtube post-adpocalypse was a very different place, as well – even the most popular content creators were not making the money they used to, due to a mass boycott by many advertisers who realized all at once that Youtube didn’t really care which videos their ads played in front of. A niche formed. Youtubers and sponsors suddenly had need of each other.

A Different Kind of Ad

However. A Youtube sponsorship caters to a unique niche, one where the viewers are usually on the younger side, unwilling to hang around for the post-roll ads, and may or may not be seeking a more parasocial form of entertainment where the star of the show seems to be addressing them directly, instead of the old-fashioned, impersonal kind where stars don’t break the fourth wall.

How to explain which products flooded into this gap and which pointedly avoided it is tough – Coke doesn’t do Youtube sponsorships, but it did run an ad campaign where it bought gifted subscriptions on Twitch for middle-sized streamers (if only to play the clips of the streamer realizing how many subs they just got in a more traditional commercial). Charmin will run pre-roll ads, but it won’t sponsor the Youtuber to pitch them as a product. It seems as though a company founded before some critical date simply doesn’t trust the Youtuber to deliver the pitch, and a company founded after, does.

Even that’s not the entire picture, or else every young company would be pitching sponsorships.

The Common Thread

Most of these products aren’t doing sponsorships because they want to, they’re doing it because it’s the last avenue they have that still works. Many of the products are weird, or nearly the same as other, already-existing products, or subscription services, or products that can’t be explained in a simple panel ad. Some are totally unsellable by normal channels, and the Youtube sponsorship route is all they have left. If they can’t, for whatever reason, buy a 10 second pre-video commercial, they go for a sponsor instead.

Look at the same-y products:

VPNs distinguish themselves by advertising, not by the quality of the product – the cheap ones are all pretty much the same. NordVPN and ExpressVPN are both just buying access to servers in other countries and then selling that access to you, neither is doing something particularly special.

Mobile games are much the same. Raid: Shadow Legends is just like any other mobile free-to-play mmorpg out there, just with a better advertising budget – it’s willingness to let Youtubers say whatever they want about the game, so long as it’s positive, has turned it into a meme, creating fond impressions of a game that would normally be overlooked in a traditional ad.

The Raycon earbuds? Nearly the same as other generic brands that do the same thing – the generic brands, however, do not cost 30$, and they can’t afford a YouTube sponsorship as a result.

Manscaped products, which promise a revolutionary experience, are ultimately just beard clippers and trimmers in a brown color scheme instead of a black or red one.

The controversial choices that only have YouTube left, like Betterhelp, cannot sell their product elsewhere because elsewhere, people still remember. Almost none of the original controversies surrounding Betterhelp have actually been ‘fixed’, they just took a break from sponsorships to let the heat die down.

And the ones that need a minute of your undivided attention to fully explain their pitch, like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron? These brands are both big enough to sponsor articles and ask for reviews from legitimate publications, and the product itself seems to work fine, but it’s just not the sort of thing you can pitch without establishing brand recognition first – Youtubers explain the product better in their own words than a more professional-sounding ad copy can, and if they’re vegan, or have food allergies, and can still use the product, all the better.

The Weirdness

None of these products (except Betterhelp) are necessarily bad, but they’re not exceptionally good – they just spend a lot of money on sponsorships and sometimes Youtube pre-roll ads over more traditional commercials or internet ads elsewhere. Given the parasocial nature of a Youtuber and their fans, it creates this weird feeling that the Youtubers are overhyping the product, when realistically they’re just… sponsoring it. A friend would tell you if a product they tried was mediocre, and Youtubers kind-of-sort-of want you to think of them as an entertaining friend. The sponsorship relies on them selling this product to you, something a friend is not going to do if they weren’t pleased with it.

Perhaps the larger, older companies realize this – Youtube sponsorships haven’t been a thing for very long, after all, so while the short term has great yield, all of it is untested in the long term. The younger companies are the guinea pigs. All of these products are being filtered not only through the Youtuber themselves, but through the relationship the Youtuber has with their audience, and Youtube as a whole. The results, so far, are mixed.

How to Clean Your Electronics

Elizabeth Technology October 25, 2022

Water is obviously out. You can’t use water on your electronics without the risk of them shorting.

1) A VERY Soft Cloth

Quality microfiber cloths are about as good as it gets for hard and plastic screens. Make sure you get the kind specifically rated for glass lenses or electronics (car microfiber cloths have a little more leeway in softness as car paint is not as soft as screen plastic, and as such we don’t recommend them) and voila, you’ve got a solid option for cleaning your screen that’s reusable, washable, and easy to store. One big note to make is that you do need to wash it – if you’re not careful, and you pick up a lot of grit or dust, you can end up sanding your screen or electronics with said grit or dust.

Swiffer products, like their dust mop, can be useful for keyboards and harder plastics, but as they can sometimes be scented (which can leave residue), are often not washable, and are usually meant for floors and hard knickknacks, the microfiber cloth is a much better choice.

2) Lens Wipes

If you spilled something a bit viscous on your screen or keyboard, and you don’t want to risk soaking your device, look to lens wipes! Few things are better solvents than water, so simply wetting a microfiber cloth can often do the trick, but if you’re worried about it dripping or otherwise ruining your device, pre-dampened lens wipes may save the day. The only downside is that they tend to be small!

A bit of 70% isopropyl alcohol (also known as rubbing alcohol) applied to a microfiber or other soft cloth can also be used to clean a screen, generally – just keep the cloth damp, not soaking.

3) Compressed Air

Compressed air is great for many things! It can often get crumbs out of crevices that cloths and dusters can’t reach, which keyboards are full of. However, it also comes with some tips – you can blow off keys with it if you’re holding it too close to said keyboard, so keep to the distance listed on the bottle. You also shouldn’t hold it upside down. If you do, the pressurized liquid at the bottom of the container will come out, and not only can it sometimes leave residue, but it’s also going to freeze whatever it touches, which is hazardous to you. And possibly the machinery, depending on what you’re hitting.

What NOT To Use

1) Non-lens Cleaning Wipes

If a wipe is wood based, or otherwise meant for something besides lenses, there’s a chance it could scratch your screen. Doubly so if it’s advertised as having ‘scrubbing power’! It’s not a guarantee – some screens are softer than others – but with how cheap microfiber cloths are, and how expensive your computer screen probably was, it’s just not worth it to use a Clorox wipe over a microfiber cloth. Over time, it might haze the screen, or scratch it immediately.

2) Windex and Other Household Cleaners

Not every solvent gets along with every plastic, but Windex especially is not great for screens. Windex works best on glass and polished metal – anywhere else, and it may slowly dissolve what it’s been sprayed on. You’re not supposed to use it on wood because it can sometimes eat varnish! If you spill something viscous on a screen and need a solvent to get it off, use something designed for cameras, water (but not so much your microfiber cloth is soaking or dripping!!), or the lens wipes mentioned above. Isopropyl alcohol is generally safe for devices, but be sure to use a soft, non-wood based cloth or wipe to use it.

The Fun World of Firefox Browser Addons

Elizabeth Technology October 20, 2022

With the recent announcement that Chrome is gutting ad blockers, it’s never been a better time to switch to Edge (which we recommend because it is especially easy to use) or Firefox. Edge is better for business – but if you want a smoother, less ad-riddled home browsing extension, why not check out Firefox?

Ad Blockers

Because Google sells quite a few of the slots you see online, it’s become disincentivized to let you avoid them on their browser – so Chrome will no longer block ads because that would be blocking Google from making that sweet, sweet ad money off of your views. And ads are everywhere. You scroll past them in between posts on TikTok and Tumblr. They appear on the sidebars and banners of news websites. They autoplay when you open Youtube, and speckle the progress bar with yellow. They’re obnoxious. And simultaneously insidious – you may watch a clip of a seemingly normal Instagram video only to realize after they begin pitching the product hard that it’s not a recommendation, it’s an ad, and you simply missed the little sponsor logo in the corner. Ads track you. Ad companies watch you view their ads and then determine from your behavior whether or not you’re interested. They watch the content you watch, and determine your age, gender, nationality, political affiliation, hobbies, and more from your online behavior. Even if you don’t mind ads, this tracking is often enough to justify an ad blocker in and of itself.

That said, ads can be pretty annoying. Especially if it’s disguising itself as regular content. Edge, a popular alternative to Chrome, still has an ad blocker, but does it have a sponsored post blocker? Because Firefox has both! Firefox can filter out sponsored posts from your websites alongside the normal ads you see everywhere. If you’re sick of sponsored content making up an unfair percentage of your feeds, Firefox has you covered.

Password Managers

Edge, Chrome, and Firefox all have versions of their own ad blockers as well as third party versions that can be downloaded to the browser – Firefox, however, will allow you to synchronize this across devices without a fee. While we like and recommend LastPass, it’s only free if you’re using it on one device, and you have to pay to sync it on multiple devices, which can be a bummer.

This is a mixed bag of a tool. On one hand, having all this stuff stored safely inside your Google account sounds great and convenient, and usually it is – except in the case of hacking. If someone socially engineers their way into your Google account, suddenly all of your other passwords are stolen too. Nightmare! A Firefox account, which does not have its own email service, is less likely to get hacked if only because it’s less immediately valuable. By dividing your email service from your browser password service, you’re not putting all of your eggs in one basket.

As far as security, a really good fake webpage that trips your browser or password manager to auto-fill the password would get almost any password service, built in or not! Turn off auto-fill if you can.

Other Goodies

Firefox has tons of other useful addons as well! Tired of getting distracted on Reddit, but can’t seem to stop typing in the URL almost unconsciously? Download Impulse Control and wrest your eyes back on task. Trying to keep cookies under control? Download the extension that shortens the path to deleting your browser history right to your window. Ads still squeezing in, or threatening to break your page if you don’t turn off your ad blocker? A browser extension called DeCentralEyes promises to serve more local content that won’t slow down your page or give a ton of info to bigger third-party ad sites. You can remove ‘recommended’ content on YouTube to see only the people you’re subscribed to on your front page, and skip out on YouTube sponsorships with a separate extension from that one. Overall, you can completely tailor your experience on Firefox, and you’ll have quite a bit of privacy from the business running the browser itself while doing it.

If Chrome isn’t going to offer you privacy or add-free browsing or a customizable experience, consider Firefox!

(Those extensions: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/youtube-recommended-videos/?utm_source=addons.mozilla.org&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=hotness





Re-Learning Bad Ideas Very Fast on TikTok

Elizabeth Technology October 18, 2022

Forbidden knowledge is very alluring. In the early days of the internet, articles advertising hacks and ‘tricks’ to get more from a business were titled something like ‘The Secret Banks DON’T Want You to Know!’ to get you to click it. You’ll be ‘getting one over’ on the ‘big guy’. You’ll be gaining street smarts. You’ll be rules-lawyering.

This died out for a bit because it is honestly sort of obnoxious, the websites those hacks come from are usually riddled with ads and unusable (so new writers don’t want to be associated with them by using that title format) and there are only so many hacks that are cool vs. hacks that are just nit-picking and bullying employees.

TikTok, with it’s constant demand for new, fresh, content, has brought those articles back from the brink in a wave.

“Just Return E-Books Once You’ve Read Them!”

Amazon had a policy where you could buy an E-Book, read it all the way through, and then return it to get your cash back. Wowee, that’s super cool! Free books! Until you get to the fine print, where you learn that it really is too good to be true. When you return an E-book, Amazon takes the royalty money back from the author. It doesn’t just eat the cost of the return. It actually takes a fee for processing the return as well, meaning it costs the author more money than they got from the sale in the first place. Maybe if the TikTok influencers portraying this policy as a ‘hack’ knew that, they wouldn’t have shared it so far and wide, but as it was, enough people were abusing the system that the Author’s Guild got involved and Amazon changed its policy. Now, if you’ve read more than 10% of a book, you won’t be able to self-refund it.

This, as a hack, is probably the best demonstration of the problems with TikTok’s ‘hacks’:

A) It is arguably theft – the person returning the book has consumed the content and doesn’t intend to pay for it. When someone at a restaurant demands a refund after eating the entire meal, it’s unreasonable to give them one, right? Especially if they didn’t dislike it and there was nothing wrong with it? They consumed a product, that product took time and effort to produce, they enjoyed the product, they just don’t want to pay for it. It’s horrible etiquette and actively makes life harder for the author. You may as well pirate the book if you’re going to read the entire thing without paying (don’t do that either).  

B) It bypasses the good, free systems that already exist – like libraries. Libraries pay an author money for permission to stock their book. You already pay for these public services with taxes, and the money is not taken from the author if you don’t like the book and want to return it to the library early. ‘What if they don’t have the book I want?’, you may ask? You can ask the library to buy a copy for library use, which is good for the author! ‘But I want to read it on my Kindle’, you may say. Guess what – libraries have that covered too. Many libraries are part of e-book systems! Out here in Las Vegas, Clark County Library and Henderson Libraries are both accessible via the library app Libby, which you can download to your phone or Kindle and set up a library card with, all for free. Comic books, manga, fiction, non-fiction, old books, new books, etc. are all at your fingertips….for free….and without screwing over the author.

Build-A-Bear is the New Starbucks

Other hacks assume that a service offered by a retail establishment is some hidden secret that ‘they don’t want you to know about’. In reality, many of these are just the company being really good at customer service, but revealing that as a ‘hack’ screws that all up. For example, L.L. Bean’s unlimited return policy was really great, but a bunch of influencers spread word about that policy as a hack to get new free stuff by returning thrifted L.L. Bean items, and they changed their policy because it wasn’t being treated like a cool perk of a purchase, it was being treated like a ‘hack’.

In the past, one of the most common manifestations of this was the Starbucks “Hidden Menu”, which does not exist and never has. What the hidden menu actually was, was a collection of crowdsourced drink recipes using Starbucks ingredients, some good, some not, posted to Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram. You could go to Starbucks, hold up your phone with the recipe on it, and have that drink made, but they didn’t have it built into the system, which confused a lot of people who saw these official-looking drinks online but not on the menu. This era of hack themed drinks was a nightmare for baristas, who were asked for a “Cap’n Crunch Frappucino” or a “HufflePuff Iced Coffee” by people who didn’t realize they had to bring a recipe with them for the Starbucks crew to make it; they just assumed the employees had a real secret menu and that’s how the drink existed. Some places do ‘secret menus’ – In-N-Out does this, for example – but ‘secret menu’ hacks online were such a crapshoot that the trend died out.

Until TikTok brought it back swinging, just not for restaurants! Birthday items at kid stores are a fun way of making kids feel special. Build-a-Bear, for example, gives children a special ‘Birthday Bear’ with a birthday-themed heart to put inside it, and the Birthday Bear only costs as much as the kid’s age, up to a limit. A five-year-old gets the bear for 5$, a six-year-old for 6$, and so on. Not everybody knows about the Birthday Bear because Build-a-Bear doesn’t advertise it super hard, but they’re not hiding it from you, same way L.L. Bean didn’t advertise their unlimited return period. If you ask an employee about birthday promotions, they’ll tell you about it, and if you look around the store and website, you’ll likely spot a poster featuring the bear.

TikTok goes nuts for hidden promotion, but it does so in a way that makes it seem as though the retail employees are invested in keeping you from this forbidden secret. An unintended side effect is that customers go in expecting to be argued with. When the TikTok doesn’t clarify terms and conditions to people who can’t seem to understand that a one-minute video is not covering all the conditions, they feel like they’re being argued with. It can feel they’re being cheated out of the rest of the deal if they don’t get it because they don’t meet the terms. Imagine those ‘Free Drink!’ coupons that say in fine print at the bottom ‘with purchase of sandwich’: these TikTok videos are like getting that coupon with the bottom part cut off.

To play devil’s advocate, this was a good format for dealing with, say, airlines – there are many cases where people become eligible for refunds or really good flight vouchers after a flight is delayed or canceled, but the airline won’t go out of their way to provide these to the people who don’t ask. Some airlines make the employees barter with the customers, trying to get them to go away before they’re forced to give them adequate compensation for the trouble. Everywhere else, though, it’s sort of a nightmare.

Posting Too Fast to Fact-Check

The long and the short of it is that the internet has enabled mistakes to be made at very high speeds. If one of those TikTokers posting about the Amazon return system figured out their mistake, they could make a video about it. But, if it didn’t go viral like their first ‘hack’ video did, it’s not going to completely solve the problem. The constant demand for new content doesn’t give them a chance to slow down and really consider what they’re saying, or how their hack is going to be taken, so many ‘hackers’ end up posting the first draft of the first idea they have about a subject without anyone else weighing in. Someone sees that Amazon lets them return a fully-read book – they think ‘Oh, this is a hack!’. Someone sees the Birthday Bear is not heavily advertised – they think ‘Oh! This is a cool secret I can share!’. By the time the people affected by this (the employees, mostly) realize what’s going on, the information has been absorbed in a thin layer all over TikTok, and it would take concentrated effort to undo the assumption that returning the book to Amazon is fine because it’s easy, or that certain promotions have to be verbally beaten out of employees.

We’re right back to the hacks of olde, just in video form instead of still image.

How Many Bad Conventions Start Online?

Elizabeth Technology October 13, 2022

Why do so many of these cons have issues? 

DashCon – One of The First

DashCon is infamous in certain circles online. At the time, Tumblr was a different place, and the people on the website figured they were capable of great things as long as they worked together. While that was admirable, it was also an excellent breeding ground for scams and overly optimistic projects that were doomed to fail as soon as a Kickstarter was put in place to fund them. DashCon was one of those overly optimistic projects. It was intended as a fun, safe, inclusive space for Tumblr users to meet up in real life, and was supposed to feature all of the trappings of regular conventions (like an Artist Alley and panels with semi-famous folks, including popular voice actress Tara Strong) as well as some interesting new features (like a ball pit).

Issue one – getting people to panel is hard. Compensating semi-famous guests for their travel and board is considered the bare minimum for them to come speak at your convention. This is such an unspoken norm that the guests who were invited just assumed that had been taken care of. DashCon was run by people who did not know this was the norm, and so when some of their guests showed up at the hotel, expecting to have a room waiting, they were told they’d have to pay for their room themselves. Many just left instead – the hotel was pricey on such short notice, especially with a con eating up rooms. They lost a ton of their scheduled guests. Also, as a direct result of this, many of the guests who were invited made a policy of not going to conventions in the convention’s first year.

Issue two – running things is hard, and none of the people involved had much experience. A handful of adults and a couple of teens were doing a lot of the hard stuff, and a fifteen-year-old ended up shouldering a lot of the logistics near the end because the two adults assigned to that task had ghosted her. One of the runners, notably not the teen, was (allegedly) maliciously exploiting their position as ‘inexperienced but trying their best’ to squeeze cash out of attendees, which lead to the second most famous part of DashCon: that DashCon runner gathered attendees up in a room and said they’d be kicked out of the space if they didn’t come up with immediate payment, leading to a bunch of teenagers and young adults giving their spending money to said DashCon runner in an attempt to ‘save’ the con. Does that sound weird to you? It sounded weird to people after the fact. There’s a whole conspiracy that the runner in question simply exploited some naïve, overly optimistic teens and pocketed the money. The way most cons are ran, the con space is paid for by the ticket sales and booth fees – the con organizers pay a deposit and then pay the rest after, when they have received all of their money. Why would a hotel demand immediate payment when it’s clear the con is happening? That’s a breach of contract. The excuse at the time was that ticket sales were not as good as projected, so the hotel got spooked, but you don’t get to just… decide to charge a client up front after they’ve signed a contract. We have no idea how much money that organizer actually collected, and because it was cash, there’s no way to know where it went.

Issue three – there were a lot of false and overly optimistic promises. Remember the ball pit? What the organizers came up with was an inflatable kid’s ball pit, maybe six or seven feet across, big enough for three or four people if they folded their legs and were okay with touching. Perhaps this was a funding issue, perhaps none of the runners knew how to source a good ballpit, but either way, the ballpit was a massive disappointment. It, to this day, is used as a shorthand to describe DashCon. Panel guests not showing up or leaving because they didn’t have any place to stay during the con? Also a massive disappointment. The teens who gave cash to that runner from issue two suddenly didn’t have any money to spend on trinkets in the Artist Alley, so the artists didn’t make any money and the teens didn’t get to shop for cool stuff. The runners, attempting to bandaid over the myriad issues guests were having, offered an extra hour in the ball pit as compensation for everything falling apart.

The whole thing was just assembled wrong. This is one of a handful of events that gradually beat the childlike wonder out of Tumblr and forced them as a community to consider how realistic it was to just crowdsource a convention, cartoons, TV shows, or games out of thin air.

But digitally sourced conventions were far from dead!

TanaCon – Surely a Popular Online Content Creator Could Manage

TanaCon, created and ran by Youtuber Tana Mongeau, was meant as a direct response to VidCon’s treatment of her. She is a fairly large Youtuber, so for her to not be made a designated guest at the event felt like a slight. Why shouldn’t she be a special guest? In fact, why shouldn’t she be the star of the show? Thus, the idea for TanaCon was born. Tana, who has an experienced manager as well as some experience in running fan meet-n-greets, had a better shot than DashCon did right off the bat. Thanks to her audience and many connections, it seemed like she’d be able to pull together a great panel of relevant guests as well. However, she also planned to organize and run this event at the end of the same month she had the idea.

This is where the problems start. Almost every logistical issue the con had is tied to its incredibly narrow timeframe. The small venue, the mediocre event-specific swag, the lack of events or food and water vendors, etc. can all be sourced here. But just because nobody’s tried it before doesn’t mean it can’t work. She would be pulling a lot of strings and asking some favors to make this event happen, but if it did, she could be running a second VidCon, with all the glory and money that could entail.

Tana wanted the convention to be free to attend, and to keep the crowds from getting out of control, released a limited number of free ‘tickets’ that attendees would need to present to security to get in. If you didn’t snag a free ticket, you could buy a VIP one and still get in, just with a pretty hefty charge. So far, this all sounds fine. The free tickets were a totally fine idea in a vacuum.

But there were issues. Free tickets ran out in two minutes after they were released online, so fans went to the VIP tickets instead. VIP offered some goodies to justify the price, but what Tana implied and what the VIPs actually got were pretty far apart. Tana’s VIP gift bags included about fifty cents’ worth of plastic and paper. Good, cool stuff with ‘TanaCon’ printed on it just couldn’t be made and shipped in time, so they got stickers. The VIPs were promised a fast lane to meet-and-greets, but they had to RSVP ahead of time for specific creators, which many did not know – they were stuck waiting in the regulars line, and the regulars line had a headcount cap. Speaking of cutting the line, they didn’t get to cut the line to get in, either – they spent 70$ or so to wait in the same line as the free tickets, even though VIP was supposed to have special priority.

That is still not the worst of the organizational problems – TanaCon security did not do a great job of enforcing tickets, likely because they were free. While the original mechanism of free tickets was a good way to limit the number of people waiting to get in without making them travel to the event first, it was worthless without enforcement, and it was not made clear that the total number of ticket holders was going to max out the capacity of the building, or that people who didn’t have a ticket shouldn’t come. If everyone who reserved a spot by getting a ticket online showed up, there would be no room for hopefuls. But they still showed up – the event was ‘free’ and nobody told them not to. The exact number of extra people who came isn’t known, but the estimates range anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 excess over the building’s 5,000 person capacity, which the free tickets and VIP tickets filled. People were waiting outside the building in the California May sun for as long as three hours, waiting to get in, a mix of VIP ticket holders, free ticket holders, and hopefuls with neither all jumbled into one line. It was a mess, and a combination of planning, enforcement, and timeline failure. She had good ideas, they just didn’t come together right.

CrunchyRoll’s Melbourne Expo

Crunchyroll started as a pirating site. Any time they have a massive project failure, this factlet gets repeated, because it seems to be evidence that Crunchyroll’s failures are part of its personality, part of its roots, and not just bad luck. Still, Crunchyroll can put together competent projects when it works at it, and it’s a ‘real’ company with real funding and real organization, so anime fans were really optimistic about their anime expo in Melbourne, Australia. Australia was still having rolling lockdowns when other countries had declared the pandemic was ‘over’ as well, so many people were bored and looking forward to having something cool and fun to do. An anime expo sounds like a great idea!

However, they massively oversold the tickets. The building has a capacity of 8,000 people, but Crunchyroll was only able to rent half (the other half was being used for a sport competition). This would mean adjusting to only allow 4,000 people in the side of the building they were using per day, and that means limiting ticket sales. Haha, no! Crunchyroll sold the full 8,000 tickets per day like it had the entire building at its disposal. People were, just like TanaCon, waiting outside for multiple hours, except it was raining. And some of them were dressed up as their favorite characters, known as cosplaying. This is very common at anime events, and while sunburn may be objectively worse, watching makeup melt and props get soaked in line was pretty awful for morale.

Once inside, some have complained it was crowded, but thankfully they didn’t seem to have the problems DashCon had with its lack of panel guests or TanaCon’s lack of booths. However, guests had to be careful where they shopped once inside: the Crunchyroll sponsored booths had strange issues, some of which can be attributed to incorrectly stored inventory. For example, some art books had carpet beetles that had spawned and died under their shrink-wrap, which certainly isn’t good for the paper, and kind of gross in general. There’s a limit to what refunds can fix, and even that’s not exactly a guarantee because Crunchyroll’s refund page crashed thanks to high volume. The 6-hr. line of people who couldn’t get into the convention, understandably, wanted their money back!

Consistent Threads

What keeps happening? Why did all of these conventions fall apart? The single biggest issue with all of them was overselling, whether that was features or tickets. They either promised things they couldn’t back up, let too many people buy a pass inside, or both. When tickets are double-digit prices, you can’t count on X% of the ticket holders just not showing up. There’s an investment. The more niche the convention is, the worse the effect is – the people buying tickets to see Tana in person at her own con are much more invested in the experience they’re hoping to get than the people who pre-buy tickets for a summer or fall craft show, because they know this may not happen again.



What is the allure of the mysterious, sickeningly blue NyQuil chicken?

Elizabeth Technology October 11, 2022

How did it make its triumphant return after months, perhaps years, of quiet slumber in the meme graveyard?

The Foundations of its Return

1) Consuming things that taste bad when put together is funny. Videomakers mix milk and Pepsi to create Pilk, or put orange juice on cereal, or – if the user can legally drink – put Hennessy brand Cognac in their protein shake. If it sounds like it wouldn’t go together, well… now it does. Mainly for views.

2) Drugs are funny, as long as they aren’t the life-ruining kind. Meth isn’t funny, crack isn’t funny, but alcohol and lean are. While weed is still funny, it’s not funny in the same way that buying a bottle of codeine cough syrup just to mix it with soda and consume it is. OTC drugs are funny because they’re a ‘legal’ way to get high (see the hat man tweet) but the high itself is not enjoyable. The Benadryl ‘Hat Man’ hallucination is often more scary than cool. Why would you willingly do this?

3) This meme already happened, so some people recognized it. This actually isn’t the first time the Nyquil chicken has been posted. You can see in this Techcrunch article that it’s been around at least since 2017, maybe longer: (https://techcrunch.com/2022/09/21/nyquil-chicken-fda-warning-tiktok-trend/)

Is It That Big of A Deal?

The original posts didn’t warrant a warning from the FDA, so it’s truly bizarre that they’ve stepped in this time. Perhaps the relative size of the trends is the difference, or maybe it’s that TikTok has a younger userbase than Twitter does, and the FDA is concerned the children on the site won’t realize it’s a joke. Maybe monitoring of internet sites has just gotten better in the time between the first wave of cough syrup chicken and this current one. Nobody official seemed to notice it when it was happening on 4Chan, at least. The saving grace of the TikTok userbase is that NyQuil chicken looks like garbage – in much the same way nobody wants to recreate Hennessy and protein shake, I don’t think anyone is sincerely looking to make NyQuil chicken to eat.

However, even just actually cooking the chicken without eating it ‘as a joke’, the trend may turn into an issue for kids. The official position of the FDA is that heating the medicine makes it behave unpredictably, releasing fumes of a substance you’re meant to drink and not inhale. Taking a bite of the chicken itself, even once, as a gag, has an unknown amount of medication in it. Liquids become more concentrated when they are cooked, as well, so that ‘unknown amount’ could be more than the recommended dose, especially for a kid. Some twelve-year-old who doesn’t realize the idea is the joke, and not the execution, could take a bite of this horrid creation just to film it and end up consuming a significant amount of cough syrup.

Ultimately, the FDA putting out this notice wasn’t really an overreaction, because the channels it’s happening on no longer have the parental supervision they need to in order to keep children safe. Just googling ‘Child burned in TikTok Trend’ gets you a truly upsetting number of unique results and stories. It’s not the kid’s fault – they should have been supervised, and TikTok shouldn’t be letting dangerous hacks be shown to kids. This warning seeks to prevent that from happening again, a bit of caution in a world that hardly seems to care that children too inexperienced to recognize a bad idea are seeing content and comments all telling them to do something stupid and dangerous for a laugh.

Sources: https://techcrunch.com/2022/09/21/nyquil-chicken-fda-warning-tiktok-trend/

Online True Crime’s Not Doing So Hot

Elizabeth Technology October 6, 2022

You go to your computer. You see a headline for something clickbait-y, maybe “Insane murder finally solved thirty years later”, or “Who did it? Murder Analysis” or “Was [This Missing Person]’s Case Actually a Murder?” The thumbnails range from people making the stereotypical Youtube thumbnail ‘shocked’ face to pictures of the victim, the suspect, and everything in between.

Seems a little weird, right? Feels a little wrong? The same format used to post and boost recipe hacks on Youtube is being used to advertise true crime podcasts, chase clout, and earn fame, and listeners are beginning to realize what the bottom chunk of the true crime community is turning into.

The Idea Is Sometimes Good

Blasting the details of a missing persons case around town or across the internet is nothing new. The more people know something’s amiss, the more likely that amiss thing is to be corrected. Missing kids might be reunited with their families if some stranger recognizes them from the back of the milk carton, and sometimes calls for witnesses who may have seen or heard something produce useful information.

The original concept for cold case podcasts was similar – if enough people hear about it, one of those listeners might actually have some useful info that leads to the case being reopened and the mystery solved! And sometimes it did. There are a scattered handful of cold cases that were solved (or at least got a very probable answer) thanks to the wide reach of the True Crime genre. True Crime picked up a sort of altruistic bent to it thanks to this mindset, but it also subconsciously gained the far more damaging idea that a case is always eventually solvable if only enough people hear about it. If a tree falls in the woods, someone heard it.

Here is where the problems start. While some people reach out to these podcasts in order to spread the word about their case, many of the folks involved in cold cases don’t, not for a lack of knowledge about the good they could do, but because they don’t want to. They don’t believe the internet can solve it, and they want to move on.

The Victims’ Families

And that’s their right as the survivors. Treatment of the victim’s families as another willing part of the show is one of the biggest reasons all of Online True Crime’s flaws are coming to a head. People chase entertainment. They chase recognition. They seek out Q and As by authors and writers. Whodunnits always end with the bad guy thrown in jail. But that’s fiction. True Crime is, literally, true crimes. Nonfiction. Stuff that’s only public knowledge because of how crime reporting laws work. The effect is worse if it’s an unsolved cold case.

Because the cold case is a cold case due to lack of evidence, the first solution True Crime fans come up with is to procure new evidence. Given the case has already been touched by police and P.I.s, there may not be any new or overlooked evidence. Sometimes, rarely, there is – but if there is, it’s likely somewhere civilians can’t reach it, either in an evidence locker somewhere, the bottom of a river, inside private property, etc. Lacking new physical evidence, all they have left to explore is witness testimony.

This has, in some cases, lead to the victims’ family being treated like part of an ARG or an escape room where a neat and tidy answer not only exists, but exists within reach of the true crime community, and they’re supposed to be able to find it. If they could just find one or two more pieces of evidence, they could solve a murder! If the family could just reveal one or two more juicy details over Twitter DMs to a total stranger, they could win the game and solve the crime like they’re supposed to. As a reminder, not all of the victims’ families and friends have been asked beforehand if they want to be a part of this. If they’re unlucky enough to be findable, and the show’s big enough for some fans to ignore common sense… well.

While sometimes families are eagerly waiting for new info, anything at all that a podcast might dredge up, some are just trying to move on with their lives when a stranger pops into their DMs asking them to recount the worst day they’ve ever had, reopening old wounds only to get nothing new out of it.

Major props to the true crime groups that actually ask first if living relatives want a case covered – not all of the shows do.

Lies and Speculation

This desire for a neat and tidy answer can still create problems even if it doesn’t turn into interrogating the family.

As I covered in another article, sometimes the facts of the case aren’t consistent across shows… because some of them are stretching the truth, failing to research a claim, or otherwise omitting or including something that would re-frame the case. Other shows speculate, and they speculate for so long and so confidently that fans, who sometimes have no previous knowledge of a given case, believe the speculation to be more, even if the hosts didn’t mean for it to be interpreted that way. (This is not universal, but pops up sometimes even in reputable shows.)

Pointing at someone and saying “this is the most suspicious guy” isn’t necessarily a crime by itself, but if nothing is proven, and there’s not an obvious source of corruption or flaws in the case that could have led to that guy being wrongfully cleared, then it’s just more speculation. This is generally fine if everyone has been dead for some time, but doing it to people who are still alive can create problems for them, to nobody’s surprise. Are most murders and kidnappings done by someone close to the victim? Yes. Is it right to start pointing fingers just because there’s not another tidy answer? No. This isn’t a whodunnit – there doesn’t have to be a ‘solution’ within reach. Grabbing at straws does not a case solve.

General Attitude

While it didn’t start this way, many newer online true crime shows have some sort of gimmick. Some of the hosts do their makeup, some eat food, others show animations on screen while describing the case. The depersonalization of listening to someone describe a cold case as casually as they’d describe their workday while doing something like mukbang turns the case from a genuine rehashing of events into a dash of entertainment, a little sprinkle of someone else’s tragedy to get through boring homework or a commute. The attitude of True Crime as a genre has come into question because some of the hosts are treating it like show fodder first and real life events second. As a reminder, many cold case victims have family that is both alive and online to witness these videos. A casual giggle over a detail of a case isn’t so casual for them.

True crime can’t continue the way it’s going. The lack of care and mindfulness in covering the cases is starting to rot away the foundations of online true crime. Nobody wants their loved one best remembered as covered by “Boyfriend Kills Girlfriend for Saying Ex’s Name – Spicy Noodle MukBang” videos. The genre is serious – but not all of these show hosts are treating it with the care it deserves.