Posts Tagged

internet phenomena

Sony’s DRM Nightmare

Elizabeth Technology March 21, 2024

In 2005, an organization had been covertly installing a program similar to a rootkit onto consumer devices without warning. For those who haven’t heard it before, a rootkit is simply a program that is designed to remain unfindable on a device. They aren’t all bad, but their difficult-to-detect nature and ability to evade even aggressive anti-virus makes them a top-of-the-line tool for hackers. Back to the story.

The rootkit was on the lookout for ‘suspicious activity’, and if it detected any, it would quietly alert the parent company. However, even if you had nothing to hide, you still had something to fear: the rootkit left a gaping security hole, and a smart enough hacker could piggyback off of it to get Trojan Horses, Worms, and other nasty bugs in without alerting the computer that “hey, there’s an .exe file doing weird stuff!”

The rootkit was designed to hide itself, and it would hide the bugs behind it. There was no mention of this anywhere in the EULA agreement for the program that had the rootkit.  The parent company hadn’t meant to leave a backdoor, but they did, and attempts to fix it without removing their own program just made the problem worse. Attempting to fake fixing it with an uninstaller only hid the program deeper in the system, and trying to uninstall it could brick the computer, depending on which program you got. They’d really screwed themselves, and they hadn’t expected to get caught.

This wasn’t some Russian hacking scheme, or some government overreach – it was Sony, attempting to keep copyrighted material off of pirating websites. Talk about an overreaction.

The History

At some point, a company has to admit it would rather ruin the legitimate user’s experience than let a pirate go unpunished. That’s very understandable: stealing is wrong, and smug pirates behaving like they’ve gotten one over on ‘the system’ are frustrating. Ordinary responses to this can be anything from asking for the license # on the inside of the clear case to more subtly ruining the audio quality of pirated copies. This is a normal level of copyright protection. Very determined pirates could still get around these measures, but hey, you can’t spend all your resources on the fringe cases.

Companies are aware of this, and some begin to factor ‘unstoppable piracy’ into their calculations – you know, like grocery stores will factor in ‘lifting loss’ and spoiling produce. Companies usually determine they’d be spending more on preventative measures than they’d be keeping on the shelves. Theft is wrong, but so is littering and driving without a license. Somehow, all three still happen anyway. Sony is very mad that pirates are getting away with fresh content, and they want to do the equivalent of TSA pat-downs on everybody at the exit of the grocery store to stop a small percentage of thieves.  They don’t care anymore; nobody is going to get away with it.

Was it Reasonable?

Napster and LimeWire are making inroads into the music industry’s profit, and 2005 was the peak. The pirating of copyrighted content is only made easier with the rise of the internet, and Sony realizes it’s nigh impossible to find the illegitimate downloaders, and uploaders were only marginally easier. They decide to go for the source, but they decide to hit hard.

“The industry will take whatever steps it needs to protect itself and protect its revenue streams… It will not lose that revenue stream, no matter what… Sony is going to take aggressive steps to stop this. We will develop technology that transcends the individual user. We will firewall Napster at source – we will block it at your cable company. We will block it at your phone company. We will block it at your ISP. We will firewall it at your PC… These strategies are being aggressively pursued because there is simply too much at stake.” – Sony Senior VP Steve Heckler

This quote was said in 2005, after Sony had merged with another company, BMG. BMG had an incident in Europe in the 2000’s, when they’d released a CD without warning users of the copyright protection on the inside. Apparently, burning money to replace those CDs (and burning goodwill) was not enough of a lesson, and Sony and BMG together prepared to take a stand against pirates.

The Problem

They’re going after the big boys, the folks downloading music to upload everywhere else…for free.

These are the people depressing profits, in theory. Some companies theorize that once these people are gone, the people passively pirating by downloading stuff from them will also disappear and go back to buying the content. They’re somewhat right, and this audience shrinks over time. More on that later.

This is illegal and very annoying! The estimated lost sales from piracy were in the billions, and many companies were beginning to look at more intense DRM: Digital Restriction Management.

To some people, DRM is the root of all evil, the seed of the eventual downfall of consumer’s rights. After Sony’s screw-up, they were right to call it as such. John Deere, Apple, Sony, Photoshop, etc. are all slowly eating away at their own best features for the sake of pushing users into proprietary software. Software they’re not allowed to repair because of DRM. Take Deere: if a new Deere tractor detects a common tractor repairman’s diagnostic software, a Deere tractor will stop working until you call out a Deere technician. This obviously drives up demand for Deere technicians, and it’s horribly restrictive to the user. Lawsuits are in progress right now over this because the obvious result is that Deere can cost you your farm by doing this.

To others, DRM is an essential part of the free market. Companies should be allowed to protect what they made, and if users find their methods extreme, they shouldn’t have bought it. And in less extreme circumstances, they’re right! That’s what the EULA, the End User License Agreement, is for. The user can decide if they’re willing to put up with the DRM specified in the Agreement, and if they’re not, they don’t have to buy it. ‘If you pirate this, it will only play static’ is reasonable.

Sure, some super-cheapskate who found a sketchy download off some sketchy site is going to listen to static with Hint of Music, but the average user would rather buy the disc and be done with it. If the company can make the ripped upload sound like garbage when it’s off its home CD, they won. The company has successfully used DRM here to keep their honest customer honest, and any would-be pirates away. And they did it without destroying either computer! As Stewart Baker of the Department of Homeland Security said, “it’s your intellectual property – it’s not your computer”.

Doing it this way means normal consumers still get a high-quality product, and if the DRM is limited entirely to the content itself, there’s no risk of it coming back to bite the company in the butt.

Still, if you really disagree with DRM, there were companies that successfully reduced their piracy problems in other ways. Some found that guilt was enough, others found that once certain websites were gone, their piracy problems disappeared too. Warning folks that piracy was still a crime got the people who didn’t know any better to stop. Fines did a number on the folks who were too bold or too dumb to not get tracked with non-DRM means, and for the people who were doing it because it was more convenient? They reduced their pirating when better paid methods became available. Sony’s problem could have been solved in a lot of ways!

Besides, Sony wasn’t struggling. Lost sales are not the same as losses! Companies are still making profit, just not as much as they’d like. Property is not being damaged, and nobody is experiencing physical harm as a result of pirating.

The Response

Sony’s DRM was a severe overreaction to the problem at hand, and it did lead to several lawsuits. As said at the beginning, Sony had not only installed software without the user’s knowledge, but they’d then left a big entry point for security threats to get in undetected. Hundreds of thousands of networks were affected, and some of them were government. Once someone blew the lid on the DRMs, they released a cover-up “uninstaller” that just hid the rootkit better and installed more DRM content on the user device.

This does not help!

The blown cover for the rootkit meant that black-hat hacking organizations could tool around and create something that could get into anything with that rootkit on it, undetected. Eventually Sony was forced to admit this was wrong, but not before screwing over a couple million people who just wanted to listen to Santana or Celine Dion from a CD they paid for. Over pirates.

Yeah, there’s some lost profit – but it doesn’t outweigh the regular customers.

The Aftermath

Sony’s first instinct is to hide it. As mentioned in the article above, the uninstaller available didn’t actually uninstall it, and some users reported issues of system crashes and their machine bricking up when the uninstaller’s poor programming tried to interact with the rest of the device’s programming.

Their second decision is to lie – ‘the DRM has no backdoors and doesn’t pose a risk to your computer’s security’. This is demonstrably untrue, and given that they were already in the beginning stages of recall, could be considered a deliberate lie.

Sony’s third action is to recall the discs with the DRM on it, but they don’t get all of the discs. Some users aren’t sure if their disc is affected or not, and even non-profit organizations dedicated to maintaining free internet can’t figure out what discs have it and what discs don’t. The best they can do is a partial list. Stores in New York and Boston are still selling the discs three weeks after the recall. However, users do get to swap their disc with an unprotected one through the mail. Sony seems to have acknowledged their screw-up at this point.

Sony’s fourth action is more a consequence – they stick a class-action lawsuit sign-up notice on their home website, and users affected can claim damages up until 2006. Class-action lawsuits filed by individual states start to drag down Sony’s profits more than the piracy ever did, and the end result is a mandate to put warnings on the cover of discs and to stop using DRM that could damage a user’s computer. DRM is still allowed, it just can’t be possible to destroy a computer to protect a song license. The feds actually considered this a breach of federal law and stated that it was engaging in deceptive and unfair business practices. Sounds about right – consumers wouldn’t have bought a disc that downloaded DRM without their knowledge. From conception to execution, this was a moral, ethical, and legal mistake. While pirating is wrong, it’s possible to be more wrong trying to stop it.–5-years-later.html

Don’t Delete Your System32

Elizabeth Technology March 14, 2024

System 32 is essentially the heart of the computer’s software. Task manager, the boot-up instructions, and hardware-to-software system files are all located in the System 32 file folder. It’s very important. Do not delete it.

This folder is not a secret, but what exactly it’s responsible for wasn’t always public knowledge. After all, Windows keeps everything very neat and tidy; photos and documents to games and applications all stayed in their own little cubby holes. The actual System 32 folder is a couple of folders deep already– exploratory digging might result in someone finding it by themselves, but why would they ever delete it if it’s already there? That was Microsoft’s approach: make everything the user wants easy to find so only experts and programmers have to consider System 32. Even better, it would still (usually) work in the recycle bin, and it wouldn’t allow deletion with a simple left-click; there was no way a user could delete this folder without serious work. The hope was that most people would never even notice it.

They were right, and this was enough. For a time.

The Beginning

It’s the mid to late 2000s, and anonymous internet message boards are largely unrecognized and somewhat unmoderated. It serves as the Wild West of the internet, the last dark corner in a time where the rest of said internet is at least glimpsable with Google. Computers are expensive, but not Hope Diamond expensive, and the thought that someone would tell an un-monitored kid online to break theirs just for the heck of it was kind of absurd. Keyword: un-monitored. Underage children were getting into all sorts of sites they shouldn’t have, including internet messaging boards.

Knowing this, the people falling for the system32 prank are obviously not all just gullible adults.

Interim Growth

The site responsible for the meme (at the time) made it very clear that this was not a place for children, and the nature of the site’s set-up made it nigh impossible for the average user to be tracked or traced by another user. No username? No IP tracking? Zero consequences. There were mods, but the mods were few in number, and more concerned with activities that were genuinely very illegal and could lead to the site’s shut-down. Users convincing strangers to mix chemicals together or de-magnetize their hard drive was less pressing unless it also resulted in something illegal.

The meme really got going when one user came back to complain that their computer would no longer start after they followed one of the first troll posts. That post gave instructions on how to delete it while framing it as ‘bloatware’(software that intentionally slows a device down). If you have no idea what makes a computer run, it sounded like good advice.

When users caught on that some versions of Windows would refuse to outright delete System 32, they moved on and started including console commands, something the average user (at the time) had no experience with. Someone with little or no knowledge of the subject wouldn’t know what they were looking at. A button press, some typing, and an @echo command. Easy to follow… too easy.

Mainstream Dilution

Instructions for deleting System 32 to ‘speed up the computer’ or ‘make the computer quieter’ appeared on more public sites some time in 2008. I Can Haz Cheezburger is likely the largest at this point, a forum centered around funny images of cats and other assorted animals, with a penchant for memes including advice, good or bad. Soap Ice, the idea that you could freeze Dawn dish soap and water in a puck of ice, and then use it to ‘shower’ after a trip to the gym or park, was one of these ‘advice’ memes. This does not work for the reasons you’d expect, but it’s less likely to kill someone than bathroom cleaner ‘crystal’ hacks. ‘Advice’ to delete System 32 was a natural fit, and it spread like wildfire.

With the meme’s spread into bigger websites that are more strictly moderated, articles start coming out advising people not to delete System 32. Even better, memes start circulating on websites like I Can Haz Cheezburger to give users warning directly. It doesn’t stop all of it – no good-advice-meme can stop a person determined to use a hack like Soap Ice, but it puts a major dent in the spread. With less people taking the bait, and others ready to comment ‘don’t do this!’ on posts where it appears, the meme finally slows down, eventually to a crawl. “Delete System 32” is now used ironically, because knowledge of it is so widespread that someone not knowing is rare.

And so the rise and fall of a meme is recorded. This is one of the first of it’s kind, but it’s far from the last.

Remember the Apple Wheels?

Elizabeth Technology March 12, 2024

Ah, Complaining.

Apple Wheels

The Apple Mac Pro cost several thousand dollars, and it looked like a cheese grater. The little Apple-branded wheels to make it move cost about 700$, or approximately the price of the iPhone 8 at launch. Oh, but don’t worry – you can buy the feet for a mere 300$, if you just have to have Apple Brand. How did we get here? How did we, as a society, get to 700$ computer wheels?

Brand = Trustworthy

Branding by itself is an interesting mark of human psychology. It’s a shortcut to trusting something! The brand of an item itself purely imaginary – the brand, by itself, does not produce value for the final product except for the value the consumer gives it in their mind. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Look at IKEA: all those items come from different factories, so customers shouldn’t just blindly trust whatever they buy, right? But because IKEA has put their name behind it, consumers still buy the cheap shelves with the understanding that IKEA has endorsed them. If these shelves were somewhere else, and un-branded, consumers wouldn’t trust them as much. They’d sell less. You see copycat items on Amazon all the time, but mostly people buy brand-names they recognize. Branding, in this way, is extremely valuable even though it’s intangible.

And it’s good for the customer, too! It allows them to make a more informed decision. Emotionally, people become loyal to brands that have served them well. Fortunately for the brand, they’ll stay loyal unless something seriously impacts their mental image of that brand.

All of this sounds totally logical and reasonable, right? It’s the way people have done business since cash was invented. It made sense for people to trust the smithy, who branded their creations, over someone who wouldn’t put their name to what they made.

Strange things start happening when people like the brand more than the products, and we’ll get there.

Even though consumers may know the store-brand comes from the same plant that the name-brand does, they may still pick name-brand. This is part of that trust – it is scary to try new things, and keeping one constant, the brand, the same, makes buying big electronics or new foods less scary. When consumers stop showing a brand loyalty, or they start complaining, the brand could do things like throw in warranties, coupons, or spare parts for free and retain that good will. Store brand doesn’t stand a chance even if it’s literally identical.

Brand = Money

Branding can save a company even if they’re like modern day Pyrex, which has a different heat tolerance depending which factory you get it from. People post infographics online so consumers can identify the ‘good’ pieces, because they love Pyrex so much. A change to the glass manufacturing process means that the brand is no longer a reliable indicator of quality, but people still want to like Pyrex. Otherwise they wouldn’t go through all this effort to find the right Pyrex factory, they’d buy somewhere else. This is where brand starts to become more important than what it’s selling: the nostalgia of a good brand present in one’s formative years carries it along past it’s loss of quality.

People will pay a premium for a brand they trust, and companies know this. We see this everywhere, from cars to computers. Sears might have survived a couple years off of goodwill and nostalgia alone.

Branding, therefore, can become a phylactery in the hands of a new controlling board. As soon as a company starts to rely on goodwill to sell items that they know other companies would have ditched, they become like Apple. Unlike Apple, many of them don’t sell high-ticket items as a luxury.

For Apple, the brand is demand. Where Steve Jobs might have demanded innovation out of every item they released, the controlling board doesn’t. They know that the brand reputation he built will sell items because people love Apple, people already have Apple, and they know people want to look like they have money! And by smearing Android products as ‘cheap’, Apple became a shortcut for ‘expensive’. Apple wheels are a natural result of a market that’s so hyperfocused on branding that it doesn’t care about functionality. A combination of goodwill and a little psychology gives us these overpriced items that are only overpriced for the sake of it.

The irony of all of this is that people will eventually buy the item as a ‘flex’, unironically, and then the product exists in a quantum state of sincerity. How does Apple live where others die?

Wheely Worth It

Apple sells sincere items alongside their ‘meme’ items. While Apple sells things like wheels and pens for hundreds of dollars, the past generations of phones are still about the right price for what the user gets. Factoring in things like R + D, factory overhead, and the materials to go into it, a comparable phone (including camera and storage space) made by a third party would be cheaper, but not by much. They’re only at a small premium to other comparable brands for the same computing power, which makes sense with Apple’s well-known tech support. They haven’t gone full ‘Sears’ yet: there’s still some value in the idea of their brand, and they still release ‘worthy’ items alongside the garbage ones. Why risk it with wheels that cost as much as an iPhone, a genuinely expensive item?

Simple: it’s for advertising, and it’s fairly cheap as far as campaigns go. Either ‘hype beasts’ (people known for buying branded clothing just because it’s expensive) buy it to flex on others, or regular people discuss how out-of-line Apple is. Either way, Apple’s name is out there. Apple might not actually expect to make money with these wheels, but the items are so cheap to make that a single purchase could finance the production of 50 more sets. Not to forget hype beasts!

This new trend of “flexing” expensive-but-nearly-worthless items has led to the creation of the Supreme Brick, the Apple wheels, and all sorts of other tomfoolery that relies on branding. Now, some brands use branding as a shortcut to ‘luxury’ instead of ‘trust’. Luxury clothing items have already been doing this for years, so while the material is thin, the manufacturing process cost cents on the dime, and shipping it en masse cost maybe a couple dollars, the final item is an 800$ shirt. Not because it’s made of especially good materials, or hardy – because it has a logo on it.

The only reason knockoffs are not worth as much is because the original brand has convinced people that their product is ‘better’ because it cost more, not that it cost more because it was better. And people believe it! Anyone self-conscious enough to get fake Airpods or a third-party Gucci shirt are still pursuing that image of luxury, which is fantastic for the brand. The same goes for Apple Wheels, and Airpods, and Supreme clothing… if the consumer values it, then they’re worth it. The Apple Wheels are worth 699$ to the people who want it, and that’s good enough to keep making them.  They’re buying Apple Brand, after all.

Apple Wheel. It’s wheely about the advertising.


The World’s Most Specific Shirt

Elizabeth Technology February 29, 2024

You’ve probably seen some variation of the shirt.

You’re wondering how it’s so wildly specific. You click it, and scroll down, and somehow… somehow the company seems to have made shirts specifically for you, the boyfriend of a Registered Nurse who was born in June, who’s a little crazy with a heart of gold.

And then you notice on other channels, people are getting shirts that say ‘Never mess with a Union Welder born in November with Blue Eyes’. ‘My Boyfriend is a Crazy Libra who loves Fishing and Mountain Biking”. Okay… it’s specific… but no harm, right?

What’s happening?

The Ads

First, some context. Facebook takes information like birth date, gender, likes and dislikes, etc. to hyper-tailor ads directly to specific individuals. On the advertiser’s side, Facebook allows their advertising customers to modify ads depending on group – companies can make multiple ads for their product to better build a brand image for any one customer’s specific demographic profile.

Picture that a company makes hair gel for adolescents as well as young adults, for example. The adult is looking to impress their coworkers, but the kid just wants to prevent helmet hair. The gel does both, but the ad will change the target customer’s view of the product – is it for skateboarders, or is it for professionals? Only a super generic ad could appeal to both, and generic ads do much worse than targeted ones. Luckily, Facebook’s fine-tuned ad program can determine which set of ads the viewer should be seeing, and the company can make two ads, one for skateboarders, and one for young professionals.

However, that’s time consuming, so many ad vendors allow mix-n-match campaigns, where lines are taken from one ad and put in another. An adolescent’s ad would work for most teens if the wording was a little different – see Axe’s body spray ads. Sometimes the company doesn’t even have to make the new lines themselves, they just include a modifiable blank field in the ad space and they’re good to go.

That’s where things go sideways! A blank line in an insurance ad can tell the user that they’ll be eligible for a rate as low as X$ based on their age and gender. A blank line in a kennel ad knows they’re looking for a medium dog over a small cat based on their search history. A blank line in a T-shirt ad tells them that Facebook knows they’re a Gemini, an accountant, of Swedish descent, a regular fisher, an occasional beer-drinker, and more.

Art and More

Even worse, bots that work on similar mechanisms have been caught scraping art from artists and slapping it on cheap T-shirts. Since copyright enforcement is dependent on the copyright owner filing for takedown, shirts with that artwork might get sold before the artist even knows something’s amiss. The shirts are frequently poor-quality rips directly from the artist’s social media account, triggered by comments requesting wearable merch or complimenting the work – the bot determines demand and then harvests it, without human intervention, just like the ad T-shirts.

Sure, the artist can request a takedown each and every time the bots snag their art, but it’s a slog, and the company itself never seems to actually do anything meaningful about the violations. It’s also bad for the artist’s reputation: fans complaining to them about the quality of a shirt they bought may be the first time the artist hears about the art theft, and then explaining to someone that they’ve been scammed is only going to make them angrier. It becomes “How could you let this happen” instead of “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize” – everyone loses except for the ad bot’s shirt company.

The ‘Why’

Before companies like ZapTee and CustomInk, getting a custom shirt meant going to a print shop and paying a hefty price for the final product. As such, shirt companies just didn’t make shirts like these ad bots do. It was unfeasible. If it didn’t sell, it was a waste of production. The closest you could get was “I’m a Proud Mom!” or “Rather be Fishin’”. If you were an artist, and your work was too fringe for major manufacturers to work with, you might have had to buy the screen-printing supplies yourself, build your own website or storefront, source blank shirts, and do things the hard way.

Now, all of that is easily outsourced to these printing companies that specialize in customizable products. The tech has improved so much that they can make money on single shirt sales, where before orders had to be in bulk. It’s honestly incredible. However, customers don’t necessarily understand the mechanisms behind these shirts. The specifics on the shirt are just blank space fill-ins, based on information Facebook gives to the ad. They think they’re seeing a unicorn out in the wild when they see something that relates to them. They’re thinking back to the times where companies couldn’t do this, where everything was geared towards two or three consumer profiles. “Wow, a shirt for Peruvians!” instead of “Oh, Facebook knows I’m Peruvian”.

Or in the case of the art-rippers, they see merch from an artist they really like and respect, and buy it without wondering if it’s official because – once again – they’re thinking back to a time when companies didn’t steal art (not officially, anyway) for shirts. Independent artists had to beg, barter, and network their way onto the front of a T-shirt, there wasn’t any other way to sell art-shirts en masse before silk-screen tech got cheap. Therefore, there’s no way unofficial or stolen art merch exists, it just doesn’t happen!

The Marketing

A company named Signal decided to take out ads mocking Facebook’s hyper-specific targeting by simply filling in a MadLib with demographic spots.

The result is, shockingly, just like the T-shirts! Facebook already knows you pretty well. A trend of ‘hyper-targeting’ took over once social media websites realized that people guard their info from companies but share it willingly with friends, publicly. As a result, it can pinpoint things like your favorite movie, your favorite color, what items you’ve bought online (and post about), your perfect vacation, and how dark you like your coffee, to name a few, all harvested from comments and posts you share with your friends. Ads then generate shirts out of what the site gathers. You can turn off targeted advertising in Google, but that doesn’t mean they’re not gathering information. It just means you’re not seeing the direct results of that. The only way to fight the hyper-targeting is to be vague and lie to the platforms, or stay off of them altogether.

If you or an artist you know gets their work ripped by bots, combatting it is unfortunately pretty difficult. The best you can do is sometimes just cave and make your own branded products via something like RedBubble or FanJoy. Give customers an official way to support their favorite artist, and most of the time, they’ll take it! Making your social media work obnoxiously and obviously watermarked helps, as does making the preview pic low-quality. Fans need to know that you have official channels, and if they buy from anywhere else, they’re not supporting you. If they like it so much that they want to wear it, they should want the artist to keep making more of it! Make that link between your official purchasing channels and their support of your work clear.


Online Investment In Dud Projects

Elizabeth Technology February 13, 2024

During the 2010s, a number of huge enterprises got investor money, started a project, maintained it with great success until the investors started wanting their money back, and then the service of the project started absolutely sucking – if it actually managed to live through the ‘you must turn a profit’ phase of its growth, which many did not.

The internet had a hand in this. By giving a large crowd of people a place to say they’d definitely use any service that does X, investors can see demand for a product that doesn’t yet exist, which makes a return seem easier to achieve. A secondary effect is that they don’t have to understand what the service does, they just have to know that customers want it – a formidable barrier for innovators of times past is now an escalator for inventors who can simply dazzle a crowd with buzzwords and get demand out of them. Customer/investor hybridizing sites like IndieGoGo and Kickstarter were notorious for this until they also changed their terms of service.  

Smaller Ones

More attainable goals on crowdfunding websites are not less likely to run into issues than their larger funding counterparts, they’re just smaller. The stakes are usually lower, but often still painful if they fail. After all, if you pay 1,500$ to get an extra special package of products and services for a startup that goes belly-up before anything goes out the door, you’re out the money, even if it probably didn’t bankrupt you. IndieGoGo and Kickstarter generally can’t recoup that loss for you if the side taking the money didn’t formally announce a failure or otherwise initiate a refund.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to tell when a project is going to fail, especially if you tried to get in early. While some projects can raise red flags on first sight (unrealistic wholesale/retail product pricing ratios, overemphasis on a personality to sell the product, or unrealistic production means for example), many others look fine. The best way to avoid spending money with nothing to show for it is to look at other examples of failed projects and see if you spot any uncomfortable similarities.

Early NFT projects, for example, were totally uncharted. The product itself was so new that nobody knew what signs of scams or failure would look like. A number of NFT projects promised access to something of value (a game, a cartoon, a virtual world/networking site, etc.) for the purchase of the NFT, but once they were fully funded, a bunch of them would rug-pull their investors and bounce with the money. Some didn’t bounce (by which I mean they stayed in contact with NFT buyers), but still failed to produce anything. The Bored Apes project at least managed to make a couple episodes of the cartoon they promised, but because the show was pitched and directed by people specializing in tech, not animation, it didn’t exactly come out like Rick and Morty.

But say you wouldn’t have fallen for the NFT hype – it doesn’t have to look like a bad investment to be one. In a more recent, more material example, James Somerton’s film production company sucked up a ton of money (achieving nearly 10x its initial goal for fundraising) and then had huge wait times for the films promised, and the person in charge – James himself – was quiet for months, only rarely updating with news about the delays. James, a video essayist, was really well-liked up until a couple of months ago when some terrible news about his content came out, so his backers were extra lenient. They made excuses for him, and many possibly forgot they’d contributed to his project at all because of the length of the wait. Now, it seems unlikely he’ll get anything out the door at all because of recent controversies, and that money is probably not going to be refunded.

Similarly, video game projects from first time game-makers have a high chance of failure, oftentimes because they don’t know the true scale of the work required before they start developing it and promise more than they can deliver. Internet personalities will sometimes have an idea for a game that is far beyond the skill of the studio they partnered with to make it (which happened to the Yogscast group on Youtube) or become so invested in what they already had built beforehand that they won’t let anyone else touch it (which happened to the game Yandere Simulator). For beginners, starting wrong and having to tear down and rebuild is okay when it’s a private project, but when it’s someone else’s money, the idea of ‘losing’ progress makes them more likely to double down on a road that won’t produce a good finished product. Failed games that ‘should’ have been simple to make instead spent months in development hell with nothing to show for it.

Why Even Bother Talking About It?

As the next generation sidles up to the plate, it’s important to make sure they actually know what they’re doing when they whip out a credit card to buy or ‘invest’ in something. A lot of kids raised on electronics don’t understand the fundamentals behind the internet. Think about it – what does playing RoBlox have to do with learning how to type in a professional voice? Does buying skins from Fortnite tell kids that digital assets are only worth the joy they bring? Does watching Cocomelon on Youtube teach kids about online safety or that adults can lie to them? Just granting access to the tools necessary to learn important lessons isn’t the same as teaching, and can have disastrous consequences when they learn something the hard way. Without actual, guided teaching about spotting scams, these kids learn only what is necessary to have fun online, lose their data, get scammed, get viruses, and suffer for an assumed level of knowledge that they don’t actually have because they were only taught how to click and tap on things. It’s worth talking about. It’s worth teaching. It’s necessary. It probably always will be.

Identifying Buzzwords In Online Hype

Elizabeth Technology February 8, 2024

What is a buzzword? Oxford defines it as a word or phrase, often a bit of jargon, that’s fashionable at a particular time, or in a particular context. It’s the word that tabloids slap into titles in hopes of getting clicks, the term used even where it doesn’t apply because it’s exciting. Spotting buzzwords used as a selling point is not easy. The buzzword in question is often popular only because it’s relevant somewhere, and it can be tough to tell who’s using it correctly!

One tell is if the person using it fails to define the word. Instead, if they seem to repeat themselves about how the tool is used rather than what the word means, it’s an orange flag! The people selling a product may not necessarily understand the technology fully, but they should have a rough idea of how it works, at least well enough to explain why what they’re selling is different from what’s already on the market.

NFTs, for example, fail this test. Almost anything can be made into an NFT, which is non-fungible because it comes with a unique ‘serial code’ on ‘the blockchain’, not because of some immutable property of the item being made unfungible. Nobody who sells them wants to tell you this because it makes it obvious how fragile their value is. The thing’s name alone is confusing, it’s description even moreso, which surely helped bury the lede on how truly useless the average NFT is.

In the health influencer circles, the buzzword of the day has moved on from ‘toxins’ to ‘inflammation’, because the public caught up; in tech circles on social media, it’s gone from cryptocurrency to AI. Once the public catches on, the companies using the word right are able to keep using it, but the companies who aren’t are caught out and have to move on to a new word.

Word In Motion

Secondly, how is the buzzword actually being applied? How is the technology or technique being used to improve the product? What technological advancement had to be made for this new never-before-seen item to work? Was such an advancement made, even in secret? If they can’t even say they have a new process being kept a secret, there is a chance that it’s a Juicero. The Juicero product was a “juice press” that simply squeezed juice out of a proprietary bag, one which could be squeezed by human hands to almost the same effect. There wasn’t anything new about it, it was cobbled together out of products that already existed and failed to be more than the sum of its parts. All the slick marketing and health buzzwords in the world couldn’t have saved it once that came out.

If they do say it’s a secret, but no other expert in the field can figure out how they did it, it’s possible it’s a Theranos situation, where nobody could fully explain how the product worked because it didn’t work. Same for the dozen or so ‘mechanical gill’ products that promise to turn water into breathable air for humans in a product the size of a pair of bicycle handles, which is not currently chemically possible. If it looks and sounds too sci-fi to be true, it probably is. If it’s promising to cure every ailment you have, it likely won’t. If you can’t figure out where the value is stored in the investment, it’s probably not a good investment in the first place!

Tulips and Stanley Cups

Elizabeth Technology February 6, 2024

In the 1630s Netherlands, tulips became the next hot commodity. They’re very pretty, super easy to garden with, and easy to transport thanks to their bulbous root structure. They were also fashionably new to the region at the time. It’s a classic tale of speculative bubbles, where huge amounts of land and sacks of money were traded for individual bulbs right up until the market crashed in 1637. The crash wasn’t as bad as you might think given the cost of investing – those rumors came from an author who wrote about it in 1841, perhaps confusing satirical writings into his book, where manuscript data suggests it was mostly just another trendy item with some big outliers that made the news. It happens today, too! People spent millions on NFTs, and then the market crashed, but the average person buying ‘less valuable’ pictures of cartoon apes with hats and glasses could recover, and the market at large was fine.

Even so, the more realistic tales of the tulip craze are a great window into human psychology. Tulips are pretty; people like pretty things; they will brag about the exclusivity of the pretty things they bought; they will spend a lot of money to signal that they can afford pretty things that last a while; I can buy these things and then resell them for more than they’re strictly worth; I must keep interest in the product high or else my investment will lose its value.

Why the Cup?

NFTs were always worthless. Come on, a picture? Just on the blockchain? But some items fit into this tulip niche where supply is not limited except by an unexpected surge in demand. Most recently, the Stanley Cup!

It is what it says it is – it’s an insulated cup. Much like the original tulip, it’s useful and it comes in pretty colors. Even more like the tulip, it’s being bought and resold at absurd prices, and less savvy investors are taking it as a sign that they can buy a pallet of cups and then resell them at an absurd price.

Images of eBay listings going for hundreds of dollars echo the tulip craze: the thriftier folk looking to get in on the trend may stake out their local Target or Walmart to get a good price on the cup as soon as it comes in, and only a narrow band of people who have money to burn will ‘invest’ in limited edition versions at the eye-watering prices being used to drum up interest in articles. Some take it a step further and collect all of the individual colors of the cup they can find or order, putting up shelves to display dozens of the product theoretically made to reduce the number of disposable cups that someone needs to use and buy. Much like tulips, the visibility of the consumption is part of its allure. The ability to collect, the need to use, the casual display of the cup on a counter, just barely in the video, the showstopping framing of the cup as it’s unboxed or washed with a handful of other cups. The durability of the powder coating, the durability of the straw, the durability of the sliding mechanism, the durability of the label – sure, you could buy some lame local flowers Yeti tumblers, or you could buy the cup that’s on the Tonight Show! The cup for the busiest bees! The brand is truly central to the craze. On TikTok, there’s even a video of a person laminating the (disposable barcode) label so she could tape it back onto the cup without fearing it would tear.

It’s about spending more money than is strictly necessary to obtain a product that has cheaper substitutes, the fact that the tulip is a tulip and not that it’s red or striped, the fact that the Stanley is heavy and powder-coated and Stanley brand, not the fact that it’s good at what it does. You can tell this is the case because the Yeti product is almost identical, but gets sneered at, and – if it’s just for cool beverages – the Hydroflask/Nalgene trend already had this cycle of hype and hypedeath on social media amongst teenagers a couple of years ago. Unlike Hydroflasks, the Stanley’s variety of colors is creating little pockets of scarcity that aren’t actually there, and may keep this craze around for longer as the urge to collect the hot item of the month is never actually satisfied until the buyer has all the colors.

The insanity will one day end, and who knows what resellers or collectors will do with the cups at that point. Just like tulips, the product couldn’t have gotten a foothold if it wasn’t at least decent enough to carry around and look at, and just like tulips, there will likely remain a niche community awaiting the return of the cup madness with fifty different cups on their wall. Remember Hydroflasks? We’ll see it again. It’ll come back around.

The Future Of Microtrends

Hot commodity items find their way into thrift stores and onto secondhand seller sites moments after the first comment on an influencer video declares them overrated. The product is demanded, the product runs out, the company makes more, and then it’s over. This need to be seen and recognized as in-the-loop on TikTok and Instagram leads to people obsessively buying things and then discarding them after they are no longer hot. Companies love this – they get a little better at artificially creating runs on a product every time it happens. The best thing to do is simply not partake in a trend that revolves around buying something. Recipes, dances, and DIY costumes are all plenty of fun and don’t involve buying overpriced fast-fashion or a second-third-fourth reusable cup. Just step away a second. Do you want the product because it’s good and you’ll use it, or because it’s good and it’s trendy?


Food Content That was Never Really Food Content

Elizabeth Technology January 18, 2024

Fake Recipes

The final frontier of Chat GPT on social media seems to be mindless content generation just for the sake of having something to put ads in. Human imagination is being harnessed by machine imagination. Fake recipes are a part of this.

It’s not only the robots, either. Have you ever tried a recipe you saw on Facebook or TikTok only to discover it didn’t work at all like it said it would? Some are so bad they come out inedible. The demand for clicks used to lead to people and companies shoving recipes out the door before they’re strictly ready and foolproofed, but now they’re lucky if something comes out edible.

Robotic Cooking

While content generators like Chat GPT can convincingly talk like people, they have no clue what “gluten” is or what it does. There is a deeper conversation to be had about what that means for art and writing, but for recipes, it just means the robot is scraping up as much information as it can and simply mimicking the shapes it sees in the shadows on the wall for you. It doesn’t know why people knead dough for bread, only that they do in every recipe for it. As such, creative choices within a recipe are due to hallucinations and not an understanding of the underlying principles. It tries to sound human; most humans write something like ‘cream the butter and sugar together, and then add the eggs’ for cakes; it tells you to ‘cream the butter, sugar, and eggs together’ as a result. Someone copies and pastes this somewhere it won’t be challenged, like Facebook, or a mysteriously fresh blog that talks like it’s been online for years and has hundreds of followers. Eventually that page is able to make ad revenue or take sponsorship deals.

Despite the lack of understanding, this rarely results in something that is totally inedible, especially as Chat GPT gets better and better at maintaining a ‘train of thought’ and connecting the beginning of it’s work to the end. That’s assuming anyone even bothers to make what it suggests. Quite a few content aggregator pages simply push generated or incomplete content out because they know their readers won’t bother. Why paint the back of the movie set? While the AI’s work is derivative, it can often achieve mediocrity just by the law of averages. Humans don’t even need to write the fake recipe anymore.

Unrealistic Expectations

Misusing Chat GPT in these scenarios is almost more common than using it ‘correctly’ and adding a disclaimer that it was involved. Noting that AI was involved in written content tends to push some potential viewers away. They don’t want to read fake recipes because they know Chat GPT isn’t a chef, just like they don’t want to read generated books or look at generated photography because it wasn’t made by a human writer or a human photographer. How do you whip up something convincing enough to sell with ads? You give it the trappings of a real recipe, with pictures and a blurb “from the cook” ahead of the recipe itself, just like the humans do.

 Copyrighted work is annoying to work around, so many organizations selling recipe books or posting to recipe websites will often take their own pictures of a finished product. There’s still some manipulation – perhaps a single cookie will be perfectly centered on a cooling rack, or maybe the colors of a gingerbread house will be boosted in edit just a bit – but the picture itself was taken of the thing that was made. The evidence of the recipe working is in the image of the final product. Thus, recipes with pictures are generally trusted to be recipes that work.

Content farms will buy a picture and let you assume it’s the finished product. Worse ones will just steal one.

All it takes is an afternoon with Chat GPT and some Google Image searches, and voila, it looks like this random Instagram page knows what it’s doing when it comes to food. Beautiful, polished pictures of dishes with ‘their recipes’ beneath them blend in with the hundreds or thousands of other pages doing the same. Again, people usually aren’t making the recipe – with the sheer quantity of recipes shared online, nobody could possibly test everything that comes across their dashboard. When some unsuspecting follower does make a recipe, they tend to assume they did something wrong when it looks nothing like the picture. After all, that Instagram page looks coherent enough with its ‘borrowed’ photos!

Stunt Food

That’s not to say humans aren’t also making clickbait. Stunt food, as coined by TikTok, is food made as a stunt. It’s often made by humans just because it’s sheer ridiculousness can’t be cobbled together by Chat GPT’s knowledge of ‘real’ recipes. It uses a number of brightly colored ingredients, there’s usually some bizarre step where you have to soak Cheetos or something else you’d never normally do, and it’s often somehow disturbing. This is because that gets comments and controversy, both of which can be converted into money. There are no recipes for Pringles mashed potatoes created for flavor.

Or, if you see right through those ones, there are still stunt foods trying to grab your attention in a slightly more legit way, although they’re often overly expensive or ask you to run through several dozen steps to get to an end product. Wagyu beef fat candles, for instance, require Wagyu beef fat – but the thing that chefs love about Wagyu beef is not the fat itself, but the marbling, so condensing the tallow into a candle does nothing for the flavor that some good quality meat from a cheaper cow couldn’t do. It’s a byproduct that restaurants use as a novelty, not something that a home chef is meant to make for the sake of the candle itself. Less expensive but still time consuming are the Hundred Hour Brownies, which were rated well but largely considered not worth the effort by the people who successfully recreated the viral dish.

On the milder side of the stunt food spectrum, there are things like window cookies – yes, you can put a Jolly Rancher into a cookie with a hole cut out of it and melt it to get a stained glass effect that is totally edible, but the resulting cookie is pretty difficult to eat because the hard candy re-solidifies just as hard as it started. Even though it’s completely recreatable by even a beginner home chef, it’s better as edible decoration. Low-end stunt food looks good in photos, tastes middling IRL.

Find Someone You Like

Not all bad recipes come from generators and content farms! Even the best chefs in the world make mistakes or forget to clarify. Some recipes that work in Carolina stop working in Colorado thanks to barometric differences, and it’s not the Carolinan’s fault. The reason we’re seeing all of these weird recipes today is because there are only so many ways to make white sandwich bread, or chocolate chip cookies, or brownies – rather than risk sinking into an ocean of similar recipes, making 100 hour brownies or garlic white sandwich bread gives a blog more traction, and makes their success a bit more likely in the face of the surrounding content flood.

Legally Writing From a Copyrighted Base

Elizabeth Technology January 16, 2024

You can’t profit off of fanfiction. Or can you?

Fanfiction, fiction written about fiction by the fans of said fiction, has existed for as long as fiction itself. Many folktales could be considered fanfiction. If someone besides Aesop comes up with a fable using Aesop’s characters, that’s in the general spirit of fanfiction.

Fanfiction straddles a border between the right to be creative and draw inspiration, and the right to own one’s own creations under copyright. For a long time online, it was a fight simply to allow fanfiction to exist where others could read it, works crafted simply for the love of the original series and the other members of the fanbase. Ann Rice was famously litigious around any fanfiction of her Interview With a Vampire series. Remnants of this period are unfortunately few, but when you see something like “I don’t own these characters and don’t make profit off of this work, please don’t sue me”, you’re seeing a response to the environment created in the wake of overly strict copyright enforcement.

Today, fanfiction is allowed simply to exist on the open web, but its creators are not allowed to draw profit from it. Larger websites like Archive of Our Own are strictly nonprofit, and explicitly forbid their authors from using their works to promote their Patreons because this could be interpreted as profiting off the work, which is still a legal minefield.

Little Tweaks

However, that’s not to say that fanfiction can’t be used to make money, full stop. Outside of its obvious usefulness as practice for totally independent works, a completed fanfiction is in itself a work of art. In the right hands, a pre-existing work of fiction can be molded into something totally different, while only retaining the core characters. There’s a trope within fandom spaces of the “Coffee Shop AU” – AU stands for Alternate Universe, as in an alternate universe where it makes sense for Scully of X Files fame to be working in a coffee shop, and see Mulder as one of the regulars. Or, hey, what if SpongeBob was in Star Wars as Luke, and Squidward was Darth Vader? The SpongeBob Star Wars AU? What would they get up to? The limits of fanfiction are nonexistent – the only limit is the human imagination. If someone were to slightly tweak the names, the setting is already completely different. It would become a different work of fiction, one that could be sold without violating copyright laws.

This has already happened, in fact – at least two separate books that imagine Rey and Kylo Ren from Star Wars getting together under better circumstances have been published by separate authors, free and clear of copyright issues. While the source material was the same, and they both in theory feature a character similar to Rey and a character similar to Kylo Ren, the two are wildly different from both the source and each other. Every fanfiction is, barring actual plagiarism, because even mainstays such as the Coffee Shop AU are interpreted totally differently by each individual writer taking a crack at it.

Many of these writers found a fanbase because they were able to publish their fanfiction for free on websites designed for the purpose. People could access their work, for free, because publishing it was necessarily free. The author was able to connect to people who were looking for something to read because they love a particular show or book series, and out of that, build something familiar but new. This system, where completed works can be uploaded for public comment, couldn’t have existed just a decade prior – the copyright system is a bit of a mess, but at least fanfiction’s right to exist at all in public is being defended. If it wasn’t, many great writers would never try to publish anything at all for a lack of practice or reassurance that there are people willing to read what they write.

Content Mills and Fan-Fiction Theft

Elizabeth Technology January 11, 2024

If you’re online at all, it’s possible you saw a sudden spike in interest around plagiarism recently. A Youtube creator known as HBomberGuy released a longform video demonstrating how a couple of other big creators on the platform were plagiarizing content. This in itself was a huge reveal, and a giant rugpull for all of the people who were fans of the creators being put on trial, but the secondary result – a swarm of content mills also being called out for plagiarism – is now shaking out between a bunch of online archives and Youtube.

Stealing Fanfictions

Fanfiction is a tricky area, legally. Fanfiction’s right to exist was (and still is) heavily contested, but we’re in a place now where large nonprofit archives (such as Archive of Our Own, one of the largest) can host fanfictions and creative writing projects for others to read, so long as the creatives don’t make profit off of the work elsewhere (such as Patreon or via donations made specifically for access to the work). This is itself an interesting system, but the point to focus on for this article is that profit part. You cannot profit off of characters you don’t own the rights to if they aren’t public domain. To make any profit off of the work, an author must at least change the characters’ names and the setting. Again, interesting, but not the point.

User AConstantStateOfBladeRunner on Tumblr (alongside a few others) have started hunting down Youtube channels plagiarizing the work of fanfiction authors. The channels generally either generate or take an image relevant to the fanfiction, put the fanfiction itself through an AI voice generator as a script, and then simply upload the image plus the audio directly to Youtube as a listenable video. Some channels bother to frame the content as a “what if?”, where the premise of the fanfiction is used as a title instead of the actual title of the fanfiction. Others just steal the title and add keywords so it’s easier to find by searches.  

These channels are scooping up ad revenue where fanfiction authors are legally forbidden from doing so.

Potential Landmines

Stealing another person’s work is scummy. It’s plagiarism. There are plenty of tools within academics dedicated specifically to sussing out plagiarism, because it has a degenerative effect on whatever field it’s happening in. However, when the product is published for free, there’s an inherent lack of leverage between parties. A school could deduct points for not submitting via Turnitin to avoid the plagiarism detectors. A judge can penalize you for submitting poorly cited work as a lawyer. A paper could decide not to continue using your services if it turns out you’d been stealing reviews from other, smaller papers. But when it comes to fanfiction, written for free and consumed for free using copywritten content as a base, what happens to a thief?

One particular creator in HBomberGuy’s video was directly copyright claimed by Mental Floss, which owned the right to publish the article that the creator had used as a script. You can’t necessarily do that with fanfiction – the path from ‘copyright owner’ to ‘theft of copyrighted work’ is not nearly as linear. Obviously, it’s scummy to take someone else’s work and not give them credit, but they don’t own the characters either, just anything unique they added to the fanwork.

The only clear part of the equation is in the profit – the video is making money, which is expressly forbidden, but the fanwork original is not. If this draws attention from the wrong company, the channel might get copyright stricken for pulling in a profit on the content they stole. At the very least, they may be demonetized. This is such a potential minefield that a handful of the channels pointed out by AConstantStateOfBladeRunner would rather just yoink the video as soon as it’s noticed by the author than even try to win at the YouTube copyright takedown system. It’s imperfect, as just as many argue in favor of their theft or try to make the author go away by ignoring them. Because the content is transformative of the original copywritten work, that could only be countered by getting to a real human at YouTube rather than their automated copyright system. The copyright laws of today will be outdated by tomorrow – every day, someone finds a new way to jack content and re-label it as their own. This whole subsection of content farming wouldn’t have been possible before AI generated voices got better, because just reading these things out and editing that audio clip is much more work than it’s worth. Finding fanfiction on the open web was also difficult until very recently. Who knows what tool will be misused tomorrow?