Posts Tagged

internet phenomena

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.

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.

Sources:

https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/06/what-happened-at-tanacon.html

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.

Please don’t scan random QR codes

Elizabeth Technology October 4, 2022

The Past and Present of Random Links

Before the age of built in antivirus and user-friendly web design, it was entirely possible to wander onto a webpage that would just start downloading something malicious out of nowhere. Popups that did this were a serious problem, and many browsers responded by working in a sort of zero-trust philosophy. Firefox, for example, will tell you when a site has tried to open a pop-up, and asks you if you still want to open it. This does occasionally catch honest secondary windows (like payment portals and the like) but the great thing about that is that because it asked, you can say ‘yes, I wanted that to open’ and you’re not stuck with some horrid flashing popup dominating your screen every other time.

Aside from popups, some websites were able to either trick users into downloading things by mimicking a real website, or simply start downloading things themselves as soon as they were clicked. Separate antivirus programs were needed to combat phishing downloads alongside other website trash, as browsers can’t always differentiate between intentional and unintentional downloads. In this era of the internet, misclicking or accidentally misspelling a website URL could be catastrophic for the computer. Big hosting companies protect their hosted websites now by preventing others from registering domains that are almost the target URL, but not quite (a form of domain squatting) but this wasn’t always the case.

Furthermore, hyperlinks can be used to trick people into clicking things they’d otherwise have avoided. Remember Rick Rolling? Every trick that anyone has ever used to Rick Roll you can also be used to get you to click on, and download, something you don’t want on your computer. Disguised hyperlinks. Obfuscated URLs that re-route a couple of times to get you to lower your guard. Clickable buttons, in place of links. Social engineering. The list goes on!

The False Sense of Security

The modern web as most people browse it is a safer place than it used to be. Google’s SEO is partly to blame – users who report unpleasant website experiences or demonstrate that the website isn’t good by leaving within so many seconds of it loading will lead to that website appearing lower in the search results, until eventually Google stops letting it pop up near the top at all. Hosting services are also partly to blame – they have a monetary interest in keeping their websites whitelisted, and malicious websites screw that up for them. Plus, it’s sort of scummy. Would you want to do business with a company that passively allowed one of its clients to wreck another potential client’s car? Probably not!

Antivirus and default browser settings take care of much of the rest. But these things don’t mean the nastier parts of the web have stopped existing, they just mean it’s harder to get there without doing so intentionally. Users don’t fear clicking on links that lead to sources or Ko.Fi services because it’s been so long since that was a problem. Forum users click through links with no fear. While not a perfect breeding ground for scam links to come back (most people still know and remember the warning signs) it is a perfect breeding ground for something new built on old foundations – QR code scams.

QR Codes

A QR code is a sort of bar code that’s recorded in two dimensions (vertical and horizontal) instead of one. Almost every modern phone (and many of the outdated ones) come with a QR-reading feature built in. QR codes and code readers have a high tolerance for missing or damaged information, making it a fantastic resource for quick and easy link-loading – where a barcode is unreadable if a bar is missing, a QR code can often still be read if squares are missing or obscured. Advertisements, verification texts, digital menus, libraries, virtual queues, etc. all benefit from how simple it is to whip out a phone and point the camera at a black and white square for a few seconds. It’s even easier than typing in a link, and you can direct users to specific pages with gangly URLs without worrying how that URL is going to look on printed material – the user isn’t going to see the URL anymore, they’re going to see the QR code!

This lead to things like QR code stickers that would lead to individual GIFs or art project websites out in public, a form of easy-to-remove graffiti that still showed off some art in today’s hyper-online world. QR codes gave restaurants and their diners an easy way to see a digital menu without having to type in a URL. It also made Rick Rolling easy again.

You’re probably already seeing the issue here: when users can’t see the URL, they have no way of knowing where they’re going to end up when they scan it. A hyperlink’s true destination is visible to a user when they press and hold on mobile, or hover their mouse pointer over it on desktop – the same is not universally true for QR codes (some phones and programs show the link before asking you to continue, but many do not). The scam potential for these codes is off the charts because many do not understand them as ‘links’ but as ‘scannable objects’.

Discord Scam

For example, the recent slew of Discord scams! Essentially, what happens is a scammer compromises an account, either by password brute-forcing or by social engineering, and sends messages to everyone on that person’s friend list saying things like “ummm idk if this is really you or not but it was your name and it says you sent a girl gross stuff like wtf? Check the #shame tag and you’ll see it. I’m blocking you just in case, I can’t be friends with a predator”. They then send a link inviting you to join the Discord server mentioned in the message, and block you so you can’t continue to chat with them. As this is a compromised account and may be pretending to be someone you actually speak to on the regular, this can be very alarming. The first instinct is to join the server so you can defend yourself against whatever allegations have allegedly been made in that server! It presents you with a QR code to join the server that this compromised account has sent to you so you can clear your name and get your friend to unblock you, but when you scan it, it tricks your phone into giving over the login credentials for your Discord, compromising your account and continuing the scam.

This is the sort of scam that happened all the time before people grew wary of random DM’ed links! Here we are again, re-learning not to trust people that talk like bots and the things those bot-people/compromised accounts send us.

Sources: https://mamoru.tumblr.com/post/688687077511086080/new-discord-hacking-scam 

Tone Tags – the Result of Constant Bad-Faith Readings

Elizabeth Technology September 20, 2022

The internet’s a tough, cynical place. You may have heard of Poe’s Law, which states that parody and the thing the parody is parodying may be indistinguishable from one another, or maybe you’ve just been on the receiving end of a scathing Twitter retweeter who mistakenly assumed you were being sarcastic instead of genuine. Most human languages use some sort of tonal change to indicate things like mood and whether something is a question – even American sign language encourages the use of facial expression and exaggerated movements to convey intense emotion. Text, however, is pretty limited. You have word choice, punctuation, and occasionally the ability to italicize or bold or change the color of words to get a different message across. But you can’t do it everywhere, and you can’t trust that the other side of the screen will read it as you intended. Going ALL CAPS TO INDICATE EXCITEMENT!! Can also be read as aggression or indicate shock.

Tone tags are one possible solution to this hurtle! Tone tags are tags that indicate tone, usually included at the end of a sentence. Some common ones are /pos (positive tone intended) /hj (half-joking tone intended) /j (joking tone intended) /gen (genuine tone intended) and more. Instead of having to phrase something especially carefully so it doesn’t come across as sarcastic (or couldn’t possibly be read that way) you can simply attach a /pos to the end and know that if they misread it after that, that’s on them, not you. They’re not exactly common yet, and are sometimes considered a bit cringey (not being able to distinguish tone can be a symptom of social awkwardness or isolation IRL) but they’re at worst harmless fluff.  

So why are they getting popular?

Shooting The Messenger

 I witnessed an exchange in a Tumblr post where one user asked “So how exactly is [X] considered [Y]?” Another user, notably not the creator of the post, gave an explanation: “[X] could be considered [Y] for [these reasons], I think.” The first user then responded “Well, [X.a] and [X.b] come together to make [Z], not [Y] in the US, so again how exactly is [X] considered [Y].” The second responder had to clarify that they were just giving the same explanation they’d seen online, not that they were pushing [X] = [Y], and apologized. The exchange ended there.

The first user, in the process of defending their thesis that X and Y were not alike, accidentally came across as though they were snapping at the second person for giving this response, even though I’m sure that if this conversation had happened in real life they wouldn’t have responded in the same way. The phrasing could be neutral, but asking for more info the way they did (assuming that’s what they were doing) came across pretty harsh.

Unfortunately, shooting the messenger like this online is pretty common! The second responder wasn’t the one pushing [X]=[Y], but they were the one who responded and answered the question in its most literal interpretation. The problem is that the question itself was partially rhetorical because the first user knows what the answer ‘should’ be – which was “X actually DOESN’T equal Y” (although they may have also been asking for more clarification on how X could possibly equal Y and the second person just didn’t know what to tell them without writing an essay covering every possible corner of that problem), but many rhetorical questions just look like regular questions without the additional context of a normal social interaction. They ask, someone answers in good faith based on what others have said about the subject, they respond to it as if it wasn’t in good faith at all because it was missing information or wasn’t providing anything new.

Tone tags could be worth using here if only so neither side feels like they’re suddenly playing defense.

Asking Questions Accusatorily

Trolls have a nasty habit of asking questions that seem innocuous but are designed to eventually lead to an argument. Unfortunately, the point of those questions is that they’re plausibly deniable – maybe the person asking really didn’t know what or why something happened. For example: a question like “so why is your dog still wearing his correction collar in the house?” online can either be a real question asked with the intent to gain knowledge, or an attempt to pick a fight where the poster has to defend themselves against a stranger’s worst assumption. If this were real life, you’d almost certainly know immediately what that question was meant to do, but in an online environment where the other party is just some anonymous commentator you’ve never seen before, it’s impossible to tell until you’re already in the weeds of an argument! Tone tags here could prevent a lot of back-and-forth.

Semi-Intentional Misreading

There’s a joke online that tells you to load up on apples and pike them outside your house because it will keep doctors away. The joke here, of course, is based off the misunderstanding that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” not because it’s a healthy thing to eat, but because doctors are afraid of or hate apples. This is funny! When it happens in an online argument and someone reaches for the poorest-faith interpretation of what you said, it’s… less funny. Especially in a close setting like a Discord chat, where you’re having to guess if this person is actually stupid enough to think you were criticizing X when you said Z was your favorite, or if they somehow never heard that people are allowed, individually, to pick a favorite, and your favorite overrides theirs. Yikes.

Jokes Are Just Funny Insults

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if someone was joking or if they were deliberately trying to be insulting. Some people even take advantage of this to become Schrodinger’s Douchebag, where the response to their joke determines whether or not they were joking with intent to insult or not. However, there are some amount of people who write a joke out, didn’t re-read it with an especially critical eye, and then posted. People online then mistakenly assume they were trying to pull a Schrodinger when they instead just didn’t fully think the joke through. Maybe they made a joke about an internet celebrity assuming that nobody outside their small circle of Twitter mutuals would ever see it. Maybe they made a joke that relied on sarcasm, but what they wrote wasn’t recognizable as sarcasm to less discerning audiences. Being able to tag what tone you meant to convey with a statement (half joking, joking, sarcasm, etc.) can save some agony if strangers have even a slight chance of misinterpreting your words in a misguided attempt to get some interaction or attention. Of course, it won’t stop all of them, but it may stop a dogpile started by yanking the joke out of context if the initial poster can point to a tag and say, definitively, that they meant it as a joke from the start. Not after they started getting mean retweets about it.

Actual Utility

There are cases where these just don’t work out. Of course a troll is never going to mark a comment as /trolling, and a certain subset of people are always going to interpret their own actions in the best possible light – so a question like “are you aware you’re literally killing the planet when you do [X]? /gen” is almost certainly still going to appear because they do think they’re being genuine and they do think they’re using the tag correctly despite the inflammatory phrasing.

The main problem is that these tags assume good faith! The best communication strategies decrease noise and increase the efficiency of message transmission, and these can only do that if everyone understands them and agrees to use them correctly. While these tags will work for well-regulated, well-moderated communities on the internet, I don’t think they would survive if applied to Twitter as a whole. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth using, it just means that they can’t be used everywhere – some online communities are finding they have a lot of utility already.

The Panopticon Comes for Your Playlist

Elizabeth Technology September 13, 2022

Artists can see what playlists you add their songs to on Spotify.

That hasn’t really been a problem – most were polite enough to simply look the other way, understanding that users aren’t always aware of that feature and that a playlist can get pretty personal once you’re not assembling something for a party or a road trip.

Having the info and admitting that you actually look at it pretty closely was not something you’d want to post publicly. You may want to analyze where the song is ending up most often, as it can give you a hint as to where listeners are hearing you, who they associate you with, and how much they like you, but you do not need to post that info. That’s for you, the artist, not everyone else. If it was supposed to be for everyone else, they would have made it that way.

However, now TikTok is here, and Indie artists are not only posting where their songs are ending up, but criticizing their listeners for what they’re calling the playlist. The panopticon has come for your playlist titles.

The Panopticon

The panopticon is a concept for a prison in which the cells are arranged to circle a central guard tower that has visibility of all of them, and the prisoners cannot see where the guard is looking. As a result, most of the prisoners begin behaving as though they’re always being looked at, with all of the stress and lack of perceived privacy that entails, even if they’re not doing anything wrong and not planning to either. The digital panopticon may even be slightly worse as it’s constantly giving you signals that it is watching and hey, don’t you want these cool curtains we showed you? You looked at them. Your mouse hovered over them. Algorithms for ads and algorithms for content are aiming to make a profile out of you, so they can subtly manipulate your behavior into buying or consuming more. To do that, they must watch.

But it doesn’t stop there. Real people are often contributing to the panopticon, both willingly and unwillingly! Social media is constantly threatening to doxx people, even when the person in question, realistically, doesn’t deserve that sort of response. Look at West Elm Caleb – algorithmic recommendations on TikTok lead to all of the people he’d slighted seeing each other’s videos, because the algorithm weighs video makers close to viewers heavier than ones who are far away. He was dating a lot of women local to his area, so those women, who were total strangers in most cases, ended up seeing each other on TikTok and commiserating over this guy ghosting them. That would have been a simple ‘haha, this guy sucks’ moment for them as a group, something friends IRL have all the time… if it hadn’t all happened in full view of the completely public TikTok trending page, where anonymous strangers could watch.

Strangers online who’d seen those videos overreacted, trying to get him fired from his job, trying to find out his real location, trying in general to make his life miserable over ghosting some people. Most of the women who’d made or commented on videos with personal experiences about this guy didn’t want that to happen to him, but it was already too late! Others decided they had been slighted, and that he needed to be punished so other ghosting men would watch their backs or something. Sometimes witch hunts just happen because they’re fun for everyone but the alleged witch.

Even if they’d still made the same videos and comments, and even if they’d still been public, this wouldn’t have happened if the collective internet wasn’t so enthralled with ‘making examples’ out of total strangers in order to showcase how the anonymous hivemind, the social media panopticon, is always watching, always waiting for missteps so it can punish. Aberrations from the norm will not be tolerated. It took collaborative internet sleuthing to find this guy off the incredibly limited description ‘West Elm Caleb’, which only says that his name is Caleb and he lives in West Elm, but by golly did TikTok manage to do it. His internet footprint wasn’t anything special or distinctive, but it was enough to make his life scary for a few weeks until everyone lost interest again.

Social media is always watching, and even if they’re not, so much of you can be saved and then looked at later for review that they may as well be.

The Content Machine

Back to Spotify! As I said, TikTok is what turned this ability to see what playlists your songs have been used in into a problem. You can’t stop posting on any service using an algorithm, because that would make you a bad content creator, and bad content creators don’t get any favor with the algorithm even if said ‘bad’ creator is well-liked – just not constantly producing. Indie bands and music artists struggle more than most to get people to give their stuff a listen, and so they resort to producing content the algorithm will like just so they have a consistent content schedule and have a better shot at being seen – and then listened to.

A few musicians on TikTok realized that Spotify could be used for that easy schedulable content, and started doing that. At first, the videos were simply showing funny or potentially worrying playlist titles, sort of a wink and a nudge that the song was sad and putting it in ‘sad songs to listen to when you remember her’ might warrant that person seeking out actual help instead of just making a playlist about it.

And then I saw this one.

Always Watching and Scrutinizing

The text over the video at the start reads “Looking at the playlists y’all put my songs on until I find ones that isn’t made by a self proclaimed real life supervillain ( teenager who sometimes does a little pose in the mirror and pretends they are evil)” . The caption reads “YOU HAVE NEVER HAD A UNIQUE EXPERIENCE I SEE YOU ALL”. This post is about their song ‘Bad Luck!’.

Is this not completely bizarre? Even your playlist titles need to be ready-to-view and socially acceptable because an artist in the playlist might ‘call you out’ on it if you’re not unique enough, if you’re being too edgy, or if you’re otherwise being ‘cringe’. You thought that title was for you and your music sorting purposes? Think again, he can see it, and he’ll post about it online!

But it doesn’t matter if he thinks it’s cringe because it’s not for him. The playlist titles cater to the taste of the playlist creator, not him. He just happens to be able to see it, and as both a social media content creator and an eye of the panopticon, he must make an observation about it, consume it and synthesize an opinion and then give the opinion to other eyes, his TikTok following, so more consumption and opinion synthesis can be produced to fuel the algorithm and the machine behind that.

The Other Part of It

Besides that – which really is enough to end the argument by itself – if he’s going to make a video noting that a bunch of people who listened to his song put it in a themed playlist for when they want to listen to music and imagine a theme to go with it, why not… just admit that that’s the song he wrote? That the song ultimately fits the supervillain theme, instead of calling the listeners unoriginal? Even if they got the idea from each other, not all of those playlists are the same. The kids listening all have different ideas of what this playlist should be, otherwise they’d be passing around one playlist titled Supervillain Arc (because Spotify allows you to search for public playlists by name), not each making their own.

While some songs get added to playlists because the listener only heard a snip of it off TikTok and misinterpreted the song (hello Strawberry Blond by Mitski), at this point, the number of streams (which you can see in the video) should tell him that it hasn’t been removed from the supervillain playlists for a reason. Spotify playlist titles aren’t for the artists, they’re for the creator of the playlist, right? So their perception that this song belongs there, in their cringey uncool posing-in-the-mirror supervillain X3 playlist, is their call. Not the artist’s.

As a side note, it’s also not fair to dunk on kids and teens for having questionable taste in music, music mixes, and playlist titles – especially since they often end up being right about what’s actually groundbreaking and cool and history-making. Little Richard, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis, more modern groups like Metallica, or even more modern groups like MCR and Paramore have had majority teen audiences in their time. Every time, the critics have had to begrudgingly admit that the teens were right and this phenomenon is actually cool, only to have to re-learn this lesson the next time something cool came around. Having a teen audience is a fine sign you’re writing something good – why be annoyed by it?

Does Digital Content Have to Be Made Scarce?

Elizabeth Technology September 8, 2022

NFTs

The ever-unpopular NFT is a fantastic example of artificial scarcity, and how creating it can be actively harmful. An NFT, or non-fungible token, can be many things as long as it’s non-fungible and also a token. However, the first people to capitalize on the concept ended up creating hundreds of copycats, and what those trendsetters made was profile pictures. Big names in the NFT market create pictures of monkeys and lions with swappable accessories and attach them to a blockchain token, thus making them ‘rare’ and ‘expensive’. Nobody else is allowed to buy the exact orientation of accessories you have on your lion until you decide to sell (in theory – this article isn’t about security or the ethics of just making an identical image on a different token).

However, once you start analyzing this beyond a cursory glance, things start to fall apart.

Firstly, maintaining a social media presence and building hype for a project is more important than the project itself – better art and better ideas fall to the wayside of Bored Apes and Lions, who won the most followers with an ugly but mass-marketable artstyle that’s easily recognized and easily used as profile pics. Leagues of people buy tokens that become worthless once the project creators abandon the project, so buying from new people who don’t have hype and internet fame is riskier than sticking to who’s already known and who wouldn’t be able to disappear (the Bored Apes guys’ names are known).

Secondly, people aren’t in it because they love the art, they’re in it because it’s a business scheme. This was deliberate. The art is often, to describe it charitably, maximalist, not something you’d dump thousands of dollars into unless you thought you could sell it for thousands more.

Thirdly, the blockchain can’t store the entire image in high quality within it, so instead it sort of just acts as a link to a viewing platform. If the viewing platform goes down, so does the NFT. The actual image is usually just a PNG, so when someone saves it as a Twitter avatar, anybody else can come right-click and save the image, and there’s nothing the NFT owner can do to stop them. One party has slightly more rights to use the image for profit (NFT ownership often comes with the creators willing to overlook minor copyright violations because it means free advertising, but this is also a downside because nobody really knows how much freedom they have if it’s not laid out explicitly) but both can look at it, save it, use it non-commercially, etc.

Fourthly, NFTs are not great for the environment – creating a blockchain for a token requires a lot of computing power, and a lot of computing power means a lot of energy consumption. The ones that don’t aren’t really blockchain, and while that doesn’t matter in any sort of real way when it comes to the art (realistically, someone could just write the names of the buyers in a physical notebook and achieve the same “unhackable” record of ownership, although it wouldn’t update without notifying the notebook holder of a sale), it matters to the people buying, who are often targeted because they don’t fully understand what it is they own.

Every aspect of this suuuucks. It’s artificial scarcity in its purest form.

FlexPlay

Flexplay is a close contender for ‘worst idea to make media scarce’. We do have a more in depth article of it, too, if you want to read more about it HERE. Essentially, media during this time period was mostly restricted by play protection on the discs, as well as the existence and quantity of the discs available for purchase. There were a finite number of discs of any particular movie, but those discs could be played effectively infinitely so long as they were stored properly. VHSs were on their way out, so they were often cheap as dirt; DVDs and Blu-Ray, the discs of the future, could cost 20$ for a new movie. Box sets were comically expensive. Movies were popular and plentiful, and rentals filled a valuable niche for content that wasn’t great but wasn’t awful. Buy the movies you loved – rent everything else.

Flexplay popped up in a time where people were shifting more and more towards convenience at the expense of experience. Blockbusters were facing competition from Netflix (which was sending subscribers DVDs through the mail), Gamefly (which did that but for games), Redbox (an automated kiosk for renting discs hassle-free), the internet (although by downloads and not streaming), and a number of startups. People didn’t want to rent something and then drive back to drop it off in two days’ time anymore if they could just get a letter in the mail, or get it from a box in front of the grocery store, and drop it right back off in the same place they picked it up. Flexplay wanted to capitalize on this.

Essentially, Flexplay’s premise was that it would allow people to rent a DVD without having to return it from where it came, something none of the other services could do. The disc, made of a special plastic, would begin to react once the packaging was opened and the disc was exposed to air, changing color until a DVD reader would no longer be able to read it. This would allow people to ‘rent’ the content for a price higher than a regular rental, but they wouldn’t have to return the disc anywhere once they were done with it. They could just throw it away and buy another Flexplay disc.

There are plenty of problems with this. Flexplay lead their sales pitch with the disposability of the discs, but people were beginning to realize the full impact of plastic pollution post Al Gore and mid-internet, so they had to pull back once they realized that was bad marketing. But how? The plastic wasn’t the kind you could put in regular bottle recycling, and the disc’s appeal was entirely in that you didn’t have to drive back to the place you got the disc from, so bringing it to a special recycling facility wasn’t the part they wanted to advertise. It was more expensive than Redbox and Netflix by a couple dollars to boot.

Thankfully, the reusable discs that were already in circulation won out big time before Netflix went to streaming and crushed a lot of the competition. Redbox still exists, too – the content doesn’t need to self destruct (or even be returned, really) for the company to make a profit off it. But that’s rentals, not unlimited forever-streaming or owning the disc.

Password Sharing

Speaking of which, Netflix!

Now that media can’t be restricted by the medium it’s in, how do you make money off of it? Netflix’s subscriber-based streaming service was a great deal for consumers, but it has almost always lost Netflix money. When Netflix began to stabilize, it started spending even more money on bigger and bigger projects, pulling people in with dramatic effects rivalling blockbuster movies. Content flowed freely, and money went out as soon as it went in.

But growth can’t be infinite if there aren’t infinite eyes to watch infinite shows. Now, Netflix is trying desperately to trim off programs to survive a recent downturn (as of 2022) but in the process it’s cut a ton of good media (and all of its animated series that were in development) in order to preserve a couple of backbone projects. This is not much different from what Netflix has historically done, unfortunately, and it may not save them. Showrunners and the people putting together a series get an upgraded contract of sorts after their second season, so Netflix almost always cuts the third season of a show unless it’s a wild success like Stranger Things. If you felt like Netflix was kneecapping shows right as they got good, you weren’t imagining it. They were churning through content to boast how big their library was, even if a huge chunk of it was unfinished. That worked great when trying to get people to cut cable by showing they’d still have plenty to watch if they switched, but now that everyone’s got a streaming service, it’s no longer a viable marketing technique. What is Netflix to do? It literally cannot continue to cut. But it can’t continue to produce when watchers are hesitant to get into a show that might not make it more than two seasons – they’ve been burnt too many times before.

They are having to come up with a way to make what they already have seen more desirable while also creating scarcity so they can actually make money. Everyone has a streaming service now, and what Netflix specifically has is no longer special, and their library, as mentioned before, is not better than Paramount’s or Disney’s. The ads announcement didn’t go well, because it’s totally opposed to what Netflix’s whole thing was, and the password crackdown announcement went even worse.

Pushing scarcity of access is the only real way to create scarce digital media, but as Netflix has shown, if you don’t do it right, you can tank your business – and people will pirate. The content itself is not actually ‘scarce’. Consumers won’t tolerate it.

HBO’s recent blunder of deleting a ton of animated content off it’s platform has lost it 20 billion dollars in market cap, and it’s as of yet unclear if it will fully recover (as of late August 2022).

The Overall Scene

Digital content can be replicated near-infinitely given the proper formatting and computing resources. In a world ever-more eager to pirate, from fashion companies stealing indie designs and prints to websites dedicated almost entirely to streaming TV shows illegitimately, what can creators do to ensure they still make profit on their product, or at least break even?

The answer lies somewhere in the middle of all of these problems. Netflix’s subscription model works great for shows but not so great for images; the NFT solution to infinitely replicable, high-quality images leaves something to be desired on almost every front, including illegitimately using indie artists’ work and prints, again. And it doesn’t work for streamed content.

Navigating this tricky future is going to require a focus on equity for the little guys, because if it doesn’t, they’ll be chased out by pirates.