Posts Tagged

Social media

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.

Sources:

Reddit.com/r/TargetedShirts

https://www.vox.com/2018/4/11/17177842/facebook-advertising-ads-explained-mark-zuckerberg

https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-50817561

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.

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?

Sources: https://www.history.com/news/tulip-mania-financial-crash-holland

Why Is Everyone So Disappointed in the CyberTruck?

Elizabeth Technology February 1, 2024

Safety Concerns

You’ve seen the body. You’ve probably seen the interior dash. If this thing gets into an accident, it will win over any other vehicle or passengers, including its own. It is a return to the old steel-body cars but worse, with small crumple zones and a 3 mm thick steel plate for a shell. It’s undeniably sturdy. The car itself could survive a lot, which sounds cool and futuristic for a car that one day might not need passengers, but anything inside of it is subjected to its design in the event of a crash.

Secondly, pinch points! One video of the CyberTruck’s motor-driven hood-closing mechanism shows it cleaving through a carrot without stopping (Out Of Spec Reviews on TikTok and Youtube). There is no pinch detection in the front, which wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t motorized! Isn’t this the car of the future? Why is there no pinch detection? Human fingers are tougher than carrots, yes, which is why when it comes to safety demos, you don’t want it to cut through the carrot to demonstrate that it definitely won’t hurt your precious fingies. The guy in that video then put his fingers further down into the seam (so the sharp point at the window area wouldn’t break the skin) and the trunk simply shut over them, leaving him stuck. He couldn’t reach the button on the front that would tell the truck he wanted to open it again. It didn’t break anything, but getting unstuck alone would have been painful. At least there is a phone app allowing you to remotely free yourself, but without proper pinch protection, it’s at best capable of trapping someone, at worst capable of biting off fingers, if it’s someone with the keys but not the app.

One major and one minor complaint for safety seems about right for a major deviation from the norm for cars, and the pinch detection should be relatively easy to include in later models – that’s not all people are concerned about, though.

Electronics

While stringing electronics together seems to make sense, it’s actually not a great idea! We stopped making Christmas string lights that way because of the massive inconvenience of finding a dead bulb when the strand went out, because you had to find it to get the whole string working again. Unfortunately, from consumer complaints online, it seems like this philosophy is working similarly for the Cybertruck, alongside another major issue – dead screens!

Dead Screen errors on these Cybertrucks make it impossible to drive thanks to the huge amount of functionalities relying on the screen as a controller. In fairness to Tesla, most cars with screens instead of proper center consoles with buttons have that problem, so this isn’t Tesla-specific, but when your car is called The Cybertruck, some level of advancement beyond the competition is expected. The truck of the future shouldn’t be so much like the Disney Park Star Wars zone in both appearance, wait to access, and functionality.

 Lastly, the battery life. This is the biggest sticking point, which sucks because it’s tough to tell who is reporting reliably and who’s just pointing and laughing at the car because they don’t like the brand. Trucks are, generally speaking, meant for hauling stuff. The design of the Cybertruck’s truck bed is already straining supporter goodwill given how little it holds, but the truck has a front trunk to boost its storage space, so as long as what you’re hauling can be split into two separate loads, this isn’t such a huge point of contention. A lot of people don’t buy trucks out of a need to haul stuff every weekend, after all. What really has fans ticked off is the inconsistent range of the battery under load! The car itself is heavy, but so is every electric vehicle. Unlike that screen thing above, the Tesla sells itself on being the better electric car, so to not beat Ford and Rivian’s range while hauling or towing makes its marketing feel like it was fudging its numbers. Especially in the cold! Electronics run out of juice faster in the cold thanks to a number of chemical processes slowing down under the hood – the Cybertruck, according to early reports from consumers, can’t hit 80% of its expected range in the cold if it’s hauling too. Those are not ideal conditions, obviously, but if we’re going to keep getting freak snowstorms as far south as Texas, car manufacturers must adapt, or at least do some additional testing in the cold to avoid stranding customers who took ‘470 miles in ideal conditions’ as simply ‘470 miles’, full stop.

All in all, the Cybertruck is simply another electric truck. It looks cool, it’s made (perhaps too) tough, and it suffers many of the same issues as its competitors. For fans who were used to Tesla leading the way, this is a let down.

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?

Buying A Personality and Identity

Elizabeth Technology January 9, 2024

Being from a group of people has been coopted into another way to sell you stuff.

Frogs, Possums, Rats, and Pigeons

 There’s a particular collection of animals that people love to see online, just not in person. Animals that are funny, a little bit charismatic (not a lot) and accessible, but only with difficulty. Associating one of these animals with your social media account in a specific way will signal to other people from this group that you’re under thirty, perhaps by a lot; online a lot of the time; hip; and generally steered towards positive content made to be cute or funny. You like possums? So do a lot of the Gen-Z and Millennial generations on TikTok and Instagram! Drawing these animals in cowboy hats or high heels is a great skate ramp straight into virality. The off-centered animals are getting their big day of publicity, with a flood of tattoos and clothing following closely behind. With it, so does the attitude that its what cool people get into, and if you want to keep up with the people you follow, you should invest in looking like this is what you like too.  

What does it mean to invest in a meme? Hot Topic has plenty of shirts featuring the hot topic of the day. Pin stores aplenty on Etsy want to sell you stuff. It’s cheap to print and easy to acquire the rights to most modern memes. I still have a Doge shirt bought back when Doge was a representative of online meme culture and not the rocky cryptocurrency market. The shirt’s not in good shape, but it wasn’t made to last for years. Stores like Hot Topic assume you’ll get tired of the joke and toss or donate the shirt long before you have to start patching it. If you want the funny shirt with the frog cowboy on it because it signals to other people that you’re in their niche online community, you’ll spend the 20$ it takes to own such an item, and when that online community moves onto something else, you’ll do it again. And again. Clothing is seen as so disposable now that these ridiculously short-lived jokes give the shirt most of its value in the store, and when the joke stops being funny, the shirt’s not even valuable as a shirt anymore. Tattoos of cowboy animals are also starting to slide into the same territory as tribal tattoos did in the 2000s, albeit easier to cover and less potentially offensive.

Stanley Cups

On the other side of the longevity spectrum, even tough items that can’t justifiably be replaced often are used as flags. For example, Stanley cups. A Stanley cup is an insulated cup, much like a Yeti cup, designed with a small bottom and large top to fit into car drink holders but still hold more than 24 ounces of whatever it is you want to put into the cup. The Stanley cup is a bit pricey, and is meant (at least in theory) to keep your drink whatever temperature it was going into the cup for the rest of the day. It’s also tough, made of stainless steel coated for color. What does this cup signal? You need a drink holder that keeps your coffee warm or your water cold for an entire day – you’re a hustler who makes enough money to justify the purchase of a name-brand item like the Stanley cup that’s at its most useful when you’re out and about. You’re probably older than a teenager, because teenagers use Hydroflasks or drink their coffee straight out of the cup that their café gave them, because they don’t use the coffee brewer at home.

Collecting Stanley cups to match to outfits or cars is even more a sign that you’re very busy and very successful. Those cups ain’t cheap! There’s an almost competitive group of people online who make a point of showing off their collection any time they want to post a get-ready image set or video, because why have all these cups if the full extent of your investment isn’t visible?

How Did We Get Here?

A public consciousness that buying from bad brands with bad practices (think sweatshop labor or deforestation) should make you bad if you could buy something made more ethically has made it possible for brands to flip around and say that buying from good brands with good practices (think inclusivity and a promise to be eco-friendly) makes you a good person, or at least better than the next person who’s still buying stuff from bad companies.

Beyond that, there’s a bigger need than ever to feel like a part of a community, even if that community is still online. In-jokes are what friends share – showing that you get the joke means that you’re in. These flags make the gaps between us all feel a little smaller, even if they don’t turn into conversations or friend requests, and that eases the pain. Isn’t buying a shirt with a cowboy rat on it, or another Stanley cup in an exclusive color, worth the price if it simulates human connection?

Driven By Clicks And Money – TikTok

Elizabeth Technology January 4, 2024

Clicks

What do you know about frosting?

You probably know intuitively that royal frosting is really dense, and meringues are lighter and fluffier, even if you don’t know the exact terms or science behind it. Royal icing and buttercream are good for cookies, buttercream and meringues are good for cakes.

The trick is adding air. More air usually means a lighter, fluffier frosting. But trapped air in frosting is white, which makes decorating cakes with a dark frosting that’s not mason’s mortar is hard. Food dyes have a flavor, so adding more to get to a certain color is trading appearance for taste; even the best gel food dyes struggle to achieve a passable red in buttercream. What is a home chef to do?

One TikToker, Sugarologie, had discovered a hack: by blending the frosting, she was able to improve the color. Many dyes are not fat-soluble, so the butter in a buttercream was actively impeding the dye’s saturation powers; by blending it, she was introducing more of the dye to the water in the butter/sugar mixture. But don’t forget: air has a color too!

Air bubbles catch and diffract light. If you look at how hard candy manufacturers make the color white (Lofty Pursuits on Youtube has plenty of good examples of this process), you’ll see that what they’re doing is using their hook to catch air bubbles inside of the translucent, slightly golden molten sugar to turn it white. This also noticeably increases the volume of the sugar wad they’re working with, because added pockets of air add volume.

By blending the frosting, Sugarologie was able to improve the color distribution in the frosting, but in doing so decreased the air in the recipe. That effect also made it darker, but it made the frosting denser too. Users noticed (one large Youtuber known as Ann Reardon made a video demonstrating the problem), but Sugarologie clarified that re-whipping the frosting was easy… and users were still having problems recreating her results. She didn’t include enough detail the first time around, and by leaving out that A) yes, the frosting gets denser and B) only certain frostings can tolerate this treatment, she’d accidentally created a minidrama between her and the people trying things as she described them in the initial video. Ann couldn’t recreate her results because she was using her own preferred frosting recipe. Neither one of them was making fake or bad content – this misunderstanding of where the technique works was creating the difference.

Why not clarify in the first video? Why react as though all of this was obvious when those people testing showed it clearly wasn’t?  

I used to watch a show called “Chopped” on Food Network. You may be familiar with the premise – four contestants have a sum of 80 minutes to make a three course meal, including strange ingredients picked out beforehand. Chef Smartypants (who is still active online to this day!) lost her first round. But, the general air I got was that she was more a scholar of food, and a timed challenge like Chopped was not the right environment for her expertise to shine. There was no “they judged me wrong”. She was still confident in her skill. She is skilled!

Outside of going to a pastry or cooking school, there’s basically no real requirement that you need to meet in order to call yourself a chef, or a baker (outside of SafeServ). To demonstrate skill is to prove you’re worth listening to for tips and tricks. It’s what separates you from the thousands of channels freebooting content or putting out useless garbage. Admitting that one trick is not a universal is not the end of the world, but it does feel like a direct threat to one’s credibility in the moment. Those tips and tricks are what give people reason to listen at all. If a user is dismissed as making low-quality hacks, then suddenly people are less inclined to watch. This need for clicks necessitates being right (or looking right) at least most of the time.

Clicks And Money

What do you know about oats? They’re a crop. They’re often sprayed with pesticides to keep bugs from eating them before harvest, as are most crops in the US. A lot of US commercial bug sprays contain glyphosate, a potential carcinogen. Reading that, you’re probably thinking you should stop eating oats, or at least switch to organic, right? Well – experts disagree, and there’s money in arguing. Organic farms have a financial incentive to push their more expensive but glyphosate-free oats, and non-organic farms using glyphosate pesticides are obviously invested in their customers believing their product is safe to eat. Outside of the farmers, regulatory bodies themselves have placed glyphosates into different carcinogen risk categories: https://enveurope.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s12302-018-0184-7 , largely because one is measuring exposure via food and the other is measuring exposure via food, spraying, and other sources. The FDA in the U.S suggests that there is a safe amount of glyphosate when it comes to harvested crops (https://www.fda.gov/food/pesticides/questions-and-answers-glyphosate), but to trust that, you have to trust the FDA, and not everyone does!  

This is one food. One specific crop. If you don’t trust the FDA or American farmers (and after the last salmonella outbreak, it’s tough to trust blindly) then you’ve got to do this for everything you’re eating and compare research, and then from there decide what level of risk you, personally, are comfortable with. That’s exhausting, but nobody wants salmonella. This creates a demand for experts who can condense the complexities of the US food system into a short clip or article that gives you the info you need to know to make an informed decision.

The problem is that some “experts” are interested in that demand, and don’t have the necessary background or research skills to give advice or condense articles. Because they lack the background, they give advice that’s contradictory, or overly strict, or otherwise out of line with what the real experts recommend. Real dieticians then have to debunk the idea that oats are poison, or that candy bars are poison, or that the human body only really needs celery or raw meat or whichever diet the other guy subscribes to in order to function.

One expert says that eating non-organic foods is bad for you. Another one disagrees, and suggests you just wash fresh produce before you eat it. One expert paces up and down the aisles, pointing to the added sugar content of foods to tell you it will actively harm you. Another one disagrees, and asks you to look at the sugar content of the food you eat over the course of the day as a whole.

To one, a candy bar is fatal. To another, a candy bar can be a part of what you eat in a day so long as it’s not the only thing you eat. To one, raw meat is the only food you need. To another, you’re a human, not a lion or a wolf or a cat.

The only way a lot of people can emulate what they see on screen, sometimes from these “experts” themselves, is disordered eating. Orthorexia and anorexia have spiked in recent years (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7114025/), and this trend of TikTok “dieticians” suggesting that most food is poison takes advantage of that. Body dysmorphia is a very tricky illness to treat: the person suffering from it may lean into destructive habits because it’s easier than trying to recover, even when being treated. If they happen upon a TikTok from an “expert” “dietician” telling them that they actually should only need 800 calories a day, it can justify the complex structure of thoughts slowly killing them. After all, they’re listening to an expert. Right?

This need for clicks goes from petty arguing and misunderstandings to actively harmful. When attention is the currency, misinformation that reconfirms biases confidently is what rises to the top.

Pros and Cons of All Sites Becoming Five Sites

Elizabeth Technology January 2, 2024

The amalgamation of smaller websites’ features into bigger websites comes with ups and downs.

The Pros

1) Hardiness

The way that servers used to work, individual clicks to a site counted towards fractions of pennies of hosting costs, and bigger websites that had bigger requirements got better rates because they paid more overall. If a smaller website got linked to from somewhere bigger, and the ordinary traffic quintupled, the website’s owner could be out of a lot of money. The other option was to simply let the traffic take the website offline temporarily, which was also ugly: it made DDoSing smaller websites for political or social reasons pretty easy. Big websites with big servers and lots of through-flow don’t have to worry about that. DDoSing Facebook, for example, would be almost impossible, and would cost a ton of money in equipment and electricity to even try.

2) Family of Services

Amazon’s numerous smart home devices are undeniably convenient (although it comes with many trades). You can simply ask Alexa to turn on your Smart lights, add frozen onions to your shopping list, ask it what a new air fryer would cost from Amazon dot com, and ask it to order it for you all without getting out of bed. None of that would be possible if Amazon were not a sprawling mass of other, smaller services purchased or created for the sole purpose of supporting Amazon.

3) Ease of Communication

While websites that allow for small, closed groups to communicate (like Mastodon and Discord) have an easier time controlling their user culture, bigger sites like Reddit, Twitter, MySpace, etc. can connect people with what they’re looking for much easier. Crowdsourcing an answer to questions that don’t exist on informational pages is something that only forum and blogging websites can do, and only because they’re so easy to access and create an account for.

Social media is so common that some businesses extended their official helplines down into Twitter or Facebook to make it easier for customers to reach them wherever they can be found online.

The Cons

1) Tangled Services

The new Facebook (Meta) app Threads requires an Instagram account to log in. Threads demands a lot of info about you. If you made an account, saw some bad news about Threads, and wanted to leave, you wouldn’t be able to do so without deleting your Instagram account. Threads is holding that account hostage.

When big websites buy smaller websites, the services can become entangled, or watered down for profit-making reasons. If there’s no substitute, then tough luck – you’ll put up with the downsides or you’ll leave.

2) Being Presentable

Trying to bring up a site to meet censorship requirements held by giant access chokepoints like app stores or parent websites can make a purchased website stop working. For example, trying to make Tumblr fit into the Apple App Store’s standards crushed it! Tumblr’s NSFW ban also caught plenty of art and random unrelated pictures in the crossfire thanks to an open-sourced, poorly trained algorithm being deployed to moderate, and a big portion of the userbase left, never to return. Is the website better now? No, but it meets the App Store’s standards.

Similarly, if a web services vendor the size of Amazon decides they don’t like a website and won’t be supporting it any longer due to content concerns, that website may simply vanish as a result. Giving one big company the power to decide what is unacceptable behavior starts getting ethically tricky, very fast.

3) Standards for Banning

Being banned on some sites means being banned from their entire family of services. Meta in particular holds a lot of enforcement power because of the vast array of products it has (Instagram, Facebook, VR services, etc.) and some cost money. Unknowingly violating the ToS of a site could result in being kicked from multiple other places.

This also creates the problem of restricting access to ‘official channels’ of businesses or the government. As said above, some businesses want people to be able to reach them on social media. Oftentimes tweeting at a company gets them to respond quicker. Getting banned for something unrelated restricts access to help.  

4) Genuine Conspiracies

Conspiracies about everything from Flat Earth and Indigo Children to Cambridge Analytica riddle social media. Cults can recruit through Facebook now! On an even larger scale, misinformation campaigns designed to undermine elections or start fearmongering also target users on their favorite websites.

Big sites make a better target for the big, organized attacks using deliberate misinformation, although small sites are not immune to it – on a forum like Reddit, where everyone is a stranger and everyone is on the same standing, arguing something insane and sounding correct can sway people who’d never agree with someone who was standing right in front of them, saying the same thing. One big platform shared equally gives those people a better cost/reward ratio.

5) Trends In Site Design

You may have noticed that Instagram and Tumblr both became more video-focused after the success of TikTok. Facebook launched Threads after it started to look like Elon Musk’s “X” (formerly Twitter) might stop holding the average Twitter user’s attention. Most major social media works with the same handful of advertisers, and most have similar, but not identical, designs. 

When something is trending and working for another big website, the other big websites want to hop on and do the same, whether their original fanbase wanted that or not. If you were on Tumblr because you didn’t like TikTok, that sure sucks, because Tumblr is pushing a TikTok (Tumblr LIVE) tab update out whether you use it or not.