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It’s Easier Than Ever to Accidentally Kill a Song Online

Elizabeth Technology March 14, 2023

Trying to Build Hype

It’s actually painfully easy to disappoint potential fans by teasing a sample of a song ahead of it’s full release. The latest to do this was Body Shop, by Sam Smith. The singer released a clip of the song’s drop, and it was bassy, scratchy, and sort of grungy, partially because it wasn’t the final mix, partially because Smith was playing the clip on his phone and the speakers were at their limit. People loved it! When the actual song came out, it felt more Dubstep-esque than it had in the clip, because they removed that scratch and re-balanced the bass before release. A lot of listeners, especially on TikTok, wondered why it didn’t sound as good. However, it still worked out for Smith: the initial stumble didn’t wreck the song’s impact like it had the potential to.

Releasing teasers like this is a semi-common way to build hype for a song, for artists both big and small. Artists will leak a little bit of the song they’re working on, usually the ‘drop’ if a song has one, or some other interesting tidbit of it, and hope it inspires their audience to listen to the full thing once it comes out as a way of building anticipation and excitement.

“Girlfriend” vs. “If We Ever Broke Up”

TikTok has changed the playing field, however. It seems pretty common on TikTok that one artist will manage to spin the app to their favor with a trend, but everyone after that will have great difficulty recreating that success, especially if it’s clear they’re trying to leach off that trend because they didn’t have their own idea. A song called ABCDEFU, for example, did really well (it hit the top 40!) because the app liked the artist singing it, and they liked that she was ‘one of them’. Copycats, including the singer for a song called Twinkle Twinkle Little B**** (yes, it uses that melody), did not have nearly as much success. The app was bored with them. It became clear that a number of artists trying to piggyback off of ABCDEFU thought it would be easy to get the people of TikTok to just stream anything mindlessly as long as it ‘belonged to TikTok’. Begging for listens feels… embarrassing, now. If a song is good, it would have blown up on the app organically, right? ABCDEFU came out before saying ‘let’s get together and make this song big!’ became uncool. It’s also not a bad song in its own right – the artist bothered to write it its own melody, at least.

So it seems to be fate that a songwriter who released a teaser specifically on TikTok, a song called Girlfriend by Hemlocke Springs, would shut the door for most of the songs behind it trying to use the same trick, at least for a bit. Hemlocke didn’t release an unfinished or differently mixed teaser for the song, they just took one of the most interesting parts of the bridge and published a number of videos under that sound clip. This trick works pretty consistently if the song is good, but it comes with risks: if the most interesting part of the song is also one that might get annoying pretty fast, the song’s not going to get a good footing when it comes out because listeners may have heard it too much to enjoy it. If the clip is of the most exciting part of the song, it’s not going to be so exciting in the finished track, because it won’t be new anymore, and that reduces re-listens. If the teaser is released too early, interested listeners might not be interested by the time the song comes out for real.

If We Ever Broke Up by Mae Stephens ran into multiple of these sample traps. The sample came out too far ahead of the song, and the fun part of the song was ran into the ground by the time it came out. For those unfamiliar with TikTok’s algorithm for it’s “For You” page, sounds, creators, and content that the viewer interacts with tends to show up more often on their For You page – if you like a video using a certain song, and you physically tap the like button to indicate that, you’re signalling that you want more of that content. You can get stuck in a loop of the same content over and over if you’re not careful with what you’re liking! The same happened to this song – it was new and interesting, and then the For You page kept pushing it forwards, and then it was overplayed for the people who liked it the most by the time the song was fully available for streaming.

To avoid short-changing a song with this trick, the best bet is to not alter the mixing for this particular sound clip, to release the song soon after the clip is released, and to mean it when you create things. ABCDEFU has something honest to it that Twinkle Twinkle Little B**** is lacking.

The Industry Plant Genre

There’s a whole other subsection of TikTok music written for people who may have connections with a real label and enough money to pay for professional production. It’s usually not very good, and it’s almost never the genre it claims to be (often they go for punk, for some reason, a genre that calls out posers like almost no other).

All of the issues that these previews of songs give to their full-length versions are also somehow worse for these songs. They clip the best snippet of their song and slap it onto TikTok in an attempt to create a viral moment with it. Even if they’re successful, ironically or not, it rarely translates well to streams or song purchases. By the nature of plants, the song itself is usually pretty simplistic with obvious rhymes and a bridge that doesn’t do anything for the song, if there even is one. Releasing a clip of an obviously crowd-sourced/committee-written song before the song is out is pure kryptonite for that song’s success.  It doesn’t even have to have suitable-for-work lyrics anymore! Industry plants can use crass language that would bar it from being played at Target, and many do in hopes of appearing more organic. It doesn’t work. 

Nobody likes being advertised to anymore, and if listeners are able to figure it out before the song’s got its rotation in their Spotify playlists, it may as well be dead on the launchpad.

Twitter: A Case Study of how Modern Websites Break Down

Elizabeth Technology March 7, 2023

Gutting is Not Always the Solution

Twitter’s meltdown should serve as a warning – while it’s possible to coast off of minimal support for a little bit, it’s not actually all that easy to keep things running on a skeleton crew. And even if Twitter still had all of its staff, would it still be standing after all those changes?

For those of you who don’t use Twitter, Musk’s purchase of the company has been a pretty huge mess for the people working under him. He fired a large percentage of the staff (more than half of the company was laid off) and encouraged those not laid off to leave by insisting Twitter was going to go ‘hardcore’ and they’d have to return to their physical offices for long hours if they valued their job. Many simply sent a salute emoji in the company’s big Slack town square and jumped ship. The people left behind are a mixed bag – engineers that like Musk a lot, people trapped under Twitter’s employment due to work visas, and everybody in between. They’re not the company’s second choice team, by any means, but there are less of them. A lot less. Some might even say it’s too few for the site to function with.

Broken New Features

The blue checkmark fiasco, where Twitter’s CEO promised that being able to simply buy verification would definitely not result in fraud, is one of a number of bad rollouts. A common mantra for startups is to ‘move fast and break things’, a strategy formulated when delaying choices or rollouts to make them not-broken could be the difference between receiving investor money (and customers count as investors here) or not. The iPhone, for example, famously did not work when Steve Jobs first demoed it. It crashed a lot, and it didn’t have great reception. But by demonstrating that everyone was super into the idea, he was able to rally and put out a better, more complete version of the device for customers to buy! Importantly, the iPhone wouldn’t crush the rest of Apple if it didn’t work, so they could afford to play fast with it.

However. Twitter is not a startup, is it? Nor is it releasing a fenced-in product totally unseen before – paid content tiers are new to Twitter, but pretty common everywhere else. (Had Twitter not downsized, it might have even still had the necessary expertise onboard to roll this feature out gracefully.) When a startup moves fast and breaks things, it’s forgivable, because the team might be creating something so groundbreaking that they can’t even keep up with the scope of their idea. When a big company does it, it looks… embarrassing. A team working out of a garage may not have multiple test environments for their app or product. What kind of billion-dollar company doesn’t have test environments?

What kind of billion-dollar company couldn’t see the potential for abuse, especially on a platform dedicated to discussion, either? People were tweeting about misusing this verification shortcut as soon as the announcement was made, and they still went through with it! This new, fast, broken feature shut down a valuable communication channel between big companies and their clients until moderation was put into place. The lack of moderation was supposed to be a feature, you see – Twitter’s previous verification system meant that verified accounts were actually verified by Twitter, not by money, and if they moderated it, it would be like Twitter was doing the verifying again. Again, this is an almost understandable mistake on a smaller platform with less people chomping at the bit to abuse it, but not for multi-billion dollar Twitter. It looked like official pharmaceutical companies were finally breaking good, and like the official channel for Nintendo USA had posted a picture of Mario flipping the bird. Customer support lines on Twitter were strangled by fakes. The response from some of those big companies was understandably angry. Musk attempted to smooth this over by bringing back the individually assigned verification checkmarks, but in gray, and then finally just dropped the idea.

Breaking Old Features

Twitter disabled the service that sent out the 2-Factor Authentication texts in an attempt to prune down microservices. Later, it broke the service that allowed users to tweet directly to their page, meaning only scheduled tweets would go through, when restricting API access. In theory, both actions were unfortunate side effects of trying to streamline user experience: by shutting down what Musk felt was bloatware, Twitter would run faster upon startup. That makes sense. However, Twitter runs on miles and miles of code. And they only have a quarter or so (maybe even less) of the team they had at the start of Musk’s takeover. The resultant ‘breaking’ of microservices like 2FA, and the over-restricting of Tweet permissions, is a direct result of losing the engineers who handled those features before deciding to tinker with them.

Musk’s choice to prune Twitter’s team down to the roots means that every update, every security hole patch, every choice affecting the infrastructure of the site, is now ten times more likely to result in bugs, and those bugs are going to take much longer to fix now.

But hey – at least there’s less overhead. That’s going to be important, because advertisers are not exactly pleased.

Making Simply Existing in the Space A Total Nightmare

The CEO’s promise to ‘stop stifling free speech’ on a platform that’s honestly pretty permissive (a side-effect of being an official channel of communication for a U.S. president, a role that comes with a huge number of responsibilities) certainly earned him brownie points with people who were decidedly not going to use this new, even looser set of rules kindly. People who’d been, say, banned over the use of certain words, in certain targeted circumstances. At the rate Musk was suggesting they loosen moderation, Twitter could have easily turned into 2 Kiwi 2 Farms, where the targets are actually on the same platform the harassment campaigns are planned.

Ultimately, what changes he actually made didn’t matter, because the mere promise of maybe loosening the rules a bit brought a ton of vitriol to the surface anyway, and the remaining moderators at Twitter after Musk’s big ultimatum were not equipped to handle it. Discourse on Twitter was already a horrible, rotten place where nuance goes to die, but people just existing on the site, promoting their wares or keeping up with their favorite singers and actors, were now experiencing a worse version of the site where slurs were now part of the discourse.

Every step of this is an absolute nightmare for advertisers who don’t want an ad for Sunny-D appearing next to a tweet telling someone to off themselves. Musk’s total reign over Twitter combined with his unpredictable behavior means that he can’t even promise he’ll change, because yeah, he might – and what if he makes it even more of a nightmare?

Musk Himself is Part of The Problem

Stephen King declaring that he wasn’t going to pay 20$ to hang around on Twitter as a verified user led to Musk very publicly changing the price point to 8$ – the price that stuck for rollout. How absolutely insane of a business choice! A single celebrity says ‘this costs too much’ (and because he’s a celebrity, you know it’s not because he’s incapable of paying it, the tech-sphere says) and then the price is actually changed. Can you imagine almost any other service just… going for it, like that? This is a perfect example of behavior that would have been funny if Musk had not burned away all his goodwill on stupid stuff, like getting the California high-speed rail canceled in favor of his hyperloop, or calling an account that uses publicly available info on jets a ‘stalker’, calling that cave diver who saved those kids a very mean name with no evidence, or subjecting his staff to inhumane work hours, or that thing with the horse, or the cybertruck delay, or threatening to shut off Ukraine’s new Starlink internet even though the US Government paid for it, the list goes on.

When Musk made a flamethrower available for sale, it was funny! He talks directly to the people! Look, he’s reinventing cars from the ground up! He named his son a bunch of letters and numbers!  When Musk said “both sides are making good points”, it was scary. He has so much money that if he decided to fund an ad campaign for a candidate, that candidate could win. When he appeared behind Dave Chapelle to shout “I’m rich, bitch!” at a show, it was… bizarre. The CEO of Twitter has such an investment in looking cool that he appeared on Rick and Morty as a version of himself with tusks. To his remaining fans, he’s a maverick! To advertisers who’d normally buy Twitter adspace, he’s a nightmare. To car owners, his investment in linking his reputation to Tesla makes Teslas unattractive – a nice electric Ford doesn’t come with all the baggage, and the quality control is more consistent. He could appear anywhere, any time, and nobody can stop him from embarrassing himself and all of the people invested in his brands.

Musk himself is a huge problem for Twitter. A bad CEO can destroy a company as readily as any disaster. People within his other companies report that allegedly, orders from him get filtered a couple of times so they actually make sense when they get where they’re going. While that might be hearsay, comparing Twitter’s past few months to Musk’s more successful companies suggests it’s got some truth to it somewhere. Twitter is not filtering his requests – it wasn’t an organization built with impulsive leaders, so orders generally made sense as they left the head office. Tesla was built around Musk, so the buffers were there the whole time.

For Twitter to survive Musk, it has to essentially remove him from himself.

Could AR ever be used in an office setting?

Elizabeth Technology February 16, 2023

Home Offices

A home office is often a place of respite. Quiet. Calm. Personalized organization. Companies looking to save money on renting a space may go for work-from-home solutions, no matter their size, and even people who work in an office may still choose to make an office space in their home, whether that’s just a desk in the corner of the living room or a whole spare bedroom, because it makes paperwork and keeping important documents organized easier. In essence, the idea of a home office is incredibly customizable and flexible. If you call it your home office, and it’s not superseded by being a dining room table, it’s a home office.

So, when Zuckerburg announced plans to make ‘virtual offices’, many people were put off, but many more were intrigued. A home office is obviously not a perfect substitute for the kind a business rents out to use, for better or worse. Could Meta Company somehow improve it?

Fun and Games

What Zuckerberg presented combined the worst aspects of VR Chat, the worst aspects of Slack, and the worst aspects of the headset itself. The headset is designed to make you feel like you’re actually seeing a different environment when you move your head, and it does it so well that a percentage of people with VR headsets report headaches – the brain is receiving conflicting information that it can’t sort out, and it doesn’t like that.

The virtual office concept allowed you to look across a virtual desk with a virtual keyboard to see your virtual colleagues, who could perform gestures and small expressions to indicate some sort of feeling. The thing about this system is that it’s annoying – the benefits of being work-from-home include not being in the work office, and being in your home office physically but not in spirit pretty much cancels that out. Under this system, other users could theoretically tell when you’d stepped away – the feeling of being watched in the work office was fine, but it wasn’t in the home office, where workers expected to feel like they were in their home and not in the panopticon.

Walmart Too…?

So many of these ideas seem to think that adding a need to traverse a 3D virtual space somehow improves the idea of a virtual experience. Walmart thought that you might miss actually walking up and down the aisles when they premiered their virtual solution to online shopping, which is by far the worst part of going to a Walmart Supercenter. They added physics to items so your avatar could grab them and put them in the cart instead of just clicking buttons, which makes shopping take longer and also increases the risk of the application bugging out on you. They offered to link up to your smart fridge, so they could remind you that you already have milk in there while you’re grabbing it in the app, allowing you to confirm that you did in fact mean to grab more milk, adding a prompt to do so. The entire idea from top to bottom seemed to hope that you’d spend more money if their app made you work more.

This is not the way VR was meant to re-invent the office, or the remote shopping-experience, or any experience that’s annoying or difficult to do. When customers are shopping in person, the other people are part of the experience (especially in small towns). When they’re shopping over an app, the customer has to be able to find what they want as easily as possible, with as little friction as possible, and it doesn’t get much simpler than searching for an item in a search bar and hitting ‘add to cart’. It’s the worst of both worlds.

It’s almost as if they’re trying to retroactively come up with stuff for the headset to do that they already have easy access to, vs. actually researching and developing programs specifically for VR. VRs shine brightest in games because of the way they function, but if Facebook’s CEO doesn’t believe in the future of games as a product, then there’s going to be a lot of running around trying to make other products more game-like so they’ll fit better. Walmart’s VR demonstration felt like dozens of games, across all genres, simulating everything from stocking shelves to driving trucks. It’s bizarre to try and use it as a virtual world that’s just as boring and simple as the real one – if you’re going to have a virtual Walmart or a virtual office, surely you can do something more entertaining with the surrounding environment than one that the user can already go visit at almost any time? That’s completely the wrong feeling, but it’s the one VR sinks into most naturally, because it’s the only real justification for the product being sold.

There’s room for AR, but not like this!

The Need for Miracle Tech – and Easy Promises

Elizabeth Technology February 14, 2023

Theranos promised to revolutionize medical testing as we knew it. Entrepreneurs pedal semi-permanent Bluetooth implants to the investors on Shark Tank on a fairly regular basis. The promise of a hyperloop killed the California high speed rail, and a juicing machine that pretty much just squeezed liquid out of a bag (instead of, you know, juicing whole or cut fruit) was just barely laughed off the table. Bizarre startups litter the investing landscape.

The message is clear – if a business can simply over-promise, if it can pretend that its product is going to somehow revolutionize their market, even if it’s clear that they could not possibly meet the standards they set, they’ll make sales right up until they’re hit with fraud charges. 


In the 80s, a movie about time travel came out. It pictured an optimistic, comfortable world where flying cars were commonplace in 2015. Before that, Star Trek depicted a world in which humans had advanced so much as a society that famine and homelessness were a thing of the past, and now we traveled space as researchers and adventurers. Before 9/11, there was a real sense that peace could be permanent and progress would be a natural result.

Even outside that window between the Cold War and the Iraq war, there have always been people shooting for the stars when it comes to technological advancement. Children used to die semi-regularly of smallpox, measles, diabetes, and more, but through the steady work of people who weren’t doing it for the money, hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of lives were saved. People have always said ‘it doesn’t have to be this way’ and found ways to improve living. They’re still doing it now!

And it’s not just ‘noble’ tasks like discovering new antibiotics or ways to treat polio – when tech companies first made home computing possible, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were heralded as revolutionaries, doubly so when the iPhone came out and totally changed the way people thought of their phones. It seemed to many like we were already living in the future. With the phone in your hand, you could access the entirety of the internet and learn anything you wanted to. With Twitter, you could hear from people all over the world, and oppressive regimes were powerless to stop dissenters from talking online about the injustices they were facing.

And there were apps, apps that could do anything! Apps for banking. Apps for dog walking. Apps for games, apps for gambling, apps for hotel renting, apps for car parts, apps for shopping, apps for points – the phone enabled a new generation of convenience items to enter the market, and culture changed around it noticeably, with classes popping up to teach people of all ages how to code and make their very own apps. If you could dream it, you could make it, and if you could make it, you might be able to sell it.

The Plateau

However, not everything can be a revolution in its field – it’s just not possible. The labor and research that goes into a new vaccine or a new type of computer is back-breaking work, usually done by entire teams of people. The adoration of the masses does not come easily… or does it?

Sometimes a figurehead is owed a lot of the credit, and of course new devices are allowed to be pricey: the first iPhone was fairly expensive because it was a total revolution of the technology, and without Steve Jobs to guide the team, it might not have come about so quickly … the iPhone 14, it’s descendant, is so expensive now because of the Apple branding combined with a lack of computer parts caused by a global pandemic. That is artificial. The physical storage isn’t increasing, either, because cloud storage handles that for users, often without them asking it to. Apple is not re-revolutionizing the market because it lacks a visionary at the helm, and re-inventing a wheel with minor upgrades is a more stable source of profit than trying to make a bicycle next.

Similarly, with the benefit of hindsight, Elon Musk coming out with a flamethrower and a giant boring (as in hole-cutting) machine were cool, but… the Cybertruck hasn’t hit the market, Teslas are pricier than other EVs for a less-tested product, and he continues to self-sabotage every time he hits the ‘tweet’ button, which is screwing with stock prices across the board. If the product is so good, why are nonsense tweets affecting its stock price so much? That’s weird! It’s almost as if the stock is so hyped because Musk was talking directly to consumers as a wannabe Tony Stark, not because it was actually worth that much, and now that he’s not cool enough to wear the Iron Man suit anymore, the hype and the stock price are retreating.

Of course, snake oil has always been a thing – but the modern age gives these people a platform like no other. The result is that groups of people have once again become vulnerable to buying something because the person selling it is charming, and promises their product can fix your life and save the world. Holmes and Musk wanted to be the next Jobs and Gates, but both managed to fumble it – if they had ‘it’ at all.

The Downhill

Charisma is ruining business ventures. Messaging that supporting a cool product makes you cool and trendy means that the people who desperately want to be cool will buy it. Musk selling flamethrowers, for instance, was cool because it made him out to be a sort of libertarian Iron Man, and that messaging followed to his cool, powerful, futuristic cars. His lack of experience in manufacturing was more than made up for with his edgy, I-Did-This-All-Myself-And-I-Tweet-About-It-Too persona. Elizabeth Holmes with Theranos spun GirlBoss energy in the same way up until it came time to actually deliver, and it turned out the product was a bust.

Products can start good but screw it all up later, too! AirBnB was a revolutionary model for people who wanted to do cool stuff away from their home city without paying hotel prices. Users could rent out a spare bedroom, travelers who didn’t or couldn’t get a hotel room could crash somewhere theoretically safe(r) than their car, and the company would scoop some fees off the top for connecting the two. But now, AirBnB may be partially responsible for a lack of buyable homes on the market – for a minute there, it was stupid not to buy a house and then flip it for AirBnB users to rent out, which yielded the income of a hotel room for the price of a monthly mortgage.

In doing so, it totally flubbed up housing in areas where tourists come year-round to visit. Worse, the company itself wasn’t really making money those first few years, so now it’s jacking up fees to get a return, which means the AirBnB renter is now incentivized to nickel and dime the rentee with cleaning fees and the like. What was revolutionary is now deeply annoying and expensive for everyone involved. Hotels have returned as a cheap option, not because their prices went down, but because everyone else went up trying to save their businesses.   

The Pit

“Charming” and “Revolutionizing” are both becoming a short road to “incomplete” and “fraudulent”. On TikTok, there are multiple accounts that have sold some new cool food item to followers only for that food to turn out to be unsafe somehow. Pink Sauce, the most popular, was a condiment that was allegedly so good you could totally drench chicken with it, but when customers bought it they discovered it was just pink ranch that hadn’t shipped refrigerated. The label on the back was misleading at best and totally incorrect at worst, too – the designer had used ‘angel numbers’ in place of actually calculating the number of servings in a bottle of the stuff. Chef Pi, the mind behind it, went from GirlBoss to meme material as her confidence was revealed to be arrogance.

The Juicero, a juicing machine set to launch in the late 2010s, started as an idea for a simple, mess-free way to get fresh juice. Then the scope increased when the company said it could deliver the packets of juice-able fruits and vegetables as well. It turned out that the machine was underpowered, so the packets would have to be filled with fruit bits cut up pretty finely so the machine could still squeeze juice out, and to ensure the user wouldn’t break the machine trying to squeeze something too hard for it, the business owners added a QR code system so the Juicero would only work with fresh, Juicero brand packets. This came to a head when online folks bought packets and demonstrated that you could get the juice out of these packets by hand, meaning the machine was as good as irrelevant, and Juicero refunded it’s kickstarter supporters.

The list goes on. NFTs that don’t actually do anything. Eco-friendly products that use more plastic than their alternative. Vehicles that paywall factory features. Computers that won’t let you repair them yourself. All designed to separate you from your money more efficiently.

This is the pit: the product was expensive garbage trying to frame itself as revolutionary, and because people want to be optimistic and believe in a clean, chrome future where they can have fresh juice at the push of a button, or ranch in an appealing shade of pink, they buy it. Or, if they’re younger, they don’t get that the person selling the product is not actually their friend, and that they don’t need to buy it just to support them. There are revolutions happening in technology right now, but it’s not happening because Musk bought Twitter or because any one person is better than everyone else – these things happen as a matter of team effort, and when charismatic individuals try to make themselves out to be Iron Man, they end up embittering a lot of people when it turns out that they’re not anything close to it.

There’s always reason to be optimistic. Just don’t be so optimistic that you mistake a Roomba for a full-service robot butler.

Interactions Scams: If You Don’t Like it, Then Don’t Click the ‘Like’ Button!

Elizabeth Technology February 7, 2023

Interaction scams have been around for as long as interactions have been measureable. From early Facebook’s insistence that clicking ‘like’ will somehow magically make a picture change when you refresh the page to early chain letters demanding you forward the text to ten other people, somebody always wants your attention.

We should know this – how does it keep happening?

I Promise I’ll Hurt You If You Don’t Like This Image

The early digital chain letters were usually texts or emails that were threatening in some way. “If you don’t send this letter to 10 other people, Sawako will come get YOU!”, or things to that effect. Occasionally, one would promise something positive or lucky, but people are far more likely to spend their energy avoiding something bad than moving towards something good, so the ominous ones spread further and lasted longer.

Then it became possible to block them both on email and phones. That didn’t kill them – plenty of adults and elderly folks are still shuffling around more modern versions of the positive ones in the hopes of spreading some joy to their grandkids and friends, and meme compilations are plenty popular among the Facebook crowd – but it wasn’t the straight ticket to virality that it used to be.

Around this time in the early 2000’s, things began to change on the internet. Websites began experimenting with voting systems alongside their chronological ones, and places like MySpace and Digg sprung up among the forums and chatrooms that comprised a lot of the early ‘social networks’.

This is where those chain letters evolved – posts began insisting that if you didn’t share, like, or upvote the post, something bad would happen to you. Some posts (such as the infamous ‘my child will like this post’ Jesus vs. ‘My child will keep scrolling!’ Satan meme) would call into question the character of the person who didn’t interact, calling them all matter of ugly things to insult them into upvoting the post – thus spreading it further and insulting more people with it.

The positive engagement scammer posts became less and less common, and the good ones that did still circulate were usually something like ‘This is the immunity duck. You are now immune to posts requiring you to share them’, meant mostly for the kids who didn’t know better and the adults with anxiety or OCD who knew intellectually that the post couldn’t hurt them, but couldn’t shake the compulsion to avoid the ‘risk’. Eventually, website users stopped giving these posts the attention they wanted so badly, but accounts still produce them on Twitter and Facebook to rope in the new users who don’t know better and the people who feel compelled to share them. Thanks to websites like Facebook and Twitter using algorithms to sort posts instead of time, these posts still occasionally show up in front of ordinary accounts that don’t reward them in an effort to get traction. They’ll always be there, hovering at the edges, waiting to be let in.

New Forms

Once the negative and overly threatening ones had run their course, the format changed – there was still a demand for interaction, after all. They started suggesting that something interesting would happen if you ‘liked’ or ‘upvoted’ or otherwise interacted with the image or post. Maybe the icon would turn blue! Maybe you’d get some confetti! Maybe the image would do something weird or scary! What do you have to lose by engaging with the photo, if only to see whether or not the like icon turns blue?

 Of course, on websites run by algorithms, ‘liking’ the image means that the website knows you interacted with it even if you ‘unliked’ the image immediately after. The image is convincing you to interact with it to artificially boost its perceived popularity to a series of AIs that can’t tell what it’s doing to get that popularity. A similar phenomenon led to the most controversial, annoying, or incorrect videos getting pushed to the front of Youtube’s recommended page because of their system’s belief that any engagement is good engagement – including dozens and dozens of people correcting the contents of the video or arguing below it in the comments.

Similarly, hack channels have gotten to a point where they’re beginning to bait ‘debunking’ videos into using their videos because they’ve completely run out of new or interesting content to make. This shift towards making things ridiculous on purpose has not curtailed their views, not only because the content is still bizarre enough to entertain kids, but also because savvy viewers will run to the comments trying to keep those kids from hurting themselves. That’s what’s especially cruel about many of these hack channels: their bright colors, snappy transitions, and goofy actors appeal to children and keep them engaged… while they also showcase hacks that have injured and killed kids who didn’t recognize the danger in, say, heating oil in a soda can to make popcorn, or modifying electronics so they’ll do something funny or strange, or cooking eggs in the microwave (even outside of their shell, eggs can explode if you do that because the yolk and white cook at different speeds!).

The people engaging with the video are doing their best to stop other people from getting hurt, but because the algorithmic machine rewards engagement, their frantic screaming trying to save other people from wasting their time or money (as well as trying to save them from burns or electrocution) is only heard as cheering by the AI.

Onto the New Platforms

This version of the engagement scamming continues on in video-sharing apps like TikTok, which should be beyond it – the problem is that Gen Z did not get the same education into online matters that millennials or even Gen-Xers did. Gen Z children grew up in the world of the iPad and Windows Defender – they are not as naturally skeptical of downloads and scams as they would be if they’d grown up in the era of malicious LimeWire.EXE downloads disguised as MP3s. In general, Gen-Z is less cautious because their devices have safety rails built in, and they never have to lean on them anyway because the world has consolidated into a few streaming services and social media apps, none of which are going to download malware onto their phones. The kids younger than them may not even learn how to type in school – they’ll be given Chromebooks and be expected to figure it out themselves with experience off of whatever device they have at home, which is taken as a given.

All of this is to say that just because they grew up with the tech doesn’t mean they’ll be able to spot obvious engagement bait, and the early proliferation of videos on TikTok asking people to hit the three dots (which is where the information needed to share the video is) without giving a reason, and then later by telling the viewer that something wacky would happen, is evidence of that. In its early days, that could be taken as a result of the app itself being new and not a sign of the new generation having to re-learn these lessons: one party clearly understands how to game the system, and the other party is not certain yet that TikTok doesn’t do that. What if TikTok does shoot confetti when you like a video? What if it does turn the heart blue sometimes? What if it’s a glitch? Etc. But as time went on, and it became clear to users that TikTok was not some dinky little app that happened to make it overseas, they should have stopped. They didn’t. The userbase falling for those tricks en masse were too young to like Facebook or Reddit before those scams became obsolete.

And that’s not the only trend that carried over – videos stating that “If you see this video on (The Date They Posted It or a Day Later), it was meant for you” encourage viewers to watch the whole thing by drawing out the speed at which the slides switch. This is a simple but clever reimagining of the chain letters promising something good will happen, mixed with classic fortune telling tricks. Convince someone that they are meant to watch the entire video (which means your video is ranked more positively) and give generic advice at the same time. For the people it applies to, this reinforces the feeling that they were supposed to see this video, watch it, like it, and share it with other people – they associate the positive feelings they receive from being acknowledged (even digitally, by a stranger who couldn’t possibly know they were watching) with the video. It’s how IRL psychics work, too, and this particular trick works across the entire age spectrum so long as the person watching is receptive to that sort of spirituality. By evolving to incorporate new tricks, the engagement scam has gamed the system once again.

Will It Ever Stop?

As long as there are entities willing to beg shamelessly for votes or likes (or manipulate people into giving them those things) these chain letters/videos/images/reblogs/retweet chains will continue to evolve alongside whatever new trendy social media springs up next.

If you want to see less of them, don’t even downvote or hit the dislike button – block the accounts responsible and move on. You can only counter these accounts by not providing them their fuel – engagement.  

Can a Metaverse Manage to Be Engaging?

Elizabeth Technology February 2, 2023

Cryptocurrency and NFT communities have long tried to provide some benefit for investment. Everything from cartoons to video games to virtual parks and chatrooms are thrown up in the air as rewards for reaching investment goals, and sometimes they do actually manage to make something.

However, just because there’s a lot of money behind any one project doesn’t mean the project is going to come out well.


The company formerly known as Facebook is not the only ‘Metaverse’. Taking that name for itself was sort of like a car company calling itself “The Sedan Maker”, or a Call of Duty game calling itself “First Person Shooter Game”.

Decentraland, for example, has a metaverse of it’s own. It actually recently had an article pop up on Byte discussing the metaverse it had created – 38 individual Decentraland members had interacted with the site over the course of 24 hours. Decentraland was quick to clarify that the number the website Futurism had seen was just the number of users who’d interacted using their crypto wallets – the actual number of people who’d logged on to chat or look around was a much more respectable 8,000 or so.

Still, it showcases an opacity problem: nobody except the people in the project can really tell what’s going on. Open-multiplayer style games and places are much more fun when other people are hanging out in the game, so if potential users see that report and not the 8,000 number, they may be less likely to join. Facebook has not done a great job of advertising what you can actually do in the metaverse outside of walking around. In fact, walking around is such a big part of the virtual world that Facebook’s Metaverse has now added feet to the mix.

It Will Look Good Eventually

The metaverse that Facebook is putting together just doesn’t look very good. To be fair, a number of VR games look ‘weird’ in one way or another, if only because the technology is so new that nobody knows how to make assets for games intended to be shown entirely on curved screens. Facebook’s metaverse is very sterile and plasticky. Decentraland’s looks much the same.

Animations made for trailers for either of these things don’t tend to look very good either, Decentraland because it looks like they used in-house talent to make something with Blender and Facebook’s Metaverse because the avatars that make up most of the virtual world’s draw look like Nintendo Miis, which themselves are a reminder of the late 2000s for a number of Gen-Z, Millenials, and inbetweeners.

Foundationally, the products could be considered in ‘beta’ development. An equivalent in construction would be the stage where the outer walls are up, the floors are installed, but insulation still needs to be blown in and the roof put on. It’s a structure, and people can be inside it, but it’s not really done. If any company doing this stops developing their product right now, nobody would be especially happy with the end result. Facebook’s metaverse is aware of this, and continues to add features – Decentraland and a handful of other crypto projects seem to be pushing the line on what ‘done’ means.

The same goes for a number of projects outside the blockchain, but still tied to a final product. Video games, cartoons, art prints, and more are all in the works and in beta testing, and will eventually look good or be finished, but right now they simply serve as a placeholder for something better… in theory.

Or Maybe It Will Just Be Like That Forever

The first episode of the Bored Apes cartoon swaps between still images of the character’s faces instead of actually animating them. There is a difference – animation usually features a transition between expressions using in-between frames of each face the character makes, so it looks smooth. The Bored Apes cartoon simply went from one still to another without any interstitial frames. It’s an interesting-looking effect, but it is quite jarring – the cartoon’s creators even acknowledged how weird it ended up looking in the second episode of the cartoon, in a moment of meta-awareness. The thing is, though… they’re not going to redo that first episode. It is one of the better cartoon projects created by an NFT (this is not a recommendation to watch it) which is a low bar to cross because other cartoons in that same family end up coming across as edutainment videos for crypto currencies. The trailer for the Decentraland project is not all that different from the cartoon made as a project reward. This is because those groups said they’d produce a cartoon before they had any ideas for a story to tell, and we get these weird half-baked creations instead of something somebody wanted to make.

They have the potential to make something good, but they can’t make something good, cheap, and fast to produce, so they settled for fast and cheap. In the crypto industry, with it’s many rugpull schemes and thefts, projects cannot leave their customers waiting for too long before they start to get antsy about getting their money back. Constant insecurity means constant vigilance for the first hint the project’s creators are abandoning ship. The cartoon better be done before people stop buying!

The Inherent Desire To Save The Money

These websites only being measurable by client wallet interaction is a more perfect metaphor than one I could ever create. The wallet is the only measure other people see because the wallet is ultimately what determines ‘success’ in these rings. It’s the ultimate pay-to-win game. Token holders are expected to shell out on virtual real estate and funny pictures of animals as a matter of clout.

There is a concept in ‘free market’ enthusiasts – if you just let companies and customers wheedle away, eventually, they will make the best possible product that they can for the lowest possible price they can. Ignoring things like inelastic demand, the problem with that concept is that ‘the best product’ is sort of meaningless when it’s A) something artistic, like cartoons and NFTs themselves, or B) something so breathtakingly new on the market that nobody else is there to provide competition yet. These projects get away with producing ugly or bad cartoons and poorly made video games because they have, essentially, a monopoly on the product.

And why would an NFT project want to spend money to make something of quality? When an NFT project offers up a cartoon for hitting participation goals, what is entailed in that? They never said they’d hire writers. They never said the animation was going to be smooth. They haven’t deceived anyone, but they’re monetarily motivated to cut corners and push something cheap and easy out the door. Other crypto products have somewhat tainted the reputation of such technology, and so they have to produce something to avoid looking like a scam, as well.

Essentially, the market is incentivizing guaranteed poor rewards over potentially good rewards, because the timeframe to produce something good can make it look like nothing is coming. Customers are getting burned over and over again.

What’s Up With Those Specific T-Shirts?

Elizabeth Technology December 29, 2022

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, combating 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.


Adobe Flash

Elizabeth Technology December 13, 2022

Adobe Flash Player was a familiar sight in the early 2000s. Most browser games used it, many interactive features on company websites used it. But it was slow. And it was being outpaced by better engines.

It’s been a while since that announcement – what’s happened since?

What Did Flash Actually Do?

Flash was one of a host of plugins that allowed users to view ‘rich’ content. Everything from Flash games to autoplay audio to vector graphics to dynamic menus… if the website had visuals besides plaintext on it, there was a solid chance Flash was used somewhere. Adobe Flash Player sorted to the front of the pack because it was free, and played well with the browsers that supported it. It allowed a whole new world of interactive content. Since most browsers had a version of Flash, most websites were able to use Flash content, with the notable exception of Apple products. Even then, Safari could view it.

The Outdated

Flash did a lot of things, but they were all things that could be done better if web developers had better tools. HTML5 was released in 2014 and was extremely lightweight compared to Flash. It used web browsers to its advantage, by using a tagging system that the browser (which was updated for the new tech) could interpret. Since less data needed to be shared over the user’s internet connection, the content loaded faster – all the browser needed was those tags.

There were issues with this, in the early days of HTML5, different browsers could interpret the same tag differently, and sometimes older versions couldn’t interpret a new tag at all, but it was so much easier to work with and so much faster that minor issues were overlooked. Another bonus was less malware!

HTML5 and WebAssembly both step in to take some of the weight off of Flash after it’s first major security event, and people notice that loading times have gone down. Apple’s departure from Flash also slashed it’s popularity, and Flash starts it’s downhill decline.


Adobe announced it was planning for Flash’s End-Of-Life a whole three years before the end-date to give developers time to remove it. Still, for older sites that couldn’t switch, an open-source project called ‘Ruffle’ hopes to fill the gaps and keep Flash games running a bit longer. Ruffle behaves a lot like Flash, but it’s third-party. The website itself has to support Ruffle’s use, so if all the Flash stuff was abandoned because the website itself was abandoned, Ruffle isn’t going to be much help. At least there is an option, though, as limited as it may be.

Ironically, Flash was so deeply embedded in the fabric of the internet that fake Flash updates are still getting people. Remember, if a pop-up says you should update something on your device, whether it’s Minecraft or Excel, you should always go to the home site and verify it there. It’s really easy to copy an application’s layout nowadays!

What Remains

Multiple decades’ worth of flash games and websites from the 2000s are now irrevocably broken. Sure, a lot of it was just games many made more for promotional or revenue-generating reasons than art, but even the worst Flash game has archival value. Exploring the history of a given TV show, for example, often comes with looking at what online content was available for that show. The death of Flash means a ton of Disney properties no longer have games that kids can access. Older shows like Victorious and iCarly have games that only live on in screenshots. Were the games good? Did they control well? Did Disney actually put any effort in once it became clear a show was a success? All the answers to those questions can now only be pulled from Youtube videos and interviews!

The same goes for Flash-based web shows. Homestar Runner is infamous as it’s one of the earliest examples of the concept, and now it’s unplayable at it’s source site. Youtube videos and browser plugins are currently the only way to access it. How many other projects died because nobody knew they were out there? The Flash purge erased a ton of internet history in a long, slow slide to the death. What’s left is mostly broken pages and forgotten wastelands of unplayable content.


Explaining Content, Again and Again

Elizabeth Technology November 29, 2022

Content creators have stumbled upon a new market: explaining movies the way online movie critics do. Why is that?

Ambiguity Is Tough To Accept

Some movies famously leave the ending ambiguous. You’re not supposed to tell if one ending was the ‘right’ one, although sometimes there’s more evidence for one ending over another.

 For example – American Psycho has a scene near the end where the main character nearly accidentally confesses to murder… but the guy he’s nearly confessed to provides him with an impossible alibi, saying he ate lunch with the murder victim too recently for the main character to have killed him, and so any confessing he might have done would have been calling him out on the lie. This could be read multiple ways: does the other guy know, and he’s covering for the main character because they’re all bloodthirsty hyenas in suits, and he isn’t motivated to do the ‘right’ thing because it doesn’t make him money? Is he deliberately lying to the main character, not knowing the guy he’s lying about was already dead? Or, was this whole thing a power-fantasy hallucination by a very bored, distressed businessman who’s struggling to find any joy in the life he’s spent living by other people’s rules?

Most people lean towards the first two – but there’s a case to be made for the third. This sort of ending deserves a deeper analysis. The content warrants a deeper analysis. Before the internet, discussing the different interpretations of this ending had to be done with letters to the editor and in real life with friends. If your local paper or radio show had a total snob of a movie reviewer, you may not hear an in-depth review of a particular movie from them at all.

American Psycho has the benefit of being popular, too – imagine trying to discuss an art house film with friends who only liked Die Hard, or vice versa. Before the internet really took off, there were movie deserts in small towns with no way to access and contribute to deeper discussions.

Explain the Ending to Me, Please

The internet has democratized movie reviewing. Now, someone who may not be a ‘professional’ critic can give thoughts and opinions on a show or movie based on their own unique movie-watching history, and you can find reviews of a movie from almost every angle. Cinematography? The plot’s following of the hero’s journey? Someone who knows what ‘camp’ is vs. someone who doesn’t? Someone who makes films themselves? Someone who only watches big movies vs. someone who only watches indie films? You can find all of these people online. However, with the good comes the bad – sometimes movie reviewers run out of content, and then they turn towards content that doesn’t necessarily warrant more analysis in a particular direction to stay relevant and near the top of user feeds. Not to mention the content farms. Discussion is interesting…discussion gets clicks… eventually, people who care more about the clicks than the discussion are going to try and get in on it.

This combined with the internet’s tendency to appeal to authority (“my favorite critic had this theory, so it must be right”) and its tendency to think in black and white (“my favorite critic had this theory, so it must be right”) leads to some very strange theories being genuinely considered and not dismissed, as well as over-analysis of endings that do make sense, that don’t have a lot of ambiguity, or have some ambiguity but not in the direction they took it.

Some endings warrant extra explanation, but not all of them. Content farms produce explanations where the regular, passion-project reviewers don’t for one reason or another, and so we get weird theories almost algorithmically produced to get clicks mixed in with more ordinary reviews.

If This is a Dream, Then Everything is

There’s an online joke that Ash from the famous kid’s TV show Pokemon is actually in a coma and dreaming the events of the show. The key word there is ‘joke’ – this was never a ‘real’ theory, just some crackpot idea strung together off of the typical TV show protagonist’s inability to age and the crazy, child-friendly world of Pokemon. When a forum is committing to the joke, they can point out dozens upon dozens of logical fallacies and plotholes that seem to strengthen the joke, and pass back and forth what scenes ‘really’ mean, who people ‘really’ are, etc. all in good fun.

‘Dream’ theories like this one get a lot of clicks and likes because they’re a fun novelty lens for the media, a bit of a thought experiment. However, when content review channels start taking the theory too seriously for the media the theory is about, they run into a problem: you can say this about almost any show!

The characters don’t age because this is fiction. The protagonist has trials and tribulations they’re always just barely good enough to beat because this is fiction. The power of friendship saved Ash from freezing to death in an ice cave because – you guessed it – this is fiction. You can dismiss almost any story as a hallucination, or an overactive imagination, or a dream, or any sort of mental gymnastic, because that at some level is what fictional stories are. They’re made up. If you’re not going to accept the most basic premise of the story – that the main character is experiencing the story, even if they may sometimes be an unreliable narrator in the story – then you’re going to spend your entire movie-watching career dismissing valid criticism of plot holes and genius moments of Chekhov’s gun set-ups alike as ‘dream logic’.  

While this is a fun idea to examine some media with, it can’t be the dark, edgy ‘secret truth’ to every show. A reviewer has to suspend some disbelief for fiction! Content farms like these theories because it means they can make one ‘serious’ video and one ‘dream theory’ video off of a community’s in-joke about a show. It’s double the content for the machine.

Why Are We Getting Weird With The Theories?

Alongside the ‘dream’ theories, there are theories that defy Occam’s Razor just for the sake of being different. I mean different different – it’s perfectly acceptable to have a bouquet of ideas about an ending, or several different theories that wouldn’t overlap but all make sense (see the American Psycho endings); but it’s verging on ‘interaction hound’-ing to make a thumbnail that says “Phantom of the Opera set in Post-Apocalypse? Ending Explained!” The reviewer doesn’t have new things to say about the old theories, so they have to make something new to get clicks. This is, again, probably the fault of the content generation machine, which is always demanding new and exciting things to show to its viewers. Some of these channels feel like they have to get as far off the wall as they can when they make their theories, or else nobody will watch or read their content.

Again – post-apocalypse stories or other off-the-wall reimaginations are a fun way to reframe a show, and sometimes they end up being right about it (Adventure Time, a popular kid’s TV series, actually was set after the world ended) but just like the joke theories, it’s not meant to be taken as though it’s just as valid as every other theory. Just because the author ‘died’ when they released it doesn’t mean the context and intentions they wrote the story with are now totally moot.

The Ending Made Perfect Sense, Why Are You Explaining It?

Sometimes this is just a movie critic pitching the ending of a popular movie in their normal “X Ending: Explained” format. They may only have one series for reviewing movies, and they want to make it clear that this is part of that series. For example, the ending of La La Land is definitely not ambiguous unless you were doing something else distracting while watching it – to explain it as though it was ambiguous would be assuming quite a bit of literacy failure from the audience. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing, it just means it’s not ambiguous.  

Describing the ending as though it needed to be explained instead of just discussed is strange, and possibly one of the most direct results of the content machine. While I’m sure some of the demand for these videos is from people looking for more content of their favorite media (which I do too, it’s fun to talk about the things you like) it seems strange that there’s a market for these videos at all.

Honorary Mention: Complicated Things Get More Discussion

You can say what you want about Tenet – the reaction online has been confused. The audio is low and often muffled to the point of needing subtitles just to understand anything the characters are saying. Potential plot points are introduced and then dismissed without being realized. The walls are practically lined with Chekhov’s guns that never get used. But everyone was so excited for this brilliant, mind-bending movie that I was sure I missed something. I read discussion threads about the movie. I watched it twice, once with subtitles after it was released to home streaming, and I realized the problem wasn’t that the plot was too complicated for me to follow, it’s that the movie itself is assembled weirdly. When you can’t hear a third of the dialogue, of course you don’t understand what’s going on, even though the characters are discussing what’s about to happen. When the backwards-forwards time travel mess is inconsistent, of course you can’t tell what’s going to happen next, because the rules are all wobbly.

But here’s a theory – what if it was made complicated and confusing? What if Nolan realized the script wasn’t doing what it needed to do, and tried to salvage it by masking its dialogue with audio mixing ‘mistakes’ so nobody can hear major plot points? What if Tenet starts trending on Twitter and gets 4K comments on its Reddit thread, if only because people are trying to figure out what the plot even was? And what if that means that one-time viewers rate the movie based on the special effects and not it’s overall structure? Don’t get me wrong: just like the ‘dream’ theories from before, this is just a conspiracy theory, a way to view the movie that makes you evaluate its parts differently. Just like those dream theories, I can pick and pull pieces of evidence that support it. However, I do think that the online buzz about the movie was more positive than it would have been if the movie had been easy to understand, both audibly and writing-wise.

Digital discussion spaces have unquestionably changed the movie ecosystem – whether that’s good or bad is up to the discussers and moviegoers themselves.

Has The Internet Made Mediocre Content Unfindable?

Elizabeth Technology November 22, 2022

The Recent Drama

The new movie “Don’t Worry Darling” had a number of issues leading up to release. All of the online critics want to talk about those issues. Harry Styles’ interview faux pa where he says the movie really feels like a movie (it’s not a misquote, he keeps doubling down on what he said) and the clip where he allegedly spit on Chris Pine (which, if he did, was clearly accidental) are cited in the same sentence describing him as an amateurish actor given a role too big to be anyone’s first, although giving the guy a couple more takes of any one scene could have only helped.

That said, the movie isn’t horrible. I hear that the ‘twist’ is very abrupt and the movie doesn’t give you time to enjoy it, but other than that, the movie is a perfectly okay piece of media. It’s probably a six out of ten or so. Without all of the news of those early production issues, it’s unlikely the movie would have been received any better, but the breath-holding ‘is this going to be horrible’ anticipation caused a lot of people to look for flaws as they were watching the movie. It skewed audience perception, at least the ones most likely to have seen the drama, which are coincidentally the people most likely to go online after the movie and talk about it. And people love a trainwreck, so skewing a review down a point or two gets more clicks. There is no vacuum in which to review the movie. Most reviews even now feature talk about issues with the crew that don’t directly relate to problems within production itself. Some of it does, yes – Shia LeBeouf leaving and being replaced with Harry Styles absolutely does – but the press circuit blunders and social media drama don’t. It’s either ‘not good’ or it’s ‘surprisingly good for the issues it faced’ as a result.

Have we gone past the point where critics, both professional and amateur, can assign a movie a rating of ‘mid’? Instead of a scale, we have two boxes. Does every mediocre or bad movie have to be ‘a disaster’, and every good movie at least an eight out of ten?

Good and Above All Criticism

Rogue One was a fantastic addition to a story franchise with a number of duds in it. I’ve watched it, and I’ve watched the prequels, the sequels, spinoffs, and the Mandalorian. Rogue One is a rare standout that’s so well-written you barely need any background knowledge on the rest of the series to watch it (meaning that this is an okay first place to see the Death Star or the AT-ATs. It is literally a prequel, after all).

The problem is that it’s so good that some people liked it better than one or two of the original trilogy, which is blasphemy as far as the hardcore Star Wars fans are concerned. On a scale of one to ten, the first trilogy is arbitrarily, dogmatically set at ten. If you’re a ‘real’ Star Wars fan in the most intense forums online, you like one of the first three the best, and then anything else after it. Anyone else is either a ‘casual’ or not a real fan.

Environments like this make it impossible to critique additions to cult-classic series. You have to hedge what you say. You can’t judge many of the movies in a vacuum because of the precursor knowledge you have to have (Rogue One is a rare exception) and so that auto-ranking will come into play, if not by the critic themselves then by the responses in the comment section. Things are either great, and an excellent addition to Star Wars canon, or they’re the worst, and unofficially de-canonized. A brilliant work by someone who ‘gets it’, or a soulless cash grab by a corporation trying to cash in on nostalgia. This is such a phenomenon that an entire subsection of people have built a community around the prequels, not even necessarily because they like them, but because they want to have conversations outside of that scale.  

Good But Torn To Shreds For Reasons Beyond Its Control

Steven Universe’s fanbase is famously poisonous. That said, a lot of the worst fans are not in the age group that the show was aimed at, but the representation in the show was truly one of a kind. It was groundbreaking. It was the only way some of those older fans ever saw themselves on screen in any capacity, much less positively. The writing wasn’t bad, either, although it was a kid’s show and featured kid’s show-level wit. The show itself set out with a good message and good intentions and was met with the worst of the internet in the 2010s. A fanbase willing to suicide-bait over mis-drawing the proportions of a character combined with an online population of trolls who realized this could be used to lump all of the people they didn’t like together made it difficult to truly form a positive community.

Steven Universe is not remembered fondly because of the fanbase, and being a Steven Universe fan was an entirely different thing from just liking Steven Universe. It came with a set of expectations that were impossible for anyone to meet, and gatekeepers threw people out of good graces in fan spaces on the regular.

The show itself was totally fine, but the internet of the 2010s was an as-of-yet unknown entity in and of itself. The show, despite its many breakthroughs for broadcast TV, is now often regarded poorly by mainstream sources.

Genuinely Bad But Not Criticized Fairly

Is it possible to judge reboots fairly? Does the nostalgia factor cloud the glass too much? How about shows where the authors and producers themselves are the point of contention? Can anything achieve a score of 5/10 when everyone only wants to dunk on bad shows and love good ones unconditionally?


While a good handful of critics go out of their way to judge a reboot fairly, a huge chunk of them don’t. It gets more clicks to be inflammatory, and if a company is rebooting a series, there’s a case to be made that they don’t want you to judge it fairly, they want your nostalgia to artificially boost their ratings. It only seems fair to deduct points for not playing fair. And besides, many of these reboot projects are shooting themselves in the foot before they even get to the starting line. Look at the PowerPuff Girls reboot, or the Teen Titans reboot, or the Star Wars reboot, or the Disney reboots, etc. etc. Many relied on nostalgia to get people to watch.

I’d argue for some of them that, if forced to come up with their own original characters, they would have been much better received. Nostalgia can backfire when characters become one-dimensional ripoffs of their originals to better suit younger audiences (in the case of Teen Titans Go, the first GhostBusters reboot, and Powerpuff Girls), or when the reboot is a soulless live-action reboot instead of a fair retelling, like Beauty and the Beast being a reboot vs. Maleficent being a retelling. Rebooting a franchise, even with a new story, is also a path to disaster. Origin stories for well-liked mysterious characters have plagued Disney and its properties for years now. Another such movie, this time about the ship captain in Rogue One, is about to come out even though the Solo movie is a pretty good indicator of how that’s going to go unless they really learned a lot from it. Nostalgia clouds the way something actually was, so reboot movies that aren’t better and/or at the same time familiar often suffer for it. Every once in a while, though, a studio gets it right – those brief flashes of nostalgia-based success are worth cranking out dozens of mid-tier reboots. It keeps the copyright from expiring, yes, but it’s also an easy way to make and sell the same movie twice.

Is It Really This Impossible to Separate the Art From The Artist?:

Modern ‘anti-wokeness’ critique seeks to dogpile movies and shows before they get out of the gate, even if the people rabble-rousing about it aren’t the target audience and don’t know anyone who’s part of said audience. In a general, alarmist sense, anti-woke personas are worried that a black Ariel or a female Luke Skywalker is going to irrevocably taint the originals, that the casting was done for ‘the wrong reasons’, that the movie is bad but they’ll be forced to say it was good or risk being ‘cancelled’. It’s not really like that, of course, but they have something to gain from spinning the tale. No movie can be fairly judged in this hell pocket dimension the internet has created.

Reboots are their own separate issue, though – what about original content that doesn’t fit the tradition? High Guardian Spice, an anime-inspired cartoon show, now has critic channels that have spent more time criticizing the show than its total runtime. It has, somehow, created channels that only critique High Guardian Spice and nothing else. The show is bad, a solid 3/10, but it’s not that bad. Crunchyroll, its hosting platform, has funded worse shows!

The problem is that Crunchyroll and High Guardian Spice knew the show was bad. It knew it was riddled with errors because it pushed its animation schedule to the absolute brink. The writers were rushed, the animators were rushed, there are actual PNGs mixed in with the animation because shortcuts were taken at every opportunity. It didn’t know what age range it was aiming for, and so all of the swearing and blood were designed to be removable if it was decided the show would aim younger, and it’s extremely noticeable. There are times when characters clip through things or pass under reality. The microphone quality is inconsistent across voice actors.

It was unfixably, irrevocably, bad. You can’t just fix or reshoot an animated show once it’s left production. They were stuck with it. What can you even do?

Bear with me, this is going to sound a little conspiratorial. I think Crunchyroll knew it was bad in a way they couldn’t fix, and so – in an effort to either garner sympathy or generate hate-watching – it began releasing trailers showcasing the diversity of the team creating it as a sort of lightning rod away from the other issues happening with the company at the time. It would be saying “this show is bad, but it’s not our fault”. And it worked! Anti-woke rabble-rousers were quick to point out the lack of good male characters (never mind the lack of good characters across the entire spectrum) the wooden writing around social issues (all of the writing is wooden) and it’s general slapped-together nature as evidence the staff writing it was incompetent because they were who they were.

If CrunchyRoll had not made a point of telling everyone that the staff was mostly women and the head producer was part of two minority groups, I sincerely believe this show would have flown right under the radar like it deserved as a 3/10 show. Instead, as mentioned before, there are channels who have individually produced more video of critique than the show had total because it fits nicely into a ‘culture wars’ narrative that only some people can produce good art. And critic videos are still being released to this day despite a lack of new content. That’s insanity. I’m not sure that’s ever happened to another full-length show.

No In Between

It is okay for a movie to be ‘mid’. It’s okay to not like the same things everyone else does as much as they do, and a show’s worth goes beyond its popularity or whether or not you ‘should’ be watching it. But maybe give some of those bad movies a shot – the internet encourages negativity, and even ‘bad’ media might still be worth watching even if it’s not Citizen Kane.