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When Did we Forget About Trolling?

Elizabeth Technology May 7, 2024

Yanking your chain. Fooling with you. Messing around. It goes by many names, but online, it’s known as trolling.

The way forums dealt with trolls was a set of rules that users were commanded to follow, first and foremost being “don’t feed the trolls”. The goal of trolling is to get the other side keyboard-smashing upset with the troll, so by denying them a reaction, you’re starving them of the attention or the control they desire. If a forum is overrun by people intentionally acting in bad faith, it dies, and all the legitimate members leave, creating a ghost town. As such, anti-trolling measures were not just a comfort, but a necessity. Cries of “Don’t Feed the Troll!” under bad-faith questions choked out arguments before they started, and kept conversations more or less civil.

Where did all of this knowledge and wisdom go? Because now it’s gone, and trolls are trolling like never before.

Negative Comments

There is a certain thrill to saying something mean to someone online – what could the other side do about it? If the troll says someone’s art sucks, for example, the worst the artist can do is block them, or try to take the high road by saying they hope the troll finds peace. If the artist gets upset, then the troll wins. This desire for control and the attention of another person is largely why trolls do what they do. If someone is deeply isolated, and they can’t get people to stick around and talk about the weather, sometimes all they can do instead is start an argument about it. Humans need social contact, and they’ll get it one way or another. A combination of factors steer all sorts of people into social isolation, and the internet can act as a release valve where they can pick fights with strangers who can’t enact consequences.

However, if the old forum rules about trolls were still being followed, these people would eventually have to move on. The rules still work; nobody has gotten more determined or better at trolling, the average person posting to social media has just gotten worse about responding.

We know ignoring them still works! For example, a soapmaker I follow was getting nasty comments, so instead of responding, she blocked the commentor. The commentor came back with a different account, and they were blocked again. The process repeated seven times in total before the troll gave up. The effort of circumventing a block is ten times the effort it takes to block! By not responding until the person had left, by blocking and not engaging, she exhausted the troll before they could get the payoff of a reaction from her or her audience. Obviously, this wouldn’t work if it were a ton of people all commenting together (which happens), but then she still wouldn’t be an entertaining target, she’d just turn off the comment section. This is how you deal with trolls. She has a nice, happy, peaceful comment section because she doesn’t respond, she just blocks. 

Content Mills – And Algorithms

Responding is the worst thing you can do. If the commentor is a normal person who was just having a bad day, then responding might get them to apologize, but it also might just make them delete the comment and move on. If they aren’t, they usually get even meaner, and the response shows other trolls that this person will read their comment and possibly reply to them, too.

The opposite of the soapmaker is another content creator who attempted to reply to a troll patiently and rationally. Why? Why even bother? There is a line of thought in debate that you should hear everyone out. This works in business and politics, but does not work at all on public social media! This guy went from dealing with one troll in his comment sections to dozens, picking on everything from his beliefs to his social life to his looks. He lost. He replied, and he lost. Trying to tell a troll that looks are not correlated with morality is like trying to explain physics to a flat-Earther. Of course they already know the physicist’s arguments, and they disregarded them all, which is why they’re still saying the Earth is flat. No amount of describing orbits and gravity could possibly sway them – they are not arguing from a position of logic, they are arguing from a position of imagined superiority. There is no value in responding. Blocking and moving on when someone called him ugly the first time was the only way to move forward. But he didn’t, and the next twenty videos were dealing with the fallout of that one video.

But that’s kind of convenient, isn’t it? Doesn’t it actually work out in your favor if you can make twenty videos out of basically nothing? The way TikTok works, if you stop posting for a bit, you stop popping up so high in the algorithmic “For You” page’s feed.

The problem with today’s social media is that influencers and creators who want to make money need to always be making content, and negative comments are a boundless source of argument seeds. On TikTok, you can rant and rave for three minutes about someone leaving “U Stink LOL” in the comments, replying directly to the commentor with a whole video. This is the most infuriating arrangement because both sides get what they want via conflict: the troll gets the attention they want, and the creator gets a “free” video. It’s a very ugly win-win.

In this way, the people populating the comment sections have become used to arguing. They assume bad faith, because they have been trained to respond to trolling, and anything even slightly ambiguous as though it were also trolling. This keeps content flowing, this simulates social connection, and thus the cycle is self-perpetuating. To put the brakes on like the soapmaker did and actively resist the siren’s song of feeding the trolls, you have to opt out of the easy way.

The New Internet Is Full of Bots

Elizabeth Technology May 2, 2024

Ever see a bizarre post with a comments section full of people spamming emotes or otherwise responding in a way that suggests they read a description of the post, but didn’t actually see it? Of course interaction bots have been here for a while, but now with AI art (rather than stolen art) it becomes obvious these are actually bots and not people.  

What Is An Interaction Bot?

Firstly, in this area, ‘bot’ refers to a bit of code that does something. What the bot does depends on its creator’s goal – some bots sit and ‘watch’ videos to boost view count, others scrape data from websites to analyze it, and some do things like scroll, interact with buttons, and leave simple, plausibly human-sounding comments on posts online. An interaction bot is meant to be a substitute for real human interaction on a post. Since many social media sites now offer moneymaking opportunities based on views or likes, and since everyone likes feeling popular, this is a problem that said social media sites have been fighting since internet points were invented.

Every time some new ‘tell’ makes the bots easier to purge, the bot makers come up with another way to thwart moderators. When bots were getting too specific with likes, the bot makers told them to like a handful of other posts before they started interacting with the desired post, and to stagger when the interactions happened so they didn’t all hit at once. When the comments got too repetitive, a library of  comments scraped from places like Reddit started re-appearing in comment sections. It’s easy to borrow human habits, and we’re at a point where an uninterested user is borderline indistinguishable from a bot pretending to be a human, at least just by looking at their browsing habits.

The goal of some bots is to get a lot of followers to follow one account so that account can then be used to sell the new followers something, whether that be a political belief or an actual product. Even on services where views are not tied to money, those eyes are still useful. The way most algorithms work, a popular post becomes more popular because the website shows those popular posts around to new people who might not have seen it. It does this because the popular post in question created engagement, and if the website can keep you engaged, you’ll stay on longer and see more ads. Having bots enter this ring and artificially boost the popularity of certain posts has resulted in a strange new kind of post dominating Facebook. Where a post had to be written by people, and a picture had to at least be stolen from a real person in the past, the widespread availability of ChatGPT and image generators makes some of these fake posts stick out like a sore thumb.

ChatGPT and Image Generators

You can tell a bot to ask MidJourney or Dall-E to generate an image, and then put that image into a Facebook post with a caption you pre-wrote. Once you set it up, you don’t even have to check on it. Once the post has been put up, other bots show up to comment on it or like it, whether they’re yours or someone else’s.

This has resulted in posts like Spaghetti Jesus or The 130 Year Old’s Peach Cream and Filling Birthday Cake getting hundreds of comments all saying “Amen!” or “Looks Good!” with maybe a dozen people asking what everybody is talking about, because the picture usually looks terrible and fake. This isn’t a case of tech-illiterate folks seeing something obviously bizarre and giving it a ‘like’ anyway – these people don’t exist. The better ones may get a couple of real people, but the strange ones are certainly not (look at these pictures The Verge has collected as an example: ).  

We’ve circled around! This new generation of bots are so advanced that, when given the chance to show off the state-of-the-art tech entering the market, they do it without question and accidentally pull back the curtain in the process.

What To Do?

Unfortunately, managing this issue as a user on the web is basically impossible. Even if you keep bots from following your accounts, you’re not immune to seeing bot-run accounts when you’re searching or scrolling. Instead, the best thing you can do is just refuse to engage with engagement bait – when something asks you to say “Heck yes!” in the comments, or leave a like if you love X hobby, you can ignore it, and avoid accidentally propping up bot accounts trying to get big. As for imagery, the bizarre spaghetti creatures and uncanny peach cake bakers are only going to get better – we’re entering a phase of the internet where pictures must be assumed to be fake and verified before they are treated as real, the opposite of what most internet users are accustomed to. On forums like Reddit or Tumblr, a user must look at the comments before taking a post as fact, because upvotes and comments are not necessarily the sign of quality they used to be when the internet was young and lacked bots. It’s a strange new world out there, and the bots are part of it now, for better or worse.

Please Share Less Info With TikTok

Elizabeth Technology April 25, 2024

TikTok is a terrifying place. Users regularly show their entire face, cons that they’ve attended, and personal stories with too much detail to their audience. They show the inside of their apartment building and their unit number. They tag their small towns. Distinctive, unique tattoos get shown off to thousands of people, as well as the view from their front yard and what stores they can walk to. Some of the TikToks that came out of the pandemic were about remote learning, with the teacher visible on the screen. License plates and unblurred faces abound.

Even the tiniest detail can be used to turn someone’s life upside down, especially if they’re underage.

The worst part? It doesn’t have to happen immediately! Sometimes a ticking time bomb isn’t noticed until it’s already gone off. Kids posting a video of themselves violating school rules weeks later can still be shuffled up front on the feed. Ticked off a more anonymous user somehow? You’ll never know how the school found out you broke a rule. Videos of dance trends that kids wouldn’t want their parents seeing are getting sent to their parents based off of information gathered over weeks or months of posts. All of it’s online. Video is an incredibly information-rich format, and when each video is under a minute long, any one person could look through them all.

It’s no surprise people are getting their own details shoved in their face when they’re posting this much about themselves!

The easy solution? Just don’t. Don’t download the app. If you do, don’t make videos. Of course, this isn’t going to happen, so the second-best option is to always film indoors away from windows, or in generic buildings like Targets or chain grocery stores. Don’t film yourself in a distinctive school uniform or in an identifying area of said school, because sometimes all it takes is specific colors. In Las Vegas, many of the school buildings look the same, but the colors are totally distinct to each school. If a kid has posted about living in Vegas before, those colors narrow down their location dramatically.

Shia LeBeouf’s flag, and 9Gag’s ‘meme hieroglyph’

It’s dangerous to attract too much attention from certain forums. 4Chan in particular is notorious for finding the unfindable, triangulating exact locations based off of things like truck honks and light positioning. See the saga of Shia LeBeouf’s flag project, where the flag was found over and over until he was forced to put it in a featureless white room.

9Gag put a limestone pillar covered in ‘hieroglyphs’ (which were really just old memes carved into the surface) underground for future archeologists to find. 4Chan and other forums found it by cross-referencing information in the background (Spanish writing on a truck) with available limestone mines and open fields in Spanish-speaking countries and found its exact coordinates based off of that little information. They couldn’t do much about it, because it was a 24-ton piece of limestone, but they found it.


If you post things online, someone may be able to find you given time and determination no matter what you do. The best thing you can do to avoid that determination is fade into the background, as hard as you can, and don’t post crimes or social misconducts to TikTok or social media. Even if you’re not planning on committing crimes, you should set accounts to private, don’t overshare, and don’t do things that get you online attention for the wrong reasons. Once again, TikTok is terrifying because small accounts may think they’re sharing with their friends, only to end up trending unintentionally!

Maskless groups of friends posting videos at the beginning of the pandemic were scolded for being maskless, and because interaction makes videos more likely to appear on the ‘For You’ page, those maskless videos were getting thousands of people’s worth of harassment. If they were lucky, it stopped there – if they weren’t, they’d find that their school or place of work were being told about their conduct. Post something dumb? Algorithm catches it juuuust right? Previously anonymous posts then get a glance from hundreds to thousands of people! Suddenly, it matters a lot if you’ve ever posted videos that looked bad with no context.

And More Crimes

If you’ve seen posts that said “help me find her!” with some sob story about a missed connection, this is one way of finding people who don’t necessarily want to be found. Sure, it might be legit. It might also be a particularly clever stalker using a sad story about ‘I was out of swipes on Tinder!’ to get unsuspecting ‘good Samaritans’ to help him chase some woman’s Facebook profile down. Missed Connections on Craigslist is one thing – that’s pretty anonymous, and it doesn’t usually come with a picture or video attached showing everyone what the other person looked like. Posting a missed connection to thousands of people on Reddit or TikTok is an entirely different thing. It’s effectively setting a mob after that person to get them to respond to the poster. Imagine dramatic music – this is a horror story. The same goes for Missing Persons posts – if the number is anything but a police department’s number, you should be wary of trying to help, because sometimes people run away for good reason.


NeoPets Is Still Online, Somehow

Elizabeth Technology April 18, 2024

Neopets was huge. At 21 million users during its peak, the website was a behemoth of the early 2000s. It’s still going today! Neopets is a free-to-play digital pet game, where the user can interact with digital pets, the Neopets. Games, chatrooms, and all the usual fixings of 2000’s era children’s sites were available to users.

It was also the subject of a couple of scandals, although nothing quite as dark as Club Penguin Re-Written’s issues.

The Avatar Swap

Firstly, the biggest one: the black market surrounding rare avatars.

Like many children’s games, Neopets self-funded with website ads sprinkled here and there, right up until it was purchased by a larger company, Viacom, with some big ambitions for the franchise: everything from console games to real-life toys was supposedly on the table. They’d need more money to execute these plans, however. Additional funding snuck in, and certain items became purchasable with Neocash, which players could buy with real money!

Now pets with certain upgrades are more valuable than others because they have money invested in them – the market begins to form as soon as an update allows for pet trading. Trades weren’t an official thing by any means prior to that, all a player can do is drop off the Neopet in the Neopet pound and hope the other guy managed to snag the ‘abandoned’ pet. This feature of the game actually held back the flood for a while – no guarantee of pet? No guarantee of pay, and so trades were rarer in the early days. Still, trades happened, and finally Neopets admins allowed trading to happen officially. It allowed them to monitor the action, and the feature was very much requested anyway.

Trades: Value

Trades were about to become an issue, however. Neopets was constantly bandaging over or changing things, which left items in the lurch. New features and decorations for pets were steadily coming and going, but the old versions weren’t always taken out of the equation.

Once such change converted the formerly-unclothable pets into new, exciting, dressable ones. Most of the Neopet avatars were changed overnight with little warning. Players were disgruntled, as some pets got swapped into new categories: ‘sponge’ pets, brightly colored pets made of dish sponge material, turned into ‘mutant’ pets, a collection of tentacled and fanged creatures with a muted gray/green color palette. This is understandably upsetting! Pets that were cute became cuter, pets that were weird became weirder. The visuals on the ones that didn’t change category were still tweaked – the update added eye-shine, fur texture, and new poses to flattened original arts. However, not all of the avatars were converted! Some were allowed to keep their old art, although new art had been made for the species.

Neopets allowed players in this final category to choose whether or not to convert, and essentially created a black market for unconverted pets with unconverted art. Only a few species were allowed to stay as-is in their player’s dashboard, and any new players who created a pet of that species would be using the new art. As a result, these unconverted pets became legacy items, and their value exploded. People began trading real money for these pets, with deals set up in forums and private chat rooms. It was against the rules, of course, but when did that ever stop anyone? A tiered system that ranked pets popped up, which turned the pets into a sort of stock market! Pets had value based on what the community perceived their value to be.


Admins did their best. Club Penguin had an enormous team covering a smaller userbase, while Neopets’ team was too small to focus on anything but the biggest fires.

Nowadays, the end of Flash Support means the game is frequently buggy and uncooperative with player inputs. Staff is working to move to HTML5, but the age and size of the website makes that a Herculean task. Even before then, though, it had issues. It’s initial transfer from Viacom to Jumpstart Games in 2015-ish came with a lot of lag and glitches all by itself during the move to new servers. Glitches that only made the situation with that black market worse! Now certain items could be ‘accidentally’ duplicated or deleted, and minigames were harder to play, encouraging the purchase of Neocash with real cash over grinding for points day in and day out. This is understandably frustrating for younger users.

Today, the website struggles with maintaining time – the game’s clock is about two minutes behind the real world’s time, and as a result, things like 2-Factor authentication are very difficult to use. The website can send a code, the user can receive it and try to put it in, but at that point the website sees a code from two minutes into the future and declines it. Essentially, the website’s security is broken by the grandfather paradox.


Admins could reverse trades. But, doing so could reset an entire train of transactions if that pet was obtained illegitimately. This is obviously very annoying to players who just wanted a new shiny pet and had nothing to do with the initial theft. Responses to the issue from admins were mixed, and no one solution was universally applied. That sounds great, but every custom solution left people questioning the admins’ decisions. They seemed uncoordinated.

Even worse, hacking the website itself became a problem, and some guy created a bunch of unconverted pets via admin tools. The next few hours of gameplay for everyone were strange as the admins worked to remove the new unconverted pets from the game again, some of which were already traded far down the line. Since black-marketeering was against the rules, the community could only police itself by banning issue players or thieves from their forums, but their work was in-demand and theft would happen anyway.

Surprisingly, big external hacks seem to be pretty rare – all the hacking going on for the black market are done from inside the site, which needed the site to keep going to be worth it. Rare doesn’t mean non-existent: one very big hack got several million assorted accounts in varying levels of completeness… the database was too old to be of much use, and many passwords were missing corresponding emails. Which brings up the next point!

Dormant Users

The site never purges old, inactive users. This is a problem when the pet’s name is essentially it’s ID number – once a Neopet is named Spot, there can’t be another named Spot. Pets don’t disappear when they’re voluntarily discarded, either, they go to the Neopets pound where another player can adopt them. As such, the pet’s name adds value to the pet! Pronounceable names with no underscores, dashes, or numbers are significantly more valuable than keysmashed names in the black market.

This favors the early users who got first pick of the names, many of who then abandoned their pets as they outgrew the game. Which encourages hacking! It’s not exactly malicious, as the hackers have no idea if the original user is ever going to come back to their pet, but it’s not exactly white hat, either, because of the personal information tied to the account and all that. Rather than treating abandoned accounts like accounts, they’re being treated like a mine. This is a non-renewable resource, so when the old accounts inevitably run out, what happens next? Where does the next supply of market-fodder come from? Not to mention that it’s difficult to actually gauge inactivity from the outside– the age of the account doesn’t necessarily mean it’s abandoned!

The admins could prevent the issues all of this causes by purging the accounts, so why not do that?

Purging users means that the unconverted pets in these inactive accounts would either A) flood the market, if the team releases them to the pound, or B) disappear forever, thereby destroying the new supply of unconverted and well-named pets. The adult users have more voice than the kid users do, so they’d be flooded with complaints and negative feedback on every channel.


Don’t Delete Your System32

Elizabeth Technology March 14, 2024

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

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

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

The Beginning

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

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

Interim Growth

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

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

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

Mainstream Dilution

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

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

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

Remember the Apple Wheels?

Elizabeth Technology March 12, 2024

Ah, Complaining.

Apple Wheels

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

Brand = Trustworthy

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

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

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

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

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

Brand = Money

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

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

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

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

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

Wheely Worth It

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

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

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

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

Apple Wheel. It’s wheely about the advertising.


AI Advertising and Glasgow Wonka

Elizabeth Technology March 5, 2024

It’s official – even small events are using AI for their ads, to mixed results. The Glasgow Wonka event is already going down in history as a Fyre Fest or Dashcon type event, and just like its predecessors, its deceptive marketing drew in crowds it wasn’t prepared to serve.

The difference this time is that it used AI-generated pics to make up what the warehouse might look like when parents arrived (alongside an AI-generated script for the character actors). Odds are that the person in charge had no illusions that they’d be able to match the pictures they used.


Up to this point, a lot of image-generating AI has been used to make pictures for the purpose of having the picture. Memes, photos of hypothetical cosplays and theoretical movie costuming ideas, content one wishes they had the skill to make, cartoon characters drawn in a different style, et cetera. Some people used it for ads, of course, but because all of the big programs are unable to spellcheck the words in the pictures they generate, the person trying to make the ad still needed some editing and fontsetting knowledge to make something truly professional-looking. As such, it wasn’t really good for entire ads, although it was plenty to generate filler images for slideshows or cute critters alongside human-written text for the petting zoo at the fair.

Now, the image generators are getting good enough to produce work that’s passable at a glance, if sometimes confusing and still riddled with spelling errors. The Glasgow Wonka event used a number of AI-generated illustration-style pictures to evoke the magic of Wonka, alongside a handful of pictures of what the inside of the warehouse was supposed to look like. One particular image, an upwards shot of a walkway surrounded by fake grass and a lollipop forest, looks realistic enough (as in, “a company could set this up with plastic props and people would be able to walk through it without destroying it”) that if I didn’t know the image was fake, and I was simply scrolling, I’d be convinced it was real. The total lack of watermarking makes it too easy to believe the pictures of the event were taken at the event.

Who’s Fault Is It?

The Glasgow event was lame inside. The actors were given a borderline incomprehensible script that added in a villain living inside the walls of the chocolate factory, possibly one a bit too scary for children, and at least one of those actors reports that they haven’t been paid yet. There was a single bouncy castle, a couple of decorative tapestries using the same pictures as the generated advertising, and the event was incredibly stingy with refreshments. I can guarantee that – for the price – the attendees weren’t suspicious or otherwise thought it would be quite so lame. Who would have the audacity to charge that much and use fake pictures? The pictures were realistic, for a warehouse event, after all. That’s the problem – this tool is too powerful, and it’s already being used to lie. The image generators are capable of spitting out photorealism now. Some online critics are blaming the parents who attended for not picking up on the use of the AI images before bringing their kids, but I don’t think it’s actually their fault! A fake picture of an event is still a fake picture of an event. The quality of the advertising pictures was borderline stock-image, not the mutated buildings and multi-pronged hand pictures of AI generation past.

Who would question the pictures of what the inside of the warehouse was supposed to look like? The cartoon illustrations of the attractions being filled with nonsensical spelling errors is one thing, the photorealistic shots of “the inside” are a totally different matter, and if anything, they shore up the rest of the advertising. That is meant to be proof that the attractions inside actually exist. The completely believable photos turn this from a case of Dashcon-style overadvertising to genuine deception. Do you wonder if a restaurant’s website cover picture will look the same when you arrive at the physical location? Or if the inside of a hotel room will look like what was advertised on your travel app? Probably not! The average consumer will likely take that at face value, because the average consumer is not used to being shown such blatant lies!

So who’s fault is it? The person who misled them, or the people being misled? We are past the point where AI looks obviously fake and bad. It can’t spell hardly anything right, but it does such a good job of producing picture-perfect fakes that the average person won’t be able to rely on their own instincts to spot them anymore. Instead, a bigger focus needs to be put on making simulated images detectable to the average person – if the warehouse photos had been marked with some sort of watermark that they were made in a picture generator, it might have tipped some of the attendees off that this was fishy.

The World’s Most Specific Shirt

Elizabeth Technology February 29, 2024

You’ve probably seen some variation of the shirt.

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

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

What’s happening?

The Ads

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

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

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

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

Art and More

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

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

The ‘Why’

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

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

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

The Marketing

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

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

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


Online Investment In Dud Projects

Elizabeth Technology February 13, 2024

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

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

Smaller Ones

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

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

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

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

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

Why Even Bother Talking About It?

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

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?