A financially literate man’s version of Nobu
Read to the end for a very helpful employee
Is It Cringe If You Can Monetize It?
Last month, a Twitter user named @coldhealing shared a TikTok video from a user named @dollarswithdrew. The video was titled, “How much I spent on a date night as a married couple with a baby and a net worth of $500,000 in Cincinnati, OH”.
There are a lot of videos like this on the platform right now, where a young person or a couple goes through a small financial diary around a particular theme, but the @dollarswithdrew video garnered a lot of Twitter snark. Which is, honestly, fair, I think. There’s a lot to make fun of, especially the part where they go to a restaurant on the side of a Cincinnati highway and say that the “vibes are immaculate” and call it a “financially literate man’s version of Nobu”. Though, I also think there are a lot of really unwell people on Twitter who live in large cities and spend all of their money on rent and become violently angry at even the slightest implication that people could be happy not living the way they do. But also @dollarswithdrew checked his net worth from his phone at the table before they ordered and his wife’s veggie burger looked like a hockey puck. So who’s to say what’s right in this situation.
Anyways, the video became a big meme and ended up being viewed 1.7 million times on Twitter. And a few days later @dollarswithdrew made a video about the experience. (Here’s a mirror of the video on Twitter.)
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Now, there’s a few really interesting things in here that I want to go through. He says, “I went to dinner to film a TikTok to create content to get views to gain followers so I can grow my account and eventually monetize.” And he then, incorrectly in my opinion, uses the video’s virality on Twitter as proof that he’s really good at making viral videos.
“I’m going to make a video that’s even more cringey so you can roast me even harder so I can get even more views and make more money,” he concludes. Which is very depressing I think and probably the wrong lesson to take from this whole incident! Also, TikTok doesn’t have a programmatic adsense program like YouTube does, so you can’t really just generate money out of thin air with hate views. But he’s not the only TikToker who is beginning to be more vocal about viewing any virality as good virality.
Another TikToker called @the_d_spot recently made a video called “Cringe-Worthy Items Women Have In Their Places (According To Men)”. The video got torn apart on TikTok and Tumblr. In a followup video, @the_d_spot brags about how the backlash ended up catching the attention of the New York Post, who flipped it into a story titled, “These common home decorations repel men: dating expert,” because, I suppose, “according to a random person on TikTok” doesn’t look as good in a headline.
This kind of thing happened a lot when Facebook really started taking over, back around 2012. A new weird Facebook post would break through its containment unit after it was screenshot and shared with semi-serious horror by pearl-clutching media people on Twitter. And tabloids were quick to figure out that you could package this random Facebook chatter into “news stories,” which could then be shared back on to Facebook for huge traffic gains. It felt as if a rock had been picked up and you could suddenly see all the American weirdness that had been hiding underneath. And a similar thing is happening with TikTok right now, but with some key differences.
TikTok is a visual app. There’s really no way to create content for it that isn’t a video, so there’s a feeling that we’re literally seeing ourselves when it surfaces cringe. I think it’s why we assume every TikTok is genuine and dunk on it accordingly. I suspect it’s also the reason why a lot of creators tend to double down after they’ve posted said cringe. The content, even if it’s staged, feels more like a personal extension of ourselves because it has our face or voice in it. Also, notably, TikTok doesn’t let you share links currently. So the only way for a TikTok content cycle to come back onto TikTok after its left the platform is to, of course, make a new video about it. This is what makes TikTok a perpetual motion machine of discourse.
The last interesting thing here, for me, is that these reactions seem to signal that our understanding of virality is evolving. When people first started going viral online, there was a real curiosity about what to do with these people. For a while they were basically just a new kind of America’s Funniest Home Videos contestant. In fact, Tay Zonday and Rebecca Black actually performed on America’s Got Talent in 2011. But about five years ago, right around when TikTok was first taking off in the US, we started to view virality with assumption that you could make money on it — if you went viral in a good way. And, now, I think it’s possible that as users continue to learn how to attention-hack on TikTok, we’re going to see more creators who just don’t care what kind of attention they’re getting as long as people are watching. Which makes sense. These newest creators have never known a non-viral world. And the algorithms that put this content in front of us don’t care how it makes us feel, as long as we feel something. So why should we, right?
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A Stretchy Cheese Update
What Constitutes A Hit TV Show?
Netflix, and by extension, the entire streaming industry is at a real crossroads right now. According to a recent Bloomberg story, “Netflix confronts two core problems. It isn’t adding subscribers at the same rate it once did and its existing customers are canceling at a higher rate.”
At the same time, streaming platforms have thoroughly scrambled our sense of not only what a TV show is, on a philosophical level, but also how we decide what shows are popular and what shows aren’t. To an extent this has always been a problem with TV — there has always been shows like The Bear that are obsessed over by everyone who works in publishing, while the rest of the country is watching Facebook clips of The Good Doctor, or whatever. Which is, incidentally, actually pretty similar to the way Twitter users react in disgust to TikToks from middle America. But now in the streaming era, where we don’t really know how many people watch anything because streaming platforms don’t disclose anything, things have become even fuzzier.
For instance, the LA Times recently asked, “Amazon’s The Rings of Power is a bona fide hit. Why doesn’t it feel like it?” Well, part of the reason may be that while it is a big show, it’s not the top show on streaming right now. According to Nielsen, Gen Xer dad show Cobra Kai was watched almost as much as House Of The Dragon and Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power… combined lol. Now, there are some caveats here, the big one being that Nielsen was using a metric of total minutes watched across a specific week in September and Cobra Kai is a full bingeable new season while House Of The Dragon and Rings Of Power are weekly. But the fifth season of Cobra Kai had been out for less than a week when the Nielsen did their ratings. Regardless, until we’re able to actually see behind the metrics and independently verify how these services even define “a view” — which has historically been an issue for digital video — we can’t say for sure that these platforms are even measuring themselves correctly. But let’s say they are.
Then what’s the deal? Well, it could be that we simply can’t measure our own attention anymore. With pop culture spread across so many platforms and dependent on so many other ways of communicating online, it could just be that we’ll never really know how big something is again. Though, it could also just being that Rings Of Power is pretty and boring idk.
Here Comes The Indie Sleaze Revival
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There’s a real curiosity on TikTok right now about a music and fashion movement they’re calling “indie sleaze”. Which is interesting because up until “indie sleaze” started trending on TikTok late last year, I had never heard Americans use that term before. “Indie sleaze,” along with my favorite term, “landfill indie,” were terms that I had always heard in the UK. My hunch as to why “indie sleaze” has become the term American teenagers are now using is because after emo music and fashion started getting popular on the app in 2020, UK tabloids started predicting that indie sleaze would trend next.
Anyways, the TikTok above got some pushback on Twitter — mainly because a lot of it is objectively wrong — with writer Robin James writing, “what we now call the 'indie sleaze' era can't be thought apart from hipster capitalism. Just as Williamsburg was being rapidly and rabidly gentrified, American Apparels popped up all over the US gentrifying formerly hip but dive-y neighborhoods.”
But the fact that indie sleaze has come back on TikTok, the Myspace of our time, just as new New York neighborhoods are gentrifying, alongside the backdrop of a possible global recession, is more than enough to give elder millennials a weird sense of deja vu. Unfortunately, there are a lot of millennials who are not on TikTok and not interested in looking back at that time period, which means we have a lot of videos like the one above being passed around right now.
I’m not just saying this just because it’s a period of time I’m particularly interested in, but I think it’s really seriously time for millennials start going back and writing their own histories because the new generation is here and they’re curious and they’re getting bad info.
A Very Useful Twitter Bot
Ever click into an absolutely indecipherable Twitter argument and feel like there’s probably some context you might be missing? Well, next time you see two tankies arguing about nationalizing anime, or whatever, you can use @BotTheFlag, which spits out an analysis of the flag emojis associated with users who like a particular tweet.
Unfortunately, the bot isn’t working super well right now after it went viral this week, but give it a follow and check back in on it when the attention dies down a bit. I feel like this could be very interesting to deploy on that whole pocket of #NAFO Twitter 👀.
The “Only True 90s Kids Will Remember This” Fascism Pipeline
A lot of interlinking themes in today’s newsletter today, huh? Last week, a Twitter user named @wokal_distance shared a picture drawn by the artist Rachid Lotf, who has a whole series of nostalgic art about 90s pop culture. @wokal_distance used the picture as an example of “a world worth fighting for,” which is both cringe and lame. But also a great example of something I’ve been tracking!
Back in September, when writing about the fact that the far-right politician set to become Italy’s new prime minister likes to share anime fan art of herself, I wrote, “Nostalgia is a weapon. Whether that’s nostalgia for a fictitious national past or nostalgia for Saturday morning cartoons, both can be used to foment division and anger.” Well, I’d say this is a pretty good example of that.
A Redditor Has A Problem With Their Steam Deck
The SteamDeck is a Nintendo Switch-like handheld that runs games from the Steam video game platform. I’ve been actually thinking about picking one up because apparently it can do a bunch of cool stuff, like, I guess, play the entirety of Shrek as a boot up video.
A Reddit user posted on the subreddit recently that they set Shrek as the video that plays when it starts and now they have to wait 90 minutes to use it every time they turn it on. Good stuff.
“You now have a Shrek machine,” one commenter wrote. “That only plays the Shrek movies back to back and dies at some point in between Shrek 2 and Shrek 3 because the battery life won't make it to the end of 3.”
Some Stray Links
“What happens if Twitter’s top engineers leave the company?”
“How a Tycoon Linked to Chinese Intelligence Became a Darling of Trump Republicans”
“When the Hindu Right Came for Bollywood”
P.S. here’s a very helpful employee.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***
There's a great book by Grafton Tanner called The Hours Have Lost Their Clock that explores the historical origins of nostalgia, and it's various uses at social, political and cultural levels. Very helpful for conceptualising the wistful backwardness of these alt-right, fascist types and their evolution from lame conservatives that don't like change.
"Also, TikTok doesn’t have a programmatic adsense program like YouTube does, so you can’t really just generate money out of thin air with hate views." Wherever there is attention, there is people, there will be money. If not through adsense programs, through merch, brand deals, the limit is your creativity.
Also regarding the virality, this is nothing new, it also happened in the gaming channels popularized on Youtube. Everyone would make fun of the cringe minecraft youtube channels where they exaggerate everything, are obnoxious, loud, etc. But if you check any of those youtube channels now, they're wiping their tears over being called cringe with $50 robux cards from their millions of child fans who somehow have money.
Triggering, engaging content matters, cringeness or shame is not relevant. I follow a bunch of substacks, the only reason yours is pretty much the only reason I comment on (which in an algo-driven environment would boost the content), is because while I love your newsletters, they also have some things I disagree with. If you wrote perfectly agreeable newsletters in an algo environment, the creator who baits engagement by doing a hot take or exaggerating their own take, will win out in the long run in terms of attention and money