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A megacorporation’s quest for all-powerful IP

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Webtoon Takes New York

I live in a part of Brooklyn where there are a lot of elaborately-painted mural-type advertisements, which usually go up on brick walls announcing new grocery delivery apps, new seltzer brands, or the latest buzzy streaming TV show. Upon my return from the UK, I noticed one of the mural locations was taken over by a massive ad for Webtoon, also known as LINE WEBTOON, a webcomic portal owned by South Korean web giant Naver. The ad reads something along the lines of “Main character energy” and features a splashy lineup of 2D sexymen who I assume are characters from the site’s most popular series.

As it turns out, this is part of a larger “Out Of Home Advertising” (OOH) campaign taking place in cities like London and Chicago, as well as New York, promoting Webtoon to hip audiences using fandom-savvy copy, which has the power to induce cringes and blushes, but is certainly attention-grabbing. The platform, despite being below the radar of many Coastal Elites, has become massively popular in the West. English-language original series like Lore Olympus and translated comics like Tower of God are receiving millions upon millions of views and comments. I’d forgive you if you didn’t know that Webtoon is, per its own PR, “the largest digital publisher in the world” with over 76 million monthly users. One of their biggest moves recently is a partnership with DC, publishing the popular Wayne Family Adventures Batman series on the platform. 

Webtoon’s mobile-oriented vertical scrolling format, which can also be found on its Kakao-owned competitor site Tapas, is a specific niche which differentiates itself from the classic page-by-page format of stalwart Western webcomics. Anyone can publish on Webtoon — one of the first things you see on the site’s homepage is a button reading “Make comics, reach millions!” — and the platform has revenue-sharing options and a creator partner program typical of other platforms like TikTok and YouTube. And also like TikTok and YouTube, they aren’t great partner programs. This week, the artists of the comic LoveBot released a lengthy open letter complaining about Webtoon’s lack of financial transparency. A prominent rebuttal from comics creator Bea/beesmygod pointed out that Webtoon, like most corporations, have never had artists’ best interests at heart.

Naver, Webtoon’s parent company, acquired Wattpad just last year, with Wattpad’s CEO now reporting to Webtoon’s CEO. When I wrote about C-entertainment for one of my first GD columns, I couldn’t quite get around to explaining fully how the most popular C-dramas were adapted from self-published web novels. The web novel genre, massively popular in Asia as a central source for IP, is less prominent here. Successful outliers like Andy Weir and Wildbow have started off self-publishing via personal websites, or the super-broad Kindle Direct, versus a dedicated serial-fiction platform. But it’s possible that might change soon if Naver has promotional plans for Wattpad along the lines of their Webtoon campaign.

One of the taglines that debuted over the summer in their outdoor campaign read, cringily, “Comics are literature’s fun side hustle.” Naturally this got a lot of heat from comics industry professionals on social media, who decried the idea that the comics industry is some scrappy up-and-comer. And yeah, the copy isn’t exactly amazing, but what’s interesting is that it’s a wide-scale campaign aimed squarely at fandom types as a demographic — the trope-loving, LGBTQ+ and female transformative fandom, that is. It’s an acknowledgment that the power of passionate audiences to pick and choose what they want to read and watch is central to a megacorporation’s quest for that all-powerful unobtanium: shiny new IP. It’s a flattering, slightly unnerving sign that we have well and truly entered a new era of fandom’s domination. 

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One More Piece Of Queen Content

“Most Reels Users Have No Engagement Whatsoever”

The Wall Street Journal published a damning report about Instagram Reels this morning. According to the WSJ, Instagram users are spending around 17 million hours a day on Reels. That sounds like a lot until you look at TikTok’s numbers, which is around 197 million hours a day. Even more brutal, most reels don’t have any engagement at all, according to an internal report the WSJ got their hands on.

Out of curiosity, I’ve been checking in on my own Instagram Explore page just to see what the app is trying to show and my big takeaway is how repulsive and ugly the content there is, just in a general sense. It’s started to resemble a Taboola widget at the bottom of a viral news story.

I think there are a lot of reasons why Instagram has turned into an absolute content graveyard this summer, but one big reason seems to be that many Facebook creators correctly assumed that the same deeply grotesque and cynical growth hacks that worked on Facebook Watch would work on Instagram Reels. So the minute these creators started noticing Reels were getting emphasized in users’ feeds, they just started plastering the platform with the same garbage. Which is, I’d imagine, has not helped Reels catch on. It’s a core community problem that Facebook has never addressed and only allowed to get worse, spreading from app to app like gangrene. And I’m confident in saying that until they figure out how to actually moderate and foster a decent creator class, they will never be able to catch up to TikTok.

The Battle For The Human Soul Of Fur Affinity

I wanted to highlight this story I wrote about in last week’s Garbage Weekend, I came across it thanks to Andy Baio’s excellent Waxy blog. Fur Affinity, the largest website for furry art, announced that they were banning A.I.-generated art from the platform.

“Our goal is to support artists and their content. We don’t believe it’s in our community’s best interests to allow A.I. generated content on the site,” the site’s announcement reads.

There’s an old adage that porn guides technological advancement. Porn companies chose VHS over Betamax and DVD over LaserDisc. I think that idea has become less accurate over time, however, because I think the internet porn industry is actually being stifled by a massive unchecked “tube site” monopoly, but, I suppose, you could argue that sex workers moving to platforms like OnlyFans is, in a way, actually the porn industry, once again, deciding what’s next technologically. Either way, I think the furry community has a similar relationship with technological progress.

Most recently, furries led the charge against NFTs, but they’ve been at the forefront of online expression for years. In fact, the culture war that eventually consumed the whole internet, first reared its head in the furry community, with users having to kick fascists out of their online spaces.

So the fact that Fur Affinity has banned A.I. is, to put it mildly, notable. I don’t think this is a situation where furries will try and defeat A.I. creative tools, but I do think if you’re interested in finding models for how to deal with the ethics of using A.I., furries are good pocket of the internet to watch.

Using A.I. For CGI Backdrops

My YouTube algorithm has determined that I’m super interested in creative A.I. tools right now and I recently came across this video that kind of blew my mind. It’s from a channel called Film Riot. If you don’t feel like watching it (you should) the team behind it wanted to see if they could use Midjourney to help them recreate a scene from Netflix’s Sandman. They inputted a bunch of prompts into Midjourney until they got it to render something similar to a landscape show of The Dreaming, the fantastical realm that the main character Dream lives in. Then they used After Effects to put an actor in there. The whole thing was shockingly simple to do and the results aren’t terrible.

Related, I came across another video from a channel called Cinecom.net where they put A.I.-generated faces into After Effects and rigged them up to move with a human actor’s face.

My main observation from both of these videos is that while the A.I. has done a bulk of the creative work, it has also freed up the humans involved to do really impressive and clever things with it. Which isn’t, obviously, a blanket way of looking at all of this stuff — plenty of people are using A.I. to be lazier than ever — but I do think it’s something worth considering.

Disney+ Has An Augmented Reality Feature Now

I’m a huge proponent of augmented reality versus virtual reality. I could be wrong, but I feel like AR is just more interesting. Though, I suppose we will most likely end up with a situation where they probably co-exist, with VR fulfilling the role currently held by at-home video games and web browsing and AR fulfilling the space where mobile computing is at the moment.

The video above, which was originally posted by Copenhagen-based technologist Bugge Hansen shows a new feature on Disney+ that is, honestly, pretty cool. If you play “Remembering” in the app and hold up your phone’s camera to the screen with the corresponding “Remembering” mobile app installed, it’ll play a short film that literally spills out of your TV screen. Obviously, the effect only works while you look through the phone’s camera, but the days of putting on a wearable and watching an AR film that takes over your whole living room feels very near.

Reddit Leak Communities Had A Bad D23

Longtime readers know how interested I am in fandom leak communities, but if you don’t know what these are, let me explain. For more male-oriented fandom spaces on websites like Reddit or YouTube, users typically don’t make a lot of fan art or fan fiction. Like you’d see if you search a Marvel tag on tumblr. Instead, users obsess over the reports of “leakers,” who claim to have insider knowledge of what’s going to happen in their favorite entertainment or video game franchises. I personally keep an eye on the Marvel and Pokémon leak subreddits. And, like the user in the screenshot above, I, more often than not, hate my time there because most of the leakers are extremely wrong!!!

What’s crazy though is that the leaker space has, over the years, become a pretty massive industry. A lot has been written about journalists publishing independently on Substack, but there’s a whole bunch of people basically doing Marvel-focused industry gossip and sticking it behind a Patreon paywall and making a decent amount of money.

Anyways, both the leakers and the leaker subreddits are not having a good time right now following Disney’s D23 expo over the weekend. Many leakers were reporting that D23 would be when MCU head Kevin Feige would announce the cast for the upcoming Fantastic Four movie, which didn’t happen. In fact, Feige announced the opposite, saying Marvel hasn’t even begun casting yet. Which has turned into something of a nuclear bomb for all the Marvel leakers, who have been reporting on various possible castings all summer. In fact, the backlash got so bad that one newer leaker, Greatphase, literally deactivated his Twitter account.

Will this be the end of the entire fandom leaker cottage industry? Absolutely not. But it is nice to see these spaces become a little more skeptical, even if it’s only temporary.

I’m Obsessed With These Rock In Rio Edits

There was a massive music festival in Rio de Janeiro last week. So a Brazilian user took footage of the Swedish band Ghost playing there in 2013 and replaced the audio with Brazilian Christian music. It’s extremely well done and super funny even if you don’t spoke Portuguese. Also, click in and check out the tweet above this in the thread, which is the same joke, but with the metal band Slipknot.

Some Stray Links

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