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All the bad people found each other online

Read to the end for a beautiful tribute to Taco Bell’s Mexican pizza

I’m doing another live show in NYC this week! It’s on April 30th and we’re collaborating with Mark Vigeant and Sam Reece’s Internet Explorers to do a big night of internet culture “comedy”. We have some amazing guests lined up like Gita Jackson, Kat Tenbarge, and Zoe Christen Jones. Hit this link to pick up tickets.

Reddit’s Bizarre Johnny Depp Takeover

During the pandemic, I spent a lot of time remaking my Reddit account. For years, I had only used Reddit’s r/All for work. I hated it! But it was the easiest way to consume a certain corner of the internet.

My personal Reddit now is mostly great. Whenever I get a new hobby or interest, I find the subreddit and, for the most part, I have a pretty good time on the site. Obviously, certain subreddits are worse than others, but I now know I can open the app and see some stuff I want to look at. It also means I almost never ever go on r/All anymore. For people who have never used Reddit before, r/All is a global feed of the whole site ranked by upvotes over time. It’s a mess and, though there have been campaigns to fix this, it’s still mostly dominated by large subreddits that all post the same content up to a point.

So I was pretty shocked when my personal Reddit started filling up with, honestly unhinged Johnny Depp content. Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard are in the middle of a nasty defamation trial in Virginia at the moment and it’s being livestreamed. The streams have millions of views and Depp’s fans, which are a bizarre mix of mens rights activists, edgy movie snobs, #ReleaseTheSnyderCut supporters, Harry Potter adults, and TERFs, are clipping all of it. Understanding why these usually disparate groups have come together to plaster Johnny Depp propaganda all over the internet is complicated, but basically a lot of boring men think Johnny Depp is cool, Zach Snyder fans think Amber Heard’s issues with Depp have impacted the release of DC movies, Harry Potter adults are mad that Depp was removed from the Fantastic Beasts franchise after he was accused of domestic violence, and a lot of TERFs viciously defend anything online about Harry Potter because of J.K. Rowling’s increasingly public transphobia.

It’s not exactly shocking that this Depp fandom blob would be big on Reddit, but it’s so big that it’s even breaking through my personal subreddit curation. Depp posts are showing up all over the platform.

r/FunnyMemes, r/MadeMeSmile, and even r/wikipedia are awash in posts attempting to take clips from this extremely nasty trial — which has included lengthy cross-examination of evidence relating to alleged domestic abuse — and turn it into something inspirational. I’ve seen a lot of sick stuff online, but this feels like it’s on a different level.

At first, I assumed this was a case of astroturfing. Reddit, probably more than another other major social platform, is extremely susceptible to manipulation. It’s not hard for users attached to specific foreign disinfo operations or fandoms to create (or buy) thousands of sock puppet accounts and use them to boost content that supports their specific cause. One sign of that, though, is that the comments are all from users complaining about it, usually calling bull shit on whatever has artificially started trending. That is largely not happening with the Depp content.

I found a few commenters writing things such as, “It's pretty fuckin weird to keep seeing edited clips from a trial discussing domestic violence in subs like ‘Made me Smile.’” But Reddit users seem overwhelmingly ok with this. I found one commenter on a r/MadeMeSmile thread, who wrote, “It also helps that Depp uses humor when hes feeling insecure. Its a defense that a very fair amount of comedians develop, which is not at all a negative thing. Just an observation on how Depp handles an awkward situation.” Which is face-meltingly nuts, in my opinion.

I don’t really have a lot of answers here, but I’m also not seeing this level of Depp saturation happening on other platforms. In my personal corners of Twitter and Tumblr — and just conversations in my daily life — this trial has not come up at all so I’m having trouble trying to get a sense of how this content is moving around the web. Though I did find one clue, which I think is interesting.

Most of the videos from the trial have either TikTok filters or TikTok watermarks on them, which makes me think the pipeline is: livestream to TikTok to Reddit. Which is also something I’ve never seen at this level before. I also found another comment in a Reddit thread that I thought provided at a pretty good glimpse of where this amorphous Johnny Depp internet blob might be headed next: “It's going to be hilarious watching the meltdown on reddit when they do not get the verdict they expected because they have been watching bias specially cut clips all day and listening to a hivemind telling them how to think.”

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How To Plant A Meme

If you’re at all tuned in to certain corners of digital subculture, specifically those adjacent to, or associated with, leftist activism and/or shitposting, you’re might be familiar with how the late Mark Fisher’s slim volume Capitalist Realism has become a widespread meme over the past few years.

Probably you haven’t thought much, if at all, about how exactly this meme got started. But, in case you were curious, a recent post on Joshua Citarella’s DoNotResearch collective website called “How To Plant A Meme” goes into detail about how he personally and secretively brought the Captialist Realism meme to life, detailing his precise strategies of infiltration and visual aesthetic creation.

Citarella is an artist and researcher based in New York, who gave up a career in precarious art-academia to become a full-time investigator of online political youth subcultures — work that he had been pursuing for years as as an influential thought leader in the field of memetics and digital community studies. Though, it’s worth being a bit skeptical about all of this. Yes, Citarella is an expert in this field, and the kind of person who not only would but could put in months or years of work into creating something like this, but the possibility yet remains that somehow the entire writeup is an elaborate joke, because Citarella is “a troll at heart.”  

He said that he single-handedly began the Capitalist Realism meme as part of his campaign to realign the ideologies of certain online political communities. How did he “begin” a meta-meme like this? According to his post, he basically seeded out Mark Fisher-related memes over the course of several years, “to plant a series of connected references that nudge and guide their interests over time.”

It seems p legit to me, tbh 🤷‍♀️ But regardless of its actual relationship with reality, the Capitalist Realism meme and the exposé of its origins are important if just to get us thinking critically about the way meme culture works. In 2022, the complexity and diversity of social groups and platform environments that make up the mulch of the digital floor is terrifying. But that doesn’t mean it is wholly impenetrable. Shifting the undercurrent of the internet can be done by one person, and, Citarella argues, it is worthwhile to attempt.

This project seems to be tied to his frustration at the silence of the art world in response to the upswell of online radicalization and the rise of right-wing populism. That condition of fruitless limitation is not new: Hari Kunzru, in a recent essay in Harper’s on the early days of the internet, described the feeling of “something transformative and possibly terrifying, but about which we could say almost nothing.”

The vast majority of everyday users are limited in their ability to effectively describe the endless and confusing murmurations occurring around them in online and in digitally-influenced offline events. This is how we end up with TikTok explainer culture and the endless telephone-esque chains of online regurgitation. Memes begetting memes begetting memes.

Meanwhile, the types of meaning-making activities conducted by the groups Citarella has made a career out of investigating, alongside so many untold others, are occurring everywhere, unseen and underground — like the rumble of the subway below Prospect Park I felt for the first time at a picnic the other day. It’s good to keep in mind that our communal memetic vocabulary, a useful and favored crutch against the ever-encroaching semantic void, is never sourceless nor neutral.

I think Citarella’s winking self-exposé is useful insofar as it serves, even temporarily, the immense yawning hunger we all have to understand what’s going on online — to stand on something solid, even for a moment.

WeChat Audio From Shanghai

This really incredible collection of audio recordings from Shanghai residents was translated recently. I came across it thanks to Caiwei Chen, a journalist who covers Chinese web culture. “It’s a collage of audio snippets circulating online lately, each recorded by a hurting civilian in Shanghai’s lockdown purgatory,” Chen wrote.

If you haven’t been following what’s been happening in Shanghai, the city has been in an extreme COVID lockdown for four weeks. Most recently, businesses and certain homes have been literally fenced in. It’s lead to what Chen in her thread described as “unprecedented strong public grievances.” If you’re looking for more on this, I shared this incredible supercut of user-generated videos from Shanghai earlier this month.

Putin’s Z Movement Co-opted The Sea Shanty Meme

The Russian pro-invasion Z movement is still going strong — sorta. It’s still a little unclear exactly how populist this whole thing, aside from the wildly manufactured demonstrations happening at various Eastern Russian shopping malls. Last week, The Financial Times’ Moscow bureau chief Max Seddon shared this totally surreal pro-Z music video that is based on the TikTok sea shanty meme that went viral last year. Good to know that fascists in every country have the same fascination with trying to reheat old memes.

It also seems as though this particular strain of the Z movement isn’t just an internet thing. Young Russian women in those nurse costumes have also been spotted giving gifts to Russian soldiers irl.

An Update On Tumblr Blaze

Last week, I wrote about the new Tumblr monetization strategy, Tumblr Blaze. It lets users pay a little bit of money to promote their posts. There’s no targeting. You pay $10, your content gets shotgun-blasted out into the void. I am a huge fan of it and think it’s honestly very neat. The world of online advertising is wildly broken and I think giving the users to shitpost with money is a great way to cut out that entire industry.

The effects of Tumblr Blaze have been very quickly noticeable! I saw a Blaze’d post this morning on my dash of Gandalf with a huge rack. People are paying to promote random photos of their pet lizards. It’s chaos. And, while I’m deeply skeptical that this kind of product can help financially support an entire internet platform, god, do I really hope it can. Though, here is one weird thing that has started to happen with Tumblr Blaze, which is definitely an unexpected consequence of a couple specific monetization tools being implemented at the same time: Catholics are crowdfunding proselytization ads.

You might not know this, but there’s a decently-sized chunk of Catholic users on Tumblr. (Based on my years of Catholic school, I’m going to guess that Catholics love fandom spaces for the same reason they love Catholicism — endless fights about canonization, rigid, yet inscrutable hierarchies, and copious amounts of psychosexual artwork.) Anyways, right before Tumblr launched Blaze, it launched a tip jar feature. Which means users can now organize crowdfunding campaigns. So once Blaze launched, a bunch of Catholics started collecting money via the tip jar (very Catholic) and are using that money to pay for sponsored posts. I haven’t encountered any of these posts yet — there’s currently no way to easily find sponsored posts — but I’ve seen a lot of angry posts about it.

A Tweet That Goes So Hard

Just to be really clear. This is a reaction to Guitar Center changing its logo…

Some Stray Links

***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***

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