An investment in future virality

Read to the end for a very good Tumblr poll

The Mark Of The MrBeast

Earlier this week, Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson, the most-followed “individual” on YouTube and, I think, the YouTuber most likely to become the platform’s first billionaire probably, released a video called “1,000 Blind People See For The First Time”. I don’t think I was necessarily harsh when I wrote about it on Monday, but a few of his fans were unhappy that I said I thought Donaldson was an algorthimically-optimized charisma void that looks like someone who would wear pants that zip off into shorts.

But I was far from the only person to raise some eyebrows over his new video. Streamer Hasan Piker, who later said he doesn’t have an issue with Donaldson personally, had some back and forth about how Donaldson’s video is an especially sad portrait of how bad the American healthcare industry is (which I agree with). But if I had to summarize the general negative reaction to the video I would say that people just seem to be largely uncomfortable with the video’s whole vibe.

And that mild discomfort — over a video that literally has a “people cured” ticker at the bottom of the screen (pictured above) — was enough for Donaldson to go on a bit of a Twitter meltdown. First, he organized a poll about whether or not he should run for president. Luckily for us, Donaldson has to wait about a decade to be eligible and I assume Silicon Valley cyberlibertarians will have successfully carved up the country into Bitcoin-powered city states by then. And then Donaldson tweeted this:

My favorite take on this was from Twitter user @Spice8Rack, who wrote, “When the philanthropist complains that their philanthropy isn't getting the kind of praise he wanted, it should make you wonder what the motive behind the philanthropy was in the first place.” But before we get to the motive, let’s address Donaldson’s pledge to give away all his money, because it’s a curious way of phrasing what he’s doing.

One of Donaldson’s big talking points is that he “operates at a loss.” He has said many times that all of the money from his content goes back into his content. Which is a very funny way of using influencerspeak to just, you know, describe how a normal business works. But let’s go over what we know about Donaldson’s finances.

Per a TechCrunch article from last October, Donaldson is spending somewhere between $4 million to $8 million a month. He spent around $3.5 million on his Squid Game video, for instance. And according to an Axios report from the same month, Donaldson was shopping around his content empire last year, hoping to raise $150 million for a total valuation of $1.5 billion. Donaldson has already managed to raise $50 million for his snack company, Feastables. He also has a charity called MrCharity. I’m unclear exactly what MrCharity’s relationship is with the money he’s giving away in his main videos, but let’s assume that it’s all totally above board and that the money MrCharity is spending is totally different than the money MrBeast is spending. Either way, MrCharity also has a YouTube page, which is grimmer than anything you could ever imagined and brings us to the question of motive.

YouTube appears to have disabled the ability to sort channel uploads by date, but back when you could do it, I once spent an afternoon going through Donaldson’s content from the beginning. Many of his early videos are scrubbed, but if you scroll through his content, you can watch him evolve from being a teenage gamer obsessed with PewDiePie into a creator that now surpasses PewDiePie. And you also start to get a clear picture of what the MrBeast philosophy is, to the extent there is one.

Donaldson figured out that you can buy virality. Not by paying for reach, but by telling your audience exactly how much you’re spending. The problem, though, is that by doing this too much, you run the risk of alienating your audience. Virality also, crucially, depends on relatability. I suspect this is why we both know so little about Donaldson as a human person and also why his appearance has not changed even slightly in the last four years. He’s an avatar for Gen Z iPad babies entering young adulthood. But viral content platforms, and YouTube, in particular, reward a constant, almost psychologically torturous need to one-up yourself. So you have to keep creating excuses for spending more and more money. You start giving it away to random people on the street, then to contestants in your own game show segments, or you spend it on increasingly elaborate stunts. Then you create a charity to spend even more money. And the algorithm rewards you with views, and thus subscribers, and thus ad revenue. But Donaldson now seems to be angry that people are beginning to realize that this philanthropy is not an act of charity, but an investment in his future virality.

To be clear, I’m not knocking this. There are much, much worse things you can do to go viral. But like every rich guy right now, Donaldson now also want us to thank him for it and tell him he’s a good person. But he’s just a guy who has spent a very long time figuring out exactly how much internet traffic costs. It just happens to also help people sometimes.

I’m Cohosting An Event About A.I. Next Week

I’m partnering with consultancy firm Part and Sum for an event next week about A.I. We have some great speakers lined up, but we’re capping the attendance at just a few dozen guests so RSVP ASAP please! If you’re interested in attending click here.

Elon Musk Tries Out The Private Accounts Hack

If you have missed this whole thing, there are theories that making your Twitter account private help boost its engagement within Twitter’s new algorithmic For You timeline. My personal theory is not that being private boosts visibility, but that it breaks the algorithm’s attempts at sorting your content, forcing the timeline to show your tweets as they arrive. I personally haven’t tried going private, but I have spent the last few weeks toggling between both the algorithmic and chronological feeds and it seems like tweets from private accounts appear roughly in the same place, regardless of how you’re using the app. But it’s possible something else is happening.

Of course, Elon Musk has only decided to find out what the deal is after a bunch of right-wing accounts started complaining about it. It’s weird that Musk is doing this, though, because, you know, he could just ask his employees about it because he owns the company, but whatever. I hope he’s having fun. I’m sure this little experiment is not him trying to distract people from a Justice Department probe into Tesla possibly lying about its self-driving capabilities.

On Deepfakes And “Pornography”

Twitch streamer Brandon “Atrioc” Ewing released a tearful apology this week after he was caught on stream looking at non-consensually deepfaked sexual material of fellow Twitch streamers such as Imane “Pokimane” Anys and Maya Higa. Ewing, for some bizarre reason, decided his wife Arianna should silently sit next to him on stream, like a disgraced politician apologizing for a sex scandal. Even more bizarre, Ewing streamed his apology, which meant his audience could fill up the chat with Pepe the Frog emojis as he cried about how he just so happened to stumble across the deepfaked sexual material, which was hosted on an extremely obscure corner of the internet and, also, behind a paywall. Oh, and he personally knew most of the streamers he was browsing deepfakes of.

The whole thing is a mess and the apology was a car crash and unfortunately the only real takeaway here is that this stuff isn’t going away. I also suppose it’s worth mentioning here that if you don’t understand how non-consensually deepfaked sexually explicit material could be just as traumatic and terrorizing to a person as genuine leaked images or videos, I don’t know how to help you and I think you’re probably going to have a very tough time in our increasingly A.I.-dominated society.

This whole incident is also a grim corrective to the main panic we’ve seen around deepfakes. The fear was that this technology could be used to spoof a politician or a celebrity to make it seem as if they did or said something they didn’t for misinformation purposes. But that’s easy enough to clear up. You can ask a public figure to verify. It is much harder to go after malicious uses of sexually explicit deepfakes. According to VICE, the creator of the Twitch streamer deepfakes is deleting them, but all it takes is one user to make a copy. The minute this content exists the damage is already done.

Nostr Is On The App Store Now

Nostr, which I just learned stands for “Notes and Other Stuff Transmitted by Relays,” is an encrypted and decentralized internet protocol. I tried to figure out what the difference was between ActivityPub, the protocol that runs services like Mastodon, and Nostr, and per this Hacker News thread, it seems like account portability is possible on Nostr. But it also seems like ActivityPub does offer some version of that too? So idk but Nostr has the word “cryptographic” in its description, which means Jack Dorsey is a big fan.

A Nostr-backed Twitter-like app called Damus was launched on the App Store this week and is currently in the top 10 most downloaded social networks for iOS.

Amid all this chatter about Twitter replacements, I think the real punchline is that they’re sort of proving what we always assumed about Twitter: There are a million ways the site could have been improved on or made better, but it doesn’t matter. The site wasn’t the point. It was simply about the users and their proximity to irl power and influence. How depressing!

Algorithmic Short-Form Video Content Always Comes Back To Fridges

This deranged TikTok screenshot reminded me of a funny thing I heard about Pericope back in the day. The first real big trend on the app was “fridge tours,” where people would go live and just sort of talk about what was in their fridges. Which sort of ties together with an old rule I heard from Facebook publishers, that the most viral thing you could put in a thumbnail was a picture of someone’s backyard. It’s funny how no matter what platform we’re using or what kind of content it incentivizes, we always sort of end up being drawn to the weird private spaces in each other’s homes. Which then in turn become less private and more performative as we turn them into places to stage viral content.

Does that make sense?

Can ChatGPT Write ChatGPT?

I’m fairly bullish on A.I. being the real next great revolution in computing, not because I think it’s good or even useful, but because of how easy it is to open source and iterate on.

Looking back on the last 15 years, you can sort of make the argument that social media was not about friending each other or sharing content, but actually about creating a free and accessible ecosystem to interface with mobile technology. A.I. is quickly providing a similar infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters effect, except this time the monkeys with typewriters can build more monkeys and more typewriters. It’s not perfect yet, but as the video above illustrates, it’s better than you might think.

An Interesting Take

Some Stray Links

P.S. here’s a very good Tumblr poll.

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

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