Building a new Titanic on the deck of the old one
Read to the end for some interesting Columbo fanart
The internet, both as a whole and also individual corners of it, is constantly cycling through two phases: consolidation and decentralization. You can see this at a macro level by looking at how we, in the 2000s, went from large internet portals run by companies like AOL and Yahoo! to an internet of smaller social networks, blogs, and peer-to-peer applications. But you can also see this in more specific areas of the web, like how for a while music blogs decided what songs were popular, then YouTube dominated the music industry, then Vine, Soundcloud, and Spotify started to destabilize that, and then Spotify dominated the music industry. Interestingly, now TikTok has become the dominant industry force, but, in doing so, has mainstreamed the concept of “viral audio,” which means it’s possible that TikTok can’t dominate for long and we’re actually watching things break apart again.
This pattern is what a lot of investors claim they are betting on when they throw piles of money at Web3 and blockchain technology. I think they have correctly diagnosed where we are within this cycle, but I think they’re betting on the wrong horse. Or, rather, they’re throwing money at a cow hoping it’ll magically run faster than a horse.
But even more confusing than the crypto money furnace is how Facebook appears to be reacting to our current era of decentralization. The app, for the first time ever, is starting to lose users and Meta seems to have decided that Instagram is the company’s last great hope — that is until the company can figure out how to give three billion people a VR headset.
This year has seen a flurry of new features being added to Instagram. It’s like trying to build a new Titanic on the deck of the old one as it sinks. The company announced it was integrating NFTs into the platform. It has given users something resembling a chronological feed (sorta). It has pivoted back to video and is experimenting with making its reels product the default video experience on the app. There’s also been like two years of confusing back-and-forth about Instagram DMs combining with Facebook Messenger, but, honestly, I straight up do not understand what the latest is with all of that. And, as of today, it is now also testing out a “notes” feature.
It was first spotted by product and UX designer Owen Williams. Notes are apparently are limited to 60 characters and will sit at the top of the messages page. The UI is ugly, the use case is nonexistent, and, most annoyingly of all, it’s just another widget for an app that doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be anymore.
I’ve said before that the entire American tech industry is going through a midlife crisis at the moment, but Instagram seems to be aging the worst of anybody. For most millennials, it’s now the main way you follow life updates from friends, but it’s also a place to buy clothes and discover new restaurants, but it’s also TikTok for people who still drink White Claw, but it’s also a reality show/propaganda distribution system for influencers and celebrities, but it’s also a Snapchat-stye feed of ephemeral content, but it’s also an NFT marketplace. And somewhere in there, it connects to Facebook Messenger somehow. It’s a mess!
Now, you might say that other social networks are similarly bloated with all kinds of gizmos and hoo-has, but not actually, not really. Twitter is, unfortunately, a place for news and discussion. There are memes and videos, but content there is all fairly topical and meant to be consumed as it happens. Reddit and Tumblr are social news readers, with features for keeping track of hobbies, fandoms, and subcultures. YouTube is a place for mid-length video. TikTok is a place for short-form video. Snapchat is basically a suped-up messaging app. Discord is an even more suped-up messaging app. Twitch is for live video. Spotify is for audio. You used to be able to say that Instagram was a photo app. Way back in the early 2010s, an Instagram spokesperson told me that it was a “museum for your life” 🙄. But you simply cannot say that about Instagram in 2022. In fact, there is only one word for what Instagram now currently is: It’s a portal. It is a slightly more mobile-friendly Facebook for people who are currently under the age of 45, but over the age of 26.
The question of what Meta should actually be doing to respond to the now-rapidly shifting tectonic plates of the social web is, unfortunately, trickier to diagnose than all the mistakes they’re making at the moment. Historically, the decision to become a large internet portal also means you can’t pivot away from the radically different future coming over the horizon. But I’ll end with this interesting little tidbit. AOL was a wholly different company to Meta, both in scale and impact, but in 2015 it was acquired by Verizon and it tried a bunch of weird pivots. It invested in video, actually won a couple of Emmys, and tried to get a mobile video service off the ground. But you know what AOL’s last big move was before it was merged with Yahoo! in 2016? It acquired a VR company that specialized in "immersive video content” 🤷🏼♂️.
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What Is (Was) Medium?
Speaking of identity crises in the tech world, Ev Williams is leaving Medium this month after almost 10 years. Casey Newton, over at Platformer, has, I think, the definitive reflection of how bizarre and confusing Williams’ time at Medium has been. In the top item of today’s newsletter, I wrote a lot about pivots, but I’m not sure any platform has undergone a more constant boom-bust cycle than Medium. For folks who weren’t ever following this, the bulk of Medium’s machinations were about whether or not it should be just a decentralized universe of random writers and bloggers or if it should be a YouTube — or Netflix — of written content, paying journalists to use the site to build editorial brands.
I sat with Williams in a one-on-one interview years ago, and I know lots of folks who have worked both for and with Medium over the years, and my take is not that the pivots were particularly bad ideas, but that the company could never get the timing right. Medium would launch a publishing network and hire journalists to fill it out right when people didn’t want that, and then Medium would emphasize individual creators at moments when users craved both editorial authority and also centralized hubs of content. Case in point: The “Medium piece COVID guy” of the early pandemic lockdown months flooded Twitter with misinformation and, instead of figuring out how to harness and build off the newfound (bad) attention the platform was getting, Substack swooped in, ate its lunch, and then Medium laid off the majority of its editorial employees a year later.
The question for Medium now is what can it be and do that Substack, and a universe of other light-weight publishing platforms can’t. Which I thought I’d maybe have an answer to by the time I got to end of writing this, but, I’ll be honest, I got nothing.
Hank Green Got COVID And Can’t Taste And Turned It Into YouTube Content
Kind of amazing not more people have tried this. A YouTube taste test featuring fried out COVID tastebuds. It’s a great video and I wish Hank a speedy recovery. While I never lost my sense of taste from COVID, I did lose my sense of smell after getting it. The effect seemed to last for about three weeks. At first, it was as if a file was missing in my brain, which was a weird and creepy feeling. But then about a week into it I tried to eat something with A LOT of smell to it — a pizza with sausage, pepperoni, bacon, garlic, onions, and barbecue sauce instead of tomato sauce. Which did change things, except, instead of no smell, for the next two weeks everything just smelled like barbecue sauce.
Dead Cat Bounce
At the end of last week, Bitcoin rallied a bit, shooting up over $21,000. Then it dropped again. It’s currently around $19,000. The question now is whether or not we’re looking at a “dead cat bounce,” which is that little promising bump up you see on a financial tracker before the line goes down. I’ve seen some particularly grim Reddit conversations about Bitcoin dropping to $10,000. And Ethereum isn’t doing too hot either.
While the larger crypto market decides whether or not this is an apocalyptic crash, the world of Web3 seems to be ready to ditch the hype-based approach and maybe, just maybe, is starting to try and figure out some decent use-cases for blockchain technology. Brazilian researchers are deploying a blockchain-based system for tracking agricultural goods this month, which seems sort of promising actually. And angel investor and former Coinbase executive Dan Romero built a decentralized protocol for social networks that runs on Ethereum. It’s called Farcaster and Romero has likened it to a “RSS+,” which caught my attention. Unfortunately, that’s all I know about it because Romero blocked me on Twitter. Which is fair, I’d block me too if I could.
I also got curious last week about a Web3 startup called Polium. I came across it thanks to a tweet from Ed Zitron. Polium describes itself as a “multi-chain console for Web3 Gaming.” Not totally sure why you’d need one seeing as how most crypto wallets and blockchain-based games run on iOS, which also supports most bluetooth controllers at this point, but whatever. Polium put a link to their Discord on Twitter, so I jumped in. About a day later, users figured out it wasn’t set up properly and began @everyone-ing and posting racial slurs. So…
And before we leave the world of crypto, I think you should absolutely read 8chan founder and anti-far-right activist Fredrick Brennan’s Medium post detailing, in great length, the just overwhelming amount of “random” connections between Bored Ape Yacht Club and occult fascism.
A Good Tweet
The House Of Maizono
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TikTok user @tobynjacobs is a real big fan of the character Sayaka Maizono from the video game Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. I’ve never personally played a Danganronpa, but the games seem to cause a just out-of-control obsession among players. I don’t know what it is. And, frankly, I don’t want to know! But whatever’s happening with that game, it seems to have really possessed @tobynjacobs. If you go through his videos, you’ll find that he has wallpapered his entire house in pictures of Sayaka and has also built gigantic cutouts of the character. It’s a lot!
A Reddit Update From Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s president has fled the country. The acting leader has declared a state of emergency. Protesters stormed the presidential palace and took a bath in the pool and slept in the bed. The videos have been pretty incredible. The uprising comes after months of debilitating food and fuel shortages and price-hiking.
Amid the chaos, one Sri Lankan Redditor took the opportunity to take a photo for Reddit’s marijuana community, r/trees.
I went through the user’s history and it looks pretty legit. As you can imagine, the post is full of all kinds of comments, but my favorite interaction was probably the user who wrote, “best of luck to you frient. That's some crazy stuff going on there.” To which another user replied, “Context: everyone else is overthrowing the government. Op’s smoking weed and posting online.” And then the original poster shot back, “well, literally after overthrowing the government.”
Some More Good Ass YouTube Content
This was dropped in the Garbage Day Discord by An Mór Bíus (oh lol I get it). It’s trying to answer the question of why people in the past just looked a lot older than people of the same age now. I have always wondered about this. I also wonder if this particularly effects millennials and Gen X’ers more than, say, Gen Z or people younger. I feel like a lot of changing attitudes about wellness and personal health have resulted in many of us actually looking older in certain photographs of ourselves than we do now.
Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s some some interesting Columbo fanart.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***