How do we stop the internet from decaying?
Read to the end for my dad's "Windex" theory of Bitcoin
At the bottom of today’s newsletter there’s a second dad-dispatch from Miami. We’re here all week while I’m reporting on the Bitcoin 2022 crypto convention. The updates from my dad are for paying subs only, so hit the button below if you’re interested. I also put a bunch of my observations from the convention in a piece I wrote for Fast Company which you can check out here!
The Precarious Work Of Digital Preservation
How about a story with a happy ending, for once? I’ve got a good one for you. Last week, I first noticed the rumblings of something unfortunate in the digital world when a historically-themed scented-candle maker I follow on Twitter reported that a resource she used to design her exquisite labels had suddenly gone defunct. Other people started noticing it too, until finally Public Domain Review recapped the incident on April 4th with the headline: “5.2 Million Book Illustrations Deleted from Flickr — Help Get Them Back”. The Internet Archive Book Image account within Flickr’s Commons was a vast repository of millions of images from the IA’s extensive collection of public domain book scans, and it had suddenly disappeared without warning.
The collection’s deletion, of course, didn’t mean that the images themselves were gone forever — they were still inside their original full-book scans on the IA. But the collection was its own animal. Not only was it easily navigable and searchable, but it had over a decades’ worth of tag and comment metadata from a community which, like the candle maker and the editors at PDR, had come to depend on it for browsing, sourcing, and the convenience of being able to view IA images alongside pictures from the Commons’ various other collections.
Amidst a storm of outrage, PDR’s Open Letter quickly gathered signatures. And almost immediately, that very same day, the Flickr/SmugMug CEO Don McAskill and Internet Archive head Brewster Kahle responded on Twitter and more or less assured everyone that they would work to get the collection restored. Boom! Confetti, music, cheering, etc. But what had actually happened?
The relationship between Flickr, owned by SmugMug since 2019, and the Internet Archive seems to be fairly informal; the Book Image account was created by a Yahoo research fellow named Kalev Leetaru in 2014, and less than half of the 14 million total images he extracted were ever actually uploaded, possibly due to funding issues. The story that emerged about the Book Image collection’s momentary deletion was a pretty typical bureaucratic tangle: the 5 million images of the IA’s collection had been drowning out the other Commons images, so Flickr had recommended that it be deleted in order to “improve” the Commons. The IA had agreed, and gone ahead with the removal. Nobody at either organization seemed to anticipate the outcry. Quite possibly because they weren’t thinking from the perspective of the collection’s dedicated fans, of which it had many, and thus didn’t take into consideration the immense amount of irreplaceable user-generated data that would be lost and the workflows that would be affected.
This incident is actually how I found out about the Flickr Foundation, a nonprofit which was quietly launched last year with a stated goal of revitalizing the Commons after years of corporate neglect. Its incoming director, George Oates, created the Commons back in 2008. Her response on the Flickr forums lays out the decision-making process behind the deletion and its quick reversal after feedback from users. I’m really glad the Foundation exists and has laid out a long-term plan to shore up and even expand Flickr’s digital preservation strategies. It seems to share quite a bit of DNA with Brewster Kahle’s other main hang these days, the Long Now Foundation. Although, the Flickr Foundation only projects forward 100 years from now, not 10,000.
Digital preservation initiatives are absolutely vital to ongoing scholarship, community memory, and the development of sustainable, noncommercial social platforms. Brutal erasures like the loss of all of MySpace’s pre-2015 music can only be avoided through the kind of careful, conscious nonprofit stewardship that the Flickr Foundation clearly aims to achieve. The short saga around the IA Book Image collection, while certainly scary at first, proves with its quick and efficient resolution (and heartfelt apologies) that there are good people actively working on these issues, and are aware of the importance of safeguarding and improving access to digital heritage. But it also shows vividly how any obscure digital tool will have its diehard devotees, and how necessary user outreach is before modifications — let alone deletions or migrations —become a possibility.
Don’t Click On This Bowling Alley GIF
I had this on my list for Wednesday’s Garbage Day and I thought, I can either do the clown sex thing or I can do the bowling alley GIF and I went with the clown sex thing. In the last two days, the bowling alley GIF has spread considerably, though. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, congrats! You’re safe. Basically, there’s an animated GIF of a bowling ball having sex with a pin that’s being shared a ton on Twitter. The beginning of the GIF looks fine, but it gets super NSFW real quick. It’s inspired a bunch of memes. Tumblr’s horniest account, wereralph, even did a post about it. I am unclear if the creator of the bowling alley GIF is the same person who made the video of the bowling ball assassinating a JFK bowling pin, but it seems likely.
Unfortunately, Nintendo waded into this unknowingly this week. They posted a tweet about bowling in Switch Sports — possibly because “bowling” was trending because of the horny GIF — and, well, the replies are just jam-packed with porn.
We Need A Word For Behavioral Spam (Is It Behavioral Spam?)
Twitter is still a primarily text-based app, which means that syntactical memes can spread across the platform. A good example would be the “me: / nobody:” tweet format. A recent syntactical meme has completely overwhelmed Twitter, though. It starts with the phrase “we’re cancelling each other over…” and then you’re meant to post a “cancellable” take about some niche subject. I’ve seen tweets calling for cancellable takes about everything from Boston’s public transport to ghosts.
Usually these things either blip by or they become so enmeshed in the DNA of how we communicate online that we know longer notice them anymore. It should also be pointed out that, like the majority of Twitter culture, a lot of these turns of phrase or writing formats start on Black Twitter and are then co-opted en masse by white users who run it into the ground.
It’s something that happens all the time and I haven’t really seen a good word for it. Though, today, actually, over at the Washington Post, Taylor Lorenz used the term “algospeak,” which I like a lot. But I think it can go a bit further. Plus, I had this piece in my mind before I saw hers, so I’m going to call it “behaviorial spam”. I also don’t think it’s specific to only Twitter or TikTok either. For instance, another good example of this would be all the people on Tinder who say they love tacos and The Office.
I do think some of this is just human nature, but I also think it’s a fascinating side effect of self-optimization. Trying to act in a way online that makes us more favorable, more popular with the machines that power it, making it slightly different from irl cultural trends. Though, you could argue that as algorithmic content determines irl content more regularly, this gulf will completely vanish.
Finally, A Good Way To Refine Macrodata
Computer Programmer Daniel Shiffman made this very cool web app that simulates the super creepy macrodata refinement system from the Apple TV show Severance. I would personally love to tell you more about this project, but according to Andy Baio there were changes made to this to line up with the show’s season finale and I have not seen it yet and I am just not willing risk spoilers to dig any deeper here. Proceed with caution!
Normal Guy And Sparkledog
Twitter user @bedupolker has been drawing a series of comics on Twitter about a very normal guy who adopted a sparkly scene dog and it’s very fun. You can check out a thread of the comics here.
A Truly Incredible TikTok Video
This amazing TikTok comes from an account from Japan called Daikyo Security Company. From what I can tell, it’s exactly that. A security company that posts extremely whacky TikTok videos. Their tagline is “The most popular security company in Japan,” which I can’t verify, but I will say they’re now my most favorite security company in Japan! I tried to figure out, like, what happened here. How did this company start making content like this and best as I can tell, about two years ago, they started making fun YouTube videos in a very traditional Japanese YouTuber style and have just evolved from there and now having huge success on Tiktok. Very cool and very weird!
Some Stray Links
BONUS: My Dad’s “Windex” Theory Of Bitcoin
My dad has talked to a lot of people about cryptocurrency this week. The city of Miami has been completely taken over by the blockchain-obsessed and it’s proved to be a real education. My dad’s been following the cryptocurrency market for a few years now, but he’s never come face-to-face with the actual people that are evangelizing this stuff. And, to be honest, neither have I. In fact, my biggest shock of the week so far is how different the Bitcoin community is, with it’s older, grittier, somewhat angrier right-wing bite, from the Ethereum community, which feels brighter and shinier and younger. Most of the panels I’ve sat through this week have eventually devolved into circular rants about cancel culture and “battling the cultural marxist hegemony.”
My dad still has a lot of excitement about Bitcoin, but his thoughts on the technology have definitely evolved after two days of conversations with investors and developers. He has a theory he’s calling his “Windex theory,” which is a reference to a scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Which is, frankly, very random — I’m not even sure when he last saw that movie — but I have to say, his theory is pretty solid.
“I think they started with a false premise,” he said. He had just heard a whole spiel about how Bitcoin would make it easier to run a business in Africa. “The real reality is that we’re buying the coins, we’re not earning them. So there is no value that we paid for.”
Which is true! All week, we’ve heard endless descriptions of Bitcoin’s potential for utopian economic systems, but there’s nothing that actually has any real value in Bitcoin because labor and materials are still measured in dollars. If you pay for a cheeseburger in Bitcoin, the price of the cheeseburger is determined by dollars — the meat cost $X amount to ship, the cheese $Y amount, and the labor to make it cost $Z amount, etc.
“These were all millionaires talking to us. Athletes and politicians that have extra income. They can throw $100,000, or a million dollars at this stuff and let it ride,” my dad said. “But the common guy, we're not running around buying a car with Bitcoin, or buying a new suit or pajamas at the store. We buy Bitcoin, we stock it away, and we're hoping that it goes up.”
And this is where the “Windex theory” comes in. In the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, there’s a whole thing about old Greek people using Windex to treat random ailments. My dad said that’s what it feels like everyone is doing with Bitcoin right now.
“We're not using this to buy things and we haven't earned the Bitcoin,” he said. “We bought them and now we're just looking for random reasons to use them.”
Does this mean my dad is suddenly bearish on crypto? Has the dark cloud of spin and scams hovering over Miami Beach like a blockchain hurricane this week been enough to burst his bubble? So far, he’s still all in. But he said he does have a new understanding of how weird the whole Bitcoin community is.
“We'll find something useful for Bitcoin,” he said. “I think it's absolutely going to happen.”
Tune in Monday for our last installment to see if he still feels this way after the conference is over!
***Any typos in this email are because my dad distracted me while I was working***