Hyperlocal journalism came true, but in the bad way
Read to the end for a good hamster video
Everything Is Local
The first time I heard the term “hyperlocal” was in a college journalism class. We were given a bizarre device called a “flipcam,” which was essentially a very bad digital camera that had a USB port on it that you could use to easily transfer your terrible video files, and tasked with leaving our Long Island campus to “find stories.” It was a mortifying ordeal, but what we were told, 15 years ago, was that the future of journalism was hyperlocal storytelling. I eventually ended up as a Patch reporter for a year or two, sitting in on parks department meetings, recording high school basketball games, and attending cultural fairs. I’d write up a few hundred words and get some beer money. A pretty good deal!
But like all attempts at predicting where technology will take us, the idea that hyperlocal journalism was the future was both very correct and astoundingly wrong at the same time. What actually happened was that American internet users were corralled into huge social platforms, fed algorithmic garbage for years while local publishers around the country atrophied and died, and then, when platforms like Facebook decided local engagement was actually better for time-on-site, they flipped a switch, and sent millions of internet years back into their respective communities, only now without any local journalism to orient themselves. And what filled the vacuum? Grifters, anti-vaxxers, local Republican Facebook pages, livestreaming chiropractors, and various Barstool Sports-affiliated Instagram pages.
This is something many of us have anecdotally felt over the last few years, but according to a recent research paper published in Research & Politics, we now have some data to back it up.
“Regardless of Facebook’s motivations, their decision to change the algorithm might have given local Republican parties greater reach to connect with citizens and shape political realities for Americans,” the study’s abstract reads.
And it seems like this algorithm change was the main driver behind The Manhattan Institute’s anti-critical race theory moral panic that swept the country following Trump leaving office.
Facebook doesn’t (and possibly can’t) give us data on how popular screenshots of tweets are on the platform, which is the main way a tweet is shared, but according to the most recent Widely Viewed Content Transparency Report, as of the first quarter of this year, tiktok.com and twitter.com were the fourth and eleventh most-viewed domains for links shared on the platform in the US. Which, to me, says that smaller, more relevant platforms are still being mined for content by the overwhelmingly older and more conservative users on Facebook. I’ve previously described all of this as our current “local Facebook page nightmare world,” but this is not just a Facebook problem.
Chaya Raichik’s Libs Of TikTok — and Twitter accounts like it — currently function as the tip of the spear. They find content on platforms like TikTok, Reddit, 4chan, or other parts of Twitter and package it up in bit-sized bits that function as the atomic unit of outrage for bigger conservative campaigns.
This has resulted in what The New Republic’s Melissa Gira Grant, in a recent piece, calls “a Pizzagate in every city,” likening the social media-directed witch hunts happening across the country to Pizzagate, the proto-QAnon conspiracy theory that accused a pizza place in Washington, DC, of having a sex trafficking dungeon in the basement. It’s a full on political weaponization of user-generated content.
Grant has a great thread from earlier this month outlining how this hyperlocal conservative info weapon can be pointed at any local gathering and turn it into a battle for the soul of the country. So it should come as no surprise why a U-Haul van full of white nationalist Patriot Front members were arrested while en route to a pride parade in Idaho over the weekend. It’s not just conservative publishers who are part of this machine. There are militias and extremist groups that are following all of this very closely.
What’s frustrating is that while the right wing — and the left, the current wave of hyperlocal unionizations across the country is the only real ray of sunshine in all of this — understand this, most American liberals do not seem to get it still. We are so far beyond the days of a national consensus. There’s a hope that the current January 6 hearings might act as some moment of national unity, but those days can’t come back. That’s just simply not how our politics, our culture, our understanding of reality works anymore.
The assumption 15 years ago was that people would use internet platforms like Facebook and Twitter to find digital publishers who were covering their local communities. And, the logic followed, those readers would then get super civilly engaged. Hilariously, that kind of did happen, but in the most grotesque way imaginable. Now, every random suburb in the country is, for right-wing extremists, a new front of a cultural war that, as we saw this weekend, they are ready to hurt people to win. And it’s probably time to acknowledge that.
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Alright, Let’s Argue About The Sentient Google A.I.
I got access to a Midjourney over the weekend. Like DALL-E 2, it’s an artificial intelligence that attempts to generate images based on human inputs. The screenshot above was its attempt at “Ben Affleck reading the Garbage Day newsletter”. I also tried the prompt “Sonic the Hedgehog drinking an iced coffee in Boston,” but it didn’t work as well.
Also, over the weekend, The Washington Post published a bombshell (maybe?) report about a Google employee who believes the company’s LaMDA, or “Language Model for Dialogue Applications,” has gained sentience. Based on some extremely hyperbolic tweets from some verified men on Twitter who probably should spend more time on the weekends away from their phones, I went into the story prepared for the robot uprising. By the end of the article, though, I was less convinced as I thought I would be. It seems like the fact the transcripts were highly edited and rearranged to be read more coherently is an important detail that some may have missed!
I’ll let you make up your own mind, but the article did conclusively accomplish one inarguable thing: it produced A LOT of discourse. It was very exciting to watch the same incredibly gifted men with 80,000-120,000 followers on Twitter who guided us through, first, COVID-19, and, then, more recently, the supply chain crisis, to reveal that they are also all experts in artificial intelligence. Who knew!
Anyways, one thing I do want to highlight is this 2017 interview with technologist and futurist Jaron Lanier, which was shared by Business Insider’s Graham Starr amid the A.I. meltdown over the weekend. In the interview, Lanier is asked for his perspective on A.I. and basically says there’s no such thing:
From my perspective, there isn’t any AI. AI is just computer engineering that we do. If you take any number of different algorithms and say, “Oh, this isn’t just some program that I’m engineering to do something, this is a person, it’s a separate entity,” it’s a story you’re telling. That fantasy really attracts a lot of people. And then you call it AI. As soon as you do that, it changes the story, it’s like you’re creating life. It’s like you’re God or something. I think it makes you a worse engineer, because if you’re saying that you’re creating this being, you have to defer to that being. You have to respect it, instead of treating it as a tool that you want to make as good as possible on your terms.
Which, at least, from where I’m standing, makes more sense than the idea that an A.I. could “wake up,” at least as we understand it. I mean, was the account in the WaPo story of LaMDA responding to inputs in the form existential questions with outputs in the form of existential answers all that different from Midjourney trying to draw Ben Affleck because I asked it to? Seems like it’s really just a matter of competency.
Nickelodeon Is Doing NFTs 😕
I hate to quote myself a second time in the same issue, but back in February, I described Web3 as a “midlife crisis,” and I really can’t think of a better way to describe an NFT line based on classic Nickelodeon cartoons. I keep trying to imagine the kind of person that would buy one of these and then become so overwhelmingly sad that I have to take a few deep breathes.
Anyways, Web3 is over because Jack Dorsey is launching Web5, which I think is meant to be web 2.0 + Web3? RIP to Web4, I guess. What is Web5? Well, here’s the deck. If you can make heads or tails of what it concretely is, let me know. From what I can tell, it’s Mastodon, but with crypto wallet integration.
Utterly Mesmerized By Chinese Home Goods TikTok
I’ve been looking for a good moment to talk about this and luckily one of these videos came across my Tumblr dashboard over the weekend. Have you seen those mesmerizing TikToks of Chinese-made home goods? There seem to be a few large TikTok accounts advertising them. I came across one of these videos in Reddit post back in January. I know, deep in the back of soul, that none of these gadgets would work as well as these accounts make them out to be, but, god, do I like watching them get used.
I suppose my only big takeaway here is that these are a really interesting genre of viral video that feels very unique to TikTok. I can’t explain why I want to watch someone meticulously organize their apartment with plastic cleaning gadgets, but it’s extremely calming. It’s like ASMR or popping videos, but for sorting out the chaos of your life.
What If The Summer Of Morbius Doesn’t End With Morbius?
Here’s a fun little thought experiment. The rise of the Summer Of Morbius and It’s Morbin’ Time memes were essentially a response to a movie studio excitedly pushing a superhero movie that no one really cared about. The humor is that it was a movie that was seemingly designed and marketed towards a fandom that did not actually exist. It also helps that Morbius is a funny word.
Well, I was in a Reddit thread for the new trailer for the DC movie Black Adam, starring The Rock, and I came across a really interesting comment. “The Rock is cooking quality Morbin time by the looks of it,” a commenter wrote.
I thought the use of Morbin’ time to describe a new superhero movie was really fascinating. It seems likely that as studios race to mine comic book franchises for more intellectual property, we’ll end up with weirder and cringier attempts at these kinds of movies and it’s possible that Morbin’ time could be the meme we use to describe this. Something to consider!
Drowning Pool With Puppets
This was sent to me by Garbage Day reader Molly and I love it. It’s a parody of Drowning Pool’s “Let The Bodies Hit The Floor,” but rewritten to be about learning to count. It’s great!
A Good Tweet
Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s a good hamster video.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***