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Is the web actually evaporating?
Read to the end for an extremely powerful Creed video
Welcome To The Vapor Web
Buried down in a recent CNN piece about how the Biden administration is struggling with the complex generational politics of the current conflict in Israel and Palestine is an interesting tidbit about TikTok: “[The White House is] warily monitoring developments like how the Chinese government-controlled TikTok algorithm just happens to be prioritizing anti-Israel content on the social media platform preferred by many under 30.”
This is, of course, very dumb and a waste of everyone’s time, but I’m glad the Democrats are finding ways to keep busy. As NBC News reporter Ben Collins snarked, “Blame TikTok. That'll surely win the kids back.” That said, I do think it speaks to a larger misunderstanding about TikTok — and the greater internet — that is being brought into better focus because of the fighting in Israel and Palestine.
My big unified theory of the internet is that the way we use the web is constantly being redefined by conflict and disaster. I brought this up in an interview with Bloomberg last month. If you look back at particularly big years for the web — 2001, the stretch from 2010 to 2012, 2016, 2020, etc. — you typically find moments of big global upheaval arriving right as a suite of new digital tools reach an inflection point with users. Then, suddenly, we have a new way of being online.
Unlike previous global conflicts, however, this time around, the defining narrative about online behavior is not just that there is, seemingly, an absence of it, but that it also still, partially, works the way it did 10 years ago. Every millennial is experiencing an overwhelming feeling that, as WIRED recently wrote, “first-gen social media users have nowhere to go,” but that’s not actually true. It’s just that TikTok is where everyone is and TikTok doesn’t work like Facebook or even YouTube. Which is why the White House is agonizing over the popularity of TikTok hashtags right now instead of canceling my student loan debt.
What the Biden administration doesn’t get is that we’re now firmly in a TikTok-first and, by extension, video-first internet. And TikTok’s algorithm is almost the inverse of something like Facebook’s. Its network effect isn’t based mass appeal snowballing into global virality, but about identifying niches. Your TikTok and my TikTok will never be the same and that increasingly means that my internet and your internet are not the same. And if you actually tried to view TikTok like you would Facebook, it would even make sense. Here, let me show you.
My researcher Adam and I have been tracking the most-liked videos on TikTok for six months now. According to the platform’s own metrics, this video was the most-liked video last month. It has 37.9 million likes and 313 million views. Have you seen it? Have you even heard of the user before? I doubt it! Let’s do another one. Back in July, when “girl dinner” was the popular TikTok trend/moral panic du jour, guess what the most-watched videos on the platform weren’t about? Girl dinner. The #GirlDinner hashtag has about two billion views overall and one billion this year. Which sounds like a lot until you compare it to something like #Halloween, the second-biggest hashtag on the platform right now, which has 20 billion in the last 120 days.
Let’s do one more, to bring us back to Israel and Palestine. In the last 120 days, the #Israel hashtag has been used around 220,000 times and been viewed three billion times. The #Palestine hashtag has been used 230,000 times and has been viewed around two billion times. Yes, Palestine is slightly more popular on TikTok, but nothing out of line with what outlets like NPR have found by, you know, actually polling Americans along political and generational lines. To say nothing of how minuscule these numbers are when compared to how large TikTok is.
Which is to say that the internet doesn’t make sense in aggregate anymore and trying to view it as a monolith only gives you bad, confusing, and, oftentimes, wrong impressions of what’s actually going on.
The best descriptions of the current state of the web right now were both actually published months before the fighting in the Middle East broke out and written about a completely different topic. Semafor’s Max Tani coined the term, “the fragmentation election,” which was a riff on writer John Herrman’s similar idea, the “nowhere election”. Tani points to declining media institutions and dying platforms as the culprit for all the amorphousness online. And Herrman latches on podcasts and indie media. Both are true, but I think those are all just symptoms. And so, to piggyback off both of them, and go a bit broader (as I typically do), I’m going to call our current moment the Vapor Web. Because there is actually more internet with more happening on it — and with bigger geopolitical stakes — than ever before. And yet, it’s nearly impossible to grab ahold of it because none of it adds up into anything coherent. Simply put, we’re post-viral now.
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This Warthog Loves The Lint Filter
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By the way, just to be sure, I did my usual check that I do with all animal content to make sure this isn’t some weird abuse situation. Wallace (the warthog embedded above) can’t be released into the wild. He lives at a conservatory run by veteran named Greg Para, who started out rescuing parrots and has branched out into adopting of all kinds of exotic pets that end up needing a home.
This Is Not A “Hamas Stitch” Of An IDF TikTok
I’ve seen a bunch of different versions of this video going around, so I figured it was worth flagging here. Most reposts of the video, conveniently, leave out the next tweet in the thread, which reads, “So I thought it would be obvious that I made this but I guess the lie is just way way better than the truth. Either way Palestine should be winning the propaganda war so I’m doing my part.”
I Love Reposting The Best Groks On X
If you haven’t been following this, Elon Musk released an AI built on Twitter data called Grok, which he said is modeled after the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, even though the word “grok” comes from a Robert A. Heinlein novel. Sure why not. The gimmick with the Grok AI is that it talks like Rick Sanchez, or whatever.
Anyways, the only interesting thing here, as far as I’m concerned, is that Musk is referring to screenshots of the AI as “groks,” which is incredibly embarrassing, but, honestly, sort of a useful idea?
We don’t actually have a word for a single unit of AI-generated content and, guys, I am so very tired of writing out the phrase “AI-generated content”. So if someone who doesn’t have the le epic bacon brain disease could come up with a better word than “a grok,” I would be very thankful.
Some Complicated Thoughts On Taylor Swift Reporting Job
Gannett hired its first “Taylor Swift reporter” this week. The winning candidate, who will be covering Swift for USA Today, is 35-year-old Bryan West. And everyone is being very normal about this.
I’ve read some good takes on how hiring a Taylor Swift stan is, generally, bad for media. As NBC News’ Ben Goggin wrote, “The problem with the Taylor Swift reporter hire is that Gannet hired a full stan, rather than someone who is capable of being critical of one of the most powerful people in pop culture.”
Fair enough! I tend to agree. But I also know for a fact that there are a lot of stans already working in journalism right now and I know, personally, many writers that have more loyalty to their fandom than their publication and that a lot of editors don’t seem to mind this because being nice to fandoms is, for the most part, good for traffic.
Of course, there is a flip side to this. In my experience, very few publications can keep up with the speed of a fandom’s native reporting. A newsroom just can’t outrun an unwell teenager with 40 sock puppet accounts and no concept of editorial standards. Which means the only way you can really make a dent in a particular fandom — and make the Good Traffic — is with scoops or access. Which stans don’t typically have. Which makes it sort of silly to hire one in the first place, doesn’t it?
Finally, A VTuber That Does HVAC Repair
Skip to around 14 minutes in to see one of the most uncanny things I’ve ever watched. A VTuber named Hatsuri Shinonome put on a mocap rig to install an air conditioner, which they then mapped with their anime catgirl avatar. At least I think? I can’t decide what’s more likely, that they did the install in a mocap suit or that they spent the time putting their avatar into the footage in post-production. Either way, impressive!
Please Don’t Use X For, Uh, Whatever This Is
A trad account going by @ms_kaffeinated went viral on X this week after putting out a call for an unvaxxed white, blue-eyed man that’s 5’11” or taller and doesn’t have “Jewish or African ancestry” (yikes!) to inseminate her celibate 23-year-old meat diet-focused friend. Every day, god’s light, we stray, etc.
I just don’t remember this kind of stuff going viral on Twitter back when it was Twitter. But the real question here, which has come up a few times in the replies, is whether or not this counts as human trafficking.
Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s an extremely powerful Creed video.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***