Our Frustrating Fandom Future
Recently, the pop star Grimes tweeted, “The death of journalism and exceptional journalists mean nothing is canonized anymore. Great art is made and forgotten.” Then, in perfect Grimes fashion, she said that “lots of great groundbreaking moving next-level art was made this year,” and pointed to the League Of Legends Netflix show Arcane as an example. Which — look, I loved that show — but I would hesitate to call it next-level art.
Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz quote-tweeted Grimes and wrote: “Great art has never been memorialized in culture because of ‘journalism. Things are memorialized all the time, you just forget about them because we don’t have a monoculture now thanks to the internet.”
This is not dissimilar from what the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg tried to put a name to this week in a fascinating piece about an upcoming book by the author W. David Marx that argues that the internet has severed the connection between status and culture. Marx’s thesis is that “Status struggles fuel cultural creativity in three important realms: competition between socioeconomic classes, the formation of subcultures and countercultures, and artists’ internecine battles.”
For instance, when I was in high school, a bunch of obnoxious and pretentious punk dudes I knew and wanted to be cool with all suddenly got into the obscure Japanese noise artist Merzbow and, because the internet wasn’t quite there yet, I had to spend like a whole year pretending I knew what the heck they were talking about so they wouldn’t make fun of me. Nowadays, you could just google it and instantly get up to speed.
But just because the link between status and culture is gone doesn’t mean we’ve eliminated those three realms that Marx refers to — socioeconomic competition, cultural formation, and internecine battles. Instead, we’ve just replaced all of it with a link between status and fandom, which now accomplishes the same thing. In a world where you can read, watch, or listen to anything, the act of consumption isn’t impressive. So now we reward each other for consuming the meta-text — the memes, the hashtags, the community drama, and the conspiracy theories.
Not only does this help small communities canonize their own monocultures, but it also has led to larger mainstream institutions fracturing themselves into small subcultures to more affectively target community members. In fact, a perfect example of this effect would be the current MAGA wing of the Republican Party.
In July, I was interviewed by the Columbia Journalism Review about what it’s like to cover internet culture in 2022. And I basically told them that covering anything the Republican party is doing is essentially the same as what I’ll be doing later in this very newsletter issue when I attempt to explain to you why Tumblr users are so obsessed with Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s all about the lore:
The American right has had so much success with internet culture, or like memetic political movements, because of Trump. They’ve leaned into it very fully now. And by doing so, it means that it takes like thirty minutes to explain why they’re doing anything. But the emotional information is immediately understandable to their base. I don’t see political outlets trying to explain any of this, because traditional journalism doesn’t really have the room to explain, you know, nine months of lore.
And that last line there, about traditional journalism not having room for lore is actually what I think Grimes is reacting to. As we’ve blurred the distinctions between fandoms, communities, and institutions, actual pieces of culture have become much more fleeting than they used to be, but the fandoms surrounding those pieces of culture have become semi-permanent social movements. And explaining why those social movements matter and how they interact with news stories is, frankly, very hard.
One good example of this is the ongoing implosion inside the fandom for the DC Entertainment Universe, which suffered a massive schism when Warner Bros. released the Snyder Cut in 2021. The fandom has been at war with each other ever since over which version of the franchise should be continued. And it seems like Warner Bros. Discovery is also still completely tangled up over it, with insiders recently telling Variety that the studio regrets releasing it in the first place.
Another example is director Rian Johnson’s recent interview with Empire looking back at his Star Wars film The Last Jedi five years later, a film that was completely subsumed by an online culture war and has, very likely, broken any consensus the Star Wars fandom might hope to have for at least a generation. In the interview, Johnson says he’s proud of The Last Jedi and hopes he’ll get a chance to make more Star Wars movies. And the interview, of course, has completely torn open Star Wars fandom spaces, yet again.
It’s a fascinating moment to be in because it largely means that no one’s in charge of pop culture anymore. The studios and artists that make cultural products can’t control how they’re shaped by hundreds of thousands of often-anonymous internet users and, when these spaces are engulfed in drama and in-fighting it’s not like the original creators can come back in and fix things. It’s made everything feel bizarrely Catholic, turning us all into neurotic little monks endlessly debating about what is and isn’t canon, hoping to be rewarded by some incomprehensibly vast system of hierarchies, algorithms, and influencers that have all completely lost control themselves.
In fact, I came across a really good Reddit comment this week that I think does a great job of articulating our new perpetual state of both cultural malaise and frenzy:
You know what sucks? What really sucks? [The Last Jedi] came out at just the right time, in just the right little nexus of events, that it is more or less inextricably tied to the indoctrination/grift phenomena that set the entire internet on its side for about 6-8 months straight - granted, it's STILL here, but for about 6-8 months there, it became basically EVERYTHING there was online. And as a result, there is almost no other context by which the film can be placed or discussed. Even this EMPIRE piece doesn't know how to do it, because basically nobody does.
It just sucks that the film is irrevocably tainted by the concerted effort to frame it as a proxy for whatever real-world fights everyone WANTED to have but was too insecure to wade into in good faith. Insecure assholes WANTED to join "the culture war," but were too chickenshit to have any skin in the game, and so they made Star Wars the battleground instead, because it's easier and safer to warp perspective to fit all that shit onto it than it is to deal with the world outside (also easier to get Patreon donations).
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A Good Tweet
We May Have Mapped Out The Entirety Of Web 2.0
This week, Twitter rolled out Circles to all users. It is, essentially, the same as Google Circles from Google+, the company’s ill-fated Facebook competitor which somehow wasn’t completely sunsetted until 2019, but was quickly rendered irrelevant and forgotten by users soon after it launched in 2011. Glitch CEO Anil Dash joked that he wished he could import his Google+ Circles and LiveJournal friends lists into the new Twitter feature.
But at the moment, we also have TikTok experimenting with a Foursquare/Snap Map-esque geotagging tool, Amazon experimenting with a TikTok-esque short-form video feed, and both Instagram and Snapchat experimenting with a BeReal-esque dual camera feature, which makes me wonder if we’ve just simply reached the end point of Web 2.0.
Is it possible that we have discovered every possible feature that a social network can have and now we’re just going to fit them into different combinations until we all decide what’s next?
Well, here’s maybe a vision of what that might be…
A.I. Enters The World Of Fashion
OK, so I am trying to stay committed to my promise I made a few issues ago not to go “oh wow, look at this” at every new “A.I.” thing that comes across my feed, but, also, oh wow look at this.
Karen X. Cheng has some real metaversal bonafides. She has an extensive resume when it comes to AR, VR, and experiential filmmaking. So I think it’s safe to trust what she’s saying she’s done here. If you don’t feel like pressing play on the video above, what she was able to do was get the DALL-E 2 A.I. to generate different outfits on a video.
According to her thread, she erased parts of her existing outfit from the footage. She then used a DALL-E tool called “inpainting” which took her written prompt and then inserted it into the transparent parts where overalls used to be. But DALL-E 2 can’t really handle video, so, Cheng used another tool called EbSynth, which doesn’t use A.I., but “Example-Based Synthesis,” to create animations out of pictures.
So if I understand correctly, Cheng took a video of herself walking down the street. Captured keyframes from it, had DALL-E 2 create new outfits for her on those keyframes, and then she stitched those keyframes back together by using EbSynth to recreate her original movements.
As she writes in her thread, it’s not perfect. There’s a ton of artifacts and other visual inconsistencies. But the fact that she made it look as natural as it does is seriously impressive.
Where Do Memes Come From?
Know Your Meme put together an absolutely incredible analysis of “Meme Origins By Platform” between 2012-2022. The post has a year-by-year breakdown as well as a decade-long overview (pictured above). It’s always hard to articulate how impactful a social network is, but I think memes are useful benchmark. Though, I’d include the caveat that it’s not always the platform that makes a meme popular that eventually makes it trend. The internet is a complex ecosystem! But here are few things that stand out to me about the above chart:
Twitter’s meme influence between 2015 and 2021 is utterly massive. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait for the next constitutional crisis or global pandemic to figure out if that’s just a byproduct of it being the place everyone was following breaking news alerts.
TikTok seems poised to overtake Twitter in terms of making new forms of internet culture by next year, which is nuts considering they don’t even show up on the chart until 2018.
I’m bummed that Tumblr has dropped so hard, but I do notice that it’s beginning to trend back up.
I’m fascinated by how memetically irrelevant YouTube has become over time, particularly as TikTok has exploded, and as it’s become, what I would argue, a much nicer place to watch well-made and interesting video content.
And I thought this was a particularly notable conclusion from the report: “YouTube fell out of number one as smartphones become the dominant means used to access the web, and Twitter fell out of the number one slot during the coronavirus pandemic, when much of daily life and professional life moved 100 percent online. This seems to indicate that what it may take to dislodge TikTok would be a similarly significant event, such as the downloading of everybody's brain into the Metaverse.”
New Weird Zillow House Dropped
I feel like I haven’t featured a good weird Zillow house in a while! This dome house is in Illinois and it’s on the market for $599,000. I came across it thanks to the always-good Zillow Gone Wild account. The inside looks pretty good too. I assume it doesn’t tilt, but it definitely looks like it could. But I bet it’s acoustically really nice inside. Also, as a Twitter user pointed out, it def looks like a boob from space.
Reviewbrah Eviscerates The Papa John’s Papa Bowl
Papa John’s has a new “Papa Bowl,” which I guess is like various pizza ingredients scooped like ice cream into a plastic tray and cooked like a casserole, and, luckily for us, John “Reviewbrah” Jurasek, the strange, but infinitely watchable guy from Florida who has built a huge audience on YouTube over the years for his channel TheReportOfTheWeek, made a review about it. If you never seen a Reviewbrah video before, he puts on a suit, sits at a table or in a car, and reviews different kinds of fast food. I would describe his whole vibe as “haunted public access channel,” but I can’t deny he doesn’t know his stuff.
So what’s the Reviewbrah verdict on the Papa Bowls? Well, he didn’t mince words. He said it looks and smells like the slop that would dropped into a feeding trough for hogs and spends the second half of the video visibly upset and angry about how gross it is.
Tumblr Says Goodbye To Mikhail Gorbachev
Tumblr is currently mourning the loss of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, who died on Tuesday at the age of 91. You might be asking why. First, it’s sort of a meme on Tumblr to flood the platform with memes announcing serious world news ever since 2020, when the show Supernatural confirmed the #Destiel ship was canon at the same time that a tabloid rumor spread alleging that Vladimir Putin was stepping down as the leader of Russia on the eve of the 2020 US presidential election, which led to the #SuperPutinElection hashtag.
But, also, apparently Gorbachev became a somewhat big meme on the site around 2019, with lots of weirdly erotic posts being written about him and Ronald Reagan. Click here, and here, and here, and here, to get up to speed.
The Internet Is Doing Something To Breaking Bad
I assume this is because the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul finally wrapped, but the meme energy surrounding Breaking Bad is getting insanely weird right now. The show has been a fixture on Tumblr for a while because users there decided that Jesse Pinkman has trans masc swag, but there’s now a sort of general Breaking Bad meme wave spreading to other platforms, as well. I was trying to think of another example of something like this happening and, honestly, it has a very similar feel to when Shrek and, later, SpongeBob SquarePants, started to transform into similarly bizarre visual languages.
Some Stray Links
“Hong Kong’s gossipy Facebook pages disappear following arrests”
P.S. here’s a really good Morbius video.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***
I really appreciated the open on lore especially the more dense parts regarding marx. I thought your analysis that everything is "bizarrely Catholic" and "our new perpetual state of both cultural malaise and frenzy" were spot on. Its weird to see the Star Wars fandom tear itself up especially after ROS made the entire lore a total sh-t show and Disney is just committing to make canon works that mostly ignore the last two films, but I guess post Afghanistan this is the new forever war.
The know your meme stats were insightful. Tough break for tumblr whose porn ban seems to have been the nail in the coffin for them, but I was taken aback to see instagram pulling underneath reddit. You would think with the grams heavy focus on visual imagery that would be a leg up but they seem to be punching well below all the other visual heavy networks.
The morbius video was pretty good!
> Is it possible that we have discovered every possible feature that a social network can have and now we’re just going to fit them into different combinations until we all decide what’s next?
I've long suspected that there's only so much you can interestingly do with social media, and that people are *willing* to do. TikTok's reply feature reminds me of YouTube's reply video feature, a long-forgotten aspect of the platform. I also suspect that over time, people will basically want to do a couple of things: write long-form content on 'important' topics, and message friends privately. The latter is limited by the platform, but people will do just about anything over time to talk about 'real' topics (see Instagram getting flooded with slideshows and very long series of stories about race during 2020 - people fighting the platform's very constraints in order to have more complex conversations).
> So now we reward each other for consuming the meta-text — the memes, the hashtags, the community drama, and the conspiracy theories.
When surreal memes like "brother may I have some oats" became more popular (2015-2016?), I immediately felt this was a way to make it harder for the uninitiated to understand and spread memes. You can see a backlash against memes having become normalized among 'normies' in sites like Know Your Meme and the subreddit meme economy, which look down upon the sorts of 'object labeling' memes that spread very quickly among everyone due to a very low level of knowledge needed to produce them. The more 'layers of irony', the harder to accurately produce a good (maybe even a 'grammatical'?) meme, the higher the status.
"in-group"/TPOT twitter is based on so many levels of irony and lore that I'm not even sure if the participants are sure of what anyone's saying at any given moment. That many members of this group meet up in real life means there are points of lore creation that become inaccessible to outsiders, and the group's overall coy refusal to explain its memes gives it an air of mystery. Purposeful misdirection and lying (not that they do that, but it's a possibility) also make ascertaining the 'true' meaning of memes/lore harder and separate insiders from posers. Reminiscent of esoteric books during the middle ages which made purposeful incorrect copies to throw the uninitiated off their trail.
Final way to make memes/lore inaccessible to certain people is through extreme transgression via gore, sexual material, epithets, etc. Making your aesthetic so distasteful to normies that they'll never want to mine the meme caverns for memes.