Kazaa will have its revenge in the end
Read to the end for a very interesting infographic about the economy
The Myth Of NFT-Enabled Ownership
Yesterday, YouTube announced that they were launching NFTs — sorta. In a post on YouTube’s blog titled, “A Look at 2022: Community, Collaboration, and Commerce,” the platform’s chief product officer, Neal Mohan, wrote, “Web3 also opens up new opportunities for creators. We believe new technologies like blockchain and NFTs can allow creators to build deeper relationships with their fans. Together, they’ll be able to collaborate on new projects and make money in ways not previously possible.”
OK, fair enough. But how? Well, the example Mohan provides is that YouTube NFTs could give fans the ability to own unique videos or participate in experiences. NFTs as tickets isn’t anything new. Ticketmaster offers NFTs for football games now. And, honestly, I could actually see a world where YouTubers use the technology to sell spaces at conventions or meetups. I’m sure teenage grustle bro Mr. Beast fans would love that. (Grustle = grind + hustle)
So I think it’s much more interesting to focus here on YouTube stressing NFTs as a path to ownership. It’s an idea that’s everywhere right now. It’s at the heart of what video game companies are promising with their plans to launch NFT-super-powered loot boxes and it also seemed to be the driving force behind the disastrous Hitpiece NFT music marketplace earlier this month. “NFTs will help you own your content,” the common refrain goes. Though, the fact a company like YouTube is also now parroting this line is, in my opinion, especially egregious, seeing as how video ownership was an entire online content economy that YouTube has dedicated its entire existence exterminating.
My younger readers may not remember this, but when YouTube first launched, the majority of online video was either self-hosted or distributed via peer-to-peer clients like Limewire or Bit Torrent. This was, admittedly, a messy and chaotic way to consume content. Whole websites would sometimes exist with the sole purpose of hosting one video, which would then be shared via email forwards. And the fact that viral videos were spread across the internet by decentralized communities meant there wasn’t a real online monoculture. Though, I did once meet a guy irl at a comic con who claimed to have made the Cowboy Bebop AMV set to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” that I was a huge fan of as a teenager. Also, if you ever came across a Kingdom Hearts AMV on Kazaa set to Good Charlotte’s “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous,” I made that one when I was 13. Anyways, the first real video to break out in this environment was probably the 2005 9/11 “documentary” Loose Change, which I first watched in pieces downloaded slowly via Kazaa.
But the tradition of “owning” videos has continued quietly in the shadow of YouTube throughout the years. At the height of Vine, though the videos weren’t necessarily being downloaded and shared — though they definitely were after Vine died — there was a real desire to trade and swap the best ones. And then, of course, TikTok turned this urge into a feature. Possibly the most revolutionary UX decision of our current era is TikTok’s ability to easily download watermarked content from the app and do whatever you want with it. And this also lines up nicely with the growing “camera roll culture” happening right now. Most people now carry a smart phone full of downloaded short videos, memes, screenshots, and other forms of digital ephemera, which they can easily share in group chats.
So, to pivot back to YouTube’s NFT announcement, the fact YouTube has zeroed in on this being a trend is actually probably smart. The platform currently exists in a bizarre middle ground between Netflix and TikTok. Netflix content wins Oscars and TikTok’s content decides what’s both cool and cringe in pop culture. Meanwhile, YouTube content is what I put on when I have an awkward amount of time to wait before a meeting or if I’m drinking beer at a friend’s house and we want to watch something we can easily talk over. It is now essentially both millennial talk radio and, also, the Saturday afternoon edited-for-cable TV movie of the 2020s. Which can’t be a sexy feeling! So I get why they’re trying to figure out how to jump on something that feels relevant.
But NFTs, for the most part, are a terrible way to “own” content. While large files can be uploaded to a blockchain, it is unfathomably expensive and annoying to do so. And while I have found a couple companies that seemingly specialize in streaming blockchain-based video, and YouTube is a big company with a lot of resources, I’m going to guess the platform won’t be literally letting creators upload and distribute whole videos onto the blockchain. And even if they did, I have really hard time envisioning Minecraft kids downloading and storing exclusive Dream clips on an NFT wallet. (Minecraft kids already live in the metaverse and it’s called Minecraft.)
Instead, I think these promises of ownership are an attempt to lean into very real desires from internet users to actually own digital content they care about, while also not actually letting users own anything. And it’s just as true for YouTube as it is for video game companies. I can’t find any video game NFTs or music NFTs or video NFTs that would work if the service providing them ceased to exist. I’m going to guess that if you buy a YouTube NFT it’s not going to be something that could work without YouTube. Which means you don’t actually own it.
Incidentally, YouTube creator Tom Scott released a great video last month, titled, “Ten years ago, I predicted 2022. Did I get it right?” It’s a fun look back at a presentation Scott made in 2012. I think he’s a little hard on himself, but it’s really interesting to see exactly how different the last 10 years have turned out technologically.
Scott’s video ends on a meditation about what 2032 will look like. He acknowledges the same weird place in culture that late-stage YouTube currently finds itself. “I don’t think short form video is going to kill YouTube,” Scott says. “After all, YouTube didn’t kill television and television didn’t kill radio, but there’s a transition happening.”
Scott then also points out the danger with something like YouTube going the way of TV or radio in the wake of the TikTok revolution. TV and radio aren’t controlled by one company. Broadcast TV shows now might just be bright colors that old people stare at or different versions of the Bachelor, but its waning cultural relevance doesn’t mean it’s dead. YouTube is an entirely different story.
“YouTube is centralized. Blogs couldn’t disappear because everyone hosted their own, in loads of different places — often for a monthly fee — but YouTube, well, we will have to see if in 10 years time Google decides to shut down this old product,” Scott says.
It’s a great summation of the irony of the entire position YouTube currently finds itself in. It spent 17 years trying to break internet users of the habit of wanting to own the video content they consume and then in a fraction of that time was completely upended by TikTok, an app whose central sharing feature is the open distribution and remixing of user content. And, now, as YouTube fights for a place in the current digital entertainment landscape, it’s making vague announcements about NFTs granting users ownership. But users don’t want to own NFTs, they want videos that they can easily pass around the internet. Videos that save nicely to their phone and can be dropped into tweets or group chats. They want to own content and watch it beyond the confines of one platform. And none of those things are fixed with NFTs.
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Blaseball Proves There’s A Blorbo For Everyone
Blaseball has a pretty simple elevator pitch: it’s a simulated sports league, with a bunch of teams you can support, each with a bunch of players who all have ever-changing stats. The teams have names like “Canada Moist Talkers” and “Ohio Worms,” and the players have names like PolkaDot Patterson and Sebastian Telephone. Beyond that, it gets a little arcane. Blaseball (NOT baseball, damn it autocorrect) is a game, first and foremost, but it is not a game which exists in a vacuum: you can’t really play it by yourself. I mean, you can, but I’ve tried and it’s not very fun. It exists in symbiosis with its fandom, which is centralized in an official all-game Discord but spread out, in the manner of fandoms, over various social media platforms and forums, including fan-run Discords for individual teams.
Its wiki has over 4,000 articles; on AO3 there are nearly 2,000 fics. That’s a healthy level of engagement for a small indie game, indicating long-term sustainability. Thanks to the endless parade of characters and scores, and the game-runners’ regular injection of interesting worldbuilding, the passionate creativity of Blaseball’s fans is matched in its inexhaustibility with the endless possible permutations of the game itself.
Lately, I’ve been listening to a great podcast called Homestuck Made This World, which is essentially a Homestuck recap podcast, hinging on the thesis of the title: that the strategies perfected and/or popularized by Homestuck are what is driving the interconnected, franchised, lore-heavy world of mainstream genre pop culture today. It’s a compelling theory. Building on the puzzle-box-plotted, character-driven, transmedia-heavy approach of LOST, Homestuck created a new paradigm of the relationship between the fans and the creators of cult digital media, one visible today in hyperactive parasocial communities like Minecraft YouTube that dominate Twitter’s trends section.
Blaseball in particular, obscure as it may be, sheds a light on what I believe to be a powerful emerging trend for the 2020s: media that combines programmatic, algorithmic and/or AI-driven content with irresistible, well-crafted frameworks of interpretation which are central to participation. In Blaseball, the transformative element of fandom is not opt-in. “Blorbos for everyone,” everyone for Blorbos: the sprawling canvas of names and attributes is the perfect recipe for a self-perpetuating narrative actively co-created by the users.
This isn’t always pulled off perfectly, of course, and it can be difficult to scale. In a world where fan-favorite indie podcasts like The Magnus Archives have to indefinitely close their official Discord servers due to moderation difficulties, a fandom’s centralization under the aegis of a creator or development team is not without its controversy. Naked without the protective bulwark of the fourth wall, creators can be vulnerable to all sorts of drama. I was told of a recent controversy in Blaseball over “official” depictions of characters which were at odds with popular accepted fanon—pretty typical for these kinds of passionate interpretive communities. Structural issues present speed bumps as well. The ephemerality associated with Discord makes it hard to get “caught up” on Blaseball; even with fans working hard to preserve the lore, the real-time participatory element is lost like tears in rain.
But a time when Netflix is currently throwing millions of dollars at a “fandom platform” (whatever the hell that means) and every streaming surface is coated with a sticky film of superheroic residue, chemically engineered to attract and absorb the elusive Fan, it’s important to look to the places fans are actually choosing to spend their time, and their copious creative energy, for clues as to what actually makes a difference in sustaining vibrant fandom communities.
I’m Teaching A Virtual Course!
I’ve had a bunch of questions from readers about the course I’m doing later this month, so here’s a quick rundown of everything you need to know!
It’s four weeks long and hosted on a remote learning platform called Chapter. Chapter is asynchronous, but has live updating comment sections. So me and my teaching partner Jamie Cohen, a cultural and media studies PhD who teaches at Queens College, have set it up so that there’s an hour-long recorded lecture from us each week with suggested reading and we’ll be pretty much around throughout the course to answer any questions in the comments.
The course is broken up into four eras of online culture, focusing specifically on the evolution of the attention economy, and, of course, memes. So week one is “the era of deliberate and random internet content,” which includes Something Awful, 4chan, YTMND, music blogs, LOLcats, Kazaa, and Myspace. Week two is “the birth of parasociality,” which covers the rise of influencers, Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, the success of groups like Ok Go and the Lonely Island, and movements like #Anonymous and r/FindTheBostonBomber. Then in week three, a section we’re calling “the golden age of viral content,” we talk about earlier mainstream viral hits like “Gangnam Style” and the Harlem Shake and Vine, but we also track the rise of Gamergate, Tumblr’s social justice movement, and the Trump presidential campaign. And, then, finally, week four looks at what we’re called “a post-4chan world,” and it goes through everything from NFTs, meme stocks, pandemic internet trends, sea shanties, TikTok, and the insurrection.
We designed it as an intro course. So while it sounds pretty jam-packed, we’re hoping it’ll be just as interesting for someone who is totally immersed in this stuff as it is for someone who has never thought about any of this before. It’s $25 for all four weeks and I think it’ll be really fun! You can check out more info about it by hitting the green button below.
During this week’s Nintendo Direct, new footage was released from the upcoming game Kirby and the Forgotten Land. In the clip, Kirby swallows a car. And this is what it looks like:
This, coupled with the fact that the new game features a gameplay mechanic called “mouthful mode,” turned this whole thing into a meme pretty fast. I’ve written about this before, but adult Nintendo fans are notoriously horny on main. Back in 2020, the internet got really horny for Waluigi and in 2019 Tumblr users calculated the size of Luigi’s bulge using the standard measurements for tennis rackets. Oh, and then Kotaku calculated the height of Bowser using the Tumblr approximation of Luigi’s bulge. What I’m saying is adults who like Nintendo are freaking weird.
So, it should come as no surprise that Kirby’s new “mouthful mode” has cause a pretty huge commotion on Twitter this week. And, oh my god, so much of it is NSFW. I showed my girlfriend a Kirby tweet this week that made me silently get up and leave the room and her sense of humor is usually much grosser than mine.
Anyways, you can go find the really cursed stuff yourself, but here’s another good SFW carby tweet.
Tumblr Celebrates A Big Birthday
Tumblr turns 15 years old this year, which is crazy. To celebrate, the platform has set up an account called Best Of Reblogs and it’s actually a very good place to check out if you’ve been away from the platform for a while. It’s a collection of some of the site’s most popular old posts and also a decent amount of newer ones, as well. I browsing through it this morning and I had completely forgotten about Tumblr user sexhaver’s iconic “two sick horses evaluating an orb” post. A classic.
The Return Of Geocities, Sorta
This was sent to me by a reader named Meg. It’s actually insanely cool. It’s called Neocities and it’s an open source HTML editor and website publisher that also has some barebones social features. The stuff people are making on Neocities are both deranged and completely and totally beautiful. I’m actually seriously considering moving my personal website over to this. Yesterweb, an open internet and anti-Web3 publishing collective, used Neocities to make an absolutely gorgeous zine.
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Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s a very interesting infographic about the economy.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***