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Making algorithmic dog food for the content factory

Read to the end for a video of two AIs talking to each other that basically sounds like every conversation on Clubhouse

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How Is Your Digital Media Company Better Or Different Than Logan Paul?

Yesterday, VICE laid off over a dozen people, many of them employees who had been at the company for a long time. In a pathologically optimistic email to the staff, VICE’s Chief Digital Officer Cory Haik said the company was focusing on “building content for our digital communities in the native ways they consume it.” Basically, VICE is pivoting to video, but this time, instead of Facebook being at the center, it’s TikTok and YouTube (it’s interesting that still no media companies have announced a pivot to Twitch).

Incidentally, I recently learned a bit about how Logan Paul’s production operates. It’s both bigger than you’d expect and also much smaller. For instance, there are usually about 3-5 people working just on his podcast IMPAULSIVE. They usually have a head of production, a PA, and a director. Those people are paid salaries (that are pretty decent I’ve heard) and, just based on YouTube traffic driving ad revenue, the show seems to make its own money. According to a YouTube revenue calculator I used, the main channel makes about $3,600 a video and another clips channel Paul runs is making about $1,000 a video. The episodes also have in-show sponsors. The podcast is filmed, usually runs about an hour, and comes out once or twice a week. And if you zoom out and look at Logan Paul’s entire YouTube footprint, he has about 31 million subscribers across about four channels.

Now, let’s compare all that to VICE. Their main channel has about 14 million subscribers, and then an additional 20 million or so spread across nine other English-language channels. So let’s say a total audience of about 25 million. It’s nothing to shake a stick at, but also, from a business standpoint, what makes it any different than Logan Paul? You can actually do this with any big influencer and any digital media company and the results almost every time make the digital media company look ridiculously inefficient and bad by comparison.

Logan Paul also appears to be actually doing several things that digital media companies like VICE have never figured out how to do: he has a clear editorial point of view (which sucks), a very good understanding of his audience (who all suck), and a podcast that actually seems to make money directly without it being subsidized by iHeart Radio or something. You can clutch your pearls about the host or the content (it all sucks), but, hell, even Paul’s TikTok, which seems like an afterthought for him, has 12 million followers. Meanwhile, VICE’s, which is literally central to their new editorial direction, has under 100,000 followers. I actually had to check that a few times to make sure I wasn’t completely insane in thinking that VICE just fired a bunch of long-term editors to focus on a TikTok that doesn’t even have a six-digit follower count. I mean lol are you fucking crazy??? (Apparently, VICE’s big TikTok account right now is the VICE Indonesia one.)

Making this all even more silly is that, contrary to VICE’s email about “native” media for “digital communities,” internet users are actually still reading! Twitter threads go so viral in America that they grind the country to a halt and get optioned into movies. And in more niche spaces, people are writing and reading hundreds of thousands of words on sites like Tumblr or Reddit about whatever their current hyperfixation is. And, of course, there are now people on Substack who are making six figure salaries. No matter how many demented all-staff emails proclaim that people on the internet don’t read anymore, it’s simply not true, has never been true, and, I’m going to guess, never will be true. Hell, even when it comes to digital video, the majority of it is captioned anyways, making the average viral video closer to a blog post full of animated GIFs than a feature film.

The problem is not words, the problem is that digital media, as a business, is broken. The companies that dominate online publishing right now grew from blogs and those blogs became popular because they offered something that people couldn’t get in newspapers or magazines: takes, baby. People, Americans, specifically, have a national compulsion for consuming and dissecting each other’s opinions and blogs filled a void left by the rise of the 1990s Objective Journalism fad.

These blogs, that became websites, that then became digital media companies, though, quickly decided that takes were bad. Around 2012, in a moment of tremendous self-destruction, online publishers, fat with VC money, all started saying “no hot takes.” It’s like that Stephen King story where a whole fishing village goes insane in a snowstorm and walks into the ocean to kill themselves. A whole industry of self-serious bloggers-turned-editors decided that they would no longer do literally the only they were good at and the only thing that their readers actually liked. And now, every 16 months, one of these sites will contort itself into a ridiculous reorg because it has let investors or online platforms or advertisers convince it that it needs to produce every single kind of internet content that exists. In all honesty, why does your website need a Snapchat? Because that’s where people are? OK, well, if you can’t get enough people to visit you from Snapchat, then why does your Snapchat need a website? See how circular and crazy this all this?

But there is also one other piece to all this that I think is actually the real secret to the completely dysfunctional state of online media. Many of these companies like VICE started out with devoted readerships. These websites published distinct content for specific kinds of people to not just share, but also, just, you know, read. But, due to the same forces that pressured these companies into launching Live Facebook studios or whatever in 2017, now most of these outlets no longer actually do anything particularly unique.

It can be hard to remember this, but ten years ago, when these digital media sites were just starting out, the internet was still mostly made up of websites of words and pictures. And, interestingly enough, most of those websites felt different from each other. You had comics, humor sites, personal essays, political writing, general time-waster stuff, bloggers, aggregators, quizzes, lists, and, of course, news sites. A decade later, there are basically two kinds of websites that have words on them now: news sites, all of which fund Hard-Hitting Investigative Journalism With Fun Viral Stories, Celebrity News, And Relatable Content, and websites that are The Onion of [insert subject]. And this is not to rag on these websites! But it is incredibly hard to imagine a word-based website in 2021 like The Awl, The Toast, Cracked (in its prime), College Humor (in its prime), or Thought Catalog. I mean, the last time we had a voicey and exciting digital media operation, it was Babe.com, which, of course, went completely feral, but wasn’t it a fun ride while it was happening?

This endless sea of identical digital publishers are now being SPAC’d into weird vague content network blobs, but, hilariously, they’re also being expected to support a bunch of corporate podcasts or YouTube channels that just pump out content into the void. The end result is an internet where everyone is publishing the same thing, with slight point-of-view tweaks, trying to catch enough random viral ghosts to make the traffic machine go brrr and hoping they can make it through another year’s upfronts without people noticing that the only thing unique about their brand anymore is the logo. Although, that’s not even true because 75% of websites right now are just red!

I don’t want to make it seem like I’m saying working for Logan Paul or Smosh or Jerma or something is better than working at VICE. I’m actually saying the opposite. Both gigs are digital sweatshops and if any employees of Paul’s are reading this, you guys should unionize lol. But my point is that at least the influencers don’t have any illusions about what they’re doing. They know they’re making dog food for platforms. And they also seem to have a better business sense about the whole thing!

We’re not done with our current consolidation phase of digital media. The pandemic has had a profound effect on the industry’s landscape. Layoffs will continue, companies will fold, and the ones that don’t will only become stranger and more grotesque content farms as they’re slammed together by private equity firms or mergers: “We subsidize our YouTube documentaries with Amazon links for dildos and run a tarot card Instagram! Our tech review site is only financially solvent because we have an HBO show no one watches! We own an Eastern European Facebook page network that focuses on classic cars and algorithmically-generated DIY hacks that don’t actually work which distributes a podcast we produce with Trisha Paytas!”

A bunch of great people lost their jobs yesterday. And it seems almost unavoidable that more great people will lose their jobs before the year is over. Hopefully some of them will be in the place to go off on their own, but it’s not a possibility for everyone and it’s not easy even if you can do it. (I can tell you first hand.) But at least, right now, that seems like the only hopeful way forward for all of this. Let the brands implode, but let’s make the internet better for the writers that built them.

A Tweet About Spider-Man

The Metaverse Uploads Martin Luther King Jr.

If you missed this, yesterday, Fortnite announced that they will have an in-game exhibit dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. and the American civil rights movement. The project is a partnership between Fortnite’s studio Epic and Time Studios. “The experience extends with museum-inspired points of interest, and collaborative mini-game quests you complete with others,” Epic’s announcement reads. “These activities progress players through the experience and bring to life important themes of Dr. King’s speech: we move forward when we work together.”

You, uh, probably have some trouble envisioning how all this might work in practice. Well, here’s a video of the exhibit in action that will absolutely melt your brain.

Reddit Stands Up To COVID Misinformation

For the last few days, different big subreddits have been sharing a post calling on Reddit to clean up the COVID misinformation on the site. There are a few different versions of the callout post circulating, but the big one, originating from the anti-anti-vax subreddit r/vaxxhappened, reads, “We are calling on the admins to take ownership of their website, and remove dangerous medical disinformation that is endangering lives and contributing to the existence of this ongoing pandemic. Subreddits which exist solely to spread medical disinformation and undermine efforts to combat the global pandemic should be banned.”

For what it’s worth, I think Reddit’s anti-vax problem is slightly better than other places, but, also, the site has more just generally right-wing communities where anti-vax content is just the default.

This week, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, who goes by u/spez on the site, finally responded to the call to ban anti-vax content.

“When it comes to COVID-19 specifically, what we know and what are the current best practices from authoritative sources, like the CDC, evolve continuously with new learnings. Given the rapid state of change, we believe it is best to enable communities to engage in debate and dissent, and for us to link to the CDC wherever appropriate,” Huffman wrote. “While we believe the CDC is the best and most up to date source of information regarding COVID-19, disagreeing with them is not against our policies.”

And, then, you know, as someone who loves to engage in debate and dissent often does, Huffman then locked the post he wrote that in so users could no longer respond. Good stuff.

People In The Horse Pills COVID Facebook Group Can’t Stop Shitting Themselves

If you click here, there’s a very good thread from Bellingcat’s Aric Toler about what’s been going on inside of a Facebook Group for people who believe they can treat COVID-19 with Ivermectin, a hose de-worming pill. Apparently, diarrhea and anal leakage is a common side effect! Weird that the horse pills you aren’t supposed to take for COVID are causing unforeseen complications. If you’re completely out of the loop on all the Ivermectin stuff, here’s another good thread explaining How We Got Here.

One quick observation with all of this. There have always been weirdos on the internet doing something bizarre for no reason. Like the brony a while back on 4chan that started eating hay. But it does seem like there is something uniquely different about the way Facebook is constructed as a platform that means that, instead of laughing at someone who tells you horse pills that make you shit yourself are worth taking to cure COVID, you believe them and start doing it too. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but it’s worth thinking about!

Another Fun Spider-Man Thing

If you’re wondering why there’s a shot of someone reading braille around the 0:24 second mark, it’s because of the fan theory that there’s a quick shot of Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdoch (Daredevil) in the original No Way Home trailer.

China Releases A Draft Of Algorithmic Regulations

This is fascinating, per a Twitter thread from Kendra Schaefer, a China policy researcher based in Beijing, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) has drafted a bunch of regulations specifically for recommendation algorithms. Here are a few of the things they’re looking to regulate:

  • Users must be able to easily see what keywords are associated with their browsing history

  • There must be a way to opt out of eCommerce algorithms or see non-personalized shopping results

  • There also must be better scheduling algorithms for the drivers working with ride-hail services.

It’s worth clicking over and looking at the whole thing. Most of this is obviously meant to further curtail free speech or expression online, but it’s curious that China seems to be wrestling with the same questions we are about the social effects of algorithmic recommendations.

An Interesting Frog Tumblr

I’ve seen the frogpostbot2 pop up on my dashboard more and more often this month. It claims that it’s a blog that posts randomly-generated Greentext Pepe the Frog posts, but I can’t find any information about how it works. Some of these feel way too real to be randomly generated. Although, I suppose it equally possible that 4chan users make content that reads exactly like a gibberish AI.

A 30 Rock Search Engine

I was playing around on this earlier this week. It’s a search engine for 30 Rock. It was created by a Twitter user named @Phylan and apparently it’s missing one episode from season 7. But the way it works is you type in whatever you can think of and it will pull up captioned screenshots from episodes where that word was said. It rules. Click here to mess around with it!

If You Haven’t Seen The John Cena Video, You Should Probably Watch It

It’s just really damn good.

Some Stray Links

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