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The Thing That Makes It Work Means It Doesn’t
Last week, Neeraj Arora, WhatsApp’s former chief business officer, wrote a long thread about why he regrets negotiating the $22 billion sale of the messaging app to Facebook. “Today, WhatsApp is Facebook’s second largest platform (even bigger than Instagram or FB Messenger),” Arora wrote. “But it’s a shadow of the product we poured our hearts into, and wanted to build for the world.”
One of the most interesting parts of Arora’s thread is about the five demands that WhatsApp had going into the sale. They were:
No mining user data
No cross-platform tracking
What’s so funny about these five things is that these are basically the only ways you can make money online without paywalls. And, in the beginning, WhatsApp did have a very small paywall — $1 for a download. Which was in line with what the app’s original team created it for. It was largely meant for families living in different countries to keep in touch with each other and bypass annoying and expensive international texting rates. Which, as I wrote in the headline above, means that WhatsApp worked because it was designed to subvert something else.
The WhatsApp list is also an interesting inverse of sorts of what Elon Musk is reportedly planning for Twitter if he successfully buys it. The New York Times has a hilarious list of Musk’s plans, which includes utterly ridiculous proclamations such as, “quintuple revenue” and increase subscribers for some kind of project Musk has dubbed “X,” which is apparently expected to magically grow to 104 million users in the next 16 years. And a few days ago, Musk shared a tweet to a Fortune piece reporting that he plans to have the company focus on “hardcore software engineering, design, infosec, and server hardware.” Sure, cool. You figured it out, my man. Why didn’t anyone else think of that.
The majority of the major social apps we’ve been using for a decade were not designed to be good businesses. Some became massive ones, by doing one, or all, of the five things things WhatsApp didn’t want Facebook to do. But many more platforms are still stuck in a perpetual state of being terrible and, thus, good. Twitter and Tumblr are both fantastic examples of this bizarre tension, with user bases that are valuable in vastly different ways, but drawn to the apps because of features that make them unmonetizeable. Tumblr is essentially the greatest archive of possible copyright infringement ever created, which has led to an inscrutable and dense remix culture that conversely also drives a lot of what’s cool online. Meanwhile, Twitter is a poorly-incentivized battle royal for rich people, artists, and furries that only works because the barrier of entry for logging on and threatening to kill a columnist you don’t like is low enough that you can do it while still enraged from something you read while on the toilet.
Emily F. Gorcenski, a technologist and writer based in Germany, touched on this hilarious paradox in her recent essay about her decision to leave Twitter:
The internet is a big place, and it is shockingly hard to otherwise find people whose thoughts you want to read more of, whether those thoughts are tweets, articles, or research papers. The thing is, I’m not really sure that Twitter ever realized that this is the problem they solved, that this is where their core value lies. Twitter kept experimenting with algorithms and site layouts and Moments and other features to try to foist more discoverability onto the users without realizing that their users were discovering with the platform quite adeptly already. Twitter kept trying to amplify the signal without understanding that what users needed was better tools to cut down the noise.
Web 2.0 apps don’t even know what they’re actually being used for half the time. Do you think TikTok knows that its strength is not from its recommendation algorithms, but because it’s a free Adobe Premiere for your phone? Does YouTube know that it’s no longer a video app, but actually the main hub for cultural criticism on the internet? And this contradiction, this feeling of things being not quite right, is everywhere you look on the web 2.0 internet. A fantastic example of this is the years-long devolution of Facebook Video. When it first launched, its algorithm emphasized quick “snackable” video clips, which resulted in an influx of 30-second-long audio-free Powerpoint slideshows of animals and 46-minute-plus livestreams of car chases. And every iteration of it since has felt similarly hacky and grotesque, eventually giving us 30-minute-livestreams of women eating out of toilets.
When we switched from the first version of the web, which was static and linear, to web 2.0, which was real-time and non-linear, we let a few companies settle on a halfway point between working and not working and let them consolidate enough power and influence to never really get past that point. Which means you can’t make web 2.0 better because web 2.0 can’t be made better. We’ve spent the last 15 years not realizing that we were in a transitionary period.
What are we transitioning to? Well, I don’t want to get too preachy here, but it feels like this contradiction, this hackiness, this fundamental misunderstanding between how platforms think they work versus how users actually use them, is really just about relationship between commerce and the internet. The internet is better than any technology that’s ever existed in human history before now because it’s largely free and open and infinite. But we have only figured out ways to make money with it if it’s not that. And it feels as if the entire web 2.0 era was built on the very mistaken belief that you could continue being online, and making things for a digital world, without ever reconciling that contradiction.
And so, in my opinion, it seems clear that something has to give. Which means the next phase of the internet might not be able to maintain that uneasy tension and I’m getting a little scared about which side will win.
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The Crypto Market Isn’t Looking So Hot
Bitcoin’s down. Ethereum’s down. NFTs are way down. The crypto world is in free-fall and it’s unclear if and when it’ll stop crashing. Now, mind you, cryptocurrency markets are pretty much always in a state of chaos, but this does seem to be pretty bad when looked at historically. Why are things in a spiral? FX Empire has a few guesses, one of which is that institutions are losing interest in cryptocurrency. Last year, a lot of pretty major companies and financial entities (and even whole countries) were really interested in crypto and 2022 has not been nearly as fun. For instance, remember the great El Salvador experiment? According to this great Rest Of World piece, usage of Chivo, the main app for Bitcoin trading in the country, has cratered. And the users that have stuck around are mainly using it to store… fiat currency. Whoops! You accidentally made a bank. And, on the Ethereum side of things, the market is just as messy.
In an announcement that is honestly a perfect and hilarious indictment of exactly how out of touch everyone at Meta is with the internet of 2022, Instagram’s Adam Mosseri decided to pick the morning after one of Ethereum’s worst market drops this year to cosplay as Jared Leto and announce that Instagram will soon support NFTs.
Look, there was a time to probably try and make this move, but Instagram is mind-bogglingly late to the game here. If you’re going to run the main content management system for pyramid schemes, you can’t slack off building tools for new pyramid schemes!
Speaking NFTs, the guy who wanted to use multiple slurp juices for a single ape was milkshake ducked. If you understand sentence, you can stop reading here and come back next week. Take a break and please try and go outside.
And finally, ever wanted to hear me and my dad talk about how Bitcoin is actually very similar to selling Arabian horses in the 80s? Congrats, we pop up in a cameo in the newest episode of the Crypto Island podcast and do an interview about just that!
This Guy’s Building An Eel Pit On TikTok
This account was sent over to me by a reader named Johnny. The page is called @cowturtle and he’s got an old cistern that he’s turning into an underground pond for his eels. It’s super weird and incredibly cool. He also seems to really like snakes.
This Guy’s Adopting Pigs On TikTok
Dan McKernan has a sanctuary for rescued farm animals and thankfully for us, he has a TikTok for it. He’s recently been posting about a pig he rescued five years ago named Adam. TikTok has really fallen in love with Adam because he kind of looks like he’s smiling. (He’s got like big incisors that push his mouth up slightly. Or maybe he is smiling! I don’t know. Can pigs smile?)
A Follow-Up On Dracula Daily
Allegra Rosenberg did a great essay about the Dracula Daily Tumblr explosion last Friday, but if you missed it, here’s the deal. Internet artist Matt Kirkland has a Substack that is emailing out chapters from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. Stoker’s novel, which is in now the public domain, is written as a series of letters from a solicitor named Jonathan Harker who is sent to Transylvania to deal with a real estate transaction. The Dracula Daily Substack takes Harker’s letters verbatim and emails them to readers on the day that they’re timestamped in the book.
The result is a modern way of understanding the escalating creepiness that Harker experiences while staying in Dracula’s castle. But, hilariously, because everyone knows the story of Dracula, it also means that the whole story is basically now a comedy about a very dense British man not knowing that the guy he’s visiting really wants to eat him.
It’s become a sensation on Tumblr that is possibly on track to become bigger than Welcome To Night Vale was at its peak 10 years ago. Which is really crazy. Even crazier, Dracula Daily might count as the first real meme to come from a Substack. Now, the idea of the “Substack guy” — usually transphobic and definitely overpaid center-right columnist who is obsessed with internecine Twitter drama — is a meme, sure. But Dracula Daily is on track to become an actual internet fandom. I’d say Dracula content now accounts for about 90% of my dashboard and it’s all supremely funny. I don’t know how Substack capitalizes on this, but it does feel like a big moment for the platform.
A British Person Unfortunately Posted A Picture Of Their Food Online Again
Very good YouTube creator Harry “Hbomberguy” Brewis made the very bad mistake of posting a picture of food he made on Twitter. You see, Brewis is British and on UK Twitter there is a long tradition of a British person sharing a food of something they cooked and then be mercilessly mocked for how deranged it is. This is apparently a pancake that Brewis made.
To his credit, Brewis then posted an update about this, collecting all of the very funny and brutal responses and also clarified how this “pancake” ended up looking like this in the first place.
The update, however, still doesn’t explain why the pan looks like that.
Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s a 4K video of the inside of a dishwasher.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***
The dishwasher video is surprisingly soothing.