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What’s The Value Of Anonymity Online?
Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU and cohost of the Pivot podcast with Kara Swisher, published a piece over the weekend in which he argued that it was time to end anonymity online.
“The prevalence of anonymous accounts and bots has evolved into a sociopolitical scourge,” Galloway wrote. “We should change course and require proof of identity online. Enforced ID won’t solve all these problems, but it would be a step in the right direction.”
I see arguments like this quite a bit. This line of thinking is particularly popular with British columnists, who seem to take turns writing a new screed against anonymous internet users every quarter, typically in tandem with one of them being dunked on by Twitter users. But, overwhelmingly, the people who make these kinds of arguments don’t seem to be aware, or care, that the internet is not just the people they’re having dinner parties with.
About 60% of the Earth’s population currently uses the internet, about five billion people. Galloway imagines an internet where “users could set up a single identity account with a trusted provider, who’d then vouch for the uniqueness of that user with any social media company or other online business where they open an account.” And he links to Clear Secure, the American tech company that does the biometric scanning at airports, as a possible example of how this would work.
Techdirt’s Mike Masnick in a series of tweets about Galloway’s piece, pushed back, “This idea has been pushed by so many (often wealthy, out of touch, extremely privileged) people with no knowledge or experience in how any of this works, leaving the less privileged, less wealthy, to have to explain ONCE AGAIN, why this is a dumb fucking idea that hurts people.”
Who would this hurt? Well, I could fill up an entire email listing the kinds of people that rely on anonymity and pseudonymity to express themselves online, but the closest example to point to is a trans or nonbinary teenager in a state like Texas secretly using a platform like Twitter to connect with other trans or nonbinary teenagers. But here’s another example:
In 2014, a (non-anonymous) Burmese monk named Wirathu used Facebook to accuse a Muslim business owner of raping a Buddhist employee. The Muslim man’s shop was attacked by Buddhists and Wirathu would continue to use his Facebook page to direct violence against Muslims until Facebook finally pulled it down in 2018. And, as I wrote over the weekend, Amnesty International has a new report out this month accusing Meta of substantially contributing “to adverse human rights impacts suffered by the Rohingya” and profiting off the genocide that users like Wirathu incessantly advocated for on their platform. So who in that situation would have been helped without anonymity? The verified user calling for violence against minorities? The oppressive state government that still refuses to admit they committed genocide amid a viral frenzy of hatred and violence on Facebook, a website you have to use your real name on? Or the American company that profited off of all of it?
None of these questions seem to enter the equation when already-verified pundits write neoliberal fan fiction about how the internet could be redesigned to make them more comfortable. But, also, to even consider this argument while the country of Ukraine, anti-war protesters inside of Russia, and Iranian citizens all digitally organize and wage info wars against oppressive state actors and while Brazil navigates a deeply contentious election featuring a coup-loving WhatsApp-amplified would-be dictator incumbent is, frankly, absurd. It’s also a functionally impossible idea.
But let’s say it was possible. Magically, overnight, the internet became read-only for anyone who wasn’t verified by some kind of posting passport system. Not only would that absolutely knock dozens of countries and thousands of communities off the internet immediately, it would turn the social web into essentially the same kind of thing people see on broadcast media. Which sucks and is boring and exactly why the internet is so popular. I think it’s particularly funny that people who make this argument assume that anyone would even keep using the internet if the only thing they could do on it was read posts from verified users. In fact, I have never written anything more confidently in my life than what I am about to write right here: Verified users are without question the worst part of any mainstream platform and if you want to imagine a world without online anonymity, go tell me about the incredible original content trending on LinkedIn right now.
I Have Two Live Events Coming Up!!!
Wahhhheyyyy! First, I’ll be performing at The Meme In The Moment at Caveat in New York City on October 26. It’s my birthday so please come. And, second, my podcast co-host Luke and I are hosting another live event in London in November. It’s called Bad Posters Club and if you like Garbage Day or like our podcast, you’ll definitely like it, as well. Hope to see you there! If someone manages to come to both, I’ll buy you a beer and give you a free T-shirt lol.
Also, think about subscribing to Garbage Day if you haven’t already. You get lots of extra stuff like the new weekend edition and Discord access.
Dream Finally Unmasked Himself
Speaking of anonymity, Dream, arguably the most famous video game player in the world, finally revealed his face. Up until now, little was know about Dream other than his first name Clay. The fact he finally showed his face online is a big deal. He was part of a cohort of pseudonymous Gen Z creators like Corpse Husband who amassed absolutely gargantuan followings online using an avatar or a user name.
I think Dream, who runs the Minecraft server and gamer collective known as the Dream SMP, probably won’t have any issues continuing as a verified user and will probably only get bigger now. But I do think his anonymity was a key part of why he blew up initially. The best way I’ve come to describe Gen Z fame is, I’m aware, extremely cringe and very millennial, but I think it’s useful: Every Gen Z celebrity is some combination of Kim Kardashian, Blink-182, and Banksy. Gen Z creators are avatars in a reality show about their own careers, but also extremely “authentic” in a heightened way, and tend to release their work in drops that not only don’t fit within traditional media cycles, but hijack or break them.
Dream finally unmasking himself takes away a bit of his mystique, but also officially allows him to enter into the mainstream, which should be very interesting to watch.
The Vegas Content Magicians Strike Again
A content creator team from Las Vegas went viral (for the wrong reasons) over the weekend. An account called @alohaocean posted a TikTok that looked like a Starbucks employee had received a massive cash tip for carrying a bunch of drinks to a customer’s car. A Twitter user named @yungmoneymal shared the video, writing, “they filmed this in front of my store (the person with the apron on in the video does not work here) And they did not actually tip any of the baristas 😍”
Now, while I can’t verify that @yungmoneymal works at that Starbucks, I can confidently say the whole thing was staged. The account that posted the video is a multi-platform content collective that shares “skits” on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. Their biggest audience is on TikTok, where they have more than 750,000 followers.
When I was digging around the @alohaocean pages, I noticed that they’re from Las Vegas, which made me suspect this page was probably connected to magician Rick Lax’s Vegas-based viral video empire and, sure enough, they have collaborated before, with Lax sharing one of @alohaocean’s videos in July. When I interviewed Lax and members of his group last year, they were super against TikTok because the monetization was so bad, but readers have informed me that many of Lax’s collaborators are beginning to post their own videos on the platform, which may mean they’re finally giving up on Facebook.
Anyways, remember: Don’t get mad at how bad these videos are — well, you can, whatever — but instead just realize the content these people make is exactly what the algorithms on these platforms want to recommend.
A Good Tweet
Brazil’s Election Heads To A Second Round
Brazil’s leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Jair “Tropical Trump” Bolsonaro are headed for a second round of votes at the end of the month after coming in first and second respectively during yesterday’s election. Neither got 50% of the vote, but Lula outpaced Bolsonaro 48.4% to 43.2%. The next few weeks will be extremely tense, with Bolsonaro already planting seeds of doubt in any electoral outcome where he doesn’t win.
Yesterday, Bolsominions tried to act as “election inspectors” and intimidate voters and a video went viral of a man smashing up a voting machine in the city of Goiânia. And a poll worker at a Brazilian polling center in London was removed after trying to convince people to vote for Bolsonaro. Here’s a joke about that went pretty viral that I think most folks will understand:
The Bored-Panda-fication Of Twitter Continues
The reason, though, that I wanted to include this tweet and the factcheck, is because I think it’s very illustrative of a trend I’m seeing more and more often on Twitter. I actually had a whole thing about this that I cut out of an issue last week because I didn’t want to be scoldy and annoying. But a reader had sent me this big long viral thread about a sick dog being adopted and I was fascinated by how the user had essentially recreated a viral listicle that you’d see on a site like Bored Panda, but in a format that works on Twitter. And, here again, with the tweet above, we see another extremely 2013 viral content format doing well on Twitter: The “somebody made this viral cartoon about a current news story”.
I want to be clear, I don’t think Shiva Balaghi, a professor of Middle East cultural history, was trying to go viral or growth hacking or something. I think many of us are bombarded all day from all angles by ~content~ and it can be near-impossible to keep it all straight. I have a very complicated system of Notion pages and reader apps that help me organize the content that goes into this newsletter.
But I think we’ve now reached a point in the slow death of Facebook where Facebookian tropes are going to start going viral elsewhere, like the Vegas TikTokers I wrote about above. Which means we’re now like two months away from a Disney princess redraw to get like 100,000 retweets.
Ukraine Is Very Good At Propaganda
Click in to see the whole tweet, which, of course, most importantly, was shared by Mark Hamill, who is currently acting as an ambassador to Ukraine’s United24 donation project. The whole thing may feel a bit r/readanotherbook, but I can’t say it’s not effective. (Curious what Disney thinks of it though.)
The decision to bring on Hamill as the face of Ukraine’s war movement has also resulted in absolutely wild future-weird headlines such as this one from the Guardian: “Mark Hamill calls for more drones for Ukraine to fight Russian invasion”.
Five Very Good TikToks
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TikTok user @the.localhedgewitch did a five-part series where she basically memorized — to the second — the iconic “Jen from Appleton at Bath and Body Works” YouTube video. Click through to watch all five on her channel. (Here’s a thread with all of them on Twitter for folks in non-TikTok regions.)
By the way, I get asked why I do that and I feel like, considering everything in today’s issue pertaining to state control of the internet, I figured now would be a good time to explain. I have readers in India and Hong Kong, two regions where TikTok has been banned since 2020, and they often email me if I reference TikTok content. So I try and find mirrors for videos I’m talking about on other platforms if possible.
Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s the prettiest Microsoft Word art you’ve ever seen.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***