Our brave new venture-funded brand culture
Read to the end for a good meme
What Isn't A Cult, These Days?
I spent a while the other day reading Toby Shorin’s “Life After Lifestyle” essay. It was a long while: the essay is about 10,000 words long and has apparently been in the works for six years (?!). Shorin presented it in talk format at the recent conference-cum-festival1 FWB Fest, put on by supremely cool DAO Friends With Benefits, and then adapted it for his blog. I scrolled through intriguing descriptions of the history of DTC brands and the etymology of “culture” as a common noun. It’s definitely worth a read. But, lol. You come to me, on the day of the Ethereum merge, to ask “whether a venture-funded brand-designed culture would be any good” ????
Despite Shorin’s clear erudition and devotion to the concepts he’s examining, there are components of cultural production which go unmentioned throughout the piece, with its focus on squarely on DTC consumer goods, technology, and the “cultural production service economy.” CTRL+F “fandom” ??? A mere one (1) glancing mention. CTRL+F “entertainment” ??? Nothing!!!!! Yet I might counter Shorin’s assertion that (blech) Effective Altruism is “the closest thing we have to a new religion” with the argument that the Church of Harry Styles has far more everyday devotees. I don’t disagree that “[e]vangelism is a critical term for understanding this new cultural logic,” but it just seems odd to speak of a very general theory of consumer participation without even the lightest of recourse to the ways in which people enthusiastically pivot their lives around entertainment products, in a manner that can frequently be cult-like. But honestly, what isn’t a cult these days?
Here’s a list of things that are cults:
Tumblr in 2013
The Republican party
Sororities and fraternities
Really big Twitter DM group chats
Substack comments sections
“Liberal” “college” “campuses”
Here’s a list of things that aren’t cults:
Comedy club audiences composed mainly of hecklers
Tumblr in 2022, surprisingly
Anyway, in the worlds of TV, film, and books, which for many if not most people forms just as much a part of their cultural lifestyle as physical and technological products, there hasn’t really been the equivalent of the 2010s DTC product disruption. However, there has been a ground-up atomization of narrative across a dazzling array of platforms, a headless frenzy of storytelling of varying quality, and a surge in people identifying not only as buyers of certain branded products but also as acolytes and even residents of storyworlds—sigh, story brands, I guess—ranging from the mainstream to the obscure.
Shorin’s keyword overall seems to be “sincere,” a word which is positioned opposite its dark twin “cringe.” This resonates, more or less. Fan spaces have always done battle on behalf of sincerity, consciously and with intent. There is an understanding that in order to wholly experience the benefits of participating in a community based on enthusiasm, one must kill the part that cringes. Even if the envisioned world of tokenized religions or whatever doesn’t come to pass, subcultural spirituality is always-already here, and being shaped by practices of affinity and ideology which have long histories as well as infinite potential futures.
There’s A Weekend Edition Of Garbage Day Now
It’s a nice bonus issue of Garbage Day once a week for paying subscribers. If that sounds like something you’re interested in, hit the green button below. You’ll also get Discord access and a bunch of other fun bonus stuff.
TikTok Is The Radio
I was sitting in bed last night using my iPad to look at TikTok — because the government gives you a big dumb tablet when you turn 32 to help you transition into being culturally irrelevant — and I noticed a tab I hadn’t seen before called “Music”. I clicked on it and it was basically just trending TikTok songs but presented in an interface that is extremely similar to Spotify. It seems like this feature is part of a new foray the platform is making into building a standalone audio app. Which is smart because I have come to the realization that TikTok is just the radio.
In the 90s, when young people could afford to drive cars and everyone still worked in offices, it was not uncommon to listen to the radio while commuting in the morning or the evening. And when you would turn on the radio you would hear a few different kinds of programming — DJs talking about the big news stories of the day, typically a mix of brand new songs and old favorites, interviews with celebrities, and call-in shows, where random people from the community would spout off crazy nonsense, compete for prizes, ask for advice, or just get in a fight with the DJ. This content arrived linearly, punctuated by ads, but for the most part, it aired in arbitrary blocks. You’d turn on the radio and never really knew what you might hear, but chances are it was fine, but not great, though occasionally good enough to keep you sitting in your car after you parked. Well, that’s basically the role TikTok is currently filling.
Right now TikTok is making a bunch of interesting moves — it’s investing in search, it’s launched a BeReal clone, it’s experimenting with the aforementioned music app, and while all of this is happening, per a recent report from The Information, the amount of accounts able to hit a million followers is decreasing quickly. Part of that decrease in massive follower counts may be from over-saturation, but I think it’s also possible that there’s a near future where no one follows anyone on TikTok. If the app’s central For You Page gets good enough why would you? Sure you may have a few favorite accounts, but it’s not hard to imagine that flicking open TikTok starts to feel just as passive as turning the radio on was 20 years ago. You know you’ll be entertained and you may even share a few of the videos with your friends, likely in a messenger app of some kind. But eventually the app will just become a ubiquitous stream of content that you stare at mindlessly, filling in the dull parts of your day with a pleasant and often weird digital background noise.
But Meta Still Thinks TikTok Is A Video Platform
Meta is scared of TikTok. That is very clear. Casey Newton reported in Platformer yesterday that the company is shrinking their New Product Experimentation department significantly because they’re (drum roll please…) pivoting to video (again). And The Information got their hands on a memo from Instagram head Adam Mosseri, where he wrote that the once-loved photo app which is a now-derided ugly chumbox video app “lag[s] behind TikTok and YouTube on all the dimensions that are most important to creator satisfaction.” And that memo only comes a week after the Wall Street Journal reported that Instagram Reels users “have no engagement whatsoever”.
As I wrote then, this is partly because Meta has spent a decade alternating between ignoring their creators and rewarding their most cynical impulses, which has resulted in all those magicians eating out of toilets. But the other issue here is that Meta fundamentally does not seem to understand what TikTok is or why it’s popular.
Meta seems to think that they can use brute force to suddenly transform their massive user base — which is older, more localized, and largely still using their products to connect with friends and family — into TikTok’s — which is young and happy to compete in their algorithmic game show for a chance at viral fame. To continue the metaphor above, Meta is trying to turn a yearbook article about the most popular kid in your high school into Ryan Seacrest.
Anyways, hopefully someone over at Meta can watch this TikTok and see if they can figure out a better way through this mess.
Just A Tremendous Piece Of Content
Giphy Argues It’s Too Cringe To Be Trust-Busted
The Guardian has a great piece — that I’m quoted in — about the decline of Giphy, which is still the biggest GIF sharing platform. Meta acquired it in 2020. The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority wants them to sell it. And, in a recent filing, Giphy has argued that Meta shouldn’t sell it because GIFs have “fallen out of fashion as a content form, with younger users in particular describing gifs as ‘for boomers’ and ‘cringe’.” As Guardian reporter Alex Hern notes, it’s a bold strategy! For a company to say, “please don’t trust bust us, we’re too cringe to exist on our own.”
Of course, it’s true, but it’s not the natural result of a generational shift the way Giphy’s filing makes it out to be. Giphy, and other large tech platforms, are the reason why GIFs are so cringe.
The GIF file format is, at this point, 35 years old. It wasn’t supposed to be used for animation, but it supported the storage of multiple images and internet users quickly realized you could use a GIF to hold different sequential frames. The format was originally created by Compuserve, but all the patents on the way GIFs are compressed expired in 2004. Which just about coincides, interestingly enough, with the explosion of the animated GIF as a reaction image on message boards and blogs.
By 2010, aided by early social platforms like Myspace and Tumblr, it quickly became the dominant way of expressing emotion online. Soon everyone was having the same stupid argument about how to pronounce it (it’s a hard G, I don’t care, don’t email me) and hundreds of thousands of new GIFs were being created and uploaded. GIFs, as a piece of content, would even often go viral. But that entire culture was squashed by sites like Giphy and other large social platforms (other than Tumblr) that saw GIFs as a resource that could be scooped up and integrated into their dumb GIF keyboards or whatever. It’s sad and, I think, a very good lesson about what happens when you centralize a piece of internet culture. It becomes commodified, it becomes stagnate, and, ultimately, becomes cringe.
Behold: The Queue, England’s Final Form
If you didn’t know, there’s an absolutely gargantuan queue wrapped around London that leads to where the Queen’s body is on display. According to some estimates, it takes almost 30 hours to get to the front of it. I truly cannot think of a more British way to say goodbye to their former monarch than by combining the two things that country can’t get enough of — lining up for extremely mundane activities and having the grimmest, bleakest outdoor camping experience you could ever imagine at a summer music festival.
We talked about The Queue on my podcast this week, if you’d like to hear my brain break in real time as I learned about it. But if you’re looking for something more experiential, Jules Birkby, an artist from Yorkshire, has been livetweeting her time in The Queue and it’s wild. Click through on that tweet above and have a scroll.
An Excel-lent Investigation
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Did A CIA Agent Post An Anti-Trans Guilty Gear Wojak Meme?
I’ve been dragging my feet addressing the Guilty Gear drama because it’s, frankly, incredibly dumb, but it won’t go away and I’ve begun to notice parts of it spilling over into other areas of the internet. So here’s what you need to know.
Earlier this summer, Arc System Works, the studio behind the video game franchise Guilty Gear confirmed that a character from the game named Bridget was trans. The character’s backstory is that she was born biologically male and raised by her parents as a girl due to a superstition in her village. As Fanbyte summed it up, it was always a mess and the character has not been included in recent games. In the newest Guilty Gear game, however, Bridget comes out as trans and players have had a weeks-long meltdown about it, with fans fighting about how to translate the original Japanese description of the character, hoping to prove it’s not true. To understand why, though, is just as messy as Bridget’s original backstory.
Within the still very radicalized Western fandom for Japanese video games, manga, and anime, there’s a deeply fetishized distinction between trans people and a trope commonly referred to as “femboys”. These fans believe that American “SJWs” have infiltrated the animation and video industries and are altering the source material and turning “femboy” characters, who are, as the name suggests, feminine-presenting young boys and men, into “woke” trans people. It’s safe to say much of this is just elaborate cover for being transphobic, but I do need to acknowledge that there is also a wider “femboy discourse” happening on Twitter at the moment that, like all things online, is both connected and separate from the specific thing I’m currently talking about here.
Anyways, all of this ties into a larger belief within these communities that Japan is some kind of right-wing utopia where media isn’t politically correct. Many of these fans are desperate to prove that actually the Japanese creators are just as reactionary and transphobic as they are, going so far as to create fake customer service emails from Guilty Gear’s studio saying Bridget isn’t trans. Though, throwing a wrench into the right-wing fantasy of Japan as a country untouched by the American culture war, this week, Guilty Gear’s directors Daisuke Ishiwatari and Akira Katano came forward and confirmed that Bridget users she/her pronouns.
Amid the Bridget controversy, a Twitter user named @liddle_lefty shared a wojak meme laying out the conflict I explained above, depicting Japanese internet users as chads who don’t care about trans people. Then another user quote-tweeted @liddle_lefty’s post, sharing screenshots that claimed that the account was actually run by Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA agent currently running for Congress.
Obviously, in 2022, anything is possible. Also, there are a weird amount of CIA agents who spend all day on Twitter. But I am fairly confident that the @liddle_lefty account is not a former CIA agent. Though, the idea that it could have been is worth noting. There is an extremely murky world that exists at the bottom of the political horseshoe on Twitter where tankies and white nationalist tradcaths fight about anime all day. And in that world, there is a common joke (that some seem to believe) that CIA agents and FBI agents are the ones actually the ones causing all the drama. Which I think is a fascinating bit of psuedo-self-awareness.
It’s like these users know that they’re spending their time obsessively fighting about bull shit, but can’t seem to understand that it’s because they’ve been completely radicalized by extremists who use their niche interests as a way to isolate and recruit them. (That said, I do think there are probably federal agents monitoring some of these users, but, from what I’ve seen, they’re typically lurking in Discords.)
Anyways, in the coming days if you see anything about Japanese translations, trans people, Guilty Gear, or CIA agents this is probably why.
Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s a good meme.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***