Paying to read the graffiti on a bathroom stall
Read to the end for a very British Twitter thread
Man, Social Media Platforms Really Want Us To Start Paying, Huh?
If you’re too young to remember or just too tired, the transition from the age of mainstream media — newspapers, magazines, television, radio, CDs, movies — to social media didn’t happen all at once. If I had to put a date range on it, I’d say it really started in earnest in the US with the Miley Cyrus twerking incident at the 2013 VMAs, or perhaps earlier, in 2012, during Hurricane Sandy. Both events were instantaneously turned into — and shaped by — internet content in ways that were largely impossible for traditional media to deal with. And I’d say the transition probably ended with the 2021 GameStop pump, or, once again, maybe earlier on March 27, 2020, when Stephen Colbert filmed the first Late Show monologue from his bath tub wearing Airpods. Both feel like moments where the internet had become the dominant reality and traditional media was now just another portal through which we could view it.
It was during that general period of time that we largely abandoned the idea of paying for specific units of media and also started creating our own. Almost a century of top-down broadcasting and publishing had created a huge demand for something else. And all kinds of funny things happened when we finally lifted the cage.
First, the CD unbundled, giving rise to playlists and burned CDs and then Soundcloud rap and 90-second Spotify-optimized singles, but also the album cycle as an “era” or the earth-shattering surprise drop a la Beyoncé. Then the newspapers and magazines unbundled. Publishers, finally able to see who was reading specific articles, started to lean into “clickbait,” viral news, and hot takes, but also, conversely, deeper, more impactful investigations and bigger publishing projects reaching underserved demographics. And eventually, everything else unbundled much in the same way — viral crap or mega-produced prestige content. And the kinds of media that still try to resist this unbundling are, instead, unbundled by users, who turn clips from movies into memes and turn book covers and excerpts into aesthetic Instagram pictures. And the (mostly) unspoken deal was that, unlike traditional media, you wouldn’t have to pay for social media.
Instead, you could make what you wanted, share it how you wanted, and, possibly, even get paid for it. It was never a perfect deal and over the years the platforms that facilitated this big transition kept tightening the conditions of it, but the free price of admission was largely sacrosanct.
Spotify and Netflix were the first big platforms to challenge this, but they also weren’t offering user-generated content. And still the ones that do — Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Twitter, etc. — are free. But the assumption was that no one in their right mind would pay for social media anyways. It was the junk that lived downstream of real media. Which was true until we discovered we liked the runoff better. And now it seems like these platforms are going to try and figure out how to get us to finally pay them something.
Twitter launched the $8-a-month Twitter Blue. Meta is launching a similar $12-a-month Meta Verified. YouTube already offers the $11.99-a-month YouTube Premium, which may start paywalling certain video resolutions soon. And the craziest thing is that I’ve had YouTube Premium a few times (you get a month free when you buy Google Home products and I sort of love Google Home products) and I really liked it. There’s no ads, it works better on mobile, and it’s just an overall more enjoyable way of using the platform. But it also feels very unsustainable.
According to a recent Recode article, it seems deeply unlikely that you could ever convince enough users to pay to replace advertising. “From what we know so far, only a small subset of users may be willing to pay,” Recode wrote. “It’s not a perfect comparison because it’s a different platform with a distinct audience, but Twitter reportedly only has 0.2 percent of its total user base paying for Twitter Blue as of mid-January.”
And in the case of Twitter and Meta, it’s a downright insulting proposition — pay to more safely and securely browse your own content. Pay us to make more money with it. Pay us to outrank your friends and family in comment threads. With Twitter, in particular, the large majority of the site’s best stuff is coming from non-professional users just shitposting for fun. Which makes Twitter Blue something akin to being asked to pay to lower the chances of being stabbed while you read the really funny graffiti on a sketchy bathroom stall.
The reason this is happening is because the platforms that unbundled traditional media didn’t seem to anticipate is that advertising would also unbundle. Though, I guess it should have been the logical conclusion. Advertising is about capturing the zeitgeist to grab people’s attention and these platforms fractured the zeitgeist and broke people’s attention spans. It might also just be that there is a certain size a website can be and perhaps Meta has reached it.
And all of that isn’t even taking into account that ad targeting is finally being addressed in semi-meaningful ways, either by companies like Apple or governmental bodies like the European Union. Either way, the party’s over. I assume some of these platforms will try to bundle themselves back up via some kind of AI interface — my working theory is that generative-AI assistants or AI-powereds feed could start to recreate the peak TV and radio media landscape of the 90s. But for the platforms that can’t do it fast enough or well enough, their only option is to keep paywalling formerly-free features and hope they can hang on to their existing user base.
Who knows, though. Maybe Twitter Coins will be the thing that saves the industry…
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What’s Behind The Weird Urge To Replace Things With AI?
AI writer Zain Kahn recently tweeted about the fake AI Instagram model Ailice, who I’ve written about before. She’s not real, but looks real enough — as long as you don’t spend too much time looking at her teeth, her eyes, the way her clothes look, or the musculature of her shoulders.
Kahn is not the first person to say that Ailice proves that, as he writes further down the thread, “brands could save hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars by using AI generated models, instead of hiring real models.”
Damn, sure is funny how men are never excitedly sharing AI photos of other men and saying that they could replace male models, isn’t it?! But putting aside the increasingly popular desire to use AI to force women out of public-facing professions, let’s walk through the thinking here.
I don’t see something like Ailice replacing already-famous models like, say, Kendall Jenner or Gigi Hadid. I don’t see fast fashion brands using AI models either because they’re trying to advertise how clothes fit on a human person (for now). Nor do I see lifestyle influencers being “replaced” with AI because I don’t think an AI can be aspirational. I think virtual influencers are sort of a new separate thing that is only competition to humans in the very broad sense that all content competes for minutes in your day. As copyrights become more clear we might see some AI-generated mascots, but I also think we’re a long way off there too. Though, maybe closer than you might think. My guess is that Ailice and AI “models” are going to become the new faces of a lot of crap.
They’ll be used to advertise off-brand merchandise, “Made For TV” gadget testimonial stuff, and in a jaw-dropping amount of chumbox internet article thumbnails. Also, maybe personal injury law firm billboards? But I’m beginning to think that generative-AI art will race to the cultural bottom so fast that it basically loses all its shine almost immediately. I think humans can develop visual context around aesthetic faster than AI can evolve (once again, for now). In other words, I think there’s a very hilarious possibility that capitalism will render AI art so gauche so fast that it loses its special pretty quick. I think in nine months, a tweet boldly proclaiming that AI art will replace human models will read the same way as if someone had said, “check out this Rage Comic, you can put it on any T-shirt you want.”
Thrifting Discourse Is About To Enter Its Third Week
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Last month, a TikToker named @jbwells2 posted a haul video of clothes she picked up at a thrift store. The video went very very viral. It’s now been viewed over 5 million times and most of the comments on TikTok are users complimenting how good the clothes look. Which is wild because, as someone who shopped almost exclusively at thrift shops from the age of 17-22 (I played in ska bands), I can tell you that most of these items are like the exact kinds of clothes that have been at pretty much every thrift shop for the last 20 years. But, oh well, a large part of the population under the age of 28 hasn’t really gone outside ever, so they get a pass.
The video was shared over to Twitter, however, and the reactions there were a bit different. The version of the video that everyone was sharing there has been deleted, but the discourse it produced has been going on now for literal weeks. @jbwells2, it seems, sells the clothes she gets at thrift shops. Which has led to certain Twitter users comparing her to a landlord lmfao. And other users called her a parasite and said that she was depriving “low income individuals” of “nice shit”.
The best takes on this whole thing, I think, are from costumer Sara Hinkley and Derek Guy, the menswear guy.
Hinkley wrote, “It’s a common belief that when you donate your clothes those literal clothes are definitely worn by the needy instead of entering, like, a global network of bulk reselling and trash export. This isn’t universally true and donating clothes isn’t bad. But clothing supply WAY outpacing demand includes donated clothing too. There is just too much.”
And, interestingly enough, Guy sort of made the opposite point, which is I think also true at the same time, writing, “When there's a large gap between what's in your closet and what you aspire to have in your closet, and you have limited funds to get there, people get... crazy. They are hostile, angry, combative. this is basically early 2000s clothing forum behavior. This discourse justifying Shein and hating Depop resellers has little to do with the material conditions of meaningfully marginalized ppl (e.g. illegal immigrants). They are young people who are on tight budgets by virtue of their age. And they are fashion obsessed.”
It’s So Cool That There Are Only Four Tweets Every Month Now
The “I Consider Mids Loud” Tweet Has Finally Been Brought To Life
As I’m sure you can already guess, but I love this. I love this entire strain of content. But beyond just thinking all of these are very funny, I think it’s interesting that we aren’t talking about these short clips, which feature AI-generative dialogue meant to sound like real people, the same panicked as we do with things like DALL-E 2.
People, right now, are making their own movies with existing actors. Sure, they are publishing them on Twitter and TikTok in bit-sized chunks, but it’s happening. This isn’t Disney de-aging an actor or bringing a dead one back to life, this is literally just random people making the cast of A Few Good Men read funny tweets. This should be a very big deal I think and it just feels like we’re not stopping to appreciate how huge this is?
Speaking of which…
This Completely AI-Powered Twitch Stream Uses “Real” Streamers
The Athene AI Show is a Twitch channel that streams 24-hours a day and features AI “parodies” of real people. Athene is a Belgian streamer, real name Bachir Boumaaza, and he now has a channel that is cycling through different AI versions of real people “talking” to each other. When I checked it this morning, he, as an AI, was interviewing Ricky Gervais. The AIs are able to pull out questions from the live chat and “answer” them. The whole thing is a lot more coherent than I expected it to be, though, it’s still clearly all being done by an AI.
The Nu Metal Twitter Account Is Beefing With Jordan Peterson
For some reason, Jordan Peterson posted about KoRn’s “Daddy” this week. The song came out in 1994. But, either way, it caught the attention of one of my new favorite Twitter accounts, which is “crazy ass moments in nu metal history,” which ratio’d Peterson with a picture of Jonathan Davis.
Related, the “crazy ass moments in nu metal history” has a habit of posting music that is not exactly nu metal. It tends to sort of just post videos of general heavy-ish alternative music from the 90s and early-00s. Anyways, the debate around what this account should or shouldn’t be posting led to one of the funniest videos I’ve ever seen.
This Cajun Tiktok Chef Has A Fantastic Collection Of Anime Graphic Tees
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This TikTok channel has been making the rounds on Twitter recently. The chef is called Ralph The Baker and he’s from Lafayette, Louisiana, and he and his family run an online cookware store and a series of channels where they cook stuff with a lot of spice and a lot of butter. It’s a beautiful thing. But what’s crazy is that no one I’ve seen so far has pointed out that this man has an absolutely incredible collection of anime graphic tees. A lot of them are Naruto, but I’ve also seem him wearing Attack On Titan merch, as well.
Some Stray Links
“The Full Story Behind That Spinning Cat You're Seeing Everywhere Now”
P.S. here’s a very British Twitter thread.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***
I'd like to posit that the transition started in 2012 with the rise of Gangnam Style. More than 10 years after MTV stopped showing music videos, a video for a song that was mostly sung in Korean broke the YouTube view counter and became the biggest song in the world (including the USA), based entirely on the strength of the music video. This was the norm in the '80s and '90s, but it was arguably the first time this happened in the 21st century, and represented a full transition of pop culture hitmaking to the Internet, right before streaming started to really eat cable TV.
As one of the few nu metal fans who also reads garbage day, it is good to see crazy moments in nu history get the recognition it has well deserved. Hopefully when they post about that one time Limp bizkit blew up a boat it will also go equally as viral.
Concur on you twitter/fb entry. Media companies trying to get me to pay is just onlyfans but without the porn. Good thing tumblr will always be free.
I hope your right that capitalism will be the undoing of ai. You just never know if someone will invent a much better ai tool, but i suspect at that point, the scope of potential ai uses may be smaller than what they are now.
I'm on Twitter a lot and I missed the thrifting discourse.( though I did see the "finally 18" thing which was super messed up) gonna check the spinning cat thing. I do like that garbage day has introduced me to the anime t shirt Cajun guy, the chocolate man and of course @ryanpornstar