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Pope in a coat
Read to the end for some truly unhinged online behavior
Enter: Balenciaga Pope
Over the weekend, a user on Reddit’s r/midjourney subreddit posted an AI-generated image of Pope Francis wearing a big parka (and looking sick). And it’s not an accident that it was an image of the pope wearing what looks like Balenciaga. Generative-AI art communities share different meta strategies for good prompts and aesthetics that these tools can work within and more than few users have recently figured out that Midjourney is actually really good at rendering stuff that looks like high fashion photography. For instance, last week, there was an AI video of Balenciaga Harry Potter that went viral, though I’m guessing the prompts for that were more “80s dark fantasy”.
Either way, the image above was then shared on Twitter by a user named @skyferrori who captioned it, “OKAAYYY”. And it went super viral. It was retweeted over 18,000 times. And a lot of those people thought it was real (myself included). The tell that it’s fake is that he’s carrying what looks like a Starbucks cup in his right hand.
And it seems like the believability of this image was a real wakeup call for a lot of folks. As writer Joel Golby succinctly put it in The Guardian this morning, “I thought I was immune to being fooled online. Then I saw the pope in a coat.”
I think there are few interesting reasons as to why this image went as viral as it did. First, I think the way it was shared on Twitter, with the “OKAAYYY” caption felt casual enough to not really think about it. Second, I think Midjourney version five, which is the current instance of the generative-AI tool, is just really really good. And, third, and perhaps most importantly, the pope is weird and does weird stuff that looks fake all the time. I mean, he’s blessed a Lamborghini before. So if you told me that he had a real big parka, I’d believe you.
It may seem silly, but this probably counts as the first real AI-generated hoax. Which means you’re going to hear a lot of alarmist stuff about AI misinformation from pundits and tech critics this week and, well, I hope everyone has a nice time and enjoys that little exercise in futility because I think we’re way past the point of no return with this. There’s probably a lot more coming and not a ton we can do about it! I dare you to watch even one minute from the TikTok hearing last week and then ask yourself if you really think the American government is capable of regulating any of this technology within a timeframe where it would actually matter. So we’re kind of on our own, as always.
And different platforms are making different decisions as we slowly come to some kind of industry-wide consensus. Exactly like we did with social media 15 years ago. Because that went so well. Right now the biggest platforms to ban deepfakes or synthetic media depicting real people are Twitch and TikTok, with TikTok making the interesting distinction that it will allow synthetic media depicting public figures. Which, as I wrote over the weekend, is good for me because I’m a huge fan of the TikTok channel that uses audio deepfakes to reimagine US presidents as scummy Massachusetts hardcore dudes.
Unfortunately, the biggest vector for AI misinformation, right now at least, is Twitter. And it seems dumb to even ask if Twitter has any rules about AI content, considering they don’t have rules about anything anymore, but Elon Musk has tweeted a bit about synthetic media.
“Given that modern AI can solve any ‘prove you’re not a robot’ tests, it’s now trivial to spin up 100k human-like bots for less than a penny per account,” he tweeted yesterday. “Paid verification increases bot cost by ~10,000% & makes it much easier to identify bots by phone & CC clustering. Obvious conclusion: paid account social media will be the only social media that matters.”
He’s wrong and this is a bad take that makes no sense. So, I think it’s safe to say, we’re not going to get any meaningful action from Twitter about AI content any time soon. So right now I think the best thing we can do is get a better understanding of the content economy that is currently driving AI misinformation. In the case of Balenciaga pope, the user that took the image from the r/midjourney subreddit was a Sky Ferreira stan account, who then used the virality of the tweet to tell people to stream Ferreira’s music and then did some sponcon for galaxy light projectors and OnlyFans models in the replies.
And if you go over to the r/midjourney subreddit this morning, it’s now full of pictures of the pope in different outfits as well as other political leaders in Balenciaga parkas. Because users have now realized that people might fall for it again. And, likewise, I’ve seen a whole bunch of Twitter users digging through r/midjourney for believable AI images that they can farm retweets with. I also came across one person trying to get an AI to generate photos that showed Elon Musk dating Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Which is extremely cringe and also the photos don’t even look like her.
All of this is to say that after Belanciaga pope, there are now very clear incentives and benefits for duping people with AI-generated images, whether it’s to make your favorite singer trend or sell projectors (or express your weird psychosexual fixation with Elon Musk). Which has been true of non-AI misinfo for years, of course. Posting a photoshop of a shark on a highway during a hurricane can achieve the same kind of monetizable chaos. But now you can generate an infinite amount of variations of the shark swimming up an infinite amount of highways. And you can do it in a couple seconds.
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AI Can’t Do Unicycles
This is how we defeat the machines.
Twitter Is Worth Less Than Half Of What Musk Bought It For
The New York Times is reporting that Musk said in an email to employees that Twitter is currently worth $20 billion. Which is $24 billion less than the $44 billion he bought it for back in October. I am not an expert businessman, but I have to assume this is not good. And according to The Information, in that email to staff, Musk described Twitter as an “inverse startup”. So like an enddown?
I honestly can’t believe how much Musk is convinced that Twitter Blue is a feasible business model. There’s just no way for it to work. I wrote about this in the weekend issue, but I wanted to share it here with everyone because I think it’s an interesting data point. I looked up how many paying subscribers I gained directly from Twitter referrals since January 1st of this year. Garbage Day has received 33,000 total views from Twitter across all my issues. And of those 33,000, around 270 signed up for emails and seven people paid for a subscription.
So, for simplicity’s sake, let’s say I’m gaining about two new paying subscribers a month. And let’s assume they’re paying a monthly subscription of $5 a month. Substack takes 10% of every subscription and Stripe takes 2.9% and there’s also a 30-cent fee for each subscriber.
So right now, without Twitter Blue, I’m roughly bringing in an additional $9 a month in new subscriptions from Twitter traffic. But it’s not really an additional $9 a month because of churn. My growth rate is around 3% after you factor in unsubscribes. But either way, Twitter Blue costs $8 a month. So the math just doesn’t add up. And I know you can say, well, maybe with more Twitter exposure, you can get more subscriptions. But there’s also the fact that the demographics who are now using Twitter the most aren’t really the kinds of people I even want reading this newsletter anymore.
Speaking of Twitter’s financial picture at the moment…
This Is The Only Ad On Twitter Right Now
This tweet is following me everywhere. And it is completely bizarre. It was posted by an account called @estudios that doesn’t have any information about itself posted anywhere that I can find.
The video in the tweet is a tapping bass solo that was taken off the YouTube page of a bassist named Charles Berthoud (he’s really good). And it seems like whoever is running this account edited the solo together with footage of different companies at the New York Stock Exchange. I think I find the whole thing borderline frightening.
Anyways, if you know anything about what this is, please let me know! I am dying to understand what is going on here.
There’s Finally A Dating Simulator About Doing Your Taxes
MSCHF, the art collective/marketing firm thing that recently made the Big Red Boots, is back with a new project called Tax Heaven 3000, which is a tax-themed dating simulator.
Apparently, the game will generate an actual tax return for you, but it also asks for your social security number and, holy shit, do not do that. I’ve seen rumors that game was already pulled off Steam. But here’s the official site for it. The game is dropping at the end of the month and is free to play (do not give it your social security number). But for $90 you can get the “collector’s edition,” which apparently comes with a body pillow. Extremely cursed.
A Good Tweet
Kyoto University of the Arts Did Their Annual Dress-Up Graduation Ceremony
The graduates at Kyoto University of the Arts are allowed to wear anything they want to graduation and every year the costumes are real fun. One of the students this year dressed up as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and went pretty viral on Twitter.
He said it took him several months to grow the beard. He’s also been answering questions on Twitter. You can head over to Japanese blog Togetter to check out a big roundup of all the different costumes.
Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s some truly unhinged online behavior.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***