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Everything Is Content
We’re five days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and it is safe to say that the conflict has not left a single corner of the social web untouched. Twitter, in particular, is now overrun with horrifying images and uncomfortable attempts at uplifting viral content — as of this morning, it does seem like the Snake Island “fuck you” soldiers are still alive.
Over the weekend, though, a new narrative emerged on Twitter. American and British correspondents began remarking at how shocking it was to see war come to a “civilized” country like Ukraine. There were so many instances of this happening that a compilation of it went viral. One of the compilations that was shared the most was created by redfish, a media network that is affiliated with the Russian state.
But just because Russian state media is using this sentiment as a way into the info war they’re currently losing, that doesn’t make it any less true. Over the weekend, Nick Bilton, a correspondent for Vanity Fair, tweeted and then deleted, “This is arguably the first war we’ve seen (actually seen in real-time) take place in the age of social media.” Yikes! Here’s a bunch of good responses to this very wrong take.
There has essentially been a never-ending stream of images of war on American TV and, then, later, social media, for the entirety of my life. In fact, there’s no better example of western media’s double standard around occupation than the fact a photo of a Palestinian girl went viral this weekend after users mistook her for a Ukrainian.
But there is something happening here that is new and different. I touched on this last week. American corporate media and social platforms have spent decades protecting their users from the actual tangible realities of war. In fact, ISIS’s propaganda strategy was focused acutely on breaking this fragile veneer and bombarding American platforms with horrific videos and images of conquest, oftentimes edited together to look like Call Of Duty clips, with snazzy effects and slick soundtracks. Hilariously, Nick Bilton was actually the one to coin my favorite description of ISIS, describing them in 2016 as the world’s “deadliest tech startup”. But ISIS’s terrifyingly forward-thinking understanding of a digital info war was nothing compared to America’s. From Hollywood to cable news to American algorithmic online social platforms, there is simply no other country on Earth better at propaganda than the U.S. Which, I suspect, is, along with racism, of course, leading to a lot of the very weird public breakdowns pundits and correspondents are having while watching what’s happening in Ukraine right now. Because, until Ukraine loses internet connection, this is the first war between two fairly equal internet presences and it’s upending our entire of understanding what an occupation like this is and looks like. And it’s also having a distorting, confusing, and flattening effect on how the rest of the world is processing the conflict.
Similar to how Hong Kong protesters were able to pull the internet to their side through a mix of relatable content, visually-impactful street-level protests, and young, charismatic leaders, Ukraine is now doing that on a national level. And it is incredible to see, but winning a content war is not the same as winning an actual war and, also, just because Ukrainians are effectively using social media to win the hearts and minds of people around the world, that doesn’t mean that American platforms aren’t turning that content into viral dog food.
Hussein Kesvani, a British writer and podcaster who everyone should be following in my opinion, did a really good job of nailing this phenomenon down. “Memeification, the Marvel-ization, the spectacle of an ongoing war rendered as entertainment, etc. This is less about a lack of empathy or understanding of human suffering, and far more indicative of platforms doing what they were designed to do in producing everything as content,” he wrote this morning.
For instance, Rayk Anders, a German actor and YouTuber posted the above Avengers: Endgame edit about the invasion of Ukraine. Thankfully, most people who are sharing it are sharing it because it’s insensitive, idiotic, and actually kind of grotesque, but the fact that some people are genuinely interacting with this and that Anders even posted it in the first place is an incredible display of how sociopathic platforms like Facebook and Twitter make us. But the Endgame video is a good example of what Kesvani is talking about.
Online platforms flatten the content uploaded to them, assigning engagement metrics to videos of shelled cities and fleeing civilians, prompting other users to share or comment or, worse, find their own content to add to the trending topic. The hashtag #nuclearwar is trending on Twitter right now. If you click in on it, it shows you the top content tagged #nuclearwar. If you click on one of the posts, in giant letters, Twitter asks you to “tweet your reply.” What’s your take on nuclear annihilation, the bird site wonders thoughtlessly.
This also explains the unimaginable amount of misinformation circulating at the moment, as well. Another journalist I highly recommend following, Cam Wilson, tweeted yesterday, “Might be quaint to say this but sure seems like a lot of digital platforms incentivize making or sharing terrible information during a war.”
And this is as true for the people thoughtlessly sharing random images and videos they find captivating, regardless of their veracity, as it is for conspiracy theorists in movements like QAnon. What is QAnon if not just a way to always have something new to create or consume during breaking news events. Which is why right-wing users are currently split between thinking that the Ukrainian army is burning any evidence relating to Hunter Biden and thinking that the invasion is just, simply, not happening at all. It doesn’t matter so long as you have something to post.
And if you aren’t creating content about the invasion of Ukraine, you’re then guilted and goaded into consuming it. Over the weekend, NPR was thoroughly ratio’d for sharing a piece called “5 ways to cope with the stressful news cycle”. Even worse, its tagline was “from COVID to Ukraine anxiety”. Once again, this flattens all events into content to consume or react to. But, as embarrassing as the piece was, it was responding to a very real thing. There are a lot of internet users who, after a decade of exposure to viral media, have had their minds so thoroughly warped by trending content that they believe that reacting to popular internet culture is not just a replacement for a personality, but some kind of moral duty. It seems social platforms have not only eroded newsrooms by decimating the ad industry, but they have also, in the process, turned everyone into emotional trauma gig workers, convincing hundreds of thousands of average people to carry the burdens that used to be reserved for the few who wished to become journalists and accept the horrors that come with that job.
So, yes, in a sense, a lot of this is new and different. Not because of some racist understanding of European-ness or what the occupation of a “civilized” country looks like, but because the internet is at a place technologically now where connectivity is not just the default, but demanded of us all and we are still only at the beginning of understanding what that actually means.
Cute, Zany, Interesting
I’m currently in my third semester of graduate school, and have been doing a lot of interesting reading lately. Quite a bit of it makes me feel like melting into a puddle of stupidity (Turing’s “On Computable Numbers,” for one) but the majority of it is great stuff.
For example: theorist and scholar Sianne Ngai, in a paper in 2010, followed up by a full book in 2015, postulated that the three aesthetic categories of the “zany,” the “interesting,” and the “cute” are a triad through which the very idea of an aesthetic in the context of late capitalism can be interrogated. These categories contain various links to history, form, and genre, but are all characterized by containing conflicting feelings, or at least the possibility for them: “tenderness and aggression, in the case of the cute; fun and unfun, in the case of the zany; interest and boredom, in the case of the interesting.”
Last week, I talked about an Indie Rock Vibe Shift which I want to happen, but to be clear, don’t believe ever will, because the arrow of progress points forward towards background-music-core and Spotify-pop. “Zany” is a great way to describe the kind of music Needlejuice puts out; “interesting,” insofar as it encompasses boredom, defines the sort of enjoyable, but wholly non-notable stuff that you find on your Discover Weekly and never seek out again.
Ngai’s work on aesthetic categories provides a useful backdrop for the conversation about vibes, and the shifting thereof, that is currently circulating at high speeds. She talks about how to make an aesthetic judgment — to point out that something is cute, for example — means you are compelling people to either agree or disagree with your objective categorization. It’s an act of performative evaluation as much as it is pointing out an inherent quality.
The stickiness of the Vibe Shift as a concept therefore lies at least partially in that irresistible impulse to delineate the micro-aesthetics that comprise the Vibe of a year, a decade, a platform, a politics. In regards to cuteness, specifically, there is a rule I’m going to make up right now called Rosenberg’s Rule, which states that any person of a given level of notability, no matter how old or homely or obscure, will have people calling them cute online. And then there will be people who witness this aesthetic judgment and make their own reflexive judgment regarding it, namely that it is stupid or insane or delusional or what have you. This is the sort of ongoing cycle that powers certain corners of Twitter.
What are some other categories that make up the increasingly fractalized vibe landscape of Online? “Oddly satisfying” is one, argues Jordan Schonig, as is “mildly infuriating.” “Cringe” and “horny” seem like major ones, though, those two certainly can and do overlap. There are infinite possibilities, as Ngai points out: “Minor aesthetic categories crop up everywhere, testifying in their ubiquity to how aesthetic experience, radically generalized in an age of design and advertising, becomes less rarefied but also less intense.”
Now that I know about the zany/interesting/cute trifecta, I can’t stop sorting everything into those buckets, and also I kind of want to get it on a t-shirt. Which is very zany of me!
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TikTok’s Uncanny Valley Of Misinformation
If you’ve ever reached the bottom of a TikTok trending topic, you’ve probably come across videos like the one above. Accounts take completely unrelated visuals and stitch them together with the app’s duet feature, hoping to get picked up by the app’s algorithm. The video above comes from an account called @rocky.ramboo, which has seven videos like this. The most popular one has 3.8 million views.
There is a real push from factcheckers and misinformation researchers to get misleading Ukraine content off of TikTok. Which is fair, the app is inundated with misleading posts about the conflict. But as the tweet above asks, what exactly counts as misinformation? And who is responsible for it? Does the person behind the account above think they’re making videos that appear like Sylvester Stallone is commenting on the invasion of Ukraine or is this just a weird Stallone fan account that has found a bizarre way to make pro-Ukraine content?
To be as nuanced as I can about this, I get the desire for everything on the internet to be verified and correct. I have, personally, been tricked by more than a few misleading or factually incorrect posts about Ukraine in the last few days. But I, also, think the further into this conflict we get, the more it’ll become apparent that there is no meaningful way to factcheck this stuff anymore. Platforms like TikTok run on autopilot and have reached a scale in which they cannot be moderated by human beings anymore. There has also been so much content published about the invasion of Ukraine in just the last few days that there’s really no fixing things. And it’ll only get worse and more complicated from here. I’ve known researchers who have talked about an “infopocalypse,” a future event in which there will simply be too much mis- or disinformation online to sort through. Well, I think it’s happening and I think TikTok is ground zero.
The Crypto War Bond
The reaction from the crypto community to the invasion of Ukraine has been super interesting. A lot of more traditional crypto evangelists are saying that the ability to send Bitcoin and Ethereum to Ukraine is exactly what makes blockchain-based currencies so incredible. Though, that is equally true for anyone who wants to bypass sanctions to support Russia, even if people are asking nicely for Russian crypto wallets to be blocked. So maybe we need to stop believing that a specific technology can exist in a world of black-and-white morality.
Yesterday, a single transaction of $1 million worth of Bitcoin was sent to the Ukrainian government’s wallet. They’ve received over $5.9 million worth of Bitcoin since they opened the wallet on Saturday.
But it’s not all good. There are countless crypto-based donation scams on YouTube right now, where users pretend to be affiliated with the Ukrainian government, livestream news footage of the conflict, and ask for crypto. Also, the NFT community is, once again, proving that they are just not the people who should be representing Web3, or any serious or meaningful technological movement, at all. I mean, what even is this?
Another Fandom Account Possibly Got Arrested
The user behind the Lady Gaga fan account, @gagadaily, posted an update over the weekend, explaining that they couldn’t update the account because they were arrested at an anti-war protest in Moscow. There’s a followup tweet with a picture from jail. I, obviously, can’t say for sure if this is legit, but I will say this isn’t the first time something like this has happened.
In fact, back in January, @feeltimemoving, an account that posts hourly updates of Billie Eilish’s green hair, tweeted for the first time in several months, apologizing for the lack of updates because they were in prison for running a pyramid scheme. And, then, most famously of all, there was the Israeli Taylor Swift fan account back in 2019 who briefly got thrown in jail for not joining the Israel Defense Forces.
Tumblr Is Obsessed With The PS5 Guy
A TikTok user named @nickymaddalina has become Tumblr’s newest crush. Here’s a huge thread about it. The TL;DR is that he dueted an open verse challenge where another TikTok user, the singer Salem Ilese, challenged users to do a verse about choosing between a girl or a PS5. And @nickymaddalina did a verse AS a PS5. He even does like an evil sentient PS5 voice. It’s very funny. I did like one of the top comments on the PS5 video, though, which reads, “This wasn’t even lyrical. Right idea wrong execution. Liked the voice tho” lmao.
Making Frasier In Elden Ring
Click through to see a thread about a custom character that looks like Frasier Crane in the game Elden Ring.
Check Out This The Batman Font Generator
Not much to say about this except that it’s a fun text generator. You can make the logo of the new Batman movie say whatever you want. I hadn’t seen anyone do this one yet.
Some Stray Links
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***