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The end of the metaverse hopefully
Read to the end for a tremendous meditation on February
Facebook Made Its Own World And Now It’s Stuck In It
Meta, the company that owns Facebook, had a pretty bad day yesterday. The company, on an earnings call, reported that it had lost users for the first time in its history. The market then responded. The company’s valuation dropped $232 billion, the biggest 24-hour drop in the stock market’s history.
Many outlets are pointing to Facebook’s completely idiotic pivot to “the metaverse” as the main reason for its current predicament. Nikita Bier, the founder of the tbh app, which was acquired by Facebook in 2017, had a good take on this, tweeting, “Facebook's hands are tied. 1—High ARPU coastal users have churned; TikTok is eating their lunch. 2—They can't acquire because of antitrust scrutiny. 3—They can't build because founders don't want to be there. 4—IDFA killed their ability to target ads. 5—The metaverse is 10yrs out. RIP.”
And he’s right! Cool young people aren’t on Facebook or Instagram anymore. After growing up in the shadow of the Facebook-designed viral pop culture of the 2010s, young adults are now much more interested in posting inscrutable Tumblr memes on TikTok. And Meta, as a company, can’t keep up because it actually has not designed anything of value since it launched the News Feed in 2006. Every “innovation” made by Zuckerberg and his team has actually been an acquisition. And now, as Bier points out, they can’t buy up any new good ideas. The Identifier for Advertisers feature has been effectively killed by Apple, meaning Facebook’s ad tracking has become much worse. And, finally, most crucially, no one wants virtual reality. If virtual reality is going to catch on, it’s not going to be Facebook’s sanitized Habbo Hotel Zoom call world. Obviously, the only thing that’s going to make virtual reality catch on is some kind of sex machine that is so addictive people starve to death strapped into their jerking chair or whatever.
But what’s extremely interesting — and funny — is that Facebook, failing to take a step forward, also has nothing to fall back on.
Every few weeks, someone on Twitter notices how demented the content on Facebook is. I’ve covered a lot of these stories. The quick TL;DR is that Facebook’s video section is essentially run by a network of magicians and Vegas stage performers who hack the platform’s algorithm with surreal low-value content designed to distract users long enough to trigger an in-video advertisement and anger them enough to leave a comment.
I’ve interviewed the woman in the top left corner of the tweet above. Her name is Getti and she seemed like any other online creator I’ve interviewed over the years. The videos these people are making are, objectively, deranged. But, to hear them tell it, they’re simply providing what Facebook’s algorithm wants from them and are responding with ruthless efficiency.
Meanwhile, the platform’s non-video content isn’t much better.
A quick scroll through Facebook’s Top 10, a Twitter bot created by New York Times reporter Kevin Roose and Fabio Giglietto, an associate professor of Internet Studies at the Università di Urbino in Italy, gives you a pretty decent — though not complete — glimpse of what Facebook users are reading and sharing. Yesterday, five of the 10 top-performing links on Facebook were from Ben Shapiro.
The popularity of right-wing news on Facebook began as an outrage, morphed into a joke, and has now become something we just assume is true. But I’d argue the publishers like Dan Bongino and Ben Shapiro who are regularly dominating Facebook are actually just doing the same thing as the video magicians. I don’t think Facebook’s algorithm or its users are inherently right-wing, I just think right-wing publishers are shameless enough to feed the platform’s News Feed the anger-inducing highly-reactive content that it has been programmed to promote.
I don’t know why Facebook let the content on their site atrophy like this. Perhaps, at their size, actual units of content begin to matter less than the general trends or vibes their algorithms produce. But the absolutely noxious vibes produced by Facebook’s algorithm have become true for Instagram, as well. The platform, particularly Reels, has become awash in its own unique form of content detritus: multi-level marketing schemes, useless DIY hacks, and, of course, freebooted TikTok videos.
Unlike YouTube, which, for all its mistakes over the years, actually seems to be regularly in public conversation with its creators, Facebook, from what I can tell, has pretty much ignored theirs. Their biggest creators, both video creators and native publishers, are not only absent from pretty much all publicity the company does, but the platform’s algorithmic tweaks over the years seem to be actively antagonistic to them, which has, it seems, only made the surviving creators and the content they produce more aggressively shameless.
Basically, Facebook and Instagram is Squid Game, the algorithm is the big piggy bank, and the last three traumatized contestants in tuxedos armed with knives are an out-of-work magician, an antivax chiropractor, and a QAnon mom from Tuscon who runs a drop-shipping pyramid scheme.
Which, of course, is not a platform that users will want to use. But it’s all Facebook has to fall back on now that its attempts to “build the metaverse” have been exposed as an absolutely ridiculous bluster. And it seems like that’s what they’re actually going to do. Zuckerberg said yesterday that that they would be focusing — or pivoting — to video again. It’s all they can do. They’ll pivot to video, then they’ll pivot to reactions, then they’ll pivot to groups, then they’ll pivot to news, then they’ll pivot back to video, all the while, shrinking and becoming less and less relevant until one day we won’t even notice they’re gone.
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They’ll Take Your Data If You Let Them
The generically named Crisis Text Line is exactly what it sounds like: a messaging-based platform which offers mental health help to people in crisis, connecting them with volunteer counselors. Funded and run like a Silicon Valley startup, its mission statement is to put data science and A.I, technology to use in saving lives and delivering critical services to people in need.
If you’re fortunate enough to be someone who doesn’t need to seek help via these services, you’re only likely to hear about them when they fuck up in some way. Much like the therapy service BetterHelp, which was criticized heavily in the wake of an announced partnership with AstroWorld, CTL’s relationship with its users’ highly-sensitive personal data has been revealed to be less than ideal.
A detailed Politico report last week exposed how CTL spun off a for-profit company, Loris, to take commercial advantage of the large corpus of user communications to train e-commerce customer support systems. The Politico report includes quotes from a former volunteer who was terminated after expressing concerns over this state of affairs.
Writer Joanne McNeil, (author of one of my favorite tech industry books, Lurking) has been taking CTL L and its board to task on Twitter. danah boyd is a Microsoft researcher and scholar whose research has been highly influential, including her conceptualization of digital context collapse. She serves on CTL’s board, and petitioned the government to incorporate CTL into their existing plans for a national suicide text line, citing CTL’s “hallmark values of protecting user privacy, prioritizing diversity and inclusion, and using the awesome power of technology [...] for good in innovative new ways.”
It’s a bummer! boyd is a founder of Data & Society, a journal I admire, and has done a lot to advance studies into the relationship between digital platforms and their users. The initial decision to share data with Loris was one boyd, in a lengthy personal statement, says she struggled with. There was a reorganization within company in 2020, however, that apparently prompted a “freeze” in data-sharing, in advance of a re-evaluation due in 2022. But CTL severing its relationship with Loris once and for all only happened this week, once the Politico report and subsequent uproar prompted FCC commissioner Brandon Carr to request its cessation.
The “Torment Nexus” postulate of tech ethics states that if someone conceives a fictional technology, people will go to great lengths to make it real, in blatant disregard of the real-world consequences of said technology. Well, Crisis Text Line is a parallel, or perhaps a corollary, to the Torment Nexus theory. It shows how if doing something would be not only profitable, but easy with the tools at hand, it will be done and at great scale, accompanied by intelligent and well-meaning people pretzel-twisting their own morality to arrive at convincing justifications for it.
A Week Of Super Fungibility
Last week, Digital Void, an internet literacy group I work with, released our first big project, the Super Fungible Token. It’s an NFT that allows anyone to change the picture associated with it. We launched it as a fun educational tool to help people understand that, contrary to what NFT evangelists say, when you spend $100,000 worth of Ethereum on a monkey JPG, you’re not actually buying that monkey JPG, only a spot on an online database that says you bought the monkey JPG. Imagine if you went to CVS, bought a bunch of stuff, and then proudly only went home with the receipt and an assurance from the cashier you bought something.
The first week of the SFT has been super interesting to observe. It’s currently been “funged” almost 3,000 times. Though, right now, it’s currently being targeted by a bot that someone built that will immediately change any submission to a picture of "Weird Al" Yankovic. It was previously targeted by a similar bot that spammed it with the troll face rage comic.
My fellow Digital Void collaborator, Jamie Cohen, who I’m actually teaching a remote class with later this month (sign up here!), wrote a great reflection about the Super Fungible Token’s first week over on Medium. The most interesting thing for me was how many NFT guys begged us to make a version they could actually buy, which really just proves that most of the NFT world is populated by sociopaths and pay pigs that can’t imagine a form of non-monetized online expression or creativity.
The Steak Umm Twitter Has A New Owner
Ad Age reports that the super viral and not-particularly Steak-umm-focused Steak-umm Twitter account is under new ownership. All of the account’s creative will be handled by an agency called Tombras. According to their website, Tombras won a Clio advertising award for building an Alexa skill that let you talk to the snack food MoonPies so you’d be less lonely during COVID. God, the world of branded content is so weird.
I’ll admit I’ve been curious what’s next for brand accounts. The entire idea of finding an obscure brand cool for tweeting out-of-character content feels very tied to the Trump era in a strange way. There was, perhaps, this sense among young Americans that their country was unraveling and I think there was a real desire for reassurance and guidance from institutions, which, I guess included microwaveable meat brands. But, now that we’re solidly in the post-future, so to speak, I don’t see people having that same kind of emotional connection with non-human entities. lol sorry if that all sounds kind of high-minded, but I think it’s true!
Welcome To The Age Of NFT Accelerationism
On Wednesday, I wrote about the scummy NFT music marketplace Hitpiece. I speculated that it may not have been as dumb of an idea as it seemed — not the central idea of Hitpiece, which I think is dumb, but the attempt, in general. The team behind Hitpiece included some people with genuine music industry experience who would have absolutely known what kind of shitstorm they were about to kick up by pulling over Spotify’s artist library to populate their shady NFT platform. Instead, I think the entire stunt was meant to spook record labels to into seriously thinking about minting NFTs as a way to prevent this exact kind of thing down the line.
This is an idea I’m going to call “NFT accelerationism,” or the belief that mainstream industries can be pressured or provoked into adopting NFTs as a way to protect their assets from being ripped off by, uh, the NFT market. It’s not dissimilar from the “buy a gun to protect yourself from guns” argument.
Well, here’s some more proof that a lot of the NFT hype you’re being bombarded with might be a lot more smoke than you think: It seems as though Justin Bieber was paid to claim he bought a Bored Ape NFT.
Here’s another good thread on how this all worked. If you don’t totally understand what this tweet means, let me walk you through it.
Last week, an OpenSea account named “JustinBieberNFTS,” which is purportedly owned by Justin Bieber, was completely dormant. Then, four hours before that wallet was used to buy a Bored Ape NFT, a wallet owned by Gianpiero D’Alessandro, the designer for Drew House, an apparel brand he co-founded with Bieber, sent it 916 ETH, or $2.3 million USD. The 916 ETH that D’Alessandro sent Bieber’s wallet came from the 1343 ETH, or $3.9 million USD, that D’Alessandro raised after launching an NFT line that he released in early January. Half of the 916 ETH that D’Alessandro sent Bieber’s wallet was then used to buy a Bored Ape NFT (for way more money than it was worth, actually). Bieber’s wallet then purchased NFTs from D’Alessandro’s collection. Then D’Alessandro used the whole thing to promote his NFTs. And there’s still around $880,000 worth of Ethereum sitting in Bieber’s wallet.
Put another way: Justin Bieber’s business partner launched an NFT line and then used the money from the initial sale to pay Justin Bieber to buy an expensive Bored Ape NFT as a way to further promote his NFT line. In fact, though Bieber shared the Bored Ape on his Instagram, his Twitter profile pic is actually one of D’Alessandro’s NFTs.
God, this is all so stupid.
Keyboard Girl Is Super Into Catfishes Now
I first wrote about TikTok user @myramagdalen back in December. She had gained some notoriety on the app because her bathroom is full of keyboards. At the time, I wrote, “no idea where this is headed, but I’m excited to find out!” Well, it turns out where it was headed was getting super into catfish-themed apparel and accessories. Great! I wish her well on her journey.
New Garbage Day YouTube Video Alert!
I collected some of my reporting on TikTok and put it in a video. Check it out!
P.S. here’s a tremendous meditation on February.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***