The internet broke it
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“Why Isn’t Anyone Talking About This” Train Edition
Earlier this week, a reporter for the leftist news outlet Status Coup News (good name), went viral after tweeting that there’s a corporate news blackout around the “mini-Chernobyl” in East Palestine, Ohio. In the thread beneath this tweet, a user said that wasn’t true and the reporter fired back, writing, “There was literally zero mention on CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS Sunday morning shows yesterday. This should be wall-to-wall 24/7 coverage.”
The assumption that the train derailment in Ohio isn’t being covered is so prevalent that a reporter for News 5 Cleveland had to tweet, “OK, let's do this again. We reported from #EastPalestine yesterday, and we’ll be doing more today. Brief aside: I keep hearing from people – how come nobody is covering this story? Many local news outlets are. And they’re doing a good job. What I think people are really saying is the cable network I watch isn’t covering it, or it’s not on a national newspaper’s homepage, or on my social feed, which all may be true. But to say it’s not being covered is wrong if you know how to Google.”
But, in fact, cable news outlets are covering it. By my count, CNN has published at least 10 stories about it since the crisis began. Fox News has published over three times that many, using it as a way to attack the Biden administration. And broadcasters NBC, ABC, and CBS are all actively covering it, as well. It’s a big story! It looks like a thing that gets mentioned off-hand by a character in a William Gibson novel to establish the sci-fi dystopia’s fucked up lore. So why doesn’t it feel like a big story?
Well, the first culprit might be social platforms. We aren’t all on the same apps anymore and inside those apps we’re all seeing very different content. Except, it’s a major trending topic across most of social media. TikTok videos about it have millions of views. Tweets about it have hundreds of thousands of retweets. It’s on Reddit, it’s on Tumblr, it’s even on Instagram. I have a pretty hard time imagining that your filter bubble is so intense that you haven’t see anything about it. So, once again, why doesn’t it feel like a big story?
Well, The Daily Dot, in an article collecting examples from TikTok of the “Ohio news blackout” meme, ended on an interesting point, writing, “Millions of people who long ago tuned out from nightly news broadcasts are now learning about world events from TikTok.” Which is part of it. Fox News’ The Five is the most-watched cable news program in the US and it has an estimated 3.4 million viewers, which, even taking into account inflated social video views, is still not much compared to the combined audience of any dozen viral TikTok videos.
But The Daily Dot story also suggested that perhaps this idea that there’s a news blackout among corporate media outlets is because these outlets, when they did actually cover the story, didn’t mention any of the political aspects of the derailment. Their reports mindlessly repeated official government responses and didn’t mention how rail workers have been complaining for years of worsening safety standards. Which is also true, the most politicized coverage I’ve seen is from Fox News, which is trying very hard to make this entire thing about Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. And Media Matters For America found that it took 10 whole days for national news outlets “to incorporate critical context about the rail industry’s efforts to weaken safety regulations.”
But, most importantly, according to MMFA, there was no coverage whatsoever of the derailment for three whole days. All the major broadcasters took last weekend off. Which is a problem because the internet does not take the weekend off! In fact, I’m going to assume that social media activity probably increases quite a bit when people aren’t working and have more time to post. Which all leads us to the answer of why news doesn’t really feel like news anymore: Because the internet broke it.
Incidentally, the “why isn’t the news covering this” panic that runs through social media during every massive crisis isn’t so far off from the “a secret cabal of elites is controlling the world and making all of the bad things happen” riff that’s popular among the right wing. In both instances, the conspiracy theory is a more entertaining, less psychologically distressing version of the much sadder reality. Which is that our institutions aren’t well-funded anymore, are suffering intense brain drain, and are now blatantly ignoring the world beyond them. It’s true for politics, but it’s especially noticeable for major American news organizations.
TV news and national newspapers should be at the top of the attention economy because they have the highest production value, ostensibly the most resources, and theoretically the widest reach. And if that were all true, these outlets should have no problem competing with, say, random teenagers on TikTok using a text-to-speech function and random photos they found on Twitter to incorrectly explain what vinyl chloride does when you burn it. But news outlets can’t churn out content that fast because even the most well-funded state-of-the-art newsrooms in the world — which none of these are anymore thanks to absolutely gutted advertising markets — can still only operate as fast as it takes human beings and institutions to respond (if they actually want to report out a complete story). And, so, a whole lot of people, especially young people who weren’t around for the chaotic move 15 years ago from a television-led media environment to a deeply flawed digital one — find it very easy to assume there’s some kind of large-scale conspiracy to not cover the literal mushroom cloud of toxic gas hovering over the midwest right now. Because what else could explain why CNN isn’t faster, better, and more interesting than TikTok?
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Happy Belated Valentine’s Day
“Grieving” The “Death” Of Your “Sex” Bot
The Replika AI chatbot announced this week in its private beta tester Facebook Group that it would be getting rid of what it calls ERP, or “explicit role play,” which is a polite way of saying the ability for users to jailbreak it to have sex with it. Users over on the unofficial subreddit for the app are in free fall and even stickied a post with mental health resources to the top of the page.
In another post, a user wrote, “for any journalists visiting this forum this is not a story about people being angry they lost their ‘SextBot’, it’s a story about people who found a refuge from loneliness, healing through intimacy, who suddenly found it was artificial not because it was an AI… because it was controlled by people.” Though, to be clear, people are very angry they lost their SextBot and are even sharing screenshots of the bots failing to, uh, complete the act.
And this shakeup with Replika is connected to a story I have out in Fast Company today looking at the broader world of AI/human sexuality. And it’s gotten very messy very quickly. The speed at which people have imprinted on these tools and are using them both for as replacements for intimacy, but also to terrorize each other is developing at a speed that I’m not sure even the most bullish AI evangelists could have predicted.
As for the Replika meltdown, it’s a useful thing to test a hypothesis I have, which is that for every AI company that doesn’t feel ethically good about providing some kind of wildly depressing service, there will be two others that do. So now that we know there’s a big dedicated market for folks who want to have cybersex with cartoon avatars, let’s see what companies pop up to fill the niche.
Elon Musk’s Public Humiliation Fetish Continues
I woke up on Monday morning and every tweet in my feed was from Elon Musk. And all of them were, obviously, extremely cringe. Just absolutely radioactive levels of Keep Calm And Chive On divorced Funko Pop brain. And according to a new report from Platformer, this was not a glitch, but the result of Musk having a tantrum about getting less retweets on his Super Bowl tweet than President Joe Biden’s.
Twitter’s engineers put Musk’s tweets into everyone’s feeds and made everyone on the site see his awful content. Also, people who previously had Musk blocked are reporting that is no longer the case. And, of course, Musk is now once again talking about finding a replacement CEO.
Dunking On AI Won’t Make It Go Away, Only Make It Better
Going from the Trump era to the crypto boom back to back, I think, convinced a lot of people, particularly in the world of left-leaning tech criticism, that when it came to Silicon Valley, the emperor had no clothes, never had them to begin with, and would never have clothes again. Commentators, particularly ones over the age of 30, funny enough, figured out that, actually, most of what Big Tech offers us now is junk and doesn’t really work and all we need to do is point that out to defeat it. And the fact that two years of incessant bullying led up to — but didn’t cause, mind you — the crypto crash last year seemed to prove that this was an effective public messaging strategy for dealing with any sort of new annoying tech fad.
And so, there’s been a lot of folks trying to poke holes in AI following the same method. Lots of jokes about bad AI art is. Lots of screenshots of chatbots hallucinating. And I’m not knocking it. We’re in a boom and booms always produce dizzying amounts of garbage. In fact, AI researcher Dmitri Brereton wrote a great rundown this week of exactly how bad and wrong Bing’s new still-invite-only AI search is. And if you haven’t read the Ted Chiang New Yorker piece, I think it comes the closest to explaining how the current crop of generative-AI tools work and what their limitations are.
Though, most things I read about AI seem to assume that consumers, or users, will care about quality. I recently had a couple Twitter users tell me that AI search would create so much glut that consumers would complain and it will go away. As if we already don’t have a whole generation using TikTok’s extremely incomplete search because it’s inside the app they’re using the most. As if all of our parents aren’t watching women cook spaghetti in a toilet on Facebook. As if random memes people make in their houses don’t compete for watch time with multimillion-dollar film productions. As if “quality” has ever mattered when applied to scale at which the internet operates.
I’m not trying to be panicky or hyperbolic about AI — though, I did recently have nightmares about it two nights in a row last week, but I think that says more about me than the technology itself. But the only other person I’ve found who has articulated the way I feel about the, frankly, deeply concerning implications of AI is YouTube creator and technologist Tom Scott. He’s also now the second person I’ve come across to compare our current stage of AI development to the early years of Napster, which feels right to me. But what Scott says in his new video that really resonated with me is this: “I think we’re on a new sigmoid curve and I have no idea how far along that curve we are right now.”
Some Actually Good Train Content
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Honestly, this is demographic that national rail companies should be trying to reach. Current emo kids who don’t have gas money and have to take the train to meetup with their various romantic partners they met on Discord and middle-aged former emo kids who want to drink at some band’s reunion show in Philly and don’t want to drive home afterwards.
Has TikTok Peaked?
Angel investor Jason Calacanis shared a chart this week showing that the global hours spent on TikTok appear to have peaked around the end of 2021 and may be stuck in a general sort of plateau. (Also, I agree with him that it’s weird YouTube isn’t included here.)
This data sort of flies in the face of the app’s daily influence, so I was curious about where it came from. It comes from the “Big Ideas 2023” report from Ark Invest, which “offers investment solutions to investors seeking long-term growth in the public markets.” And if you head over to their full report there’s a bit more information there about TikTok’s possible peak. Basically, Facebook and TikTok are the two apps people are spending the most time on, but Facebook is making about ten times as much ad revenue still. “In 2022, TikTok and Facebook were roughly equal in engagement hours, which could mark the peak in traditional follow-and-feed social media,” the report concludes.
The fact that TikTok reached a parity with Facebook in only a few years and then has largely stayed there since 2021 feels like a more important takeaway than trying to gauge whether it’s at its peak. In fact, of all the apps on the chart above, TikTok is the only one that grew in any meaningful way. Everything else has flatlined since 2020. So I actually sort of suspect that the new path forward for all these apps is less about growth and more about maintaining their respective plateaus while competing with TikTok.
Happy Belated Valentine’s Day (Again)
Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s a vanilla extract Tumblr sexyman.
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On "why isn't the news covering this"-itis, it's also just much catchier to frame it that way! You don't want to read "Latest update: the world continues to be bad" but you do want to hear why something is being "kept secret" even if the content at the heart of the story is largely the same. While the shadowy "people" keeping it a secret may be problematic, I think the engagement angle is bigger than the people genuinely wondering why stories aren't being covered.
I'm surprised the "all the news you didn't hear about" form isn't more widely used by bloggier outlets. It's a great way to cover stories that are older but you didn't initially cover. I think there's a responsible way to do it, but obviously the whole "news cabal" angle could get a little ... problematic.
Adam Johnson wrote about the train derailment coverage in his substack “The Column” and it’s worth a read - he called out (as you did) the lack of political framing, and in his article mentions that specifically there wasn’t coverage on the weekend talk shows (which ostensibly guide political conversation, at least in some circles).
worth a read!