The most info-poisoned parts of the internet
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Are Conspiracy Theories Just A Natural Product Of Too Much Attention?
Chances are you have already seen some version of the video that upended the internet this week. The one I saw was from an account called @Mac70J and it had 10,000 retweets. The video appeared to show Harry Styles spitting on Chris Pine at the Venice Film Festival. I’ve since seen other versions — different angles, different speeds, detailed forensic breakdowns — that seem to prove that Styles did not, in fact, spit on Pine. To understand why this would be even thinkable, though, you first have to understand months of lore. Here’s as concise a summary as I can give you:
Olivia Wilde directed a movie called Don’t Worry Darling, which stars Harry Styles, who she is (or maybe was) dating. Styles was brought in to replace Shia LaBeouf, who Wilde initially said she fired to protect the safety of the film’s other actors. During the filming of the movie, Wilde ended up leaving Jason Sudeikis for Styles. Then rumors began circulating that another one of the film’s actors, Florence Pugh, was no longer speaking to Wilde. Then, as the promotional cycle for the film began to really ramp up, it felt like, every day, there was some new weird thing coming from Wilde and Styles that was making headlines.
Things really kicked into high-gear, however, when Sudeikis’s lawyers served Wilde custody papers on stage at CinemaCon (he has since said he didn’t know that’s what they were going to do.) And, even more bizarre, last month, LaBeouf came forward, saying he wasn’t fired and that, actually, he quit because he felt Wilde wasn’t giving actors enough time to prepare. He then shared videos that seem to show Wilde begging LaBeouf to stay on the film.
Now, this week, the film’s cast and director are in Venice for the debut and, even before the spit video, things seemed tense. Pugh didn’t show up for the press conference and, instead, did a heavily-memed photoshoot around the city. Chris Pine did do the press conference and looked wildly uncomfortable the whole time. Wilde and Styles don’t seem to be talking. And the punchline to everything: Critics are saying the film is kinda meh.
Guy, I swear I tried to fit all of that into one paragraph, but it’s 2022 and every cultural or political event now requires at least three paragraphs of backstory to have even a surface-level understanding what’s going on. If you’re still kind of foggy on what’s happening here, read this tweet.
It’s hard to overstate how much of a perfect storm this movie has been for the most info-poisoned parts of the internet. First, there’s the Harry Styles dimension to this. As Garbage Day’s Allegra Rosenberg wrote in an essay about the “cognitohazard of Harry Styles’ painted nails” last month, he’s been central to a bunch of elaborate online conspiracy theories for almost two decades now, ever since his One Direction days. Then, there’s Olivia Wilde, an outspoken, if sometimes clumsy, feminist who, during press events, took every opportunity to present Don’t Worry Darling as some kind of epic takedown of the patriarchy, telling Variety men don’t orgasm in movie, only women, and revealing in Interview Magazine that Chris Pine’s character is based on Jordan Peterson. Then, as noted by VICE’s Gita Jackson, Wilde caught the attention of QAnon followers, who are now accusing Wilde of being a pedophile for dating the 10-years-younger Styles, who is an adult man, it should be pointed out. Also, Florence Pugh has a bizarrely massive stan army and the minute it caught wind of the alleged feud between Pugh and Wilde, it began an aggressive info war against Wilde.
It’s a mess! And it’s also a deeply revealing look at how Hollywood, as an industry, now seems to understand that there are powerful fandoms, stan armies, and other online communities out there that can generate buzz around their films (for free), but does not seem to understand what happens if and when you catch those groups’ attention. You have Netflix making shows with dialogue that seems to be written entirely for Twitter screencaps. You have meltdowns over “wokeness” in the scifi and fantasy properties that monopolies like Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery, and Amazon are using to goose up their streaming subs. Hell, you could even argue this one of the driving forces behind the Funny Girl Broadway drama.
It’s something that Johnny Depp’s legal team weaponized earlier this year when it activated a stan army across TikTok and Instagram (many users of which are now attacking Wilde, interestingly enough). You can even watch this video from Don’t Worry Darling co-star Nick Kroll as a sort of reverse of those videos of Depp arriving to the courthouse. And, honestly, it even kind of explains why right-wing publishers like Breitbart are doing extremely grim film premieres for their weird erotic (I assume) fan film about Hunter Biden.
I have a couple theories as to why this sort of thing feels more prevalent right now. It could be a side effect of using poorly-moderated centralized social platforms — we join fandoms and communities to protect ourselves from content we don’t want to see. But the reverse could also be true, where users are aligning themselves with chaotic and confusing online communities to breach the filter bubbles apps like TikTok and Instagram are putting us in. Or it could also be just a natural result of the Gamergate microgeneration coming of age, where, regardless of where they find themselves in the culture war, they innately understand that everything is content and every piece of content is a weapon in that war.
Anyways, this kind of thing will keep happening. And it’ll get weirder and messier. And it’ll make actors and directors more and more uncomfortable. And, if the world of literature, particularly young adult fiction, which already sort of went through this about a decade ago, is any indication, there’ll eventually be certain directors, certain actors, certain studios, and certain genres of film that are made just completely toxic by obsessive online fandoms. These communities will have their own influencers and long cultural memories and will wait for any new release from their particular hyperfixation to use as ammo for or against some other community they hate for completely inscrutable reasons. In fact, I bet you could name of few that already feel that way!
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Tech Companies Love To Say They’re Utilities When They Don’t Want To Make Hard Decisions
Techdirt’s Mike Masnick wrote a good, long piece on Cloudflare’s decision over the weekend to block Kiwi Farms. And I think Masnick is right that the conversations about what to do about a message board like Kiwi Farms lacked nuance. I also think he’s written the best piece I’ve seen about this whole debacle. “When we’re talking about taking down entire sites because some content on them is objectionable, even to a horrifying level, things get really messy, really fast,” he writes.
But Masnick also highlights a passage from Cloudflare’s Matthew Prince where he compares his digital security and infrastructure company to the fire department, which I wanted to address real quick. “Some argue that we should terminate these services to content we find reprehensible so that others can launch attacks to knock it offline,” Prince writes. “That is the equivalent argument in the physical world that the fire department shouldn’t respond to fires in the homes of people who do not possess sufficient moral character.”
It’s an analogy that Masnick agrees with, writing, “When we’re in a place where the only way to deal with those seeking to harm others is to demand that the fire department stand aside so we can burn down their house, we’re in a very, very dark place.”
I agree we’re in a really dark place, and think that Kiwi Farms’ very existence says more about the complete and utter failure of governments around the world to understand how personal data can be weaponized online, but I also think treating Cloudflare as utility is, frankly, a cop out.
There’s this pattern we see time and time again where companies that have massive influence over the very architecture of the internet like to say, “we can’t intervene here because it would be an abuse of power,” and they think that sounds noble. But it’s not. All they’re doing is admitting they’re both too big to exist and also afraid to make any decisions that could result in them losing customers. Cloudflare isn’t the fire department. Fire departments don’t make money from fighting big fires and then cut the rest of us a deal and fight the small ones for free. If Cloudflare — or any other massive tech company— wants to be treated as a utility so badly, then they should man up and let Dark Brandon nationalize them.
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Who Are The Most “Powerful” “Creators”?
Forbes published the “Top Creators” of 2022 this week and it’s a fascinating look at, well, what a “creator” is in 2022. According to Forbes, Gen Z robber baron Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson is the richest “creator” in the world, with $54 million in earnings in 2021. The second richest “creator” falls pretty far down below that, with Charli D'Amelio pulling in $17.5 million. Though, interestingly enough, D'Amelio has about 40 million more total followers than Donaldson. Coming in third is Alexandra Cooper, the host of the Call Her Daddy podcast, who earned $20 million in 2021, and has an audience of around 3.6 million.
As you can tell, Forbes did not use any one metric for ranking the “creators”. Instead, they “evaluated each creator across three categories: earnings, clout and entrepreneurship.” You can read more about how they put the list together here.
I keep putting “creator” in quotes because, though this list is actually the closest any one place has come to really articulating what these people are, it’s still kind of unclear, aside from just popular now-rich people online. There are dancers, YouTubers, podcast hosts, makeup company CEOs, and pro gamers.
To be clear, I don’t have an answer either. But 15 years ago, the general assumption was that internet famous people would either evolve into traditional entertainers — release music, get their own TV shows, or be cast in movies — or they’d remain quirky little America’s Funniest Home Videos contestants. It turns out a third thing happened to many of them and now we just have this very robust other world of digital celebrities. I mean some of the folks on the Forbes have been at this for a very long time, like Mark “markiplier” Fischbach or the Rhett and Link guys. Which sort of makes me wonder if it’s possible that we might end up with a world in five to six years where the digital celebrities are the real ones, and the “organic” or “irl” celebrities are the “other” ones.
OK, now go scroll back up and read my top item about Don’t Worry Darling again…
A.I. Art Gets Its First Bit Of Creepypasta
Have you see the Loab thread? The TL;DR here is that a Twitter user named @Supercomposite claims that they’ve discovered a horrifying looking woman in an A.I. prompt. If you click through, @Supercomposite shows how different variations of the prompt keep surfacing this scary looking woman who also seems to warp every image the A.I. places her in. So what’s going on here?
Well, Joe Ondrak, from Logically.ai, which is a company that uses artificial intelligence to analyze and respond to misinformation, had a good thread on this.
“What does it mean that a computer mind created a woman that haunts and distorts every image she touches,” Ondrak tweeted. “What's interesting is that Loab throws the black box of A.I. into the mix. While it is known how these systems work, it isn't common knowledge. Real tale or not, Loab is another iteration of our fear of ghosts in the machine challenging our perceived sovereign subjectivity.”
The A.I.-Generated Death Metal Band Lives
Thank you to Elsie for flagging this up in the comments section. In my attempts to show what is and isn’t possible with music A.I.’s, I’ve been referencing this YouTube channel that livestreams an A.I. trying to make death metal. I thought the channel had gone down, but it’s just moved. So now, when you hear about an “A.I. rapper” or whatever, you can compare it to this, which is definitely still very much more machine than human.
Also, before we leave the world of A.I., Atlantic contributor Charlie Warzel interviewed Andy Baio and Simon Willison about their new project which looks at what images are being scraped and analyzed by art A.I.’s like DALL-E and Midjourney.
Tumblr Is Super Into “Gougars” Now
Alright, ready for some weird meme math? In 2020, a hiker from Utah named Kyle Burgess uploaded a video of himself running from a cougar. Then a screenshot of the video ended up in 4chan thread, where someone wrote, “OH FUGGG A GOUGAR XDDDDD”.
Then, in June of this year, Tumblr user enbyedgeworth shared a screenshot of the gougar 4chan post, tagging it, “#its 3:14am and im fucking crying #gougar makes me lose my shit”.
Well, things have really escalated from there. There is “gougar” content literally all over my dashboard right now. Users have also started to photoshop the cougars legs for some reason. They also have gone back to find the original video and are editing sound effects into it.
I don’t really have any high-level analysis here lol except I guess to say that sometimes it takes a few years for a random bit of internet content to really catch on with people?
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