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The truth behind Finland's "catgirl" prime minster

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Finland’s “Catgirl” Prime Minister

News broke earlier this week that Finland’s millennial prime minister, Sanna Marin, went out clubbing until 4 A.M. without her phone and thus did not know that she was required to quarantine after coming into contact with someone who had tested positive with COVID-19. Incredible stuff, really.

As the story about Marin’s partying was circulating, a tweet with additional information about Marin started to get a lot of attention, as well. According to Twitter user @Synthimer, Marin “likes to edit pics of herself as a cat and post them on “Ylilauta (Finnish 4chan).” 2021, baby. The twists just don’t stop coming!

I was very interested in this for a few reasons. One, I am infinitely fascinated and horrified by unapologetic millennialism in public office, like El Salvador’s hustle bro crypto president Nayib Bukele or Lai Pin-yu, the Taiwanese legislator who campaigned while cosplaying as Asuka Langley Soryu from the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. Two, over the years I’ve been compiling an international list of 4chan-like message boards. I think they’re crucial to understanding global internet culture and I had never heard of Ylilauta. So I was curious about it.

Here’s the thing, though. If Ylilauta was Finland’s version of 4chan, how would users know that Marin was posting photos of herself as a catgirl? 4chan is anonymous. Certain users may be identifiable on it, but, for the most part, there is no way to know who is using it. Wouldn’t Ylilauta be equally hard to verify?

The answer is yes! In fact, on the front page of the site is a message that reads, “Ylilauta is a privacy-oriented anonymous discussion board where you are free to discuss almost anything. Sending messages requires neither registration nor a username.”

And, sure enough, if you go into any threads, you’ll see the same strings of randomized numbers that you would see on a 4chan thread. Ylilauta is actually incredibly similar to 4chan, although, it runs a lot better tbh.

I can’t speak Finnish, admittedly. But I searched the site for any instances of Marin’s name plus the Finnish word for “cat,” which is “kissa,” just to see what it would surface. I was able to find catgirl edits of Marin, but no evidence that Marin herself was sharing them to the website. Though, I can confirm that Ylilauta users both violently hate Marin and are pathologically horny for her.

After some poking around on Twitter and also machine translating the description of a Finnish study on the political impact of internet culture, I think I know what happened here. It seems like right-wing Finnish internet trolls have been able to convince a bunch of English-speakers that Marin is a catgirl, which is a long-time meme within their community. This is not dissimilar from 8chan users trying to get Trump to reference QAnon.

In fact, Ylilauta users edit photos of Marin a lot. There’s a whole series of photoshops of her wearing Hot Topic zipper pants at political forums and, of course, they put her head on a lot of porn.

So, in conclusion, no one on Twitter over the last five years has learned literally anything about how right-wing memes work and, also, if anyone ever says that someone is posting photos on a 4chan-like website, your first question should be: well, how do you know they’re posting them there if the site is anonymous?

TikTok Self-Censorship

TikTok’s history with censorship is long and controversial. Just last month, text-to-speech voices rolled out as part of a Disney+ promotion. Except these voices launched with the inability to say words like “lesbian” or “gay.” While this was quickly corrected, it is symptomatic of what has been described as TikTok’s endless cycle of censor-backtrack-apologize. Because what anyone sees on the platform is driven by its black-box algorithm, creators who want to discuss topics that TikTok has deemed sensitive or inappropriate can’t rely on their content always reaching their followers. They have to make sure it meets app-wide standards, or else risk it not being seen at all. 

In a now-deleted tweet, a friend recently remarked on how she was seeing TikTok users say “shreks work” as a replacement phrase for “sex work” that wouldn’t get the video censored. In this context, “censored” means not necessarily deletion, but the punitive kind of shadow-banning that will ensure the video doesn’t get uplifted by the algorithm into the For You pages of other users. 

When I replied expressing interest in this phenomenon, I was linked by internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch to an article she’d written in 2018  about “Voldemorting,” a term coined by scholar Emily van der Nagel to describe the resistant practice of censoring out or coining new names or phrases on social media to avoid algorithmic discovery. (Awkward to note that since 2018, JK Rowling has become her very own Voldemort, with people frequently censoring her name on Twitter in order to safely express their disapproval of her horrible politics.)

The article, which highlighted the game-like nature of these practices, made me realize that the creative self-censorship of TikTok lingo is a direct inverse. A sort of living cyber-jargon that’s informed not by the desire to avoid being seen, but to make sure that you are seen, by avoiding the rapacious claw of the constantly-changing enforcement tactics of the platform.

The app’s community guidelines state that they “support members of our community sharing their personal experiences with these issues in a safe way to raise awareness and find community support.” However, members of the mental health support community on the app have found it necessary to create a new vocabulary to avoid being censored. For example: “unalive myself” and “kermit the frog” mean to commit suicide; “unalive grippy socks vacation” refers to being institutionalized or 5150’d; “barcoding my arms” means committing self-harm. “Seggs” and “seggsual” to replace sex/sexual are in regular use, as well. 

Censorship can be effected on the basis of not just the words typed out as text in the video or the caption, but what is spoken out loud or visually depicted. This leads to spoken replacement slang like “grape” in place of “rape” when discussing sexual assault, or just “SA.” An “accountant” is a sex worker, and “corn” or “🌽” is porn. When smoking weed and exhaling, one might put a disclaimer: “it’s cold ;)” — because even if it’s legal where you live, TikTok prohibits videos that depict drug use. 

Of course, these evasive interventions can certainly also be put to uses that do, in fact, actively promote self harm or glorify mental illness, but the friends I spoke to expressed frustration that they are reduced to silly replacement words in order to speak honestly about their experiences and help others, while racist or transphobic content gets off scot-free on the platform. This aligns with what van der Nagel describes in her original paper (which is worth a read). The ways in which users don’t allow their inability to understand the opaque algorithms that run their platform stop them from developing strategies designed to directly intervene in what those algorithms do. 

Like any jargon or patois, TikTok replacement slang at first use indicates membership in a specific in-group — in this case, a community that for whatever reason faces the threat of censorship. But due to the blurred boundaries between communities on TikTok, the vocab often makes its way outside their original intended audience, and from there to the internet at large, including platforms where it’s unnecessary to self-censor: I’ve seen “unalive myself” used frequently on Twitter without realizing where it came from. As a motivator for linguistic creativity amongst its users, TikTok’s capricious algorithm is a powerful influence. 

The Dark And Uncertain Future Of Fan Fiction

The central conflict of the internet right now is about commerce versus creation. There are many factions within this fight, but there are two main arguments.

One side you have decentralized groups of users and fandoms that basically just want to be left alone by both aggressive capitalists and large corporations. They want free and open digital spaces to share their work and the ability to create grassroots communities tied to a real sense of ownership. Many of these groups have been on the internet for a very long time and are rightfully distrustful of any shiny new thing that is dangled in front of them.

On the other side you have massive internet platforms and Web3 evangelists. Though these groups don’t exactly see eye-to-eye, they have both identified monetizing user generated content as the path towards power and influence online. As of August, the only mainstream social platform that wasn’t offering some kind of tip jar or paid subscription services for users was Pinterest. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, and even LinkedIn all currently provide some way for users to turn their posting into some kind of business. Meanwhile, you have Web3 proponents, who claim to support decentralized economic models, but actually just want people to use their economic models. Instead of using Stripe or Paypal integrations, they want users to buy and sell their content via their own speculative cryptocurrencies or tokens.

One of the immediate effects of this conflict has been a wave of user strikes. In July, black TikTokers went on strike, protesting white creators appropriating (and monetizing) their dances. In August, Twitch streamers in Brazil went on strike, furious over the minuscule rates the platform was paying them compared to American streamers. In September, Tumblr users went on strike to show their disdain for the platform adding payment tools for users. And that same month, American Twitch streamers went on strike to raise awareness of the platform’s inaction on moderating abuse.

Everywhere you look, users are hashing out what exactly the line is between poster and worker and it’s all extremely messy. Does giving users the ability to make their own money level the cultural playing field and allow creators that would have never been popular to become bonafide stars? Or does it turn all of us into Uber drivers? Slowly, but surely, this fight will arrive at your personal corner of the internet.

In fact, on Wednesday, fan fiction platform Wattpad announced that it was partnering with ViacomCBS to adapt fan fiction and other user content into original programming. If you’re not familiar with Wattpad, who is owned by South Korean technology behemoth Naver, it began to distinguish itself from other fan fiction platforms about five years ago, when it became super aggressive about “helping” authors monetize their work. Its homepage currently advertises partnerships with Hulu and Penguin Random House UK. And Wattpad’s model seems to work. For instance, it’s where Netflix franchise The Kissing Booth was first published.

The reactions to the ViacomCBS announcement weren’t great. Authors are posting warnings for young users who might get approached about adapting their work and I’ve seen more than a few tweets from users complaining that this is just a cheap way to mine content from Wattpad instead of actually hiring real script writers.

It’s hard not to feel a little claustrophobic envisioning an internet of leaderboards descending infinitely into the sky. You write your fanfic on Wattpad. Fans of whatever intellectual property find it. They start to share it within that fandom. If the fandom is big enough, it will start to trend on other sites like TikTok, Twitter, and Tumblr. If the traffic is big enough on those sites, it’ll trickle back to your story, which will climb Wattpad’s leaderboard. If it gets enough views, Wattpad will then “help” you sell it to a company like ViacomCBS. If CBS owns the intellectual property you wrote about, maybe they’ll keep your story intact. Wattpad could be become the official home of Star Trek fanfic! If they don’t own it, they’ll strip it all out a la 50 Shades Of Grey. Then, they’ll most likely stick it on a streamer of some kind like Paramount Plus or maybe Hulu, where it’ll have to climb more leaderboards and be analyzed via more dubious metrics before we decide if it’s a hit or not.

A version of this process recently happened to a fan fiction writer on a very different fanfic platform. Yesterday, I emailed paying Garbage Day subscribers an interview with MsKingBean89, the author of what is now the most read fanfic on Archive Of Our Own. AO3, as it’s referred to by its users, is a very different model from Wattpad. It’s run by a non-profit called the Organization for Transformative Works and operates more like a library or a wiki. It is not a place you go to publish the next Netflix franchise.

That said, MsKingBean89, who requested to keep her anonymity, watched over the last year as her Harry Potter fanfic, “All The Young Dudes,” went massively viral on TikTok. She ultimately decided to not come forward publicly, nor has she thought about ways to strip the Harry Potter elements out her story to try and adapt it into something she can cash in on.

“I think it's important that I have something in my life that I'm not trying to sell, and that I'm not able to make money off of in that way,” she told me. “I can make money other ways. I have a job. And I don’t think I would make much more from writing a novel, you know? You hear that they make like $40,000 on average for a book. Okay, well, I could make more than that doing various other things.”

I want creators to get paid, of course. I am a creator and I want to be insanely rich from internet content. But also it’s worth considering what we lose by building some kind fanwork→IP generation industrial complex. Or as MsKingBean89 described it:

“You want your story to be more important than fan fiction to somebody and thinking that way is doing a disservice to fan fiction because some of the most important stories to me are fan fiction and I think to other people, as well.”

A Good Tweet

An Insurrectionist Is Looking Forward To Detoxing In Jail

Convicted insurrectionist Jennifer Leigh Ryan, a real estate broker from Frisco, Texas, is going to federal prison for 60 days, even though she claimed initially that she wouldn’t because she’s a white woman with blonde hair. Ryan was the insurrectionist that took a private jet to the Capitol btw.

Ryan is now using her TikTok account to document the lead up to her incarceration. She’s very excited about how much weight she’ll lose behind bars. She posted an absolutely deranged video (Twitter mirror here), in which she fantasizes about the prison possibly having protein shakes.

But here’s the real kick in the pants about Ryan’s whole deal. In a TikTok video she posted yesterday, she explained that she currently can’t do any media appearances because she’s signed an exclusive with NBC ahead of a Today Show hit she’s doing next week.

I hope the history books written about this moment in American history — that Americans in our post-2024 coup society won’t be allowed to read, obviously — will mention that the people who stormed the Capitol were bragging about their talk show interviews on TikTok while they killed time before their slap-on-the-wrist prison sentences.

Avenged Sevenfold Is Really Into NFTs Now

Morning Brew has an absolutely wild interview with the mall-metal band Avenged Sevenfold about how they’re super into NFTs right now.

“It’s an exciting space,” Synyster Gates, the band’s lead guitarist says in the video with a straight face. “Transparency and the blockchain provide a new way of doing things.”

I had actually completely missed this, but apparently the band’s singer, M. Shadows was a crypto early adopter, had a bunch of Ethereum, and jumped on to the NFT bandwagon pretty early. This is all very weird, but I do think that, unfortunately, this is a step in the right direction for this technology. We need musicians and artists like Avenged Sevenfold, who have an almost superhuman inability to not feel embarrassed, to start messing around with this stuff, if only so we can get an idea of what NFTs could actual accomplish besides monkey JPGs that let you launder money.

Two more quick crypto things: First, Budweiser is making NFTs now. And, to go back to the “central conflict of the internet” that I outlined above in the item about Wattpad, Kickstarter announced it’s building a blockchain-based crowdfunding platform, which it will then move its entire operation over to once it’s stable. This is wild if only because I’m curious what blockchain Kickstarter’s terms of service will be as opposed to the one that has to rely on traditional banking institutions. For instance, will crypto Kickstarter allow sex work?

The Guy Who Got Omicron At An Anime Convention Went On CNN

This is Peter McGinn. He is the first omicron patient identified in the US. He contracted the variant at the Anime NYC convention. He did a Skype interview with CNN this week. And, in the interview, behind him, was a bookshelf of Yu Yu Hakusho Funko Pops. This is extraordinarily funny. Check out the notes on this Tumblr post for more cogent analysis about this.

Some Stray Links

P.S. here’s a really good video.

***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***

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