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Viral content optimized to piss off old people

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The Facebook Text Prompt Zombie Land

A hugely viral Facebook post was shared on Twitter this week from a user named @wtb_Michael. I am infinitely fascinated by Facebook engagement bait and I’m especially interested in how large pages are using these text prompt image macros. So I thought I’d go find the post in the wild.

In the course of trying to find this post, however, I discovered there are a lot of similar posts like this going around the platform right now. Though, weirdly, if you search the text from this post, you also get just a bunch of porn? Further proof Facebook’s basic infrastructure is just completely rotten at this point, I guess.

I had never heard of the page that shared this one. It’s called Josh and Lisa and it has about 200,000 followers, which is actually fairly small. And most of the content the page is publishing has pretty low engagement. The double “ee” post though is massive. As of this morning it currently has four million comments and 43,000 shares. Hilariously, this is the top comment:

Mary… c’mon… read the post…

The Josh and Lisa page was created only two years ago. It has incredibly low reviews and a lot of comments are claiming that Josh and Lisa are not even real and instead are using these text prompt posts to mine users’ data for phishing purposes — which is a thing — but that’s not what’s happening here.

Josh and Lisa are real people. Josh is Josh Flom, who appears to be related to a magician and filmmaker named Justin Flom who regularly collaborates with Facebook content super producer Rick Lax. Flom and Lax used to produce a magic-themed competition show called Wizard Wars. Josh Flom and his wife have gone viral a lot actually. They were the couple behind the counter spaghetti last year. And Flom’s sister, Janelle, was the woman who did the Spaghetti-O pie.

I interviewed Lax and several of his collaborators and what they’re doing isn’t actively malicious, though many users do find it annoying. (Obligatory link to the Eater feature I wrote about this whole network of magician Facebook influencers.) Most of them are stage performers who can’t regularly work due to COVID-19. They started posting content for fun and to make some extra side money and it quickly began to dominate the platform. Lax is one of Facebook’s longest-running content creators and he's to Facebook as Casey Neistat is to YouTube, constantly tweaking and refining his content to both influence and react to Facebook’s recommendation engine. He and his collaborators create videos that are perfectly optimized to Facebook’s constantly changing and utterly bizarre algorithmic requirements. Two years ago, all of their videos were approximately 3:10 long, with a bizarre DIY-hack-like set-up introduced in the first 30 seconds, followed by 180 seconds of some surreal process, like filling a toilet bowl with ice cream, jamming hot dogs on to a power drill, or rubbing dish soap on raw chicken.

But that content doesn’t appear to be doing as well anymore. Facebook has long had a wildly antagonistic relationship with both the influencers and media companies that rely on it, constantly shifting the ground beneath their feet to stay ahead of the unfathomable amount of content spam that builds up around any meme or trend. This led to Lax and the gross food women to start making “comedy skits” on airplanes. One of these — featuring a woman breastfeeding a stuffed lynx published by a page called “The Gooch” — went super viral last month.

The Josh and Lisa page seems to be experimenting with text prompt posts as a way to stay ahead of whatever changes are happening inside of Facebook right now. The engagement on their more traditional weird DIY videos is super low, as I said. Especially for a page connected to Lax’s Facebook media empire. But the text prompts they’re doing, like the “ee” post above, seem to be doing really well for them. But it’s not just them. In November, my podcast host Luke and I investigated another page that was having similarly massive success with the same kind of content. The page, called Thinkarete Lifestyle, is essentially a dropshipping scam that is using text prompts to boost engagement in between blasts of affiliate links to a sketchy E-commerce site.

So, what does this all mean? Well, the fact that yet another massive Facebook thing was published by a page connected to Rick Lax is just kind of hard to wrap my head around. I swear I’m not trying to find these people, but literally every time I investigate who is behind a piece of Facebook content, it ends up being one of them. At this point, Lax and his friends are basically the only people making viral content on the platform anymore. But I guess my bigger takeaway from this is just that if you want to make content that does well within Facebook’s incomprehensibly aggressive and cynical engagement requirements this is what it looks like. There should be no illusions anymore about what Facebook is, as a platform. It’s just random bits of sensory information meant to make old people fight with each other. And if you’re a media company or an advertiser, this is the kind of content that is producing the abstract, but impressive-sounding engagement that Facebook dangles in front of you.

I mean, is Facebook’s attention economy really something you want to rely on if this is the kind of stuff that is routinely performing the best? Also, I saw one user write, “I’m not sure I agree with this” in the comments of the “ee” post, which was something I felt like I needed to highlight…

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The product trolls the perfume domain as a whole, as smell is the most adequate carnal adjacent to the digital domain.

The Trauma Plot Is Nothing New For Fanfic

I’ve been having a grand old time this week absorbing the press blast around Hanya Yanagihara and her new novel, To Paradise. After the surprise runaway success of her last novel, A Little Life, her publisher’s PR machine has put its entire [redacted] into the promo cycle for this book, which is why if you follow a lot of Book People (different from People Who Read Books, I assure you) on Twitter your timeline this week has probably been evenly divided between the dwindling Wordle frenzy and the rising tide of Hanya Discourse™. 

The early scathing takedown in Harper’s was entertaining because it’s always fun to experience someone being mean about a book you have no intention of reading. The profile in the New Yorker was also good, mainly because I enjoy, on a purely aesthetic level, reading about the cool things someone has in their house. 

Andrea Long Chu’s review-cum-psychoanalysis piece in Vulture, though, was the most personally interesting to me, especially paired with this response piece in Jezebel about the value of eccentricity. Chu dug into Yanagihara’s trademarks: the focus on gay men as main characters; her love of said characters and accompanying love of torturing them in a kind of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Chu’s framing immediately made me consider Yanagihara-as-fan — a fan of characters she herself created, clearly, but a fan all the same, approaching her work in that untrammeled, obsessive way that fans do. 

The thing is, there’s nothing particularly iconoclastic about the elements of Yanagihara’s approach that Chu focuses on — that is, if you are someone who has read a lot of fanfic. (This is not an original observation.)

The hurt/comfort genre is essentially the fount from which all slashfic springs. It’s clearly something that resonates with a wide variety of people; it combines eroticism and catharsis into an intoxicating slurry. And much like fanfic, as my friend Isaac Fellman intelligently noted, Yanagihara’s work inspires observers to concoct explanations for why exactly someone would write or read That Sort Of Stuff (derogatory). 

Yanagihara doesn’t seem to realize that she is part of this long and vibrant tradition. Now, I must emphasize, of course, it is genuinely not important that she realize this. But I just think it’s interesting to observe that the Id that she is so unapologetic about writing directly from is shared by untold thousands of adult women on the internet publishing noncommercial transformative works. Even the mention of people posting TikToks sobbing after finishing A Little Life reminded me of the identical phenomenon around MsKingBean89’s Harry Potter epic “All The Young Dudes.” 

Last year, someone in my corner of fan Twitter started a rumor that Yanagihara was secretly the writer of the legendary Destiel Vietnam War/AIDS AU slashfic “Twist and Shout”. Of course, that’s not true, but I read into people’s willingness to believe it as something a bit beyond your usual “fans on Twitter are gullible.” Because it’s not THAT far-fetched, really.

Currently, there are large numbers of published authors making waves after getting their start in fan fiction — for the most part in genre fiction. Whether there are former fic-writers entering the arena of mainstream litfic Yanagihara occupies is less clear. You’re more likely to have your fic bonafides known if you go directly to Tordotcom, do not pass go, do not collect $200, than if you reinvent yourself as a Mainstream Peddler Of The Trauma Plot.

Regardless, the success of AO3 as a training ground and Yanagihara’s proto-fan-ish approach makes me certain it’s only a matter of time before a feted Booker Prize-winning debut author casually reveals themselves as a former popular #Stucky writer. (Shoutout Chloe Zhao!)

Anyway, Yanagihara claims that she’s not friends with any other writers, but I am desperate to know what would happen if she and Naomi Novik hung out. Or if someone took pity and showed her, I don’t know, Starsky & Hutch — the classic show which inspired a lot of hurt/comfort fic — as a social experiment. I just think it would be an interesting experiment! 

How To Free Yourself From Google Lens

I use reverse image search a lot. So I was very frustrated when I woke up the other day and could no longer right-click on an image and search it on Google anymore. Instead, there was some new thing called “Google Lens,” which honestly sucks major ass and isn’t helpful at all and is also creepy.

Google Lens is an AI that Google has rolled out that can analyze visual content on the web. It’s extraordinarily not useful, but it appears to be part of a big E-commerce push that Google is doing right now.

Anyways, a very lovely reader named Carlos linked me to this great Petapixel article that can help you disable it if you’re having the same issues that I’ve been having.

A Very Serious Video About Sonic the Hedgehog

A Troubling Amazon Review From Canada

I saw a screenshot of this comment on Tumblr this week and, obviously, needed to know more about it. It was posted to an Amazon Canada listing for “Morinaga Hi-Chew 100+ Individually Wrapped Pieces” in 2020. (Hi-Chews are like a Japanese Starburst.) One thing I learned while searching for this comment (which you can read here) is that people who buy Hi-Chews on Amazon are VERY passionate about it. Weird!

The New Zealand Taxpayers' Union Vs. Furries

This was sent to me by my buddy Brad. The New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union, which is not a governmental agency, but a “pressure group” that critically goes after what New Zealand’s government spends public money on, got angry on Twitter this week over an article titled, “Who runs the internet? Furries”.

Before we go any further into this story, I just want to be very clear that this is an objectively true fact. The internet is run by furries.

Anyways, the article that trigger the NZTU was published on a site called The Spinoff and was funded by New Zealand’s Ministry for Culture and Heritage. lol that rules tbh.

NZTU’s tweet was then summarily ratio’d by furries because, you know, they run the internet. This seems to have angered the NZTU even more because they then tweeted about it again, writing, “This tweet has sparked a defensive response from a rabid pack of furries who don't appreciate criticism of their taxpayer-funded puff piece.” Which was then also ratio’d.

But it gets better. VICE spoke to the NZTU, who said, “The global furry underbelly might be able to throw its weight around on Twitter, but as we all know, normal people don’t use Twitter.” Which, is, honestly, something I agree with that.

Anyways, click over to the NZTU’s Twitter because they’re still actively fighting with furries and it’s extremely funny.

Some Stray Links

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

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