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Life On The Periphery Of The Algorithm
Last month, Know Your Meme put together a very excellent report on the origin of memes over the last decade. And, as I wrote last month, while I have a few quibbles with tracking memes specifically by where they originate, which sort of ignores the cross-platform lifecycles of internet trends, I do think Know Your Meme’s research is useful.
Most data on the health or activity of a social network comes down to comparing daily or monthly active users. Which is fair enough. The assumption that I’m sure most companies involved with online advertising have is that an active social network must be a successful one. But what I think the Know Your Meme report illustrates so well is that we’re now currently in a world where we have two different kinds of social platforms: Ones that make new culture and ones that consume that culture. And, according to the report, the two most important platforms for creating new internet culture (which is now just pop culture) are Twitter and TikTok.
In fact, according to Know Your Meme, about 60% of the memes we’ve seen in 2022 were created by Twitter or TikTok. And the three biggest apps behind those two —YouTube, Reddit, and Instagram — all trail far behind, contributing around 10% each. And if these current trends continue, it’s likely that by next year TikTok will outpace Twitter. In fact, we’ve entered a new interesting moment where it’s usually unclear whether people on Twitter are talking about something because it’s on TikTok or if people on TikTok are talking about something because it’s on Twitter. Soon it won’t be. Very shortly, every platform on the internet will be completely downstream of TikTok.
The internet will become a place to talk about what’s being talked about on the app, just in the same way that over the last five yers, most of America’s national conversation was determined by Twitter’s trending topics. But this isn’t the first time this has happened.
Over the years, there have been lots of platforms that have assumed the role of the “the front page of the internet”. Sites like Reddit, Digg, Facebook, 4chan for a brief second, YouTube, Snapchat have all had phases where they felt like they were the main artery of the zeitgeist. Interesting aside — with TikTok’s current ascendence and Meta’s continuing existential crisis, depending on how things shake out over the next couple years, it’s possible that the January 6 Insurrection will be looked back on as the last time Facebook activity mattered irl.
The fact that an app like TikTok is about to become the number one app in America is notable for a few reasons, though. There’s obviously the fact it’s owned by a Chinese company, which seems to be making Silicon Valley feel very uncomfortable in an interesting echo of how every tech company (and government) around the world felt when American platforms were running amok in their backyards. But also TikTok is mechanically different from Facebook or Twitter.
It has easily the most aggressively personalized algorithm we’ve ever seen in a social platform. Its For You Page uses machine learning to react in almost real-time, following signals about you’re watching to offer more or less depending on how you navigate the app. A TikTok video shouldn’t be thought of as one piece content, but as a series of inputs to be analyzed by the platform’s artificial intelligence — the caption, the hashtag, the length of the video, the audio, the filters used, the comments, the accounts the commenters follow, the accounts you follow, etc. All of it creates branches of recommendations to offer you.
And, bucking a trend among apps like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, it’s becoming easier to search TikTok, not harder. A year ago, while working on this newsletter, if I saw a TikTok video on Twitter or Tumblr and the user ID was cropped off, chances are I wouldn’t be able to ever find it again. Now, I can search some description of most videos and find them pretty quickly.
But for people who do not closely follow TikTok — of which there are still many — culture will continue to feel more and more random and confusing. You can see this in the way TikTok “algospeak” has spread to other platforms, with words like “Unalive” becoming a now very common thing to see within particularly twee pockets of the internet. And readers ask me about inscrutable TikTok trends all the time. Most recently, a reader named George sent me an email last week about a weird and confusing TikTok trend where people were posting videos of “fastest workers”. Here’s a supercut from 2020. I also suspect this is contributing to the death of the influencer, as recently noted by Embedded, and the rise of the influencer-worker. It’s not particularly interesting to just be an influencer on TikTok, but it is interesting to follow someone who does something. Perhaps this is also connected to the “faster workers” trend.
But this creeping feeling that to not “be on TikTok” is to somehow not understand what’s going on anymore is spreading. In fact, I came across a Tumblr post that I thought articulated this idea pretty perfectly.
“Frequently, I’ll see a post here that’s like ‘as a society, we all need to stop engaging in the very common [activity/ behavior/ perspective that I have never once heard about in my life]’ and I’ll feel confused at first because this post will be treating this extremely niche unheard-of topic like it’s universal,” Tumblr user keplercryptids wrote. “And then I remember that I am not on TikTok. So many takes on this site are direct responses to what’s popular on TikTok and I am so happy to live in ignorance tbh.”
The question is, how long will you be able to live in ignorance as more and more of the machinery of our culture becomes branches for TikTok to analyze and optimize around?
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You’ve Been Played is about the stunning rise of gamification across health, work, social media, politics, finance, and education – sometimes for good, and mostly for bad. If you want to know why gamification has dominated the world and what can be done about it, this book is for you.
Author Adrian Hon is the co-creator of the world’s most popular gamified fitness app, Zombies, Run!, a games journalist, and a former neuroscientist and experimental psychologist. He’s also an avid Garbage Day reader (if you see him in the Discord, feel free to ask any questions about gamification)!
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What Will Unthaw The Crypto Winter?
I wrote about this in Garbage Weekend on Saturday, but if you missed it, the Ethereum Merge has, uh, merged. And the market hasn’t reacted very well! Ethereum, which is the second-largest crypto coin, is still down quite a bit from where it was last September and has even reversed the small rally that started around late July.
If you don’t know what the Merge is, the easiest way to understand it is that with Bitcoin, new coins are created and transactions are completed via a process called proof-of-work, where server farms compete to solve complex math equations. Every new equation is harder to solve than the last, so it requires more server farms to solve it. Hence the very good joke from Twitter user @Theopite, “It's like if idling your car 24/7 occasionally produced solved Sudoku puzzles that you could then exchange for heroin.” Ethereum has switched from that system to one called proof-of-stake, which lets users stake a certain amount of coins to become a validator node, taking the place of the server farms.
Obviously, that’s still pretty confusing, but, basically, all you need to know is that proof-of-stake is meant to be more environmentally sustainable than proof-of-work. The reason this matters is because Ethereum is closer to a blockchain-based operating system or programming language than it is “sudokus you can trade for heroin”. It’s the backbone of Web3 and the hope has been that moving from POW to POS would help Ethereum overtake Bitcoin and create the brand new internet era that evangelists believe is right around the corner.
Obviously, market-cap isn’t everything, but the Merge could also add a new wrinkle to Ethereum’s future, as the Wall Street Journal points out. The fact that Ethereum is now being validated by individual stakeholders, not server farms, might mean that Ethereum is a security and would need to be regulated as one. Uh oh!
Bro, Check Out These Croissants
Is there a word for ASMR but for the way extremely round shapes look to your eyes? Do you know what I’m talking about? Like you look at these croissants and they look like video game food. It’s outrageously pleasant to stare it and I would love to see more videos of things that look like this.
Death Cab For Geotagging
Death Cab For Cutie just put out a new album called Asphalt Meadows — it’s fine, but without Chris Walla’s angular and intricate guitar work the band has never been able to recapture the clockwork grooves and complex emotional palettes that made their early albums interesting. One of the songs on Asphalt Meadows is called “Rand McNally,” which is about touring. So during the lead-up to Asphalt Meadows coming out, the band teamed up with the British geodata company Landmark and put together an app that would play the song but only if you were at the longitude and latitude of a venue the band had played at previously.
WIRED has a great piece about how the band built the app and it’s all very interesting. Though it does contain some rather surreal quotes, such as, “Launching ‘Rand McNally’ via geotag felt like a natural extension of the band’s touring history.” Does it? lol anyways, I guess you know the old saying, if you put enough mid-40s indie rock dudes together they will eventually make an app.
The Great Nuzlocke Debate
On a recent episode of the Kit & Krysta podcast, which is hosted by two former Nintendo employees, the hosts claimed that they were told that Nuzlocke Pokémon runs are “on the same level as” ROM hacks. Now, before I explain what that means, let me just say here that The Pokémon Company via Joe Merrick, the webmaster of Pokémon mega-site Serebii, has pushed back against this. “[The Pokémon Company doesn't] care as long as you follow the confines of what's possible in the game,” Merrick tweeted.
If you don’t know what a Nuzlocke run is, it’s a hyper-competitive way of playing Pokémon. There are a few variations, but the idea is that you can only catch the first Pokémon you encounter on every route and if you fail at catching one, you have to move on. And every time a Pokémon faints, you can’t use it anymore. Once all your Pokémon faint, it’s game over.
The claim that The Pokémon Company is anti-Nuzlocke has kicked off a huge debate as to why they would be and the consensus seems to be that the company may not have understood that you can do a Nuzlocke without a randomizer or other third-party software. It’s just a way of playing the game harder with self-imposed rules. But the whole controversy is definitely an interesting example of a video game fanbase that continues to evolve beyond and around the limitations imposed by its creator. And there’s obviously pros and cons to this. The Pokémon Company wants their games to be easy for children to play and long-time players want to use them to build some kind legitimate Esports league. But it does make you wonder how long this conflict can continue across the video game industry as a whole. Who really decides how these games are played?
I Love This TikTok
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P.S. here’s a deeply hypnotic painting video.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***