This Week in Discourse: Dealing with Nazis
Substack steps in it, the influencers get scammed, and AI Gangster SpongeBob
Who has two thumbs and has been delaying the regular blog schedule because of Holiday laziness? This guy! We’ll be back to the regular two-per-week schedule in January. Happy new year!
Substack and Nazis
That drama, predictably, has continued to rage here at Substack. The debate is around ‘Nazis’, some of which are just generic right wing bigots and some of whom do seem to be actual, legitimate Nazis. To recap: after a piece in the Atlantic talked about Substack’s Nazi problem, lots of people wrote about it. I wrote about! (link below)
A group of writers came out with a statement, Substackers against Nazis, asking the site to deplatform Nazi blogs. Another group of writers signed a letter saying Substack shouldn’t decide what we read. Founder Hamish McKenzie released a long note you can find below on the situation, defending the choice to continue to platform Nazis.
I’ve written before that I’m sympathetic to Substack’s decision to essentially toss up their hands and refuse to play the content moderation game:
I don’t think that extreme free speech is the right approach for most sites, but the urge to just throw your hands up and surrender? I get that. No matter what you do, people are going to hate you. There are going to simultaneously be people mad that you’re doing too much and people mad that you’re doing too little. In any conflict, people will accuse you of bias for and against any given side. Content moderation is a whack-a-mole game where every mole is Nazis or child abuse content, and there are ten moles popping up every second, and the moles literally never stop. If you miss even one mole, the mainstream media labels you the Nazi and/or child abuse site.
But while I am sympathetic, there are a couple of inconsistencies with Hamish McKenzie’s statement above.
McKenzie is essentially making claim Substack wants to just be a neutral service-provider and this is why they take the free speech stance. Essentially like saying "Gmail doesn't reject nazis from having a Gmail account" or “Verizon doesn’t test your ideology before selling you an iPhone”. Substack is a neutral tool like a phone or a hammer, which can be used for good or for bad. There’s also the claim that since Substack is just a tool, it doesn’t really effect you if a Nazi is there. You don’t have to read the Nazi blog! It’s not like a social network, where virality and spread matters. Just don’t go to the Nazi parts, the same way you don’t go to Nazi websites. That's the argument.
But the issue I see is that Substack is increasingly doing a lot of social media network things. They have Notes, which is clearly an attempt to steal Twitter users and start a quasi-social service. The site is getting more and more social-platform features like leaderboards, restacks, algorithmic recommendations, etc. And social networks are not neutral service providers. Social networks by their nature require moderation. Substack is in an awkward space where it’s not quite a private, individual communication platform like Gmail and it’s not quite a true social network. But it’s trending in the direction of social network over time.
The other issue with McKenzie’s statement is that you can't really claim "I just favor free speech even if the people are terrible" but then also suck up to guys like Richard Hanania publicly and repeatedly. Hanania is an outright racist with the thinnest possible layer of deniability. McKenzie claims that he wasn’t aware of Hanania’s views when he had him on his podcast and later complimented him, but this is an incredibly weak evasion. Nobody with a functioning brain was surprised by the revelation that Richard Hanania had a history as a white supremacist. Oh, the guy who constantly writes about ‘black crime’ and says “We need more policing, incarceration, and surveillance of black people. Blacks won’t appreciate it, whites don’t have the stomach for it” had a secret white supremacist past? Who could have predicted this?
If that is McKenzie’s genuine reasoning, he should stop any attempts at being a public figure with a podcast and a blog and go back to just being a founder/CEO who doesn’t make statements. If you couldn’t see ahead of time that Richard Hanania of all people was a racist, consider that you might not be qualified to express cultural and political opinions. Perhaps you should just not talk in public.
And on a deeper level, Substack needs to decide what they want to be. If they just want to be neutral service provider, a Gmail equivalent, so be it. But they keep edging towards being a social network while trying to avoid any content moderation, and that’s eventually going to come back to bite them.
Subscribe to Infinite Scroll for updates and analysis of the social internet
It’s easy to scam influencers
I quite enjoyed this video from YouTuber CoffeeZilla on a scammer who’s been taking advantage of various streamers and YouTubers.
The video’s a little over-produced for my taste, but still high quality. A merch company called Revolt was partnered with quite a lot of prominent content creators to sell branded merch. This was a real business - branded merchandise is quite profitable for most content creators - and they seemed to make legitimate money in the beginning. The company was headed by Ryan Piasente, who was also a part of The Misfits, a YouTuber collaboration group.
The video alleges that after some initial success, Piasente ran the business into the ground and began committing all sorts of crimes to cover it up. He allegedly was spending company money on lavish lifestyle perks for himself and friends. The company failed basic quality controls and wasn’t even correctly shipping merchandise much of the time, leaving customers out to dry. The company was constantly on the cusp of collapse, but in a Ponzi-like scheme kept signing bigger clients and paying past clients with new client money.
Like all Ponzi schemes, it eventually collapsed after a MrBeast merch drop didn’t sell as well as expected. CoffeeZilla’s video then shows documentation that Revolt engaged in financial fraud, altering invoices from manufacturers to overcharge MrBeast and other creators. They also allegedly didn’t pay many content creators, with many publicly claiming that they’re owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. The whole video is a wild ride, and concludes with the shocking revelation that Piasente was not only engaged in criminal financial fraud - he was also a sexual predator who used Revolt and Misfits company money to pay women for nude pictures, including requesting those pictures from underage girls.
There’s an obvious hook here - it’s a juicy story of a creepy predator, financial crime, and extremely popular online personalities. But the deeper story goes beyond one creep. It’s interesting how easy it was for a guy like this to make it so big in the influencer world before being exposed, and how frequently it seems to happen.
Successful influencers, I will posit, are uniquely easy to scam. They’re typically very young. They are small business owners, but they usually don’t actually know much about running a business. They’ve become big via their content creation skills, not via business savvy. They are typically eager to make deals to turn their fame into money, but aren’t always sure how to make that happen. And there’s a sort of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants vibe to content creation that encourages rash decision making - good for viral content and creativity, bad for business. And creators don’t have any formal unions, formal organizations or standard industry practices - ties are often informal and many creators don’t know how to check with others about what companies and situations to avoid.
Mix all this together and it’s no surprise you see stories like this all the time, with influencers making stupid deals and falling for common scams.
More depressingly, it’s also not surprising that sexual predators abound in an industry like this. Social media is what some economists call a ‘glamour industry’. That’s a technical term of art, not a description of the inherent glamorous nature of Twitch streaming. It means that an industry is dominated by a small number of superstar individuals who get all the returns to fame, while a massive number of others try and fail to get any work at all. Think about acting - A-listers can make millions per movie, but 99% of actors in America are unknown bartenders and waitresses making essentially nothing. The same dynamic applies to publishing novels, making music, and being an online content creator. There’s a never-ending supply of people trying to make it big in those areas. Only a few ever will, but if they do the returns are huge.
Working in one of these industries is essentially playing the lottery - you’re almost certainly going to fail, but if you win then you win big. And demographically most of the people playing this lottery are young and attractive, and desperate to make it. This makes it all too easy for abusive figures in the industry to prey on people who want to make it, or who are just blinded by proximity to fame and success. It’s why you hear so many predatory stories from Hollywood, from the music industry, from social media - making it is insanely difficult in those industries.
This AI-generated SpongeBob rap gets a special section
I am giving this its own separate section to impress upon you that you really, really should watch this video. It’s incredible.
I suspect something like this is the future of music/video/art/etc. The lyrics here are human-written but performed by AI-generated voices of SpongeBob, Mr Krabs, Squidward and other characters. The animation is human-created but with advanced tools that border on AI. A mix of human ingenuity and AI tools will make it easier than ever for people to make the wildest and most creative art we’ve ever seen, especially when it involves remixing existing IP.
Posts and Links
LeBron James might start livestreaming. Both Twitch and Kick are making public pitches for James to use them as their streaming platform. I’ve been skeptical of Kick’s long term viability, but a sign I’m wrong will be if they can start to lure stars like James better than Twitch can.
Elon Musk continues to suck up to huge YouTubers like MrBeast, unsuccessfully. MrBeast very politely dropkicks him here, explaining the economics of his own platform to Elon.