This Week In Discourse: It All Falls Down
The apps hate Apple, MrBeast exposes Elon, and some disturbing Taylor Swift content
No midweek post this week, but worry not. I’ve been working on some cool stuff - long theory posts, as well as pieces I should be able to share soon for Foreign Policy and Asterisk Magazine. And we’ve got a super-sized Discourse post this week with all sorts of nonsense to make up for it.
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Apple Pro and the missing apps
I’m a skeptic of any tech device you have to strap to your head.
The Apple Vision Pro is positioning itself as the Rolls Royce of VR headsets, and they do deserve some credit. Apple is a hardware-first company in many ways, and their headset looks way better than what’s currently on the market. It has a high price point ($3500!) and will boast the best specs for any VR device ever - a more comfortable fit, a faux-transparent screen1, and more pixels on its small screen than on many current 4K televisions. If any device could make VR headsets happen, it’s this one.
But hardware alone isn’t enough to make a device succeed. You need two other things - consumer demand, and the right software ecosystem. And that’s where Apple is having trouble.
A series of reports came out last week that content giants Netflix, Spotify and YouTube are all declining to make apps for the Vision Pro. Even more damningly, they’re not even allowing their existing iPad apps to transfer to the new device. This is a fairly large blow to Apple’s vision2 of their headset as the future of personal computing.
It’s one thing if these companies don’t want to develop a custom app for a device that will likely only sell half a million units in the next year or two. But Apple’s workaround to that issue has been to use existing iPad apps, and these companies declined to even allow that.
It’s a huge failure for Apple. While they will launch with lots of other content - Disney+, most sports apps, Amazon Prime, TikTok, etc - Netflix and YouTube are giants. They are respectively the largest paid streaming network and the largest social video network. How can Apple claim that the Vision Pro is the future of personal entertainment when the two largest video sites on the internet don’t even have an app? (and Spotify as well!)
Beyond the software gaps, I’m also just skeptical that consumer demand exists here. You’ll likely see stories throughout the next year about how ‘high’ demand is for the Vision Pro and how it’s sold out. But this will be more a function of a supply crunch on Apple’s side rather than a tidal wave of demand. There will be enough enthusiasts and Apple fanboys buying this to sell it out of its initial six figure manufacturing run,3 but I’m bearish on the Vision Pro as an every day device.
I think VR is a specialized kind of hardware for specialized use cases. It’s great for certain kinds of video games. It has a few other niche applications. But I am just not convinced that anyone in their right mind wants this as their all day, every day computing device. No matter how ergonomic the design, it’s just not comfortable to wear a bulky headset for hours at a time. There’s no advantage to doing most tasks like scrolling social media, reading a blog post, or checking email on a headset. Who among us has ever been scrolling TikTok and thought “This is great, but I really wish it was strapped to my head?” Anyone?
I could be wrong here, like the old-timers who used to grumpily insist that these ‘smartphones’ were useless and didn’t do anything worthwhile. But with smartphones, even early on you could see significant jumps in capabilities, a real gap in what was possible. There were a lot of clear, defined use cases. Other than video games, I’m not sure what the real use case is for VR headsets. It seems like something that tech companies just kind of assume is the future (based on sci-fi visions) without any grounded theory of why people should care.4 And Apple’s failure with social and content apps is another blow towards their widespread adoption.
This Week in MrBeast
The internet’s biggest content creator had a hell of a week.
Reports emerged that MrBeast (aka Jimmy Donaldson) may be wrapping up a deal worth nearly $100 million with Amazon to produce videos and shows for Amazon Prime. This would likely be the largest online creator deal of all time, with the first episode debuting on both Amazon and MrBeast’s YouTube channel and subsequent episodes exclusive to Amazon.
I’m a little surprised we haven’t seen more of these kinds of deals already. Internet stars don’t always translate well to traditional media formats, but they do come with enormous built-in fanbases. There are open questions about how many of those fans will follow them to a different platform, or how many non-fans will ever watch their stuff on those different platforms. But look - the guy gets two billion views a month on his YouTube channel. When someone’s proven beyond a doubt they can attract eyeballs like that, why wouldn’t traditional media make deals with them? I’d expect more of this kind of deal in the future.
Donaldson, in his insatiable hunger for ever larger audiences to shovel into his gaping maw, is also expanding to China.
Until recently, none of Beast’s content was available in the world’s largest internet market. China’s internet, thanks to language barriers and the Great Firewall, is largely separated from the global internet. It has its own sites for microblogging, vertical video, live streaming, social networking, etc - and MrBeast wasn’t on any of them. But a few days ago he finally opened an account on BiliBili and began posting videos there.
It’s a smart international play from a guy who always seems to be ahead of the curve in optimizing his content for the most eyeballs5. Donaldson was an early adopter in catering to international audiences. He’s got official MrBeast channels in Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, French and Hindi, and he dubs his videos into even more languages than that. Expansion to China is a natural move, and it took less than a day for the MrBeast BiliBili account to rack up ten of thousands of comments and tens of millions of views on the welcome video.
Also this week: MrBeast’s experiment of placing a video on Twitter has come to a conclusion. Elon has been desperately begging for Donaldson to post his content directly to Twitter for a while now, and Donaldson decided to take him up on it as an experiment - how much money could be made on Twitter vs. YouTube? The results:
260K! But the internet immediately realized a few things:
First, the impression/revenue ratio for MrBeast was about 50x better than it should have been. MrBeast had a $1.68 CPM6, but most other users report around $0.03 CPM7. That 260K isn’t just because he got a lot of views, Twitter also paid him far more per view for an unknown reason.
The video in question also appeared to be artificially boosted - even MrBeast noticed the discrepancy and said his numbers didn’t seem normal. It appears that the tweet was actually boosted as an promoted tweet/ad, but without the corresponding disclosure
Even as people realized that both MrBeast’s view count and CPM were artificially inflated… $1.68 still isn’t very good at all. Random small time YouTubers make significantly more than that - here are a couple of reddit threads where people share CPMs averaging $10-20.
The whole thing is transparently embarrassing for Elon - even after rigging the game in MrBeast’s favor, it’s still not anywhere close to being a payment program that can support creators. And this experiment had the side effect of making Elon stans furious, as they realize he’s paying them pennies for their clout chasing.
Of course, in true MrBeast fashion, Donaldson decided to giveaway all 250K to ten random followers, and ended up with the most retweeted tweet in history.
Which of these things did Elon Musk Not Do This Week?
Our newest game: Which of these awful, baffling or insane things did not actually happen?
During a visit to Auschwitz, Elon Musk claimed that X/Twitter could have prevented the Holocaust, complete with faked screenshots of how that would have worked.
On the same visit, Elon claimed that Anne Frank would have been huge Twitter user.
On the same visit, Elon claimed that he’s an honorary Jew8, or Jewish-by-association since he has so many Jewish friends.
Here’s a link to the story, answer at the bottom of the post.
Non-consensual AI-Taylor Swift Porn
This section’s going to be light on links, for the obvious reasons. Even if most of it wasn’t already taken down, I’m not gonna link that stuff here because I’m not a psychopath. But this is a thing that happened - just a few days ago, there was a pretty large amount of AI-generated Taylor Swift porn images flooding Twitter.
The story of how it happened was basically what you’d think. The images were made by trollish private Telegram groups (SFW link to 404 Media). They began posting the images to Twitter, where they got a medium amount of attention in a short time. As Swift’s fanbase noticed the images trending, they attempted to flood the “Taylor Swift AI” trending topic with harmless material so that nobody could actually find the porn. They didn’t succeed, and may have made the whole thing go turbo-viral in a Streisand Effect manner, drawing even more attention to the fact that there was something they wanted to hide.
I saw ‘AI Taylor’ as a hot trending topic and clicked, wondering what was up. Within a few tweets of scrolling, there they were. The pictures were exactly as gross as you’d expect, and I regret scrolling what I assumed was a relatively benign topic. The images accumulated tens of millions of views and were shared by all sorts of accounts. They were eventually taken down, but not with any sort of speed or urgency.
The entire incident is disturbing, and what’s most disturbing is how predictable it all is. Of course there are going to private forums where people make horrifying, gross content. That’s always been the case on the internet and likely always will be. But with current-gen AI, making that awful content is easier than ever before. And the outputs are more realistic and can do more harm than ever before. It’s also predictable that X/Twitter is where this would blow up - Elon famously gutted the site’s Trust and Safety team and seems to mostly not care about abusive material being shared. Their current solution seems to be simply showing zero results when you search Taylor Swift, which is what happens when you don’t have a Trust & Safety team. It’s a dark episode, and I doubt it’ll be the last of its kind.
On the other hand, it would be a pretty incredible W if Swifties are the ones who usher in meaningful deepfake/AI porn legislation.
Matt Yglesias has a fascinating post up about the ways in which political nostalgia is performed on social media, and how that’s impacting our politics. Yglesias is a very public persona, and some of you may already have a strong opinion of him (good or bad). But this piece in particular is insightful, about how a lot of bad political stances are just barely-disguised personal nostalgia.
Some niche college football content - the 50 best CFB message board posts of 2023. Private CFB message boards are some of the most delusional places on the planet, and these won’t translate to non-CFB fans but they’re incredible if you are one.
Here’s a fun story about the nine-month cruise and the battle between the influencers on board and the old people who just want to cruise.
A very funny article (NSFW, obviously) about people who post porn to Wikipedia
I absolutely failed this AI face or real person quiz from the NYTimes
TikTok announces auto-scrolling, which sounds fucking awful.
Apple gets ready to allow side-loading and alternate app stores - but only in the EU.
An important Lord of the Rings question
Finally (and much cuter than you’d think) - rat selfies
Elon points 1 and 3 are true, 2 is false - that’s a throwback to Justin Bieber claiming Anne Frank would have been a ‘Belieber’.
The screen is not actually transparent, but has the option to record your eyes and project them on the front of the device, mimicking transparency at least reasonably well
As noted above, analysts expect Apple to sell about half a million Vision Pros in the first year or so.
You know what I am excited for? See-through screen technology, which is advancing really fast. Imagine having see through screens like in Minority Report! Imagine windows that could project any image (or blackout) because they’re actually screens! I’d want those.
Complain about the subjective quality of his content if you will, but literally no one alive might be better at maximizing audience attention than Donaldson.
CPM = Cost per mille, or cost per thousand views
As someone who has enough twitter impressions that it made sense to turn on Twitter Blue, I can confirm that’s directionally correct (my rate is even lower than 0.03, perhaps because I don’t post much video?)