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This Week in Discourse - The Death of Old Internet
Old web mainstays are dying, TikTok is evolving, the Wikipedia Admins are at it again, and feral hogs
Welcome to the weekend. The web is falling apart! Social media is fraying from the inside! But like a horror movie protagonist, the internet is too terrible and powerful to ever really die - we’ll just get an endless series of sequels instead. Here’s the week in review:
Charlie Warzel writes about the social media-news collapse. Garbage Day is worried that the web is evaporating. Tumblr may be left to slowly rot as abandonware. Twitter has been performing a slow-motion seppuku for the the last year in front of a billion people. Everywhere you look, people are afraid that the old mainstays of the internet are dying. Nobody is sure what will replace them, but we can all see the various dominos falling.
One of the least consequential but most interesting of these dominos is Omegle. Omegle was never a giant of social media, but it did hold an interesting and unique place on the web - its random matches captured a certainly freewheeling quality of the internet better than just about anything. You could meet interesting people on Omegle, be serenaded by musicians, spot a celebrity creator, or get flashed by some guy’s junk. Most of the time it was more uneventful than that - bored teens, weird loners, etc. But! Anything *could* happen! It was fast and random and you never knew what was coming next.
Omegle shut down this week permanently. The impetus appears to have been a series of lawsuits where Omegle was accused of doing an insufficient amount to protect young users from groomers/predators. I’ll admit upfront that I don’t know the particulars of this case, and I have no idea if Omegle was a bad actor or not. I’m inherently skeptical of certain kinds of lawsuits against platforms,1 but will reserve judgment in this case. Omegle’s founder Lief K-Brooks posted an interesting letter on the site’s final homepage/graveyard, which I think is worth quoting:
Over the years, people have used Omegle to explore foreign cultures; to get advice about their lives from impartial third parties; and to help alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation. I’ve even heard stories of soulmates meeting on Omegle, and getting married. Those are only some of the highlights.
Unfortunately, there are also lowlights. Virtually every tool can be used for good or for evil, and that is especially true of communication tools, due to their innate flexibility. The telephone can be used to wish your grandmother “happy birthday”, but it can also be used to call in a bomb threat. There can be no honest accounting of Omegle without acknowledging that some people misused it, including to commit unspeakably heinous crimes.
The second paragraph there is basically the reason Section 230 exists - platforms aren’t supposed to be liable for the speech/actions of their users.2 The letter expounds at some length why K-Brooks sees an open internet as valuable, and that it’s worth keeping even if some people use it to do bad things. He concludes:
The battle for Omegle has been lost, but the war against the Internet rages on. Virtually every online communication service has been subject to the same kinds of attack as Omegle; and while some of them are much larger companies with much greater resources, they all have their breaking point somewhere. I worry that, unless the tide turns soon, the Internet I fell in love with may cease to exist, and in its place, we will have something closer to a souped-up version of TV – focused largely on passive consumption, with much less opportunity for active participation and genuine human connection.
K-Brooks’s point about passive consumption is directly in line with the current trends I’m seeing. Early social media was very directly about sharing content with your IRL friends - early Facebook famously shunned ‘celebrity’ by limiting friend counts to 5,000 friends. The early social web was filled with blogs (and then microblogs) where the point was to share. But the current social web is trending more towards video and more towards a few-to-many broadcast model rather than a many-to-many, peer-to-peer model of social interactions. Anyone with a TikTok account theoretically can share content, but in reality most of us just get sucked in to the infinite scroll3 and passively consume content without ever creating ourselves. The same goes for YouTube, Twitch, and most video-based social sites. The social web is increasingly for a small set of influencers rather than all of us, and Omegle is one more domino falling in that pattern
Speaking of the dying web! Elon Musk rolled out the latest from ‘X AI’ this week, and it turns out the latest is a chatbot with a middle-school sense of humor straight from the ‘Le Epic Bacon Narwhals At Midnight’ age of cringe. Now I would never accuse Elon Musk, noted fan of the character BladeRunner, of mangling and misunderstanding science fiction references. But I will note that the AI is named ‘Grok’, a term from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and yet Musk says the AI’s character is based off Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And nothing in the bot’s output is even vaguely reminiscent of Douglas Adams’s sense of humor, reading instead like a mishmash of vaguely right-leaning talking points, ‘spunky attitude’ and stale boomer jokes. One suspects that Musk, who supposedly adores the Hitchhiker’s Guide, does not actually understand it at all. As Musk would tweet, Curious. Looking into this. 🤔.
If you want ornery, sarcastic answers to questions about social media, you don’t need a fancy Elon bot. You just need to click subscribe.
When Musk isn’t busy ruining science fiction classics by association, he might be busy having nervous breakdowns because he was publicly booed. Or he might be killing hashtags because the demon spirits in his
head replies demanded it. Or he might be stealing resources from some of his public companies to use in his privately held companies, which is a fine and normal thing most businesses can ethically do. What a loveable scamp! What a rascal! Tune in next week when Elon will declare the concept of Tuesday as woke, promise to build a hyperintelligent spacefaring vacuum and declare that Steely Dan is his favorite singer.
More delicious Wiki Admin drama
If you’re a dedicated reader, you know that I’m a sucker for episodes of niche internet drama and that I especially enjoy Wikipedia Administrator drama. So much fighting! Over nothing meaningful! Sayre’s Law famously states that academic fights among professors are so bitter because the stakes are so low, and I’m certain that applies to Wikipedia as well.
Anyways here’s more wild Wikipedia admin drama. This is a short section because I’m just going to encourage you to click that link and read it for yourself. It involves a celebrity who edits Wikipedia, editor-on-editor doxxing, emotional bullying, scam promoters, and an astonishing self-reveal. I love Wikipedia and I encourage all Wikipedians to continue to be insane.
TikTok overhauls Creator Fund
TikTok this week killed their Creator Fund. Creators on TikTok have long complained about the fund, claiming that they get low payouts even for massive engagement numbers. And they’re not wrong, from the public evidence that’s available. YouTube’s program is famously pretty simple4 - YouTubers get a set percentage of ad revenue. When YouTube’s ad revenues increase, it’s good for both the company and for those making videos. TikTok’s Creator Fund used a different model - it was seeded with a set amount of money. But TikTok has exploded in popularity over the last few years, meaning that despite a growing number of videos, views, comments and engagements, the total dollar amount remained the same. If you can do basic division you know what that means: the payout per thousand views went down, drastically.
Now TikTok is replacing the old fund with a new Creativity Program. The company claims that payouts can be ‘20 times as high’ as from the Creator Fund. That’s probably an exaggeration to market the program to their creators, but it likely will be an improvement. There are a few interesting things to note:
Nothing in the new program says whether TikTok is still using the ‘fixed pile of money’ method of payouts, moving to a revenue split like YouTube, or doing something else entirely. If they were switching to a clean revenue split I’d expect them to boast about it, so I imagine it’s not that.
YouTube lost money for years because they were so generous with creators, but it worked out for them in the end. TikTok still seems to be struggling with this - it’s common knowledge among creator/influencer circles that TikTok is near impossible to monetize directly (instead, you need to line up your own sponsored content)
TikTok’s new program is only for videos over a minute. This is a baby step towards encouraging longer content and moving away from their roots of ultra-fast, ultra-scrollable content. And it’s a baby step towards competing directly with YouTube. Even though Tiktok has been stealing YouTube’s thunder recently, YouTube still has no real competition for the market of ‘videos longer than 3 minutes’. But maybe this is a sign TikTok is moving in that direction?
Stratechery has an interesting post on AI adoption. It might not matter whose AI is technically the best - it might just come down to whose is easiest to use. In that case look for the hardware companies to come out swinging.
Deals and Coupons hacking social spaces went crazy over an infinite free pizza glitch at Dominos.
Surprise, surprise - Canada’s nonsensical ‘link tax’ has massively backfired for Canadian publishers.
All hail the tool bear
AI wars are being fought through memes
Sometimes these read to me like “I was kidnapped, and the kidnapper drove a Kia! It’s time to sue Kia!”
With some exceptions and carveouts
It’s more complex than this, but the overall framework is simple