In this week’sweekend editionof Garbage Day (subscribe, it’s real good), I wrote about a general downward spiral I’ve seen the podcast industry heading in lately: Everyone and everything just seems real tired.
In a recentexcellentEmbeddedinterview, musician Jaime Brooks declared, “Podcasts are so over. It was such a gold rush, and it couldn’t be clearer that nobody is ever going to strike it bigger than Joe Rogan did with the Spotify deal. What once looked like institutions of the medium are dropping like flies everywhere you look, fading unnervingly into the mists of memory with each passing day. Nobody’s heart is in it anymore.” And then about a week later,Vulture’s Nicholas Quahlamentedthat “podcasting is just the radio now,” while writing a deep dive into why there hasn’t been a big blockbuster podcast in a long time.
I never have the patience to wait for a third instance of something to call it a trend, but if I had waited, I could have linked tothis absolutely wildBloombergpiecethat found that big podcasting companies like iHeart have reportedly spent over $10 million since 2018 buying listens through auto-playing episodes nested inside mobile games. Yikes!
Podcasting is one of the older forms of digital media. And, as I wrote this weekend, over the last 15 years, it has become increasingly trapped in a boom-bust cycle where large companies come in, try and monopolize it, ultimately fail, exit for a while, only to come back and try again like two years later.
There are a few reasons for this. First, anyone can make a podcast. You can use your phone or buy a Blue Yeti USB microphone and then use Garageband or download Audacity or Reaper to edit it, ending up with something that sounds pretty good. And you can distribute that show pretty much everywhere via RSS. This isn’t to say there aren’t talented teams making big budget podcasts out there, but podcasting, even more so than blogging or digital video, is a pocket of online content that thrives on word-of-mouth buzz and tends to surface big unexpected successes. But there’s another piece to this that I think is not just applicable to podcasts.
Before the internet, you could basically put your ad budget into print, radio, or TV and it would cost more or less depending on the media it was going in, with the assumption that the level of audience and engagement would increase as the media became more immersive. And this assumption has carried over to the internet even though it’s not really true anymore.
We’re almost a decade out from theOreo’s Super Bowltweet and there’s still this belief that different kinds of content have different levels of engagement baked into them. And it’s a scam that is absolutely perpetuated by the huge social platforms that scrambled how all of this works in the first place. It’s why, a few years ago, when Facebook was caught inflating video viewsas much as 900%, they had to pay a $40 million settlement. Those numbers had to be inflated because internet videos don’t work the same way as televised video does. There’s simply not a guarantee of engagement or viewership online for anything.
But this large-scale flattening of the impact of different internet content is only becoming more pronounced thanks to the big generational shift we’re all witnessing right now. Gen Z knows that a post is a post, regardless of whether it’s a video clip or an audio production or just a funny tweet. Which also explains bizarre hybrid productions like a “video podcast” or a “live audio” orMinecraftlivestreams or most of the music that trends on TikTok, which, oftentimes, makes no sense beyond the context of the short video clip it was originally synced up with. I think this is also why you see a lot of YouTubers attempt massive, months-long productions, proudly announcing their “biggest video yet,” right before they burn out because they feel like a hamster on a wheel.
The current growing malaise in the podcast world is because the advertising industry, and thus the entertainment industry, still treat different kinds of digital media on the internet as entire industries that are somehow separate from each other. This is how you end up with weird micro-fads where very important people say things like “it’s all about audio now,” or “the next big thing is live video or short video or VR video,” or sit on some panel and say that everyone’s into GIFs or whatever. (It’s also the exact same mindset allowed a lot of investors to get suckered into NFTs.) All of this, inevitably, leads to massive companies dumping jaw-dropping amounts of money to over-saturate what are essentially just different file types. But none of that means anything on the internet!
Everything’s just posts and all posts, within reason, have the ability to go viral (or not). Regardless of how much money or time went into making the post. And as long as those file types are supported and they fit whatever the story or the idea that’s being rendered with them, they’ll do well.
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I was contacted over the weekend by Alberto Escorcia, a Mexican disinformation researcher currently based in Sweden, who shared with me some of the research he’s done around the recent Swedish election. I first worked with Escorcia in Mexico back in 2018. We investigated a massiveMexican content farmand Escorcia believes a similar operation happened in Sweden.
Esorcia’s findings are especially troubling in light of the fact that Sweden’s election earlier this month saw a big victory for the Sweden Democrats, a far-right anti-immigration partywith a neo-Nazi past.
Escorcia’s research, which was first publishedin Swedishand was translated into Englishon his Medium account, looks at bot and “cyborg,” or “sock puppet,” activity around tweets from the Sweden Democrats. One tweet from the party’s spokesperson, Tobias Andersson, had more than 25% of its engagement coming directly from automated or semi-automated accounts.
“This worries me a lot because I found much more manipulation than in Mexico and El Salvador,” Escorcia told me. “I think this election was very manipulated.”
And he said that the manipulation he saw on Swedish Twitter appears to have come from an app called Deck. You can watch a video of how the app workshere. The defining characteristics of a Deck-led campaign is, according to Escorcia, retweets in blocks. First, they come from small and newly created accounts which are then amplified by larger accounts. In the graphics above, you can see these block patterns visualized. Escoria also sent me a live working version of the Deck software he found still online. The software originally designed in Russia, but has had a huge second life in countries like Mexico, Chile, and Ecuador, where politically-motivated Twitter bots have made Trending Topics virtually unusable. Deck is now blocked in countries like Mexico, but Escoria doesn’t think Twitter’s team in Sweden is looking out for it.
“I suspect that someone is recycling what worked in Mexico in other countries where there is not so much control from Twitter,” he said.
A TikTok user named Kyle Krueger has the “world’s brightest flashlight” and is pointing it at stuff that people in the comments request. Recently, he went to the top of the tallest building in Naples, Florida, and shined it at the whole city. I don’t think these videos are sponsored, but, just to reiterate my point I made at the top of today’s newsletter: all content is just different kinds of posts and advertising budgets should shift to reflect that now I think.
Fans of the K-pop group BLACKPINK, who call themselves Blinks, built and distributed guides for how to essentially game streaming platform algorithms to make sure the group’s newest albumBorn Pinkstayed at the top of platforms like YouTube and Spotify.
Vulturehas a wild piecewith interviews from a couple Blinks, one of whom told the outlet, “We have to give streaming tutorials: how to stream properly, how not to be a robot. You’re not supposed to just replay the video. It doesn’t work like that.”
Obviously, a large chunk of this is deeply parasocial and not particularly new. Fandoms go all the way back to at least Sherlock Holmes if you don’t count organized religion (which I do). But I think both the level of organization and the framing of streaming platform view counts and leaderboards as both a goalpost and an adversary is notable.
There has been, in a sense, an arms race between users and platforms since the very beginning of the internet. The first mod and the first trolls, etc. But in recent years, as platforms have won that battle and both locked down and automated the way our online spaces function, users have become more and more organized, as well. And, considering how old, and, in my opinion, “late-stage” most of these companies are, I wonder if a big enough fandom, like K-pop stans, could actually beat them one day. Or, considering how big K-Pop is now, maybe they already have?
I had a whole thing planned out here. I’d write a big scathing takedown of Walmart’s metaverse project. I’d talk about how soulless and out-of-touch this is. How desperate large institutions are for the metaverse because without it, they might lose the ability to effectively corral internet users, especially the younger ones that have never lived in a world without social media. If companies like Walmart can’t lock us down into their boomer cyber hell panopticon, they might be left behind and replaced by newer, savvier competitors. But I’m not going to write all that. Instead, I’ll say this:
Look, I want some money. Pay me to help build your company’s terrible metaverse product. I can help you render ugly 3D avatars for your fast food chain or a gross floating hand simulator to sign car insurance forms or whatever. I can teach your CEO how to playFortnite. I can even help you make NFTs that you can use as some form of debt slavery for customers. I don’t care. I see the way the wind is blowing and want in on this cash cow before the layoffs start next year.
I had to go seek out this video after seeing it describedin a tweetby Twitter user @coldhealing as, “watching the mr beast vid about the guy who he paid $500,000 to stay in a 100 ft circle in the middle of a field for 100 days and tormented him by smashing his window and cutting his house in half. it's beautiful that we let a minecraft youtuber manipulate real people like npcs.”
And it’s even more awful than I thought it would be. At one point MrBeast brings in a marching band to play in front of the house all night. And later on he shoots fireworks at/near the house. But perhaps the most deranged part of the video comes towards the end, when the contestant only has 24 hours left. MrBeast brings in a wrecking ball, smashes up the house, and while it’s being destroyed… looks to the camera and reads off a sponsorship for Venmo.
Tumblrhas addedthree “community labels” which are found under settings and, as I discovered, were by default hidden. They are not, as a few users I follow have discovered, a chance to post NSFW content. One Tumblr user I spoke to thinks there’s a broader platform-wide crackdown happening at the moment across the whole mainstream internet, which is why this announcement comes very shortly after Twitter deployed asimilar setting.
Either way, I do think the idea of building trigger warning-type filters into a platform like Tumblr is smart. For years, users have depended on workarounds to build their own filtering system to block stuff like this and I’m generally in favor of any tool that turns a popular workaround into an (opt-in) feature.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***