Burnt archives, stolen goods and status seekers
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Burning the library
This week, The Internet Archive’s Book Images account vanished from photo sharing platform Flickr, taking with it 5 million publicly accessible book scans, illustrations and vintage ephemera which had been meticulously organised and tagged with metadata by enthusiasts over years. Flickr, which hadn’t really been designed to host that sort of stuff and found these public domain treasures were gumming up the Creative Commons photo library, instructed the Archive to purge it.
The deletion was swift and quiet, but users soon noticed. On a Flickr forum, fans of the Internet Archive Book Images account called the loss an unfathomable “destruction of knowledge.” One user wrote: the deletion “really impacted my life,” while another wrote “to find all these golden needles in the same haystack a second time again seems impossible.”
On the forum, a Flickr staff member confirmed the deletion:
“Flickr and Internet Archive were in agreement on this because: 1) The account was largely comprised of scans of book images, not photos; 2) The account was no longer being actively managed by Internet Archive.; 3) The book images tended to show up in irrelevant search results of Flickr Commons photography.”
It wasn’t necessarily the actual documents that were lost, but the accumulation of years of work in tagging and indexing them, which is its own sort of irreplaceable creation.
The good news is that this decision was quickly reversed after the Flickr CEO got involved. But it’s another great example of how fragile so many of our online archival systems are, and how bound they are to the whims and commercial imperatives of large platforms. The fact there was such a rich trove of history on Flickr, a site you virtually never see in the wild any more — and has been known for making substantial policy heel turns — makes for an unstable state of affairs. It’s like if the Library of Alexandria could be burnt by a single product manager spotting a possible revenue efficiency.
Another example of how quickly lines of meaning can be disrupted online. Twitter quietly made a change to its website embeds this week meaning that if a tweet is deleted or disappears for any reason (like an account ban) it will now also vanish from sites it is embedded into. Previously, the basic info of the tweet would remain, just without usual Twitter formatting. They now look like this:
Here’s a Twitter engineer way back in 2011 describing how it was supposed to work.
That’s no longer the case. Confirming the change, a current Twitter employee said it was intended to “better respect when people have chosen to delete their Tweets”. That sounds fair enough, and I’m sure there are plenty of people with embarrassing viral tweets of yore that are probably quite pleased to see them disappear entirely, but it does create a substantial epidemic of link rot across much of the web.
Much of the internet over the last decade, including news sites, built content around Twitter embeds, which are all basically gone. Donald Trump, whose account remains suspended, conducted much of his public presidency on Twitter, and any embed of his tweets in news stories are now busted. (Some sites, like BuzzFeed, changed editorial policy to screenshotting tweets in anticipation of something like this.)
This could obviously be fixed pretty quickly if Twitter decided to do it, or find a workaround for accounts with obvious news or historical value like Trump’s. But it, in conjunction with the Flickr example, shows that systems of online knowledge can be obliterated on a whim or by a simple policy change, and also that platforms have incredible power to shift the topology of the entire internet.
A good thread
For subscribers last week I wrote about the enormous hack of Axie Infinity, the NFT game and burgeoning feudal ecosystem which has become a source of income for people in southeast Asia1. You’ve probably seen this story around, but in short: around $625M worth of crypto assets were stolen from the game’s Ronin blockchain, which went completely unnoticed for about six days until a user tried to withdraw a substantial amount of Ether and found they couldn’t.
While the hacker tries to launder some of their historically massive haul — no easy feat, even ignoring the fact that their every move is being scrutinised on public blockchains — Axie Infinity developer Sky Mavis has been trying to plug the massive hole in its treasury and its users’ wallets. In a post this week, the company announced it had raised a $150 million USD funding round led by crypto exchange Binance to help cover the lost funds:
The new round, combined with Sky Mavis and Axie balance sheet funds, will ensure that all users are reimbursed. The Ronin Network bridge will open once it has undergone a security upgrade and several audits, which can take several weeks. In the meantime, Binance is supporting the Ronin Network by providing ETH withdrawals and deposits for Axie Infinity users, allowing most of them to operate freely.
The 56,000 ETH compromised from the Axie DAO treasury will remain undercollateralized as Sky Mavis works with law enforcement to recover the funds. If the funds are not fully recovered within two years, the Axie DAO will vote on next steps for the treasury. We believe that Axie will go down in history as the first game to imbue players with true digital property rights and recent events have only strengthened this conviction.
In short: we’re raising more capital to cover some of what we lost due to our own unbelievable failure, and we’re hoping the cops will help us recover the rest. If not: we’ll figure it out, maybe? That’s a future me problem. This is all a big win for digital property rights, somehow.
As Bloomberg reported, the game was bleeding players at a substantial clip even before the hack. This is a problem, because the in-game economy is, as it stands, as Ponzi-like as it gets — it requires the constant input of new players and new money to keep the wheels turning, because everyone is there to make money and not to have fun as in other online games. (The developers have basically admitted this, and have been trying to fix it by launching products and features, like a free-to-play game, that get people into the ecosystem without having to spend money.)
But, even despite these issues, investors were ready to step up and cover an eye-popping amount of money lost due to what appears to be by all accounts a massive security failure by the developers. That’s either evidence of huge faith in the product, or simply way too much money sloshing around the sector.
Also: read this surreal dispatch by CNN Business from an Axie Infinity party in Los Angeles which went ahead the very same night the $625M hack was announced.
Surrounding Zirlin, over nachos and complimentary margaritas, the Axie faithful mingled. Despite the shadow cast by the hack, there was a palpable excitement to the gathering.
When asked if they were concerned about their investments, many of the the assembled Axie crowd were zen about their holdings.
"I'm an optimist," said Chris, who declined to give his last name, with a shrug.
"I think they're going to recover," said Vince Zolezzi, who told me that a quarter of his portfolio is in the Ronin network. "I think they're going to find a way to get it back or if there's insurance on it. I'm not personally worried about it. It's going to be ok. ... I have faith. They've gotten where they have for a reason."
For some reason the other day I was reminded of the brief scandal in 2008, in the early days of the Apple App Store, when a developer put up a thousand-dollar app named ‘I Am Rich’ which did nothing but display “a large, glowing gem” when opened.
Its function is exactly what the name implies: to alert people that you have money in the bank. I Am Rich was available for purchase from the phone's App Store for, get this, $999.99 -- the highest amount a developer can charge through the digital retailer, said Armin Heinrich, the program's developer. Once downloaded, it doesn't do much -- a red icon sits on the iPhone home screen like any other application, with the subtext "I Am Rich." Once activated, it treats the user to a large, glowing gem That's about it. For a thousand dollars.
Apple apparently had some problems with I Am Rich. After initially approving it for distribution, the company has since removed it from the store. Heinrich, a German software developer, has yet to hear back from Apple concerning the removal. "I have no idea why they did it and am not aware of any violation of the rules to sell software on the App Store," Heinrich said in an e-mail with The Times today.
See, you don’t need the blockchain or expensive cartoon apes to flex status. We have the technology. We need to go back.
Interesting read on the recent privacy changes on digital ad tracking pushed first by Apple and then Google. Obviously Apple didn’t take a sledgehammer to Facebook’s tracking ecosystem because it has some pure institutional commitment to protecting user privacy — it did so because it swings the pendulum of power in the ad market further in its favour. (There was a good bit on The Rebooting in February on some second-order effects here for content.)
Easily one of the more deranged fandom stories I’ve read recently: William White, a Zoomer TikTok star who built up a fandom of middle-aged women who love watching him lip sync to 80s rock classics, has had to contend with said women developing into a weird stalker cult.
A great read on Thomas Buchler, the little-known developer of TropeTrainer, a piece of Torah educational software described as “a deep archive of sacred text and music, comprising dozens of different traditions, made easily searchable and infinitely customisable”. I love stories about religious software.
And what do you know: a piece on TempleOS, the computer operating system designed by a floridly crazy guy “to serve as the third temple of Jerusalem”, and how it relates to the metaverse.
A fun dive into the history of John Carter, one of Disney’s biggest blockbuster flops. I always thought it was funny they were trying to spin the next big cinematic IP out of a fairly dated planetary romance from 1912.
Shocker: “A closer look at the LooksRare platform that has quickly become the leading NFT marketplace by trading volume shows that most of the activity is actually users selling tokens to themselves to help earn rewards in the form of more coins.”
Leaked documents show Amazon’s planned internal worker chat app could block words like “union”, “restroom”, “plantation” and “pay raise”. Neat!
Canada has tabled legislation to force Meta and Google to pay publishers, explicitly based on the “Australian model”.
“The Multipolar World Dies in Ukraine” — interesting counterpoint to some of the conversations about power shifts, dollarisation, etc.