This week: Airbnb horror, Star Citizen and platform death drive
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House of pain
Barbarian, the buzzy new horror film from comedian Zach Cregger, is the latest in a growing trend of vacation rental horror and thrillers, a genre colloquially known as “Airbnb horror.”
Films that fit into this category take a modern twist on home invasion movies, but also include commentary on how pervasive Airbnb’s practices have become in our world. In A Perfect Host, released in 2020, the main characters rent a lake house only to discover that the owner has been lurking nearby and will not grant them their peace; a frequent complaint of early Airbnb users who would realise upon arriving to the place that they would be in a room of an apartment or a house while the host was still around.
Years ago, before the pandemic, a friend visiting Sydney stayed in one of those generic inner-city apartment blocks which appeared to have been entirely colonised by Airbnbs, which was of little surprise considering its central location and proximity to great tourist amenities. The whole building vibrated with the unsettling lack of place that comes with that kind of arrangement. Everyone in the narrow hallways didn’t quite seem to know where they were going, and the apartment itself was fully immersed in globalisation chic; stuffed to the gills with generic wall art and the cheap IKEA fitout one can expect to see in any reasonably-priced Airbnb the world over. The ‘host’, per the app, was clearly a faceless real estate business masquerading unconvincingly as an individual landlord. You got the feeling every other apartment in the building probably looked exactly the same.
Just being there was an encounter with the Weird. It felt haunted. I’ve been reminded of that particular experience repeatedly as Airbnb became the latest anxiety for horror filmmakers prod at over the last few years. It’s a timely update for home invasion movies at a time when the prime horror-viewing audience is far less likely to own a home, let alone have its sanctity and sovereignty violated. Many horror movies over the last decade have been built on exploiting and intensifying the various minute social frictions we experience in our day-to-day lives, and there are few experiences more replete with irritating social frictions than booking and staying in an Airbnb. (Having to do host-imposed chores despite paying a large cleaning fee is one of them, but I haven’t seen a movie touch on that yet. Hollyweird: call me.)
I would also situate these movies in the broader trend identified here by Chris Person as ‘housecore’ — low and mid-budget movies which build their narrative around a single cool-looking house, the physical and psychic geography of which is usually explored thoroughly throughout. Bodies, Bodies Bodies, mother! and Hereditary come to mind as recent examples.
Until I publish that short story, my lone contribution to the world of Airbnb horror is this review someone left me in 2015, which reads like it was written at gunpoint:
At The Verge, writer Russell Brandom argues a unifying thesis for “why platforms turn boring”:
After following half a dozen platforms through this shift, I’ve come to see it as a test for platform health in general. I call it the Bootleg Ratio: the delicate balance between A) content created by users specifically for the platform and B) semi-anonymous clout-chasing accounts drafting off the audience. Any platform will have both, but as B starts to overtake A, users will have less and less reason to visit and creators will have less and less reason to post. In short, it’s a sign that the interesting stuff about the platform is starting to die out.
Brandom points to the slow shift of TikTok from being a crucible where viral culture and trends are born to a place where accounts share warmed over content from other places. I’ve definitely noticed this shift — half the time when I look at TikTok I’m being shown parts of random TV shows cut into short clips which are linked together through nested comments and replies, which is basically the only reliable way you can create continuity between clips on the app. Going by the comments, there are a lot of people who enjoy consuming content in this hacky, disjointed way, which gives me great concern about the state of their minds.
This ‘bootleg content’, as Brandom puts it, makes an online space feel like a bit of a wasteland — less a vibrant space for creativity and more a vat full of regurgitated slurry. The dynamics of regurgitation also tend to echo through the supposedly ‘original’ content too: if you are ever unlucky enough to click on the Facebook Watch tab, you will enter a cold and dead universe of plainly fake videos of American husbands pranking their wives which seem like they were generated by a neural network.
“The point isn’t that this is aesthetically or morally bad, but it represents a change in how people relate to the platform,” Brandom writes. “Instead of a space for creation, it’s become a space for distribution.”
I personally will go so far as to say it is aesthetically bad, and makes for a completely recursive cultural deadzone. And it’s interesting that the increasingly prevalent content format of the platforms we spend so much of our time on means we move along this funnel quicker and quicker every time.
~ UNDER CONSTRUCTION ~
The link to the Google Drive is here if you would like to delve into this important work of archaeology.
To the stars
This week came news that Star Citizen, the endlessly promised and vastly ambitious space sim multiplayer game, has raised over half a billion dollars since it was first revealed in 2012, as spotted by Eurogamer:
Star Citizen's exceedingly lengthy development is well-documented, with the game still in alpha over a decade after production began. And while it's attracted some private funding in that time, the overwhelming bulk has come via crowdfunding, beginning with a successful $2m USD Kickstarter in 2012 and ballooning from there.
As of today, Star Citizen has amassed $500,075,150 USD in crowdfunding from a total of 4,096,384 backers, according to the official Roberts Space Industries website. Its previous major milestone of $400m USD raised was reached last November, meaning it’s taken a further ten months to accrue an additional $100m.
I’ve been fascinated for years by Star Citizen and the fervent community which has frothed up around it. It’s an ambitious project which intends to culminate in a game of unprecedented detail, quality and scope, allowing players to inhabit a dynamic sci-fi universe where they can be anyone and do anything.
The reality, as is often the case, is a little less exciting. Watch any video of Star Citizen in action in 2022 and you’ll see is a mishmash of half-baked systems, random ideas and dubiously functional gameplay mechanics. Very little of it comes together into anything approaching a coherent whole. A spin-off single player title, Squadron 42, was announced in 2014 and has also been repeatedly delayed, with no end in sight. A poorly-received update sent out to the community in May discussed at length the effort the team was putting into mastering the finer details of bedsheet physics, to ensure a bed would realistically deform when characters get in and out of it. As one Reddit comment put it: "How about just GETTING THE GODDAMN GAME OUT THE DOOR before worrying about [how] a fricking BEDSHEET will deform?" (Sounds like someone who is constitutionally incapable of excellence to me.)
A game is certainly being made here, but it’s obviously nowhere near completion and perhaps never will be. Even the army of Star Citizen ultras who evangelise the game on TikTok like Christian missionaries struggle to create gameplay videos which don’t look glitchy and unpolished. A Forbes feature in 2019 covering the long and shambolic development process described it as “not fraud”, but the product of “incompetence and mismanagement on a galactic scale”.
So that’s what half a billion dollars buys you. And yet the impassioned Star Citizen cult — some of whom have been eagerly helping fund the game’s development for a decade — are more than happy to tell you they’re in it for the long haul. The very long haul, in fact. They’re building the Great Pyramid of Giza here. A representative comment on the Kotaku story: “I, for one, think it’s fitting that a truly immersive space sim should take generations to build, and commend this kind of ambition that no gaming megacorp would ever touch.”
Personally, I’m not sure Star Citizen will rise to the level of being a multigenerational project like the construction of a cathedral — I’m not sure the dynamics of software and game development are really amenable to that — but at least some people are having fun.
Shrieks and murmurs
Here’s my favourite weird internet story of the week. Film producer Emerson Collins shared a video to TikTok and Twitter of human-sounding moaning and groaning noises playing over the intercom on his American Airlines flight. Flight attendants weren’t able to identify the source of the noise, and one can be heard on Collins’ video suggesting it might be some sort of prank.
But then multiple other people online shared their own experiences on different American Airlines routes — alleging they also heard an assortment of moans, squeals and grunts over the intercom.
The LA Times quoted someone who had the same experience on a flight back in July:
Bradley P. Allen, a technology executive from Manhattan Beach, couldn’t believe what he was hearing when he stumbled across the video on Twitter. He had the same perplexing experience during his American Airlines flight from John F. Kennedy Airport to LAX in July.
Collins’ video captured it exactly, he said: like someone had grabbed the flight attendants’ mike, collapsed at the front of the galley and was just “incapacitated by a severe gastrointestinal problem, and is just moaning.”
For their part, American Airlines has blamed the sounds on a technical issue, with a spokesperson saying the plane intercoms “are hardwired and there is no external access." It does sound very human, but — as numerous audio hardware experts have commented — electronic feedback can sound extremely weird, and you can generate sounds not far removed from the ones in the clip by dicking around with a vocal synthesiser.
We love a haunted technology story, don’t we folks? Aeroplanes, breathtaking machines that they are, have been been particularly prone to incursions of the uncanny throughout modern history. You’re likely familiar with gremlins, the mischievous entities invented by British pilots to explain aircraft malfunctions with no other clear cause. Some kind of moaning phantom on a passenger aircraft is very much in tradition.
Fascinating bit in The Hollywood Reporter on how the economics of streaming have radically changed documentary production. The “scientific rationalisation” of making documentaries — as filmmaker Alex Gibney puts it — has led to punishing schedules, a blurring of the line between premium nonfiction and reality TV, and a breakdown in ethics.
How trafficking victims in Cambodia are being forced to run Facebook romance scams. This is obviously awful, but one striking aspect is how women with language skills are used to build rapport with the love scam victim, before they’re passed on to ‘management’ who have the knowhow to execute the financial scam itself.
“Crypto Darling Helium Promised A ‘People’s Network.’ Instead, Its Executives Got Rich.”: Above anything else, I think Helium is best understood as a cautionary tale about one of the core dynamics of the Web3 economy. It’s not a long journey for tokens to go from being a tool to align incentives to being your actual product. That’s when pumping the token price becomes your priority, and whatever imagined community and network benefits become less central.
Stock image platforms like Getty Images and Shutterstock are banning AI images. The Getty CEO pointed to the thorny copyright issues around AI image generation as the motivation here, but the prospect of the platforms being rapidly swamped by mass-produced AI art was surely part of it too. Congrats to whoever managed to make a few bucks off this before the drawbridge went up.
Extremely interesting website here demonstrating how various technologies work using interactive diagrams.
Interesting (and long) on the death of lifestyle brands, and what comes next: “The era of lifestyle brands has passed. The world is organising around a new model: profitable cultural belief systems that produce ‘types of guy.’”