Movie magic, hype trains and hoaxes
Welcome... to the week.
Welcome to this week’s free edition of The Terminal. If you’d like to become a subscriber and get access to paid posts, hit the button below:
Pump and dumps
A fresh dispatch for you from the global memeplex. The hottest thing to do right now if you’re a specific flavour of 19-year-old TikTok guy is to assemble your best buddies, book an entire row at a cinema screening of Minions: The Rise of Gru and suit up to go see it. (A couple of examples can be found here and here.) Basically, the TikTok comedy hivemind has agreed, to varying levels of irony, that the new Minions movie is for chads, and it behoves a sigma male chad to support it in trademark style.
This has also coincided with a surge of obviously tongue-in-cheek positive reviews for the movie on sites like IMDB. This picture is lifted from Know Your Meme, which tracks the historical trajectory of dressing to the nines to go see Minions in far greater detail than I care to:
This is not the first meme-driven movie campaign we’ve seen recently. Morbius, the objectively not very good Spider-Man licence cash-in by Sony Pictures, briefly became a social media phenomenon on the backs of many thousands of posters who insisted, against reality, that the movie was not only good but a phenomenal critical and commercial success.
So intense was the ironic online fandom for Morbius that Sony re-released the movie in over a thousand cinemas in the US. It was a catastrophic failure, grossing less than $300,000 and proving that, while freelance internet clowns were more than happy to use Morbius as a staging ground for funny tweets, it was not actually a cult film with staying power. Sad!
I do think it’s funny that studio marketing departments now have to contend with a kind of inverse astroturf, where they have a standing army of organic boosters for their B-tier film stable with absolutely no guarantee that any of them or their followers will actually buy tickets.
But I was also thinking about it as a kind of cultural manifestation of the same strange currents that drove the meme stock mania of 2021. There’s no shortage of places on the internet, like r/Superstonk, where the people still clinging to the accumulated mythology around GameStop provide labyrinthine explanations for why it was all actually a keystone moment for the forthcoming humiliation of global elites and collapse of a rigged economy. I think it’s safe to say most of it was driven by a glut of pandemic money and a generally red-hot economy, and accelerated to crazy levels by the dynamics of the viral internet. We saw the same thing play out in tech stocks generally, and — of course — crypto.
The weird grassroots marketing campaigns that seem to pop up with greater and greater regularity around movies and streaming shows are kind of like the pump-and-dumps of the cultural sphere. These otherwise pretty average films are inflated to incredible levels by a roving and largely uncontrollable army of posters adrift on the currents of virality, strip-mined for content and then left to languish. It bodes well for the future of movies. We should have seen it coming with Snakes on a Plane.
a e s t h e t i c
I’m chasing up a story related to Sega World, and this is one of the companies involved in imagining that oasis of pre-Sydney Olympics possibility:
I liked this newsletter by Charlie Warzel in which he tries to understand the “petty pleasures of watching crypto profiteers flounder”. Specifically he’s referring to the recent tranche of viral videos in which various Web3 and blockchain luminaries are not able to clearly articulate how their brave new world is going to function, or why it would be better for the average person than the current way of doing things.
In it, he describes the frustration of trying to navigate the ever-expanding archipelago of crypto booster blogs, newsletters and whitepapers, which often bury questions of actual utility under several tonnes of marketing speak and in-group lingo.
I don't doubt that there are might be some interesting blockchain applications down the line coming from people who aren't just profiteering but who want to build a better web. But so far, I don't see it. And so often when I read this stuff from investors I feel like I’m being DDoS’d by marketing language, needless complexity, and vague future-casting. I believe that much of it is in earnest, but I think that much of it is also intended to obscure how little meat there is on the bone of these arguments. A lot of people simply won’t read a 15-page whitepaper, but they will be impressed by the flowcharts. By making the language of Web3 meandering and impenetrable and by building a culture that is very self-referential, investors make criticism harder to come by.
This is also an enduring frustration for me. Hopefully whatever enduring crypto winter we’re currently hurtling into will force the developers of whatever non-ponzi projects remain to start making their pitches make sense.
On the more amusing end, I loved this LinkedIn post from the final boss of absolutely contentless blockchain hype, Gary Vee, articulating a vision for NFTs that is much more confusing than the average person already thinks they are:
Interested in making your plane boarding pass a piece of collectible art with a thriving secondary market? No? Sounds idiotic? Well, would it sweeten the deal if you knew British Airways was getting a slice of the action? Now we’re talking.
Ransacking the temple
An investigation by Wikipedia found that a contributor had used at least four “puppet accounts” to falsify the history of the Qing Dynasty and the history of Russia since 2010. Each of the four accounts lent the others credibility. All have now been banned from Chinese Wikipedia.
Over more than 10 years, the author wrote several million words of fake Russian history, creating 206 articles and contributing to hundreds more. She imagined richly detailed war stories and economic histories, and wove them into real events in language boring enough to fit seamlessly into the encyclopedia. Some netizens are calling her China’s Borges.
Wikipedia vandalism and hoaxes take a prized place among my many and varied weird little obsessions. The idea of some kind of global, centralised databank containing the sum of human knowledge was a mainstay of 20th century science fiction, but vanishingly few of those authors imagined that people would fill it with lies, hoaxes and crude jokes purely for fun. (Or some other inscrutable motive.)
I love this rare breed of hoaxery most of all, where it’s clearly the work of a genuinely inventive fantasist using Wikipedia as a creative outlet. These are well beyond someone blanking a page and replacing the text with ‘balls’ — it’s a genuine literary project, executed somewhere that isn’t intended to host anything like that, for an audience that doesn’t identify it as such.
There are all sorts of non-hoax expressions of this impulse too. A few years ago I wrote a piece for The Outline about Creepy Wikipedia, the loose constellation of articles about true crime, cryptids, UFOs, ghosts and otherwise strange phenomena. There’s a huge amount of creative effort that goes into what amounts to telling campfire stories on the world’s encyclopedia.
Sure, there are plenty of people who edit the pages for various alleged haunted houses because they think they are real, or because they think paranormal culture and folklore are worthy areas of study. But there are plainly a lot of people on those pages doing it because they love the yarn.
I’m fascinated by Shein, the Chinese online clothing retailer which has evolved into a bizarre and vast fast fashion operation. (I believe the first computer to become self-aware will be whatever runs Shein’s insane algorithmic manufacturing setup.) WIRED has a longer story on it. Rest of World also has one about Shein and the Chinese media.
Interesting at The Guardian on eBay as the founder of the modern internet, a fact often forgotten thanks to it being eclipsed by Google, Amazon and Facebook.
From The Intercept: crypto exchange Coinbase is selling Tracer, the company’s intelligence-gathering tool for analysing transactions on the blockchain, to immigration enforcement in the US.
Good notes from author Robin Sloan on the latest tranche of art-generating AI models: “You might have noticed that nearly all presentations of art produced with these models include the text prompt. The pleasure, it seems, is not in the image; rather, it’s in the spectacle of the computer’s interpretation.”
On The Backrooms, the creepypasta meme that turned into a gigantic bespoke content industry on YouTube. A really interesting example of how the incentives of the internet can quickly strain a simple storytelling concept. From one quoted Reddit user: “The backrooms was such a cool and creepy concept at the beginning but 12 year olds decided to make it not creepy anymore by adding monsters and shit into it.” Feels like a lot of culture is like that now.
A writeup here in Curbed about Praxis, the project by a handful of tech guys to attempt to build an autonomous crypto city-state in the Mediterranean. Longtime Terminal subscribers will remember I wrote about this last year, back when it was still nascent. It’s soaking up Peter Thiel money, but it seems more like a weird gentleman’s club right now than anything.
A history of smiling. Turns out there’s a bit going on there. Who knew.