Start Up No.1655: TikTok’s inevitable spiral, Uncomfortability, NFT vandalism!, the odd Jobs-Dell deal, Ozy’s newsletter scam, and more


You may not have heard of the term ‘global stilling’, but it’s a key reason why wind power is down – and electricity prices are up. CC-licensed photo by Justin Smiley on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not picked by migrant workers. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


I’m being gaslit by the TikTok Lamborghini • Garbage Day

Ryan Broderick details how TikTokers have become bizarrely fascinated by a daft accident (maybe not an accident) involving a rented Lamborghini:

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What’s happening on TikTok right now seems to be a confluence of three things. First, I think a lot of this is connected to what I’ll call the traffic light livestream phenomenon. There have been several moments over the last few years where Twitch users have become obsessed with a static camera pointed at traffic, most recently it was a stop sign in Massachusetts where no one actually stopped. I’m from Massachusetts, stop signs don’t mean “stop,” they mean, “slowly roll through while sipping your gargantuan iced coffee.” But, basically, people on the internet will kind of obsess over whatever is put in front of them.

The next dimension to all of this is the fact that TikTok’s algorithm is extremely powerful and also very sticky. Trends and challenges go very viral, but also macro user behavior tends to stick around. Right now, everyone on the platform thinks every piece of media shared to the app is worth analyzing forensically. This, I believe, started with the gamified doxing of antivaxxers done by users like Sparks and @tizzyent earlier this year, but really kicked into high gear around the Gabby Petito case.

And, lastly, TikTok is, as we speak, supplanting Facebook as the main app of America. As more and more Americans begin to use TikTok, I suspect TikTok content will start to resemble Facebook content. The ugly American weirdness of Facebook — the casual racism, the petty small town drama, the nameless grifters, the weird old people, the Minion memes, the public meltdowns at fast food restaurants, the goths, the bored nurses, the men in their trucks talking on their phones, the extremely basic backyard viral challenges — it will all come to TikTok. It will hit the app’s sophisticated video production tools and aggressive algorithm and turn into endless content cycles, where it will probably spin out in weirder and darker directions than anything we’ve ever seen from Facebook.

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[Emphasis added.]
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TikTok’s algorithm leads users from transphobic videos to far-right rabbit holes • Media Matters for America

Olivia Little and Abbie Richards:

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TikTok’s “For You” page (FYP) recommendation algorithm appears to be leading users down far-right rabbit holes. By analyzing and coding over 400 recommended videos after interacting solely with transphobic content, Media Matters traced how TikTok’s recommendation algorithm quickly began populating our research account’s FYP with hateful and far-right content.

TikTok has long been scrutinized for its dangerous algorithm, viral misinformation, and hateful video recommendations, yet this new research demonstrates how the company’s recommendation algorithm can quickly radicalize a user’s FYP. 

Transphobia is deeply intertwined with other kinds of far-right extremism, and TikTok’s algorithm only reinforces this connection. Our research suggests that transphobia can be a gateway prejudice, leading to further far-right radicalization. 

To assess this phenomenon, Media Matters created a new TikTok account and engaged only with content we identified as transphobic. This included accounts that had posted multiple videos which degrade trans people, insist that there are “only two genders,” or mock the trans experience.

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Never heard of a “gateway prejudice” before. See also: “Revealed: anti-vaccine TikTok videos being viewed by children as young as nine“. We’ve heard this story with YouTube. What is it about video?
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Sounds a lot like Social Warming, my latest book, which explains how any social network will create similar effects once it uses algorithms for attention.


The Uncomfortable – a collection of deliberately inconvenient objects

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The Uncomfortable is a collection of deliberately inconvenient everyday objects by Athens-based architect Katerina Kamprani

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Which makes you think about what makes other things comfortable, and what makes things that should be comfortable less comfortable. Recommended to put a shiver down your spine.
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Europe’s electricity generation from wind blown off course • Financial Times

Steven Bernard:

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The strength of the wind blowing across northern Europe has fallen by as much as 15% on average in places this year, according to data compiled by Vortex, an independent weather modelling group.

The cause of the decrease is uncertain, say scientists, but one possible explanation is a phenomenon called global stilling. This is a decrease in average surface wind speed owing to climate change.

“Near-surface wind speed trends across the globe found that winds have generally weakened over land over the past few decades,” said Paul Williams, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading. “This suggests that the phenomenon is part of a genuine long-term trend, rather than cyclic variability.”

One explanation for this could be that “human-related climate change is warming the poles faster than the tropics in the lower atmosphere,” Williams noted. “This would have the effect of weakening the mid-latitude north-south temperature difference and consequently reducing the thermal wind at low altitudes.”

Projections from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change support this trend. Wind speeds over western, central and northern Europe are predicted to drop by as much as 10% in the summer months by 2100, based on 1.5ºC warming above pre-industrial levels.

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Next you’ll be telling us that global warming also makes it cloudier so solar panels work less well.
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How the government’s ‘fake news’ rebuttal operation targets journalists on Twitter • Folded

Adam Bienkov is an editor and reporter who covers UK politics:

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Back in May this year I attended a lobby briefing in which the prime minister’s official spokesman was repeatedly asked to rule out accepting hormone-treated beef as part of a trade deal with Australia.

Their refusal to do so struck both myself and other journalists who attended the briefing as curious, so I tweeted out their response.

Adam Bienkov: “Boris Johnson’s spokesman refuses to explicitly rule out accepting hormone-treated beef as part of a trade deal with Australia.” (May 21st 2021, 740 Retweets, 1,160 Likes)

My tweet was an entirely accurate account of the briefing, which was later reported in print by other outlets who attended the briefing.

However, a few hours later I suddenly noticed that I was getting a lot of replies which linked in the Department for International Trade’s Twitter account.

I then realised that the department had targeted me with a tweet, including a gif about hormone-treated beef.

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Bienkov then FOI’s the Department for International Trade to find out quite who was in charge of this rather cackhanded “rebuttal”. It’s quite the odyssey which also shows you that watching tweets being written by committee is one of the most painful things you can witness.
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Priceless NFT artwork vandalized with spray paint tool • The Onion

Perfection.
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The Steve Jobs deal with Michael Dell that could have changed Apple and tech history • CNET

Connie Guglielmo:

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Jobs offered to license the Mac OS to Dell, telling him he could give PC buyers a choice of Apple’s software or Microsoft’s Windows OS installed on their machine. 

“He said, look at this – we’ve got this Dell desktop and it’s running Mac OS,” Dell tells me. “Why don’t you license the Mac OS?”

Dell thought it was a great idea and told Jobs he’d pay a licensing fee for every PC sold with the Mac OS. But Jobs had a counteroffer: He was worried that licensing scheme might undermine Apple’s own Mac computer sales because Dell computers were less costly. Instead, Dell says, Jobs suggested he just load the Mac OS alongside Windows on every Dell PC and let customers decide which software to use – and then pay Apple for every Dell PC sold.

Dell smiles when he tells the story. “The royalty he was talking about would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, and the math just didn’t work, because most of our customers, especially larger business customers, didn’t really want the Mac operating system,” he writes. “Steve’s proposal would have been interesting if it was just us saying, “OK, we’ll pay you every time we use the Mac OS” – but to pay him for every time we didn’t use it … well, nice try, Steve!”

Another problem: Jobs wouldn’t guarantee access to the Mac OS three, four or five years later “even on the same bad terms.” That could leave customers who were using Mac OS out of luck as the software evolved, leaving Dell Inc. no way to ensure it could support those users.

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I think this did happen, but people are misreading the dates. They’re thinking Jobs spoke to Dell in 1997. Not at all. There was OSX in 2000-1-2, and Apple was losing money at that time (it propped its results up by selling ARM shares), and had OSX that ran on Intel. Dell was selling a truckload of PCs. It would have been an amazing deal for Apple, with no downside. Which is why I believe Jobs tried it. (Apple tried the same around the same time with Sony. Even more evidence.)
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How El Salvador is testing bitcoin’s promise of financial liberty • The New York Times

Anatoly Kurmanaev, Bryan Avelar and Ephrat Livni:

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Nearly a month after the introduction of bitcoin, it remains unclear where the dollar funds and the bitcoin held by the government, or reflected in Chivo Wallets, are, or what they are worth.

Although all bitcoin transactions carry a code to ensure transparency, Mr. Bukele has treated the bitcoin policy as a state secret. He has classified all information related to Chivo Wallet, which was created with taxpayer funds, but is run as a private enterprise by undisclosed individuals.

“He is playing Russian roulette with public money,” said Ruth López, a Salvadoran lawyer at the nonprofit organization Cristosal, which sued the government over the Chivo Wallet’s financing irregularities.

Mr. Bukele, his ministers of economy and finance, the trade secretary, the attorney general, the head of the congressional economic committee, the financial regulator, the central bank and the state bank financing the bitcoin fund all declined to comment.

On the streets, the policy’s impact has been mixed. Mr. Bukele says three million Salvadorans, or more than half of all adults, have installed Chivo Wallet, but in reality, the use of bitcoin remains limited. Most fear the cryptocurrency’s extreme price volatility, say they lack technological skills or distrust the government’s intentions.

…The adoption of bitcoin has also deepened Mr. Bukele’s impasse with international lenders. His talks with the International Monetary Fund over a crucial $1bn loan have stalled, as the lender became increasingly concerned about the deterioration of the rule of law and bitcoin’s threat to financial stability.

Lack of IMF funding has in turn blocked other traditional sources of funding, complicating Mr. Bukele’s populist spending programs. El Salvador’s bonds fell sharply after the adoption of bitcoin as Wall Street became concerned over Mr. Bukele’s ability to pay existing debts.

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A victory for free knowledge: Florida judge rules Section 230 bars defamation claim against the Wikimedia Foundation • Diff

Jacob Rogers:

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On September 15th, in a victory for the Wikimedia movement and for all user-driven projects online, a Florida judge dismissed claims of defamation, invasion of privacy, and infliction of emotional distress against the Wikimedia Foundation. The judge found that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes the Wikimedia Foundation from liability for third-party content republished on Wikipedia. In other words, Section 230 helps Wikimedia safely host the work of Wikipedia’s contributors and enables the effective volunteer-led moderation of content on the projects.

The case began when plaintiff Nathaniel White sued the Wikimedia Foundation in January 2021, claiming that the Foundation was liable for the publication of photos that incorrectly identified him as a New York serial killer of the same name. Because of its open nature, sometimes inaccurate information is uploaded to Wikipedia and its companion projects, but the many members of our volunteer community are very effective at identifying and removing these inaccuracies when they do occur. Notably, this lawsuit was filed months after Wikipedia editors proactively corrected the error at issue in September 2020. Wikimedia moved to dismiss the amended complaint in June, arguing that plaintiff’s claims were barred by Section 230.

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Ex-Ozy Media employees say company used dubious tactics to build newsletter following, raising legal questions • Forbes

Jemima McEvoy:

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Three ex-employees with knowledge of Ozy’s newsletter operations, who asked to remain anonymous because of non-disclosure agreements they signed, said the company on multiple occasions obtained large numbers of email addresses through marketing partnerships it formed with other companies and news outlets.

Ozy would offer to send an email for the other company as part of the partnership, and some companies would then share a list of addresses for a supposed one-time message. Instead, the former employees allege, those email addresses would then be permanently added to Ozy’s newsletter subscriber list.

Among the companies they say Ozy collectively accumulated millions of email addresses from were the McClatchy newspaper chain and the technology magazine Wired, according to two of the former employees (McClatchy and Conde Nast, the parent company of Wired, did not respond to requests for comment from Forbes). [A Wired staffer suggests in the story that this wouldn’t happen.]

Ozy would also buy in bulk email addresses from third-party websites like U.S. Data Corporation and Exact Data, ramping up the size of its newsletter following in order to fulfill advertising deals with its clients.

After Ozy added batches of new addresses to its mailing lists, many recipients would attempt to unsubscribe from the newsletters only to be kept on the distribution lists and even re-subscribed under the direction of Ozy management, a potential violation of commercial email laws.

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At this rate we’re going to find out in a week or so that the company wasn’t properly set up, nobody was really employed, and that it wasn’t called Ozy Media at all. Strongly suspect there are many charlatan companies like this; they just aren’t as high-profile.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1655: TikTok’s inevitable spiral, Uncomfortability, NFT vandalism!, the odd Jobs-Dell deal, Ozy’s newsletter scam, and more

  1. Charles, as I remain an unapologetic Wikipedia critic, I know I’m out of the step with current prevailing views. But I feel a need to point out that the Wikimedia press release there, while accurate as a matter a law, is extremely misleading (and arguably sleazy to the victim) in certain implications. While it plays up that the correction was done in “in September 2020”, it utterly avoids giving the corresponding information that the error was made *in May 2018*. IT WAS THERE FOR MORE THAN TWO YEARS! This is *not* “very effective”, quite the reverse.

    Now, even under moderate reform (i.e. “notice-and-takedown”) of Section 230, the Wikimedia Foundation wouldn’t be liable here, and further the mistake seems to have been made innocently. Sometimes law can’t solve every moral wrong. But, on the hand, in terms of sheer human decency, they can’t even seem to muster a perfunctory apology along the lines of “We regret the error”. Worse, they then do lawyer-trick slimy PR backpatting of themselves, over the very mistake which has caused this person so much pain.

    There’s a difference between legal liability, and moral responsibility. They really should have owned up to what happened here.

  2. Regarding TikTok, among Middle School kids there’s a viral TikTok trend going around in which they vandalize the restrooms at school. Which means the schools have been having to fix a lot of damage on a daily basis. It came out of nowhere, lasted about 3 weeks, and it appears to be dropping off just as quickly. So it sounds exactly like the bad social memes we had on facebook. Except the kids are younger, which is a tad worrying (we had letters from the school about it).

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