Start Up No.1883: TikTok has won, so what now?, podcasting hit pause, Make Me PM (don’t), BoE bails out pensions, and more

The trombone is just an inherently silly instrument, isn’t it? Is that why Trombone Champ is so much fun? CC-licensed photo by julie corsi on Flickr.

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On Friday, there’s another post due at the Social Warming Substack at about 0845 UK time.

A selection of 10 links for you. A tad political. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

TikTok is the new king of social media. Now what? • NY Mag

John Herrman:


For TikTok to become the new Facebook, the old platforms needed to get out of the way. There’s been a great deal of devastating reporting about the decreasing centrality of Facebook Facebook, the blue site, which is now clear to basically any user. Nearly as obvious, to close observers, is a comparable crisis within Instagram. An internal presentation circulated in 2018 warned that declining interest from young users represented an “existential threat.”

Four years later, the app’s relentless push to get its fatigued users to adopt TikTok-style Reels seems to be making its situation worse, not better. In a memo acquired by The Information, Instagram head Adam Mosseri — whose video addresses to the “Instagram Community” have increasingly resembled a youth pastor’s sermons to a waning flock — warned that it has now fallen “behind TikTok and YouTube on all the dimensions that” really matter, including “fun, reach, fair algorithm, and care.”

More broadly, Meta has seen the value of its stock fall by more than half and is reportedly trimming staff. Where it was once a ruthless acquirer of future competitors, it has, in the context of antitrust investigations, become more cautious. It’s easy to understand why Zuckerberg, who reportedly attempted to buy TikTok in 2016, has shifted his focus to what he hopes are new frontiers: virtual reality and “the metaverse.”

But TikTok’s rapid rise raises the spectre of a rapid fall. It is already showing signs of slowing down, according to app analytics firm Sensor Tower, signaling a possible transition away from hypergrowth and into uneasy incumbency. TikTok’s rush to copy BeReal also tells a story about what, for all its success, TikTok doesn’t have that allows its predecessors to lumber on even as they deteriorate.

People follow one another on TikTok and keep up with individual influencers. But unlike most social platforms before it, which emphasized follower-and-friend-style connections, TikTok’s main attraction is its automated For You page, which places users at the bottom of a massive algorithmic content funnel. TikTok is a platform of targeted content and loose ties — a post-social social network that doesn’t rely on your friends to keep you engaged and entertained but rather on “recommendation,” which is the flip side of surveillance.


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Podcasting is just radio now • Vulture

Nicholas Quah:


Some insiders believe there’s probably never going to be another Serial-esque moment again. “The expectation that there should be one dominant podcast that all of us want to tune into is kind of foolish,” said Catherine Saint Louis, the executive editor at Neon Hum Media, the studio behind narrative podcasts Sympathy Pains and Spectacle, among others. “It’s like asking, ‘Why isn’t there appointment TV anymore?’”

The Peak Television analogy is often invoked when executives and producers talk about the teeming podcast market. Consider how Yellowjackets, whose first season’s finale drew around 1.3 million viewers, is thought to be a hit even though it has a significantly smaller audience than, say, Yellowstone, whose season-four finale scored more than 9.3 million viewers. The teenage-cannibal drama is widely considered a success because it reached a critical mass among critics and influencers while serving the business goals of Showtime. Saint Louis argues podcasting doesn’t yet have a social infrastructure — an internally propulsive web of invested audiences, taste-making creators, and press — that’s able to support that kind of nuanced feedback loop in how we talk about successful audio productions.

And not everybody believes virality and blockbuster status are fundamentally important in the first place. “There are many more people listening to all kinds of stuff than there were years ago,” one industry insider said. “They might just not be hanging out at bars with your editors.” That’s probably true. After all, podcast audiences have continued to grow as a whole. But it’s difficult to cement a medium’s sense of identity, culture, and meaning if hardly anybody is talking about the same thing — and that may well have material ramifications for the business in the long run.


Why does it need to be a gigantic money-spinning business? Why can’t it just be a craft thing? You can set up a podcast with a mic and a little attitude, and an RSS feed. Another Serial can happen. But you can’t force it to happen.
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Make Me Prime Minister review: absolute, exquisite agony • The Guardian

Lucy Mangan:


The new reality series Make Me Prime Minister (Channel 4) is The Apprentice for aspiring politicians. If an unhappier sentence has ever been written in the history of English, I do not think I wish to know.

What can I say? I have already told you everything. Do I need to delineate the specific horrors? Very well then. Let us go onward, downward together. There are a dozen contestants. The process of winnowing the wheat (normal, albeit terrible, human beings) from the chaff (the moronic, the sub-moronic, the sociopathic, the hateful and the simply awful) is conducted via various half-baked tasks pursued with a vigour you couldn’t muster if you were trying to put out a fire on your own head. They are overseen by sneering experts Alastair Campbell and Sayeeda Warsi. Listening to the latter’s voice is like laying your head near a screaming drill, alas without the prospect of it slipping and boring a blessed release into silence through your skull.

“It would be quite extraordinary if one or more of the people who go through this process become elected politicians,” says Campbell. Well, yes and no.


Ms Mangan is not one to spare the knife. And it certainly goes unspared here. Deservedly. Watching members of the public struggle with incisive questions from members of the national media is absolutely amazing. Most people are not used to inquisition. It’s difficult to get used to without having a gigantic ego.
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Record methane leak flows from damaged Baltic Sea pipelines • AP News

Patrick Whittle:


Methane leaking from the damaged Nord Stream pipelines is likely to be the biggest burst of the potent greenhouse gas on record, by far.

The Nord Stream pipeline leaks that were pumping huge volumes of methane into the Baltic Sea and atmosphere could discharge as much as five times as much of the potent greenhouse as was released by the Aliso Canyon disaster, the largest known terrestrial release of methane in U.S. history. It is also the equivalent of one third of Denmark’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions, a Danish official warned Wednesday.

“Whoever ordered this should be prosecuted for war crimes and go to jail,” said Rob Jackson, a Stanford University climate scientist. Two scientists looked at the official worst case scenario estimates provided by the Danish government — 778 million cubic meters of gas — for the Associated Press. They calculated that would be an equivalent of roughly half a million metric tons of methane. The Aliso Canyon disaster released 90-100,000 metric tons.

Andrew Baxter, a chemical engineer who formerly worked in the offshore oil and gas industry, and is now at the environmental group EDF thought the Danish estimate was likely too high. He had a more conservative estimate. But it was still more than double the Aliso Canyon disaster.

“That’s one thing that is consistent with these estimates,” he said, “It’s catastrophic for the climate.”


Lots of discussion about who and how the pipeline leaks were done. One good suggestion is that it means Gazprom can claim force majeure, and so doesn’t have to fulfil contracts. It’s also a real screw you by Putin for the climate.
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Bank of England (BoE) launches £65bn move to calm markets • Financial Times

Chris Giles, Emma Dunkley, Owen Walker, Peter Foster, Josephine Cumbo, George Parker, Jim Pickard and Harriet Agnew:


The BoE suspended a programme to sell gilts — part of an effort to get surging inflation under control — and instead pledged to buy long-dated bonds at a rate of up to £5bn a day for the next 13 weekdays. [Up to £65bn – CA]

Economists warned the injection of billions of pounds of newly minted money into the economy could fuel inflation. “This move will be inflationary at a time of already high inflation,” said Daniel Mahoney, UK economist at Handelsbanken.

…The bank stressed it was not seeking to lower long-term government borrowing costs. Instead it sought to buy time to prevent a vicious circle in which pension funds have to sell gilts immediately to meet demands for cash from their creditors.

That process had put pension funds at risk of insolvency, because the mass sell-offs pushed down further the price of gilts held by funds as assets, requiring them to stump up even more cash.

“At some point this morning I was worried this was the beginning of the end,” said a senior London-based banker, adding that at one point on Wednesday morning there were no buyers of long-dated UK gilts. “It was not quite a Lehman moment. But it got close.”

The most directly affected groups were final salary pension schemes that have hedged to ensure their ability to make future payments — so-called liability-driven investment strategies that are very sensitive to fast-moving gilt yields.

“It appears that some players in the market ran out of collateral and dumped gilts,” said Peter Harrison, chief executive of Schroders, which has $55bn in global LDI business. “We were more conservatively positioned and we had enough collateral to meet all of our margin calls.”

But a senior executive at a large asset manager said they had contacted the BoE on Tuesday warning that it needed “to intervene in the market otherwise it will seize up” — but the bank failed to act until Wednesday. It declined to comment.


No buyers of long-dated gilts. AKA a gilt strike. That is absolutely the worst position an economy dependent on debt can be in. The pension funds were staring into the abyss for a little bit.
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Fast Company used to send an obscene Apple News push notification • The Verge

Richard Lawler:


It’s been a little while since we had a high-profile media feed hijacking, but tonight someone sent an Apple News notification from Fast Company containing a racial slur and invitation for a particular sexual act.

Apple has addressed the incident on its Apple News Twitter account, saying that it’s disabled Fast Company’s channel.

The publication confirmed the hack. “Fast Company’s Apple News account was hacked on Tuesday evening. Two obscene and racist push notifications were sent about a minute apart. The messages are vile and are not in line with the content of Fast Company. We are investigating the situation and have suspended the feed and shut down until we are certain the situation has been resolved.”

An article posted to Fast Company’s website before it disappeared included a message from “postpixel,” describing at length how they were able to execute the attack and deriding attempts to secure the outlet’s publishing tools. The message claims they got in thanks to a password that was shared across many accounts, including an administrator.


The smacking of foreheads can probably be heard miles away. Just unfortunate that on the very day I link to a really good story on it about bridging political divides, it gets hacked into oblivion.
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Study contradicts Rees-Mogg over hydrogen for heating • BBC News

Jonah Fisher:


Last week the Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg told the Commons that hydrogen was a “silver bullet”.

Hydrogen, unlike fossil fuels, doesn’t give off CO2 when it burns, leading to hopes it could play a key role in decarbonising the economy. Mr Rees-Mogg said hydrogen could be used as a way to store excess renewable power, and “with some adjustments piped through to people’s houses to heat them during the winter.”

Many energy scientists agree with Mr Rees-Mogg’s assessment that hydrogen could play a role in storing energy, for example on a windy or sunny day when renewables are generating more electricity than the grid needs. Many also see it having a future in specialist industries that will prove hard to electrify, like shipping, steel production or aviation.

“Using hydrogen for heating may sound attractive at first glance,” says Jan Rosenow, the report’s author and Europe Director at the energy think-tank the Regulatory Assistance Project.

“However, all of the independent research on this topic comes to the same conclusion: heating with hydrogen is a lot less efficient and more expensive than alternatives such as heat pumps, district heating and solar thermal,” he said.

The appeal of hydrogen is that it doesn’t release CO2 when burnt, and that it can be made from water, an almost limitless resource. But it’s no miracle energy source, with big challenges associated with how the hydrogen is made. Most of the world’s hydrogen is currently manufactured using fossil fuels (referred to as grey hydrogen), a process which is more polluting than just using methane gas.

So for hydrogen to be considered “green”, electricity from renewable sources has to be used to electrolyse water. The problem is that the process is inefficient.


The Haunted Hatstand is wrong about something relating to energy? Knock me down with a feather. As someone pointed out, it may be relevant that he hasn’t actually been entrusted with the Energy portfolio, even though that could sit within his department.
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Truss inherits a party unbalanced by Brexit • Prospect Magazine

Sam Freedman is a former special adviser to Michael Gove, and now a senior fellow at the Institute for Government:


[PM Liz] Truss’s initial support within the party came almost entirely from the group of politicians who would never have had any relevance without Brexit. This includes longstanding proponents of leaving the EU like Jacob Rees-Mogg, but also figures such as David (now Lord) Frost who, like Truss, switched his position on seeing a career opportunity.

This is why the fight with [former chancellor Rishi] Sunak was so bitter. He represented such a threat to the Truss support group precisely because he backed Leave—and was supported by other true believers like Dominic Raab and, belatedly, Michael Gove. Having seen him off, the Truss gang are ascendant. But that means a Cabinet packed with politicians who would have been nowhere near high office without Brexit, at a time when talent and competence are badly needed.

The huddle of remaining Tory pragmatists are in despair. If the coming years play out as they fear, many will leave politics at the next election. There may even be some defections. Meanwhile Truss risks being trapped—not just by events, but by the opportunists who have helped her reach the premiership. Few have any personal loyalty to her. Like Johnson, she is a vehicle for their ambitions and will be discarded the moment she becomes a liability. She has the added problem that Johnson is not hiding his belief that he should still be in office.

Governments always run out of energy, and when they do there’s always speculation that the party will never recover. We saw it with the Tories in 1997; and with Labour after 1979, and again in 2010. Ultimately our majoritarian system has ensured that they eventually do revive and win again, and that could well happen this time. But there is a difference today, because the parliamentary party has changed so drastically. Recently, Cummings tweeted that the Tories were “too rancid to be saved” and that “2023-24 is about Carthaginian treatment for Tory Party, ploughed into earth with salt, and its REPLACEMENT.” The man who did so much to put the Conservatives in this position may get his wish.


The Tory Party conference is coming up next week. Sure to be an absolute banger bringing together all the Tory MPs (except Sunak: he’s giving Truss room to “own the moment” 🤣) watching the dominoes fall after last Friday’s not-a-budget-at-all.
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Pushing Buttons: the viral music game that revived my teenage obsession • The Guardian

Keza MacDonald:


So, by now we’ve all seen Trombone Champ, right? The music game – in which you play a cartoon trombonist making noises that bear only the vaguest resemblance to music – went viral last week; if you’ve not seen it, here’s the tweet from PC Gamer that started it all. I promise that your day will be vastly improved by watching this video.

This game is very, very funny. It’s “a joke first and a game second,” its creator Dan Vecchitto told the Guardian. Part of its comedy is in the presentation – the discordant visual details, the random made-up facts on the loading screens – and part of it is in the sheer ridiculousness of what you’re doing and how dismal it sounds. Here’s the thing, though: I’m a specialist in music games, with ateenaged obsession that lasted at least a decade, and Trombone Champ is genuinely a good and challenging rhythm game, as well as a good joke.

The act of moving a mouse up and down and pressing a button has just enough in common with the act of playing a trombone to make this a legitimate interactive approximation. And, as I discovered when trying to get the highest possible score, an S-rank, on a few songs – motivated by some deep need to conquer the game – it is challenging to wring anything higher than a B out of the game’s scoring system. Being good at Trombone Champ is not only possible, but aspirational.

Trombone Champ has reminded me how much I miss music games. For a while in the late 00s they were everywhere, after Guitar Hero proved an unlikely breakout hit. From 2007 until 2010 or so, my living room was full of plastic instruments: drums and guitars for Rock Band, DJ decks from DJ Hero. Those toy guitars were just close enough to real ones to make you feel good when you were playing, and far enough away to make anyone feel like they could actually be a rock star, at least when you’re playing on Easy. I did not stop at Easy; I defeated every song on Expert and became phenomenally good at playing pretend instruments – a talent that has garnered me admiration at parties but has absolutely no use in the year 2022.


I’ve no idea why but every Trombone Champ video has me giggling helplessly within moments. Perhaps it’s just a ridiculous instrument: something that changes in size all the time?
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Russia’s nuclear threats • The Atlantic

Tom Nichols is an academic and former aide specialising in Russia and nuclear weapons strategy:


a nuclear attack on Ukraine could provoke a collapse of the Russian regime itself.

Assume, for example, that Putin decides to shock the world by exploding a relatively small nuclear weapon, perhaps against Ukrainian forces close to the Russian border, claiming that he needs to halt a catastrophic Ukrainian offensive into Russia. Putin is a product of the Soviet system; his thinking has always shown a heavy reliance on old Soviet catechisms about the West, and he would likely expect such an act to produce panic, the fracturing of NATO, unrest in the United States and Britain, and a Ukrainian capitulation under pressure from Washington and Brussels.

That could happen, I suppose, but the lessons of the past century, from the destruction of the Nazis to the defeat of the Soviet Union to the resistance in Ukraine, suggest that it is a bad bet. More likely, the entire world would coalesce against Putin, including China and others who have so far quietly tolerated this brutal escapade. Direct Western military action (something I have until now advised against) would become far more thinkable, especially if an international coalition—one that would almost certainly find support beyond NATO—came together to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine.

…Putin may think he could weather such a storm, but chaos would also erupt in Russia: one of the reasons Putin’s been able to prosecute this war is that he promised it would be quick and painless. Risking nuclear war after trying to drag hundreds of thousands of men into the military, while radiation blows across Europe after a nuclear attack on Ukraine, would likely be the breaking point for Russian society and a fair number of its elites. As the writer Peter Pomerantsev said recently: “The war in Ukraine was meant to be a movie, not a personal sacrifice … If there’s one thing Russians fear more than Putin, it’s nuclear war—and now he’s the one bringing it closer.”


There’s a very Death Of Stalin vibe around the narrative Nichols sketches out; he even mentions Beria. If you haven’t seen the film, make the time.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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