new articles, apologies, updates
plus: i know who The Mole is (maybe)
Hi! A kinda big one with a few updates:
my most astounding fuckup yet (also a new article)
a third article?? (sorta)
a resolution to the Mystery of The Scatman
i know who The Mole is?
an article about video games
(and, full disclosure, web3)
Here's a little secret: it's easy to tell what's going to happen on the internet broadly if you pay attention to video games specifically. If you want to know how technology, business, and culture all feed off each other to form new trends, you just gotta play (or read about) video games and watch how players respond to them. Each one is like an isolated beta test for new forms of interactivity in digital society, leading to the development of everything, from the technological and social innovations of livestreaming on Twitch (very cool) to the rhetorical and behavioral innovations of Gamergate (less cool).
“Oh, how convenient!” you say. “All of the internet is explained via a formative interest you developed as a child.” Fair point. However, I’d counter with “video games literally combine technological progress with interactivity and creative expression.” Not sure what else to say here other than that every video game is the experience of using the internet in microcosm!
In 2018, I wrote a piece explaining the success of Fortnite, positioning it more as a social platform than a deathmatch. I wrote all of this not just before people started throwing the term "metaverse" around, but also before Fortnite itself started doing a lot of the things it’s now well-known for: doing tie-in events with popular entertainment franchises; selling skins of pro athletes; hosting concerts and movie screenings; putting TikTok dances in as emotes; and overall, fashioning itself less as a competitive shooter and more as a game where its fun to just hang in the (cyber)space. That article remains probably my greatest called shot. How many pieces about Fortnite written in 2018 reflect the game's scope and function as it exists today? I'd bet very few.
You can consider this new piece for Businessweek a sequel of sorts: a thing happened in gaming, and it served as a very clear forecast of broader trends. At the end of 2021 and the start of 2022, something really funny kept happening. Video game companies and gaming public figures would announce that they were going to sell NFTs, interest in which had exploded months earlier, and then, almost every time, enough people yelled at them online that the efforts were immediately scrapped. A few months later, all of the publicly traded companies who were initially like, Yeah, NFTs seem rad were like, Haha just to be clear, we're looking at NFTs very cautiously and we did NOT say we're doing them.
If there is anyone conditioned to spend real money on silly virtual trinkets, it's gamers — they’re already doing this in large quantities. So why did they reject the pitch of NFTs (true ownership! worth real money!) so completely? Again, the answer is obvious if you play these things, but it is kinda interesting and seemed worth articulating explicitly. Hence, article.
The short answer is that over the last decade and a half, video game companies have figured out how to commodify every goddamn inch of a piece of software. If you want to see everything a title has to offer, you can't put in a cheat code — the only cheat codes now are "having a lot of money" or "having a lot of free time." Now imagine if, as web3 proponents hope, that same model of commodification, masked by the consumer-friendly sales pitch of “true ownership,” could be applied to every other mode of expression and interaction on the internet. Doesn't that sound fun? (IMO, it does not.) Complicating this, most games operate as live services now, which means they need to retain players and get them to spend repeatedly, rather than sell a single product once and call it a day. This makes game companies more vulnerable than ever to angry people yelling at them online.
Take last week's big story: Mark Zuckerberg faked the legs. His legs were a motion-captured, as opposed to being animated in real-time. It's very telling that someone even thought to ask this! Someone asked this because virtual reality's earliest adopters are the same people who got burned by the Killzone 2 trailer in 2005, and not VC-backed startup founders and futurist cheerleaders. The question "Hey, are the legs real?" is a direct product of years of game-marketing sleight of hand. Stuff moves faster now, and I can’t shake the sense that arc of the next 5 years of metaverse discourse is going to look a lot like the arc of the last 20 years of video-game discourse.
Anyway, that's some supplementary context for the piece I wrote which is out this week. (I won’t make you scroll back up; here’s another link.) I pitched it back in January, based on the general idea that “gamers being instant skeptics of this stuff does not bode well.” As I worked on various drafts over the course of 2022, crypto value and interest in NFTs cratered. Did gamers cause that? No, but they were a useful canary in the coal mine.
Like I said, studying this game stuff makes it pretty easy to see where the internet is probably headed. In fact, you might’ve first heard about NFTs from this newsletter months before they exploded, after I discovered them while investigating why some Among Us meme had extremely detailed sneaker models. Unfortunately, when it comes to explaining the cultural impact of video games (as opposed to, say, the business), games/tech media is talking to people who already get it, and generalist publications still think their articles need to explain the concept of a jump button. There is, believe it or not, a useful middle ground.
I've got a list of a dozen or so of these scenarios at this point, in which the behavior of gamers and game makers has served as a clear preview of technological and societal trends more broadly. Maybe I'll write that book proposal at some point. In the meantime, feel free to share this mainstream attempt at describing video games in your Discords with a note like "this is so cringe." Hatereads count too.
a gigantic correction
Even though I mostly write about silly, obscure, and superfluous internet bullshit, I still try to do my due diligence, check my facts, and get things right. I fucked up recently.
Back in July, I sent you all a link to a piece I’d written for Defector. The piece concerned a viral video filmed at a basketball game in the ‘90s. It was — I thought — exhaustively researched, and I felt very good about the particulars. A few weeks after its publication, however, some readers alerted me to the fact that I’d gotten one part of the story very, very wrong.
I have never seen a piece of reporting go awry in quite the way that this one did. I’d love to sweep my mistakes under the rug and pretend they don’t exist, but that’s a luxury only afforded to New York Times columnists covering crypto.
So now I have this follow-up report, “The Misremembered History Of The Internet’s Funniest Buzzer-Beater.” If nothing else, I hope that even my screwup and this new attempt to make good can provide some worthwhile entertainment. Again, I sincerely regret the error.
oh, one more article
I wrote about the social utility of Zillow for Logic (you might recognize the gist of it from an old issue of BNet but
sssshhhh don’t tell anyone). You can also buy it in print. Personally, I think you should just subscribe.
mystery of the Scatman — solved!
In May 2020, I wrote about the mysteries of the Scatman. Specifically, about a popular quote attributed to Scatman John that seemed to have appeared out of thin air on his Wikipedia page. Macklemore, what was that quote again?
Right. After I published my findings, the quote was removed from his Wikipedia page.
I eventually heard back from Joni Rush, an editor I’d contacted who had done some vital work on the Scatman John entry, in January 2021. She told me that she definitely remembered seeing the quote on scatmanjohn.com, his official website, though archived snapshots only contain the first parts of the quote, “Whatever God wants is fine by me.” The second half was added by someone with a UK IP address, and are that IP’s only contribution to Wikipedia.
At the very least, Rush said, “I wouldn’t joke about him, I stutter and he’s one of my heroes. Glad people are still reading about him and from my teenage wiki edits from 15 years ago.” She also offered to put me in touch with Gina Wag, a friend of the Scatman’s who ran scatmanjohn.com before the domain registration expired and it went offline for a bit.
And then… well, I’ll be totally honest: I just did not pursue this line of inquiry. Who knows why? I was busy! Luckily, Ms. Wag reached out to me earlier this month after somehow discovering my original post.
She sent along this message:
Back in the late 90s, I used to run Scatman John's official site. John was a friend and mentor to me during my teenage years (I also struggled with stuttering). He said that quote, verbatim, to me after he'd been diagnosed with cancer.
I first mentioned a paraphrased version of it on the site after John had died (link here to the Archived page). Unfortunately, the website expired soon after, got turned into spam, and the content disappeared.
A fellow fan you mentioned, Joni Rush, kept some of the material and I think she wrote the bulk of the original Wikipedia entry using old bits of the site. I still recognise a few sentences as originally mine, and the sole UK user who corrected the quote was almost certainly me.
It looks like it's taken on a life of its own, sometimes wrongly said to be his 'last words'. I found your take on Wikipedia's propensity to self-reference really interesting. You make a good point.
Anyway, that's the story. Incidentally, I just got scatmanjohn.com back after all this time, and the record company and I plan to relaunch it. Maybe I should include that quote, so it can go back on Wikipedia in a legit way :)
I hope this helps. Above all, I'm just happy you liked the quote, and even happier to share that John did in fact say it!
Mystery solved — Thank you, Gina! We can now put the Scatman quote back on his Wikipedia page.
i’m like 99% sure i know who The Mole is
I swear this is about the internet. There’s a new season of The Mole on Netflix and it rocks. It’s got everything you want from a The Mole: convoluted challenges forcing people to betray each other, an impish cable TV host who pops up to mess with players at the worst time, impossible puzzles that you watch and are like oh, I would solve that no sweat even though you definitely would not. Episodes were released in batches over the last couple of weeks, and the last 2 are out this Friday.
A really cool and stupid thing about The Mole is each episode has a hidden clue, for the audience, as to The Mole’s identity. Historically speaking, these clues suck. There are two that I remember. One is, in the season premiere of the first season, The Mole arrived fourth — and “mole” has four letters (Anderson Cooper literally explained this on national TV). The second clue is, in one of the second-season episodes, no stars were visible at night, except for one shot where they digitally added The Mole’s astrological sign.
The clues are dumb, and with the Netflix batch, I tried very hard to not look for them. A seemingly random string of letters and numbers on the side of a treasure chest? I will not be hitting pause. I honestly don’t know if they’re even putting clues in the reboot episodes — but I think I found one. From episode 5, where there’s a very real block of C4 on a table:
The batch number on this fake C4 is 42276. I didn’t even have to pause the episode to catch this. That’s five digits, so I thought to myself “I wonder what zip code that is.” If this were the early 2000s, when The Mole originally aired, I’d ignore this impulse and move on with my life, rather than heading over to my Dell tower running Windows XP.
Unfortunately, we’ve got internet all the time now, so I plugged “42276” into Google on my iPhone, and got this.
Woo-hoo. Again, if this were the early 2000s, I’d give up. But because every Netflix Original is grist for the content mill, it is very easy to type something like “the mole 2022 cast” into Google and get a lot of information from a bunch of real sites that look like fake sites from Law & Order. Like this article from Reality Titbit, which tells me that contestant Kesi Neblett “grew up with four brothers and sisters in the backcountry of Kentucky.”
That’s pretty close, but maybe that’s a coincidence. Can we go deeper? Yes, because though LinkedIn didn’t exist when the original The Mole aired in 2001 and 2002, it sure as hell exists now. Let’s check out Kesi’s LinkedIn page, specifically what’s in the Organizations section of her profile.
Wow, that’s sooooo interesting! What an odd coincidence! The C4 brick had the zip code of Logan County on it, and Kesi — who has been messing up in challenges constantly, but sorta believably — used to live in Logan County? What are the odds?
I went to Netflix’s first-party content mill, Tudum, and took their online version of the elimination quiz contestants take each episode, armed with this knowledge.
I sure hope ubiquitous, instant internet access hasn’t ruined the new The Mole for me!!!!!!
(For posterity, I also locked in this prediction on Github before episodes 6-8 aired last week.)