Streaming Enters it's Villain Era
Meta AI's Video Generator signposts the increasingly blurred lines between real/ fake, and what the latest developments in the Elon vs. Twitter drama might mean for the future of the Internet
1/ Paid in Exposure: The Slow Disillusionment of the “Creator Economy”
Remember when the Internet was supposed to free us? In the past few weeks, the promise of web2 social/ streaming platforms to “create community, connections, and opportunity” has been slowly exposed for the empty-calorie marketing spin it is.
Last week, we covered the exodus some music fans are making away from streaming platforms. Then Vanity Fair released a state-of-the-entertainment-industry which reported that everyone in Hollywood is “totally drained and burned out” thanks to the accumulated effects of Netflix’s first-ever subscriber drop this year and the fallout from the WB/ HBO/ (and rumored NBC Universal) merger. Following that, Amazon-owned Twitch very publicly lost the battle for its soul when it announced it was changing it’s revenue-share model with creator “partners” from 70/30 to 50/50. Then finally, this week brought the release of a WIRED exposé detailing the stark reality of how Spotify is using playlists to create a stranglehold over the music industry — repackaging the historic inequities of a notoriously dirty business behind friendly Swedish branding.
We won’t re-litigate the ways in which Spotify has transformed music into *bland background muzak* — but when we last got into it, we didn’t dig too deep into the real nefarious purpose behind all those ~chill vibes~.
Those conveniently prepackaged #moods (Feelin’ Myself, BBE, my life is a movie)? All being used to collect data about your taste, preferences, location — which the company is re-packaging to brands to sell ads. Rise N’ Grind time? How about a nutritious McDonald’s breakfast? In Beast Mode? Stay hydrated with Cody’s Cooldown!
Of course, a little exploitation has always been a part of the equation when the interests of technology, business, and creativity clash. The difference is, a lot of creativity used to come from artists actively trying to circumvent the systems exploiting them. (see: the entire evolution of the artist formerly known as Prince or the many fuck-you singles released by artists successfully emancipating themselves like 2019’s “Free Uzi”). Now in the age of “streambait” playlists, experimentation no longer pays.
Playlists reinforce biases that have always been around in the industry. In order to game the algorithm, male artists are favored over female, American over any other country of origin, earworm-y hooks and sick drops over true originality. The institution of radio certainly isn’t without its sins, but local stations used to introduce a lot of regional flavor into the ecosystem by breaking new talent. With Spotify as the monolithic tastemaker, these voices are disappearing. Soon, all we may be left with are Drake clones.
“A music culture dependent on playlists is dependent on Spotify, whereas a music culture dependent on albums is dependent on record labels.”
— Liz Pelly, music journalist and commentator
Any good dealer knows, the first taste is free, and now that Spotify has the userbase and the data, its accumulating influence in the industry that was once shared by radio DJs, record labels, management teams, and journalists. And its stranglehold shows no sign of loosening:
Goldman Sachs has predicted the streaming market will exceed $37B by 2030. Currently, Spotify controls just over a third of the market. The rest is dominated by Big Tech: Apple (with 19%), Amazon (15%), Tencent (the benevolent Chinese overlords behind TikTok — in joint venture with Spotify: 11%), and Google (6%).
Hopefully, web3 offers an alternative that more directly and transparently builds relationships between artists and fans — just like we all dreamed back in the day.
2/ The Fine Line Between Real/ Fake
You may have caught the debut of Make-A-Video, Meta’s AI Video Generator, which advances the trippy, reality-bending images produced by MidJourney, DALL-E, and the like into high-quality video clips. All with the same intuitive text prompt or insert-input-here interface. The technology itself is not yet available for public use, but a white paper study on the research has been published, and Meta did share some mind-boggling samples:
The program builds on the work begun last year as Make-a-Scene, an image generator by Meta AI that offers greater compositional control for images based on prompts, and is the next step in expanding Meta’s ethos:
“It’s not enough for an AI system to just generate content” [Users should be able to] shape and control the content a system generates.”
— Meta AI
But given Facebook’s track record with creating echo chambers of disinformation, some observers were rightfully anxious. Meta’s solve? “A watermark [will be applied] to all content created from Make-A-Video to ensure viewers know the video was generated with AI.”
It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come since the “Deep Tom Cruise” TikTok account first posted in February 2022, quickly going viral and startling scrollers with just how convincing it was as a dupe:
Deepfakes have existed for longer than that, but this was one of the first mega-viral moments that woke the public up to its potential. The account calls itself out as ‘parody,’ absolving it of legal ramifications for the use of Tom Cruise’s likeness. It’s a tactic the creators of South Park Trey Parker and Matt Stone have also relied on:
In the case of South Park, the disclaimer was never really necessary. Even when clipped and posted elsewhere on the internet, no one thought Kanye West was really freaking out over a ‘fish sticks’ joke. While not malicious, the “Deep Tom Cruise” videos are everywhere — accumulating millions of views on the main account alone, (and often reposted without the ‘parody’ context).
“A lie will fly around the whole world while the truth is getting its boots on”
— one of those sayings that’s ironically attributed to everyone from Mark Twain, to Winston Churchill, to nameless ‘Chinese proverb.’
There are likely plenty of people that still believe these videos are actually Tom Cruise. Now, imagine this technology being used with deceptive intentions. (Like the army of scammers masquerading as men with perfectly-symmetrical faces on Hinge).
The alarming ease at which these videos can now be created has immense implications for our perceived reality, but we’ll hold that #deepthought 🤔💭 for another day.
Less dystopian but still mind boggling, is the potential this technology has to further homogenize film and TV. Bruce Willis’ team had to come out and deny the allegation that the actor was considering selling his ‘digital likeness’ to deepfake company DeepCake — just one headline that hints at a possible future where our favorite stars never have to retire.
No one wants a new Die Hard with an increasingly aged Bruce Willis, but what if he hadn’t aged since the first? What if Sean Connery could just carry on playing James Bond forever? In an industry already saturated with franchises, sequels, and remakes, do we need to keep seeing the same actors too?
3/ Recruiting for the Web3 Movement
The utopia espoused by web3 enthusiasts is one that better aligns incentives with its users. (Ideally) allowing creators to bypass the middleman and connect directly with their consumers, and in doing so, excising the influence of advertising that makes the user ‘the product’ in web2.
That’s the narrative among web3 advocates at least (of which I am one!), and the sooner we get there, the better! But it’s important to take off the ‘maxi’ hat and exit the bubble occasionally.
Let’s begin with the foundational building block of web3 — blockchain. In the case of $$$, blockchain is our best way of manifesting what was always a decentralized system of cash in your pocket into the digital realm.
“Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs, and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age, or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.
— Yuval Noah Harari
With Yuval’s take in mind, it’s easy to see why web3 makes sense for money and why centralization should be fought. Now, consider a web3 version of Twitter. Such as the one Jack Dorsey is encouraging Elon Musk to create. Twitter for sure has it’s problems, but putting every message on the blockchain doesn’t necessarily solve them. And we’ve already seen what a fully uncensored internet look like with 4chan.
This is not to say we shouldn’t try it! Preserving freedom of speech as a bedrock principle of the Internet is a cause worth rallying around — and a big reason why you should be paying attention to the Netchoice v. Paxton ruling in Texas.
But rather than being a ‘web3 maxi’ trying to reinvent every institution, we should be thinking about how web3 can complement them, and how, to Yuval’s point, we should be working to build trust in web3 with more communities.
Take the music space, for example, web3 could offer artists ways around the traditional label/ distribution/ promo route — empowering artists by arming them with leverage before they get to the negotiating table. (Stay tuned for more on this in the coming weeks!)
Like new technologies before it, web3 is changing the game and forcing incumbents to rethink their strategies rather than abusing their power or taking it for granted. In general, it shifts the balance of power towards decentralization, but not everything needs to be fully decentralized — what’s more important is building trust with more communities. Educating, onboarding, and co-creating so that more voices can be included and represented. It’s the only way to ensure this new version of the Internet is truly different from the last one.
…And In Case You Missed It
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Also @ PFW: Balmain revealed plays for a dedicated Web3 hub
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