Friday Tchotchke #8: A certain level of Unwell
Nostalgiacore slideshows, cruise ships, character bots
Sorry for the unannounced break in newslettering! I was in the UK having a very nice but busy time doing comedy.
Then I nearly thought I also wouldn’t get this week’s up, as I’ve been completely knocked out by the flu, but I seem to have rallied (knock on wood) after a few days spent lying in suspended animation like some kind of bedbound bog body. I feel physically better now but mentally still pretty bad. If writing this doesn’t help, I may have to resort to *gasp* Real Social Interaction.
In better news, I am super proud of my debut feature at The Verge, on fandom’s use of character chatbot app Character.AI:
Even backed by the power of an AI model, fans are responsible for a huge part of what makes Character.AI’s chatbots compelling. While creating a bot on the site can be done with a click of a button, refining it into something that other fans would recognize as “real” and accurate can take hours of training, coming from a deep understanding of the character. When somebody does it well, it garners the same pleased reactions that a good fic or fanvid might. In the same way that a buzzing market for AI art prompts has sprung up, recognizing the labor and expertise that it takes to generate precise visuals, perhaps bot generation will be the next in-demand fanwork type.
more of this kind of hard hitting journalism soon!!!!!
This week in fandom
The perfect TikTok account goes by the name @tumblr.archive, and collects posts made by certain Tumblr blogs during a certain time frame, setting them to music of that time (Grimes, Crystal Castles) in an entrancing, fast-moving slideshow.
There was then maybe still somewhat of a material division between the people who spent time participating in the subculture(s) these images depict, and those who spent their time consuming refracted and idealized images of that subculture—different from today, when aesthetic trends are produced and absorbed by the same people via the same medium in a neverending, algorithmic feedback loop of visual inspiration.
It’s odd, I’ll admit, to see 2012 Tumblrcore pictures abstracted from their frame of the blue dashboard (or the beautifully designed CSS blog pages) and flattened into flashing, dancing nostalgiabait TikTok clipshows of bygone trends. Without the slow scroll—the desktop scroll, mind you—it’s dizzying and strange.
Also, given that my own Tumblr life was from the start heavily fandom-based, it’s also interesting to see a version of the Tumblr experience which more or less completely excludes what I felt at the time to be What The Site Was Really For. For all that the TikToks do give me big feelings of nostalgic yearning, they also aren’t true, or at least not complete: purple lipstick and skater skirts and floral cat collages are meaningless without the accompanying photosets of David Tennant and Destiel gifs and Homestuck fanart.
That’s one of the things that gets lost in the “niche”-ification of the web through platforms like TikTok, which encourage the discarding of all of one’s interests in favor of a single solid stripe of Personal Brand.
Of course there were always single-serving accounts on Tumblr (many of which got turned into coffee table books), but personal accounts were for a long time as eclectic as their owners: I followed and reblogged from Japanese fashion blogs, urban photography blogs, the blogs of artists and curators and craftspeople, among all of my interminable and cringe fandom posting. And my friends were the same way! Part of what was fun about following them was seeing everything they were interested, getting to know them as a gestalt, rather than some apportioned part.
It is only in recent years that I’ve seen (on Tumblr and Twitter, at least) the increasing trend to separate out one’s internet persona into verticals, as if you’re a publication or a company with audience segments to superserve. Each new fandom gets a dedicated “side” account—to say nothing of the various stripes of personal accounts, each with their own level of vulnerability and privacy.
By abstracting fandom out from the personal, participants in these communities can too easily lose the feeling of other participants as living, breathing human beings, which perhaps is a component of the rise within fandom of harassment, of alienation, of a loss of enthusiasm-based unity which perhaps existed to a larger extent on past platforms.
This week in polar exploration
As someone whose many-forked quantum future has recently unlocked up a whole new area labeled “Polar Tour Guide???” I’ve been reading with great interest lately about the history and controversy behind Antarctic tourism. This recent article in Conde Nast Traveler by Megan Spurrell is a fantastic look at the current state of the industry:
Many in the industry attribute this swelling curiosity to COVID-19, even if Antarctica travel was of growing interest prior. “After the pandemic, many people decided to finally tackle their bucket lists,” says biologist Dr. Verena Meraldi, chief scientist for Hurtigruten Expeditions.
Many, like Palmer, hear from guests who have been to every other continent and are ready for number seven. The tick of climate change’s clock adds an undeniable pressure. “Climate change and fear of its effects on these regions has heightened the urgency—travelers are prioritizing the destination now, before it is too late,” says Torstein Gaustad, an expedition leader on Hurtigruten’s hybrid-powered MS Fridtjof Nansen.
I think (she said sagely and sanely) you should have to pass an Obsession Test if you want to get to Antarctica, or the Arctic for that matter, or any protected ecological zone. You should have to be a certain level of Unwell — a fond term which encompasses documented and long-standing obsessions with history, nature, the limits of human endurance, etc — to even buy a ticket. None of this millionaire clout bucket list shit. Nerds only!
Things I read this week that I liked
Why Are So Many Guys Obsessed With Master and Commander? by Gabriella Paiella
If you kidnapped a hundred of Hollywood’s top minds and forced them to work around the clock, they could not engineer a more exquisite Dad Movie. Though Master and Commander is ostensibly about the Surprise sailing to intercept a French enemy warship, the battle scenes, exhilarating as they may be, are few and far in between. The bulk of the film—and the heart of its charm—is instead a meticulous rendering of daily life at sea: the monotony of hard labor, the palpable threat of scurvy, the dirty-faced sailors who sleep in close quarters and grin through yellowed teeth. (You know it smells crazy in there.) Even better? All the screen time devoted to close conversations between Aubrey and Maturin, and their two-dude violin and cello jam sessions. You come away with a sense of satisfaction at their accomplishments and camaraderie, and just a bit of longing over a bygone way of life.
The Taste Economy by Daisy Alioto
If magazines were containers for taste, the creators of the creator economy are vessels. Most investors see the financial success of a Mr. Beast and work backwards, looking for the next vessel. But when I am served videos by someone who has been anointed with this stardom I don’t feel like I am inhabiting someone else’s taste but, rather, the taste of the algorithm. (I told someone recently that the specific joy of stalking someone else’s Spotify account has been lost as more and more playlists are generated by the platform. It’s the opposite of intimacy, isn’t it? To stalk an algorithm? Like climbing a tree to look into your crush’s window and realizing someone else got there first...please don’t do this.)
What makes text into “spam” isn’t its unoriginality or the mechanical procedures that generate it; it’s the malicious intent behind it. It is unwanted and intrusive, exploiting vulnerabilities in the means of circulation in an effort to deceive or manipulate its recipients. Similarly, the problem with generative AI text is not that it is nonfactual or of poor quality; the problems with it are in the social relations it will be used to perpetuate. The demand for chatbots, such as it is, would be a reflection of those relations, much as the demand for mass culture and mass-produced goods always have been. It has never been the point to denounce that stuff as qualitatively “bad,” as if everyone merely needed to improve their tastes to halt capitalism. Rather, that demand indicates something about social conditions and how they are being structured through relations of production and the means of circulation that support them.
Banger of the week
next week!!!!!! i promise!!!!!!!!