Defy Media is shutting down

Todd Spangler, writing for Variety:

“Regretfully, Defy Media has ceased operations today,” the company said in a statement released Tuesday evening. “We are extremely proud of what we accomplished here at Defy and in particular want to thank all the employees who worked here. We deeply regret the impact that this has had on them today… Unfortunately, market conditions got in the way of us completing our mission.”

The company at one point reported having nearly 400 employees. Defy did not confirm its current headcount, which has shrunk in recent months as it pared back the business in the hopes of staying afloat.

The company’s in-house studios had produced 75 regularly scheduled shows. It’s not clear what will happen to the Defy brands going forward, but the company indicated it’s seeking buyers or partners for the properties. Defy’s brands, which include Smosh, Smosh Games, Clevver, AWEme, Break and Made Man, have more than 140 million followers across YouTube and social media, according to the company.

I’m not stunned by this development, but I’m saddened by it. I have no idea how well or how poorly Defy was managed (poor management can put any company out of business) but it says something about the industry when even a company that manages some of the internet’s biggest video brands can’t make things work. Basically, the “pivot to video” didn’t work out and we are still in the middle of the fallout from it.

See also: Vice Media on track to reduce its staff by up to 15%.

‘Ready Player One’ and nerd culture

When I first saw Ready Player One, I was deeply unsettled by how the film handled nerd culture. It seemed to encourage the aspects of fan gatekeeping that has made online discourse so toxic. It made fandom into nobility. It made nerds into undeserving heroes. It was also just a noisy mix of different homages, action scenes, lights, and colors. I wasn’t a fan.

Youtube channel Renegade Cut has put together a smart video essay explaining why the message of Ready Player One is so toxic. I hope when people watch a film like this, they understand that these kinds of subtle influences can have real and unfortunate consequences.

Twitter bans Alex Jones

Yesterday, Twitter finally banned Alex Jones and Info Wars from its platform:

In a Twitter thread, Buzzfeed reporter Charlie Warzel explains why this banning took so long:

Twitter likely sees this decision as being consistent with its rules (despite the fact that many have complained about Jones’ behavior on the platform for years). In August, when deplatforming Jones gained momentum, Twitter will argue it did not want to appear reactive by banning. Nor, it appears, did they want to ban him retroactively for old violations (which is why when CNN and others provided old examples of violating tweets, they issued Jones a warning/made him delete the tweets). Of course there’s a *huge* disconnect between this vision (which Jack sees as transparent and consistent enforcement) and what other people felt (that Jones was constantly acting in bad faith and that he would continue to harass, etc). […] Twitter sees this as part of bigger way to gain user trust. Reality is that is likely a naive view. People will be mad Jack et al didn’t do this faster. Folks on far right will see this as yet MORE censorship. If this was all a way to gain trust…not sure you can say it worked.

I’m relieved that Twitter has made this decision and saddened that it took this long. That said, I’m back on Twitter. A few people have asked me if my newsletter will continue, given that it was created in the wake of me leaving Twitter. The answer short answer is yes. Expect regular updates via email/blog post for as long as I can keep doing them. (If you’re new here, welcome! Subscribe to my emails here.)

The long answer is that being away from Twitter has really made me realize the effects that Twitter had on my life, both positive and negative. There were many things I missed about being on the platform: the film community, the hilarious memes and turns of phrase by the witty people I follow, the feeling that I was constantly up-to-date with the news, the ability to promote my work to a large audience and get it seen by thousands.

But I also realized all the terrible things about Twitter. I spent so much of my days refreshing it constantly for no reason in particular. I saw how the site is designed to reward only extreme opinions. Every day was just a constant stream of people dunking on each other and getting hundreds of thousands of retweets/likes in return. (Just look at Twitter Moments during any given day to see how the site facilitates and encourages this)

Most importantly, I was dismayed at how the site completely eliminates nuance. There are heroes and villains. If you participate, you are either the person being annihilated, or you are the person behind the gun, joining into the dogpile.

I welcomed the opportunity to write these newsletters/posts. It gave me the chance to step back and try putting together a complete argument. It forced me to slow down and think more deliberately about what I put out into the world. It prevented me from instantly sharing every passing thought in my head.

I’m grateful that you’ve taken the chance to be on this list and let me communicate with you directly. I think it’s made me a better thinker and honestly, a better person. So, thank you.


  • The most extraordinary story this week was the publication of an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times seemingly admitting that we are witnessing an administrative coup in the White House.
    • I found the follow-up interview with the section’s editor to be a fascinating tight-rope walk. I was also stunned that he didn’t seem to understand how big of a deal this piece would be, and the intensity with which people (including reporters at his own paper) would try to uncover the author’s secret identity.
    • David Frum at The Atlantic captures my thoughts on this whole affair: “If the president’s closest advisers believe that he is morally and intellectually unfit for his high office, they have a duty to do their utmost to remove him from it, by the lawful means at hand.”
    • Pod Save America also has a good perspective on the op-ed: it feels extremely self-serving and accomplishes nothing.
  • I’ll be at XOXOFest in Portland this weekend. If you’re around, hit me up via Twitter/email/whatever and say hi!

Vimeo pivots towards being a tech company

Sara Fischer, writing for Axios:

Vimeo, the 14-year-old video service that started as a platform for indie filmmakers, is changing its business to focus on selling software tools to its community of millions of social creators, instead of being a video viewing destination, its CEO said in an interview with Axios.

The pivot allows Vimeo to go after a less competitive social “SaaS” (software as a service) market that focuses on stock images and video, as opposed to the saturated video viewing market, which is dominated by massive tech companies investing billions in original content to win eyeballs.

I think this is a great business move that makes a lot of sense for Vimeo. That said, it does make me sad that YouTube no longer has even a single plausible competitor that’s investing in high-quality video. Competition generally makes all platforms better, and the Vimeo viewing experience is still a great one.

Not gonna take it

This New York Times piece by Kelly Marie Tran is truly something. A must-read for anyone who doubts that Asian Americans also experience profound marginalization:

Their words reinforced a narrative I had heard my whole life: that I was “other,” that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t good enough, simply because I wasn’t like them. And that feeling, I realize now, was, and is, shame, a shame for the things that made me different, a shame for the culture from which I came from. And to me, the most disappointing thing was that I felt it at all.

Because the same society that taught some people they were heroes, saviors, inheritors of the Manifest Destiny ideal, taught me I existed only in the background of their stories, doing their nails, diagnosing their illnesses, supporting their love interests — and perhaps the most damaging — waiting for them to rescue me. […]

I am not the first person to have grown up this way. This is what it is to grow up as a person of color in a white-dominated world. This is what it is to be a woman in a society that has taught its daughters that we are worthy of love only if we are deemed attractive by its sons. This is the world I grew up in, but not the world I want to leave behind.

Tran deleted her Instagram account after being harassed, but we definitely haven’t heard the last of her.

Quitting Twitter

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[I’m quitting Twitter but I’m launching a newsletter in its place. Subscribe above! I’ll plan to cross-post my emails to this blog when it makes sense, which it does for the one below]

Why we’re here

Twitter’s problems with harassment go way back, but in the past few weeks, it’s made some decisions that have forced me to reconsider my relationship with the platform. First, this cryptic message from Seth Rogen about Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey:

While outsiders may perceive Twitter’s verification system as impartial, it’s not. Twitter only verifies people who have reached a specific notoriety level or who hold specific jobs (e.g. journalist, actor, etc.). Verified users get features that unverified users don’t. While Twitter claims verification isn’t an endorsement, in the past, it has removed verification as a means of punishing bad actors.

The fact that Dorsey did not seem to care about verifying white supremacists, even when one of the most popular users of his platform was chiding him about it, was a red flag to me.

Then, the Info Wars wars.

If you don’t know, Info Wars is a despicable media organization whose main claim to fame these days is that they propagated a conspiracy theory about how the Sandy Hook massacre was staged. This has brought untold misery upon the already-suffering families of this senseless tragedy.

Last Monday, every major tech platform took steps to remove Info Wars content. Every platform, that is, except Twitter. In a series of tweets, Dorsey defended his decisionmaking:

The next day, Dorsey appeared on Hannity to further explain why Alex Jones hadn’t been banned. Dorsey’s justifications were soon revealed to be complete nonsense and hypocrisy.

I don’t know why this was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me, but maybe it solidified the notion for me that Dorsey just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get the extremely basic notion that banning Jones would be far more effective than relying on journalists to rebut his remarks. He doesn’t get that it’s a reasonable position to want your platform to be free of toxicity, and to take steps to make that happen. He doesn’t get that sometimes you need to make a moral choice.

To me, Twitter’s inability to ban Alex Jones was a litmus test. Aja Romano puts it really well in her article at Vox discussing it:

Jones represents what is perhaps the clearest opportunity to draw a moral line that Twitter will ever have. Forget the Nazis for a second; Alex Jones is a man who has seen his followers harass the parents of dead 6-year-olds and continued to egg them on, using the completely fabricated claim that these parents’ grief is just an act. There is nothing redeemable here; there’s no useful idea, no political concept worth debating — there’s only a lie told purely in order to spread harm, confusion, disorder, and pain. Jones is sound and fury, signifying nothing. Twitter’s choice to defend his place on its site, however, signifies everything about what Twitter is choosing to be.

I couldn’t get these words out of my head after I read them: “There is nothing redeemable here; there’s no useful idea, no political concept worth debating.” If Twitter can’t draw the line at Alex Jones, it has no line.

Why quit?

When writer Lindy West quit Twitter, she wrote a piece for The Guardian explaining why. The whole thing is worth reading, but two points stuck out to me. The first is that by using Twitter, we are essentially helping it to generate value and revenue:

Twitter, for the past five years, has been a machine where I put in unpaid work and tension headaches come out. I write jokes there for free. I post political commentary for free. I answer questions for free. I teach feminism 101 for free. Off Twitter, these are all things by which I make my living – in fact, they comprise the totality of my income. But on Twitter, I do them pro bono and, in return, I am micromanaged in real time by strangers; neo-Nazis mine my personal life for vulnerabilities to exploit; and men enjoy unfettered, direct access to my brain so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, that they would gladly rape me if I weren’t so fat.

The second is that we wouldn’t be willing to accept this behavior from any other organization. Why should we do so with Twitter?

I’m pretty sure “ushered in kleptocracy” would be a dealbreaker for any other company that wanted my business. If my gynecologist regularly hosted neo-Nazi rallies in the exam room, I would find someone else to swab my cervix. If I found out my favourite coffee shop was even remotely complicit in the third world war, I would – bare minimum – switch coffee shops; I might give up coffee altogether.

Twitter has added so much to my life. It’s allowed me to have a career. It’s introduced me to tons of amazing people, many of whom have become my collaborators. I used to love the platform and enjoy using it. But until its leaders demonstrate the willingness to make incredibly basic moral choices like banning Alex Jones, you won’t find my work on there.

I realize it’s a privilege to not “need” to use Twitter, so I don’t begrudge anyone whatever decisions they make. Everyone has a different place to draw their own line, and people often do so in different ways with different social platforms. I don’t judge anyone on this matter. Just want to explain my position on it.

And hey, it’s possible Twitter could reverse course tomorrow and I’ll be back on there. But until that happens, you’ll find me on Facebook, on Instagram, on TinyLetter, on YouTube, and here on my blog. Just not on Twitter.

Monetizing your disdain

In The New York Times, Taffy Brodesser-Akner has a great profile of Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s extremely even-handed and as revealing about the writer as the subject. This portion caught my eye.

A gynecologist and obstetrician in San Francisco named Jen Gunter, who also writes a column on reproductive health for The Times, has criticized Goop in about 30 blog posts on her website since 2015. A post she wrote last May — an open letter that she signed on behalf of “Science” — generated more than 800,000 page views. She was angry about all the bad advice she had seen from Goop in the last few years. She was angry that her own patients were worried they’d given themselves breast cancer by wearing underwire bras, thanks to an article by an osteopath who cited a much-debunked book published in 1995. Gunter cited many of Goop’s greatest hits: “Tampons are not vaginal death sticks, vegetables with lectins are not killing us, vaginas don’t need steaming, Epstein Barr virus (E.B.V.) does not cause every thyroid disease and for [expletive] sake no one needs to know their latex farmer; what they need to know is that the only thing between them and H.I.V. or gonorrhea is a few millimeters of latex, so glove that [expletive] up.”

But something strange happened. Each of these pronouncements set off a series of blog posts and articles and tweets that linked directly to the site, driving up traffic. At Harvard, G.P. called these moments “cultural firestorms.” “I can monetize those eyeballs,” she told the students. Goop had learned to do a special kind of dark art: to corral the vitriol of the internet and the ever-present shall we call it cultural ambivalence about G.P. herself and turn them into cash. It’s never clickbait, she told the class. “It’s a cultural firestorm when it’s about a woman’s vagina.” The room was silent. She then cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled, “VAGINA! VAGINA! VAGINA!” as if she were yodeling.

It reminded me of this piece by Matt Singer about why you shouldn’t share bad articles:

Look, I get it. When someone writes something bad it pisses me off too. And my first instinct is to share it with a “Can you believe someone was paid to write this junk?” tweet. In an ideal world, sharing and decrying these pieces would have their intended effect. Alas, we do not live in an ideal world. When we share a piece of stupidity or racism on social media hundreds of times, and people click on it hundreds of thousands of times, we’ve given the writer exactly what they wanted (or, at the very least, have in no way punished them for doing something bad). The old truism about how there’s no such thing as bad publicity? That’s never been truer than in on the internet circa 2018.

Like I said, I’ve been just as guilty of this as anyone. But I’m trying, Ringo; I’m trying real hard to be a shepherd. Instead of amplifying the bad, I’m sharing the good. They’re not always the sexiest articles, and they rarely get shared far enough to make a positive impact on their traffic (some other time we’ll have to talk about how retweets and likes have become psychological currency, and another incentive to share bad articles). But at least I’m not helping spread the crap in the world. Instead of treating these articles like spoiled milk, we should look at them like a fire: The quickest way of stopping one is by depriving it of oxygen.

People derive great pleasure from sharing and denouncing bad articles but, in a very tangible and financial way, the people behind those bad articles benefit from having them shared. Next time you want to get angry at something, just think about not talking about it. Ironically, it’s the best way to send a message.

‘Every Frame a Painting’ comes to an end

Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos, writing about the end of their wildly popular YouTube series Every Frame a Painting:

Everyone who works in filmmaking knows the triangle: Faster, Cheaper, Better. Pick two. A film can be made fast and cheap, but it won’t be good. Or you can make it fast and good, but it won’t be cheap. Or it can be cheap and good, but it won’t happen fast.

Every Frame a Painting was made after we came home from our day jobs and paid our bills. That kept it cheap. We also tried really hard to make it good. Which ultimately meant we had to sacrifice “fast.”The big danger for future video essayists is that large websites have started moving away from the written word and towards video, which is completely unsustainable. Video is just too expensive and time-consuming to make.

The end of an era. Every Frame a Painting was one of the gold standards for video essay channels, being both influential and widely viewed. But there’s something to be said about holding close to one’s principles and going out on top.

This farewell essay brings to light exactly how unsustainable and nonsensical all this media industry talk of “pivoting to video” is. Video production and video editing are costly, time-consuming affairs. User acquisition in today’s saturated environment is intensely challenging. And that’s not even getting to the monetization piece yet! Every Frame a Painting couldn’t figure out a way to make it work that satisfied their creative goals, even with robust Patreon campaign. What hope do people who aren’t insanely talented have?

The other troubling issue this essay highlights is how challenging it is to even make video essays for YouTube these days. Zhou had to reverse engineer the Content ID algorithm, then alter footage (or only show extremely brief clips of it) to avoid getting his work taken down and blocked. As someone who’s had their work taken down due to spurious copyright claims, I know firsthand that publishing video essays on Youtube can be a frustrating experience that privileges the copyright holder in nearly all circumstances.

Basically, it’s hard out there for a video essayist these days.