This week, I present to you...
5/ The delights and horrors of this futuristic meme generator.
A lil something called DALL-E Mini is apparently sweeping the internet.
It’s an AI-powered meme machine that generates a grid of 9 crudely rendered images based on whatever text prompt you type into it.
DALL-E Mini is inspired by the tool DALL-E (“a portmanteau of Salvador Dali and WALL-E”), developed by AI research company OpenAI.
DALL-E and DALL-E Mini are part of an accelerating wave of AI image tools that are being developed at hackathons and big companies and private research labs alike. Google has already announced two of their own systems.
Tools like DALL-E Mini raise questions and concerns about things like deepfakes and social bias. They are delightful and disturbing, all at the same time.
I will leave these concerns for another day (because sometimes I need a quick break from doom), to indulge for a minute in this series of DALL-E Mini memes, created by me—and my guides. Yes, they wanted to participate.
Here’s one of mine: "a llama riding on the back of a jet ski with Bob Ross."
From Evalyn: "a star system with 2 stars orbiting around each other and they are both wearing hats."
Another, re-worded attempt by Evalyn: "a star system with 2 stars wearing hats and orbiting around each other."
Lola: "I'll go next. Evalyn, you already had your turn. I want mine to be...a gerbil eating Doritos riding a motorcycle through Paris."
Robert: "I want to go. Mine will be: a handful of acorns on a summer day."
Marlena: "I will go because Sarah wants me to. Okay let's do this...Splash Mountain upside-down in an apocalypse."
And me again: "Mike Pence kissing David Bowie on a flaming unicorn."
4/ These birds who are in therapy.
Sandwiched in between these mildly disturbing, internet-related things, I present to you a moment of purity—these birds who sure know how to communicate, illustrated by Sophie Lucido Johnson:
3/ These observations on the creeping scope of self-documentation.
As someone who loathes marketing herself, and who has a bit of a rollercoaster relationship with the exertion of social media and the phenomenon of “being seen,” this piece by Sophie Bishop sums up some of my anxieties and feelings about being a person who creates things / wants to create things (I create and share things, like these words, but there are many other artistic things I hold back from doing because I fear my efforts going to waste—I fear I can’t “afford” to do them, financially or emotionally).
I resent the icky, thankless labor of self-commodification, the painful vulnerability of trying to be seen in a crowded marketplace, and the never-ending scope creep of being a solo practitioner who needs be hyper-interesting online in order to survive financially. Over the past year, I’ve thought a lot about how social media algorithms themselves alter and influence our very process of creation. The form / platform / vessel exerts pressure on the contents, causing us to create for the platform, rather than letting the platform be an afterthought (not through any fault of the individual; resisting the confines of the platform leads to invisibility and obscurity).
Some highlights from the piece:
Although the metrics being chased may look slightly different, what was once a matter of professionalization specifically for influencers is now becoming a part of professionalization in general. If the phrase “mission creep” describes how a campaign’s objectives gradually expand until they entail unanticipated and boundless commitment, we might likewise call the expansion of micro-celebrity practice “influencer creep,” both for how influencing creeps into more forms of work and for how it creeps further into the lives of workers. The mark of influencer creep is the on-edge feeling that you have not done enough for social media platforms: that you can be more on trend, more authentic, more responsive — always more. It lodges in the back of your mind: film more, post more, respond more, share more. And as with mission creep, there is no apparent way out.
Over the past year, I interviewed 20 artists and artisans, including silversmiths, illustrators, ceramicists, and weavers, about how they sustain themselves in a platformized economy…When demands on artists are structured not only by the conventions of the art world but by social media’s affordances (and how these have shaped audience expectations), everything about an artist’s practice can be affected. Many of the artists I spoke to confirmed this, detailing how they optimized many different elements of their practice to be visible on Instagram, including their art’s content and form, drawing on research into digital marketing strategies, discussions about how algorithms work, and personal hunches based on their own experiments. For example, an illustrator said that she thought her stripped-back style “lends itself really well to Instagram and social media and that quick scrolling that people do … There’s not a lot of detail there to inspect or appreciate, and there’s not materials involved that maybe would be more appreciated in real life versus online.” At the same time, artists who made small, intricate pieces struggled to represent their craft on the platform. Another artist told me that she had moved toward portraiture in place of landscapes purely because Instagram appears more likely to promote images with faces…
The creep toward optimization not only shapes the work artists made but also how they went about making it. Presenting “artist” as a lifestyle tends to do better on social media than artworks themselves, so artists experience pressure to present themselves as their content. One illustrator described how the time-lapse videos of her drawing she made by wearing a distracting and cumbersome GoPro would get thousands of likes on Instagram. Another illustrator rigged an overhead tripod camera in her studio to capture her process. Others explained how they developed an ad-hoc studio-visitation schedule to take “backstage” images of each other…All artists I spoke to engaged in self-branding, presenting not just their work but themselves as a commodity for sale. As one maker stated, “You have to sell your world.”
As backstage reveals become more central to artistic viability, they could shape where art can be made and what kind of art is worth making. What looks best for the time-lapse? What is the most aesthetically appealing backdrop? If the process isn’t relatable or photogenic, it might not be worth an artist’s time. And as their “backstage” content is up for scrutiny, it isn’t really a backstage at all. Artists must share more and perform more as the spaces in which to retreat are steadily incorporated.
With trends toward growing labor precarity and the platformization of social and working life, the influencer creep touches more and more work: Walmart has opened their “spotlight” employee influencer program, in which a select group are compensated for producing Walmart “behind-the-scenes” content, including a cross-country “Walmart dance party.” Employees of Wendy’s, Sephora, and Dunkin’ Donuts have been made similar offers, inviting individual workers to take on the techniques pioneered by influencers, who serve as de facto role models or even consultants. (The gaming YouTuber MatPat has a consulting service for those who want to “up your game as a brand or creator.”) Anyone with any kind of job now can likely imagine how having followers and creating content around their workday could be beneficial, if those requirements were not already mandatory for them.
This is not really a new development; the demand to self-brand has been a central aspect of the neoliberalization of work since it began in the 1980s. In “‘Meat, Mask, Burden’: Probing the Contours of the Branded ‘Self’,” Alison Hearn argued that “self-branding illustrates how flexible corporate capital has subsumed all areas of human life.” But in the platform era, social media have become not just a leisure activity but an outsourced layer of management, an ever-present filter selecting for who is most likely to be successful and ensure that they take personal responsibility for “optimizing” how they do it. Influencer practices reflect how those imperatives structure what we do.
2/ This wistfulness for the Slow Web Movement.
I went down an internet rabbit hole this morning that ended with me reading about the Slow Web. I might unpack this in a larger piece (perhaps next week’s Wednesday essay?) but for now, I’ll leave you with these thoughts by author Jack Cheng on what a slowed-down online existence could be. As he acknowledges in a 2016 addendum to this 2012 piece, the Fast Web has accelerated beyond the bounds of what we imagined, and it can’t be fixed through individual habits alone but rather through systemic changes.
This piece is one of many similar threads that have woven together in my mind lately around a certain nostalgia or wistfulness for a pure and simple and democratized internet that never was. (Or that was glimpsed in flashes and dreamed up in the early days and never realized.)
Timely not real-time. Rhythm not random. Moderation not excess. Knowledge not information. These are a few of the many characteristics of the Slow Web. It’s not so much a checklist as a feeling, one of being at greater ease with the web-enabled products and services in our lives.
Like Slow Food, Slow Web is concerned as much with production as it is with consumption. We as individuals can always set our own guidelines and curb the effect of the Fast Web, but as I hope I’ve illustrated, there are a number of considerations the creators of web-connected products can make to help us along. And maybe the Slow Web isn’t quite a movement yet. Maybe it’s still simmering. But I do think there is something distinctly different about the feeling that some of these products impart on their users, and that feeling manifests from the intent of their makers.
Fast Web companies want to be our lovers, they want to be by our sides at all times, want us to spend every moment of our waking lives with them, when sometimes that’s not what we really need. Sometimes what we really need are friends we can meet once every few months for a bowl of ramen noodles at a restaurant in the East Village. Friends with whom we can sit and talk and eat and drink and maybe learn a little about ourselves in the process. And at the end of the night get up and go our separate ways, until next time.
I aspire for this newsletter to be part of a Slow Web Movement. (Is the movement even still alive? Is it reemerging? Does this count?)
It’s vulnerable for me to show up this frequently in your inboxes now (two times a week—will people get sick of me?!) but I find that the free labor I do for this newsletter (several hours a week of brainstorming and writing, plus the constant mental tinkering that occurs in the background of my life, as I hold the burden in my mind of a recurring deadline) feels fortifying and generative.
My posts don’t get chucked into a black hole; they get sent to you personally. They don’t disappear in the endless scroll of a feed; they live forever on my website. I mail off my writing and usually never hear about it again, which is sometimes anxiety-inducing and discouraging, but less so than monitoring Instagram likes. I am someone who tends to default to thinking that people hate me and that they hate my work, but the relative slowness of email (compared to social media) sometimes forces me to read good things into the silence, rather than bad things. “Most people stuck around,” I say to myself after an email blast, in between fearful bursts of self-criticism. “Most people opened what I wrote.” And I experiment with imagining that they liked what they read.
1/ This local paradise.
Burbank could be considered the Slow Web to LA’s Fast Web.
Charo took me on a tour of Burbank the other day—aka one of Los Angeles County’s small cities that technically lies outside the bounds of LA proper. Charo lived there for 10 years (I’ve nicknamed her the Mayoress), and she likes the slightly slower, quainter pace of life there.
On one of our many stops, she brought me to a Black-owned plant shop called Tansy. When I stepped inside, my whole body exhaled. Everything about this shop—the lighting, the plants, the lovingly arranged decor—is paradise to me.
If you live anywhere near LA, I encourage you to visit, and if you don’t, I invite you to bask in these photos, which unfortunately can’t even capture the full sensorial experience.
Someday I aspire to create an environment like this in my own home and invite friends over to just relax in its lushness.