WELCOME TO DECEMBER!
I would ordinarily say something about how this is the HOME STRAIGHT and we’re ALMOST THERE, but frankly I know how many of you work in agencyland, which means that’s what actually happening is that you’re all dealing with 30 incredibly important and valuable pitches which are all conveniently taking place between now and January 6th, because all the in-house people used to be agency people once and had to suffer then and don’t see why they shouldn’t perpetuate the cycle of abuse now that they are in the coveted position of being ‘the thick person who issues the briefs’.
That’s how it works, right?
Anyway, I am SORRY that you are having to go through this, but I have one small crumb of consolation – this is THE FINAL WEB CURIOS OF 2021! That’s right, you’ve MADE IT TO THE END! NO MORE OF MY WORDS TIL NEXT YEAR! I appreciate it’s possibly a bit early to be clocking off, but, well, I have stuff to do, and frankly so do you, and if I’m honest it’s all best of lists and Christmas creative from hereon in, and I couldn’t give a fcuk.
So then, let me take this moment to say thanks to all of you who’ve read and clicked and shared and thanked and suggested and ENGAGED WITH MY CONTENT – I appreciate every single one of you, even the weird person who decided to send me hatemail about how I was going to hell as a result of Curios’ ungodly nature (sweetheart, I literally sold my soul to the devil in exchange for good exam results when I was 17; that ship sailed a LONG time ago). I sincerely hope that the next month or so of your lives is GREAT – or, at the very least, not traumatically-unpleasant! – and that I see you all again here in about 6 weeks’ time for a BRAND NEW YEAR OF LINKS AND WORDS!
I am still Matt, this is still Web Curios, and I bet you haven’t bought me a Christmas present, have you? FFS.
By Matt Shirley
- Get Five Dollars: You may have picked up on my general…disdain for the concept of Black Friday in last week’s Curios (or at least I hope you did – I laid it on with a fcuking trowel, after all, although of course it’s entirely possible that noone reads the words here and I could just be writing ‘lick me, daddy’ over and over again for all the difference it makes NO MATT DO NOT THINK LIKE THIS YOU HAVE 80 LINKS TO GO THIS MORNING AND THIS WAY MADNESS LIES), and in general I stand by that disdain, but, well I feel compelled to point out how much I like this stunt-type-thing by Cards Against Humanity (problematic ‘game’, excellent marketing team). Basically last Friday, rather than spending their marketing budget on discounting inventory and promoting said discounts, they instead seemingly decided to use it to pay people online actual cashmoney to do silly things on behalf of the brand and post the results online. So for what I presume was a vanishingly-brief moment while the money lasted, you could get paid for (for example) digging a hole, logging on to a website which did nothing but stream a livestream of a toad and watching it for 20 minutes, having a cool name, getting vaccinated…I LOVE THIS SO MUCH. It’s fun, silly, and, honestly, is a far, far better use of six-figures worth of advermarketingbudget than making half a dozen terrible, tedious pieces of branded video content and then forcing it at people’s eyeballs via the medium of targeted advertising. Can we all make a concerted effort in 2022 to make less terrible branded videos and images and posts, please? The physical world is overfull of pointless crap which is making us sick, and it feels like the digital one is too. NO MORE. There, a Web Curios manifesto for 2022 – STOP BRANDED CONTENT! It’s catchy, and with a bit of help from YOU we can make it happen! STOP BRANDED CONTENT!
- Pantheon: This is a really interesting idea. Pantheon is a website which has grown out of a research project by MIT and is now a standalone thing – its aim is to “expose patterns of human collective memory. Pantheon contains data on more than 70k biographies, which Pantheon distributes through a powerful data visualization engine centered on locations, occupations, and biographies. Pantheon’s biographical data contains information on the age, occupation, place of birth, and place of death, of historical characters with a presence in more than 15 language editions of Wikipedia. Pantheon also uses real-time data from the Wikipedia API to show the dynamics of attention received by historical characters in different Wikipedia language editions.” So what this effectively lets you explore is the relative ‘fame’ of different categories of people from different countries based on Wikipedia data of most visited/edited profiles (and a bunch of other signals too – you can read more about the methodology on the site) – it’s a really fascinating way of getting an overview of the cultural topography of a nation, a view into what the world thinks a country is about, in a way that feels more natural than going out and surveying people. I think there’s a lot of good background you can get about national culture and character from this if you were so inclined – oh, and it also gives you a rolling ranking of the most ‘interesting’ historical figures in the world based on their data. At the time of writing, the most ‘culturally-significant’ figure in human history, based on this particular reading of this particular dataset, is Muhammed (closely followed by Genghis Khan and Leonardo Da Vinci, which perhaps-unfairly makes me think that quite a lot of Wikipedia traffic comes from Reddit, but wevs) – it upsets me to report that Donald Trump is seemingly the 16th-most historically significant person in human history based on this, but let’s presume that’s just recency bias and talk no more of it.
- Talk To The Website: That’s not what this is called, fine, but it doesn’t really have a name which is something of a pity – given it was made by a German, it feels like it ought to have some sort of horrifically-complex compound noun which describes it in glottal-shredding polysyllabic glory (“Die Websitegersprechtspielen” or something – and yes, I know that that isn’t even close to being nearly right but, well, how many languages do you speak? Quite). Still, it is VERY fun and VERY silly and pleasingly Easter Egg-ish – choose German, or English, and give the site access to your microphone, and just…talk, and see what happens. Oh, fine, I’ll spoil it for you a bit – the site will listen to what you’re saying and show elements onscreen based on your words. So, fine, it’s just an imagesearch-and-display linked to open-source voice recognition software (ha! ‘Just’! How quickly we become blase about things that a mere 50 years ago would have been dismissed as the byproduct of a particularly-violent acid binge), but it’s…really, really fun. This made me laugh more than almost anything else this week – I spend a good ten minutes just shouting random words and phrases at my computer and seeing what happened, but there’s something nice about the idea of leaving it running in the background on a big screen in a meeting and having all your VERY SERIOUS utterances about BUSINESS being visualised in very silly clipart fashion behind you. I love it immoderately – thankyou to the mysterious ‘Philip’ whose work it is.
- Jeen-Yuhs: I am quite far from being a Kanye (is that still his name? Is he now ‘Ye’? Sorry (Kan)(Ye), it’s quite hard to keep up with all this stuff) stan, and as such the news that there is going to be a big documentary (not a documentary at all – a documentary implies some sort of critical or analytical viewpoint, whereas this, in common with all other shows of its ilk produced by the big media houses these days, will instead be a hagiography, which is something significantly less useful or interesting but which is seemingly what you’re reduced to if you want the access) about him and his genius on Netflix next year. If you’re curious, this is the accompanying teaser website – I really like the design of this, and the way it pitches the forthcoming show as a proper behind-the-scenes dig through old footage and scene interviews and the like (it won’t be like that, remember, it will all be approved to the nth degree by everyone involved, but it does a good job of selling the concept of ‘we went waaaaaaay back’ imho), and the VHS-style interface, and the ‘scroll to move through the sections’ and, look, it’s just a nicely-made bit of promo.
- Virgil Abloh’s Free Game: I am quite far away from being the sort of person who would ever have bought anything that Virgil Abloh designed, but it was a measure of the man’s cultural impact and footprint that even someone as avowedly fashion backward as me had heard of him and knew what he did. The announcement of his death from cancer last week has seen him lauded as not only a designer who succeeded in breaking down barriers to access to the fashion industry, but also someone who was committed to, as he put it, ‘showing the work’ and thereby enabling future generations of people like him to be able to build on and draw on his successes. Part of that mean Abloh making details of his study and practice available to anyone who wanted it – so Free Game is a lovely legacy for the man. It’s a section on his website which presents his step-by-step guide to creating a brand, creating work, using Adobe Creative Suite, screen printing, setting up online sales…so many tips and tools for young, aspiring visual creatives to use to help them start to explore making a living from their work. It feels like a lesson in ‘how to make sure you don’t pull the ladder up behind you and in fact build more ladders while you’re up there’, basically, and the sort of thing which more famous creatives might want to think about doing more of (says, fine, a man as creative as cement, but).
- Urban Outraged: Is there another, better example in the world of a brand or organisation whose aims are, broadly, laudable but who make themselves unlovable by simply being massive d1cks all the time than PETA? Like, don’t get me wrong, only a monster would be against the ethical treatment of animals, but it equally feels like over the past decade or so PETA has basically become the Westboro Baptist Church of campaign orgs. This is their latest campaign – and yes, I know that it’s designed to SHOCK and that that’s how it gets SHARED, and so to a certain extent I am doing their work for them here, but bear with me – against the wearing of any animal-derived products as clothing. Let’s start with the good – they have gone all-in here, and the creation of this faux-brand of clothes and accessories is really quite nice (and a lot deeper than it needs to be for the gag to work), and the visual design is very well-done (although also very reminiscent of Miss Cakehead’s work for Capcom with Resident Evil…6?) – the shop’s set up as an emporium that lets you buy clothes and accessories stitched together from human skin, and it’s as gruesome as you’d expect. But – and it’s a big but – there seems to be quite a big leap from ‘using wool and animal products in clothing as humans have done for millennia’ and ‘making leather from human skin’, and, I don’t know, it doesn’t feel hugely respectful or well-thought-through, and I can imagine a few groups of people who might quite rightly feel that this is perhaps making light of one or two historically-awful periods of the 19th and 20th centuries, specifically. Oh, and MAKING A WOOLY JUMPER IS IN NO WAY QUALITATIVELY-SIMILAR TO SKINNING A PERSON AND MAKING A HANDBAG OUT OF THEIR MILKY INNER THIGHS. Other than that, though, this is ace.
- Kalso: Kalso is a Danish footwear company (I think – I confess to having only found this this morning and not quite having the time or the inclination to do the deep dive that this probably merits, so sorry to the presumed Danish cobblers if I’m somehow fcuking them with misdescription here) which has been going since the mid-20th Century – this website tells the brand’s history, from the birth of its founder Anne Kalsø in 1905 to the ‘wellness journey’ she took in the 50s (I bet she didn’t call it a ‘wellness journey’ in 1957, though), to the growth of the brand from a single factory into the international business it is today. I can’t personally attest to having any particular interest in footwear manufacturing as a discipline (I know! So blinkered!), but I love this website – it’s a simple single-scroller, but there’s something beautiful about the way that the design shifts slightly and subtly as you scroll so that by the end it feels like a modern company whereas at the start it very much doesn’t. Lovely corporate storytelling, which is not a phrase I think I’ve typed before in 2021 so WELL DONE, SHOEMAKERS OF DENMARK!
- Coffee Capsules: Few things bring me joy (ok, fine, that’s an exaggeration; I haven’t felt ‘joy’ since approximately 930pm on 1 September 2011, but let’s go with that rather than ‘the slightly hollow echo of half-remembered pleasures’ as it’s snappier) like discovering that there’s a whole very specific industry that exists around a very, very niche product or service, and so this site is a REAL TREAT (not a treat). It’s for a company called Capsul’in Pro (how much extra do you think the branding people charged for the apostrophe there? It’s a power move and no mistaking) which makes those landfill-ready pods you plug into your Nespresso (other machines are apparently available, but none of them are advertised by George Clooney so wevs) and which uses this website to sell them to the industry. It’s, fine, not super-interesting on the surface, but I very much enjoyed the way in which they are presenting what is, at heart, a very undifferentiated product as somehow a miracle of technology. There are 3 EXCLUSIVE CAPSULE DESIGNS! You can have your brandname embossed on them! They will one-day be recyclable (but not yet!)! There are 20 colours! They advertise LIMITLESS CREATIVITY – which made me laugh a lot, because last time I checked 20 colourways x 3 designs does not in fact = infinity, but maybe I’m just nitpicking.
- Snowflakes: This is only semi-interesting, but it made me wonder whether there’s a an app version of this which could be quite fun. Snowflakes is a little webtoy which cycles through images pulled (I presume) from Google Search, and uses elements of each image’s colour palette to add to a kaleidoscopic image which is procedurally generated for you. The snowflakes produced are…fine, but made me wonder what you might be able to build in a similar vein using the images from a user’s cameraroll – I would be quite interested in seeing what a machine-derived piece of art collaged and palette-d together from images I’ve taken in the past 12m looks like.
- Redditreads: This is an interesting idea, and a nice extrapolation of the general ‘Reddit is people!’ train of thought – using datascraping and text analysis, this site (created by the mysterious ‘Andrew’) pulls information about the most popular book titles discussed on Reddit over time, to create a ranking of the most ‘Reddit-y’ books (either overall or by subReddit) on the site. I found this really interesting, not least because (presuming that this is real, and not a massive joke), it does rather confirm some of the stereotypes that have long-existed about Redditors. The top-mentioned book on the site is classic self-help manual ‘How To Win Friends & Influence People’, whilst the second is the equally-classic internet favourite, jizzy recipemanual ‘Natural Harvest’. Ok, so the latter is on there because it’s a very popular meme on the site these days, but then you look down the list and it’s a D&D manual, a beginner’s guide to strength training and a book about coding, which feels almost too on-the-nose. Still, beyond the general stuff there’s something both interesting and useful about the 1100+ subReddits which have been analysed as part of this project – there’s definite value in being able to see what the most popular books on, say, ‘over50sfitness’ or ‘mortgage advice’ are (although equally I think part of me died a little when I bothered to check out the books being discussed on /r/ForeverAlone).
- I Thought About That A Lot: A lovely project which started last year but which I have only just found. Each day in December this site will publish a new essay by an anonymous author which will talk about one thing they have thought about a lot over the past 12m. So far there are pieces on how online dating has made the author’s world smaller, and on how someone can ‘raise a good person’ – I am very much a fan of the authorial anonymity here, and will be watching with interest to see what else the writers cover over the coming weeks.
- The Virtual BBC Micro: GenX catnip, this – if you are old enough to remember ‘computer lab’ at school being an hour of writing “10 PRINT “PHIL IS A NONCE” / 20 GOTO 10 / 30 RUN” then this is for YOU! Not only can you do all the excellent BASIC coding that you remember from your childhood (meaning that you will be able to insult Phil in flashing colours, and possibly, if you’re really fancy, in flashing multicoloured text which goes backwards AND forwards AND sideways) but you can also load up a bunch of old games (either from a dropdown or by loading up emulator files) and as such ruin your own memories of how GREAT Chucky Egg was (it was not). This is so, so nicely made (and the way it’s presented, inside a 3d visualisation of an old BBC Micro, is lovely too) – if you fancy being a real git, why not tell your small children this Christmas morning that you have bought them a new computer and then force them to log onto this and watch their young faces slowly come to terms with what ‘entertainment’ was in 1985?
- The Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute: “CARI, or Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute, is an online community dedicated to developing a visual lexicon of consumer ephemera from the 1970s until now…[it’s] a collective association of researchers and designers dedicated to carrying on the important work of categorizing “consumer aesthetics” from the late midcentury, when work on the subject somewhat trailed off, through today. The cyclical relationship between a culture’s collective attitudes and the visual qualities of the artifacts it generates is crucial to observe and consider both when attempting to create timely, meaningful artwork and when analyzing the social and economic events of the last half century. CARI is a nonprofit online institute with hundreds of members and contributors.” I love this – honestly, I lost a good 20 minutes earlier this week just scrolling through the archive pages, looking back at these thematic collections and slowly coming to realise that there really is a meaningful difference between vectorheart and vaporwave. If you’re looking for visual inspiration, this is an unmissable resource (the same is true if you’re a student of the history of visual (sub)culture and popular aesthetics).
- Everyday Robots: An offshoot of Google’s ‘moonshot’ factory (called, in a way that makes it sound in NO WAY SINISTER, ‘X’), Everyday Robots is a fascinating…project? Business? Anyway, its goal is to create robots which can assist humans in specific, everyday situations, and which are able to ‘learn’ on the job – no small task, but a laudable and interesting one, and one which I am significantly more convinced of the importance and utility of than those fcuking robot murderdogs. The design principles at play here are interesting – “To bridge the gap between today’s single-purpose robots and tomorrow’s helper robots, we’re building robots that live in our world, and can learn by themselves. A multifaceted challenge that’s even harder than building a self-driving car because there are no rules of the road for robotics. We’re starting in the places where we spend most of our waking hours — the places where we work. But we’re not stopping there. We believe helper robots have the potential to ultimately help everyone, everywhere. From offices, to institutions of care, to eventually in our homes, they’ll make our lives easier by lending us a helping hand (or three).” Ok, fine, it’s entirely possible that this is yet another branch of the ‘murderous future killmachines’ tree, but let’s try and be hopeful shall we?
- Advent of Code: Like an advent calendar, except instead of a tasty, chocolate treat, each morning you open the door to find…another coding challenge! “Advent of Code is an Advent calendar of small programming puzzles for a variety of skill sets and skill levels that can be solved in any programming language you like.” If you’ve spent any of the past couple of years filling in all the empty hours with improving projects such as ‘leaning to code’ then this is the PERFECT way to test your progress. Alternatively, of course, this is another link in this week’s Curios which is just perfect for the psychological torture of your children – why not tell YOUR young ones you’ve got them a new, special advent calendar, and the only catch is that they always have to open the new one first, before they’re allowed to open the boring old chocolate one, and then present them with this website and tell them to get on with it, watching with an expectant look on your face and taking the gag far, far further than is probably psychologically ‘ok’? WHY NOT????
- Haus of Hands: I have occasionally mentioned Klong here before – for those of you without an encyclopaedic memory for everything I have ever mentioned in Curios (you fcuks), Klong was an art-toy-type-thing, developed originally as an aid to help autistic children get over their dislike of physical contact and which was a sort of cuddly blob with long, weighted arms which you could wrap around your shoulders so it was ‘hugging’ you, and which I developed a slightly-too-close relationship with during a slightly challenging professional period circa 2005. For many, many years I have searched in vain for another Klong (they were never mass-produced), without joy – but now Haus of Hands may have provided an alternative! Sadly currently all sold out, the Haus sells…how do I describe these? Long, tubular scarf-type-things, a bit like glitzy draught excluders, with MASSIVE hands on each end? Yeah, like that. I WANT ONE OF THESE SO MUCH. But I want a klong more.
- Swan Dating: I have no real idea about the dating app landscape, having never been a user or consumer, but it’s clear from speaking to friends and acquaintances that it’s…a bit rubbish for many (honestly, I have spent far too much time hearing Tinder horrorstories to believe that it’s anything other than a neverending Calvary of self-esteem shredding nightmares and cancelled hopes and, at heart, the fundamental awfulness of other people). It was inevitable, then, that we’d start to see a re-emergenence of the idea of CURATION coming to this sector as with all others (can we make ‘algosickness’ a trend for 2022, please?) – so it is with Swan Dating, a new service which, as far as I can tell, has reinvented Plenty of Fish but in app form. The gimmick here is that all profiles are assessed by REAL PEOPLE (in conjunction with an algo, fine – I think we’ve crossed the Rubicon at this stage and we can all accept that there is unlikely to be any sphere of human existence that won’t in some way be maths-determined from hereon in, deal with it) and that this will make the whole experience of finding someone to share bodily fluids (not just tears!) with slightly less soul-flayingly horrid. I have no idea whether this is any good, or any better than any of the current market-leaders (and there’s almost certainly no way that this is scaleable, so, well, good luck!), but it’s interesting as part of the general trend towards a ‘centaur-ish’ approach to AI/algousage (by which I mean ‘algos+people’). Who knows, maybe THIS will be the thing that stops everything feeling so lonely and futile in 2022 (it won’t)?
- Beifall: I have literally no idea what this is or why it exists, which is exactly as it should be. Beifall is…what is it? It’s a little webtoyartthing, which asks you to use a plunger to inflate a series of balloons which will, when they pop, cause some hands to clap. Which, fine, doesn’t sound super-compelling, but I promise you that this is more curious and fun than you might think. There’s something a little bit old-Apple about the graphic design (if you remember Apple II computers you’ll know what I mean), and as you progress through the different screens the combinations of hands and balloons get slowly odder and more surreal, and…look, just click and fiddle, I promise you’ll enjoy it. The only thing that could improve this, to my mind, would be the introduction of meatier sound effects for the claps.
- The Review Reader: This is GREAT – plug in any keywords or game/app title you like, and this site will take a review of it from Steam or the App store and read it aloud using a text to speech generator. Which, fine, doesn’t sound funny until you remember than almost all game reviews are written by ridiculously over-involved people whose reaction to seemingly-trivial elements of design can be very, very funny when read out in an unfeeling robotic monotone. I now want someone to do this for Tripadvisor reviews, which are honestly the greatest untapped comic resource of modern life (I am of the very serious opinion that there’s a decent Edinburgh Sketch show to be be made out of short sketch dramatisations of particularly great examples of the genre).
- The Hasselblad Masters: ANOTHER PHOTO COMPETITION! Except this one’s a bit more serious an pro-ish – Hasselblad is a company that makes VERY FANCY and VERY EXPENSIVE cameras, and as such their photo contest is a touch more po-faced and pro-level. You won’t get photos of derpy animals here, is what I’m saying – this is far more Wallpaper*-level imagery than your amateur-level photoshopfest. The images aren’t necessarily more interesting than you’d find in other similar contests, but they’re certainly more aesthetically rarefied – it’s rare to see a shortlist that looks quite so lifestyle-magazine-ready as this lot. I particularly liked the winning shots by Paul Fuentes in the ‘Product’ category, but as ever I advise you to click through and pick your own – if nothing else, this is a nice overview of the current prevailing aesthetic(s) in pro/luxe image creation.
- Newsbard: I got a mention in the B3ta newsletter last week (meaning I can close out the year with a real sense of achievement – THANKS ROB!), which makes my including Rob Manuel’s latest bot in this week’s Curios look like some sort of backscratchy quid-pro-quo BUT I PROMISE IT ISN’T. Newsbard is a genuinely brilliant idea – it’s a Twitter bot which punts out news articles with an automatically-generated rhyming couplet to accompany them. So you get “Roses are red / Violets are key / My ex-husband has turned our children against me”, or “Roses are red / Violets are sophisticated / Woman married cow after it kissed her and claims it’s her ‘husband reincarnated”. It’s only one joke, fine, but it’s an endlessly-repeatable one, and if you find the format funny (which I do), it’s a seemingly-neverending stream of low-stakes lols.
- Destination Home: One of the things that is now A Job Of Sorts is ‘internet archaeologist’ – the people and communities who spend their time attempting to piece together relics of The Old Web (I feel this should always be capitalised to lend the concept a sense of power and wonder) from code fragments and memories, to attempt to preserve our collective digital histories from the inevitability of bitrot. This is a community of people who are trying to rebuild one of the early attempts to create a metaverse, the sadly-unlamented PlayStation Home. You may not recall this, but when the PS3 launched it came with Home, a Second Life-ish virtual space which Sony promised us was where we would ALL be hanging out – the vision was that people would watch films together in shared digital theatres, hang out together in customisable virtual spaces that they could deck out with trophies and the like earned in-game, go bowling, have virtual parties….except, obviously, it didn’t work that way as a) everyone was on horrible internet connections and so it was a deeply-shonky experience; and b) life in the real world wasn’t yet so terrifying and jagged that we were all desperate to escape into a digital representation of the good bits. Still, though, it was basically exactly what we are currently being sold a repackaged version of by Meta et al, and so it’s fascinating to remember the vision for what PS Home could have been, and to compare its ambition to the new reality 15y hence. This project is ongoing – you can’t quite jump back into Home yet, but they’re working on it – so think of it more as a digital ‘dig’ than anything else.
- London Pub Details: A set of photographs celebrating the architectural and aesthetic details of London pubs. Man I miss pubs – Rome has many things to recommend it (actually it has 5 – history, aesthetics, weather, food and light. There is nothing else, trust me), but it really does not have pubs and I would give my left testicle (or, more sensibly, your left testicle) to spend the afternoon getting slowly munted on session ale in front of a warm fire. This Flickr set gave me proper nostalgia pangs. I WANT A PINT FFS 400ML IS NOT QUITE ENOUGH BEER IN A SINGLE GLASS.
- Alien Landscapes: 2d alien landscapes in pastel colours, with a new one generated each time you click. I would like this as a digital painting, please, framed on my wall, which cycles the colours to match my mood. Can someone make that happen, please? THANKS!
- WeirdSpot: HAVE YOU ALL DONE YOUR SPOTIFY WRAPPED LIST? HAVE YOU??? HAVE YOU SHARED IT WITH EVERYONE SO THAT EVERYONE KNOWS YOU VIA THE PUBLIC AND PERFORMATIVE DISPLAY OF MUSICAL TASTE?? Oh good, I am glad. If you’d like something else to do with Spotify over the festive season, why not try this toy which lets you type any sentence or phrase you like and which will then try and compile a playlist where the song titles spell the phrase in question. Which is a) an excellent resource for any community managers who want to create an ‘amusing’ brand-themed playlist but don’t want to do the hard work of finding the music; and b) a GREAT way of creating bespoke playlists for all your friends which neatly and amusingly encapsulate the special nature of your relationship via the medium of song titles. It works very well for short phrases, but tends to fall over a bit if you get too involved – so “You’re my best friend and I will love you forever also remember that time with the ket? Lol!” will probably work ok, whereas it might struggle with “I think that on balance we’ve probably entered into an overly codependent relationship over the past year and I think on balance it would be better if we took some time apart as otherwise I worry I may start to fantasise about what your head might look like on a stick”. Have a play.
- Flowwrite: Do you find that the main thing keeping you from being able to reach your true potential in professional and personal life is the amount of time you spend writing grammatically-correct and passingly-polite email communications? Well HUZZAH, for help is at hand in the form of Flowwrite, a service which promises to turn terse lists of instructions into human-adjacent prose for you to send to your minions and suppliers while you get on with the important business of CRUSHING IT in whatever field you choose. So it will turn “saw email. Disagree. Die” into “Hi! Thanks so much for your email, which I read with interest. I saw many positive elements to your suggestion, but I found that overall I remain unconvinced by your argument and as such must insist on condemning you to death by lions. Thanks!”. Is this a good thing? On the one hand I can sort of see the appeal for the VERY BUSY whose communication is solely-practical – on the other, it’s hard not to look at this and then extrapolate it to a future 30 years hence when noone is capable or articulating anything in a form more sophisticated than “want eats, beer me now” because we’ve outsourced the tricky business of style and syntax to the machines (God, this is SUCH an old man thing to think, I know).
- The Hive Index: This is a really useful idea – the Hive Index is a way of finding communities around specific topics or areas of interest, whether because you’re looking for people to talk to about a shared passion. There are over 1100 communities listed, apparently, searchable by keyword or by area of interest, and they span forums, Discords, Facebook Groups and all sorts of other platforms and formats. There’s a slightly-disappointing skew towards the ‘self-improvement’ and ‘hustle’ end of the online spectrum here – listings for ‘financial independence’ and ‘marketing’ and (inevitably) NFTs and the like – but there are also communities for teachers and travel and reading, so it’s worth a look if you’re after some anonymous interlocutors to share your passion for, I don’t know, GROWTH HACKING with. As an aside, it made me (not for the first time this year) bemoan the slow degradation of Google Search as a workable product – you used to be able to run specific searches across forums, ffs, which was genuinely useful. WHY MUST THINGS CHANGE? WHY IS PROGRESS INEVITABLE? Etc etc.
- Wombo: More ‘the pace of technological progress really is dizzying at times’ stuff, this – this year has seen us move from ‘wow, if you have access to a decent processor or cloud computing rig you really can do some fascinating stuff with CLIP/GAN and the whole idea of ‘machines imagining something based on text input’ really does feel impossibly future!’ to ‘here, have an app which will churn these out in literally seconds’ in 12 short months. Wombo is a really impressive toy – you need to download it, but it doesn’t seem to be obvious malware oy spyware, and it’s super-easy and fast to use. Type a prompt, pick an output style, and within literally seconds you will be looking at your very own AI-generated image of, say, “Boris Johnson crying in front of a castle made of human teeth”, or “a tsunami of scrotums” (these are just a couple of my recent inputs for ‘inspiration’ – you, as ever, do you).
- KierTwice: I found this TikTok account really interesting, not because of what it is doing but more for what it tell us about how people want to learn/consume/experience things in the fag-end of 2021. KeirTwice is a TikToker whose ‘thing’ is getting AIs to imagine images (per the app in the last link) and then showing them to her audience in a kind of ‘woah, that is SO FREAKY!’ sort of way. What’s interesting is that they don’t code or do anything other than use a free webapp which literally anyone could pick up and do the same with – except it’s a little bit fiddly, or it takes a few minutes, and so people would rather watch someone else show them the thing rather than play with it themselves. This feels like a cultural thing to me – the rise of everything as a streamable moment, the prevalence of consumption over experience, etc – but I might be overthinking it. Still, if I were in the invidious position of having to sh1t out some trendswank, I would totally consider this as an option because, well, why not? It’s all b0llocks anyway, isn’t it?
- The Amazon Brand Detector: One of the stories about Amazon that came out this year which doesn’t feel like it got quite enough traction was the fact that, yes, turns out that Amazon does absolutely promote products by its own shadowbrands over and above those made by others within popular categories. I mean, on the one hand, Jeff didn’t become a plute by playing nice; on the other, er, is that ok? It doesn’t feel ok. Still, if you’d like to attempt to push back against The (oh, ok, An) Evil Empire, you might appreciate this Chrome extension which works to highlight all the Amazon-owned products being punted at you by the site as you browse, so you can at least attempt to feel like you’re claiming the moral high ground by not giving all your money to the MechaBezos empire. This works in the US, the UK and various other territories, and you can read a bit more about the project behind it here – I mean, the BEST solution is not to buy from Amazon, but that horse is comfortably chewing grass several fields away by now so, I guess, wevs.
- Demon Deleter: This is not, fine, the ‘best’ or ‘most fun’ game experience included in Curios this week, but it wins ALL THE POINTS for creativity. Demon Deleter is a ‘game’ which exists inside a Google Sheet, and which basically attempts to gamify (with some small success) the process of deleting stuff from lots of cells as quickly as possible. There’s some narrative wrapping around it – your job is to delete the demons because, I don’t know, the occult – but the fun is the way in which it plays with the conventions of spreadsheets and excel, and in seeing the ways that previous players have left their mark on the shared playspace. You can read more about the project here – it’s not the most user-friendly thing in the world, and I appreciate that 90% of you (at a conservative estimate) won’t really get this, but for those few of you that do I hope you enjoy it.
- Super Auto Pets: This one could honestly keep you going til January. Pick your pets, train them, build a KILLER FIGHTING SQUAD, and battle them against other anonymous players from around the web. Honestly, this is both very cute and FIENDISHLY addictive, in that classic ‘one more go, oh I can definitely keep this on while I do that talk to the students about careers’ way (sorry, students! I don’t think any of you noticed, though – and if you did, er, apologies!), and I think you will like it very much indeed.
- Townscaper: Finally this week, a link that really WILL keep you going til 2022. Townscaper has been around for a little while as a game on Steam, but this week its developer released this browser-based version of it and OH MY GOD IT IS SO PRETTY AND SOOTHING AND LOVELY. Honestly, I cannot stress enough what a glorious timesink this is – you do nothing other than click to build a beautiful, unique townscape, rising out of the water like some sort of cell-shaded proto-Venice. The only sort of interactions you can make are to add elements to the city, change the colour of the buildings, and spin the camera (oh, you can change the angle of the lighting too, for aesthetic effect), but that doesn’t stop this from being supremely compelling and, let me stress again, SO BEAUTIFUL. Even better, there are tiny Easter Eggs hidden throughout – when I tweeted the link yesterday, someone replied to point out that if make a tower that goes red/white/red it will transform into a lighthouse, which is just too cute for words. Honestly, click this and spend the rest of the day making your beautiful lagoon-town utopia; fcuk the metaverse, this is where I want to live out my digital days.
THE CIRCUS OF TUMBLRS IS SADLY EMPTY THIS WEEK, BUT I HOPE THAT IT WILL SEE A RESURGENCE IN 2022!
THE TROUGH OF (INSTA) FEEDS!
- Log Onomichi: I came across this via Craig Mod’s daily dispatches from the small towns of Japan, as pimped in last week’s Curios – this is the Insta feed of a hotel in Onomichi which, and I can’t stress this enough, has THE most incredibly peaceful vibe of any vaguely-commercial Insta account I have ever seen. Seriously, I could look at these all day and feel like everything was vaguely-ok; I hope it has the same effect on you.
LONG THINGS WHICH ARE LONG!:
- 52 Things Tom Whitwell Learned in 2021: I have featured Whitwell’s annual lists of stuff he learned over the past year on multiple occasions since he first started the practice, and this year’s selection is another brilliant collection of 52 facts collated from his infospelunking over the past 12 months. I promise you that this is, as ever, worth reading – you will find your own highlights, but personally I was most-stricken by the stat about the volume of computer production vs the number of human births, and the detail about how body-mass index values correlate strongly with incidences of corruption amongst politicians. I think I made the same observation last year too, but it maintains – you could usefully use this as a jumping off point for a whole bunch of campaigns, should you wish, and if you don’t then you could do worse than using it as an example of ‘what an insight is’ (seeing as none of you fcukers seem to be on board with my goal to ban the use of the fcuking word entirely, we may as well try and lead it gently back to meaningfulness).
- Long Live Participatory Socialism: I have no idea what your Christmas is going to be like – I don’t know you, who are you, get away from me – but I sincerely hope it’s going to be more conversationally-thrilling than mine which for reasons too tedious to get into is likely to be conducted in near-total silence. If you’re blessed with Tories in the family and are looking for a real ‘cat among the pigeons’ discussion topic, you could do worse than using this piece, a modified extract from Thomas Piketty’s new book which is entitled ‘Time for Socialism’, as fodder. In it, Piketty neatly summarises why he, an economist who market enthusiasts have actually heard of, is coming round to the idea that socialism is actually the only workable future idea we have, and why, and how we might make it work in practice. Piketty persuasively (ok, fine, I agree with socialism already and so am hardly a decent barometer for this; it reads like it should be persuasive, though) argues through the reasons why it’s probably time to call an end to ‘no but the market!-ism, and it’s pleasing and refreshing to read an economist who’s on noone’s list of ‘dangerous lefties’ openly advocating for greater equality and consideration to historical injustices and intersectional issues. Go on, get p1ssed and tell your banker brother why even economists are saying things need to change (and then forget all about it when you’re cooing over the cashmere he bought you, because we’re all powerless in the face of soft wool and nice packaging).
- Real Estate and the Metaverse: Or, perhaps, “Why When You Get To Your Metaverse Apartment You’ll Find That Someone’s Already Trying To Rent It To You”. It should of course come as no surprise that the exciting vision we’re currently being sold of a glorious, interconnected, immersive multimedia digital future is being peddled first to the rentier class, to enable them to ensure that they can continue making money from ownership of digital bricks and mortar in the same way (no, better!) as they currently do from the physical stuff – this New York Times piece looks at the current ‘property’ boom in spaces such as Decentraland, which recently sold a plot of land (to be clear – a plot of digital space in a theoretically-infinite online world which NO REAL PEOPLE USE OR WILL EVER USE) for $2.6m, and why it’s happening, but without mentioning the elephant in the room which is basically ‘and this is how we’re going to end up ensuring that the metaverse, whatever that might mean when it gets here, is structured in exactly the same sort of miserable, desperately-inequitable fashion as meatspace’. Still, er, WEB3!!!!11111eleventy.
- The Half-Empty Glass: You may not think that you’re in the market for a long and very deep dive into the recent history of Polish politics, but I promise you that you in fact are (NO I KNOW WHAT IS BEST FOR YOU DO NOT ARGUE). Whilst this is obviously a bit ‘inside (Polish) baseball’, you don’t need any existing knowledge of the country’s political landscape to both find this interesting and to get a slightly-sweaty-palmed feeling about the general direction of travel in central Europe right now (not to mention the equally-uncomfortable feeling that if you were to lump the ruling parties of Europe into buckets based on their rhetoric and behaviour around certain hot-button topics, FREEDOM ISLE would currently be more likely to share a grouping with Poland and Hungary than it would with some of the more…moderate exemplars of modern Western governance. Hugely interesting, from a national, European and global perspective.
- Libyan Prisons: I promise that I didn’t set out to fill the last Curios of 2021 with a bunch of slightly-depressing articles about the State of the World, but, well, the State of the World is what it is. Given the furore over human deaths in the channel from a few weeks ago has been MAGICALLY DISPERSED by a combination of Omicron and Black Friday (DIE OR BUY? WHICH DO YOU CHOOSE???), it feels timely to share this superb piece of journalism in the New Yorker which takes the tragedy of one man’s failed attempt to reach Italy from Libya and uses it to paint a picture of how multiple actors have spent the years since the collapse of the Gadaffi regime quietly seeking to do everything they can to block human movement from Northern Africa to Europe, and how that has impacted the reality of life for the hundreds of thousands fleeing war, famine and persecution across the continent (and beyond). This is particularly resonant for me, living in Italy and watching Matteo Salvini on the news practically every night, but it should really be resonant for all of us living in what I presume is relative prosperity and comfort as we read this. The details about the billions spent on drone flights to catch migrant vessels so that they can be shot at rather than allowed to find safe landing is so astonishingly awful that I can’t quite imagine it even now.
- Ten Million A Year: Or, “Why We Need To Worry About Air Pollution Too”. Look, I promise that we’re nearly through the ‘incredibly depressing selection of articles’, but this one is also really worth reading. David Wallace Wells writes in the LRB about the pressing problem of air pollution, which kills 10m people a year globally through a combination of particulate pollution, smoke inhalation from wildfires and the like, and how it highlights the difficulty in dealing with ‘environmental’ issues – to whit, because there are LOADS of them and they are all interlinked and prioritisation is HARD and lots of different things are happening all at the same time. “In the entire 20th century, there were only five fires that burned more than 100,000 acres. In 2020, there were eleven such fires – one blaze, the August Complex fire in Mendocino, which burned more than a million acres, seemed to demand a new term, ‘gigafire’, to describe it.” HAPPY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!
- The Technological Parentheses of Our Lives: I really like this as a way of thinking about technology and its impact on our lives and how that changes over time. “The passage of time means inevitable changes in technologies. Some of these are small: I doubt many people lament the absence of calculator watches or floppy disks. But other changes are far larger. And they don’t just provide elements of nostalgia for period pieces on prestige television, they infiltrate numerous aspects of our lives. When one of these technologies evaporates—such as driving a car or telephones that sit on a table or hang from a wall—it can rewire how we think about the world and our place in it.” This essay introduces the concept of ‘tech parentheses’ – periods of time during which a particular technology has total primacy, to the extent that it shapes society in ways far broader than its own application – and how societies and human behaviour change when those periods come to an end. This feels like a really useful way of thinking about tech and society – we might argue that we’re now in a position where we can see the end of the TV parentheses, for example, and I can imagine what the end of the WiFi parentheses might look like and how that might change patterns of behaviour. Super-interesting, particularly for anyone with ‘strategy’ in their job title who wants another clever idea from someone else to steal and pass off as their own original thinking.
- The Milky Bar Adult: This is VERY Inside Advertising, fine, but I promise you it’s also a really interesting look at the creative process in action, and the realities of being paid to deliver what the client wants rather than what the answer ought to be, and, basically, of the sheer, unending horror of being paid for your expertise but having your output judged by people who don’t know the first thing about what you do but who do know ‘what they like’. Dave Dye here posts his experience as (I think) Creative Director at JWT working on a brief for MilkyBar – this is a wonderful look at How The Sausage Is Made, and frankly Dave deserves credit for not stabbing the client in the throat with a Stabilo gel pen about 3 feedback rounds in. Honestly, this is why I don’t do client-facing stuff (well, one of the reasons) – I would have walked about 1/10th of the way through this process (or perhaps more likely been sacked).
- The Most Frequently-Used Emoji of 2021!: I’ll save you a click if you like – it was the ‘cry/laugh’ one, which suggests if nothing else that millennials and above still very much rule the mainstream web. This is an interesting and useful post by Jennifer Daniel (who also writes a newsletter about emoji, should you be in the market for such a thing), which not only talks you through the popular emoji and how they were used, but also lets you explore the data by category so, for example, you can learn which the most popular emoji were by category, or see which ones have become more or less popular over the past year (am I allowed to find the increase in popularity of the ‘moneybag’ emoji saddening? YES I AM – as an aside, anyone wishing to still punt the line about ‘hustle culture is dead’ is an idiot, it has just rebranded), which you might find useful when planning new ways for brands to ENGAGE and SURPRISE and DELIGHT with their emoji usage in 2022 (to remind you, though, STOP BRANDED CONTENT IN 2022!!).
- Why Do DVDs Still Exist?: I enjoyed this WIRED piece, about the strange, unkillable format that is the DVD, but I feel it runs slightly long given that the answer is quite simply ‘because digital content ownership is fundamentally broken, and as such buying DVDs is literally the only way of being able to guarantee ownership of and access to treasured cultural items and works of art from the past’.
- Gorillas Goes Sour: More WIRED, this time reporting on urban delivery app Gorillas which has had a meteoric rise but which is now coming up against some rather tricky issues – namely the simple fact that it is not currently possible to run a business which lets consumers buy anything they want to have delivered to their door within minutes at an affordable rate AND to make said business anything other than bleakly-exploitative of the people doing the delivering. I think about this quite a lot – one of the odd things about the now is the fact that we’ve become so utterly divorced from the reality of the genesis of products. Digital interfaces are smooth and slick and impersonal, which means we don’t even begin to think, as we order another shipment of £3.99 joggers and £6 statement tees, that hidden within that £6 is someone being paid a terrifyingly-small amount of money for the privilege of stitching the garms. So it is with digital delivery – this is articulated very well in this blogpost by Bogdana (she only seems to have one name online, and I would feel weird and a bit creepy trying to find out anything more) which describes the frictionless glide of the deliveryperson icon across the screen of your phone as you wait for your toothpaste, which neatly eliminates any thought of the sweaty, time-pressured reality of the deliveryperson’s existence. It was of course ever thus – I don’t imagine people enjoying their sheets in the 19th Century spent a lot of time wringing their hands over cotton mill conditions, for example – but it does rather feel like we could and should be doing better here.
- We Need Sex In The Metaverse: The author’s position, this, not mine, just to be absolutely clear, but one with which I broadly agree – this argues that the future visions being presented to us by Mark and the rest are weird in their sexlessness, particularly based on previous experience of the extent to which online innovation has previously been so closely linked with, well, fcuking (or at least the idea of it). More broadly, I am sort-of fascinated with the ‘smooth place like Ken and Barbie’ sexlessness of modern technologists – I mean, I know that all these people must fcuk, right, but there’s something so…sexless about everything they build and say and are which feels remarkable. Why is that? Is it generational? Anyway, the fervent hope expressed in the article is that the lack of metaversal kink will ensure the genesis and maintenance of continued non-mainstream spaces of creation and exploration, which sounds good to me (even I have no personal interest in ever ‘enjoying’ multi-c0cked digital congress or anything similar – so vanilla!).
- Meet Andy Jassy: There is something very odd about the celebrity corporate profile as a genre – it’s hard for writers to find much to grab onto, given the public profiles of the subjects are often buffed to frictionless smoothness by years of PR handling, or that those being interviewed are often…not that interesting (‘being good at making lots of money’ is not in any way I recognise analogous to ‘being an interesting human being’). So it is with this profile of new Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, which is what makes it…actually quite interesting. It’s hard to know what to make of the man at the end of this other than that he is obviously smart, driven and quite intense – but the writer had a copy target and by God do they want to hit it. So this is less of a profile of the man – because, honestly, what is there to say? He’s a white, middle-aged multi-millionaire who cannot and will not say anything that offers a hint of personality because personality scares shareholders! – and more of a picture of an idea, of what it must be like to be about to take control of the world’s most powerful business (perhaps the most powerful business that has ever existed). It did not make me want to be Andy Jassy one tiny bit, which is I suppose A Good Thing.
- A Feast For Lost Souls: People go missing in Sinaloa, Mexico, more often than they ought, taken by cartels, murdered for drugs, checking out into the desert and simply never coming back. This beautiful essay profiles a community of people who have lost loved ones and who keep their memories alive through food and cookery, and who have published a cookbook collecting the recipes and notes on the people the food is in memory of – this is a beautiful piece of writing, accompanied by some equally-beautiful photography, and very much worth the time.
- Making Mazes: I’ve long had a thing for the practice of maze making, inspired by the wonderful novel ‘Larry’s Party’, by Carol Shields, in which the lead character is a maze designer and whose emotional life is mapped through the mazes they design (it’s superb, do give it a read) – this is a WONDERFUL and hugely-entertaining profile of one such designer, an almost-stereotypically eccentric and bumptious Englishman called Adrian Fisher, who’s designed hundreds of the things for clients across the world. I can’t stress how joyful this is – there’s something inherently interesting in the very act of maze construction and how a puzzle is put together, but there’s also the sheer joy of Fisher, who’s a man who I am very glad I have read about but who I think I am equally glad I am never going to meet or hang out with.
- Grand Theft Memories: Joel Golby writes more emotively than I ever thought possible about the Grand Theft Auto games – specifically the experience of playing the recently-remastered reissues, and the odd experience of returning to a loved cultural artefact of one’s youth and finding out that memory is strange and that people change and that you can never go back. Joel is an annoyingly good writer, and a consistently-funny one, but this is also poignant in ways you wouldn’t expect, and it made me flash back hard to a time when I wondered into my little brother’s room to find him contentedly picking up hookers in his car in San Andreas and talking me through the bleakly-methodical way he had devised to use them as an infinite source of cash and health, and me thinking that he was only 9 and, honestly, this probably wasn’t going to do him any favours and maybe I should put a stop to it, and then how we played it together for the next 3 hours and how it didn’t really matter whether it was a bad influence on him because he died too young for anything to count. Everyone has a GTA memory, basically, and this will help you find yours.
- Dragons: Last up in this year’s longreads, this is a short story called ‘Dragons’, which is sort-of scifi, but really, in the most important sense, is a love story and not ‘science’ or indeed ‘fiction’ at all.
AND NOW, MOVING PICTURES AND SOUNDS!:
- You may not think that you want to spend 20 minutes watching a McDonald’s staff induction video from (I think) the 1970s, but I promise you that this will reward your attention. This is SO good, SO funny and so unexpectedly deadpan/surreal in places that I had to check that it was real (it is real). Please, can we go back to making corporate stuff like this, if we’re not going to STOP BRANDED CONTENT?
- “The Red Ape Family (TRAF) is the world’s first animated comedy series built around, and starring, Blue-Chip NFTs. It is also the only show of its kind to sell episodes as standalone NFTs. Oh yeah, and it’s the start of a new era in entertainment history!” Or at least that’s what the people behind this sub-Newgrounds animation claim. Have you ever wondered what AMAZING ART the ‘incredible communities’ that spring up around NFT avata drops would create? Wonder no more, for it is stuff like this! It is SO SO SO bad, and yet it has 250k views, which, again, is further proof of The Cultiness of Everything, but also is just slightly sad. If nothing else, though, it does rather give lie to the idea that ‘NFTs are the most exciting creative movement on the planet right now’, which I suppose is a small positive.
- This song called ‘Madonna’ and it’s by a band called Snail Mail, and the singer’s vocal absolutely hooked me – it’s not that it’s technically impressive so much as I properly felt it if you see what I mean. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. Anyway, this is a cracking song and it feels like an appropriate one to share at the end of a long year.
- And so, we come to the end and the HIGHLY COVETED ‘Web Curios SONG OF THE YEAR’ award for 2021, which this year goes to Ethel Cain for Crush, a song I have listened to on near-repeat since I first heard it and which reminds me of driving around Georgia and passing terrifying churches and being hot, and which I cannot sing along to properly however many times I try. And, er, THAT’S IT THANKYOU FOR READING AND THANKYOU FOR CLICKING AND THANKYOU FOR EVERYTHING AND I HOPE YOU HAVE A LOVELY BREAK IF YOU GET TO HAVE ONE, AND THAT IF YOU DON’T THAT YOU SURVIVE, AND I WILL SEE YOU AGAIN IN 2022 UNLESS I DIE SO FINGERS CROSSED EH I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU MERRY CHRISTMAS TO THOSE OF YOU WHO CARE ABOUT THOSE THINGS I LOVE YOU BYE!