4 People Who Secretly Ruined The Internet
In this terrifying orgy of My Little Pony porn and Nazi propaganda that we call the internet, it's easy to start looking at the whole thing as a faceless mass that no one and everyone is responsible for. Sometimes, though, it really is just one guy who messed things up for everyone ...
All Those Gross Counter Food Videos Trace Back to One Magician
Unless your social media bubble consists solely of your spouse and Ronan Farrow, you've probably seen videos of attractive white women "making" "food" via smearing jarred pasta sauce and artificial cheese onto their marble countertops with their bare hands. You've probably seen them because they get shared by 500,000 people simultaneously and audibly ralphing. Sometimes it's spaghetti …
… sometimes it's macaroni and cheese (and hot dogs) …
… sometimes it's ... nacho cones?
It's always revolting, and it can almost always be traced back to one guy named Rick Lax, a street magician/Facebook robber baron.
Lax started out on social media like every other geek with a pack of cards, posting videos of his tricks to his Facebook page, but he soon earned a Ph.D. in viral video making. Along the way, he amassed a seemingly infinite network of creators who all brainstorm together and share each other's videos until the sheer volume of gluttony comes crashing down onto your feed in an unsanitary tsunami. As Ryan Broderick illustrated for Eater, tracing these videos back to their sources results in seeing the words "Rick Lax Productions" so often that it'll start to feel like your own personal Twilight Zone.
These videos aren't the only kind the network cranks out, but Lax freely admits that "Whenever we see a video trend doing well on Facebook, I try and ask, 'What is our version of this popular trend?'" The unholy smorgasbords were inspired by street food videos, which Lax deduced were popular because of "the visual impact of seeing lots of food spread out in front of a camera." It would take a toddler level of naivety to think that was the reason "nacho cones" went viral, but feigned delusions of quality appear to be the party line at Rick Lax Productions. Lax himself scoffs at the idea that the food is "gross," and the creator of the Nerds spaghetti burger explained that "We're entertainers. We're just trying to put smiles on your faces." You might think they're all horrifically unaware of the opposite of smiles among the people sharing the videos, but Lax later clarified that when he insists they make "good videos," "I mean videos that perform well on social media." Basically, he totally knows.
The Guy Who Invented the Like Button Just Wanted to Organize Photoshop Contests
These days, the like button controls our lives as much as heroin did in the '90s and hairspray in the '80s. It's equally addictive, and it's completely free of the associated social stigma. It's not without its downsides, though, which you know if you've ever secretly felt way too bummed out that a joke you made only got two likes or seen some shady startup threaten to shoot a puppy unless they got 10,000. It's the subject of an honest-to-god Black Mirror episode, but it was only ever intended to help some dude figure out which action figure reimagining of Picasso people liked better.
Of course, all kinds of people have claimed credit/blame for the like button. Facebook took over the world with it, but a few years earlier, the first like button was implemented in November 2005 by either Vimeo, now YouTube for people that went to film school, or B3ta, a British digital arts community that you probably haven't even heard of. Inspired by the Digg system, as everyone eventually would be, co-founder Rob Manuel just wanted what we all want: someone else to do the work. In his case, selecting artist submissions to be featured on his website. "My thought was that I wanted a halfway house of editorial control. I get the final say, but user suggestions could guide me to the better content," said a man blissfully unaware that the type of content the internet tends to guide you toward couldn't exactly be described as "better."
Fun fact: There's an alternate universe where, instead of "liking" things, we "wooyay" them. That was what Manuel initially wanted to call the button, though the infinitely less cringey "I like this!" won out, and the rest is history. Don't worry: No one is celebrating. Pretty much everyone who claims to have invented the like button has denounced it.
Just 12 People Are Responsible For Most Disinformation About COVID-19 Vaccines
During the COVID-19 pandemic, you almost certainly came across not just one but a wave of weirdos trying to convince you that masks actually make you sick, and you should preventatively huff bleach instead. It can seem like there are millions of people out there, all with their own hilarious ideas about how to prevent and treat infection with a mysterious virus even though most of them can't figure out how to properly thread their tweets, but chances are they're just repeating something they heard from a very select few. Specifically, one of the 12 people responsible for 65% of disinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines on the internet.
Referred to as the Disinformation Dozen by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which performed the study released in March 2021, the group that wouldn't even crowd an average city bus has a collective reach of more than 59 million followers across various social media platforms, who then parrot their alternative facts to an ever-widening network, as illustrated by Dr. Wayne Campbell. It includes such heavy hitters as "natural health expert" and snake oil titan Joseph Mercola and freaking Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. When it comes to secretly controlling the world, the Kennedys are always involved somehow.
The good news is that knowing who they are means something can be done about them. The bad news is that Facebook, Twitter, etc., failed to do anything about them for months after the report was released. In the meantime, 105 "pieces of vaccine disinformation" were viewed as much as 29 million times in a single month as political leaders continued to lobby social media platforms to stop them maybe. Yes, we're at the point where Congress is begging Instagram not to let the world burn.
Related: Covid-19 Is Exposing Xenophobia
Two Congressmen Are the Reason Social Media is a Cesspool
Incidentally, the reason those people are allowed to get on whichever social media platform is currently in fashion with the deluded and possibly destroy the world is a law that has the distinction of being hated by basically everyone. In only 26 words, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects websites, apps, and whoever else is hosting your uncle's racist poetry from legal liability for the content its users post while allowing them to moderate however they see fit, and like many things about the internet, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
It all started in 1995 when Congressman Chris Cox read about brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont …
Yes, the Wolf of Wall Street guys.
… suing the owners of a message board where someone had posted claims about the firm's fraudulent activities for defamation. For some reason, instead of investigating whether these guys were totally frauding people, which they were, the lawsuit focused on whether or not the company who owned the message board was responsible for what its users posted. Cox teamed up with fellow congressman Ron Wyden to clear everything up, at least in 1996 terms, when only 16 million people around the world even used the internet. Such innocent times.
Today, no one is happy that the corporations that run the world are allowed to moderate their content in whatever way pleases their shareholders, including Mark Zuckerberg. There have been numerous proposals to reform the act or scrap it altogether, from lefties who want to hold platforms accountable for abuse, harassment, and terrorism to Trumpers who don't think the act goes far enough, demanding to forbid them from censoring users on the basis of politics. Whenever the act does get modified, such as with the FOSTA-SESTA bills that open these companies up to liability for sex work carried out through their services, it's just as controversial. It's a tough situation because it's really hard to get laws changed, and if you told anyone in 1996 that within a decade, everyone would be carrying The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in their pocket, they would probably burn you as a witch. Stilll, at least we know who's responsible. And unlike most of these sad sacks, you're allowed to yell at politicians, especially on the internet.
Top image: Greg Bulla/Unsplash