Sunsetting Social Media and the Dawn of Group Chats

We live in a time where apparently Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are running a tight race of who can kill their own social media network faster than Rupert Murdoch did with MySpace and who can lose more money in the process than Yahoo! did with tumblr. Musk and Zuck are being supported in their quest by the unlikliest of partners: Discord, Telegram, Whatsapp and various governments. So what is happening?

Social media is connecting us

Social media – and stop me if you heard this one before – brings us one main benefit: Staying connected with friends, family and classmates, and finding new friends. This benefit very clearly serves a need within all of us, as becomes evident when you attempt to leave a social network: Staying connected becomes much harder and takes lots of effort in 1:1 conversations to keep the connection alive.

Yet, at the same time, social media has become a battleground of attention. It’s a free-for-all between advertisers, influencers and your friends, and your friends are hopelessly outmatched. Facebook is a marketplace competing with ebay, YouTube is competing with TV stations on ad money, and inbetween it all are influencers, opinion leaders and content creators, trying to get their voice heard and their art seen.

And it’s tiring.

Social media is dividing us

This battleground of attention is particularly nasty when it comes to politics. There is no discussion, there never has been. It’s a strawman building contest, the “other side” needs to be vilified, and the most outrageous believable claims are typically the most viral. Social media sites intentionally or unintentionally support this behavior: Enragement = Engagement. And once the villain is constructed, it can be justifiably attacked, either with hate online or with hammers, guns, explosives or incendiaries offline. Throwing soup, cakes and paint suddenly is one of the least worrying outcomes in context.

But remember, the battleground of attention isn’t actually why we are on social media sites! It’s a byproduct of the technical availability of it. It’s a fluke, caused by a product manager many years ago figuring out that by adding a “share publicly” option, social media also can take over the blogosphere.

Social media is dying

During the rise of social media sites, there was nothing which could connect us in just the same way. IRC and email were cumbersome and ill-suited to picture sharing. SMS and MMS got expensive real fast, and the very thought of using mobile data when it wasn’t strictly necessary burnt a hole in our pockets.

This situation has changed. Group chats and communities exist, on Discord, Signal, Telegram, Whatsapp and more, and they help us stay connected with friends, family, classmates and find new friends. Social media is obsolete.

Group chats are the future

Group chats don’t need to participate in the battleground of attention. Should an influencer invade a space and start promoting products, an opinion leader appear and always and exhaustively talk about the same issues, or a new parent share baby pics excessively you can just make a new group chat with everyone you care about, and without this annoying person. The original group chat may grow quieter or die altogether, but at no point did anyone need to interfere, kick someone, or hurt anyone’s feelings.

Group chats also facilitate the one good thing about Google+: social circles. It’s not just possible but naturally occurring that you share stuff with only the people you know will care about it – you ask your question on how to draw perspective in your art group chat, share the news that you just broke up in your close family group chat first, and geek out about model trains in a model train group chat.

To me, the group chat apps of today – especially discord and signal – have completely replaced social media as a way to stay connected. To me, twitter now is assuming the role of YouTube for most intents and purposes: It’s just media now. Media which I passively consume and sometimes create, the battleground of attention.

A battleground that no longer is a source of social connections.

Mastodon is not the solution, but yet another problem

We all know that big tech has a problem, from unfair policies to monopolistic bullying behavior. Back around new year 2018, I finally had enough and made an account on Mastodon – a federalized, not-for-profit-but-for-good kind of Twitter alternative. I’d be a trendsetter, I invited all my friends, some of which joined as well – but very quickly I was back on twitter again, anyway. What happened?

I didn’t know back then, but I think I do now. Part of the problem was the network effect, with just more interesting people being on Twitter than Mastodon, but the other part is what I want to talk about here:

Mastodon has some inherent structural problems.

  • Instances are fragile & exploitable
  • Trust & safety is awful
  • The UX gets sacrificed for band-aid fixes.

Let’s tackle these one by one.

Fragile Instances

Mastodon runs on the idea that there is no central server, but instead a federated bunch of servers owned and operated by random people on the internet (including yourself, if you want to). This “fediverse” is somewhat interoperable, so you can follow and talk to people from other instances. There’s some caveats to this, to which we come later.

“random people on the internet” doesn’t sound trust-inspiring, and this is because it isn’t. A quick scroll to shows that some 73% of the instances listed have been shut down again. Why? Probably for the same reasons why most personal website projects die: Lost interest, too expensive, too time-consuming to maintain. If you host your own instance this is fine – it’s yet another personal project after all – but if you have users, this is a problem: As a user, I cannot count on my social media profile to still exist tomorrow. This is in stark contrast to any of the more established social media websites and honestly, even the most chaotic of startups, where you generally can count on being told that they’re closing shop a few weeks before the lights go out.

No trust, no safety

Trust & Safety (TnS) is a catch-all term for the teams at websites that write and enforce community guidelines, combat fake news and spam bots, moderation and stuff like that. Since Mastodon is federated, this team often consists of one person: The instance owner.

I have had my fair share of volunteer TnS work over the years, and I can tell you: This stuff is very time- and soul-consuming. The community you run has certain expectations on what content is and isn’t shown on the server and will both yell at you if your rules and enforcement is too strict, and also if someone broke the rules while you were asleep and it was able to stay up for a few hours. For more subject-focused matters it’s often somewhat more forgiving – very few people will show up on a model train subreddit or discord server with the intent to post anything but model trains. But Mastodon generally doesn’t work like this, rather, you, as a user, choose your home instance (possibly the same one your friend uses) and once you have it, you post whatever. And “whatever” ranges from porn to gore to CSAM – child sexual abuse material.

In which case you, as the instance owner, already are in hot water, hosting CSAM will get the cops to your door sooner rather than later. For companies like Facebook and Twitter, this is part of their calculations. They can hire content reviewers and – in theory anyway – take steps to ensure that these people don’t break from constantly watching the worst part of humanity. For a mastodon instance, the best you can do is get volunteer moderators – untrained, unaware how bad it can become – and hope for the best. Or shut down the instance once it becomes unbearable.

Blanket banning

There is a small ray of light for the TnS matter though: Likeminded people tend to be on the same instances. By simply blocking any interactions from an entire instance, an instance owner immediately can get rid of a large chunk of potentially problematic users…. Or the entire country of Japan. The owner of one instance I’m on felt compelled to essentially block all mastodon instances ending in .jp to not have to look at lolicon content – sexual drawings of young girls, something legal in Japan and some other countries, but deeply illegal in many others.

This kind of blanket banning has some degrees of severity – maybe images from these instances won’t be served, maybe posts from these instances won’t be shown unless you follow someone, maybe all interactions are banned. Whatever setting the instance owner chooses, it directly affects the experience of the users, from “I have to leave my timeline to look at this image” to “I actually need to have a second account on another instance to interact with a friend”.

User experiencen’t

Mastodon, being an open source thing, of course comes in many forms and colors. Some instances try to emulate twitter’s (now: old) design, some try to emulate tweetdeck, some instagram, some are non-browser-based standalone apps, and so on. But as far as I can tell, they all have in common that they leak abstractions – especially this be language about “instances” when moving accounts, or usernames being @username@instance.tld. It also doesn’t feature a real search function (if you want random people to find your content, use a hashtag) or a quote-retweet equivalent (because it encourages people yelling at each other). You can’t even just join mastodon, you first have to jump through the hoops of understanding what instances are and then doing even more research to find which one suits you.

In the face of the aforementioned I can understand some of these decisions, sort of. Alas, I don’t think they’re particularly good decisions. There are tools which can be used for TnS in a federated system – shared blocklists, a CSGO-overwatch-like system, and more – which would do a better job than the current systems. Putting UX last is ultimately what made me stop using Mastodon:

  • It’s hard to sign up and get friends to sign up.
  • It’s hard to find interesting things.
  • It’s hard to share interesting things you find and add commentary.
  • And all in all: It’s hard to have fun.

Sport und Gewalt

Ein Gedanke, der mir seit Jahren immer mal wieder im Kopf herumschwirrt, ist folgende Positionierung des Deutschen Olympischen Sportbunds zum Thema eSports:

Eine weitere Entscheidungsgrundlage war der Inhalt der Spiele und die entsprechende Darstellungsform am Bildschirm. In vielen Spielen ist die Vernichtung und Tötung des Gegners das Ziel des Spiels. Insbesondere die deutlich sichtbare und explizite Darstellung des Tötens von virtuellen Gegnern ist mit den ethischen Werten, die wir im Sport vertreten, nicht vereinbar.

Ohne da jetzt tief aufzudröseln, ist der Gedanke hier verständlich: Wenn in CS:GO die Terroristen Bomben legen und Kopfschüsse verteilen, ist das eine wesentlich andere Hausnummer als wenn Bayern München einen Luft-und-Gummi-Ball in ein Netz schießt. Allein schon vom Jugendschutzgedanke ist das eine ganz schlechte Idee – und selbst CS:GO-Spieler wollen bestimmt keine Jugendteams voll mit 8- bis 13-Jährigen in ihren Pubs sehen.

Wenn man aber diesen Gedanken ein bisschen weiter verfolgt, öffnet sich schnell eine ethisch komplexe Thematik, nämlich die der Gewaltdarstellung in olympischen Sportarten. Eine ganze Reihe von Sportarten basiert zu großen Teilen auf schwierigen und teilweisen heute verbotenen Praktiken. Zum Beispiel:

  • Fechten ist Form des Duells. Duelle waren bis vor “kurzem” (19. Jh) ein Weg, seine Ehre wiederherzustellen, in dem man den Ehrekränker (also jemand, der dich beleidigt o.ä. hat) auf faire Weise im Duell bekämpfte und ggf. verletzte oder tötete.
  • Diverse Formen des Schießens (Bogenschießen, Pistolenschießen, Biathlon etc.) funktionieren als eine Form der Soldatenausbildung, einzig das Ziel muss durch feindliche Köpfe ausgetauscht werden. Biathlon insbesondere basiert auf der Sportart (?) “Militärpatroullie“, bei der 4 Athleten 30km auf Ski unterwegs waren und auf halber Strecke mit 18 Schuss pro Nase auf Zielscheiben schossen.
  • Der moderne Fünfkampf basiert auf schwedischer Soldatenausbildung. Die Disziplinen Fechten, Pistolenschießen, Schwimmen, fremde Pferde reiten und Laufen repräsentieren ganz gut, was man so erwarten kann, wenn man sich hinter die Feindeslinie gekämpft hat, die Munition ausgegangen ist und man auf geklauten Pferden wieder zurück will.

Natürlich haben Athleten dieser “PvZielscheibe”-Sportarten nie die Absicht oder die Illusion, jemanden zu töten. Und auch in der PvP-Abteilung sind KOs gewünscht und Hirnverletzungen und längerfristige neuropsychiatrische Erkrankungen geduldet, aber getötet werden soll keiner. Gleichzeitig ist eSportlern ebenfalls bewusst, dass der Headshot in CS:GO nicht vergleichbar ist mit der Tötung eines echten Menschen.

Ich könnte an dieser Stelle noch eine ganze Weile weitermachen, mit weiteren Gegenargumenten gegen die DOSB-eSport-Entscheidung, oder einer weiteren Analyse des DOSB Ethik-Codes (der, Überraschung, nichts von Gewaltdarstellungen oder Tötungen erwähnt), aber das alles wäre politische Diskussion.

Viel mehr interessiert mich dieser ganze historische und ethische Komplex von Sport und Gewalt. Warum basieren so viele Spiele und Sportarten auf Gewalt? Auf Grund von Tribalismus? Wenn ja, warum werden diese Sportarten nicht weiter hinterfragt? Wollen wir als Gesellschaft nicht vom Tribalismus weg kommen? Müssen Sportarten hinterfragt werden? Und so weiter.

Ich habe noch keine Antworten auf diese Fragen. Vielleicht gibt es irgendwann einen 2. Teil hierzu, vielleicht inspiriert er Leser:innen zur weiteren Recherche. Ich würde mich auf jeden Fall zu weiteren Infos hierfür freuen.

The Work of Art in the Age of NFTs

Every time I see NFTs in the context of “making digital art unique/owning art”, I have to think of Walter Benjamin’s „The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” from 1935. TL;DR is you just need to replace „mechanical“ with „digital” and you’re done.

The context for Benjamin’s essay is the rise of photography. Photography had existed for a long time before, but in the early 20th century, it had started to become prevalent everywhere. Photography certainly is an art form on its own, but it’s got one problem:

There isn’t really an „original” photograph you can look at in a museum. If you want to look at it, you first need to make a photoprint. But the process of making just one or 100 is the same. Are they all originals? All copies without an original?

For traditional art, it’s much easier: The original, authentic artwork exists in the „here and now“, in one location and only once. And it has a history (who prayed to it/owned it/how it was used/…). Benjamin calls this “Aura”.

This Aura is what makes you want to go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa from very far away. Benjamin compares this Aura to real life: Imagine sitting outside, mountains in the distance, leaves throwing shadows on your face and suddenly a squirrel hushes past you.

Now imagine the same thing in a movie or video game. The mountains are polygons, the squirrel no longer is chance, it’s scripted. Even the most perfect reproduction won’t have an Aura anymore. It may be immersive, but it won’t be authentic.

A manual copy of the Mona Lisa would simply be a fake, it had a much different history. But a mechanical/digital copy is different: It’s somewhat independent (you can crop/zoom to highlight parts), and it can access new places (ie your home).

When the original degrades (eg because I cut across it with a knife), it loses it’s authenticity and authority to the copy, eg a photograph: Suddenly you start looking at the copy and say “this is how this sadly destroyed artwork originally looked like”.

(This is where Benjamin has a very interesting detour to cult value vs exhibition value and how that’s shifted, I’ll skip it here.)

Anyway, NFTs. The big question is, can a proof of ownership restore the Aura of authenticity for digital art? The answer is a resounding “no”.

Just like a photograph, there never has been an “original”. Even if you’re the artist who saved the PSD half a second ago, you now have like 5 copies of it already: In your RAM, on your hard drive, in the CPU/GPU cache, on your screen, and if you do automatic backups, in a cloud.

The NFT’d artwork you buy won’t be in the “here and now”. It’s not with you, it’s somewhere on the internet, either as a classical URL or on IPFS. Copies, each of which as valid as yours, are sent to everyone who wants to see it.

Even if you somehow end up with no copies viewable to anyone else: Attach a second monitor to your computer and duplicate the display. Now you have two equally valid copies of it you can look at.

Owning a digital-art-NFT is very different to owning physical art. If anything, it’s as meaningful as getting copyright licenses, but even then, the TOS of NFT trading places give you rather crappy licenses.

FoundationApp for example forces creators to give up a “non-exclusive, world-wide, assignable, sublicensable, perpetual, and royalty-free license“

And if you buy it, you get a non-commercial „limited, worldwide, non-assignable, non-sublicensable, royalty-free license to display“

That’s right: If you buy an NFT from, you can’t even do with the thing as you please. They go on to allow you to share it to say “this is mine”, but you can’t use it in a monetized YouTube video or twitch stream. Buying NFTs is this useless.

Pro tip: If you want a digital artwork exclusive for you, commission an artist. With that, you get to be part of the creation of something truly new and support an artist both monetarily and in improving their skills, and you generally can use your commission however you want.

Jonah in the Whale

Why did I do this?, Jonah thought.

His trip to the beach had started so well. Like some sort of living cliché, he had found a golden lamp. And of course: a brief, firm stroking action later, the Genie came and granted Jonah three wishes.

But Jonah only really wanted two: To stop and revert the climate catastrophe. And to live for, say, 1000 years to make sure he was able to witness and enjoy the good he brought to the world. However, the Genie had insisted he needed three wishes, or else none of them would come true. And Jonah, instead of going for the default set of wishes – power, happiness, money, love – was intrigued by the fate of his biblical namesake.

“So you wish to live inside a whale for a bit? Alrighty then”, the Genie had said. “I shall grant your wishes.”

And before Jonah could ask, he already found himself inside a whale. Presumably anyway, because it was pitch black, underwater, yet warm. Jonah pulled out his phone and shook it to activate the flashlight. But to his horror, instead of a large cavernous stomach or maybe a throat-hotel with a nice view of the sea between the whale’s teeth, he only saw blood.

A pressure wave forced him forwards. He was inside the vein of the whale. Another heartbeat. Another pressure wave. Jonah was getting pulled closer and closer to the heart. Heartbeat. Jonah realized that, even though he was immortal for 300 years, his lungs started to loudly complain that fresh air was not only a premium option, but actually necessary. Heartbeat. A blood stream from an adjacent vein ripped Jonah’s phone out of his hand. Jonah tried to swim towards his remaining light source, but the phone quickly got stuck at the blood vessel’s wall, while he got carried closer and closer towards the heart.

Heartbeat. Something started gripping Jonah’s feet. He panicked and tried fighting it. But it relentlessly sucked him in. He was inside the heart. Jonah started to launch a literal heart attack, and to his surprise was successful in his task. The whale’s heart started beating faster at first, uncontrollably later, and eventually stopped. But Jonah was still stuck inside the heart. And even if he had been able to tear it up and get out, he still would’ve needed to escape the whale’s rib cage, which enclosed the heart like a prison.

But Jonah didn’t get to do any of that. His lungs finally gave out, his consciousness faded. And the whale’s carcass was quickly sinking towards the deep parts of the ocean, where the pressure crushed the two unfortunate souls into a barely recognizable shape.

A deep sea crab colony rejoiced as all their food problems were solved for the next couple decades. And even long after the whale was gone, Jonah continued to be an excellent and never-ending source of unconscious, but technically alive food, right until his time was up.

Die Digitale CD

Mama will ihrer Freundin eine CD schenken. Problem: Die gibt’s nur noch digital. Nichts einfacher als das, denk ich, wir laden die einfach runter und ziehen die auf einen USB-Stick.

*Edward A. Murphy lächelt müde*

Zum ersten Mal in meinem Leben ist das Problem nicht digitaler Natur. Der Download klappt und spuckt eine ZIP aus. Die Dateien sind einfach MP3s. Fantastisch.

Also noch fix zum Kvickly um quickly ‘n kleinen USB-stick zu fangen. Kvickly ist groß, sie haben bestimmt 300m² allein für Kleidung. Ich schlendere durch die Gänge, vorbei am Gemüse, an den Pfannen, an Lego Ma– LEGO MARIO?!?!


… und zum Elektronikregal. Eine Hälfte ist besetzt mit Glühbirnen. Ein Viertel ist voller Druckerpatronen. Doch dazwischen sind sie, USB-Mäuse, -Tastaturen, -Kabel, -Powerbanks, -Autoadapter, Handyhüllen und… das war’s. Gut, guck vielleicht ist an den Enden ja noch was.

Einmal zum Ende geschlendert, Batterien in allen Größen und Formen. Na, dann muss es wohl am anderen sein.

Nasenhaartrimmer und Ohrenschmalzschnecken.

Währenddessen ist Mama mit ihren Einkäufen fertig. Okay, hier wohl nicht. Wir gehen zur Kasse, und da! Mehr USB-Krams! UND EINE SPHINX MIT TITTEN!

Doch bei dem USB-Krams (Drahtlosladegeräte, Powerbanks für Radfahrer, Kabel ohne Ende) ist wieder kein USB-Stick dabei. Na dann. Mama, keiner sozialen Interaktion scheu, fragt noch mal die Verkäuferin. Sie sagt, “natürlich haben wir USB-Sticks!”, und geht schnurstraks auf das Regal zu, wo die ganzen Kabel waren.

“Meinst du nicht das?” – “ne, die sollen Daten halten können.” – “Mobile Daten?” – “Speicherplatz! 8GB oder so” – “Aah, ne, sowas ham wa nich”.


Nun denn. Wir sind ja im Borgen, dem großen Einkaufszentrum in Sønderborg. Hier gibt’s alles!

Ein Schreibwarengeschäft und Handyverkäufer später lässt mich diese Hoffnung korrigieren:

Hier gibt’s alles! Außer USB-Sticks!

Auf dem Weg nach draußen dämmert es mir so langsam, dass ich genau so gut nach Kassettenrohlingen hätte fragen können. Sind USB-Sticks etwa schon veraltete Technik?

Auf dem Weg nach Hause kommen wir an einem Computerreparaturshop vorbei. Und Hurra, er hat USB-Sticks! 128 GB für 500 DKK/67€?!! Die Dinger gibt’s auf Amazon für <20! und ich brauch nur genug für ‘ne CD, also höchstens 800MB.

Moment mal. CD?

Ich frag Papa. Er glaubt sich, dunkel zu erinnern, dass wir noch Rohlinge haben. Hurra! Und tatsächlich, Papa holt eine Spindel raus. Ich nehme mir eine, und… ach ja. Mein Laptop hat kein CD-Laufwerk mehr.

Gut, nehm ich einfach denen der Elter… doch möglicherweise hatte ich die letztes Jahr auch schon auf moderne Dinger upgraded. Papas Arbeits-PC? Hat das Ministerium auch upgraded. Alle haben sie kein CD-Laufwerk mehr.

Nach langer Suche findet sich endlich der alte Laptop. Frisch mit Windows 8 und CD-Laufwerk. Hurra! Ich lege den Rohling ein und starre auf den Bildschirm. Wie ging das noch gleich mit CDs brennen? Da war doch was mit Audio vs Daten-CD?

Tatsächlich geht’s mitm Windows-Explorer. Einfach Daten rüberziehen, als wär’s ‘n USB-Stick, dann Finalisieren, Audio-CD wählen und WARUM HAT SICH DER WINDOWS MEDIA PLAYER GEÖFFNET? Also noch mal auf Brennen drücken und… Das war’s?

Das Ding brummt ein bisschen rum und spuckt die CD wieder aus. Gleich mal gucken ob’s funktioniert. Im Windows Media Player tut’s es auf jeden Fall.

Und in einem richtigen CD-Spieler? Ich versuche, die Anlage anzuschalten…

…und der Schalter bricht ab.

Ich glaub, wir verschicken die CD einfach as-is und sagen “wenn’s nich geht, schicken wir dir die ZIP per Email”

ZIP is not a good measure of lyrical complexity

The following paper recently came to my attention:

Varnum MEW, Krems JA, Morris C, Wormley A, Grossmann I (2021) Why are song lyrics becoming simpler? a time series analysis of lyrical complexity in six decades of American popular music. PLoS ONE 16(1): e0244576. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0244576

It attempts to analyze lyrical complexity of top 100 songs and correlate it to their success, socio-economical factors, and so on. I am not really qualified to talk about most of the work they are doing (they all are from psychology departments and talk about what probably are psychology things), but as an ex-computer science student, current multimedia production student and a hobbyist writer, I do feel qualified to talk about this line in their methodology specifically:

Compressibility indexes the degree to which song’s lyrics have more repetitive and less information dense, and thus simpler, content. We used a variant of the established LZ77 compression algorithm.

LZ77 is an ancient compression algorithm from 1977 (hence the name). It’s the granddad of the modern deflate algorithm used to compress webpages, PNGs, ZIPs, PDFs, ODTs, DOCXs, and so on. The authors correctly identify:

We used the LZ77 compression algorithm because of its intimate connection to textual repetition. Most of the byte savings when compressing song lyrics arise from large, multi-line sections (most importantly the chorus, and chorus-like hooks).

The words “byte savings” already is hinting at what the problem here might be. Because, yes, if your lyrics repeat the same thing over and over again (and to be fair, pop songs often do), and if you ZIP it up, it will take up less space on your disk and yes, in information theory, the song would be less complex.

But we as listeners aren’t really interested in information theory and degrees of compression. If anything, we might be interested in whether the lyrics go for a very simple rhyme, or a combo that’s been heard hundreds of times before (house → mouse, fire → desire, heart → apart, etc – rhymezone is very useful to find common pairings), or for one you don’t see coming (eg. Madvillain’s Meatgrinder “trouble with the script → subtle lisp midget”). The ZIP algorithm won’t be able to tell the complexity of the rhymes apart, it only can judge whether or not words or phrases are literally repeating.

And even that isn’t necessarily a good metric to judge complexity. Take the lyrics of Rammstein’s Du hast for example:

Du hast
Du hast mich
Du hast mich
Du hast mich gefragt
Du hast mich gefragt
Du hast mich gefragt und ich hab’ nichts gesagt

This is some ZIP-tastic lyrics and proof that these lyrics are simple – except they aren’t. This is a wordplay on “du hast” (you have) and “du hasst” (you hate). If you hear these lyrics, you’re constantly trying to decypher which of the two meanings this hast/hasst they’re talking about, and the four (!) “Du / du hast / du hast mich” repititions before the song even gets to the verse quoted above make it a very cognitively engaging, and, dare I say, complex song up to that point, just by repeating an unclear phrase.

So, we have established that any conclusions drawn from ZIP-ping up song lyrics are shaky at best, I have another question:

Why, why, why a ZIP algorithm?

It is beyond me why the first thing you’d head to when tasked “measure whether new songs are simpler” is LZ77, or any kind of compression algorithm. Compression algorithms will look at substrings, so h[ouse] and m[ouse] would be better to compress as a pair than ho[use] and ca[use], because the repeated substring is longer. But house, mouse, cause are all just 5-letter-words which (vaguely) rhyme, so there’s no reason to count one pairing more or less complex than the other.

And it’s not like there aren’t metrics which are designed to look at this problem in particular: Lexical Diversity Indices exist, here’s a paper describing all their differences, doi:10.3758/BRM.42.2.381. And even that paper admits:

In sum, all textual analyses are fraught with difficulty and disagreement, and LD is no exception. There is no agreement in the field as to the form of processing (sequential or nonsequential) or the composition of lexical terms (e.g., words, lemmas, bigrams, etc.) […] In this study, we do not attempt to remedy these issues. Instead, we argue that the field is sufficiently young to be still in need of exploring its potential to inform substantially.

So even when analyzing with an algorithm designed to measure lexical diversity, it still would run into trouble, especially when being ran in the “full auto” mode that is necessary to classify tens of thousands of texts.

The research already has been done

Varnum et al. fail to acknowledge the research of Isaac Piraino, published at least a year prior to theirs. Piraino took 450k song lyrics (as opposed to Varnum et al.’s 15k), filtered to only include lyrics above 100 words (because short lyrics necessarily are more diverse; you first need to write a word before you can repeat it), and measured them with MTLD (a metric actually designed to measure lexical diversity).

Piraino’s findings: MTLD peak in the 2000’s
Varnum et al.’s findings: Steadily rising compressability.

Piraino hypothesizes:

My theory is that the gradual decrease in the popularity of rock music and increase in popularity of hip-hop explains the upward trend to the end of the 90s. Rock music, although complex in different ways, usually has a more simple vocuabulary than its lyrically dense hip-hop counterpart. My theory for why it went back down after the 90s is that hip-hop has slowly been transforming into pop music in combination with the rise in popularity of EDM. […] EDM typically has a handful of catchphrases that are repeated over and over again.


Varnum et al. acknowledge that “Songs might be complex or simple in other ways as well, in terms of rhythm, melody, number of instruments played, and so on.” But since their methodology is so shaky, and their results seem to contradict other research, I’d be very, very careful to even try to draw any conclusions from this. Or really, most things which try to algorithm away at huge datasets and then try to explain the most intricate and inter-connected thing humanity has to offer, culture, with it. Overall, it reminds me of the “timbre paper” floating around, which tries to measure musical quality by how much timbre it has (and got torn apart over it):

Leo’s Inferno


So, you know Dante’s Inferno? If not, it basically is the world’s first popular self-insert fan fiction: The Author, Dante, some guy from the 14th century, just really wants to tour hell with his literary hero and 1st century BC all-star poet Virgil. In hell, modeled after the totally christian vision of hell that Aristotle and Cicero had, Dante writes himself into meeting basically anyone he dislikes, from the popes via Odysseus to Cain (y’know, from the bible, son of Adam).

And just so we’re clear at which level of self-insert we’re operating at: in the second part of it, Dante’s Purgatorio, he meets Beatrice, a girl Dante was absolutely obsessed with starting at age 9, despite having only met her twice. So naturally, he ditches Virgil for her later on and they go to Paradise together.

With that out of the way, if I now tell you that the mention of “VTuber hell” got a creative spark lit in me, you can probably figure out which direction this particular short story is headed towards: Leo’s VTuber hell.

In order to prevent this from being a text of any historical significance, I will not do the Dante and write thirty-something cantos for just the first part, and neither will I be exploring VTuber purgatory or VTuber heaven. In the awesome-to-effort graph, we’re maybe halfway up the awesome scale, so anything beyond half-arsing this text would not be worth it.

Anyway, if we’re going to follow Dante’s format we need ourselves a Virgil, ie someone I can talk to. I could go for Virgil as well, or some poet from a thousand years before my time who has a lot of experience with touring hell, but quite frankly, I don’t really know anyone off the top of my head. I’ll just ignore Dante’s frantic hand waving in the back and instead go with my all-time favorite writer, inventor of fantasy as a genre, and language constructor extraordinaire, it’s John Ronald Reuel Tolkien! Round of applause, please!

Tolkien: “Who are you? What am I doing here?”

Leo Wattenberg, the pleasure is all on my side, Mr. Tolkien! And now strap in, we’re in for a wild ride!

To VTuber hell!

Tolkien: “What even is a VTuber?!”

First Circle of Hell: Limbo

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”, the ominous sign over the gates of hell loomed as we stepped closer.
“You glued a piece of paper to the bezel of your screen”, Tolkien observed.
“Shut up,” I responded, “I’m going for the grandiose here, the reader doesn’t need to know we’re just looking at a laptop”
“What kind of devil are you even? Is this how you’re gonna torture me? Have me look at computer screens? I’ll have you know that…”

Tolkien stopped as the gates of hell opened and a small girl appeared.

“a”, the girl said.
“That’s Gawr Gura, she’s a shark”, I explained.
“That’s a shark? Is putting a vaguely shark-themed hoodie on enough these days to count as being a shark?” Tolkien’s hands went through his hair in disbelief.
“You better watch out for your ankles, old man! ‘Cuz I’ll bite them if you continue talking like that”, Gura flashed her sharp teeth. “Get in here right now, there’s enough room for everyone!”

Limbo was a vast place. Various clippers and translators had set up their booths, with plenty of souls wandering between them. We explored some of them, but it was evident that Tolkien didn’t quite understand what was going on.

“So, that shark girl from earlier, was that this world’s Cerberus? But instead of a dog it’s a shark?”
“Sorta, yeah. She doesn’t always guard the door and welcome new people in, but she has had quite a lot of shifts in recent times.”
“I see.”
“There also is an actual Cerberus VTuber, called Inui Toko.
“That sounds somewhat Japanese.”
“It is! She only has one head though and probably is typically found deeper in hell.”
“Wait, what?”
“You’ll see.”

As we walked towards the gates to the deeper parts of hell, I pointed towards a woman in the distance with a scythe.

“Look, that’s Mori Calliope. She’s Death herself and a rapper”, I said.
“Excuse me? I’ve seen death. I’ve been through it, for heaven’s sake! Why did they slap some massive tits onto Death, what’s the point?”
“Some things, even I cannot explain. It might just be for the better.”

As we passed her, she gave us a wink. “Nice songs you’ve got there, Leo. And Tolkien, your poems definitely were an inspiration for me as well.”
“Finally someone who appreciates the craft it took to make them!”, Tolkien exclaimed. “This dude who’s dragging me around this place apparently is too inept to do any but the laziest rhymes there are.”
“Hey”, I protested, “it’s difficult to do poetry in a foreign language!”
“Yes? Have you ever read the Namárië?”
“… of course, of course, I forgot, you have not only made your own languages but also made poems in them”, I begrudgingly admitted.
“Glad we have that cleared up.”

Be smug while you can, old man, I thought. One circle of hell surely will break you.

Second Circle of Hell: Lust

“Dear God”, Tolkien was shocked as he stumbled upon the hoards of lonely men, all staring at stages on which various girls were talking about various indecencies. Some of them even masturbated in what would be broad daylight, if sunlight ever touched hell. The stages were placed in rings around each other, with the central stage being shaped like a pirate ship.

“That’s Houshou Marine there”, I shouted towards Tolkien, “she is by far the horniest of them all!”

Tolkien looked at me with the eyes of a puppy who, despite having been through two world wars, had never seen quite this level of degeneracy before in his life.

“What is happening here?”, he yelled back through the moan-filled air.
“All of these men are rejecting society to some degree and come to VTubers to get their share of love. Some of them send obscene amounts of money, so these girls dominate the charts for fan donations on YouTube. And, well, some of the girls try to give their love back in this form.”
“Just sharing lewd stories of how they almost but not quite sucked each other’s breasts? Wouldn’t a stripper or a prostitute – or better yet – a wife be more fulfilling?”
“Well, yes, but then they would need to interact with people.”
“I don’t understand”, Tolkien began, but the lewd soup of Matsuri, Umi, Melody, Erofi, Amelia and Eroha noises forbade me from hearing the rest of his words. Between all of them, Mizuryu Kei could be seen, furiously scribbling new scenes away.

The second circle of hell was packed to the brim, and even though VTubers had corrupted me a lot, there was just about enough humanity left to not let Tolkien go insane in here and to take him to the next circle, until the sweet whispers of Choco and seal noises of Nyanners subsided.

Third Circle of Hell: Gluttony

Compared to the madness of the previous circle, Gluttony was nice and quiet. A nice blonde-haired girl lead us to a table and asked us to sit down and then disappeared into the kitchen.

“So, what’s the punishment in this circle”, Tolkien asked. “Food that turns into mud once it touches your mouth? Are we getting masted?”
“It’s much less sophisticated. In this circle, it’s mostly just Haachama trying her best at cooking.”
“So where’s the problem?”
“Well, she’s been to Australia and somehow got confused as to what’s food and what’s vermin.”

Haachama returned with a plate of viper stuffed with tarantula, served to nettles and a refreshing mice blood cocktail.

“Oh, fantastic!”, Tolkien said and started eating.
Confused, I looked at Haachama. She was apparently overwhelmed with joy that she, finally, found someone who didn’t immediately throw up from her cooking.
“I had something similar in the war, though this is better because it’s still warm!”, he explained after a few bites.

I tried some myself, but the combination of the warm, foul, intoxicating stench of viper venom quickly got the better of me and I passed out.

Fourth Circle of Hell: Greed

As I woke up, I found myself in the fourth circle of hell.

“I assume this is where you wanted to go next, anyway?”, Tolkien asked.
“Indeed”, I replied after I had puked out the last remaining spider legs stuck in my mouth.
“I had a look around while you were out. This is Hell’s Casino, is it not?”
“What a fitting punishment. You can gamble all your money, but the machines don’t even have a slot to pay you out in.”
“Well, the reward for these slot machines isn’t money. It’s… how do I put it…”
“Being released from hell would probably have quite a lot of value”
“Yeah, no. So, this entire thing is called ‘gacha’, it’s all about collecting all characters in a specific game, be it Genshin Impact, Azur Lane or whatever else. And the only way to do it is through dice rolls.”
“So is this like a kids gambling game then? With fake currencies and fake rewards?”
“Oh, the currency is very real. That guy over there, Kanae, can easily spend over 3000 USD on just one game in one evening.”
“Three thousand?! For what effectively are trading cards?”
“You also typically cannot trade with other players, you need to roll it all yourself”
“What nonsense! Picture cards which you can’t trade! You could hire a painter to paint your favorite characters over and over again for that amount of money!”

“What did you just say?!” An angry Fubuki came stomping towards us, followed by an army of other gacha addicts.
“Uuh, Mr. Tolkien, I think it’s best we leave now.”
The ring of gacha addicts pulled tighter, threatening to surround us. We hurried to the next gate.

Fifth Circle of Hell: Wrath

“Konrushi~”, the little girl said, her hair shifting from green to pink and back at frequent intervals. “I hope you’ll have a nice stay here.”
“Uh”, Tolkien scratched his head, “isn’t this supposed to be wrath?”
“Wrath? No, no, I’m just an innocent little necromancer, you won’t find any wrath around here.”
“Splendid. What’s your name, necromancer?”
Uruha Rushia, nice to meet you~ and feel free to look around my library!”
“Well then, here we are”, I said after Rushia had left to take care of something else.
“Is there a mix-up happening? No wrathful fighting for a space to breathe in the mud, no sullen stuck underwater, no furies tormenting us?”, Tolkien responded.
“For now, no. But the moment you hint at her not having big boobs, all hell breaks loose.”
“I see”, Tolkien mumbled as he started sorting through the books.

“Say, Mr. Tolkien, do you think that this would be a good break point for a chapter?”, I asked him after a while.
“Hm? We’re barely 6 pages in, and the following circles of hell probably are gonna follow the same format. Why would you start a new chapter in the middle of the story?”
“Well, I thought that maybe my readers may be tired by now. Attention span seriously has gone down on the internet, where a distraction is one click and 3cm of hand movement or so away.”
“Look, young lad. This story you’re writing here is quite bad, embarrassingly so. You’re introducing figure after figure, all of which get two lines, if any at all, and your descriptions are seriously lacking. This story may be a neat little novelty, but it isn’t fit for the world. If I were you, I’d just not publish this until you get a bit more meat onto this entire thing. Even when judging from the perspective of Dante’s Inferno, it’s Virgil’s purpose to be the explainer, the man who’s seen everything and who knows where and what everything is, who Dante is looking at in awe. Meanwhile, you have summoned me, but for what? To make me ask questions, very simple questions, so you with your year or so of experience can profile yourself as an expert of some sort. Seriously, the figures in your work, me and even you included, are just flat, and…”

The bellowing scream of an angry Rushia interrupted Tolkien’s rant. Books were flying left and right next to us as we entered the next circle.

Sixth Circle of Hell: Heresy

The 6th circle of hell was just a wooden plank saying “closed until we figure out who the god of VTubers is”.

It would’ve been a great place to rest and to put Tolkien’s rant from earlier, which Tolkien himself of course informed me of and continued, both in scolding me and in lamenting the state of the world. “German is such a beautiful language, yet you chose to write this text in English, but why? So that more people can consume it, in a misguided attempt at appeasing both capitalism and globalization. If you were to write these things in German and not publish them, I could see the point of them being for self-improvement, but as it stands, you’re looking for validation. Go make something you’re proud of instead!”

“Well, Mr. Tolkien”, I paused for a moment, “it certainly is true that I want people to read this, and that I may not be the most proud of this story in particular. However: I do think it’s worthwhile exploring wacky ideas just for fun, even if they’re mediocre in execution. It’s all practice, maybe I can even get some feedback out of it, until maybe one day, I can get something properly thought through out. This applies both for my videos, my 3D art and, well, these stories.”

“Fair enough. Let’s exit this train wreck of a circle of hell now.”

Seventh Circle of Hell: Violence

In this circle of hell, a type of violence expected us that even I did not expect. I was ready for a fight club-style thing, where Azura and Botan were fighting over… something. Maybe some battle royale game. Instead, a gloomy, dark red landscape greeted us.

This place was observantly deserted and tensely quiet. Wherever the VTubers and fans were, they were watching and stalking. Tolkien kneeled down and pulled something out of the ground.

“Say, these don’t happen to be sticks of dynamite, do they?”

And just like that, an AH↓HA↑HA↓HA↑HA↓ and a click later, madness began. TNT started exploding, igniting more TNT and exploding it, the air filling with acrid smoke. Animals ran around and shrieked in terror, those too close to the explosions turning into neatly cut slabs of meat of whatever animal they used to be. Tolkien and I ran towards what we thought was the portal to the next circle, but even it turned out to be built from explosives. We jumped through it just as it started to disintegrate.

Eighth Circle of Hell: Fraud

I wasn’t sure if everything worked correctly. For one, I barely could move, as if everything was weighing down heavily on me. For another, in front of me were Okayu and Miyu, two people who I had expected more in heaven than down here.

I looked over to Tolkien, who already had discovered the cause of the weight, the many, many stacks of cobblestone that somehow ended up in our pockets during the explosions. He paused as he pulled a piece of pristine pork out of his pocket.

“After all… Why not? Why shouldn’t I keep it?”, he asked.
“In case you get hungry?”, I said.
“Yeah, I probably can get a real treat out of this going when we pass by the kitchen in the fourth circle on our way back.”
“Good idea! Although…”, I started saying but got interrupted.

“Hey, Leo!” It was Miyu. “Long time no see, wanna play Apex with me?”
“I mean, a short round or two probably couldn’t hurt. We’re almost at the end anyway though”, I naively responded.

The “round or two” definitely were fun, despite me having had no prior experience to the game. Miyu was a good teacher, although she would never admit anything of this sort ever about herself. Only, the round turned into two, turned into seven before she finally started talking about “Last game”. And then, any round that followed she’d have an airtight excuse as to playing longer, like “I only said it was last round as Octane”, or “I said it was last round for today, but we’re past midnight already, so it’s a new day”.

Tolkien watched us, starting with a strong reaction on even thinking about playing something war-like, then growing excited as we started almost winning rounds, and, well, eventually falling asleep on the ground. Okayu, Miyu and I meanwhile continued playing until dawn, where the three of us fell asleep in front of our computers.

I woke up, hungry, to an agitated Tolkien arguing with an Okayu who was radiating smugness with an “it’s too late, do your worst” face.
“… yes, they were uncooked, but I would’ve had it later once we got out of here!”, Tolkien yelled.
“But what if they had gone bad before that?”, Okayu had absolutely no remorse in her face.
“They wouldn’t have! Outside of the nap earlier, we’ve been through this entire thing in, what, 6 hours? Meat doesn’t go bad within a day, especially not since it’s not particularly warm here anyway, is it?”
“But what if it had? It would’ve been such a waste!”
“Don’t worry”, I interjected, “I’ve got some beef on me still.”
“Yeah, about that…”, Okayu said, still smug.
“You wouldn’t.”
“I would and did, but you could’ve salted it some more.”

I rolled my eyes. “Last circle?”, I asked Tolkien.
“Last circle.”

Ninth Circle of Hell: Treachery

“Welcome, dear mortals!”, the little devil said. Well, squeaked, really.
“What’s up, Debi?”, I replied.
“I see you found all the way down here! Now cower in fear, as this will be your doom!”
“Mhm. I presume doom is right next door?”
“Correct! Dare enter, and you’ll be lost forever!”
“Didn’t the portal back to the 7th circle blow up anyway?”, Tolkien asked.
“I don’t know anything about portals, I just go wherever I please”, the devil that totally should be part of my plush collection responded.
“Can you get us out of here later?”, Tolkien asked.
Debi mumbled something under his breath. I took it as a definite maybe, and went towards the door.

Behind the door was an ordinary art student’s room. Slightly messy, large parts of the desk occupied by a drawing tablet and a computer, with sun shining through a window.

“Konlulu~”, she greeted us.
“That”, I whispered towards Tolkien, “is Suzuhara Lulu.”
“Huh, so she’s in charge of hell?”, he replied. “I was expecting some sort of eldri—”

Tolkien held his throat and flopped forwards. He was dead, just as he had been before I summoned him.

“Oh no, is it alright?”, Lulu asked, staring at me with a big smile.
“It cannot be helped, can it?”, I replied.
“Is there something I can do for you?”
“Yes. In Dante’s Inferno, Dante and Virgil exit hell by climbing out on Satan’s fur. Is there a similar mechanism for VTuber hell?”
“It’s a shame that Debi is so small and unclimbable, isn’t it?”

Lulu smiled.

The Midnight-Kalimba

The girl played Kalimba in her flat in the middle of the night. There wasn’t really a reason for her to do it right there and then, she just felt like playing. She didn’t think she was particularly good at it, but the instrument could create a calm and beautiful atmosphere in her hands. She liked sharing this feeling with others.

After a while, she stopped playing to listen for something. Was it the silence, undisturbed by cars for once? Was it the soft humm of her computer fans? Or was it the soft breath of her girlfriend, who finally had fallen asleep on her lap?

The girl took in the scene for a bit. The silence. The darkness outside. Her girlfriend. She smiled, and continued playing.


Ina was running. Running as if chased by someone, as if the destination didn’t matter, just getting away from where she was a step before. She ran, tirelessly, making no turn to the left or to the right, just straight ahead. Every time she caught herself slowing down, she’d try picking up the pace again. A speaker from somewhere was blaring out the news, what terrible things had happened this day, but she continued running, she knew all of this already. And even if she didn’t, there was no point in waiting. Cars were passing her to the left, and some times she would get the impulse to cry “take me with you! I don’t wanna run anymore!”, but she never did. It’d be embarrassing.

Because after all, she even was paying her gym membership fees to be able to use the treadmill.