In the Shadow of the Star Wars Kid

Andy Baio, who has been blogging under the name “Waxpancake” for the past couple of decades or so, writes about meeting with Ghyslain Raza, who gained internet fame — none of which he wanted — as the “Star Wars Kid” in 2003, after some students at his school uploaded a video clip of him pretending to be a Star Wars character in a light-sabre battle.

Baio talks about his role in helping the video go viral — one of the first to do so — and how bad he felt about the whole affair once he realized how Raza had been ridiculed (he left his school and eventually ended up in therapy, and more or less stopped using the internet for years).

I’ve never talked about it publicly, but I regret ever posting it. From the start, it was obvious it was never meant to be seen, and mirroring it on my site without consent was wrong in a way that I couldn’t see when I was in my 20s, one year into blogging. I removed the videos once it was clear how it was affecting him, but I never should have posted them in the first place.

Meeting Ghyslain gave me the opportunity to tell him all of that in person, as well as in my interviews, some of which made it into the finished film.As a side note, it was fascinating to get answers to questions I’ve wondered about for 20 years. Yes, Ghyslain actually received the iPod we sent him from the fundraiser, and used the gift cards we sent him to buy an iMac G4, both of which he kept to this day. He managed to avoid most of the remixes and media coverage, except for Arrested Development, which he watched live as it aired.

But more than anything, it was great to finally talk to him in person and see that he’s doing well. By all accounts, he handled everything that happened back then with a profound emotional maturity, despite how painful it was, and emerged on the other side with a uniquely interesting perspective that’s worth listening to.

Source: In the Shadow of the Star Wars Kid – Waxy.org

War in Ukraine is the latest platform moderation challenge

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

On March 10, a Reuters headline announced that Facebook would temporarily allow users to post calls for the death of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, and also “calls for violence against Russians” (Reuters later modified its headline to clarify that only posts calling for “violence against invading Russians” would be allowed under the new rules). These kinds of posts would normally fall into what Meta calls “T1 violent speech,” which is automatically removed, without exception. A few days later, Nick Clegg, head of global affairs for Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said the new rules would not allow users to call for the death of Putin or Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus. Clegg also said that calling for violence against Russians would only be allowed for users in Ukraine, and only when “the context is the Russian invasion.”

Ryan Mac, Mike Isaac, and Sheera Frenkel pointed out in a New York Times story on Wednesday that the rules about allowing calls for violence against Putin and Lukashenko were actually changed on February 26, two days after Russian troops first entered Ukraine, according to documents that the newspaper had access to. “After reports suggesting the policy reversal would allow users to call for violence against all Russians—which Russian authorities called “extremist”—Meta reversed itself,” the Times reported. According to an internal memo seen by Bloomberg, Clegg told staff “circumstances in Ukraine are fast moving. We try to think through all the consequences, and we keep our guidance under constant review because the context is always evolving.”

Allowing users to post calls for violence isn’t the only example of normally forbidden content that platforms like Facebook now allow because there is a war in Ukraine. As Will Oremus noted in a Washington Post piece, if you posted content praising a neo-Nazi militia before the Russian army invaded Ukraine, Facebook would probably have blocked your post, or even suspended your account. But not now: the company changed the rules so that supporters of Ukraine could post about that country’s Azov battalion, a unit of the Ukrainian army that has a history of being associated with neo-Nazis (which has helped fuel Putin’s claim that his aim is to de-Nazify Ukraine).

Continue reading “War in Ukraine is the latest platform moderation challenge”

BuzzFeed and the demands of being public

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

On Tuesday, Mark Schoofs, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, told staff that he and two other senior editors—Tom Namako, deputy editor-in-chief, and Ariel Kaminer, the executive editor of the investigations unit—are leaving the company, and the news division is being downsized via buyouts and/or layoffs, with most of the reductions coming in investigations, science, politics, and inequality. Schoofs said that BuzzFeed, the parent company, had “subsidized BuzzFeed News for many years,” and that the newsroom needed to “accelerate the timeline to profitability.” Jonah Peretti, CEO of BuzzFeed, said in a separate staff email that jobs would also be lost on the video team and the editorial team at Complex Networks, a company BuzzFeed acquired last year just after going public via a merger with a special purpose acquisition company or SPAC. Peretti said the newsroom needed to “prioritize the areas of coverage our audience connects with the most.”

During an all-hands meeting on Tuesday, following the resignations of Schoofs and the two other top editors, Peretti talked about leadership changes and said BuzzFeed was looking at “the addition of a dedicated business development group,” Laura Wagner of Defector reported. However, Peretti left the meeting abruptly and took no questions from staff, which seemed to irritate more than a few of those present. Julia Reinstein, a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News, said on Twitter: “I have worked at this company for nearly 7 years and I’ve never felt so disrespected than seeing my CEO log off without answering a single question about why he wants to gut my newsroom.” A staffer who was at the all-hands meeting described the atmosphere as “acrimonious.”

The cuts announced on Tuesday are nothing new for BuzzFeed. Last year, the company laid off 70 employees, including 47 HuffPost staffers based in the US, as part of what Peretti said was an attempt to “drive longterm sustainability” (BuzzFeed acquired HuffPost from Verizon in 2020). In 2019, BuzzFeed laid off more than 200 reporters, editors, and other editorial staff, including entire teams and large chunks of its international bureaus in the UK and Australia. Some wondered whether Facebook had helped cause the reductions by changing its news recommendation algorithms. But as I wrote for CJR then: “If the giant social network is partly to blame, it is mostly because editors at BuzzFeed yoked themselves so tightly to Facebook’s wagon, even after the Zuckerberg empire provided ample evidence it would move the goalposts at a moment’s notice.”

Continue reading “BuzzFeed and the demands of being public”

He convinced people to drink tea instead of eating it

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.png

Sometime in his adolescence, in the 700s, Lu Yu, an aspiring writer and professional clown, had his first taste of tea soup. This probably occurred not far from Lu’s childhood home: a Buddhist monastery that overlooked a scenic lake in Central China. But Lu was unimpressed; he called the soup “ditch water.”

What bothered Lu was not the tea, but all the other ingredients. The offending brew contained scallions, ginger, jujube dates, citrus peels, Dogwood berries, and mint, all of which cooks “threshed” together to make a smooth paste. The result was a chunky soup, or even a sauce.

Lu Yu, in fact, adored tea—he’d go on to become the “tea god” and the world’s greatest tea influencer. But the tea he loved—brewed only from powdered tea leaves, without any other flavoring—was, in the grand sweep of human history, a recent invention. People in Asia, where tea trees are native, ate tea leaves for centuries, perhaps even millennia, before ever thinking to drink it. And it is Lu Yu who is chiefly responsible for making tea drinking the norm for most people around the world.

via Atlas Obscura