Kaitlyn Tiffany

The Verge


  • Culture Reporter at The Verge and Co-Host of Why’d You Push That Button.
  • Previously worked at Kitsch Magazine and the Cornell Daily Sun.
  • Has a BS from Cornell in Sociology. Also, we’re a little confused if this Jake Gyllenhaal newsletter is a thing but cool.
74 percent of Americans know almost nothing about Facebook ad targeting

Jan 17

Facebook users don’t trust the company, but apparently they don’t know exactly why. In a new study released by Pew Research Center on Wednesday, 74 percent of Americans said they did not know that Facebook maintained a list of their traits and interests in order to sell ads. These lists — which are viewable in Facebook users’ account settings — are separate from things you’ve “liked” or directly interacted with on the site; instead, they’re inferred categorizations about your politics, your upcoming life events, and where you live in relation to the people you love. Once researchers directed them to their personalized lists, only 59 percent said the categories they had been sorted into were accurate, and 51 percent said they were not comfortable with the list’s existence. Facebook screenshot

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This font you know from old pulp novels is all over new books

Jan 17

An approachable-witchy 1938 typeface is the hand-cut, calligraphic answer to colder modern sans-serifs. Welcome to Noticed , The Goods’ design trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it. What it is: Lydian is a “humanist” sans-serif typeface. That means it gives the impression of being written by a human hand, but it doesn’t have any of the characteristic flourishing strokes more commonly associated with calligraphy or popular serif fonts (the best known being Times New Roman). It has crisp, knife-cut-looking edges and is most recognizable by its O, which is punched out in the middle by an eye shape that tilts backward. Lydian was created by designer and children’s book illustrator Warren Chappell in 1938, and named for his wife Lydia. It was used on the cover of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in 1939, and then on the classic children’s novel Homer Price in 1943, but didn’t really find its groove until after World War II.

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Why Gillette’s toxic masculinity ad is annoying both sexists and feminists

Jan 15

The Procter & Gamble-owned razor company used its Super Bowl ad to weigh in on #MeToo. Do brands have beliefs? This is a question we’re forced to ask today thanks to Gillette’s latest commercial. It was created by the New York-based ad agency Grey and is called “We Believe.” And what the century-old, multibillion-dollar razor company, owned by the health and personal care giant Procter & Gamble, purports to believe is this: Its longtime slogan, “The Best a Man Can Get,” is ripe for an update. In this new Super Bowl ad — released three weeks before the Super Bowl, as part of the YouTube-era rat race to get advance write-ups and possibly a viral hit before the super-expensive time slot even arrives — Gillette shows young boys bullying each other and beating each other up, older men touching women’s shoulders in business meetings, and suburban dads lined up at a never-ending row of charcoal grills saying, “Boys will be boys,” over and over while watching incidents of light violence. The voiceover poses the question: “Is this the best a man can get?” No! The commercial pivots. One handsome 20-something man asks another handsome 20-something man to stop ogling a woman in the street. One young dad asks his daughter to say, “I’m strong.” Another young dad is moved to break up a brutal fight between children in a parking lot. That is the best a man can get. The ad has caused controversy across the comments sections of YouTube and the never-ending hellfeed of Twitter , in large part because it has offended many men. Plenty of the responses are sexist and racist, with dozens complaining that the ad makes white men in particular look bad and arguing that, basically, there is no such thing as “toxic masculinity,” but rather a tragic lack of masculine influences in schools and homes because women are so bad at holding on to husbands and selfishly insist on being the majority of public school teachers. “Men are saying, we feel marginalized, criticized and accused rather than feeling inspired empowered and encouraged,” RedPeak branding firm executive Susan Cantor told the Wall Street Journal . Pankaj Bhalla, Gillette’s brand director for North America, responded to criticism of the ad, in the Journal, saying “This is an important conversation happening, and as a company that encourages men to be their best, we feel compelled to both address it and take action of our own. We are taking a realistic look at what’s happening today, and aiming to inspire change by acknowledging that the old saying ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ is not an excuse.” Men who are angry about a commercial and calling for a boycott of a razor company in the comments of a YouTube post are also writing things like, “Gillette is desperately deleting critical comments for fear that people will know about what men are saying about this radical feminist advert.” It is inherently nonsensical to use feminism to sell men’s grooming products, or any products These arguments make no sense whatsoever. Still, this ad is a misfire, in that it is a blatant attempt to make money off a painful and ongoing collective action that has not even an indirect relationship to face razors. Is it likely that there were people at Gillette with good intentions and people at Grey who wanted to help realize them? Absolutely! However, it is inherently nonsensical to use feminism to sell men’s grooming products, or any products, as feminism is a political movement bent on dismantling current structures of power, which likely includes multibillion-dollar corporations like Procter & Gamble. And unfortunately, it is impossible, maybe irresponsible, for a commercial to try to explain centuries of societal glorification of male violence or to make a compelling argument that proves women are people. This is an advertisement set to air during a football game on primetime television, and within those constraints, it can absolutely not depict — in a convincing way — the complex and never-ending story it seeks to profit from. (Not least because the only “crimes” against women it can reasonably show are catcalls and exaggerated butt honks.) This is not the first time a Procter & Gamble brand has attempted to sell personal hygiene items by situating them in dubious feminist narratives. It previously did so with the 2014 “Like a Girl” campaign , which promoted Always tampons and invited teenagers to “run like a girl” in order to demonstrate internalized misogyny. The company’s deodorant brand Secret also has a running “Stress Test” campaign , which shows women getting ready to confront sexism in business meetings. Gillette is not alone here, obviously. The temptation for brands to appear “woke” and engaged has escalated significantly in the Trump era . Last September, when Nike launched its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, Sarah Banet-Weiser situated it in a history of “commodity activism,” writing for Vox : This practice merges consumer behavior with political or social goals. Whether challenging police brutality or questioning unattainable beauty norms, branding in our era has extended beyond a business model: It is now both reliant on and reflective of our most basic social and cultural relations. … Individual consumers act politically by purchasing particular brands over others in a competitive marketplace, where specific brands are attached to political aims and goals. Commodity activism can sometimes be good for business, she argues, but it can easily backfire. Female empowerment may be a fairly innocuous political motive, but criticizing men directly? Way too far. This is not the first time “toxic masculinity” has appeared in men’s grooming product advertising , and it’s not the first time men have lost their cool about it either. Please do not make me choose between a billion dollar company leveraging feminism for sales and men so insecure they think an ad for razors is threatening to their identity — Jaya Saxena (@jayasax) January 15, 2019 In a battle between the fragile egos of men who watch and respond viscerally to commercials and the bottom line of a massive company, it’s tempting (and entirely acceptable) to not care about the winner. But it’s also worth remembering that Gillette’s women’s brand, Venus, is best known for its “I’m Your Venus” commercials , which promise already tan and clean-shaven women that their new razor blades will make them “feel like a goddess.” Recently, venture capitalist Mike Dodd described the brand to Vox , calling it “an afterthought brand” based on “a ’60s ad man” idea of what women want. “It’s right there in the tagline,” he said. “You know, the best a man can get.” Upstart Gillette competitor Harry’s — originally a direct-to-consumer brand, now with huge installations at Target and Walmart — recently launched the women’s razor brand Flamingo , in direct competition with the DTC startup Billie , both of which are marketed around making razors functional and cool and encouraging women to shave “when they feel like it,” without paying more than men do for tools that perform a fairly uninteresting task. A decade ago, Gillette held 70 percent of the global market share for razors, and now it holds 54 percent. Those sales didn’t disappear; they went to those newer, savvier companies that don’t have 100 years of history making women feel bad about body hair and talking about men’s facial hair routines as if they were matters of import and action on the scale of a Fast & Furious movie. Now, it appears, the company would like those customers back.

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Spotify’s most personalized playlist is now for sale to brands

Jan 11

Discover Weekly was a triumph of algorithm and curation, and now it’s an ad product. Spotify is now offering brands the option to sponsor Discover Weekly, its signature customized playlist that updates every Monday for each user. It is supposedly one of the most popular features among both the platform’s 87 million paid subscribers and 109 million ad-supported free users. The new ad type, as reported by TechCrunch , gives brands the ability to “own the personalized listening experience” and gives them access to a particularly engaged audience, as Discover Weekly listeners spend twice as much time on Spotify compared to users who don’t. Microsoft will be the first brand to partake, with an artificial intelligence-related campaign called “Empowering Us All” — mostly made up of ad breaks that discuss the impact of AI on education, healthcare, and philanthropy. But what does it mean for Spotify to sell Discover Weekly? It feels, pretty simply, like yet another example of a tech company creating a highly personalized product in seemingly warm partnership with its users, then realizing that it can trade on this goodwill to make money. Companies have to make money, as the line goes, but do we need to so intimately assist them? The way Discover Weekly works makes it dependent on personal information, which users have fed it for years Discover Weekly is a little over three years old, and was hailed upon its debut as “cracking human curation at internet scale.” It’s a mix of human and algorithm, created after the company acquired the music-specific data and AI startup the Echo Nest in 2014. Spotify explained the process to The Verge in September 2015: Spotify has built a taste profile for each user based on what they listen to. It assigns an affinity score to artists, which is the algorithm’s best guess of how central they are to your taste. It also looks at which genres you play the most to decide where you would be willing to explore new music. The algorithms behind Discover Weekly finds users who have built playlists featuring the songs and artists you love. It then goes through songs that a number of your kindred spirits have added to playlists but you haven’t heard, knowing there is a good chance you might like them, too. Finally, it uses your taste profile to filter those findings by your areas of affinity and exploration. Spotify’s major project of the past several years has been culling the data created by its hundreds of millions of users and improving the recommendations of its signature playlists. In a sense, each person’s individual taste is another data layer, one that tells Spotify a little bit about what that particular user wants, and quite a bit more about what a user who is slightly different than them might want in the future. Spotify’s major project of the past several years has been culling the data created by its hundreds of millions of users A representative for Spotify tells Vox that the user experience of Discover Weekly will not change — e.g., Nike can’t buy the playlist for the week and serve everyone a Frank Ocean song — and reiterates, “Discover Weekly is, and will remain, a powerful means of artists winning new fans. Ten billion times a month, listeners across both Spotify and Spotify Premium stream a new artist they had never heard before. That means ten billion discoveries every month; ten billion chances for artists to win a new fan.” Buying Discover Weekly means, merely, a logo within the playlist, an ad in every ad spot for free-tier users, branding on the homepage, and some other odds and ends pertaining to the playlist’s promotion on Spotify landing pages and mobile layouts. It’s more or less the same as any other branded playlist on Spotify — the platform has long offered companies the option of “exclusively sponsoring Spotify’s top real estate, our owned [and] operated playlists.” Spotify is openly trading on your trust, and your “boosted happiness” during the discovery experience There is something just a little bit invasive about allowing brands to sponsor the super-personalized playlists that Spotify users have — both carefully and without thinking at all — put years of their personal history into. The difference between this and a typical sponsored playlist, maybe, is best explained by a page of Spotify’s advertiser informational site . It’s called “ Trust Issues ,” and outlines the value of buying ads against human emotions like trust and joy, both of which come directly from discovery. “It turns out that the best way to show someone you understand them, is to give them something they want that is unique to them,” the corporate copy explains. “People are okay with sharing their personal data, according to research by the Harvard Business Review, as long as they get a personalized experience that is useful to them.” “Our in-app environment is a place of safe discovery and we are willing to extend that premium eco-system with brands that share our values” The page also cites Spotify’s own research to prove that “discovering new music actually makes [people] feel good.” Seventy-one percent of surveyed users said discovery improves their mood, 72 percent said it boosts happiness, 66 percent said it boosts their energy levels, and 76 percent said it helps them learn something. “The act of discovering music has particular emotional resonance,” Spotify writes. And, because of this, 92 percent of surveyed millennials told Spotify that they trust it — both to provide a good listening experience and to protect their personal information. This relates to advertisers in that it can be sold: In this era of fake news and data breaches, consumers are no longer so easily trusting. If companies or brands want trust, they have to earn it. They can earn it by showing customers they really get them. Spotify has won the trust of 191 million fans by offering music customized to give them joy and delight. Our in-app environment is a place of safe discovery and we are willing to extend that premium eco-system with brands that share our values. Join us in the circle of trust. Brand playlists are styled as editorial, but are actually ads. This isn’t an innocent conflation. Liz Pelly, writing about the broader phenomenon of branded playlists for the Baffler in 2017, commented on the way that artists were being affected by that earlier iteration of “corporate personhood, where paid-for brand accounts can create their own profiles and make playlists in the manner of the platform’s regular users.” In the pre-streaming era, Pelly pointed out, companies who wanted to use a piece of music to promote their brand would be compelled to approach artists with negotiable licensing deals, money, and most importantly, a choice. In the Spotify arrangement, artists may not even know their music is being used this way, and the company’s brand playlist guidelines only make a tepid suggestion that brands try to steer clear of picks who might stir up trouble. (“If you have a reason to believe a specific artist may have a problem with your brand, it’s probably smart to stay away from that artist.”) Samir Hussein/Getty Images Charli XCX opening Advertising Week Europe on behalf of Spotify in 2015. Which she was presumably actually paid for!

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Apple is selling fewer iPhones than it would like

Jan 3

Maybe upgrading your phone just isn’t fun or cool anymore. It’s a new year, and we are all excited about it. New is good, “level up,” clean slate, and so on. Actually, we’re all liars! Our passion for newness is a facade, as proven by the fact that we are apparently all clinging to our dusty old iPhones as if they are headphone jack-equipped talismans connecting us to a distant past when we could still force our crushes to listen to Coldplay songs through drugstore earbuds. Or maybe we’re just clinging to them because they are small enough to fit in our back pockets. Or because they don’t cost $1,449 . Or because they still work. No matter our reasons — whether because smartphones are no longer getting meaningful, thrilling new features, or whether we are still enraged about the murder of the headphone jack, which was absolutely unreal — we are not buying new iPhones. In a letter to Apple’s investors published Wednesday , CEO Tim Cook said first-quarter revenue for the company will be lower than expected by up to $9 billion, citing lower iPhone sales. This decrease in sales, he wrote, is largely because of slow growth in developing markets (namely China; in a CNBC interview , he specifically called out trade tensions caused by the Trump administration). But the letter also references developed markets in which “iPhone upgrades also were not as strong as we thought they would be.” The iPhone is Apple’s most important device and the source of the majority of its revenue. Following the release of the letter — which itself followed a temporary freeze on Apple trading — the company’s stock dropped by almost 10 percent. Though Apple is citing uncontrollable global markets as the primary cause of the missed mark, it seems obvious that its problems are more existential than a trade war. i planned to upgrade my 6S this year, but after getting a screen, battery, AND home button replacement, i figured i could keep holding out. plus, i have a headphone jack and imessage and the same iOS as everyone else. not worth the $800 to me! https://t.co/fgEZJrGTJ0 — Ashley Carman (@ashleyrcarman) January 2, 2019 Vlad Savov writes for The Verge, “If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Samsung’s soft sales of the Galaxy S9 through 2018 and Apple’s dramatically reduced forecast of iPhone revenues for the end of that year, it’s that most people who want a great smartphone already have one.” And New York magazine’s Jake Swearingen reported last month that smartphone sales in general had passed their plateau and were entering their first major decline, largely due to market saturation and people waiting longer to upgrade devices. Amazon is the only major tech company so far that’s been willing to openly court children, and a dearth of warm, iPhone-less bodies is a major issue for Apple. If, for less than the cost of an oil change, you could add a couple of years to the life of your current iPhone, why wouldn’t you? That problem was exacerbated last year when Apple admitted that it had been secretly slowing down older iPhones in order to help them cope with battery degradation. In December 2017, the company slashed the cost of a battery replacement from $79 to $29 to make amends. But in yesterday’s investor letter, this was framed almost as planned obsolescence, and the fix as a profit killer. If, for less than the cost of an oil change, you could add a couple of years to the life of your iPhone SE — one of the last phones with a headphone jack and a reasonable size and all the features that are actually core to the iPhone user experience — why wouldn’t you? The letter (sort of awkwardly) makes it seem as if Apple wishes it hadn’t given people the opportunity to ask themselves this question. But most people do not have the full cost of a new iPhone on hand at any given time. And it’s hard to remember the last truly groundbreaking iPhone upgrade (the front-facing camera, if you ask me). In fact, from where the average consumer is sitting, some recent iPhone changes look more like reduced, or at least more complicated, functionality. I also wonder if we’re ignoring the fact that Apple isn’t that cool anymore. It’s not anyone’s fault. No brand can have a cult following forever. See: Diet Coke , or MTV , or Abercrombie & Fitch , or uh, Ford . Or the closest comparison, Motorola . But you don’t see lines outside Apple stores on new-iPhone day anymore. The Chance the Rapper song about Steve Jobs is years old, and now all anyone raps about is Instagram. Upgrading your phone isn’t fun. It feels more like a chore or a bad investment — like buying a new sofa while you’re filing for divorce. For a very long time in the US, the matte white box and status symbol earbuds and far preferable blue text bubbles — Apple’s carefully contained ecosystem of cool — felt unshakable. But now Google has made a serious hardware contender with novel and surprising camera features that people actually care about. Apple replaced the perfectly functional home button. Tim Cook is not the type of CEO who likes to argue he invented the new world. Mostly. “Apple innovates like no other company on earth, and we are not taking our foot off the gas,” the investor letter ends. “We can’t change macroeconomic conditions, but we are undertaking and accelerating other initiatives to improve our results.” Hopefully, this does not imply that Apple will try to beat Samsung at the $2,000 foldable smartphone game, or Motorola at its forced flip-phone resurrection, or any literal interpretations of those gasoline metaphors. Just go back to the headphone jack?

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The perennial debate about whether your phone is secretly listening to you, explained

Dec 28

It’s true and it’s not true, and it also doesn’t even matter. Three years ago, on the way to my apartment in Brooklyn to cook dinner for myself and a friend, we stopped into a grocery store that offered build-your-own six-packs of beer. The store had dozens of options of craft beers and ciders in weird flavors, from obscure breweries we had never heard of. We idly showed a few of them to each other, put them back, and got a six-pack of Stella Artois. Then, in my kitchen, scrolling through (Facebook-owned) Instagram, my friend screamed and pointed to an ad for a beer she had never tried, never read about, never heard of, never purchased, barely even held in her hand long enough to read its label out loud just one time, 15 minutes before. Obviously, her phone was listening to her. Yes? I had mostly forgotten this happened, until seeing my former boss, Verge editor Nilay Patel, tweet about how many of these stories he had listened to over the recent holiday weekend. “It’s striking that everyone assumes clandestine listening instead of coincidence — and that the actual targeting data used is likely creepier than simply listening,” he noted, before conceding to a reader that he (or any other reporter) can’t explain exactly how all this targeting works. We know that Facebook and Google and Apple have a lot to lose if it ever came out that they are recording us through our phones, and even though we try not to think about it, most of us also know that they have already gained more data about us than can possibly ever be parsed or used without accessing our microphones. Still, there are perennial personal “investigations” into the question, and dozens of Reddit threads , and hundreds of news hits: Do our phones listen to our conversations on behalf of advertisers? And does Facebook help them? Not all these coincidences can be explained — at least not in a way that will make you feel better Facebook published an official denial of this practice on its company blog in June 2016, which reads in part: “Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed.” More recently , Michigan Sen. Gary Peters posed the question to Mark Zuckerberg point-blank, and he said, “No,” in front of all of Congress. (Both relevant only if Mark Zuckerberg’s word means anything to you .) Last November, reporters Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt attempted to debunk a whole batch of anecdotes about Facebook and Instagram “listening” through users’ phones — submitted by listeners to their popular internet culture podcast Reply All . They spoke to former Facebook engineer Antonio García Martínez, who more or less launched the ad-targeting division of the company. Most notably, he created Facebook Pixel, which is essentially a piece of code that can be put on virtually any website, allowing Facebook to collect information about what you do there — which items you look at and click, what kinds of things you spend time reading, what you almost buy but don’t quite buy, etc. Martínez had no qualms about explaining the murkier capabilities of Facebook ad targeting, yet he denied that the company could listen to you. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress in April.

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Can Vans really sue Target for a cheap look-alike of its most famous skater shoe?

Dec 26

The lawsuit accuses Target of trying to borrow the brand’s street cred. Target’s Gen Z-focused, ’90s-inspired Wild Fable brand launched this fall, offering Instagram-friendly mix-and-match separates in an inclusive size range. All pieces were priced at under $40, and they were introduced to shoppers with a video starring a real, semi-famous New York skateboarding crew. Now the 15-second clip is one of the exhibits in Vans’ lawsuit against Target and the designers it contracted to help create Wild Fable. The subject of the lawsuit is Wild Fable’s Camella Lace-Up Sneaker , which is featured in the video and is currently available for sale in stores. The suit filed last Friday alleges that Target intentionally copied Vans’ Old Skool skater shoe , which launched in 1977 and features a signature white squiggle that Vans trademarked in 1998. “Few shoes have remained as consistently popular or are as instantly recognizable as the Old Skool Shoe,” the filing states. The Wild Fable video is cited as evidence that Target is “willfully” confusing consumers by situating its sneaker in cultural contexts strongly associated with Vans, a California-based brand that unarguably owes its existence to the rise of skateboard culture in the state in the ’70s and ’80s. Vans’ lawyers write that the brand has “a long history of, and sterling reputation for, being authentic and connected to pop-culture, street culture, and youth culture,” and that Target is deliberating borrowing that reputation to confuse young shoppers and bolster the sales of its new line. The filing also makes note of promotional photos for Wild Fable in which models wear the sneakers and hold bags with a black and white checkerboard pattern — another of Vans’ most well-known designs . In addition, the Wild Fable shoes come up in the Target site’s search results if you search for “women’s Vans shoes.” So, the shoes are clearly similar, and the evidence seems compelling, but does Vans really have a case against Target? As is probably clear to you any time you walk into a Forever 21 or H&M or Zara — places where the entire business model relies on rapidly mimicking popular designs and selling them at an extreme discount — copyright protections for fashion are feeble at best. The US still regards fashion as a major manufacturing industry undergirding the national economy, as opposed to a creative industry. In other words, it’s not in the government’s best interest to punish copycats, and it typically doesn’t. But that hasn’t stopped brands and designers from trying to protect their work through the courts. Vans’ case relies on pretty thin trademark protections for fashion There’s plenty of precedent for trademark infringement lawsuits in fashion. There’s less of a precedent for wins, and even less for this specific type of battle between two enormous, established brands over the jackpot that is modern sneaker culture. Vans’ claim to skater culture is probably the least persuasive argument in the suit, though it’s not completely without merit. “Vans doesn’t own the culture and ethos that is skateboarding,” fashion lawyer and NYU Law professor Douglas Hand told Vox. “That line is blurry. However, as far as brands that have legitimately come up with a sport or way of life, Vans can lay claim to that. It’s just another indicator that Target’s intention here was confusing people.” More important here is the issue of “trade dress,” which Hand calls “the thrust of the case.” As Chavie Lieber explained for Vox earlier this year, trade dress is “a kind of trademark in which a design is deemed so recognizable that the average consumer associates it with the brand; brands can register their designs as a trade dress with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, though this is a difficult and expensive process.” “Vans doesn’t own the culture and ethos that is skateboarding” Trade dress is the most challenging type of trademark to secure in fashion, and the trickiest to defend. For the most part, fashion copyright laws are set up to protect more tangible things — proprietary fabrics and other technical components, brand names, and logos — which can be patented or easily trademarked. In this case, Hand says, the test of whether trade dress has been violated is whether consumers are confused about the maker of Target’s product. Vans Vans and Wild Fable sneakers, from the suit filing.

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Meet the people who love Furbys even 20 years after their peak

Dec 21

A Furby with a monocle is having a picnic with a Furby who has a cocktail umbrella punched through her straw hat — she has no hands to hold up her own parasol. Elsewhere in this corner of the internet, a Furby with homemade arms decorates a Christmas tree. A different Furby reclines on its crudely affixed Barbie legs. A Furby with a pearl nameplate necklace eats beef-fried noodles, while a fluffy pink Furby makes gingerbread men in a yellow tutu. “Wishbone seizes the means of production,” reads the caption under a photo of a grey spotted Furby driving a full-size John Deere tractor. This is how Furbys — the half-bird, half-blob baby robots that were everywhere in the late ’90s — live on Tumblr, where collectors have congregated for years to give new life to their outdated toys. The Furbys have highly-specific backstories and personalities and customized appearances obtained through what can only be described as violent plastic surgery. They are all different, and they are all loved. They make up one of the fiercest, sweetest fandoms on Tumblr, and changes to the platform could be putting their community in danger. “The Furby community is completely unlike any other collecting community,” says Jessica Bansbach, a Furby fan in upstate New York. “People are willing to rip them out of boxes, they don’t like keeping them in boxes, they actively play with them and manhandle them, they dye their fur and change their eyes. They take them on adventures.” Furbys were invented by a toy and medical device tinkerer named Dave Hampton in 1997, after he saw a Tamagotchi and reasoned it would be far more fun if you could pet it. With the help of a former Mattel colleague Caleb Chung, he built and licensed the concept to Tiger Electronics just in time for them to become the hottest toy of the 1998 holiday season. The fervor around them would be hard to overstate, considering their inventor went into hiding in the Tahoe National Forest at the peak of their popularity. The draw stemmed from their status as arguably the first widely adopted, mass-produced robot, as well as their ability to blink and coo and emote and love you, all while learning English words and phrases to supplement their pre-programmed “Furbish.” The low-level panic around them — due to the assumption that the “learning” aspect meant they were listening to conversations and somehow storing them in their bodies — was its own fun. Intelligence agencies, including the NSA, banned them from their offices, leading Tiger Electronics owners Roger Shiffman to issue a statement clarifying, “Furby has absolutely no ability to do any recording whatsoever.” The first Furbys had no off-switch, but came in a variety of colors The Furby has gone through, roughly, three major eras of evolution. The first Furbys had no off-switch, but came in a variety of colors and 24 special editions including Elvis, Millennium, Patriotic, Superhero — sold under the simple declaration “Let’s have fun!” When they were reinvented in 2005 to have a bigger, more expressive face and voice recognition capabilities, they went by “Your emoto-tronic friend.” By the 2012 iteration — which arrived long after the meme-ification of the toy’s notorious malfunctions and bugs , such as their ability to interfere with radio frequencies or spontaneously change tone of voice — it made sense to Hasbro subsidiary Tiger Electronics to change the tagline again to “A mind of its own.” Though popular memory largely places Furbys in the late ’90s and early aughts, a nostalgia object with a bunch of odd quirks, Furbys are actually a continuing source of revenue for a company in the ever- fluctuating toy industry. The latest version of the Furby — launched in 2016 — is called the Furby Connect; it’s Bluetooth-enabled, and connects to a mobile video game with plenty of in-app purchases, labeled “nefarious” by Wired . They are declared “hot again” every few years by industry observers. There was even supposed to be a part-animated, part live-action Furby movie, but it fell through the cracks when the Weinstein Company dissolved at the end of 2017. fieldoffurbs/ Tumblr

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The golden age of celebrity apps is over

Dec 20

The Kardashian-Jenner clan are shutting down all of their subscription-based apps, effectively ending an era. There are more than 2 million apps available in the App Store, so maybe you will feel that a eulogy for the four whose deaths were announced Thursday — the Kim Kardashian West App, Kourtney Kardashian App, Khloé Kardashian Official App, and Kylie Jenner Official App — is not called for. To that, I’d say we are not mourning the loss of beauty tips from Kim Kardashian, which we will continue to receive for free on her extremely active Instagram and Twitter accounts and on her forever-running television program. We are mourning the end of the golden age of the celebrity app. The Kardashian-Jenners released a statement thanking fans for an “incredible experience,” but have not provided a clear explanation for the decision to shutter their apps, which launched in 2015. However, given what we know about their business savvy, it stands to reason that the apps would have lived on had a sufficient number of people been willing to pay the $2.99 monthly subscription fee associated with each one. But given that the Kardashians are basically synonymous with overexposure, there may, in fact, be no dollar amount that would make the apps worth it. Can you think of a time when you didn’t have easy access to healthy living and motherhood tips from Kourtney Kardashian? Or workout tips and product recommendations from Khloé Kardashian? Or Kylie Jenner’s personal music preferences? You can’t build a brand based on constant access and then cordon off access, which is a lesson it has apparently taken “America’s First Family” just a little over three years to learn. Charley Gallay/Getty Images Kris Jenner, Kylie Jenner, and Kim Kardashian celebrating the launch of the family’s apps in 2015.

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How the internet got so boring: Everything runs on ads and Drake

Dec 20

End-of-year data hauls from the major social platforms show a whole bunch of sameness. At a store in the mall nearest my apartment, there is a T-shirt for sale that reads “Kiki doesn’t love you,” paired with a frowning emoticon. I’ve thought a lot about how bizarre it is that a single lyric in a song on an album that contained 25 songs could become such a shared touchpoint as to be recognizable even in this strange, inverted version, sold in a discount clothing store, completely divorced of context. What a strange moment in which a phrase can go so quickly from song to tweet to meme to physical object that expects you to understand a reference without even directly making the reference. It is not that this level of ubiquity for a pop culture object is bad, exactly, it is just ... how did it happen? To (partially) answer that, take a look at platforms’ end-of-the-year lists. All of the big players of the social web — YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, etc. — release some kind of data haul at the end of the year, typically accompanied by a video montage or infographic. I generally avoid them because they’re essentially advertising for products that I use for my job every single day, but this year I clicked on each and every one, hoping to find some evidence that something cool happened on the internet this year and I just missed it. Unfortunately, the truth is that I didn’t miss much of anything, as everything that happened on every platform was just the same four to six things over and over again: “In My Feelings” and Fortnite . ASMR . A boy yodeling in Walmart. There was a time when what was happening on YouTube would have looked nothing like what was happening in Google Search, or when what was happening on Pornhub would look nothing like what was happening on Instagram. (Remember when a year on YouTube could be summarized by a link to a song about llamas ? Or the years before @dasharez0ne was giving interviews and tweeting at Wendy’s?) That time is over, and it’s because of advertising dollars — and Drake. The end of the year is a time for glossy, ad-friendly versions of events Google’s “Year in Search” video typically makes my eyes water against my will, like those Budweiser commercials about fancy horses. This year was no different even though I specifically instructed myself to be passive and uninvolved. “During a year of highs and lows, the Year in Search highlights all the ways people continued to search for ‘good,’” a Google News data editor wrote on the Google blog . “And this year, it was more than ever.” People searched “how to be a good singer,” Google says, showing a clip of that kid yodeling in a Walmart. They searched “how to be a good dancer,” which is why there are clips of the “In My Feelings” challenge, and they also searched “How to be a good kisser,” which is why there is a clip of Meghan Markle kissing Prince Harry. Cardi B does a tongue trill in response to a search for “Good vibes.” (Please keep these in mind as you will see them later.) Jane Barlow/Getty Images Prince Harry and Meghan Markle

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How pimples, poop, and brain goo became the hottest toys of 2018

Dec 19

Why shouldn’t games be as gross as our bodies? Life on earth is revolting, and no aspect of it is more undignified and disgusting than having to take care of a body, particularly your own. “Who is it doing all this for, if not for me?” novelist Sheila Heti wrote about her body this year. “And what do I do for it? I mop up its blood. Then I mop it up again. I never feel grateful.” It’s horrible. It’s an injustice that never goes away. Unfortunately, the only way to get out of dealing with your own bodily functions is to become rich and somehow rid yourself of all shame, enabling you to be the sort of person who pays someone else to wash their underwear and suck blackheads out of their face. Hardly any of us are this wealthy and terrible, and children never are. So, for them, it is lucky that the horrors of the human body have now been made into dozens of games. According to a report released by eBay at the start of the holiday shopping season this November, “pimples, poops, farts, and slime” were among the most popular toys of the year. The platform reported that sales of Hasbro’s Don’t Step In It, a game where you avoid stepping in dog poop, had tripled between September and October, and that it had sold an average of 24 Poopsie Surprise Unicorns — a unicorn that poops glitter-laced slime — per day for the previous two months. So what’s driving this trend? Why is gross suddenly okay to call “fun”? In large part, because of YouTube. And because toy companies that need viral hits are finally willing to give the least mature of us (very young kids) exactly what they want (toilets). There are several strands of the gross toy trend, a variety of causes and switchbacks and catalysts that led us to this super-gross moment. According to David Norman, the president of Goliath Games, which makes several gross toys, the first viral iteration of the trend was just fake vomit, which has been around since at least the 1950s. As far as mass-produced, big-box retail-targeted games, the first he can recall was Gooey Louie in 1995. (You can watch an explanatory video , or just enjoy Norman’s description: “You reach into this big oversized schnoz of this guy. If you pull out the wrong green booger, it shoots out a few feet in the air.”) “Gooey Louie was a game that everybody passed on — Hasbro passed, Mattel passed. They said like, ‘It’s so funny, it’s hilarious, but there’s no way that the American public and the retailers would ever let us put it on,” Norman says. “But lo and behold, it was a huge hit. Preston Toy Corporation sold millions of pieces.” Goliath Games was an early adopter of gross, launching Doggie Doo — “Feed your doggie, squeeze the leash, and after he makes his gassy sounds — plop!” — in 2010, to wild attention. The noises Doggie Doo made (and yeah, Norman does a pretty good fart noise over the phone) were so funny, the game was featured on Chelsea Lately, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno , and The Late Show with David Letterman . “It became a viral hit just because of how funny it is, that noise that gets louder and louder.” Goliath Games also owns Gooey Louie, having purchased the Preston Toy Company in 2014. “We had a pretty good stranglehold on gross in that moment,” Norman says. But due to YouTube and unboxing culture, this changed. “Unboxing people started playing with [Doggie Doo, back in 2010], and they had real reactions to it. Those reactions created hundreds of millions of views. We had more competitors get into gross, and it started in games and went into everywhere,” he says. “There was even a Barbie thing, where Barbie’s dog was pooping jelly beans.” (While the dog does poop things that look like jelly beans , you can’t eat them.) Mattel Flushin’ Frenzy

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Everything Amazon did in 2018 that you might have missed

Dec 13

Sifting through thousands of words of Amazon press releases. Amazon — a $1 trillion company so multifaceted and bizarre that it challenges the definition of the word “company” — did many things this year that a lot of people cared about. It conducted a year-long “search” for an American city in which to build a large office. It pitched its facial recognition software to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and sold it to several other law enforcement agencies, despite the fact that it’s reportedly not very good . It raised its minimum hourly wage to $15 after extreme political pressure. It made headway on previous, vaguer attempts to squash Etsy and eBay . It eliminated order minimums for free shipping around the holiday shopping season. It acquired a pharmaceutical company. It also did many things people probably didn’t have time to think about, and which I only know of because I am subscribed to the Amazon news update email list. As of publishing time for this piece, Amazon has sent out more than 200 press releases in 2018, and I have read or skimmed nearly all of them, excluding only things that seemed like an obvious waste of my time. Most of these press releases were both mundane and anodyne, as not every day can be red-letter, and because, of course, Amazon is not putting anything but a sunny, peppy face on its daily existence when it writes missives about its own business evolution. (Asked for comment about its huge year, an Amazon spokesperson mostly touted the “intense and well-established competition” the company faces in areas from tech to retail entertainment.) Nevertheless, hundreds of tiny updates do paint a picture of Amazon’s increasingly muscly tentacle reach toward countless aspects of culture and business. Here are the iterations and small additions and incremental moves and seemingly strange choices that Amazon made in 2018 — so many that we didn’t even have time to notice. Put Alexa in everything Each year, Amazon gives millions of dollars to startups and researchers who are working on voice technology projects through the Alexa Fund and the Amazon Research Awards . And each year, it gives its voice assistant Alexa about a zillion new things to do and new devices to live in. Unlike its main voice competitors Google and Apple, Amazon does not make a phone, so it has to be extremely aggressive in the smart home space . To that end, it offers third-party developers pretty open access to Alexa and claims that its assistant has been incorporated into tens of millions of devices across its own product lines and the dozens of companies it partners with. Stephen Brashear/Getty Images Alexa-enabled microwave.

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Gillette owner Procter & Gamble is acquiring one of its razor startup competitors

Dec 12

Just like rival Unilever did with Dollar Shave Club. Procter & Gamble has acquired Walker & Company — creators of Bevel, a grooming line marketed to men of color, and Form, a hair care line marketed to women of color — Walker & Company founder Tristan Walker announced Wednesday morning. Though the amount of the acquisition is undisclosed, Recode estimates it’s between $20 million and $40 million. Walker also said the company headquarters will move from Silicon Valley to Atlanta as a cost-saving measure, and to be closer to its largest customer base. The interesting tension at the heart of the acquisition is the fact that Bevel’s raison d’être has always been contextualized in opposition to Procter & Gamble’s Gillette, which owns 54 percent of the global razor market; as Recode put it, Walker & Co. was “aiming to build the Procter & Gamble for people of color.” Founded in 2013 with $33 million of venture capital, Bevel was focused on single-blade razors, which it says cause less skin irritation for people of color, or anyone with curlier or thicker hair that can easily become ingrown as the result of a multi-blade approach. (Triple-blade or five-blade razors, which Gillette focuses on, are designed to pull facial hair up above the surface of the skin before cutting it, so when the hair snaps back down below the surface, a curly hair is more likely to spiral into the skin, instead of growing back out.) In fact, when Vox spoke to Walker a few weeks ago for a feature on the absurdity of the razor industry — published just Tuesday morning! — he said, “None of our consumers can use [Gillette] products.” Asked then about his plans for the coming year, and whether he feared drawing ire or legal threats from Gillette, in the manner that Dollar Shave Club or Harry’s did, Walker said, “We are well-positioned. I can’t really speak toward how excited or fearful Gillette is about the future, but I can’t personally use their products, nor can our customers.” “I can’t really speak toward how excited or fearful Gillette is about the future, but I can’t personally use their products, nor can our customers” As Recode’s Jason Del Rey points out, Walker & Company will benefit from Procter & Gamble’s massive research and development ($1.9 billion) and advertising ($7 billion) budgets, as well as its firmer positioning in global supply chains. This will be particularly important given the 25 percent tariff President Trump has placed on imported steel, which so far only razor makers Gillette and Schick have procured an exemption on. From the other side, Procter & Gamble is swallowing a competitor (as it did by buying the Art of Shaving in 2009). It’s also getting a toe in the door with an underserved consumer base — as Walker said, his customers can’t use the company’s existing products. More broadly, an acquisition like this is yet another sign that the conversation about how direct-to-consumer brands flush with cash from huge rounds of startup fundraising are changing the retail game forever is overblown. Procter & Gamble is acquiring Walker & Company after its DTC phase — the startup’s products have been in Target since September 2015 — and two years after its archrival Unilever acquired DTC pioneer Dollar Shave Club for $1 billion. Harry’s, the grooming startup co-founded the same year as Bevel by Warby Parker’s Jeff Raider, went from DTC darling to more traditional industry giant (valued at $1 billion), buying up its own blade factories in Germany, opening a brick-and-mortar flagship, and securing retail deals with Walmart, Target, and Barneys. “We have retail partners [like] Target,” Walker told Vox a few weeks ago. “That’s going to expand very soon. We want to make money with the products we sell, as opposed to relying on fundraising.” Cash, for sure, is not something they’ll have to worry about now.

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The SoulCycle of fertility sells egg-freezing and ‘empowerment’ to 25-year-olds

Sep 11

Gina Bartasi, CEO of Kindbody, is trying to create a cult following for her clinic. She’s using the tactics from SoulCycle and Drybar to do it.

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Sorry to Bother You gets everything right about the horrors of viral fame

Jul 24

The film, a wild writing and directing debut from The Coup frontman Boots Riley, is a radical statement about capitalism and the internet long before the big twists hit. Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson star in a story that’s somewhere between a grim scie…

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The new musical Emojiland is deeply concerned with emoji angst

Jul 19

Emojiland, a new “textistential” musical playing at the New York Musical Festival, echoes The Emoji Movie and Inside Out in worrying about how emotions feel emotions. But it doesn’t answer the important question: why are writers so obsessed with the ways abst…

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The robot dogs I have loved the most

Mar 18

A brief history of friends

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Courtney Barnett floats off into space in Need a Little Time

Mar 16

Courtney Barnett is an Australian singer and songwriter who is a personal hero to many — and not just when she is wisely putting on a space suit and launching herself out among the stars to avoid an unpleasant conversation.

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The worst girl at every SXSW party was me

Mar 15

Dispatches from SXSW parties thrown by Tumblr, Pandora, Vox, and a random cryptocurrency company

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Upgrade is set up as a colorful near-future thriller, but it’s actually pure body horror

Mar 13

A wild collaboration between Blumhouse and the creator of the Saw franchise, Upgrade premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas.

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