Skeptics aren’t welcome in the Land of Big Numbers™️ 🤔
Subscribers. Followers. Views. Valuations. Am I really supposed to believe any of 'em?
📰 This is the Rubesletter from Matt Ruby (comedian, writer, and the creator of Vooza). Sign up to get it in your inbox weekly.
I’m a bit of a cynic. Every time I hear about a huge “I’m popular online” number, I think, “Really?”
For example, I just read there are 1.1 million subscribers to sports site The Athletic. But are there really? Because I’ve never met anyone who subscribes or talks about it. In fact, I have a tough time believing there are 1.1 million people who even know The Athletic exists.
If true, the site must be raking it in from all these subscribers, right? Actually: "The Athletic lost $55 million on about $65 million in revenue in 2021." So this sports site is spending $120 million per year!? On what? Are they building stealth bombers lined with diamonds to fly over Wrigley Field?
Also: The site is now owned by the NY Times and presumably can’t just lie about these stats. So fine, let’s say that 1.1M number is real. How many of these subscribers are paying and actually consuming content there on the regular? Because it’s not exactly raking it in: “The Athletic has brought subscriber growth to The New York Times — at a fairly significant cost.” Hmm, sorry for my antiquated understanding of math, but hemorrhaging money in order to increase subscribers feels like a poor business model.
[Does some Googling.]
Aha. Welcome to the land of “bundled” subscriptions.
[The Athletic] has also recently started bundling subscriptions with Bloomberg’s business website and giving away a free year to certain T-Mobile subscribers...The Athletic’s aggressive growth tactics have made some people skeptical about the company’s trajectory. Eric Jackson, founder of EMJ Capital, a hedge fund that specializes in media and technology investments, is curious about how many customers are churning and the distribution of how many people are paying full price as opposed to promotional offers. 'Who knows what their real growth story is?' said Jackson. 'I’m skeptical.'
That seems like it oughta be the real headline: Who knows what the real story is? I’m skeptical.
FYI, bundled is a euphemism for “I didn’t actually want to sign up for this but they threw it in for free so [shrug emoji].” I remember when Spotify ran a bundled subscription “partnership” with Hulu where I got the TV service for free simply for already being a Spotify customer. “Um, sure,” I thought. But I bet Hulu chalked me up as a “real” subscriber as if I was all “Please gimme some Hulu!”
Likewise, The Athletic is out here bundling it up. Sign up for T-Mobile and you get an Athletic subscription. Do those T-Mobilites use the site? Who cares? It’s another big number to show the money people.
But maybe I’m the dummy. I talked to my media expert pal Rex Sorgatz, who literally wrote the book on fakery, about all this. His take:
The Athletic is very well known. I subscribe! I talk to people all the time about it. It’s prolly the best sports writing out there right now. They stole all the best writers from the local dailies. I didn’t know about the bundling. Not sure how effective that’s been. I will say, they offer a ton of discounts.
Whether it was a good purchase that works out for them down the road is certainly a valid angle. I think it will work out for them. There’s all sorts of integration and upsells and whatnot they can do still. There’s also a ton of expenses to be cut. But you would not be out on a limb questioning NYT about this.
Fair enough. And I don’t mean to pick on The Athletic. Everyone’s doing this kinda thing. The NYT just published this story today: “Bolt Built $11 Billion Payment Business on Inflated Metrics and Eager Investors.” Reading it, you can’t help but feel like we’re living in a tech world that’s normalizing “stretching the truth.”
In a rush to show growth, Bolt often overstated its technological capability and misrepresented the number of merchants using its service…[A company spokeswoman] said it was standard industry practice to include both prospective clients and those who had signed, even if they weren’t using the service. Guess, for instance, was listed on Bolt’s website as a “won” customer but never went live and was later removed, she said…[Founder Ryan] Breslow urged investors to value the company on the basis of the 5.6 million shoppers who were signed onto Bolt’s network, rather than just the roughly 250 merchants using its service, according to the pitch deck.
According to the Times article, “investors lapped it up” for a while. Until they didn’t. Now, Ken Smythe, CEO of an advisory firm, calls Bolt “a ghost ship sailing in the middle of the night without a captain.”
There are ghosts all around. Take bots. Elon Musk wants to ban ‘em on Twitter. Huzzah. But actually, experts are pointing out that Musk himself probably has millions of “fanbots” among his 91.3 million Twitter followers. Lame. Also: Fembots > Fanbots
Turns out Musk’s lifestyle is super sexy to bots.
Musk is a nearly perfect magnet for automated hype, researchers say. For those involved in the market, he leads a company that is riskier than most, is prone to volatile price movements and serious criticism, and often is the subject of short selling in pursuit of profits on its setbacks.
Beyond that, Musk is widely admired, is the world’s richest man, dates celebrities, and backs not only cryptocurrencies but also meaningless meme cryptocurrencies, such as the former joke known as Dogecoin.
Volatile company! Crypto! Celebs! It’s the hat trick of botnip. No wonder we can’t stop talking about him.
In general, I have no idea what to believe anymore. Heard of Mr. Beast? His “$456,000 Squid Game In Real Life!” video (posted in November 2021) has 249,116,533 views. The United States population is 332,660,388. So the equivalent of 75% of the people in America have watched this video. Um…3/4 of America has watched this video!??!? C’mon. Or maybe it’s true. I dunno. After all, Netflix is global. Around the world, Netflix has 222 million subscribers. I can’t help but think it feels off that more people watched “Squid Game In Real Life!” than could even access the real Squid Game show.
Maybe that’s about the way we count views. What counts as a view on YouTube?
Facebook: 3 seconds or more
Instagram / IGTV : 3 seconds or more
LinkedIn: 2 seconds or more
YouTube: 30 seconds or more
Tiktok: 0.1 seconds i.e. each time a video starts
Twitter: 2 seconds
LOL at TikTok counting .1 seconds as a view. Sure.
Re: TikTok, I posted the same video about classic rock lessons this week to Instagram and TikTok.
So far, it has a mere 1,947 views on Instagram while it’s got 100,300 views on TikTok. Why the discrepancy? It’s the same video. How did it sink on one platform and take off on the other? Is it because of that 3 seconds thing? I’d love to ask the algorithm, but it’s not taking questions right now.
Skeptics aren’t welcome in the Land of Big Numbers™️. It’s a world that never looks back at previous lies. Talking about the Theranos-es of the world is bad for business.
Similarly, no one wants to talk about how Facebook knowingly inflated its video metrics (average viewership metrics were inflated by as much as 900%).
The terribly inaccurate numbers led many advertisers to put most, if not all, of their marketing resources on Facebook. These organizations believed that they were getting better engagement on the social media platform compared to other channels. As a result, countless hours of manpower and funds were wasted as advertisers chased views that were slightly longer than a blink.
But, y’know, we can trust YouTube.
Have you seen Fake Famous? The doc picks three wannabe influencers and then buys their way to “fame.”
The tricks of the trade include buying followers (7,500 for the cool price of $119.60), renting a mansion to stage glamorous photo shoots and style makeovers in order to look like the cool kids.
If that all sounds a bit cynical, that's really the whole point, given the fraud and fakery built into the "follower" model. Those totals regularly get padded by bots, Bilton explains, "making people appear more popular than they really are."
Follower counts are like Miracle Bras. They’re real, just boosted.
And then there’s my favorite debunking example: “Yes, watching paint dry can fetch plenty of Web views.” In an effort to find out how easy it is to buy YouTube views, The LA Times posted two identical videos of a wet streak of paint and purchased 40,000 views for one of them (WorkingYouTubeViews.com charged $46 for 20,000 views; IncreaseYouTubeViews.com was paid $57 for another 20,000). After eight days, the views on the “promoted” video hit 60,000 — far more than had been paid for. The other had only 13 views.
Like everything else nowadays, you’ve gotta figure it all out for yourself. Good luck identifying the unicorn needles in the haystack of bullsh*t.
Who knows what the real story is? I’m skeptical.
The Rubesletter • by Matt Ruby (Vooza) is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
More on psychedelics
Last week’s Rubesletter: 🍄 Something's off with how we talk about psychedelics generated this fun reply from reader Nick D.
Love the take on shrooms. I started my journeys back in high school. Long story short, one of my first trips was at a small lake with my buddies. Nobody was there but us and we got to skip rocks, watch the ripples dance in the sunlight, listen to the frogs croak, and watch as the golden hour changed the shades of green on lily pads to colors we'd never seen before. All that + a nice meditation session together = a core memory I can always go back to and enjoy.
Lovely. My first time was at a lake too. Cops came by and got on their megaphone and said, "The lake is closed." I turned around and looked at the lake and thought, "What? That lake is f*cking open. Wide open. These clowns have no idea what they're talking about." But we said nothing and shuffled along.
Btw, I’m filming something that’s, well, imagine a standup special + Jackass + Michael Pollan + Super Size Me + a science experiment and you’ll get the gist. Details:
Also, I’m coming to NOLA and Chicago soon:
Chicago - Lincoln Lodge - Thursday, June 16 at 9pm. Tickets.
New Orleans - Comedy House NOLA - Friday, May 27. Two shows. 7pm tix and 9pm tix.
I recently started another (!) newsletter: Funny How is about the craft of comedy. (Hint: It’s got good stuff to inspire other creative pursuits too.) Some recent posts there:
George Saunders on how to get your writing fairer, funnier, and smarter
"With revision, thousands of times you’re deciding what is truer, what’s more vivid, what has less deception in it. And over the course of revising it, it starts to become a more intense, honest investigation."
There’s a reason it’s called a punchline
"You can write a good joke but if you don’t deliver the punchline with the proper tone of voice, volume, and body language, it’ll fall flat. A punchline is the verbal equivalent of a slap in the face. You need to convey to them now is the time to laugh."
Brian Eno: Scene + Genius = Scenius
Forget genius, think scenius. Eno: "Fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work."
Ironic condescension: Looking down while being wrong
On being confidently wrong/a high status moron/using ironic condescension a la Homer Simpson and Steve Martin.
🎯 Every religion is literally a cult classic.
🎯 "Machine Gun Kelly" sounds like a name a third grader would make up. "Who's your favorite pop star?" "Fire Truck McGee! Wait, no. It's Bulldozer Fireworks!!!"
🎯 DATING IS WEIRD NOW: "I'm single.” "Do you mean you're committed but non-monogamous, polyamorous, single and co-parenting, divorced, healing or simply prioritizing yourself?" "Um, not sure. I'm just lonely."
🎯 The algorithm is the new industry.
🎯 I never root for Germany in the World Cup because of that time they made the finals and scored a goal and the TV producers cut to some square in Germany with 10,000 screaming Germans going crazy and I was like NAH WE AIN'T DOING THIS AGAIN.
🎯 The internet leads to a lot of false expectations... Women who spend too much time online: "I deserve to be treated like a queen!" Men who spend too much time online: "My stepsister wants to have a threeway."
🎯 It's not actually a caveman diet unless you're hunting for all your food. Cavemen didn’t have the option of going to Trader Joe’s.
🎯 I need the flashlight on my phone to read the menu at a restaurant, which is a super old man thing to say. I keep arguing it's because they're making the font size smaller on menus, but that’s an even more old man thing to say.
🎯 The guy tackling Chappelle is those people going crazy on airplanes is that fan dumping popcorn on Russell Westbrook is those anti-maskers losing it at Walmart, etc. Pandemic shook us. Life became a video game so we no longer know how to behave like actual humans in public.
🗯 Bill Burr: “I’ve Made Every Mistake You Can Make.”
“I thought I became a comedian because I loved comedy and I liked making people laugh,” Burr says. “But I became a comedian because by the time I was 23, I was so walled-off and fucked-up that doing stand-up was the easiest way to go into a room full of strangers and make them like me so that no one would hurt me. I was onstage with the mindset of a 6-year-old from 23 to about 37.”
🗯 We’re in a Loneliness Crisis: Another Reason to Get Off Our Phones.
Go watch the rain for 10 minutes. Go on a walk with a friend. Get off social media and meet one neighbor. Keep your kids offline. Put your hands in the dirt. Play an instrument instead of a video game. Turn off your smartphone and have dinner with people around a table. Search for beauty and goodness in the material world, and there, find joy. The way back to ourselves, as individuals and a society, runs through old, earthy things.
🗯 The Group Chat, according to Ethan Strauss, offers “Blue Worlders” a place to express opinions that fall outside an increasingly narrow media consensus.
They also want places to do lower-rent things, like talk about a famous woman’s ass or dismiss a fad as “retarded.” The eternal Charles Barkley quote about a different setting applies to the Chat: "The locker room is racist, homophobic and sexist and I miss it.” The Group Chat is the locker room you don’t have to retire from. Some might cheekily call such an environment a Safe Space, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to do so. Ultimately, the privacy allows a certain freedom. In the sinner’s sanctum, you can finally, openly communicate.
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