Last night, I tried to use Google to pull up a recent post I’d written for Hmm Daily, the one about the terrible letter Jon Robin Baitz wrote to explain how screenwriting had made him personally too rich and successful to support the screenwriters’ union in their current conflict with the Hollywood agencies. I typed in the headline—the scab has a script—and the very first result was my own piece, which was what I was looking for.
But right there with it was another result: a video, also called “The Scab Has a Script,” with a thumbnail featuring the same inflatable-rat-at-a-typewriter image that had been on the post. I clicked it and was presented with…the blog post, rendered line by line as meme-style text, overlaid on a rotating sequence of five images: the original illustration, some sort of cruddy photo of a painting (or tattoo?) of a sculpted bust, and a sequence of three pages of a script from Episode 410 of Outlander. Wordless vocals and a sort of jazzy guitar and beat played underneath it all.
The first flash of old-fashioned outrage—somebody is stealing our stuff!—faded before it had even fully arrived, replaced by an ever-more-familiar sense of dread and loathing. Neither “somebody” nor “stealing” were the right concepts; the video was too incomprehensible for that, and until I’d clicked on it, it had zero views. It cut out after 3 minutes and 20 seconds, in the middle of the text.
There was no motive behind it; there wasn’t even a mind.
There was no motive behind it; there wasn’t even a mind. We were so far out beyond the realm of copyright infringement, the only logical thing to do was to rip back the whole video of our own copyrighted text and repost it ourselves. Here it is:
The user account that had posted it, “smokaj0000,” has plenty more content or content-like objects where that came from. Its YouTube videos page is a solid wall of “No Views” videos, sprinkled here and there with videos that have gotten some tiny number of views. Since it posted the video based on our blog post a week ago, it has put up more than 600 new videos.
Yesterday it posted, one after another, “Saudi Arabia Beheads 37 for Terrorism Crimes; Most Shiites” (5 minutes, 1 second); “Saudi Arabia beheads 37 for terrorism crimes” (7:21), and “Saudi Arabia executes 37 people for terror-related crimes” (3:21). Before that it posted “NASA just detected the first ‘marsquake’ on the red planet” (2:31) and “NASA probe detects likely ‘marsquake’: an interplanetary first” (3:11), and before that three straight videos about the former Brazilian president Lula’s reduced prison sentence. None of them had any views.
The videos all seem to follow the same format, using text lifted from articles elsewhere online. Some of them, but not all, have tacked the message “Let’s block ads! (Why?).” onto the very end. Googling that brings up a tagline used by FiveFilters.org to promote an Chrome extension that’s supposed to block ads, although those results also include sites that have apparently bot-harvested the text from other sites.
(After we posted our copy of the smokaj0000 video to the Hmm Daily YouTube account, we received a copyright warning that it was being blocked because something called “HEXACORP LTD” had filed a copyright claim on the audio track “cool-mbia.”
So we replaced the audio and tried to figure out what HexaCorp was, which led to a completely impenetrable HexaCorp website which says its mission is to “Deliver high end solutions & services, collaborate customer data & people by adapting latest technologies & tools establish customer friendly process and create effective solutions with focus towards ‘Best Services Interest’ and ‘Maximum Value for Money’.” More Googling found that HexaCorp appears as the owner of record in the end-user licensing agreement for a streaming service called Orfium. The initial video with the soundtrack remains unblocked. )
Whatever smokaj0000 is doing, it is not producing content for human consumption. It is aggressively, chillingly ahuman, a machine signaling to machines for some algorithmic purpose whose human-centered antecedents are long lost. It is not even fake; it simply exists outside any realm where reality might matter.