Numlock Sunday: Ryan Broderick on what's actually popular on the internet
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Ryan Broderick of the utterly delightfulinternet culture newsletter. Ryan’s not only responsible for one of the most reliably entertaining things I read on the internet, but earlier this year he branched out and with partner Adam Bumas launched Garbage Intelligence.
This project, which is an audacious attempt to monitor and quantify what’s actually doing well on social media, is an attempt to solve a pervasive issue with the internet: The big platforms don’t actually want you to know what’s doing well on them. For reasons we’ll discuss in this extended interview, it can be argued that this information may mean the platforms face a potentially existential threat to their business.
Garbage Intelligence is a subscription tier of Broderick’s, which is a newsletter you should absolutely check out anyway. He’s generously made the July edition of Garbage Intelligence available to all Numlock readers.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Ryan Broderick, you write my favorite newsletter, Garbage Day. You've also started producing this fascinating new boutique intelligence report called Garbage Intelligence, spinning off the newsletter that I am really, really into. What got you interested in diving into the data of the internet?
The real impetus behind it was 10 years ago when I was first starting working in newsrooms, there were all of these different services that were trying to measure the internet, which hilariously back then felt a lot easier. There were a bunch. I'm sure they still exist; there was DataMiner, there was that one that would email you what people were tweeting about, I can't remember what it was called, Gawker writers were obsessed with it. There are all these different ways of measuring internet discourse.
Then my theory is that around the start of the Trump campaign in 2015, I think in America, most places just realized like, “Oh, Twitter is the main place, and if we can look at Twitter, we can measure what's being talked about and then we're all done.”
And then as Twitter has decayed, I think I've been noticing more and more parts of the internet lighting up with stuff that eventually find their way to Twitter, which is still where the boomer-fied millennials are getting their news.
When I was thinking about what could I offer Garbage Day readers beyond what I'm already doing, one bit of feedback I was getting a lot was people being like, “I love your newsletter. I wish I could send it to my boss.”
I was like, “Well, all right, I'll create a new version that you can pay a little extra to read and you can send it to your boss.” The format of emailing around a Google Doc I lifted from this incredible resource that everyone should read called Not a Newsletter by Dan Oshinsky, where every month he just emails around a massive Google Doc full of everything you need to read if you write newsletters.
I was like, “That's perfect.” Because that way I don't have to worry about formatting, I don't have to worry about links, and I can make it as dense as it needs to be. We've done four of them so far. We have a real strong readership for it, and it's been going really well. We're just every month discovering these incredibly weird things that are not on anyone's radar, which has been, I think, the most exciting part of it.
I've really enjoyed how you genuinely are picking up stuff that's not on people's radar, that it is breaking people out of a bubble. I'm not seeing on Twitter necessarily as much of the whole internet as I've seen in the past; we've seen a fragmentation that you've written about in Garbage Day quite a bit, that threatens our ability to grasp the internet as one place.
My partner in crime on this, Adam Bumas, he used to work at Know Your Meme. He still does work for their Meme Insider publication, and he's got this tremendously digitally native view of the internet. Working with him has been really exciting, and the stuff that he surfaces is amazing. The best example is probably the Skibidi Toilets, which was this thing that Adam was messaging me about months ago. And I was like, I have no idea what you're talking about, which is always exciting for me. I was like, "I genuinely do not understand the words that you're typing. This is amazing." I think we first noted the rise of the Skibidi Toilets in June, because it was the first time a channel was growing faster than Mr. Beast. One of our corners of measurement is the top five YouTube channels by most subscribers.
DaFuq!?Boom!, which is the main channel for these toilet videos, overtook Mr. Beast.
Now, Mr. Beast quickly regained the top spot in July, but it was one of these moments where you're like, "Oh, this is a real thing and it's happening, and no one's talking about it." And then Adam eventually wrote a guest piece for Garbage Day about that, which is kind of another great part of this stuff, which is that it funnels really nicely into the work that Garbage Day is already doing.
Another great example is that we've partnered with NewsWhip, who have been so generous with their data, and they send us some sections of their data for our reports. In June they sent us the top five Facebook posts by total interactions. The fourth-most interacted with posts on Facebook in June was a picture of a potato that had the caption, "This is the Potato of Luck, don't ignore it, and tomorrow you'll get good news." But the weirdest thing was that everyone underneath it was just writing the word "amen," which is insane. It's just wild.
I think this is the major thing that these reports are revealing, which is that the internet is so much bigger and so much weirder than what's happening on Twitter.
Then what's even more interesting is that our last one that we did, which was in July, shows that Twitter has actually not moved. There's been no real change in top accounts on Twitter. That, to me, really, really points to a general stagnation of Twitter. It's been a really good time to start doing these reports, I think.
Twitter used to really have the pulse. Even if it wasn't the first one, it was the second or third one, it was in the middle of that production chain where people could catch on. I guess one thing that I'm really drawn to about this project and this challenge, basically, is that the internet has really resisted quantification. These are things that the platforms could produce, but they don't. I'm curious why you think that they don't. Is it something where they're not happy what that reveals about them, that people are saying amen under a potato, or is it something else?
Oh, they definitely don't want people looking at this stuff. A really good example was how back in April, the number three most popular YouTube channel by new subscribers, the channel that was getting the most subscribers that month, was called Zamzam Electronics Trading. It was essentially two guys that run a phone store in the Gulf, and they do comedy skits in their phone store.
They're also shamelessly reuploading their TikToks to their YouTube channel. Sometimes they don't even take the watermark off. I don't think YouTube wants people to know that, not because it's nefarious, but because it's too weird. It breaks the illusion that most of these platforms run on, which is that there is some kind of discernible monoculture.
All of these platforms are full of random content, but they're spending all their time and energy making it feel not random. In July, the most recent one we did, the number three fastest growing channel by new subscribers was called Real Fool Shorts Official. They are a bunch of guys in India just doing really wacky shorts. I don't think YouTube really wants its marketers to know just how global and random these accounts are.
They want to come off as, oh, the audience for this is Western, rich, and 18 to 29. They don't want people to know necessarily that this is as global of a platform as it is.
For instance, one of the most interesting things we've come across since we started doing this was we started tracking the top five news articles on Facebook by interactions, the top five publishers and the top five posts. Now the posts are where you find your potato where people are writing amen. It's a bunch of heartwarming videos. It's overwhelmingly American, it feels.
The real story, though, is when you start digging into the articles. The top two most interacted with news articles on Facebook in July were one story about a 72-year-old farmer from the Philippines who finished high school, and another story about 18 parents, 18 different people, who finished kindergarten.
In the Philippines.
Those were the biggest stories on Facebook?
It gets crazier. The fastest growing publishers on Facebook are from Nigeria and Kenya and Ghana, and there is a very strong possibility that legit.ng, which is a Nigerian digital tabloid, will outpace the Daily Mail next month. In fact, if you look at the top five articles on Facebook, only one of them last month was American. It was about Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett. The publishers, they're not American anymore, it is British and African tabloids.
What is the internet at this point, man?
This is the thing. As the American internet has kind of moved over to TikTok — this is my theory — other parts of the internet are filling up with other ecosystems. They're filling up with other media ecosystems. At this point, when you look at publishers on Facebook, it is an overwhelmingly African platform with its largest demographics outside of that being in the Philippines and Southeast Asia.
I can't imagine Facebook particularly wants to advertise this because, well, from an American perspective, it's bizarre. From an international perspective, it makes sense. But from a marketing standpoint, what do you do with that? Here's the rub. Right? I know this from friends who work in advertising, the most expensive ad markets in the world are in the EU, the U.K., the U.S., what we kind of refer to as the global North. But if you look at the numbers, most of these what I would call legacy social platforms, are now overwhelmingly being read in the global South.
It's really interesting that, again, you mentioned the Philippines and Africa. Is it the African anglosphere? I know that 90 percent of people in the Philippines speak English. Is it just that we're glimpsing some of their internet and there's so much more going on?
That's very possible. Legit.ng, which is quickly becoming the largest publisher on Facebook, writes exclusively in English. For the Philippines stories, the number one article on Facebook last month, according to NewsWhip at least, was from the Sun Star, which is a Filipino site that is written in English for the most part. It does quotes in Tagalog and then translates them.
Most of these American tech platforms have ceded their user bases to other parts of the world, and yet they are still making the bulk of their money from big advertising markets. That's the large part of the move to video. Even with Facebook, if you look at the top posts, the most interacted with video last month was called “Father of the Year Hands Down.” It's like a cute baby video. It's got 103 million views. It was posted in July by a verified username, Philip Fusco, who appears to be a model of some kind, but he's not the father of the year in the video. He's just a random guy. He's a personal fitness trainer who for some reason has 1.3 million followers on Facebook.
So you and I both worked in digital media in 2012. A lot of this sounds like stuff that people were scratching at then. But now, instead of being Upworthy, it's a magician in Vegas or a Nigerian guy or a fitness trainer.
What's even weirder is that a lot of the sourcing from their content is coming from the same place, too. Two of the top posts last month on Facebook, one is called “Elephants Goofing Around,” and the other one is an infant that can finally hear his parents talk.
Both of those videos, which have millions of interactions and millions of views, are just uploads from Jukin Media, which is a viral video wire service that you can buy.
I want to be optimistic, and I want to think that if advertisers knew the level of quality content that their stuff is going around, they would be horrified, but maybe they wouldn't. I don't know. I have to think if advertisers and brands really knew what was the top stuff on these platforms, they would rethink their use of them, or at the very least, rethink how they're interacting with them.
This is something that we're seeing with TikTok. We're tracking the most liked TikTok videos. What's really interesting is that it's not the stuff that we're seeing on Twitter. It's not the Twitter main characters of the week. It's a hamster eating spaghetti, and it's like a guy who built an Iron Man Arc Reactor light, or someone dancing with Neymar. It's random. It's so fascinating to me that advertisers are so interested in scale that they're happy to overlook the randomness of this stuff.
I don't know how long that can hold. Lots of companies were willing to put their toys in Happy Meals, but at least I knew what was in the burger. Do you think that once they realize they'll stop, or do you think that once they realize, they'll just say, "screw it."
I don't know. With any sort of work like this that I do with Garbage Day, the main goal is not total anarchist destruction of the system.
It's hopefully just convincing institutions to invest in understanding how these platforms work, because I don't think that's happening. I don't think that there's a lot of thought beyond just like, "Oh, there are eyeballs here." I think if there was thought about that, a lot of things would change, and possibly the way the internet works would get better. That's my utopian idea here. With Garbage Intelligence, it's a gussied up, more professional product that we're offering. The hope is that this research leads to brands and institutions and organizations really thinking about what the internet is and how it works and who those eyeballs belong to and where it's going.
This gets back to the original question of why I really wanted to talk to you, which is, it's hard as hell to measure things on the internet. I think that the challenge that you guys are going after is a really audacious and bold one. I think the fact that this is the data coming back underscores why the platforms have made it hard to measure what's doing well on the internet.
We're learning stuff all the time. Did you know that Twitch is effectively a Spanish language sporting network?
The biggest Twitch streams according to concurrent views every single month, the majority are Spanish language esports, or legitimately just sports. There's one that's been in our top five for months called the King's League, and it's literally just soccer.
How? Did they make themselves an esport?
So King's League, it's really fascinating. It is a seven-man football league from Barcelona, and they just stream it on Twitch.
I want to really underscore, I don't think obscuring this information is nefarious, but I do think that revealing this information gives institutions a much better view of the systems that they're inside of. Let's say you're an American brand and you care about the Hispanic and Latino markets in America. Shouldn't you have some awareness of how many Spanish language users are on Twitch all the time? If you were a media brand and you were interested in the Indian-American diaspora, you want to know what those communities are doing on YouTube?
This is real demographic stuff that I think is just getting completely lost because everyone is so interested in using the internet to recreate the pop culture ecosystem of America before the internet. That's kind of what Twitter became. Right? Twitter just became cable news and also entertainment news. It turns out that the most followed people on Twitter for most of the summer have been Fabricio Romano, who is a Spanish language sports journalist; Nahandra Modi, the Prime Minister of India; and NASA.
This is the frustration because we spent a decade kind of letting Twitter lead America and everything flew through Twitter. I don't know, I feel a little indignant now that I'm seeing the inside of these machines and realizing that we weren't even really doing that.
We were just letting the people who were important and popular before Twitter use Twitter as a way to prove that they were somehow still important and popular, which was not true, it turns out.
You are one of the first people, I think, through Garbage Intelligence, to really articulate some of the dynamism of Patreon as a platform and what that's doing. Do you want to talk about a little bit what drew your attention there?
I'm happy to. Yeah, Adam was really interested in Patreon, figuring out a way to measure it. It hasn't been easy because Patreon has the option to not show dollar amounts, and also most of the top publicly available Patreon pages with dollar amounts are fairly static. It's like a couple podcasts and they kind of just stay there.
Adam came up with this idea of measuring public Patreons by new patrons, which has unlocked a new layer of Patreon in my understanding. There are podcasts there, but the bulk of what we're seeing are hobbyists using Patreon to fund projects. Last month it was a lot of people modding video games. There are a lot of porn artists on Patreon. There are a lot of people doing a really weird thing and using Patreon as a way to support themselves while doing it. This is where I start to get even crazier where I'm like, Patreon gets so much flak for everything, but if Patreon was just like, "Oh yeah, the bulk of our platform is being used by middle class hobbyists to do something weird for people who like it," that to me feels like a better marketing story.
I know a lot of middle class artists, and there's no other platform doing that for them.
No. It's so weird to me that Patreon always trots out the true crime podcasts and the biggest users, but the real story is in the middle tier. Take a page called EmuDeck. It's an emulator, and they're building an emulator, and last month they gained 2,000 new patrons, almost 3,000. Just to build this thing that people kind of like.
You would not get funding for an emulator through a traditional VC channel. In many ways, some of the vibrancy that you're seeing online is getting funded through these direct-to-consumer things, which feels like what the damn internet was about in the beginning, man.
That's, I think, the major thing here. The major revelation of doing all this work and looking at all this stuff every month is that the old internet is still there, the old internet is still there. It is still random. It is still very global. It is still bizarre and mind-bending with people, making viral videos about toilets and crowdfunding and an emulator and going viral with a cute hamster video.
We didn't even talk about Tumblr, but also sharing just jaw-dropping amounts of fan art on Tumblr, and that stuff is still happening, but we have totally obscured it because I think to sit with the ramifications of this and to sit with what this all means in aggregate is deeply destabilizing for the entire way American pop culture functions.
Not even just American: If you really sit with this and you really say, okay, this is what people are doing on the internet, and this is what the content is that all of your advertising dollars are going in front of, and these are the people who are at the top of these social platforms; if you really sit with that, everything would kind of have to change. That's as conspiratorial as I'll get with this. I think to not accept this is largely because to do so would mean that the entire world of marketing and advertising and mass media would just freak out. It would break down.
It is called Garbage Intelligence. It is the version of Garbage Day that you can send to your boss, and they will like. It is fairly affordable for this kind of business intelligence material, I will say. I subscribe. It's great stuff. Where can folks find you? Where folks find the work?
Well, I will let your readers read the most recent one for free. And you can reach me at garbageday.email.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.
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