On January 22, 2009, I linked to Daniel Bogan’s newly-launched Uses This (then called “The Setup”), an interview series where he asks interesting people about “the tools and techniques they use to get things done.”
Three days later, Daniel asked me on AOL Instant Messenger if I’d be open to doing an interview myself.
I happily agreed—and then waited nearly 11 years to get around to it, despite his occasional prodding.
Yesterday, an artist on Twitter named Nana ran an experiment to test a theory.
Their suspicion was that bots were actively looking on Twitter for phrases like “I want this on a shirt” or “This needs to be a t-shirt,” automatically scraping the quoted images, and instantly selling them without permission as print-on-demand t-shirts.
Dozens of Nana’s followers replied, and a few hours later, a Twitter bot replied with a link to the newly-created t-shirt listing on Moteefe, a print-on-demand t-shirt service.
Spinning up a print-on-demand stores is dead simple with platforms like GearBubble, Printly, Printful, GearLaunch (who power Toucan Style), and many more — creating a storefront with thousands of theoretical product listings, but with merchandise only manufactured on demand through third-party printers who handles shipping and fulfillment with no inventory.
Many of them integrate with other providers, allowing these non-existent products to immediately appear on eBay, Amazon, Etsy, and other stores, but only manufactured when someone actually buys them.
The ease of listing products without manufacturing them is how we end up with bizarre algorithmic t-shirts and entire stock photo libraries on phone cases. Even if they only generate one sale daily per 1,000 listings, that can still be a profitable business if you’re listing hundreds of thousands of items.
But whoever’s running these art theft bots found a much more profitable way of generating leads: by scanning Twitter for people specifically telling artists they’d buy a shirt with an illustration on it. The t-shirt scammers don’t have the rights to sell other people’s artwork, but they clearly don’t care.
Once Nana proved that this was the methodology these t-shirt sellers were using, others jumped in to subvert them.
Of course, it worked. Bots will be bots.
For me, this all raises two questions:
Who’s responsible for this infringement?
What responsibility do print-on-demand providers have to prevent infringement on their platforms?
The first question is the hardest: we don’t know. These scammers are happy to continue printing shirts because their identities are well-protected, shielded by the platforms they’re working with.
I reached out to Moteefe, who seems to be the worst offender for this particular strain of art theft. Countless Twitter bots are continually spamming users with newly-created Moteefe listings, as you can see in this search.
Unlike most print-on-demand platforms like RedBubble, Moteefe doesn’t reveal any information about the user who created the shirt listings. They’re a well-funded startup in London, and have an obligation not to allow their platform to be exploited in this way. I’ll update if I hear back from them.
Until then, be careful telling artists that you want to see their work on a shirt, unless you want dozens of scammers to use it without permission.
Or feel free to use this image, courtesy of Nakanoart.
So since these art-stealing bots are tracking your text and not reply images, I made this for you guys!
If you want something from ANY creative made into a shirt, you can use this image to tell the artist you want to buy it. So you don’t need to type it out ❤️ pic.twitter.com/E9Mn2GILcb
Loose and sketchy, they capture the essence of Charles Schultz’ Peanuts so well: sweet and sad, combining childlike wonder and existential dread. As he went on, they started evolving a unique style of their own, distinct from the Peanuts characters but still recognizable.
None of Adam’s comic tweets are threaded, making it hard to link to or catch up on, so I created this Twitter Moment aggregating them all in one place with Adam’s blessing. I embedded the whole thing below.
Needless to say, you should follow Adam on Twitter and Instagram. Just don’t tell the Peanuts estate.
Late last week, people on Twitter started noticing sponsored tweets promoting the island of Eroda, linking to a website advertising its picturesque views, marine life, and seaside cuisine.
The only catch? Eroda doesn’t exist. It’s completely fictional. Musician/photographer Austin Strifler was the first to notice, bringing attention to it in a long thread that unraveled over the last few days.
It’s dated copyright 2004, but the domain was registered on October 28 of this year.
Rotating banner ads on the site are served locally, and just point back to the Eroda homepage.
Some mysterious copy. In the description of the Eroda Ferry, “Our recommendation? Avoid leaving Eroda on odd numbered days…” For the fishing charter, “For extra good luck, make sure you wear one gold earring…” And for the Fisherman’s Pub, “The only rule of the bar? Don’t mention a pig in the pub.”
A map of the island was apparently generated in Inkarnate, an online fantasy map maker.
Two key facts indicated this was more than just one prankster’s internet goof, and that it was a well-funded viral campaign.
The Eroda site is actively running a large number of ads across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Spotify.
The visiteroda.com domain is managed by MarkMonitor, a relatively expensive service primarily used by large companies to manage and protect their domains.
The Eroda campaign continued to feed the mystery with a new YouTube video, and mysterious new posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
The Daily Dot’s Nashwa Bawab was the first to write about the campaign, with an article on Saturday afternoon about the conspiracy theories.
Personally, I tried every trick I know to identify the owners, with no useful information. I looked at the HTML/CSS source, EXIF metadata for photos on the site, text strings in the map PDF file, IP addresses and server host, current and historical WHOIS and DNS records, reverse IP/WHOIS lookups, robots.txt, XML sitemaps, brute-forcing filenames, Google Analytics IDs, server architecture, ad tracker codes, and social network forensics.
Whoever was behind it covered their tracks well—but not well enough.
Solving the Mystery
One theory emerged from the large and obsessive Harry Styles fandom: Eroda was a promotion for Harry Styles’ upcoming album, Fine Line, due out next month on December 13.
The evidence seemed thin at first, but kept mounting. Among the clues:
Many of the photos and video from the Visit Eroda site and social media campaigns appear to have been shot in St. Abbs, a small fishing village on the southeastern coast of Scotland, the same location where Harry Styles was filming an as-yet-unreleased music video last August.
One of the cast members in the video sports a very unusual hairdo, elaborate pretzelesque braids. The About Eroda page says, “In particular, Erodean hairstyles have become a rather bold expression of self amongst the island’s youth.”
Some of the place names on Eroda may reference the song titles on the album. The Fisherman’s Pub is located “on the corner of Cherry Street and Golden Way,” while the first tracks on Sides A and B of Fine Line are called “Golden” and “Cherry.” The island’s name itself, Eroda, may be a reference to the third song, “Adore You.”
Another site launched for the new album, Do You Know Who You Are, was similarly managed by MarkMonitor, with similar coding styles for the CSS.
Any of these could be written off as coincidence.
Until last night, when Ryan J, executive producer of music magazine Down In The Pit, received a Visit Eroda ad on Facebook, and noticed that Facebook reported the ad was served to him because he’d visited Harry Styles’ official website.
This not only confirms the Eroda team is targeting Harry Styles fans, but also a clear ownership link: advertisers can only target Facebook ads to sites they’ve installed the Facebook Pixel tracker on.
In other words, Harry Styles’ official homepage and Visit Eroda are managed by the same people.
For non-fans, this may be anti-climactic or even confusing. Why would a musician launch a viral campaign like this just to promote a new album?
ARGs and other forms of transmedia storytelling are a creative way to build a world around a piece of art, whether it’s a videogame, TV show, or album, while teasing out details for dedicated fans.
Though more common in games and TV/film, bands like Twenty One Pilots, Nine Inch Nails, and AFI have all used ARGs to promote the launch of concept albums.
For Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero (2007), clues were hidden in concert t-shirts, USB drives left at shows, and encoded in the audio waveforms in tracks on the album itself, fleshing out Trent Reznor’s vision of the dystopian world of the concept album. The clues led to an exclusive, underground Nine Inch Nails concert for his most dedicated fans.
It’s a way for an artist to express themselves beyond the work itself, and a way to involve a community of fans, joining them together to collectively solve a mystery.
It’s too early to say where this campaign is going, but I expect we’ll know on December 13. Until then, it’s a perfect example of how impossibly hard it can be to keep a secret from a global community of dedicated fans on the internet in 2019.
December 2. Today, the Visit Eroda account tweeted the teaser trailer for Harry Styles’ “Adore You” music video, resolving the mystery for any lingering skeptics.
Since this started, I’ve participated in the Discord channel and followed each new clue and development. For me, the most interesting part was watching the cultural divide between two fandoms: ARG enthusiasts and Harry Styles stans.
The Discord team was started by ARG fans, but as Harry Styles fans joined looking for new information, it became a constant source of conflict. Admins required nearly all Harry Styles-related discussion to move out of general channels, even as evidence mounted that the campaign was promotion for his album.
Many of the ARG fans, desperate for any explanation beyond Harry Styles, constantly tried to debunk solid proof like the Facebook Pixel connection.
This morning, once the video was released and all doubt removed, it triggered a wave of frustrated farewells as dozens of members quit the Discord, while the Harry Styles fans were more excited than ever.
If the goal was to energize his fan base for the release of new material, the Eroda campaign was an unmitigated success.
I know many ARG enthusiasts were hoping for something deeper, but as someone with no interest in his music, I’m still grateful to the creative team behind the island of Eroda for making the internet just a bit more mysterious, if only for a week or two.
December 6. The full “Adore You” music video premiered this morning, telling the full story of Eroda. Great song, great video.
For years, filmmakers have used 2.5D parallax to make static photos feel more dynamic, as in The Kid Stays In The Picture, the 2002 documentary about film producer Robert Evans that popularized the technique.
Traditionally, a video editor would use Photoshop to isolate the photo elements on separate layers, fill in the removed objects to complete the background, and animate the layers in a tool like After Effects. Here’s a typical tutorial, showing the time-consuming and tedious process.
Last September, a team at Adobe Research released a paper and video demonstrating a new technique for animating a still image with a virtual camera and zoom, adding parallax to create what they call “the 3D Ken Burns effect.”
This new technique uses deep learning and computer vision to turn a static photo into a 2.5D parallax animation in seconds, using a neural network to estimate depths, render a virtual camera through space, and fill in the missing areas.
On Monday night, researcher Simon Niklaus finally got permission to release the code, posting it to Github with a CC-NC license, allowing anyone to experiment with it for themselves.
It’s incredibly fun to play with. I ran some famous images through it, and then put a call out to Twitter for more ideas. Here are the results. Click anywhere on the video to play it.
Surprisingly, it even works on illustrations and paintings.
Try It Yourself
Unlike the Spleeter library, the Ken Burns 3D library requires using PyTorch with an Nvidia GPU with CUDA drivers. Sadly, Apple phased out CUDA support in Mojave, but there’s an even easier way to play around with it.
I created a Google Colab notebook here, which will let you process images on Google’s GPUs entirely in your browser.
If you’re unfamiliar with Colab, it can be a bit intimidating. Try this, and let me know if you get stuck.