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Photobucket broke a decade’s worth of online images, and other tales from this week on the web

Plus: The Blue Whale challenge probably isn't coming for your teens.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

This was a big week for high-profile internet moments. Kim Kardashian’s Instagrammed coffee table went viral and caused more debate than anything since The Dress. Kid Rock briefly stole a few seconds’ worth of fame to tease his potential entry into politics. And Beyoncé broke the entire internet by releasing the first official picture of twins Sir Carter and Rumi, prompting a debate over what Sir Carter’s full name actually is more heated than anything we’d seen since Kardashian’s coffee table.

Meanwhile, President Trump is facing a lawsuit over blocking people on Twitter, and net neutrality is battling for its survival.

Here are some other highlights you may have missed online this week.

The “I’m the Sheriff” meme invites you to police things, emoji-style

Twitter user Brandon Wardell has the distinction of inventing the “I’m the Sheriff” meme one boring day in June, when he came up with this glorious combination of emoji humor and ASCII-inspired jokes:

It took a while, but the meme slowly caught on and built up steam, peaking over the past couple of weeks.

As tends to happen with burgeoning Twitter trends, some internet companies got in on the action — which for some reason prompted Pornhub to defend Wardell as the only sheriff of the “I’m the sheriff” meme:

Despite Pornhub’s best efforts, the meme spread on.

It also proved transferrable to all kinds of jokes, like this Kamen Rider variant:

With all that said, if encoding woes have barred you from participating in the meme, never fear:

Photobucket is locking down huge chunks of internet history

Photobucket, one of the internet’s most longstanding image repositories, recently shocked its users by quietly changing its terms of service without announcing that it would begin charging $400 per year to allow users to hotlink their images, preventing people from easily embedding the images they’ve uploaded to Photobucket on other websites. Though the term is nearly archaic now, in earlier internet times, when images were big and server load capacity was small, hotlinking was a big deal; Photobucket was among the crucial free web storage systems that allowed you to freely upload and share images wherever you liked.

The result is that the internet’s “Web 2.0” middle period — which began sometime around 2003, when Photobucket was founded, and ran through 2008 or so, when social media took off — was dominated by sites and blog posts built around Photobucket images. But now Photobucket has blocked these images from appearing, which effectively decimates the internet’s archive of those middle years.

The change at Photobucket comes just as SoundCloud has announced massive layoffs, reportedly telling staff that it currently only has enough money to stay in business another quarter. Though SoundCloud has insisted that it’s going to be fine for the long term and that its users’ data is safe, the warning has given everyone time to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

No matter the outcome, though, in concert with the Photobucket news, SoundCloud’s fate could pose another huge threat to longstanding, beloved internet archives — a stark reminder that while the internet may be forever, it’s only as permanent as the servers in which we trust.

Area man discovers he hasn’t been reading the real Harry Potter

Twitter user @shelzhang went viral this week with a threaded rundown of an unnamed friend’s hilarious journey through the realization that he’d been reading an epic work of fanfiction rather than Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

The work of Harry Potter fanfiction in question seems to be Harry Potter and the Psychic Serpent trilogy by Barb, a famous early fanfic trilogy (here’s part 1, part 2, and part 3) that’s been regarded as a fandom classic since it was first posted in 2001. Among the major differences between Barb’s version and J.K. Rowling’s: Draco and Ginny fall in love, and Harry learns to respect and bond with Voldemort.

Sounds like a tale every Slytherin will love.

The deeply unsettling Blue Whale challenge strikes again — or does it?

By all verifiable accounts, the mysterious Blue Whale challenge is a viral urban myth about a self-harm meme. The meme, which is rumored to have originated in Russia and Eastern Europe, allegedly takes the form of a game that challenges players to follow a 50-step set of instructions designed to draw them into a web of self-harm, depression, and ultimately suicide.

Public alarm over the game has been building gradually since it first gained attention early this year. Now multiple media outlets are reporting that the game has claimed a life. According to the family of 15-year-old Isaiah Gonzalez, he was playing the game when he died by suicide on July 8; he allegedly broadcast his death on the internet.

However, police have yet to confirm that the teen’s suicide was connected to the challenge, and the hysteria surrounding it has prompted the San Jose Mercury News to frustratedly urge caution among the media and the public when reporting and describing the game as though it were real. Additionally, the Cyberbullying Research Center has yet to validate the existence of the challenge or any deaths related to it, and points out that most of the initial international reports of the game were from murkily translated and unreliable sources.

In other words, while parents should always monitor what their teenagers are doing on the internet, they probably don’t need to fear the unknown horror of a suicide meme coming for their children.

A Google AI just taught itself to walk

If Google’s most recent AI development is any indication, the coming robot revolution is going to be impressive and kind of hilarious. Scientists at Google’s DeepMind project tasked three AI models — one a hot dog figure with two legs, one a spider-like creature with four, and one a rather floppy sort of human — with navigating various types of terrain. The AIs were ordered to advance from point A to point B and given virtual sensors to help them reach their destination. But when it came to instructions for how to actually get from point A to point B, the models were on their own.

The results include a lot of jerky movements and arm flailing — but they’re also pretty amazing to watch. Through a process of feeling out their virtual surroundings, experimenting with different movements, and learning, the AIs gradually came up with the concept of “walking” on their own and taught themselves how to do it.

The humanoid model is especially wonderful to observe, as it seems to be invigorated with a kind of gusto over its own ability to continually not run into things or fall down. Or maybe that’s just a side effect of all the wild arm pumping.

Then again, who among us hasn’t felt like a confused droid tasked with running an unseen obstacle course? Some may call it the impending Singularity; others may call it a metaphor for life.

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