Credit: shl0ms

Exclusive Interview: Inside shl0ms’ Viral “Sunsetting Gmail” Hoax and Conceptual Art

BY Lorepunk

February 27, 2024

On Feb. 22, the anonymous conceptual artist known as shl0ms tweeted an innocuous-looking screenshot that appeared to be from Google.

It announced that Gmail, the wildly popular email service that is used by more than 1.8 billion users, would be sunsetting in August 2024.

The response was uproarious. Tech luminaries believed the screenshot, newspapers hurried to report on the breaking story, and Gmail trended across Twitter.

The only problem? The screenshot was an absolute figment—a hoax made up by shl0ms in the name of art.

As Gmail hurried to assure the world that it was going nowhere, and X (formerly Twitter) owner Elon Musk promised that XMail was coming, luminaries from the world of web3 congratulated shl0ms on the epic work of culture jamming.

Shl0ms then enshrined the happening on-chain, creating an open-edition of Gmail’s denial tweet called “Sunrise” and a 1/1 auction of their hoax screenshot called “Sunset” —the latter served from a Google Drive folder as a statement around the impermanence of these centralized services that so many of us use every day.

As the auction for “Sunset,” shl0ms’ 1/1 of the incident, closed on Feb. 26 with a high bid of 9.60 ETH ($31,564), nft now caught up with the artist for an exclusive interview to learn more.

nft now: Although it’s been called fake news, it is easy to see this “sunsetting event” as you do: as a piece of conceptual art. Can you talk briefly about the concept’s inspiration and how you planned and executed it?

shl0ms: Anyone who has followed me for a while knows that this is one in a long line of similar provocations and experiments. Unfortunately, I am, like everyone else, ultimately at the mercy of the algorithm – so a lot of this process tends to be throwing the proverbial shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. This precludes conventional planning and execution and requires a fluid, instinctual, and improvisational approach that is finely tuned to the zeitgeist. 

Did you expect the absolute viral speed and widespread impact of the message? What about all the people who spread the message while knowing it was untrue and in service to an art project?

I didn’t expect it at all. Retrospectively, I think it seized on some very timely undercurrents about Google’s AI model as well as the more subliminal discontent around Google’s constant sunsetting of services (which is a meme in tech circles but increasingly felt by everyday users).

Ultimately, what drove the speed of the hoax was the extent to which our society and economy rely on Gmail, which is a centralized service owned and operated by a capricious corporate monolith. People rarely reflect on this and mostly take it for granted, so the prospect of losing access unlocked a primal and latent terror that fueled the ensuing panic. 

“Ultimately, what drove the speed of the hoax was the extent to which our society and economy rely on Gmail, which is a centralized service owned and operated by a capricious corporate monolith.”


Twitter took down your posts and flagged them as “fake news,” essentially. Where should the line be drawn between satire and “harmful” misinformation?

I’m neither a philosopher nor a legal analyst, but I suppose the question is “harmful to who”? I can certainly see how causing fear and confusion impacts people; however, since the fear is solely predicated on the fact that the event could actually happen, and my “misinformation” revealed to people a possible future which allowed them to pre-emptively protect themselves against such outcomes and critically examine their reliance on centralized systems, I would argue that I did society a massive favor.

One of the things that is interesting about the art project is that it “punched up”—some of the quickest spread of the sunsetting “news” was to highly placed and influential individuals in tech. What does it say about this community that many took the bait?

I think that a truly potent hoax needs to have an element of truth. The truth in this instance was that we all rely on centralized services in our day-to-day lives in infinitely more ways than the average person likely realizes. Nobody would panic about a hoax which they think can’t possibly be real—and that is the point.

It is essentially an information arbitrage by presenting a false reality that cannot be disproven in the short term and is believable to viscerally demonstrate to people that what they were led to believe could, in fact, be true in the future. This is why hoaxes are so potent as a form of spreading awareness.

“Nobody would panic about a hoax which they think can’t possibly be real—and that is the point.”


How does this artwork link with the rest of your body of work?

I touched on this a bit earlier, but the goal was to spread awareness and spark critical thought about our daily reliance on centralized services. Ultimately, that is what makes this a fundamentally crypto-native performance work, even though it took place on Twitter, which is a dynamic I am endlessly fascinated by.

A lot of my work is less neatly captured by the frame of presenting something as artwork and instead takes place using web2 spaces as a canvas. This tends to blur the lines between what some might consider trolling and others might consider digital performance art, depending on their perspective.

I also created a conceptual 1/1 NFT titled “Sunset” of the original email with the image file hosted on Google Drive as a statement on web2 impermanence. The metadata is fully on-chain, so the token will likely long outlast the availability of the file and perhaps of Google itself.

Where did you think the “Sunset” auction would end up?

I generally set a relatively low reserve for 1/1s and just see what happens, but this piece felt different and worthy of a different bar. At the end of the day, I am honored and grateful to have support and appreciation for my strange art, no matter the outcome.

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