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  • feedwordpress 13:34:20 on 2022/04/07 Permalink
    Tags: , , Google, , , , , ,   

    Has Innovation Died in Marketing? 


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    Caveat: This will likely be one of my longish, link-heavy Thinking Out Loud pieces, so I invite you all to pour yourselves a glass of your favorite adult beverage or rustle up a fine cannabis pairing, should you care to indulge…

    As The Recount prepares for a major launch this spring, I found myself again contemplating the state of digital marketing – a subject I’ve written about extensively over the years. To not bury the lead, I find myself profoundly disappointed in the industry, which I think believes it is innovating, but in fact, is making the same mistakes old school media companies made when faced with the rise of the internet 15 years ago. But before I get into why, some background on how I came to that conclusion. 

    The Recount will soon launch a novel live news streaming product. We’ve been working on it for nearly a year, and we’re taking exactly the kind of risks that startups exist to tackle. We’ve rethought nearly every aspect of what makes “good television” in a post-social, digitally native information ecosystem. And while it’s true The Recount has a large and highly engaged social audience (tens of millions of views and engagements each week), there’s no guarantee that audience will join us in the world of live streaming. We know we have to prove ourselves – we must build and iterate a compelling service that people will find engaging, useful, and even fun. It’s risky – hell, it’s more than risky. To succeed, we have to build a service – and a brand – that our audience will want to share with friends and colleagues. In short, we know we must deliver an experience that builds community – because no media brand thrives without community.   

    Community. The word is a bit careworn, bruised from its recent run-ins with Web2 platform leaders like Zuckerberg and the casual toxicity of places like Twitter and YouTube. But community is a fundamental element of a great media brand, and it’s central to our success or failure. We think it’s so important that we’re launching our stream on Twitch, a platform that couldn’t be more different from traditional news environments in its approach to community. With one or two rare and unconventional exceptions, news has not found its footing there. So why the hell are we trying?

    Fair question. As we thought through the implications of committing to a third-party platform for the launch of a crucial new service, and the challenges of convincing marketers that it will be worth supporting, I was reminded of a burst of writing I posted more than fifteen years ago. Back then I was struggling to navigate a similar kind of shift in how media worked. At that point, blogs and “user generated content” were an entirely new phenomenon, poorly understood and confusing to most folks in traditional media (the same might be said today of live streaming and “connected television.”) I collected my thinking in a series of posts under the loose heading of “The Conversation Economy.” The series kicked off with an insight that now feels obvious, but in 2006 was relatively fresh: Most media being made at the time was still a product of what I called a “packaged goods” mentality. Given the rise of Web2, I argued, this “packaged goods media” approach to media was certain to be eclipsed by a new, more community-driven format. At the time, blogging was several years into what turned out to be a short-lived run as the dominant form of expression on the Internet. The rise of blogs, I theorized, pointed to a tipping point in media’s evolution. Packaged Goods Media was on the decline. Long live its successor: “Conversational Media.”

    In my first post, I noted how nearly every at-scale media company – Viacom, NBC, Time Inc, NewsCorp, etc. – had recently retooled their “interactive” divisions, appointing new leaders who were less digital cowboys and more traditionally minded media execs. Even the digital giants – AOL and Yahoo! – were installing old school managers. This was 2006, mind you – Twitter didn’t exist, Facebook was two years old, Google was a search company that had just purchased YouTube. The “winners” of Web2 were still very much undeclared. 

    At the time, I questioned why the big media companies of the era were treating digital as if it were just another form of packaged goods media. Didn’t they know that this time, things would be different? For these media companies to truly win, I argued, they needed to commit to radically rethinking not only the format of their product, but their approach to community, and the business model as well. 

    So how did things turn out, 15+ years later? AOL and Yahoo! are now owned by a PE firm, Viacom is struggling to get to scale and apparently prepping itself for sale, GE sold NBC to Comcast, and Time Inc. is now owned by a billionaire philanthropist. NewsCorp relegated its digital efforts to a sideshow, and doubled down on the politics of polarization over at its subsidiary Fox News. 

    Meanwhile, the digital advertising business – a business dominated by those same large media companies 15 years ago – grew from roughly $17 billion in 2006 to nearly $500 billion last year. And we all know who reaped the lion’s share of that growth: the triopoly of Google, Meta/Facebook, and Amazon – none of which care to be described as media companies. 

    Which got me thinking: Whatever happened to the principles of The Conversation Economy? If the big digital giants beat the hapless old school media companies, did they deliver the conversational media I predicted would emerge? 

    To answer that, let’s first define what I mean by conversational media. In my post defining the term, I theorized that conversational media had at least five core characteristics:

    Conversation over Dictation. This is crucial. Packaged goods media assumes a one-to-many stance – in the case of news, that means an authoritative figure stares down the lens of a camera, telling you what’s important and why. Conversational media, on the other hand, allows for the audience to engage in a journey of discovery with the journalist, who acts more like the host of a conversation. 

    Platform over Distribution. Conversational Media are driven by network effects and the platforms that harness them. PGM products, on the other hand, are driven by tightly controlled distribution – think Comcast or DirectTV. If you make PGM, you care a lot about your distribution. In 2006, the open web was the platform, but over time, the Apples and Facebooks of the world recreated the distribution chokeholds of old media models. Bummer. 

    Service over Product. If you view your output as a discrete product (article, show, book, etc), you’re probably making packaged goods media. But if you manage your business as a service (search, social, stream, arguably even Substack), you’re in the conversational media business. 

    Iteration and Speed Over Perfection and Deliberation. By its nature, Packaged Goods Media is all about creating and shipping a highly produced product. The idea of beta is alien – it’s either ready to ship, or it’s not.  In conversational media, the key is to create, launch, and then constantly iterate. Conversational media are always in beta.

    Engagement over Consumption. Related to the first point, the model of interaction with audiences in conversational media is one of engagement – “lean forward” as opposed to “sit back.” At its peak, for example, my blog had far more comments than posts, by a ratio of about five to one. And the key to a good Twitch livestream, for example, is how the host(s) interact with the community in real time.

    So did the winners of the marketing business – Google, Facebook, Amazon – build us a conversational media nirvana? The resounding answer is … hell no. They delivered us yet another version of packaged goods media – feeds, built to be consumed. It’s true, their platforms are services, but all they’ve really done is swap traditional media-as-product models for a machine-driven model where consumers are the product. The community at the core of great media brands is non-existent. We’re consumers with a doom-scrolling feed bag strapped to our face. It sucks, and we’re starting to wake up to it.  If you’re looking for quality takes on the news, it’s even worse.

    But that doesn’t mean conversational media is dead. In fact, 15 years later, I’d say the five points above offer a good framework for a large set of today’s thriving media businesses. Substack, The Athletic, Twitch, The Information, hell, even Discord – all of them focus on their communities first. 

    And guess what they don’t depend on? Advertisers. Some incorporate sponsorship or limited-scale ad units (Twitch), but by and large the core business model of conversational media has been some form of subscription.  

    Now why is that? 

    I blame marketers, full stop (told you I’d get back to that!). About the time Facebook and Google rose to prominence, marketers began to pull back on their “innovation budgets” – a percentage of their media spend reserved for learning and experimentation. In the mid aughts, most big brand marketers reserved 10 percent or more of their budgets for experimentation. The world was changing rapidly, and marketers knew that they needed to understand that change by participating in new approaches to advertising. But by 2012, the year Facebook incorporated programmatic advertising into its main news feed, those budgets were shrinking faster than the polar ice caps. 

    In my third post of the 2006 series, the longest of the three, I opined on how marketers might leverage conversational media, and what it might take to bring it to scale. Brands need safety, quality, and scale, and at the time, there was precious little of any in the newly burgeoning conversational marketing space. Regardless, brands were funding any number of remarkable experiments. I surveyed an array of innovative conversational marketing efforts, from Dice’s “conversational banners” to Open Forum from American Express. The results of these campaigns were impressive, and augured, I thought, a renaissance in how brands might go to market. Perhaps brands, I mused, might learn how to “join the conversation” and act more like members of a community. Perhaps they might even launch their own conversational media services, in partnership with media startups. After all, your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room, right? 

    Could have been, but the history of marketing over the past 15 years has not been one of customer engagement, and as for supporting innovation in news – it’s been mostly crickets. Innovations budgets have all but disappeared – one senior media buyer responsible for billions in annual ad spend recently told me that they hadn’t had money for media experimentation for nearly a decade. I then polled another half dozen marketing leaders on the same question – and got exactly the same answer from each. Sure, they were willing to test out at-scale platforms like Snap or Pinterest – but investing in startups trying new things? Not so much. Like their counterparts in big media companies, marketers gave up on learning how to create conversational media. So what did they do instead? 

    Again, you guessed it. The majority of their budgets funded Google, Amazon, and Facebook. These large platforms have perfected their data-driven marketing services, and they offered brands an irresistible trade off: Pour your dollars into my finely tuned black box, and our machines will kick out the results you want to see. From 2012 to the present, marketers learned how to spin the dials and pull the levers of the machines, but they failed at the one thing that should be setting them apart: Interacting with actual customers. They thought the big platforms would let them engage with their customers, but truth be told, they’d been disintermediated by the machines.

    This is not an idle observation. In the past few years, top CMOs have begun to publicly break with the platforms. On the record, they’ll say they are concerned about the inability to moderate unsafe content, but privately, they’ll acknowledge the elephant in the room: They’ve become too dependent on an intermediary they don’t quite understand – and they fret that they’re about to be made irrelevant. They’re also deeply concerned about the impact of these platforms on our national dialog – the loss of tens of thousands of journalism jobs, the rise of mis- and disinformation

    They’re right to be concerned. The platforms’ algorithms are spectacular at identifying a potential customer and placing a marketing message in front of them, but intentionally ignorant as to the context in which that customer might be engaged (I’ve written extensively on this phenomenon, which I call Lost Context). The results are great KPIs, but an increasing disconnect between big brand marketers and the customers they supposedly excel at understanding. Marketers have over-rotated on media buying – to the detriment of innovation. It used to be that the people who bought media had roles that let them be creative – they took risks, they tried new things. But now, smart CMOs are investing in building sophisticated media-buying machines of their own, replete with first party data, machine learning algorithms, and endlessly complex dynamic creative optimization services. It’s as if the answer to their dependence on the big platforms is to replicate those same platforms inside their own companies. I’m all for independence, but  true innovation means trying something entirely new.  

    The media landscape of 2022 is far messier, far more complicated, and even more unsettled than its 2006 incarnation. Television, the largest and most powerful of the traditional media sectors, is in full digital metamorphosis, and once again, the winners and losers are up for grabs. If ever there was a time to experiment, to learn, to try new things, it’s Right. F*cking. Now. And to not put too fine a point on it, there’s really only one way to innovate in any business: You have to spend money on things you aren’t sure will work. So I’m here to say it, loudly and proudly: It’s time to bring back the innovation budgets in media, and it’s time for media buyers to take back their profession. Our industry can’t afford to make the same mistakes we made over the past 15 years. If you agree, you know how to reach me – and I’ve got something cool I’d really love to show you. A few brave souls just might light the path to change. 

     
  • feedwordpress 19:08:46 on 2021/12/31 Permalink
    Tags: alphabet, , , , , , , , future of work, Google, , , , , oculus, , , , , , , , web 3   

    Predictions 2022 – Crypto, Climate, Big Tech, Streaming, Offices, Tik Tok…and (ugh) Trump 


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    Welcome to year nineteen of these annual predictions, which means….holy cow, twenty years of writing at this site. Searchblog has been neglected of late, running a media startup during a pandemic will do that to thoughtful writing. I hope to change that in 2022, starting with this bout of chin stroking. If you’re an old timer here, you know I don’t really prepare to write this post. Instead I sit down, summon the muse of flow, and let it rip in one go. Let’s get to it.

    1. Crypto blows up. 2022 will be a chaotic year for crypto – both the decentralized finance and social token/NFT portions of the industry, which will grow massively but be beset by fraud, grift, and regulatory uncertainty, as well as an explosion of new apps based on scaleable blockchains such as Solana and Avalanche. Most of these apps will fade (much as early dot com stocks did), but the overall space will be markedly larger as a result. And while 2021 was the year most of the world learned about crypto, 2022 will be the year crypto dominates the tech narrative. I’m holding off on calling a crash – ’22 feels a bit more like ’98 or ’99 than the year 2000, which is when “web1” topped out. But that first top is coming, and when it crests, look the f*ck out. Crypto is a far more integrated into the global economy than we might suspect. In fact, I’ll toss in a corollary to this first prediction: In 2022, a major story will break that exposes a major state actor has been manipulating the crypto markets in a bid to destroy US financial markets.
    2. Oculus will be a breakout hit, but it’ll  immediately be consumed in the same controversies besetting the rest of Facebook’s platforms. The company throws money and lobbyists at the problem, including enough advertising budget to mute mainstream press outrage.  Apple will try to capitalize on all of this FUD as it introduces its own VR play. Regardless, the Oculus division becomes a meaningful portion of Meta’s top line, which starts the change the narrative around Facebook’s surveillance capitalism business model.
    3. Twitter changes the game. I have no particular insight into new CEO Parag Agrawal, but the company has had a long suffering relationship with its true value in the world, and I think the table is set for an acceleration of its product in ways that will surprise and even delight its most ardent fans (I count myself somewhat reluctantly among them). How might this happen? First, look for a major announcement around how the company works with developers. Next, deeper support and integration of all things crypto, in particular crypto wallets like MetaMask. And last (and related), a play in portable identity, where your Twitter ID brings value across other apps and environments.
    4. Climate has its worst – and best – year ever. Worst because while 2021 was simply awful (I mean, the year ends with a winter draught, then a historic fire in… Boulder?) things can always get worse, and they will. Best, because finally, the political will to do something about it will rise, thanks mainly to the voice of young people around the world, and in particular in the United States.
    5. The return of the office. Yes, I know, everything’s changed because of the pandemic. But truth is, we work best when we work together, and by year’s end, the “new normal” will be the old normal – most of us will go back to going into work. A healthy new percentage of workers will remain remote, but look for trend stories in the Post and Times about how that portion of the workforce is feeling left out and anxious about missing out on key opportunities, connections, and promotions. One caveat to this prediction is the emergence of some awful new variant that sends us all back into our caves, but I refuse to consider such horrors. I REFUSE.
    6. Divisions in the US reaching a boiling point. I hate even writing these words, but with the midterms in 2022 and a ’24 campaign spinning up, Trump will return to the national stage. He’ll offer a north star for Big Lie-driven tribalism, a terrifying rise in domestic terrorism and hate crimes, all fueled by torrents of racial and economic anger. I really, really hope I’m wrong here. But this feels inevitable to me.
    7. Big Tech bulks up. Despite a doubling down in anti-trust saber rattling from the EU and the Biden administration, Big Tech companies must grow, and they’ll look toward orthogonal markets to do it. Meta and Apple will buy gaming companies, Amazon will buy enterprise software companies, and Google will buy a content library. Google’s always been a bit confused about what its entertainment strategy should be. YouTube is so damn big, and its search business so bulletproof, the company hasn’t really had to play the game the way Meta, Amazon, and Apple have. That likely changes in 22.
    8. The streaming market takes a pause. The advertising business has yet to catch up with consumer behavior in the streaming television market, and as I’ve written elsewhere, the consumer experience is fracking awful. In 2022, those chickens will come home to roost. There’s only so much attention in the world, and with more than $100 billon to invest in content in 2022, something’s gotta give. Plus, if we get through Omicron and back out into the world, consumers might just find themselves doing something besides binging forgettable, algorithmically manufactured programming. I’m not predicting that streaming crashes, but just that the market will have a year of consolidation and, I hope, improvements in its consumer experience and advertising technology stack.
    9. Tik Tok will fall out of favor in the US. Everyone is predicting that 2022 will be The Year Of Tik Tok, but I think they’re wrong in one big way: This won’t be a positive story. First off, the public will wake to the possibility that Tik Tok is, at its core, a massive Chinese PsyOp. Think I’m crazy? I certainly hope so! But you don’t have to wear a tin foil hat to be concerned about the fact that the world’s most powerful social algorithm is driven by a company with a member of the Chinese Communist Party on its board. And second, US-based competitors are already learning, fast, what makes Tik Tok tick. YouTube, Insta, Snap and others will take share all year long.
    10. Trump’s social media company delivers exactly nothing.  Hey, I needed one sandbag in the mix – and this one comes with a heaping side of schadenfreude. The company will become mired in legal fights, and Trump, having grifted a billion or so from favor-currying investors, will move on to ever more ruinous pursuits.

    Well, that’s ten, and I wanted to keep this year’s version under a thousand words. Have a wonderful New Year’s, dear readers. I hope I see you out there in the real world, and soon.


    Previous predictions:

    Predictions 2021

    Predictions 21: How I Did

    Predictions 2020

    2020: How I Did

    Predictions 2019

    2019: How I did

    Predictions 2018

    2018: How I Did

    Predictions 2017

    2017: How I Did

    Predictions 2016

    2016: How I Did

    Predictions 2015

    2015: How I Did

    Predictions 2014

    2014: How I Did

    Predictions 2013

    2013: How I Did

    Predictions 2012

    2012: How I Did

    Predictions 2011

    2011: How I Did

    Predictions 2010

    2010: How I Did

    2009 Predictions

    2009 How I Did

    2008 Predictions

    2008 How I Did

    2007 Predictions

    2007 How I Did

    2006 Predictions

    2006 How I Did

    2005 Predictions

    2005 How I Did

    2004 Predictions

    2004 How I Did

     
  • feedwordpress 18:19:42 on 2021/12/27 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , carbon, , , , , Discord, disinformation, , Google, , , , , , , , SPAC, stock markets, , , ,   

    Predictions 2021: How’d I Do? Pretty Damn Well. 


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    As has been my practice for nearly two decades, I penned a post full of prognostications at the end of last year.  As 2021 subsequently rolled by, I stashed away news items that might prove (or disprove) those predictions – knowing that this week, I’d take a look at how I did. How’d things turn out? Let’s roll the tape…

    My first prediction: Disinformation becomes the most important story of the year. At the time I wrote those words, Trump’s Big Lie was only two months old, and January 6th was just another day on the calendar.  A year later, that Big Lie has spawned countless others, culminating in one of the most damaging shifts in our nation’s politics since the Civil War. The Republican party is now fully captured by bullshit, and countless numbers of local, state, and national politicians are busy undermining democracy thanks to the Big Lie’s power.  A significant percentage of the US population has become unmoored from truth – and an equally significant group of us have simply thrown our hands up about it. Trust is at an all time low. This Barton Gellman piece in The Atlantic served as a wake up call late in the year – and its conclusions are terrifying: “We face a serious risk that American democracy as we know it will come to an end in 2024,” Gellman quotes an observer stating. “But urgent action is not happening.” I’m not happy about getting this one right, but as far as I’m concerned, this is still the most important story of the year – and the most terrifying.

    My next prediction: Facebook’s chickens come home to roost…2021 will be a dismal year for Facebook.  Oh my, was it ever. Facebook’s year was so terrible, the company decided to change its name as a result. Because I took notes all year, here’s a brief review of Facebook’s 2021:

    I’ve left off dozens of ugly narratives while compiling this list – and admittedly, I’ve also left off a fair number of pro-Facebook responses  as well.  But overall, I think this particular prediction was pretty spot on. Let’s call it a win and move on…

    My third prediction: AI has a mid-life crisis. This one bears a bit more explanation. From my post: “2021 will be the year society takes a step back and thinks hard about where this is all going … by year’s end, the AI narrative will be as much about hand wringing and regulatory oversight as it is about revolutionary breakthroughs.” I think I got this right as well, but I can’t prove it. The year started with a leading AI researcher calling the entire space a “dumpster fire.” Numerous fatal crashes with Teslas in self driving mode gave observers pause – perhaps this technology was not as ready as Elon Musk had claimed (and who the fuck is stupid enough to sleep in the back seat of a driverless Tesla, but…people are stupid sometimes). Furthermore, AI’s great proof – that it was better at reading X-rays than trained radiologists – was debunked. Academic journals continued to question whether “super intelligence” can ever be contained. Meanwhile, the bloom came off the “smart home” rose – “Alexa has turned out to be a voice-activated clock/radio with low retention” quips noted tech analyst Benedict Evans.  This AI stuff is hard – and while the tech is hard enough, the policy issues are even harder. 2021 was the year legislators were pummeled with Silicon Valley lobbying around how China is about to kill the US with its insurmountable lead in artificial intelligence. (And hey, China’s got the Minority Report market in the bag!) But it certainly wasn’t the year legislators did anything about AI, other than voice concerns. So, yes, we got the hand wringing and the focus on policy, but it’s a bit of a push on the prediction overall. Not enough proof points to give myself either a passing or a failing grade.

    Prediction #4: A wave of optimism around tech-driven innovation takes root. Yep, it’s pretty bold to predict a rebound in tech optimism when Big Tech is taking heavy fire, but I think I got this one right as well, thanks in large part to the world of crypto. It’s been three decades since I’ve seen an outburst of pure technology euphoria like the vibes coming off the crypto/web3/blockchain space. I’ve been monitoring crypto for years (one of my 2018 predictions was “Crypto/blockchain dies as a major story”), and went pretty deep this past 18 months or so. I am a cautious proponent of crypto’s technology,  philosophy, and new governance models, but there’s a hell of a lot of bullshit in there as well. Then again, the same was true three decades ago, back when the web was young. The difference this time? Scale. In the early 1990s, the web was an anomaly, and you could count its adherents in the tens of thousands. It took five years for that to scale to tens of millions, and the industry represented a tiny percentage of overall GDP. But in 2021, web3 scaled to impressive (some might say scary) numbers. Total cryptocurrency holdings rocketed from roughly $500 billion to more than $3 trillion this year. Crypto wallet Metamask, often (roughly) compared to the Netscape browser of Web 1, zoomed from half a million monthly active users to more than 21 million.  And NFTs – the web3 equivalent of dot com stocks – grew into a massive market as well, clocking more than $10 billion in purchases last quarter. The overall vibe of the crypto space is summed up in one catchphrase: “We’re all going to make it (WAGMI).” Perhaps (and yes, I do see a crash in our future), but if WAGMI doesn’t reflect a “wave of optimism,” I don’t know what does.

    Prediction #5: Google does in 2021 what I predicted it would in 2020: It zags. And what does a zag look like? From my piece: “Google will make a deeply surprising and game changing move.” And in fact, Google made two game changing moves in 2021, either of which might defend my assertion. In March, the company announced it would, as the WSJ covered it: “stop selling ads based on individuals’ browsing across multiple websites, a change that could hasten upheaval in the digital advertising industry.” This was a major shift in how the world’s largest advertising platform plied its trade, and while I’ll leave it to others to opine on the impact (and timing, which remains in flux), the reasoning behind it is crystal clear. As I wrote in my prediction “Google is fighting off a terrifying array of massive regulatory actions, and desperately needs to avoid looking like Facebook in the eyes of its employees, consumers, and business partners.” Changing the core of its data policies is a move designed to do just that.

    The second big move targeted Apple. In March the company lowered some fees that developers pay to use its Play store. And in October, it slashed all fees in half, effective next week. This is a major ecosystem shift – one that may well drive new and existing developers into building for Android first. And again, it positions Google to be the good guy in the eyes of developers, customers, and critically, regulators, who have been sizing up Apple for its monopolistic control of the iOS app store.

    My sixth prediction? Nothing will get done on tech regulation in the US. This one was far too easy to get right – with a pandemic raging, Congress deadlocked, and an agenda that included multiple trillion-dollar pieces of legislation, there was no way tech legislation would have passed this year. The Biden administration did heavy up on anti-Big Tech talent (Khan, Wu, et al), but they’ve not had either the time or the support to get much done, yet.

    Lucky #7:  A “new” social platform breaks out in 2021. I’ll admit, I was scratching my head around this one for months, nervous I’d take a whiff here. But then I got on Discord. From my original prediction: “Given the handcuffs 2021 will place on the traditional players in Big Tech, this coming year presents a perfect opportunity for a breakout player to redefine the social media category… It won’t be some ripoff version of what already exists. I’d either look to something like an evolved Signal, an app that already has a growing user base, or a from-nowhere startup that gets super hot, super fast.” Discord is kind of a combination of the two – a six-year-old startup with a dedicated user base that is focused on communications. The platform rethinks nearly everything about the “social graph,” and yes, it’s kind of a hot mess. But by summer of this year, Discord had reached 150 million daily users, putting it within spitting distance of Twitter (200m+) in terms of size. Discord is now valued at $15 billion – and it does not take advertising. For a deep dive on the company, I recommend reading Casey Newton and Packy McCormick.

    Unlucky #8: The markets take a breather, and SPACs get a bloody nose. Well, I was right on the latter, but wrong on the former. The markets only got hotter all year long, taking only the shortest of breaks to dip and then roar right back. But SPACs most definitely got bloodied – as early as as February, I noticed the concern in the financial press, and that narrative built all year long, with many high profile SPACs either failing or limping across the finish line. When the bright spot in the SPAC world is Donald Trump’s mostly fictional “social media company” – and that deal draws the interest of the SEC – well, the space ain’t exactly crushing it. But as I said, the markets did not take a breather – the Dow Jones and the S&P delivered nearly 20 percent gains. So I got one part right, and one part wrong. A push.

    Prediction #9: 2021 will be prove to be the last year of growth in gas-powered automobiles. Well, there’s no way I can prove this until the numbers come in for 2022, so I won’t bother trying to grade myself on this one. Call it a push, but I’ve been monitoring related news, and I’d say the prediction is certainly on trend. As usual, the Nordic countries led the way. In Norway, EV sales now account for an astounding 90+ percent of new car sales. Cities around the world are banning new gas stations. And GM, one of the largest automakers in the world, announced it will phase out the combustion engine by 2035.  NB: One of the best places to get and stay smart on EVs and de-carbonization in general is Azeem’s Exponential View. 

    Proving I should really stay away from geopolitics, Prediction #10: Africa rising, China…in question. I got the headline right – Africa is certainly rising, and China is a big question mark – but my detail was very wrong: “the breakout continent of 2021 will be Africa, home to many of the fastest growing countries in the world, and the focus of years of Chinese investment and diplomacy. After four years of US neglect, the Biden administration will realize it’s dangerously close to losing Africa altogether, and announce a massive investment in the continent.” Nope, did not happen. In fact, Biden decided to counter China in Africa with…an initiative in South America. Whiff. Moving on to my last, and possibly most depressing prediction:

    Prediction #11: Everyone loses their shit, in a good way. This was my way of saying that we’d get through the pandemic, and we’d all party like we deserve to party after 18 months of isolation and fear. We had the “hot vax summer” memes but….Delta and vaccine hesitancy killed that cold, then Omicron smacked us once more, even as we looked forward to what could have been a relatively normal holiday season. Ending on a rough note, but – this one was a whiff as well. I’m optimistic we’ll get through this, but I’m done trying to predict the course of this wily virus.

    So that’s the scorecard: Two whiffs, three pushes, and six scores. Not bad, in fact better than my average over these past 17 years. Maybe I should do this again. Look for my 2022 musings sometime later this week. And have a happy, safe, and sane New Years everybody. Thanks for reading.

     


     

    Previous predictions:

    Predictions 2021

    Predictions 2020

    2020: How I Did

    Predictions 2019

    2019: How I did

    Predictions 2018

    2018: How I Did

    Predictions 2017

    2017: How I Did

    Predictions 2016

    2016: How I Did

    Predictions 2015

    2015: How I Did

    Predictions 2014

    2014: How I Did

    Predictions 2013

    2013: How I Did

    Predictions 2012

    2012: How I Did

    Predictions 2011

    2011: How I Did

    Predictions 2010

    2010: How I Did

    2009 Predictions

    2009 How I Did

    2008 Predictions

    2008 How I Did

    2007 Predictions

    2007 How I Did

    2006 Predictions

    2006 How I Did

    2005 Predictions

    2005 How I Did

    2004 Predictions

    2004 How I Did

     
  • feedwordpress 22:31:55 on 2021/01/17 Permalink
    Tags: , , content moderation, , Google, , , , , section 230   

    Stop Talking About Section 230. Start Talking About The Business Model. 


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    No. No. No.

    For the past several years, I’ve led a graduate-level class studying the early history of Internet policy in the United States. It runs just seven weeks – the truth is, there’s not that much actual legislation to review. We spend a lot of the course focused on Internet business models, which, as I hope this post will illuminate, are not well understood even amongst Ivy-league grads. But this past week, one topic leapt from my syllabus onto the front pages of every major news outlet: Section 230. Comprised of just 26 words, this once-obscure but now-trending Internet policy grants technology platforms like Facebook, Google, Airbnb, Amazon, and countless others the authority to moderate content without incurring the liability of a traditional publisher.

    Thanks to the events of January 6th, Section 230 has broken into the mainstream of political dialog. Slowly – and then all of a sudden – the world has woken up to the connection between the disinformation flooding online platforms and what appears to be the rapid decay of our society.

    Difficult and scary narratives need a villain, and the world’s found one in Section 230, pretty much the only law on the books that can reasonably be connected to this hot mess. No matter if you’re liberal or conservative, it’s pretty easy to logic your way into blaming 230 for whatever bothers you about the events of the past ten days.

    For folks on the left, the narrative goes like this: The insurrectionists were radicalized by online platforms like YouTube and Facebook. These platforms have failed to moderate disinformation-driven conspiracy theories like QAnon, or the blatant lies told by politicians like Trump. (When they finally did – two days after the coup attempt – it was far too little, far too late!). The reason they can get away with such blatant neglect is Section 230. Clearly, 230 is the problem, so we should repeal it! Unfortunately, our President-elect has endorsed this view.

    The conservative view ignores any connection between political violence and 230, focusing instead on seductive but utterly wrong-headed interpretations of First Amendment law: Big Tech platforms are all run by libtards who want to crush conservative viewpoints. They’ve been censoring the speech of all true Patriots, kicking us off their platforms and deleting our posts. They’ve been granted this impunity thanks to Section 230. This is censorship, plain and simple, a violation of our First Amendment rights. We have to repeal 230! Naturally, our outgoing President has adopted this view.

    The debate is frustratingly familiar and hopelessly wrong. The problem isn’t whether or not platforms should moderate what people say. The problem is in whether or not the platforms amplify what is said. And to understand that problem, we have to understand the platform’s animating life force: Their business models.

    It’s The F*cking Business Model!

    Three years ago I wrote a piece arguing that Facebook could not be fixed because to do so would require abandoning its core business model. So what does that model do? It’s really not that complicated: It drives revenue for nearly every modern corporation on the planet.

    Let that settle in. The platforms’ core business model isn’t engagement, enragement, confirmation bias, or trafficking in human attention. Those are outputs of their business model. Again, the model is simple: Drive sales for advertisers. And advertisers are companies – the very places where you, I, and nearly everyone else works. They might be large – Walmart, for example – or they might be small – I  got an ad for weighted blankets from”Baloo Living” on Facebook just now (HOW DID THEY KNOW?!).

    When advertising is the core business model of a platform, that platform’s job is to drive sales for advertisers. For Facebook, Google, Amazon, and even Apple, that means providing existential revenue to tens of millions of companies large and small. This means that “Big Tech” is fundamentally entangled with our system of modern capitalism.

    And killing Section 230 does nothing to address that fact.

    Let’s get back to the distinction I drew above – between moderating content (the focus of 230) and amplifying that content, a practice Section 230 never anticipated. To understand amplification, you need to understand a practice that nearly all advertising-driven platforms have adopted in the past ten years: Content feeds driven by algorithms. The Wall St. Journal seems to have just woken up to this practice, pointing out in a recent technology column that Social-Media Algorithms Rule How We See the World. Good Luck Trying to Stop Them. The piece does a fine job of pointing out what anyone paying attention for the past decade already knows: Our information diet is driven by algorithms we don’t understand, serving not the health of the public dialog, but rather the business model of social media companies and their advertising customers. The conclusion: We’ve lost all agency when it comes to what we consume.

    All About Agency

    But before feeds became our dominant consumption model, we happily outsourced our agency to journalistic media brands – and to the editors and journalists who worked for those media brands. Some of us still curate our news this way – but our ranks are thinning. Back before platforms became our dominant media platform (all of ten years ago!), anyone who wanted to read the news had to exert a critical, if often fleeting form of agency. We decided which media outlets we would regularly pay attention to. We chose to read The New York Times or the Post (or both), The Wall St. Journal or The Economist. Media brands stood as proxies for a vastly more complicated and utterly overwhelming corpus of information we might potentially consume. The job of the journalists at those media outlets was to curate that information into a coherent diet that conformed to whatever that media outlet’s brand promised: “All the News Fit to Print” if you’re the Times, aloof neoliberal analysis if you’re The Economist.

    But that’s not how the vast majority of Americans get their news these days. If anything, Facebook has given tens of millions of people who otherwise might not seek out the news an illusion of news literacy thanks to whatever happens to show up in their feed. For those who do want to chose a news diet, we might parrot the agency of the pre-feed days by following this or that new brand on Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter. But in the feed-driven environment of those platforms, articles from The Economist, The Times, or The Journal must compete, post for post, with the viral videos of flaming Zambonis and titillating proofs of elaborate child pornography rings shared by your friends. Given the platforms’ job is to drive revenue for its advertisers, which group do you think gets more amplification? You already know the answer, of course. Hell, it turns out Facebook has known the answer for years, and has consciously chosen to show us low quality information over accurate journalism. How do we know? It has a “News Ecosystem Quality” index – a SOMA-like tuning fork for its algorithms that dials up quality information whenever things might turn a bit too ugly. Let THAT sink in.

    Given all of this, it’s seductive to conclude that the best way to limit bad information on platforms is to ask the platforms to moderate it away,  threatening them with repeal of 230 to get there. But that’s a terrible idea, for so many reasons I won’t burden this essay with a recitation (but please, read Mike Masnick if you want to get smart fast).

    A far better idea would be to coax that critical layer of agency – the human choice of trusted media brands – back to the fore of our information diet in one way or another. And if we don’t like our choices of media brands, we should start new ones, smarter ones, more responsive ones that understand how to moderate, curate, and edit information in a way that both serves the public good and understands the information ecosystem in which it operates. (Yes, yes, that’s a self serving reference.)

    As a society we’ve at least come to admire our seemingly intractable problem: We’re not happy with who’s controlling the information we consume. The question then becomes, how can we shift control back to the edge – to the consumer of the information, and away from algorithms designed to engage, outrage, and divide?

    I’m of the mind this can be done without sweeping Federal legislation – but legislation might actually be helpful here, if it contemplates the economic incentives driving all of the actors in this narrative, including the businesses who currently pay Facebook and its peers for providing them revenue.

    In short, I think it’s time to hack the economic incentives which drive the platforms. Section 230 is a dodge – we’re obsessing on a 26-word law that offers nearly every contestant in the dialog a convenient dodge from a far larger truth: No one wants to threaten the profits of our largest corporations. And given I’ve been on for a while, I’m going to stop now, and get into how we might think differently in the next installment. Thanks for reading, and see you soon.

    —-

    This post is one of a series of “thinking out loud” on our current media ecosystem. Here are a few others:

    Media and Marketing Leaders: It’s Time to Stand Up For Truth  

    Facebook Is Finally Admitting It’s A Publisher

    Marketers: Your Role In Social Discourse Is Critical

    Marketers Have Given Up on Context, And Our National Discourse Is Suffering

    An Open Letter To American Corporations: It’s Good Business (and Smart Marketing) To Support Quality Journalism

     

     
  • feedwordpress 18:28:47 on 2021/01/01 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , Google, , , , , , , spacs, ,   

    Predictions 2021: Disinformation, SPACs, Africa, Facebook, and a Return to Tech Optimism 


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    Never in my five-plus decades has a year been so eagerly anticipated, which makes this business of  prediction particularly daunting. I’m generally inclined to be optimistic, but rose-colored glasses stretch time. Good things always take longer to emerge than any of us would wish. Over 18 years of doing this I’ve learned that it’s best to not predict what I wish would happen, instead, it’s wise to go with what feels most likely in the worlds I find fascinating (for me, that’s media, technology, and business, with a dash of politics given my last two years at The Recount). As I do each year, I avoid reading other folks’ year-end predictions (though I plan on getting to them as soon as I hit publish!). Instead, I just sit down at my desk, and in one rather long session, I think out loud and see where things land.

    And off we go….

    1. Disinformation becomes the most important story of the year. In some ways, this is foolhardy – like predicting that the election would drive 2020, only to see it overwhelmed by COVID-19. The topic of disinformation feels a bit cerebral and hard to pin down – not as concrete as a pandemic or an election cycle. But I’m convinced 2021 will be the year we all realize that our media/information ecosystem is broken – with disinformation, propaganda, and brazen falsehood its most pernicious externality. Businesses are waking up to the threat this  poses to their bottom lines (and to society at large), most scholars and policymakers are already there. In the words of former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, speaking on a recent Recount podcast: “In a society where there is no ability to distinguish between the truth and the lie, democracy will be lost.” 2021 will be a year where we search for the root causes of our failures over the past few years, and at the center of that failure is a communication system that mindlessly manufactures disinformation. A free and open democratic economy can’t run on bullshit. I’m personally devoting 2021 to exploring how we can navigate the collision of technology platforms, unfettered capitalism, broken media models, and feckless regulatory oversight. More on that soon…

    2. Facebook’s chickens come home to roost. Related to #1, yes, and it’s certainly passé to beat up on Facebook. As an OG in the space (“Facebook Can’t Be Fixed,” et al), I’m reluctant to go there once more – our troubles are bigger than one company alone. And for years the company has steamed ever forward, its fortunes unaffected by endless cycles of bad PR. But in 2021, the good ship Facebook will start taking on serious water. Incoming President Joe Biden will set the tone with his distaste for the company, and company’s tone deaf approach to communications will finally fail to deliver the company a pass. (If you missed it, you must watch this insanely scripted game of dodgeball between journalist Tamron Hall and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg). The company’s own employees are increasingly uncomfortable with their leadership, and its consumers and marketing partners are increasingly looking for alternatives to a platform they see as toxic and unwilling to change. Toss in policymakers’ thirst for an easy target and a media industry tired of the doubletalk, false narratives, and outright lies, and 2021 will be a dismal year for Facebook – in particular in the United States, where the company will likely admit that it has failed to grow user engagement. And that, to put a fine point on it, will tank the stock, full stop.

    3. AI has a mid-life crisis. The past few years have witnessed the shining resurgence of artificial intelligence – breakthrough after breakthrough has led to justifiable optimism that AI-driven innovation will solve both the mundane (Look! It can untangle corporate supply chains!) as well as the divine (Look! It can cure every disease known to humankind!). All of this and more is likely true, but humanity has yet to fully comprehend the potential negative externalities of AI, much less mitigate them. Chastened by our last bout with externality ignorance (see Facebook, above), 2021 will be the year society takes a step back and thinks hard about where this is all going. Setting up the narrative is Google’s mishandling of its relationship with leading AI critic Timit Gebru, but by year’s end, the AI narrative will be as much about hand wringing and regulatory oversight as it is about revolutionary breakthroughs.

    4. Then again, a wave of optimism around tech-driven innovation takes root. This is the counter narrative to five-plus years of a “tech as bogeyman” trope. 2021’s optimism will be driven by two major factors: First, a belief that we’re on a path to correct the worst mistakes of the past decade (see #1 – #3 above). And second, a slew of long-developing and real world proofs that technology-driven breakthroughs will bring serious benefits to society at scale. Candidates include biotech and bioinformatics (the core technologies behind the COVID vaccine), blockchain (though I’m certain bitcoin will have at least one of its several crashes this year), and lithium batteries (giving us hope on climate change and driving my otherwise random prediction on gas-powered cars, below).

    5. Google does in 2021 what I predicted it would in 2020. And what was that? That Google zags. I wrote: “Saddled with increasingly negative public opinion and driven in large part by concerns over retaining its workforce, Google will make a deeply surprising and game changing move in 2020.” I think this is even more likely given Google is fighting off a terrifying array of massive regulatory actions, and desperately needs to avoid looking like Facebook in the eyes of its employees, consumers, and business partners.

    6. Nothing will get done on tech regulation in the US. Blame antitrust. Whether or not Biden decides to continue Trump’s FTC and DOJ actions, he will likely start his own, and keep the focus on antitrust, rather than more thoughtful legislation around disinformation, machine readable data portability, or privacy. There will be some movement – net neutrality will probably get reaffirmed and we’ll fix Trump’s H1-B messes, for example. But by year’s end folks will realize that antitrust suits are essentially kabuki, an exercise designed to go nowhere and maintain the status quo. When Facebook is aggressively calling on Washington to regulate the Internet, you know they’ve done the math and concluded nothing is really going to change. Everyone’s talking about how it’s about time for the government to step up and do something, but I’m deeply cynical about anything changing in 2021. That doesn’t mean we won’t (or shouldn’t) make progress…just that it won’t happen in a year.

    7. A “new” social platform breaks out in 2021. I’ve made versions of this prediction in the past, but my timing was off. Given the handcuffs 2021 will place on the traditional players in Big Tech, this coming year presents a perfect opportunity for a breakout player to redefine the social media category. There’s plenty of VC money ready to invest here, and both Tik Tok and Snap  have had their moments in the sun. It won’t be some ripoff version of what already exists (sorry, Parler). I’d either look to something like an evolved Signal, an app that already has a growing user base, or a from-nowhere startup that gets super hot, super fast because it’s fundamentally rethought social media’s traditional, serotonin-driven models for engagement and advertising .

    8. The markets take a breather, and SPACs get a bloody nose. Back in 1987 I was a cub reporter covering the technology industry. One of the first stories I ever wrote involved a software startup run by a fellow I immediately judged to be a hustler. In our initial interview, he laid out how he was going to use financial engineering to take his small company public via a shell company. It struck me as dodgy then, and it strikes me as dodgy now. I have plenty of industry pals who are involved in SPAC mania now, and as far as I can tell, they’re on the up and up. SPACs can be a healthy and innovative approach to financing companies. But alas, this SPAC trend stinks of easy money and honeytraps for unsophisticated investors and shady operators. So in 2021, SPACs will lose their luster, driven in large part by several spectacular failures (or worse). Related, overall stock markets won’t crash, but by year’s end, they’ll sputter as tech stocks fall out of favor and society begins to realize how much debt needs to be worked through before true growth can reassert itself.

    9. 2021 will be prove to be the last year of growth in gas-powered automobiles. There, I did it – I wrote a prediction I wish for, rather than one I can back up with my own lived experience. That said, the aforementioned breakthroughs in lithium battery technology will lead to a wave of new options for vehicle buyers, and in the long lens of history, the early 2020s will be celebrated as the period where we finally overcame our addiction to burning fossil fuels. Please, MAKE IT SO.

    10. Africa rising, China…in question. A few years ago, I predicted China was going to crash, but I now realize the world needs China to counter US hegemony. With that in mind, the breakout continent of 2021 will be Africa, home to many of the fastest growing countries in the world, and the focus of years of Chinese investment and diplomacy. After four years of US neglect, the Biden administration will realize it’s dangerously close to losing Africa altogether, and announce a massive investment in the continent. Biden’s China policy will be fascinating to watch, but I’d not wager a cent on where it lands this year.

    11. Everyone loses their shit, in a good way. Because we deserve one big ass party, damnit, when this pandemic finally lifts. This is the easiest one to predict, because, well….I’ll be right there with you. Until then, folks, stay safe, wear a f*cking mask when in public, and do what you can to help others get through what is still a dark damn time in our history. See you on the other side.


    Previous predictions:

    Predictions 2020

    2020: How I Did

    Predictions 2019

    2019: How I did

    Predictions 2018

    2018: How I Did

    Predictions 2017

    2017: How I Did

    Predictions 2016

    2016: How I Did

    Predictions 2015

    2015: How I Did

    Predictions 2014

    2014: How I Did

    Predictions 2013

    2013: How I Did

    Predictions 2012

    2012: How I Did

    Predictions 2011

    2011: How I Did

    Predictions 2010

    2010: How I Did

    2009 Predictions

    2009 How I Did

    2008 Predictions

    2008 How I Did

    2007 Predictions

    2007 How I Did

    2006 Predictions

    2006 How I Did

    2005 Predictions

    2005 How I Did

    2004 Predictions

    2004 How I Did

     
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