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  • feedwordpress 02:52:58 on 2020/01/06 Permalink
    Tags: , , Google, , , , , , , ,   

    Predictions 2020: Facebook Caves, Google Zags, Netflix Sells Out, and Data Policy Gets Sexy 


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    A new year brings another run at my annual predictions: For 17 years now, I’ve taken a few hours to imagine what might happen over the course of the coming twelve months. And my goodness did I swing for the fences last year — and I pretty much whiffed. Batting .300 is great in the majors, but it kind of sucks compared to my historical average. My mistake was predicting events that I wished would happen. In other words, emotions got in the way. So yes, Trump didn’t leave office, Zuck didn’t give up voting control of Facebook, and weed’s still illegal (on a federal level, anyway). 

    Chastened, this year I’m going to focus on less volatile topics, and on areas where I have a bit more on-the-ground knowledge — the intersection of big tech, marketing, media, and data policy. As long time readers know, I don’t prepare in advance of writing this post. Instead, I just clear a few hours and start thinking out loud. So…here we go.

    1. Facebook bans microtargeting on specific kinds of political advertising. Of course I start with Facebook, because, well, it’s one of the most inscrutable companies in the world right now. While Zuck & Co. seem deeply committed to their “principled” stand around a politician’s right to paid prevarication, the pressure to do something will be too great, and as it always does, the company will enact a half-measure, then declare victory. The new policy will probably roll out after Super Tuesday (sparking all manner of conspiracies about how the company didn’t want to impact its Q1 growth numbers in the US). The company’s spinners will frame this as proof they listen to their critics, and that they’re serious about the integrity of the 2020 elections. As with nearly everything it does, this move will fail to change anyone’s opinion of the company. Wall St. will keep cheering the company’s stock, and folks like me will keep wondering when, if ever, the next shoe will drop. 
    2. Netflix opens the door to marketing partnerships. Yes, I’m aware that the smart money has moved on from this idea. But in a nod to increasing competition and the reality of Wall St. expectations, Netflix will at least pilot a program — likely not in the US — where it works with brands in some limited fashion. Mass hysteria in the trade press will follow once this news breaks, but Netflix will call the move a pilot, a test, an experiment…no big deal. It may take the form of a co-produced series, or branded content, or some other “native” approach, but at the end of the day, it’ll be advertising dollars that fuel the programming. And while I won’t predict the program augurs a huge new revenue stream for the company, I can predict that what won’t happen, at least in 2020: A free, advertising-driven version of Netflix. Just not in the company’s culture. 
    3. CDA 230 will get seriously challenged, but in the end, nothing gets done, again. Last year I predicted there’d be no federal data privacy legislation, and I’m predicting the same for this year. However, there will be a lot of movement on legislation related to the tech oligarchy. The topic that will come the closest to passage will be a revision to CDA 230 —the landmark legislation that protects online platforms from liability for user generated content. Blasphemy? Sure, but here we are, stuck between free speech on the one hand, massive platform economics on the other, and a really, really bad set of externalities in the middle. CDA 230 was built to give early platforms the room to grow unhindered by traditional constraints on media companies. That growth has now metastasized, and we don’t have a policy response that anyone agrees upon. And CDA 230 is an easy target, given conservatives in Congress already believe Facebook, Google, and others have it out for their president. They’ll be a serious run at rewriting 230, but it will ultimately fail. Related…
    4. Adversarial interoperability will get a moment in the sun, but also fail to make it into law. In the past I (and many others) have written about “machine readable data portability.” But for the debate we’re about to have (and need to have), I like “adversarial interoperability” better. Both are mouthfuls, and neither are easy to explain. Data governance and policy are complicated topics which test our society’s ability to have difficult long form conversations. 2020 will be a year where the legions of academics, policy makers, politicians, and writers who debate economic theory around data and capitalism get a real audience, and I believe much of that debate will center on whether or not large platforms have a responsibility to be open or closed. As Cory Doctorow explains, adversarial interoperability is “when you create a new product or service that plugs into the existing ones without the permission of the companies that make them.” As in, I can plug my new e-commerce engine into Amazon, my new mobile operating system into iOS, my new social network into Facebook, or my new driving instruction app into Google Maps. I grew up in a world where this kind of innovation was presumed. It’s now effectively banned by a handful of data oligarchs, and our economy – and our future – suffers for it. 
    5. As long as we’re geeking out on catchphrases only a dork can love, 2020 will also be the year “data provenance” becomes a thing. As with many nerdy topics, the concept of data provenance started in academia, migrated to adtech, and is about to break into the broader world of marketing, which is struggling to get its arms around a data-driven future. The ability to trace the origin, ownership, permissions, and uses of data is a fundamental requirement of an advanced digital economy, and in 2020, we’ll realize we have a ton of work left to do to get this right. Yes, yes, blockchain and ledgers are part of the discussion here, but the point isn’t the technology, it’s the policy enabling the technology. 
    6. Google zags. 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. It could be a massive acquisition, a move into some utterly surprising new industry (like content), but my money’s on something related to data privacy. The company may well commit to both leading the debate on the topics described above, as well as implementing them in its core infrastructure. Now that would really be a zag…
    7. At least one major “on demand” player will capitulate. Gig economy business models may make sense long term, but that doesn’t mean we’re getting the execution right in the first group of on demand “unicorns.” In fact, I’d argue we’re mostly getting them wrong, even if as consumers, we love the supposed convenience gig brands bring us. Many of the true costs of these businesses have been externalized onto public infrastructure (and the poor), and civic patience is running out. Plus, venture and public finance markets are increasingly skeptical of business models that depend on strip mining the labor of increasingly querulous private contractors. A reckoning is due, and in 2020 we’ll see the collapse of one or more larger players in the field.
    8. Influencer marketing will fall out of favor. I’m not predicting an implosion here, but rather an industry wide pause as brands start to ask the questions consumers will also be pondering: who the fuck are these influencers and why are we paying them so much attention? A major piece of this — on the marketing side anyway — will be driven by a massive increase in influencer fraud. As with other fast growing digital marketing channels, where money pours in, fraud fast follows — nearly as fast as fawning New York Times articles, but I digress. 
    9. Information warfare becomes a national bogeyman. If we’ve learned anything since the 2016 election, it’s this: We’ve taken far too long to comprehend the extent to which bad actors have come to shape and divide our discourse. These past few years have slowly revealed the power of information warfare, and the combination of a national election with the compounding distrust of algorithm-driven platforms will mean that by mid year, “fake news” will yield to “information warfare” as the catchphrase describing what’s wrong with our national dialog. Deep fakes, sophisticated state-sponsored information operations, and good old fashioned political info ops will dominate the headlines in 2020. Unfortunately, the cynic in me thinks the electorate’s response will be to become more inured and distrustful, but there’s a chance a number of trusted media brands (both new and old) prosper as we all search for a common set of facts.
    10. Purpose takes center stage in business. 2019 was the year the leaders of industry declared a new purpose for the corporation — one that looks beyond profits for a true north that includes multiple stakeholders, not just shareholders. 2020 will be the year many companies will compete to prove that they are serious about that pledge. Reaction from Wall St. will be mixed, but I expect plenty of CEOs will feel emboldened to take the kind of socially minded actions that would have gotten them fired in previous eras. This is a good thing, and likely climate change will become the issue many companies will feel comfortable rallying behind. (I certainly hope so, but this isn’t supposed to be about what I wish for…)
    11. Apple and/or Amazon stumble. I have no proof as to why I think this might happen but…both these companies just feel ripe for some kind of major misstep or scandal. America loves a financial winner — and both Amazon and Apple have been runaway winners in the stock market for the past decade. Both have gotten away with some pretty bad shit along the way, especially when it comes to labor practices in their supply chain. And while neither of them are as vulnerable as Facebook or Google when it comes to the data privacy or free speech issues circling big tech, both Apple and Amazon have become emblematic of a certain kind of capitalism that feels fraught with downside risk in the near future. I can’t say what it is, but I feel like both these companies could catch one squarely on the jaw this coming year, and the post-mortems will all say they never saw it coming. 

    So there you have it — 11 predictions for the coming year. I was going to stop at 10, but that Apple/Amazon one just forced itself out — perhaps that’s me wishing again. We’ll see. Let me know your thoughts, and keep your cool out there. 2020 is going to be one hell of a year. 

     
  • feedwordpress 01:20:42 on 2019/10/15 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , Google, , , , tik tok,   

    Tik Tok, Tick Tock…Boom. 


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    Something’s been bugging me about Tik Tok. I’ve almost downloaded it about a dozen times over the past few months. But I always stop short. I don’t have a ton of time (here’s why) so forgive me as I resort to some short form tricks here. To wit:

    1. China employs a breathtaking model of state-driven surveillance.
    2. The US employs a breathtaking model of capitalist surveillance.

    We on the same page so far? OK, great.

    Now let’s consider Tik Tok, which is a robust combination of the two. Don’t know Tik Tok? Come on, you read Searchblog for God’s sake. Ok, well, fortunately for you, there’s the New York Times. Or…maybe not. I almost threw up in my mouth as I watched the paper of record run through its decades long practice of “Gee, Golly, Isn’t This Shiny New Tech Thing Culturally Significant, and Aren’t We Woke for Noticing It” journalism last weekend. Read it if you must.

    Ok. Time for more shorthand.

    1. Tik Tok is owned by a Chinese company.
    2. Tik Tok is addictive, seductive, you can’t look away.
    3. Tik Tok has a Terms of Service and Privacy Policy that reads, for all intents and purposes, a lot like Google, Facebook, Apple, or Amazon’s terms of service (I’m studying these over at Columbia, FWIW). In other words, Tik Tok has standard clickwrap that gives it permission to do pretty much whatever it wants with the information it collects on its users.
    4. Since they’re modeled on the policies of American surveillance capitalism, Tik Tok’s TOS and Privacy Policies state that the company may collect your: Location, email, phone number, browsing history, device information, app and file names on your device, messaging content, full list of your social network connections (should you let it use your Facebook, Twitter, Insta to find your friends, and most do), content preferences, and a shit ton of other information, not to mention any and all third-party information Tik Tok chooses to acquire and append to your profile (that’d be another shit ton, in case you were wondering).
    5. There’s nothing in Tik Tok’s TOS or Privacy Policy that stops it from sending all the information it collects to the Chinese government. In fact, if you read the policies closely, you’ll see this line: “We may disclose information to respond to subpoenas, court orders, legal process, law enforcement requests, legal claims or government inquiries.”
    6. Tik Tok is clearly concerned about anyone noticing any of this – it’s nearly impossible to find stats on how many people use it in the US (though Ad Age leaked a pitch deck recently saying it was “more than 32 million”), and you won’t find the word “China” or “Chinese” in its TOS or Privacy Policy (it used to be there, but…the company wised up).
    7. Just in case you weren’t paying attention, I refer you to #1 above. If you think Tik Tok isn’t sending information to the Chinese government, you’re sweet, but you should stay inside and stick to rotary phones.
    8. Tik Tok is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on US social networks convincing US consumers, in particular kids, to download and use the app. This is fucking brilliant, by the way.
    9. China and the US are in a pitched battle for economic and geopolitical power, and that battle will be won, in large part, based on which country has access to and dominion over consumer data at scale, which will feed machine learning and artificial intelligence systems that will most certainly be weaponized, both economically and geopolitically (there’s simply not time to explain what I mean by that now, but…let’s just say Russian interference in the 2016 election was a hack job compared to what’s afoot now).

    So, I just thought I’d point that out. But those videos, they sure are cute, no?

     
  • feedwordpress 18:22:38 on 2019/09/13 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , Google, , ,   

    Why Politics, Why Now? 


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    Last week an email hit my inbox with a simple powerful sentiment. “I miss your writing,” it said. The person who sent it was a longtime reader of this site.

    I miss writing too. But there’s a reason I’ve been quiet here and on other platforms – I wrote a very short post about that earlier this summer. To summarize, last year I decided to take the leap, for the seventh time, and start a company with my dear friend and frequent co-conspirator John Heilemann. John and I have worked on projects for the better part of three decades, but we’d never started a company together. Now we have: Recount Media is an entirely new approach to video about politics. And the truth is, Recount Media not only requires all of my time, it’s also in fields that seem pretty orthogonal to my previous career trajectory.

    That reader’s email reminded me: I’ve not really explained the connection between what I “used to do” – write about the impact of tech on society, advise startups, work on boards, start or run tech-related media companies – and what it is I’m doing now. Turns out, the two are deeply connected. Explaining why takes a bit of exposition – hence this longish post. But in short, the idea is this: The tech story is now a political story, and the political story is, well, a mess. I’m motivated by creating companies and media around consequential, messy stories. Tech used to be the biggest and most poorly covered of the bunch. But now, I’m convinced politics holds that honor.

    This post is my attempt to tie together my past, rooted mostly in the West Coast technology culture, with my present, now based in New York and focused almost entirely on politics and video. I hope by thinking out loud here, I might help make it make sense for not only you, my readers, but also for myself as I continue on this journey.

    On its face it doesn’t make much sense. A guy who has made his living writing – either coding words into posts, or starting companies that, in essence, were word factories (Wired, The Standard, Federated Media, etc.) – is now co-founder of a company that makes only video. A guy who has specialized in reporting on and sense making around technology is now deep in the utterly foreign world (for me, anyway) of politics. What gives?

    I realized that the tech story had morphed into something else back in 2015, when I was running an events business called NewCo. To support that business, I decided to create a small publication focused on the intersection of technology, policy, and business. We called it Shift. To launch that brand, I wrote “The Tech Story Is Over,” a framework of sorts for why I thought the biggest story in our economy had moved from “tech” to the wholesale reinvention of capitalism. From that piece:

    Tech hasn’t gone mainstream — it is the mainstream. It’s our cultural dowser, our lens for interpreting an increasingly complex society.Our new cultural heroes are Internet billionaires; our newly minted college graduates all want to start tech companies.

    All of which leaves me wondering : What’s the next big story on the horizon, the narrative most people are missing that will shape our future just as technology did for the past 30 years?

    I think the answer lies in the reinvention of capitalism. 

    While tech had been the defining story of the past few decades, I argued that the story of the next few would be how our society rethought the rules governing corporations. And once you start thinking about the way corporations were governed, your attention naturally turns to politics. Politics, after all, is how we collectively determine the rules of the road.

    At the same time we launched Shift, we also started a new conference of the same name, dedicated to convening a fresh conversation about business and politics. I asked Heilemann to bring his deep understanding of Washington to the stage each year. John curated the political piece, I ran the business programming. The event was very well received, and we both noticed how engaged folks were around the political conversation in particular. The first Shift event was one week after Trump’s inauguration, and nearly every business and tech leader was leaning into issues they had previously ignored or, in some cases, actively ducked. It was clear: Politics was on its way to permeating every aspect of our society, and business was a leading indicator of that trend.

    We increased the amount of political programming in the second Shift event, and once again, folks loved it. By now I was certain that the tech and business narrative I’d been chasing for so many years had grown stale – the changes wrought by tech were no longer the story – now the story was how we as a society would respond. And just as with business, that response requires wading directly into the world of politics.

    It was after the second Shift conference that I decided to move to New York. The Bay area is a lovely, inspirational place, but the conversation was dominated by entrepreneurship, and it was beginning to feel like a monoculture. I wanted to live in a place where the conversation had more hybrid vigor. I called my friend John to let him know about the move, and, turns out, he had an idea about starting a political platform devoted to covering US politics in a new way. We spent a week talking about it over the summer, got pretty excited about where it might go, and … well, that’s how we got to now.

    In the past year, I’ve come to realize that while I thought I was pretty well informed about how our political system worked, I was in fact wandering in the dark. I had spent nearly my entire career in media and tech in the Bay area, but I had managed to fundamentally avoid engaging in the national political discourse. I don’t think I’m alone – the past few years have delivered a crash course in political realities for the entire technology industry – and for business overall. When hundreds of leading CEOs sign a letter claiming profit will no longer be the true north of their firms, something pretty fundamental has shifted.

    We announced Recount Media’s public beta this past July, and we’ll have a lot more to announce later this Fall, including dates for two new Shift events, which are now part of our new company. I’m excited about the work we’re doing, and I hope those of you who’ve followed my journey from Wired through to NewCo will come along for the ride with The Recount. You can sign up for our beta newsletter here. Thanks for reading, and thanks for all your comments and encouragement along the way.

     
  • feedwordpress 15:59:20 on 2019/04/24 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , Google, , , , terms of service,   

    Mapping Data Flows: Help Us Ask the Right Questions 


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    I’ve been quiet here on Searchblog these past few months, not because I’ve nothing to say, but because two major projects have consumed my time. The first, a media platform in development, is still operating mostly under the radar. I’ll have plenty to say about that, but at a later date. It’s the second where I could use your help now, a project we’re calling Mapping Data Flows. This is the research effort I’m spearheading with graduate students from Columbia’s School for International Public Affairs (SIPA) and Graduate School of Journalism. This is the project examining what I call our “Shadow Internet Constitution” driven by corporate Terms of Service.

    Our project goal is simple: To visualize the Terms of Service and Data/Privacy Policies of the four largest companies in US consumer tech: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. We want this visualization to be interactive and compelling – when you approach it (it’ll be on the web), we hope it will help you really “see” what data, rights, and obligations both you and these companies have reserved. To do that, we’re busy turning unintelligible lines of text (hundreds of thousands of words, in aggregate) into code that can be queried, compared, and visualized. When I first imagined the project, I thought that wouldn’t be too difficult. I was wrong – but we’re making serious progress, and learning a lot along the way.

    One of the most interesting of the early insights is how vague these documents truly are. The conditional (“might,” “could,” “may” etc) seems to be their favorite verb tense. It likely comes as no surprise to dedicated readers, but despite the last two years of public outrage, tech companies can pretty much do anything they want with your data, should they care to. Another interesting takeaway: The sheet amount of information that *can* be collected is staggering. A third insight: Even if you can find the data dashboards that give you control over how your data is used, cranking them to their fullest powers often won’t limit data collection and use, but rather will limit their application in very specific use cases. It’s all about the metadata. Lastly, it’s fascinating to see how similar these documents are across the top four companies, and how Apple, for example, has pretty much exactly the same rights to use your data as, say, Facebook.

    I could go on, but what we really want to know is what *you* wish you understood about these companies’ data practices. That’s why we’ve built a very short, very subjective survey that we’re hoping you’ll take to give us input and feedback as we start to actually build our visualization.

    I’ve buried the lead, but here’s the ask: Will you please take a minute to give us your input? Here’s the link, and thanks!

     
  • feedwordpress 17:48:09 on 2019/03/12 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , Google, , , ,   

    With Privacy as Its Shield, Facebook Hopes To Conquer the Entire Internet. 


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    Never mind that man behind the privacy curtain.

    I’ll never forget a meal I had with a senior executive at Facebook many years ago, back when I was just starting to question the motives of the burgeoning startup’s ambition. I asked whether the company would ever support publishers across the “rest of the web” – perhaps through an advertising system competitive with Google’s AdSense. The executive’s response was startling and immediate. Everything anyone ever needs to do – including publishing – can and should be done on Facebook. The rest of the Internet was a sideshow. It’s just easier if everything is on one platform, I was told. And Facebook’s goal was to be that platform.

    Those words still ring in my ears as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the web today. And they certainly should inform our perspective as we continue to digest Facebook’s latest self-involved epiphany.

    Last week Mark Zuckerberg declared privacy the new black, and committed his multi-hundred-billion dollar company wholeheartedly in favor of it. Employing the now familiar trope that “people I’ve been talking to have been saying privacy’s a thing they care about,” Facebook’s monarch appeared to be pivoting his entire company around this newfound insight, and much of the press seemed to buy it.

    But this isn’t a pivot, it’s a panic born of crisis. Facebook’s core business model has plateaued, and absent new channels into which the company might stuff toxic algorithmic advertising, Zuck and crew have had to find a new cash cow. After all, those record-breaking Wall St. earnings won’t keep writing themselves – not with users leaving the service and regulators sharpening their swords for battle.

    So Facebook needs to find a new revenue source, one that’s really, really big, and ideally, one that also manages to solve its lousy image as the lusty barker at the surveillance capitalism carnival.

    The company has found its answer in the form of WhatsApp, the famously privacy-loving messaging app which Facebook paid $19 billion to acquire five years ago.

    So why WhatsApp, and why now?

    • WhatsApp was built on entirely different DNA from Facebook. It’s end to end encryption practically screams privacy. Before Zuckerberg’s come to Jesus, Facebook had attempted to turn WhatsApp into another advertising play, which drove WhatsApp’s founders to leave in a very public huff. Since then, WhatsApp has failed to become an advertising channel of any significance. Leveraging WhatsApp’s brand sheen to polish Facebook’s privacy turd is a mad genius move.
    • Going five years without figuring out monetization for a $19 billion acquisition is…embarrassing. Now Facebook can answer Wall Street’s incessant questions about WhatsApp’s contribution to the company’s bottom line.
    • Of all the tech giants, Facebook is most likely to suffer regulators ire here in the United States, including very loud calls for antitrust action. But by pivoting to privacy first and claiming WhatsApp as its new cornerstone, Facebook now has an excuse to integrate Instagram, Messenger, and Facebook, making a breakup technically and socially challenging, if not impossible.
    • Most importantly, WhatsApp has the potential to realize Facebook’s long sought dream of *becoming* the Internet for billions of customers around the world.

    But how, exactly? To answer that question, Facebook had only look to China’s Tencent, which in two short years has turned its wildly popular WeChat service into a revenue geyser, a new kind of platform where advertising represents just a fraction of the business model.

    WeChat has become an ecosystem unto itself, an essential service used by nearly two billion customers to pay for just about everything in China. It features millions of “mini programs,” essentially apps built on top of the WeChat service. Tencent is making billions on top of this new ecosystem, taking a small cut of transactions inside its internal “Tenpay” system, nudging tens of millions of users to level up inside its gaming system, and yes, by offering advertising inside its popular “Moments” feed. Tencent even built a new search engine inside WeChat, a “walled garden” version of search that should prove insanely profitable if done right. Oh, and it gets all the data.

    Put simply, WeChat is a universe unto itself, a perfect mix of app store, commerce, social, payments, and search. It’s as if the entire Internet was shrunk into one app. Exactly the kind of world Facebook would like to see happen here in the United States.

    Only…WeChat evolved in China, where the concept of individual privacy is utterly foreign, where the state has complete control over the levers of the economy, and where Facebook has been banned for years. It’s a stretch to believe that Facebook could mimic Tencent’s meteoric rise here in the US (not to mention Western Europe and the rest of the world), but if there’s any conclusion to be drawn from Zuckerberg’s latest manifesto, it’s that his company is certainly going to try.

    Once Facebook has created an integrated WeChat-like platform reaching billions, it’d be a cinch to lure app developers – perhaps by undercutting Apple and Google’s 20-30 percent take rate, for starters. And anyone in the business of selling anything would also rush to the platform, posing an existential threat to Amazon’s portal-like model of e-commerce dominance. An obvious step would be to build search to unite it all, a necessary move that would dramatically undercut Google’s control of that market as well. The only safe place to be in this scenario seems to be Apple’s hardware business – except that company is itself in the midst of a pivot to services, exactly the kind of services that a Facebook WeChat clone will challenge.

    So, to summarize: By declaring “private conversations” as its new business model, Facebook can undermine the app store model driving all of mobile, unseat Amazon as the king of e-commerce, hollow out Google’s control of search, nip Apple’s transition to services in the bud, take a vig on every transaction across its ecosystem, and insinuate itself into the private, commercial, and public lives of every citizen on the Internet. If the company pulls this off – and yes, that’s a big if – we’ll look back on the past ten years, replete with all our fears of the social media’s dominance in our lives, as positively quaint in comparison.

    Never mind that man behind that curtain, folks.


     
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