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  • feedwordpress 16:24:01 on 2020/03/25 Permalink
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    Will The Coronavirus Save Big Tech? 


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    Who’s Really Behind That “Death of the Techlash” Narrative?

     

    One of my least favorite kinds of journalism is the easy win. It’s the kind of story that just lands in your lap. It feels immediately counter intuitive and of the moment, and  it simply writes itself. It’s the kind of editorial sin most often committed by columnists facing immutable deadlines, and a perfect example can be found in the Wall St. Journal last week. “OK, Fine, Let’s All Get Back on Facebook,” the headline read. The subhead explains further: “All it took was a pandemic to make Facebook’s privacy-challenged products seem highly appealing.”

    Couched as a review of Facebook products helpful in our current era of social distancing and mandated work from home, the column may well stand as a turning point in what was once knows as the “techlash.” Has the coronavirus pandemic earned the world’s most powerful purveyors of surveillance capitalism a collective pass from the press?

    It certainly seems that way. A rash of articles over the past few days have picked up this narrative – and the comms teams at Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon would be fired for malpractice for not stoking it. A good crisis must not be wasted, after all.

    But as the Journal columnist noted later in her piece, the reasons underlying society’s broad misgivings around Big Tech remain. With that prophylactic caveat duly administered, the columnist then profiled her own usage of Facebook’s services- and declared them a trend. Before COVID, the company’s many privacy missteps had led her to back away. But now that everyone she knew was stuck inside, she found herself once again checking her feeds, monitoring her neighborhood Facebook groups, and even pointing a Portal camera at her son.

    This narrative isn’t making it into the press without a bit of help. Facebook’s been quite public about the fact that people just like our columnist are in fact flocking to its products. “Facebook Is ‘Just Trying to Keep the Lights On’ as Traffic Soars in Pandemic” crows a recent Times piece. That headline quote comes from Facebook’s famously media-trained CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who hasn’t exactly made a practice of calling the press and offering offhand observations these past few years.

    It’s always instructive to note when the company actively participates in stories, and when it declines comment. Lately, there’s been plenty of open lines of communication. The Times further wonders if “Big Tech Could Emerge From Coronavirus Crisis Stronger Than Ever.” And somehow (I can’t imagine how), an “internal report” from Facebook made its way into yet another Times reporter’s hands, leading to this chef kiss of a headline: ‘The Coronavirus Revives Facebook as a News Powerhouse.” Over at Wired, Facebook author Steven Levy asks “Has the Coronavirus Killed the Techlash?” He explains: “Facebook has gotten rare kudos for its responses to the pandemic, and perhaps even more significantly, more people are using it for the kinds of meaningful interactions that Zuckerberg has been promoting for a long time. Could this be a turning point?”

    Well, yes, but I certainly hope it’s not the kind implied by present day reporting. Again, the issues our industry struggled with Before Covid won’t disappear After Covid simply because the public is thankful for services (and business models) to which we’ve already become addicted. Perhaps instead, this pandemic could offer more of a step-change opportunity, one that might just offer us new approaches to connecting to others, buying shit we need (and don’t), and staying informed. I can see those new habits already starting to form, and I certainly hope they won’t be limited to Instagram dance parties. More on those in future posts, I hope. For now, back to work.

     
  • feedwordpress 12:25:19 on 2020/01/20 Permalink
    Tags: The Web As Platform   

    Sundar Pichai in the FT: Please Regulate Us (And Good Luck with All That) 


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    Google’s (and now Alphabet’s) CEO opines in the FT (sub required) on why AI needs to be regulated, joining the chorus of tech leaders who have taken the apparent high road when it comes to regulation, even as governments around the world have shown next to no ability to actually regulate anything (well, I guess the Chinese have certainly regulated tech…in a not so great way). Astute readers will note that an op-ed in a paywalled publication, on a holiday no less, is not exactly placed to go viral. However, look a bit deeper, and you’ll realize that the Financial Times is very well read by Wall St., number one, and number two, it ain’t a holiday in Europe, where the most powerful people on the planet are gathering for Davos this week. Indeed.

    While most of the op-ed is pretty weak sauce, a predictable call for governments to “work together” to “harness this technology for good,” I found this quote the most interesting: “Companies such as ours cannot just build promising new technology and let market forces decide how it will be used.” I wish Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple had that point of view before they built the AI-driven system we now all live with known as surveillance capitalism.

    Maybe they’re learning. Or, maybe we’re not.

     
  • feedwordpress 18:01:49 on 2019/01/02 Permalink
    Tags: , cannabis, , , , , , , , , , , , , The Web As Platform,   

    Predictions 2019: Stay Stoney, My Friends. 


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    If predictions are like baseball, I’m bound to have a bad year in 2019, given how well things went the last time around. And given how my own interests, work life, and physical location have changed of late, I’m not entirely sure what might spring from this particular session at the keyboard.

    But as I’ve noted in previous versions of this post (all 15 of them are linked at the bottom), I do these predictions in something of a fugue state – I don’t prepare in advance. I just sit down, stare at a blank page, and start to write.

    So Happy New Year, and here we go.

    1/ Global warming gets really, really, really real. I don’t know how this isn’t the first thing on everyone’s mind already, with all the historic fires, hurricanes, floods, and other related climate catastrophes of 2018. But nature won’t relent in 2019, and we’ll endure something so devastating, right here in the US, that we won’t be able to ignore it anymore. I’m not happy about making this prediction, but it’ll likely take a super Sandy or a king-sized Katrina to slap some sense into America’s body politic. 2019 will be the year it happens.

    2/ Mark Zuckerberg resigns as Chairman of Facebook, and relinquishes his supermajority voting rights. Related, Sheryl Sandberg stays right where she is. I honestly don’t see any other way Facebook pulls out of its nosedive. I’ve written about this at length elsewhere, so I will just summarize: Facebook’s only salvation is through a new system of governance. And I mean that word liberally – new governance of how it manages data across its platform, new governance of how it works with communities, governments, and other key actors across its reach, and most fundamentally, new governance as to how it works as a corporate entity. It all starts with the Board asserting its proper role as the governors of the company. At present, the Board is fundamentally toothless.

    3/ Despite a ton of noise and smoke from DC, no significant federal legislation is signed around how data is managed in the United States. I  know I predicted just a few posts ago that 2019 will be the year the tech sector has to finally contend with Washington. And it will be…but in the end, nothing definitive will emerge, because we’ll all be utterly distracted by the Trump show (see below). Because of this, unhappily, we’ll end up governed by both GDPR and California’s homespun privacy law, neither of which actually force the kind of change we really need.

    4/ The Trump show gets cancelled. Last year, I said Trump would blow up, but not leave. This year, I’m with Fred, Trump’s in his final season. We all love watching a slow motion car wreck, but 2019 is the year most of us realize the car’s careening into a school bus full of our loved ones. Donald Trump, you’re fired.

    5/ Cannabis for the win. With Sessions gone and politicians of all stripes looking for an easy win, Congress will pass legislation legalizing cannabis. Huzzah!!!! Just in time, because…

    6/ China implodes, the world wobbles. Look, I’m utterly out of my depth here, but something just feels wrong with the whole China picture. Half the world’s experts are warning us that China’s fusion of capitalism and authoritarianism is already taking over the world, and the other half are clinging to the long-held notion that China’s approach to nation building is simply too fragile to withstand democratic capitalism’s demands for transparency. But I think there may be other reasons China’s reach will extend its grasp: It depends on global growth and optimistic debt markets. And both of those things will fail this year, exposing what is a marvelous but unsustainable experiment in managed markets. This is a long way of backing into a related prediction:

    7/ 2019 will be a terrible year for financial markets. This is the ultimate conventional wisdom amongst my colleagues in SF and NY, even though I’ve seen plenty of predictions that Wall St. will have a pretty good year. I have no particular insight as to why I feel this way, it’s mainly a gut call: Things have been too good, for too long. It’s time for a serious correction.

    8/ At least one major tech IPO is pulled, the rest disappoint as a class. Uber, Lyft, Slack, Pinterest et al are all expected this year. But it won’t be a good year to go public. Some will have no choice, but others may simply resize their businesses to focus on cash flow, so as to find a better window down the road.

    9/ New forms of journalistic media flourish. It’s well past time those of us in the media world take responsibility for the shit we make, and start to try significant new approaches to information delivery vehicles. We have been hostages to the toxic business models of engagement for engagement’s sake. We’ll continue to shake that off in various ways this year – with at least one new format taking off explosively. Will it have lasting power? That won’t be clear by year’s end. But the world is ready to embrace the new, and it’s our jobs to invest, invent, support, and experiment with how we inform ourselves through the media. Related, but not exactly the same…

    10/A new “social network” emerges by the end of the year. Likely based on messaging and encryption (a la Signal or Confide), the network will have many of the same features as the original Facebook, but will be based on a paid model. There’ll be some clever new angle – there always is – but in the end, it’s a way to manage your social life digitally. There are simply too many pissed off and guilt-ridden social media billionaires with the means to launch such a network – I mean, Insta’s Kevin Systrom, WhatsApp’s Jan and Brian, not to mention the legions of mere multi-millionaires who have bled out of Facebook’s battered body of late.

    So that’s it. On a personal note, I’ll be happily busy this year. Since moving to NY this past September, I’ve got several new projects in the works, some still under wraps, some already in process. NewCo and the Shift Forum will continue, but in reconstituted forms.  I’ll keep up with my writing as best I can; more likely than not most of it will focus the governance of data and how its effect our national dialog. Thanks, as always, for reading and for your emails, comments, and tweets. I read each of them and am inspired by all. May your 2019 bring fulfillment, peace, and gratitude.

    Previous predictions:

    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 17:01:29 on 2018/09/09 Permalink
    Tags: Instagram, , Snapchat, , , The Web As Platform   

    Social Media Too Shall Pass 


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    At dinner last night with my wife and our 14 year-old daughter, I noticed a circular table of four teenage girls eating alone. They were about the same age as my daughter, who wasn’t exactly thrilled to be stuck with her parents as company on her first weekend of the school year. As we ate, I paid attention to the group’s dynamics, imagining them to be a possible reflection of what my daughter would be doing once she started going out alone with friends in New York City.

    The most striking characteristic of the group was how they used their phones. The default position for each of them – their resting state, if you will – was to hold  their device at chin level while gazing into the blue grip of its screen. They looked away only to point out something happening on that screen – at no time during an hour or so of observation did any of them put their phones down to simply talk to one another.

    I pointed this out to my daughter – I’m used to seeing kids on their phones, but this was a bit over the top. “Is that normal?” I asked her. “For sure,” she replied, looking over her shoulder at the clutch of zombified girls. “But,” I protested, “at some point they’ll put them down and just be human beings enjoying each other’s company, right?”

    “Not really,” my daughter replied casually. “They’re Snapping,” she stated matter of factly, deducing the fact from the social and physical interactions particular to that app. “They’re adding their dinner to their stories.”

    I ventured into old-person-yelling-from-the-porch territory. “But…they’re not going to do that the entire dinner, are they?”

    “No,” she replied, “soon they’ll be taking photos of each other for Instagram.”

    Within five minutes, that’s exactly what the girls were doing.

    “Surely this can’t be a lasting behavior,” I rejoined. “Twenty years from now, we’re all going to look back at this era and realize what a bunch of idiots we were, right?”

    My daughter looked at me, considered my statement, and without any apparent irony, agreed.

     
  • feedwordpress 13:43:08 on 2018/09/06 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , , The Web As Platform,   

    Facebook, Twitter, and the Senate Hearings: It’s The Business Model, Period. 


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    “We weren’t expecting any of this when we created Twitter over 12 years ago, and we acknowledge the real world negative consequences of what happened and we take the full responsibility to fix it.”

    That’s the most important line from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s testimony yesterday – and in many ways it’s also the most frustrating. But I agree with Ben Thompson, who this morning points out (sub required) that Dorsey’s philosophy on how to “fix it” was strikingly different from that of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (or Google, which failed to send a C-level executive to the hearings). To quote Dorsey (emphasis mine): “Today we’re committing to the people and this committee to do that work and do it openly. We’re here to contribute to a healthy public square, not compete to have the only one. We know that’s the only way our business thrives and helps us all defend against these new threats.”

    Ben points out that during yesterday’s hearings, Dorsey was willing to tie the problems of public discourse on Twitter directly to the company’s core business model, that of advertising. Sandberg? She ducked the issue and failed to make the link.

    You may recall my piece back in January, Facebook Can’t Be Fixed. In it I argue that the only way to address Facebook’s failings as a public square would be to totally rethink its core advertising model, a golden goose which has driven the company’s stock on an six-year march to the stratosphere. From the post:

    “[Facebook’s ad model is] the honeypot which drives the economics of spambots and fake news, it’s the at-scale algorithmic enabler which attracts information warriors from competing nation states, and it’s the reason the platform has become a dopamine-driven engagement trap where time is often not well spent.

    To put it in Clintonese: It’s the advertising model, stupid.

    We love to think our corporate heroes are somehow super human, capable of understanding what’s otherwise incomprehensible to mere mortals like the rest of us. But Facebook is simply too large an ecosystem for one person to fix.”

    That one person, of course, is Mark Zuckerberg, but what I really meant was one company – Facebook. It’s heartening to see Sandberg acknowledge, as she did in her written testimony, the scope and the import of the challenges Facebook presents to our democracy (and to civil society around the world). But regardless of sops to “working closely with law enforcement and industry peers” and “everyone working together to stay ahead,” it’s clear Facebook’s approach to “fixing” itself remains one of going it alone. A robust, multi-stakeholder approach would quickly identify Facebook’s core business model as a major contributor to the problem, and that’s an existential threat.

    Sandberg’s most chilling statement came at the end of of her prepared remarks, in which she defined Facebook as engaged in an “arms race” against actors who co-opt the company’s platforms. Facebook is ready, Sandberg implied, to accept the challenge of lead arms producer in this race: “We are determined to meet this challenge,” she concludes.

    Well I’m sorry, I don’t want one private company in charge of protecting civil society. I prefer a more accountable social structure, thanks very much.

    I’ve heard this language of “arms races” before, in far less consequential framework: Advertising fraud, in particular on Google’s search platforms. To combat this fraud, Google locked arms with a robust network of independent companies, researchers, and industry associations, eventually developing a solution that tamed the issue (it’s never going to go away entirely).  That approach – an open and transparent process, subject to public checks and balances – is what is desperately needed now, and what Dorsey endorsed in his testimony. He’s right to do so. Unlike Google’s ad fraud issues of a decade ago, Facebook and Twitter’s problems extend to life or death, on-the-ground consequences – the rise of a dictator in the Philippines, genocide in Myanmar, hate crimes in Sri Lanka, and the loss of public trust (and possibly an entire presidential election) here in the United States. The list is terrifying, and it’s growing every week.

    These are not problems one company, or even a heterogenous blue ribbon committee, can or should “fix.” Facebook does not bear full responsibility for these problems – anymore than Trump is fully responsible for the economic, social, and cultural shifts which swept him into office last year.  But just as Trump has become the face of what’s broken in American discourse today, Facebook – and tech companies more broadly – have  become the face of what’s broken in capitalism. Despite its optimistic, purpose driven, and ultimately naive founding principles, the technology industry has unleashed a mutated version of steroidal capitalism upon the world, failing along the way to first consider the potential damage its business models might wreak.

    In an OpEd introducing the ideas in his new book “Farsighted”, author Steven Johnson details how good decisions are made, paying particular attention to how important it is to have diverse voices at the table capable of imagining many different potential scenarios for how a decision might play out. “Homogeneous groups — whether they are united by ethnic background, gender or some other commonality like politics — tend to come to decisions too quickly,” Johnson writes.  “They settle early on a most-likely scenario and don’t question their assumptions, since everyone at the table seems to agree with the broad outline of the interpretation.”

    Sounds like the entire tech industry over the past decade, no?

    Johnson goes on to quote the economist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling: “One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.”

    It’s clear that the consequences of Facebook’s platforms never occurred to Zuckerberg, Sandberg, Dorsey, or other leaders in the tech industry. But now that the damage is clear, they must be brave enough to consider new approaches.

    To my mind, that will require objective study of tech’s business models, and an open mind toward changing them. It seems Jack Dorsey has realized that. Sheryl Sandberg and her colleagues at Facebook? Not so much.

     

     

     

     
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