Just like that, 2018 has come to a close. I realize there are a few days left in the year, but the content industry is already well into its cycle of recaps and predictions, and readers can be forgiven if they would like to their attention to more festive matters to close out the year. Personally, I have a lot of shopping to do — but I’ll also be spending the time planning 2019. It’s going to be a big year for The Interface, and I need to spend some time away from Twitter to give it some shape. There may be a bonus issue or two — I have a few stories publishing before the end of the year that are relevant to our interests here — but otherwise your daily rundown of the day’s top news in social networks and democracy will return Jan. 7th.
And what sort of world will we return to? I asked you to share your predictions for social media in 2019 on Twitter, and you had lots of great ideas. (Unfortunately I heard almost exclusively from men!) Let’s look at some of your best suggestions, with a few of my own sprinkled in:
SOCIAL NETWORKS: Monte Thigpen predicts more paid social networks. The conventional wisdom holds that social networks only function if as many people as possible are on them. But it seems just as likely that the conventional wisdom is wrong. For an idea what this might look like, consider the rise of paid Slack channels.
Nik Sharma is among those who think 2019 will see a return to the group chat as our social network of choice. I said this myself on a recent episode of Recode Decode. And Taylor Lorenz said it in 2017, because that’s how far in the future she lives. (Ryan Ruark adds that this phenomenon will be of particular benefit to Discord and Slack.)
Dave Smith says “Apple or Google will try some sort of social network again.” We know former Facebook wunderkind Michael Sayman is cooking up some sort of social app at Google, so consider this prediction endorsed.
POLICY: Will Oremus says “Heads of state with autocratic leanings will use this year’s valid concerns about Facebook as an excuse to block access, nationalize it, or ban it from their country altogether.” It’s happening already, so sure!
Bret Carmichael predicts we’ll see steps taken toward national privacy regulation, hampered by party warfare. Sounds about right! Reminder that the industry has until 2020 until California’s privacy bill goes into effect, and folks I’ve spoken to expect that the race to pass a national bill will come down to the wire.
FACEBOOK: Ken Goldsholl predicts a decline in usage in North America. Brandon Arvay predicts paid Facebook group memberships. I predict that the modest decline in users will make some of Facebook’s content moderation / foreign interference problems better in 2019, while introducing new worries about its long-term business. And I do not predict that 2019 is the year that Facebook stories take off.
INSTAGRAM: Matt Wood predicts that Instagram’s ongoing Facebookification project will continue, but also that the app will suffer a serious data breach. I won’t guess the specifics, but I do think 2019 will see some sort of reckoning over Instagram. Its charismatic founders are gone, the press is waking up to some long-simmering issues there, and there’s an increasing sense among a certain elite that looking at the app all the time is bad for you.
On the product side Tu-Lam Pham says shopping will have a breakout year on Instagram. I predict we’ll see that standalone shopping app in 2019, myself. And probably that direct messaging app they’ve been testing, too.
TWITTER: Will Pfeffer, knowing it will hurt me, predicts “Twitter will make dozens of controversial UI changes and none of them will involve an edit button.” He is probably right.
Kevin Middleton says Twitter will get pulled from the App Store over adult content — a prediction that seems surprisingly likely after the Tumblr fiasco this year.
I predict Twitter will muddle along, and everyone will constantly call it “this hell website” and use it anyway.
YOUTUBE: Former Facebooker Ben Cunningham predicts more serialized longform content on YouTube. Could we see “Serial,” but for video? What about “S-Town,” or “Slow Burn,” or “Caliphate”? Would love to see some folks try. For an idea of what this might look like, check out Shane Dawson’s docu-series on the notorious failed YouTube conference TanaCon.
No one, for what it’s worth, predicted that YouTube would get its right-wing extremism problem under control.
SNAP: Cunningham predicts more augmented-reality stuff at the expense of everything else, which sounds about right. Absent a surprise hit product, it’s going to be a tough year for Snap.
TIKTOK: No one really sent in a TikTok prediction, unless you count AppAnnie’s PR agency, which offered this: “In 2019, 10 minutes of every hour spent consuming media across TV and internet will come from individuals streaming video on mobile. App Annie predicts this growth will be fueled in part by the rise of social video apps like TikTok and the prominence of short-form video in social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat.”
I can’t tell whether TikTok is simmering mostly below the radar right now — the low-and-slow-growing social network that Facebook has traditionally feared the most — or whether it’s already petering out. So count the future of TikTok as a true 2019 mystery, at least for me.
NEW APPS: Alex Alam DM’s fun prediction about a new social app that links various chat apps together, Adium-style:
Maybe this year or next, I’d expect to see a hilariously well-funded startup claiming to be “IFTTT for chat apps” which basically just means they remade Adium/old OSX Messages. If they time it right, there will be much ballyhoo until the major platforms arbitrarily shut off API access, crippling and dooming it. It will somehow still work with IRC, gchat, and uhhhhh, Yo.
Alam also predicts “six or more” failed Tumblr replacements, along with significant growth for Mastodon.
Jannick Malling emails to say that the next generation of social apps will simply add social features to existing vertical apps:
“It will start to be thought of more as an [operating system] for every app type, whether that’s for real estate, mental wellness, financial investing, or even scooters.
In every niche interest or activity, the apps that serve will continue to become more inherently social – because the underlying demand/desire for connecting with others and building a sense of community around those is still intact.
Something else we can predict with some certainty: the arrival of Byte, Dom Hoffman’s “sequel” to looping-video app Vine.
TROLLS: Shout out to the following joke predictions:
- “A US congressman provides a succinct, accurate and illuminating explanation of how a social network, any social network, functions.” — Ned Berke
- “LinkedIn stories, in a desperate attempt to boost engagement, crossover into Microsoft 365 products and cause rioting in the streets when folks learn they cannot opt out.” — Nick Haase
- “Facebook Portal 2 announced and it can walk and follow u around ur house. Zuckie promises that it goes to sleep Roomba style at night but u woke up in the middle of the night once and it definitely was looking through ur cupboards” — Originalsmell
Thanks for reading The Interface this year. Happy holidays to you, and here’s to time well spent together in 2019.
Facebook’s photo leak
In an extremely 2018 development, Facebook disclosed yet another data leak on Friday. This one, which affected as many as 6.8 million people, allowed up to 1,500 apps from 876 different developers to view photos they weren’t supposed to have access to. Here’s Jake Kastrenakes:
Facebook said the bug had to do with an error related to Facebook Login and its photos API, which allows developers to access Facebook photos within their own apps. All of the impacted users had logged into a third-party app using their Facebook accounts and granted them some degree of access to view their photos.
“We’re sorry this happened,” writes Tomer Bar, engineering director at Facebook. The disclosure comes exactly one day after Facebook opened a pop-up installation in New York to show people how “you can manage your privacy” on the site.
At TechCrunch, Josh Constine reports that this could get expensive for Facebook:
Facebook initially didn’t disclose when it discovered the bug, but in response to TechCrunch’s inquiry, a spokesperson says that it was discovered and fixed on September 25th. They say it took time for the company to investigate which apps and people were impacted, and build and translate the warning notification it will send impacted users. The delay could put Facebook at risk of GDPR fines for not promptly disclosing the issue within 72 hours that can go up to 20 million pounds or 4 percent of annual global revenue.
However, Facebook tells me it notified the IDPC that oversees GDPR on November 22nd, as soon as it established the bug was considered a reportable breach under GDPR guidelines. It says that it had to investigate to make that conclusion and let the IDPC know within 72 hours once it had. The head of communications for the IDPC Graham Doyle tells TechCrunch “The Irish DPC has received a number of breach notifications from Facebook since the introduction of the GDPR on May 25, 2018. With reference to these data breaches, including the breach in question, we have this week commenced a statutory inquiry examining Facebook’s compliance with the relevant provisions of the GDPR.”
Charlie Warzel says the company no longer deserves our data:
The timing is interesting — Facebook discovered the bug around the time it publicly announced a (different) massive bug that exposed 30 million users personal information in late September. In October, the scope of the breach widened with reports that the vulnerability exposed not just some users’ emails and phone numbers, but profile information including gender, location, birthdates, and recent search history, as well. The FBI is now investigating that breach.
That’s two massive vulnerabilities in a matter of months — in the same year as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which also involved millions of Facebook users. Taken together, screw ups are mind-boggling in scope, affecting tens of millions of people. They aren’t mere email address or password leaks — though emails were certainly leaked — these are breaches of highly personal information — location histories, search histories, photos.
On one hand, unless people were uploading extremely sensitive photos to Facebook, the fallout from this latest breach would seem limited. Constine describes the data in question “photos users uploaded but either decided not to post, that got interrupted by connectivity issues, or that they otherwise never finished sharing.” When I think of my own photos that fit that description, it’s a lot of dumb selfies, blurry low-light shots, and other camera-roll clutter. I’d rather third-party developers not have them, but I wouldn’t panic if they did.
Which is why I expect the subsequent discussion here will focus on timing: what Facebook knew, when Facebook knew it, and whether it met its obligations to regulators. I also expect this incident to be a recurring paragraph in stories about privacy legislation in 2019, of which there will be many.
Lately I keep meeting friends who tell me they’re limiting their social media usage — either by deleting their accounts outright, or simply deleting the mobile apps and making only occasional visits to sites like Facebook on the desktop. (I did a version of this myself last year when I turned off all Facebook notifications, which helped me cut down my time in the app to a few minutes a day.)
When I ask folks how they got to this point, sometimes there is a single breaking point. But more often, I find that it’s a steady accretion of annoyances and scandals that pushes people over the edge. At some point, enough things go wrong, in a short enough period of time, that people say “the hell with it.” The details of this latest breach are not, perhaps, as worrisome as they might first appear from the headlines. But I suspect that, for some small group of people, this could be the final straw.
It wouldn’t be a proper end of 2018 post unless we had an update on the never-ending Veep episode that has been Jack Dorsey’s world travels. Thank you Ryan Mac for this timely update:
After facing backlash for his visit to Myanmar, a country that has experienced severe sectarian violence and genocide exacerbated by social media, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took to his social media service earlier this week to say that his trip was “purely personal.” It was meant to improve his practice of meditation, he wrote in a series of tweets, and there were no conversations with the government or non-governmental organizations while he was there.
A now-deleted Facebook post shared with BuzzFeed News, however, says that Dorsey took a Burmese government-arranged hot air balloon ride during his more than 10-day stay in the country. A Twitter spokesperson confirmed the balloon ride took place, but said that Dorsey had no knowledge of the government’s involvement in the flight.
Gerrit De Vynck and Josh Eidelson report that Googlers are facing external pressure over their company’s decisions:
“When I joined Google I never expected we would be the target of an attack ad by Amnesty International,” Harris replied on Twitter, appending her tweet with a sad face emoji. “The Google I joined once (appeared to? pretended to? actually?) stood for so much more than increasing ad revenue,” she added in another tweet on Nov. 30.
Harris, a lead product manager at the company, didn’t respond to requests for comment. But her social-media posts are indicative of a broader uneasiness among some Googlers.
Ryan Gallagher posts a helpful organization chart for Project Dragonfly.
In total, only approximately 300 Google employees – 0.35% of the company’s 88,000 total staff – have worked on the censored search engine, which was designed to blacklist broad categories of information about human rights, democracy, and peaceful protest. The search platform would also link Chinese users’ search records to their cellphone numbers and share people’s search histories with a Chinese partner company — meaning that Chinese security agencies, which routinely target activists and critics, could obtain the data.
Elian Peltier and Adam Satariano find at least two Yellow Vests who think Facebook is playing an important role in the movement:
“Both fuel each other,” said Mr. Mirallès, 27, a real-estate agent in Perpignan who moderates a Facebook group for protesters that has amassed more than 305,000 members. “Without Facebook there wouldn’t be such a movement, but the online activity is fueled by the energy in the streets.” […]
“I’m not sure Facebook should have this role of amplification,” said Ingrid Levavasseur, 32, a nurse in Normandy who has become a spokeswoman for the movement. For many groups, she said, “it has gotten out of their hands.”
Ben Makuch and Mack Lamoureux explore “The Base,” a social network that they say “appears to be an effort to shift Naziism from a divided digital space to physical, violent insurgency.” Maybe the FBI can explore this too? Please?
Within the confines of a secure chat room viewed by VICE, Spear and his burgeoning global web of terror cells are networking, creating propaganda, organizing in-person meet-ups, and discussing potential violence or “direct action” against minority groups, especially Jewish and black Americans. An extensive online library contains a trove of manuals with instructions on lone wolf terror-tactics, gunsmithing, data mining, interrogation tactics, counter-surveillance techniques, bomb making, chemical weapons creation, and guerilla warfare.
The network’s vetting process serves to funnel committed extremists from around the internet into a group explicitly focused on providing users with terroristic skills, in order to produce real-world violence. Members of The Base have made it clear they’re recruiting applicants with military and explosives backgrounds. And in addition to homemade bombs, members have also begun discussing trying to find unexploded World War II ordnance to make improvised explosive devices.
Rob Price has the scoop that Building 8, which was conceived as a Willy Wonka-style magic laboratory for ex-DARPA and -Google legend Regina Dugan to, among other things, let us hear with our skin, has been shut down. The writing was probably on the wall when Dugan quit last year after only 18 months, having shipped nothing. On the other hand, Facebook’s hardware chief says the story is misleading that that “the research we initially started in Building 8 continues in our Facebook Reality Labs Research Group.”
Some of its most experimental projects have been shunted over to a new division, the Facebook Reality Labs, and its hardware segment has been rebranded as Portal following the launch of Facebook’s home video-chat device.
The Building 8 brand, meanwhile, has quietly been killed off completely, a spokesperson told Business Insider.
Interesting note in Sarah Fischer’s story on Facebook looking for new revenue sources: time spent on Facebook properties really does appear to be in decline:
According to a note sent to clients by Wieser, Facebook-related properties (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp) accounted for under 14% of digital content consumption last month, which is down from its 18% share two years ago and 16% one year ago.
Megan Farokhmanesh visited Facebook’s pop-up privacy kiosk in Bryant Park and found an F-shaped marshmallow and wondered what the point was:
The pop-up opened at 11AM on Thursday, mainly to a swell of journalists. In the hours around lunch, it was still filled with clicking cameras and interviewers who took up most of the space. As a handful of holiday shoppers wandered in, they made the most of the snack table before circling back up, wagon-style. One Facebook employee acknowledged that the pop-up had mostly catered to media so far, but they were hopeful that more ordinary users will trickle in as offices closed and the markets livened up. A Facebook brand ambassador earnestly offered a survey to people as they left; the majority so far, he said, had declined to offer their thoughts on how the event had changed their view of privacy and Facebook.
Facebook employees emphasized that the event was to promote safety and understanding in its customers. A hands-on experience or a face-to-face with another human might help an average user better understand what their data is actually worth. But the small scope of the pop-up, combined with essentially printing out instructions already available online, felt like a bizarre first step — especially when the location was designed to draw in holiday shoppers who were likely just seeking refuge from the cold.
Daniel “Uptown” Funke answers yesterday’s Guardian story about disgruntled third-party Facebook fact-checkers with a survey and finds that overall sentiment leans positive. Noteworthy stat: the fact-checkers have collectively branded at least 30,000 links as false over the past two years.
Judged by their own objectives, fact-checkers appear moderately satisfied with the partnership, rating it on average a 3.5 out of 5. If this were a Yelp review, the restaurant wouldn’t be a must-eat but also not somewhere you would risk food poisoning.
They appear similarly satisfied (3.5 out of 5) with the payment they receive from Facebook for their work — while precise amounts are not generally public and vary across partners based on the work done, Factcheck.org disclosed receiving a palindromic $188,881 from Facebook in fiscal year 2018.
Alex Heath and Tanaya Macheel check in on Facebook’s blockchain division and find that it is exploring a new digital currency. Perhaps we will someday use it to pay our fines from the Facebook Supreme Court:
In recent months, the world’s largest social network has been quietly trying to recruit product managers, engineers, academics, and legal experts with experience in cryptocurrencies and payments, according to people familiar with the effort. Nearly 40 employees — including several former PayPal execs — work in Facebook’s secretive blockchain group, and the company recently appointed a head of business development to oversee acquisitions and deals in the space.
Since officially forming its blockchain group just eight months ago, Facebook has sent staffers to crypto conferences around the world to recruit researchers, cryptographers, and top academics in the field. At a private dinner Facebook hosted during a recent crypto conference, one attendee told Cheddar that Facebook employees pitched the idea of creating a decentralized digital currency for the social network’s 2 billion users.
Great. I had just hit 10 YouTube subscribers, and now this happens:
An official post on YouTube’s product forum states these sweeps are part of routine maintenance the company performs. Removing spam accounts helps to keep YouTube “a fair playing field” for creators, since they can artificially increase a channel’s subscriber count. It’s unclear how many channels will be affected, but YouTube does want people to prepare for a decline.
“We regularly verify the legitimacy of accounts and actions on your YouTube channel,” the blog post reads. “As part of these regular checks, we identified and will remove a number of subscribers that were in fact spam from our systems.”
People love using Instagram but they sometimes ask: why aren’t all of my actions on this platform being used explicitly for advertising purposes? Well here’s another common data-generating activity that will soon be roped into revenue duty, reports Sal Rodriguez:
Instagram last month introduced a tool that lets users bookmark products they find on the social network. Now, Instagram is working on an insight tool that will show brands which of their items users are saving, said Layla Amjadi, Instagram product manager. Instagram intends to release this feature within the first half of 2019.
Facebook Portal: still in active development:
A new update out today for Facebook’s Portal devices adds some much-needed features to the dedicated video chat screens. Now, both the smaller, standard Portal and the larger Portal+ version will be able to access the web through a custom-built browser. That opens up the devices to a proper version of YouTube, Facebook.com, and any number of other news and entertainment sites. (Portal could access YouTube before, but only its rudimentary smart TV version.) In addition to a browser, Facebook is also launching support for its Instant Games platform on Portal, starting with titles like Battleship and Words with Friends.
Anne Helen Peterson traces the transformation of Sandberg’s image over the years and concludes that observers never paid enough attention to the COO’s core function: running a business:
While the public perception of Sandberg has shifted dramatically — even Michelle Obama recently ragged on Lean In — as far as we know, little about Sandberg or her business strategy has changed. We’re just seeing the earlier incarnations of her image for what they were: well-polished distractions from the much darker reality of Silicon Valley. Multibillion-dollar tech companies do not ultimately exist to help us live more successful, fulfilled, connected lives. They are built to make money, and consolidate enough power to keep making it — and the executives that lead them excel by doing so with ruthless efficiency. Unicorns aren’t real, and never have been; the vast majority of us are not Sandberg’s mentees or her friends. We’re customers, and Sandberg’s most pressing business has always been business itself.
Kevin Roose explore why YouTube’s year-end content marketing video triggered an apocalypse of downvotes. (My idea for next year: YouTube releases both a “good” rewind, full of G-rated creators, and a “bad” rewind, where it investigates the growth of right-wing extremism as it spreads through recommendation algorithms and radicalizes a generation of young men.)
Drama between YouTube and its creators is nothing new. But the Rewind controversy is indicative of a larger issue at YouTube, which is trying to promote itself as a bastion of cool, inclusive creativity while being accused of radicalizing a generation of young people by pushing them toward increasingly extreme content, and allowing reactionary cranks and conspiracy theorists to dominate its platform.
YouTube’s efforts are complicated by the fact that it does, in fact, have many diverse and interesting creators making compelling videos. But those voices have struggled, at times, to be heard above the roar of the site’s most incendiary figures. There is no mention in YouTube Rewind of Alex Jones, the founder of the conspiracy-theory site Infowars, who built a YouTube empire with millions of subscribers and generated more than 1.6 billion views. There was no mention of the group of political YouTubers who make up what Rebecca Lewis at the Data & Society Research Institute has called YouTube’s “alternative influence network,” an influential cohort of video creators who have used their platforms to promote ideas from the right-wing fringes.
I am personally a fan of Facebook’s effort to require more disclosures from political advertisers — among other things, it makes life more difficult for foreign agents trying to influence our elections. There were hiccups, but the response — including this take from the executive director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe — really put Facebook in no-good-deed-goes-unpunished territory. Anyway, I suppose we can debate whether a nonprofit buying an ad telling people to vote should require some basic disclosures up front — but I think it should! It really isn’t that big a deal! Just send in the danged postcard, people:
Several paid advertising campaigns run by my colleagues and clients have been inexplicably obstructed by Facebook’s policing in the past several months. Facebook refused to allow my New York cultural nonprofit, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, to pay to promote a post encouraging people to vote in the midterms because our page was not “authorized to run ads related to politics.” A campaign promoting a lecture about sculpture at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts was blocked because Facebook’s censors mistakenly believed it was intended to influence an election in Ireland.
And finally ...
I included the worst things on the internet in 2018 here earlier this week, so it’s only fair that I end with the best. I’m not really on celebrity social media much, but here’s a nice reminder that some people generally use it for good:
Social media is, by and large, a poison; any quantity is probably too much. And yet there are, dappled among the many celebrities who refuse to log off, a small number who shine like a beacon in the darkness. There is the transparent goodness of possible golden retriever Chris Evans, who only calls Trump “Biff”; the churlish wit of Vince Staples; and Big Boi’s wonderfully dadlike punning. Ariana Grande, a person who is so good at being famous that she turned a break-up into one of the year’s best singles, refuses to stop owning Piers Morgan. Every Sunday we get to bear witness to The Rock’s comically over-sized “cheat meal”; Tom Hanks still signs all his tweets “Hanx”; Patti Smith joined Instagram and is extremely, unshakably Patti Smith. Chrissy Teigen will not log off and will not stop dunking on her husband. Jameela Jamil seems uniquely well-positioned to call out the bullshit of the celebrity apparatus. And, lastly, no one found the Henry Cavill mustache fiasco funnier than Henry Cavill himself, who created a memorial video for it after shaving. How long any of these good famous people can remain good on the internet remains to be seen; for now, though, they have withstood its polarizing winds, reminding us, in the process, why we liked them in the first place.
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