Jack Dorsey is talking.
He is talking to the Huffington Post’s Ashley Feinberg.
He is talking to The Ringer’s Bill Simmons.
He is talking to Rolling Stone’s Brian Hiatt.
He is talking to Sam Harris, although that podcast hasn’t come out yet.
He is talking in the way Jack Dorsey always talks, which is: calmly, patiently, thoughtfully, earnestly.
He can anticipate every question, because he has read his Twitter replies, and he knows what is on your mind. He will not shy away from discussing Nazis, or harassment, or filter bubbles, or smartphone addiction. Name a problem that you have encountered on Twitter, or an unintended consequence of Twitter that you worry about, and Dorsey will cop to it.
He is talking, but one reason that he is talking to let you know that he is listening, too.
He has been listening for a long time.
In September, Mark Zuckerberg was talking. The New Yorker was profiling him, and at the time I expressed frustration at interviews about tech platforms’ challenges that place the CEO at the center. In some ways, I understand the inclination — the CEO is traditionally in the best position to enact change. But we have learned that once social networks grow to a certain scale, they begin to operate beyond their creators’ control. You can ask the CEOs what they plan to do about it. But the answers will always tell you less than you hope.
This turns out to be particularly true in the case of Twitter. As I wrote back then:
Lately I find myself less interested in reading tech CEOs perform their thoughtfulness. During the Alex Jones deplatforming drama, I wrote that Twitter’s dithering was frustrating because the company so often substitutes thinking for action. Dorsey gave several interviews during this time, and I read them all, and I learned almost nothing. It isn’t that the questions were bad, or that Dorsey sidestepped them. It’s that what he thinks is ultimately less consequential than what he does.
There are talented product managers inside Twitter who would do more, if they could. But they are often stymied by internal roadblocks that — unlike the collective behavior of hundreds of millions of users — actually are under the CEO’s control.
At Twitter, good ideas languish for years. The expansion of a tweet from 140 to 280 characters required such bruising internal battles that the designer responsible quit in exhaustion after shipping it, I’m told. Other proposed features are abandoned when product managers realize that shipping them will need support from different divisions inside the company — requiring PMs to get buy-in from colleagues who are already busy with their own priorities, and who typically have little incentive to take detours.
Ask anyone whoever left Twitter for another company and they’ll tell you the main thing they notice is how much faster things get done at the new place. Twitter continues to be defined by its paralysis.
But paralysis doesn’t make for a very good story. And so we get the CEO’s performative listening tour, in which he can assure all of us that he takes our concerns very seriously, as a simple effort to measure the health of public conversations prepares to enter its second year with little to show for it beyond an effort to make tweets look more like text messages.
On Twitter, everyone laughs at the bit in Rolling Stone where Dorsey says that Zuckerberg once served him a goat that he killed ... with “a laser gun.”
I don’t know. A stun gun. They stun it, and then he knifed it. Then they send it to a butcher. Evidently in Palo Alto there’s a rule or regulation that you can have six livestock on any lot of land, so he had six goats at the time. I go, “We’re eating the goat you killed?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Have you eaten goat before?” He’s like, “Yeah, I love it.” I’m like, “What else are we having?” “Salad.”
Fewer people seemed to note the section in which Dorsey suggested that Square has to be run well, because it’s about money, whereas Twitter does not, because it’s about words:
HIATT: By all accounts, Square runs more smoothly than Twitter.
DORSEY: It has to, though. Yeah, you’re dealing with people’s money. I mean, it’s extremely emotional. If you lose 140 characters, people are like, “Eh.” If you lose $140 or even $1.40, it’s important. We knew the severity, and we knew how emotional this was to people. We’re impacting their livelihoods, so we had to get every single thing right. There’s a lot of regulation around payments. If you do something wrong, you go to jail.
Imagine a world in which Dorsey believed, and acted as if, Twitter had to get every single thing right. Imagine a world in which regulation compelled him to.
Jack Dorsey isn’t talking about that.
Scrutiny of the big tech platforms is increasing, and (naturally) so is their lobbying spending. Google and Facebook set new records for lobbying spending last year, Ben Brody reports.
Alphabet Inc.’s Google unit spent more than $21 million to influence Washington, according to federal disclosures, in a year when its chief executive officer, Sundar Pichai, made his first appearance before Congress. The search giant, which spent $4.9 million in the last three months of the year, according to a Tuesday filing, beat its previous record of more than $18 million from 2017.
Amazon.com Inc. reported spending $3.7 million in the fourth quarter, bringing its total to $14.2 million for the year, more than the record $12.8 million the company spent in 2017.
How are tech platforms spending that lobbying money? Here’s one way, from Stephanie Mencimer:
Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have publicly acknowledged the dangers of global warming, but last week they all sponsored a conference that promoted climate change denial to young libertarians.
All three tech companies were sponsors of LibertyCon, the annual convention of the libertarian group Students for Liberty, which took place in Washington, DC. Google was a platinum sponsor, ponying up $25,000, and Facebook and Microsoft each contributed $10,000 as gold sponsors. The donations put the tech companies in the top tier of the event’s backers. But the donations also put the firms in company with some of the event’s other sponsors, which included three groups known for their work attacking climate change science and trying to undermine efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
Facebook is making it harder to create new pages after you get caught violating the rules on other pages that you’ve created. And it’s giving administrators a new view called “page quality” that rounds up previous violations or cases where their content was judged false by fact-checkers:
Facebook has announced changes to how it handles and communicates violations of its policies around the publishing of fake news and misinformation, with the goal of preventing publishers that operate large networks of pages and groups from skirting bans. Starting today, Facebook says it will reserve the right to take down existing pages and groups that are simply affiliated with those that have violated the company’s community standards, even if those pages or groups haven’t technically broken any rules.
Facebook says this is specifically to prevent users from using an adjacent or other existing page or group as a replacement once another has been flagged and taken down. Prior to this change, the page or group must have been made after the initial removal to be potentially affected simply for affiliation reasons. Now, Facebook says it can use this policy to pull down an affiliated page or group even if it was made before the takedown.
NewsGuard, which is Steve Brill’s effort to get platforms to pay his company to rate the credibility of news sources, signed a deal with Microsoft to integrate into its Edge web browser:
Edge has a tiny proportion of the global internet browser market and the NewsGuard plug-in is only included on the version for mobile users, not desktop users. The partnership was signed as part of Microsoft’s Defending Democracy programme; the tech company has no oversight over NewsGuard’s editorial verdicts.
Steve Brill, a NewsGuard co-founder, said the Mail Online verdict had been reached in a transparent manner. “We spell out fairly clearly in the label exactly how many times we have attempted to contact them. The analyst that wrote this writeup got someone on the phone who, as soon he heard who she was and where she was calling from, hung up. We would love to hear if they have a complaint or if they change anything.”
Kim Zetter interviews former Apple security expert and Pretty Good Privacy co-founder Jon Callas, who recently took a fellowship with the ACLU. He makes a point I don’t make enough here: we ought to be applying at least as much pressure to policy makers as we do to governments:
CALLAS: This is the larger reason why I thought that I should get into policy for a while rather than just technology, because there are a whole bunch of things that [we can’t solve through technology] that we have to solve through policy. Imagine there is a magic hacking box that you can plug into someone’s phone; if every cop has one and they can pull you over for your taillight [being] out and get everything that is on your phone, that has a lot of issues that are policy issues. If you look at the policy issues where they get a warrant to go into a room [that has] a whole bunch of filing cabinets what they get to look at is something the policy issues people have dealt with for decades, centuries. We saw a number of those in the news recently where they took files for [President Trump’s lawyer] Michael Cohen. There was a ‘special master’ appointed who was an impartial referee who says, ‘This is relevant and this is not relevant to the investigation.’ A magic hacking box doesn’t have anything like a special master. The policy questions we are getting now are changing now because of technology.
Nellie Bowles explores the law passed last month in Australia that allows authorities to force tech companies to build tools to bypass encryption:
The law says the Australian authorities cannot ask a company to build universal decryption capabilities or introduce systemwide weaknesses. But security experts and tech companies like Apple said that did not reflect what they would have to do to comply with an order. It is impossible, for example, to create a workaround for one iPhone’s encryption without potentially introducing something that could work for all of them, they said.
“All of Australian technology is tarnished by it,” said Mike Cannon-Brookes, one of the founders of Atlassian, a business software company that is among Australia’s biggest tech companies.
Kashmir Hill tries to go a week without using any Amazon service and finds that it is completely unrealistic:
Having to run to a physical store rather than opening my Amazon app every time the house runs out of paper towels is annoying, but the harder challenge is losing access to almost every form of digital entertainment I consume. My favorite time-wasting app, Words With Friends, won’t load. I can’t watch shows via Amazon Video, obviously, but I also can’t watch Netflix because, despite being a competitor of Amazon, Netflix uses AWS to serve its streams. HBO Go is another victim.
When my husband and I go for a run in Golden Gate Park, I discover I can’t record the run in my Runkeeper app without Amazon’s help. I also can’t download an audiobook from the library to my Axis360 app without AWS. Spotify is the last entertainment provider standing (for now), because its music lives in the Google cloud. Thank goog-ness.
Here’s a bright spot: Google is giving another $3.1 million to the Wikimedia Foundation, whose work it relies on and does not pay directly for. Louise Matsakis:
It’s certainly positive that Google is investing more in Wikipedia, one of the most popular and generally trustworthy online resources in the world. But the decision isn’t altruistic: Supporting Wikipedia is also a shrewd business decision that will likely benefit Google for years to come. Like other tech companies, including Amazon, Apple, and Facebook, Google already uses Wikipedia content in a number of its own products. When you search Google for “Paris,” a “knowledge panel” of information about the city will appear, some of which is sourced from Wikipedia. The company also has used Wikipedia articles to train machine learning algorithms, as well as fight misinformation on YouTube.
Martin Lewis went much further to get Facebook to do something than I ever have!
The consumer finance journalist Martin Lewis is dropping his lawsuit against Facebook over its repeated failure to prevent scam adverts from using his name and image, after the company agreed to donate £3m to set up an anti-scam project with Citizens Advice and launch a UK-specific one-click reporting tool.
Lewis, who launched the lawsuit after an estimated “thousands, possibly tens of thousands” of people fell prey to scams promoted using his reputation, said a court battle was never his aim.
Alyssa Bereznak writes about the rise of the “Instagram wall” — a space at live events for people to take pictures for social media:
Marrujo’s party is one of handful of private get-togethers I attended in 2018 that included a dedicated Instagram wall, where guests could take photos good enough to graduate from the Instagram Stories feed to a post on their permanent grids. For her annual holiday party, Cosmopolitan senior editor Jessica Goodman cleared out her home office and covered one of its walls with CVS wrapping paper. “We just wanted people to have fun,” she told me about the setup, which she’s done in some form for the past three years. “I also think setting up something that people can interact with at a party can be an ice breaker.” For a last-minute New Year’s Eve party, Brooklyn-based dietician Eling Tsai put up gold streamers and balloon letters that spelled out 2019. “I wasn’t originally intending on having an Instagram wall, but when I logged onto Amazon Prime to see what could be delivered to me within 24 hours of the 31st, Instagram wall accessories were nearly the only thing available,” she told me. “I didn’t hate it!” Danielle Tullo, a senior editor at Her Campus, serves heart-shaped pizzas at her annual Galentine’s Day party, alongside golden balloons that read “#GALS.” “I’ve always loved beautiful things, and now that we have Instagram, they can live on forever,” she said. “A good Instagram photo is like the new party favor.”
Steven T. Wright chronicles the rise and fall of LiveJournal:
At his platform’s height in the mid-aughts, LiveJournal was a titan of blogging, boasting over ten million accounts. Multiple people Ars spoke with gestured to the site’s largest community, the celebrity gossip page “Oh No They Didn’t” (ONTD) as a beacon of the site’s influence. As former LiveJournaler Abe Hassan puts it, even as larger social media platforms began to outgrow them, celebrity deaths would still bring so much traffic to ONTD that the site would crash, starting with Heath Ledger’s tragic end in 2008. The page also broke several big-ticket (but now forgotten) tabloid stories of the era, including Jamie Lynn Spears’ pregnancy (news of which was later picked up by larger outlets).
As early employee Janine Costanzo remembers, staff sentiment surrounding the acquisition was high. Some hoped that Six Apart would be able to provide a robust roadmap for keeping the service alive for the long haul. Better yet, the capital infusion allowed the company to hire longtime volunteers like Costanzo and Hassan as full-time employees, which helped boost morale. But as time went on, it became apparent that the paymasters at Six Apart didn’t quite understand how to navigate the calcified core of LiveJournal users that reared back at every change that the company wanted to make, especially when it came to cash flow.
Rolfe Winkler and Andrea Fuller have another great entry in one of my favorite content genres, everything on the internet is fake. It turns out companies are manipulating their reviews on Glassdoor, a kind of Yelp for workplaces:
In the Journal’s analysis, five-star ratings collectively made up 45% of reviews in the months where the number of reviews jumped, compared with 25% in the six months before and after. While it isn’t possible to determine from the data alone what caused each spike, a statistical test shows the likelihood that so many would skew positive by chance is highly improbable.
Well-known names with large spikes included messaging-app developer Slack Technologies Inc., professional-networking site LinkedIn, health insurer Anthem Inc., household-products maker Clorox Co. and Jack Daniel’s maker Brown-Forman Corp.
Sure, why not.
Well here is … something:
World Record Egg is a short dating simulator on itch.io where you date the famous Instagram egg. You hop around between different apps on your in-game phone to find the egg, and then bombard it with likes, retweets and thumbs ups in order to increase a meter of how much it likes you, which is indicated by the heart in the upper right corner.
World Record Egg has a cutesy visual style and is full of egg-based puns, but it also gets a little weird, which is telegraphed by a “horror” tag on the game store and a warning about jumpscares. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that you should probably take stock of whether or not you eat eggs for breakfast. Your new paramour may not like that.
Shoshana Zuboff, who has a new book out criticizing social network business models, talks with Observer tech columnist John Naughton. Consumers often cannot fully opt out of participating in their businesses, she says:
ZUBOFF: We are trapped in an involuntary merger of personal necessity and economic extraction, as the same channels that we rely upon for daily logistics, social interaction, work, education, healthcare, access to products and services, and much more, now double as supply chain operations for surveillance capitalism’s surplus flows. The result is that the choice mechanisms we have traditionally associated with the private realm are eroded or vitiated. There can be no exit from processes that are intentionally designed to bypass individual awareness and produce ignorance, especially when these are the very same processes upon which we must depend for effective daily life. So our participation is best explained in terms of necessity, dependency, the foreclosure of alternatives, and enforced ignorance.
Alex Webb says Facebook should take a cut of revenue from sponsored posts — which now have to be disclosed in the United Kingdom:
Being able readily to identify a sponsored post gives Zuckerberg the opportunity to start demanding a cut of the fee that influencers earn, particularly if he can offer brands accompanying granular data on the audiences they’re reaching. That would allow him to boost Instagram’s lagging ARPU. The CMA’s move will also help Alphabet Inc., parent of YouTube, and Snap Inc., but Facebook really stands to benefit the most — the former doesn’t have a revenue problem, and the latter is a much smaller entity.
It’s that rare instance where the interests of both Facebook and the regulator align.
And finally ...
We talk a lot here about social networks being used to create a constant sense of panic. And so I was interested to learn that a similar sense of panic had recently been broadcast on a Google-owned surveillance camera:
“It warned that the United States had retaliated against Pyongyang and that people in the affected areas had three hours to evacuate,” Lyons said Monday. “It sounded completely legit, and it was loud and got our attention right off the bat. … It was five minutes of sheer terror and another 30 minutes trying to figure out what was going on.”
Lyons and her husband stood slack-jawed in the living room, terrified but also confused because the television continued airing the NFC Championship football game. As their scared 8-year-old son crawled underneath the rug, the couple realized the apocalyptic warning came from their Nest security camera atop their living room television.
And people say reading Twitter is stressful.
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