Two quick things: One, there were major formatting issues with Thursday’s newsletter; Revue says it was a bug. If you recoiled in horror from the formatting and skipped the (magnificent!) column, you can catch up here. Two, we’re looking forward to seeing lots of you in San Francisco on Tuesday for the second Interface Live event with Anna Wiener. I love meeting newsletter readers in person, so please say hi if you’re there! And now on with today’s update.
Are you ready for some football-assisted Big Tech brand rehab?
With the techlash in full swing, and Congress investigating the giants for various privacy and antitrust issues, tech companies have few obvious levers for reversing the erosion of public trust. But the Super Bowl, which brings together a critical mass of drunken Americans before their televisions to watch unnaturally large men shorten their lives, offers an appealing opportunity to reset the narrative on friendlier terms. On Sunday, three of our giants shot their shot.
Let’s see what they had to say.
Google, with its heartstring-tugging ad “Loretta,” made an emotional case for the collection and preservation of highly personal data. In it, an elderly man tells the Google Assistant a series of things he wants to remember about his dead wife. “Remember she always snorted when she laughed,” goes one. “Loretta used to hum showtunes,” is another. “A little help with the little things,” the ad concludes, as make-you-cry piano chords tinkle in the background. The message is clear: tell Google everything you know now, or forget your dead wife forever.
I found it all rather moving, in spite of myself, even if the user experience of remembering currently leaves something to be desired. (It’s just “Here’s what you told me to remember,” followed by a dictated list of bullet points. “Show me photos of me and Loretta,” also featured in the ad, works much better.) Anyway the ad is based on the experience of actual Googlers, so if you don’t like this ad you’re a bad person!
Over at Amazon, #BeforeAlexa — yes, the ad was named after its own social hashtag; get it trending fam! — featured Ellen DeGeneres and Portia De Rossi wondering what life was like before the introduction of the company’s voice-activated assistant. (The period before Alexa covers all of human history before November 2014, when DeGeneres and De Rossi were 56 and 41, respectively.) It goes on to show a bunch of jobs that were eliminated by automation.
It’s pretty funny, particularly the opening shot of a maid lowering the temperature by grabbing a flaming log from the fireplace and throwing it through a glass window. But it also seemed a bit tone deaf — not just by mocking the idea of human beings doing labor, but also a bit where a newsboy tells a customer who asks him for the day’s headlines “Doesn’t matter. It’s all fake.” Given how often that charge is leveled by the president against the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post, the line’s inclusion here was beyond weird.
Elsewhere at the Super Bowl, Bezos came out as a Lizzo fan, prompting a heated Twitter discourse about whether being friends with the billionaire makes you a class traitor.
Both Google and Amazon are Super Bowl ad veterans; Google did its first 10 years ago. Facebook had stayed away until this year, when it tasked Wieden + Kennedy with making an ad that showed off “positive ways to use the platform,” according to Fast Company. The result is “Ready to Rock,” an ad that suggests the agency’s brief was to make the absolute least offensive commercial possible.
In it, we see a variety of Facebook groups loosely themed around “rocks” — Moab rock climbers, rock buggies, amateur experimental rocketry, and so on. It culminates with Chris Rock meeting Rocky — well, the actor who played him, Sylvester Stallone — on top of the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps made famous by the movie. It was set to Twisted Sister’s 1984 cheeseball anthem “I Wanna Rock,” which was parodied in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.
Fast Company was, frankly, disturbingly excited about “Ready to Rock.”
This should be a Super Bowl ad home run. Huge global brand, with a product that provides almost unlimited fodder to play with, in the hands of one of the best ad agencies on the planet (if not the best) that just happens to specialize in making epic ads for iconic brands. W+K had its heavy hitters working on it, with creative vets who’ve created award-winning work for Old Spice and Nike, as well as agency chair and ad legend Susan Hoffman.
That firepower shines through in the results.
The ad racked up more than 21 million views on YouTube by mid-day Monday. That compares favorably to the Google ad’s 13.4 million views, and less well to Amazon’s 61 million views. It also had a much higher ratio of dislikes to likes than either of the other two ads.
When I sat down to view all three ads together, I hoped they might tell us something about the way tech platforms would seek to reinvent themselves amid new pressure from governments and their user bases. Instead, what I found was fairly straightforward consumer marketing. Google wants to promote its technical lead in voice recognition; Amazon wants to promote its dominance in the same category; Facebook wants to pivot to private messaging.
And yet the ads do reveal one way the companies have consistently differed for years. Google and Amazon relentlessly promote their fundamental utility, while Facebook is left to gesture more broadly at the good feelings that come with “connecting.” While Google and Amazon sell the idea that you can master your domain with technology, Facebook shows off pretty pictures of the user base.
The effects of this are more consequential than you might think. In 2018, I wrote about how Google’s focus on making useful things meant that its own privacy scandals tended to fade more quickly than Facebook’s:
Google gives us sincerely new and useful things. And so, when we learn that it has exposed our data inadvertently, we might be more likely to give it a pass.
At Facebook, on the other hand, the prime directive is still user growth. The company talks about a shift to foster more “meaningful” connections, but in practice this simply means growing different parts of its product suite. Facebook is useful, but it is useful mainly in the way that a phone book is useful.
A Facebook group is surely a useful thing, but it’s also a thing that had been created many times before. (And by Google, among others.) If Facebook wants to create a Super Bowl ad that people remember past Monday, it could start by building something both useful and unique.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
🔼 Trending up: Facebook and Instagram will remove false claims and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. It’s part of the company’s policy to remove content that could cause physical harm.
🔃 Trending sideways: Apple’s policy of putting user privacy before the interests of federal governments has pushed the company into direct conflict with leaders like Vladimir Putin. A new internet law in Russia is forcing the company to decide whether to exit the country completely or change its stance on privacy.
🔽 Trending down: Twitter gave administrators at a New York state school access to a student’s parody account after they complained he was mocking the school. The company later said that handing over access was a “mistake.” Also it gave away user phone numbers to bad actors. A bad, if entirely on-brand, weekend for Twitter.
⭐ Trump’s allies are taking to Twitter to spread false claims about electoral fraud on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. Despite being quickly debunked, the claims went viral on social media. The Washington Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker and Tony Romm report:
The Iowa Democratic Party, in partnership with national Democratic officials, has labored to make the caucuses more transparent and to fend off the sort of confusion and conspiracy theories that marred the process in 2016. The Democratic National Committee has its own unit tracking viral disinformation and flagging falsehoods to campaigns, as well as to technology companies that have pledged to clean up their platforms after they were enlisted by Russian actors to boost Donald Trump in his campaign against Hillary Clinton.
But their efforts falter in the face of falsehoods pushed by users with massive online audiences, which social media platforms often refuse to remove, arguing they should not serve as the Web’s arbiters of truth. On Monday, Twitter affirmed its mostly hands-off approach, maintaining the false claims about Iowa’s voter rolls did not qualify as a form of voter suppression.
Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang supporters pushed false conspiracy theories on Twitter over the weekend tied to a canceled Des Moines Register poll. The poll, a closely watched indicator of the Iowa race, was canceled after at least one interviewer apparently omitted Pete Buttigieg’s name from the randomized list of candidates the surveyor read. (Ben Collins / NBC)
The Democratic National Committee is testing out new tools aimed at stopping the spread of misinformation, in time for the Iowa caucuses. They’re focused on misinformation related to the candidates and voting. (Donie O’Sullivan / CNN)
Here’s YouTube’s plan to stop the spread of misinformation ahead of the 2020 election. Content that tries to mislead people about voting or the census is banned, as are deepfake videos that “may pose a serious risk of egregious harm,” beyond just being taken out of context. Note that nothing here is actually new — just restated in time for the caucuses. (YouTube)
Google is limiting access to key tools that track ad spending, a move that could disrupt hundreds of marketers who rely on the tools to do their jobs. The situation underscores the powerful role Google plays in the digital advertising space, and has prompted some industry partners to call the company anticompetitive. (Gerrit De Vynck and Mark Bergen / Bloomberg)
Ad industry groups are asking California to delay enforcement of the state’s new privacy law. The law went into effect on January 1st but its most stringent rules won’t be enforced until July. The groups say that’s not enough time for businesses to get in compliance. (Suhauna Hussain / Los Angeles Times)
Senator Lindsey Graham, a top Trump ally, is targeting big tech companies like Apple and Facebook with a new child protection bill that could threaten their use of encryption. The proposal would also weaken Section 230 protections related to child exploitation and abuse laws. (Ben Brody and Naomi Nix / Bloomberg)
A popular pro-Trump website released the personal information of a scientist from Wuhan, China, falsely accusing them of creating the coronavirus as a bioweapon. The scientist’s name, photo, email, and a telephone number are now spreading across social media. (Ryan Broderick / BuzzFeed)
Mark Zuckerberg reiterated his new talking point that Facebook is going to stand for free speech and encryption, even if it pisses people off. The comments came during a speech at Silicon Slopes Tech Summit 2020 in Salt Lake City. (Salvador Rodriguez / CNBC)
Republicans and Democrats say they want to bring broadband to rural America. But it’s still a distant priority for most presidential candidates. In Iowa, the caucuses have brought tons of political attention to the state, but little of that attention has gone to the state’s networks. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
A group of Instacart employees in Chicago voted to unionize on Saturday. It’s a historic win for gig workers at the grocery delivery platform and could send a message to other part-time and hourly employees who are fed up with their working conditions. (Lauren Kaori Gurley / Vice)
Moscow is the latest major city to introduce live facial recognition cameras to its streets, with Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announcing that the technology is already operating “on a mass scale.” It follows news late last month that London is integrating live facial recognition into daily police activities. (James Vincent / The Verge)
Kenya’s high court temporarily suspended the country’s new biometric identity program until the government enacts laws to protect prevent discrimination against minorities. The decision is a setback for the government, which had already collected data from nearly 40 million Kenyans during a mass registration last year. (Abdi Latif Dahir and Carlos Mureithi / The New York Times)
⭐YouTube generated nearly $5 billion in ad revenue in the last three months, Google revealed today as part of its fourth quarter earnings report. The surprise announcement marks the first time in YouTube’s history that the company has revealed how much money its ads contribute to Google’s bottom line. Nick Statt at The Verge has the story:
On an annual basis, Google says YouTube generated $15 billion last year and contributed roughly 10 percent to all Google revenue. Those figures make YouTube’s ad business nearly one fifth the size of Facebook’s, and more than six times larger than all of Amazon-owned Twitch.
Overall, Alphabet made $46 billion in revenue in the quarter that ended December 31st, 2019, a 17 percent jump over 2018. Nearly $10.7 billion of that was profit, the company says. Google’s search business remains the big moneymaker of Alphabet’s sprawling empire, earning $27.2 billion for the quarter. But alongside YouTube ad revenue, Google is also disclosing the financial performance of its cloud computing division. Google Cloud made $2.6 billion in revenue for the quarter, the report reveals.
Doctors are trying to go viral on TikTok in an attempt to counter medical misinformation for a young audience. (Emma Goldberg / The New York Times)
Creators say TikTok’s inconsistent enforcement policies make their potentially lucrative work much harder. The company sends in-app notifications when a video is removed, but it reserves the right to take down content “for any reason or no reason.” (Blake Montgomery / Daily Beast)
How the lip-syncing app Dubsmash revived itself to become #2 to TikTok. The app, which was on the brink of failure in 2017, now has 1 billion video views per month. (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)
People are methodically blocking brands on Twitter in a failed effort to create an ad-free timeline. The process involves blocking any sponsored tweet that happens to show up in your feed. (Steve Rousseau / OneZero)
Facebook announced that Dropbox CEO Drew Houston is joining the company’s board of directors. We’re told that internal posts have been lit up with Facebookers complaining that the company’s board is now even less diverse than before. (Houston is replacing Sue Desmond-Hellman.) On the plus side, Zuckerberg retains total voting control and the makeup of the board arguably does not matter at all! (Facebook)
A social media boosting startup, which bills itself as a service to increase a user’s Instagram followers, has exposed thousands of Instagram account passwords. The company was storing the passwords of linked Instagram accounts in plain text. Not good! (Zack Whittaker / TechCrunch)
A forthcoming social network allegedly backed by Peter Thiel is banking on Silicon Valley’s elite wanting to host their own chat rooms — and people paying to hear what they have to say. The network, called Column, was widely mocked on Twitter after news of it first broke. (Theodore Schleifer / Recode)
Carlos Maza is leaving Vox to pursue being a full time YouTube creator. Last year, Maza’s experience being harassed by a conservative commentator on YouTube set off a firestorm around the company’s harassment policies. (Nick Statt / The Verge)
Facebook launched a series of tools to help streamers deal with trolls. Now creators can remove comments, mute people, or ban them from their Page. Once someone is banned they will still be able to watch but won’t be able to comment or react to the stream or other people, and their previous comments will be removed. (Dean Takahashi / VentureBeat)
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg announced that she engaged to her boyfriend, Tom Bernthal. (Rachel DeSantis and Charlotte Triggs / People)
His name is Andrew and he is a very good writer! He shared this exchange with the Mel:
Phil: Two more weeks of winter, Grace.
Grace: We should meet up 😉 my roommates are out of town this weekend.
Phil: Oh I’d love to but 2 miles is quite a lot for a burrowing rodent and I’m afraid I’m not allowed on the subway. I’m starting a petition to stop them from discriminating against groundhogs though!
Grace: That’s okay… I can pick you up.
Phil: No, that’s okay… every time I go outside winter gets longer and I’d really like to have strawberries in season again.
You and me both, Phil.