What is The Interface?
Around the world, governments and their citizens are rethinking their relationships with the biggest tech platforms. The unintended consequences of social networks, smartphones, and monopolistic business practices have sparked a large-scale cultural reckoning. Since 2017, The Interface has chronicled our evolving understanding of these issues. It works to tell you what matters the most each day and why.
The Interface arrives Monday through Thursday at 5PM PT and also on particularly newsy Fridays. You can subscribe here. Offering a mix of curated links, analyses, original reporting, and commentary, the newsletter effectively serves as a daily live blog for a tumultuous period in the history of technology and governance.
More than 20,000 people trust The Interface to keep them informed on the day’s most important developments. Subscribers include executives at Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Snap, along with their counterparts in academia, government, and journalism.
What are the primary subjects of The Interface?
My focus evolves with the news, and I intend to update this list at least quarterly. Here’s what I’m obsessed with right now:
- How do social networks affect human behavior and politics?
- How will governments regulate tech platforms, and what are the effects of those regulations?
- How will content moderation evolve as platforms attempt to balance free speech with security? What are the best ways to strike that balance?
- How will social networks, governments, and activists act to reduce the spread of misinformation, disinformation, hate speech, and coordinated influence campaigns? How will their adversaries respond?
- What are potential solutions to the sharp decline in trust in our media environment?
- How will the current cultural reckoning over tech platforms affect their businesses?
- What new products and services are social platforms building, and what consequences will they have?
- How will the COVID-19 pandemic change tech giants? Will they use this period to consolidate power? How effective will technological interventions like exposure notification turn out to be?
How do you see the world?
Like many people, my views about technology were reshaped by the events of 2016. Revelations that foreign actors had manipulated Facebook, Twitter, and other sites caused me to reevaluate my old, blinkered assumption that social networks were only harmless fun. Before 2016, my primary concern about Facebook was that the News Feed would crush most digital media. After 2016, my concern shifted from a business concern to a more patriotic one: are social networks undermining democracy?
As more journalists explored those questions, events began to unfold so quickly that even the most diligent beat reporters had trouble keeping up with the news. Certainly, I did. I started a newsletter to organize the day’s events for myself, and it soon became clear that others felt a similar need for such a service. (The first people to sign up were my fellow beat reporters.)
I named my newsletter The Interface in part to reflect the significant degree to which we tend to see platforms’ unintended consequences through the lens of product design: the way that software is presented alternately as the cause of, and solution to, all of our problems. The Interface is also a sort of pun: one way to translate it is “between Facebook and the world.”
As a reference point, here are some things I’ve come to believe about social networks and democracy since I started covering the topic. I plan to update this list at least quarterly.
- We can’t say definitively whether Russian interference with social networks changed the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. But we should respond to the threat as if it did.
- We ought to put at least as much pressure on the government to make change as we do on tech companies. But tech companies are more responsive, and so they face more pressure.
- Television news has proven corrosive to democracy in ways that are likely as or more important than any created by social networks.
- Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have grown large enough that the platforms are essentially beyond the control of their executives. The companies are under the control of their executives. But executives are often months or years late to understanding the unintended consequences of the platforms, and they don’t always respond effectively even after they do understand the consequences.
- Most tech CEOs are intelligent, kind, hard-working people who want to make the world a better place, and this is largely beside the point.
- Facebook faces the hardest governance problems of any company, and also it brought those problems upon itself when it hired some of the best minds in the world to work on growing the company’s user base as much as possible, as quickly as possible.
- Political polarization predated social networks, but social networks have failed at reducing it and may, in fact, be accelerating it.
- Plenty of good still takes place on social networks every day: small-group chats among people with shared interests; cute viral Twitter threads; fundraisers and disaster relief. Social networks are one long talent show, and many of the performers are very good.
- The fewer people involved in a conversation, the more privacy and speech protections should be granted. The more people are involved, the more suspicious we should be of anonymity and end-to-end encryption. A service like WhatsApp ought to be able to have end-to-end encryption or viral forwarding mechanics, but not both.
- There is no significant bias against conservatives on big tech platforms.
- The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to make big technology companies more powerful rather than less, that power demands additional scrutiny.
Where do you get your information?
The Interface is, first and foremost, a showcase for the extraordinary journalism being done around the world on a series of vital questions facing governments and their citizens. I am indebted to (and frequently in awe of) the excellent journalists whose work I feature each day. Links come to me via Twitter, Nuzzel, email, reader tips, and academic papers, to name the five most common sources. (I also rely heavily on the tech industry’s premier link aggregator, Techmeme.)
In addition to being an avid reader of the day’s news, I’m also a beat reporter focused on social networks, publishing articles regularly at The Verge. I’m in regular, direct communication with most of the companies I write about, and that perspective informs my reporting and analysis. I also talk each week with current and former employees of those companies, on and off the record, to broaden my perspective — and, whenever I can, to break news.
I bring as much original reporting to The Interface as I can, quoting sources by name whenever possible. Sometimes, sources ask me not to name them, in order to preserve their employment or business relationships. In these cases, I publish the best description of their roles as I can. In all cases, these conversations shape the views you’ll find in my columns.
What’s in your daily newsletter?
The newsletter has six regular sections:
- The lede. A column about the day’s most important happenings.
- The Ratio. Items that could change public perception of the big tech companies, whether it’s up, down, or sideways.
- Governing. Links to the day’s most important events regarding how tech platforms are governed in the countries where they operate, and how they attempt to govern their own user bases.
- Industry. A more eclectic set of links focused on tech companies’ business performance, product launches, and the phenomena that emerge on the platforms.
- Things to do. Stuff to occupy you online during the pandemic.
- Those good tweets. In which we try to end the newsletter with something funny.
Another section that appears sometimes is Pushback, in which I include reader responses to items from the previous day. We also occasionally include Hotspots, an update on newsworthy developments in the COVID-19 response.
While I try to include the day’s biggest events in each newsletter, I will roll items into the next day if the current edition has become too crowded. An average edition ranges between 2,500 and 3,000 words, so this happens with some frequency. If you feel I missed something, please send me a direct message on Twitter or Instagram or email email@example.com.
How can I contact The Interface, and why should I?
Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or send me a direct message on Twitter or Instagram. I am especially grateful to readers who help me fix my mistakes: I strive to correct any errors in the offending article as close to instantly as possible.
In addition to pointing out typos and factual errors, you should write to me with story tips; suggested links; alternate perspectives; suggestions for additional reading; relevant academic papers; the view from Washington, DC; the view from the research community; or anything else you think I should know. If you would prefer to communicate on an encrypted messaging app, such as Signal, DM me, and I’ll tell you how to get in touch.
Last updated on July 13th, 2020. Updated to reflect the newsletter’s most recent format and new questions and interests related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Retired the question “why did Kevin and Mike leave Instagram?”, which has since been answered to my satisfaction.