Now that the other shoe has dropped, and Uber’s CEO has been (somewhat) restrained, it’s time for the schadenfreude. Given Uber’s remarkable string of screwups and controversies, it’s cominginthick, in particular from the East coast. And while I believe Uber deserves the scrutiny — there are certainly critical lessons to be learned — the hot takes from many media outlets are starting to get lazy.
Here’s why. Uber does not reflect the entirety of the Valley, particularly when it comes to how companies are run. As I wrote in The Myth of the Valley Douchebag, there are far more companies here run by decent, earnest, well meaning people than there are Ubers. But of course, the Ubers get most of the attention, because they confirm an easy bias that all of tech is off the rails, and deserves to be taken down a notch.
Such is the case with this piece in Time — painting all of Uber’s failures broadly as the Valley’s failures. And to a point, the piece is correct — but only to a point. While the entire Valley (and let’s face it, Congress, the judiciary, the Fortune 500, nearly every public board in America, etc. etc.) has a major race and gender problem, Uber has far more troubles than just gender and race. Far more. And painting every company in the Valley with the tarred brush of Uber’s approach to business is simply unfair.
To that bias, I’d like to counter with Matt Mullenwegg, from Automattic, or Jen Pahlka, from Code for America, or Ben Silbermann, from Pinterest, or Michelle Zatlyn, from CloudFlare, or Jeff Huber, from Grail Bio. Sure, their companies aren’t worth billions (on second thought, Pinterest, CloudFlare, and Automattic are, and Grail may be on its way), but they are excellent examples of game changing organizations run by good people who, while they may not be perfect, are driven by far more than arrogance, lucre, and winning at all costs.
It’s certainly a good thing that Uber has been chastened. There are still far too many frothy startups driven by immature, bro-tastic founders eager to “move fast and break things” and “ask for forgiveness, not for permission.” Kalanick and Uber’s fall from grace is visceral proof that they must change their ways. But the Silicon Valley trope is starting to wear thin. Let’s not forget the good as we excise the bad. We’ve got a lot of important work to do.
Upon finishing Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus, I found an unwelcome kink in my otherwise comfortably adjusted frame of reference. It brought with it the slight nausea of a hangover, a lingering whiff of jet exhaust from a hard night, possibly involving rough psychedelics.
I’m usually content with my (admittedly incomplete) understanding of the role humanity plays in the universe, and in particular, with the role that technology plays as that narrative builds. And lately that technology story is getting pretty damn interesting — I’d argue that our society’s creation of and reaction to digital technologies is pretty much the most important narrative in the world at present.
But as you consider that phrase “digital technologies,” are you conjuring images of computers and iPhones? Of “the cloud” and Google? Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Netflix, Slack, Uber? I’ve always felt that this group of artifacts — the “things” that we claim as digital — the companies and the devices, the pained metaphors (cloud?!) and the juvenile apps — these are only the most prominent geographic features of a vaster and more tectonic landscape, one we’ve only begun to explore.
Harari would ask us to explore that landscape with a new state of mind — to abandon our human-centered biases — our Humanism — and consider what our embrace of technology may augur for our species. Yet through most of the book, he failed to push me from my easy chair. It was comforting to nod along as Harari argued that the devices — the computers, the platforms and the networks — are nothing more than the transit layer in humanity’s inevitable evolution to a more god-like species. And cognizant of the inescapable baggage of the “digital technologies” tag, Harari has gifted his new state of mind with a name: Dataism. More on that in a minute.
Homo Deus is the possibly too-clever-by-half continuation of the author’s masterstroke bestseller Sapiens, which the New York Times, despite crowning it as a runaway hit, acidly derided as “tailor-made for the thought-leader industrial complex.” If that made you snort the literary milk out your erudite nose, just wait for the other whiteshoe to drop: The same Times review charitably credited Homo Deus with having “the easy charms of potted history.”
And look, the decidedly humanist Times is right to be offended by Harari’s assertions. For they are utterly unsettling, in particular to those most content in the warm embrace of Humanism, which Harari dismisses as a state of mind already past its prime. Dataism is its replacement — a reductive religion of algorithms, both biological and digital, driven by intelligence but decoupled from consciousness. It is therefore unconcerned with experience, the very bread which feeds humanist mythos. Net net: Let’s just say Dataism could really give a fuck about people in the long run. Harari’s money quote? “Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm.”
So yeah, the ideas prosecuted in the pages of these two works, which run collectively just under 900 pages, are unsettling. But unlike the Times reviewer, I’m not ready to dismiss them as so much armchair pottery. It’s not often a work of literary merit (and this is certainly that) forces our vaunted industry to consider itself.
Turns out, our industry has pretty much ignored Homo Deus. Ezra Klein did have a thing or two to say about it in a podcast, but…crickets from most everywhere else.
Technology is having a crisis of self reflection. It’s understandable — we’re not the types to think too hard about the impact of our actions, because we’ve already anticipated them, after all. Creating new behaviors is the business we’re in, so we’re not surprised when they actually happen. We’ve developed a super-fast creative process on top of digital technologies — we come up with new plans as quickly as the old ones fail, and the act of doing this just proves our world view correct: We have a thesis, we prosecute it, and as we collect more data — including and especially data about our failure — we stare at it all, we rethink our approach, and we deftly devise a new algorithm to navigate around the damn problem. The better the acuity of our data, the more responsive our tools, the better the outcomes. Even when most of us lose, we’re always winning! Failure is just more data to fuel an eventual, inevitable victory.
This approach to life and business doesn’t reward deep reflection. And we know it. That’s why we’re so damn obsessed with meditation, with yoga (guilty), with flying to South America and doing strange psychedelic drugs. But so far all those reflections center on the me, and not on the us, on the society we are building. How often do we — the Royal Technology We — consider the butterfly effects of our work? And don’t tell me Zuck did it for us with that manifesto. That thing could have used a touch more psilocybin, amiright?
Perhaps Harari strikes us as a lecturing harridan — we know we have more homework to do. We understand we now rule the world, but we are reluctant leaders, because our industry has forever been in opposition, forever carrying a torch for a future state of humankind that the noobs and the squares and the company men didn’t get.
Well, that gets us to purpose. Why are we here? Why are you here? Why am I here? What are we here for?
Remember when you were a kid, in that kid-like state of mind, when you whispered to a friend, a confidante — “Where’s the wall at the end of universe?” And if they bit, if they acknowledged there might be an end to it all, a place where the universe ebbs to finality, you ask them this: “Well, then, what’s on the other side of the wall!?”
Remember that little pre-adolescent mind hack? Yeah, we’re about at that point now, Technology Industry. It’s time for us to come up with a better answer.
My favorite response to this paradox is: “The unimaginable.” That’s what’s on the other side of the wall. The only boundary in the universe, for Homo sapiens anyway, is the fact that we need a boundary in the first place. We understand so much, but at the end of that understanding we face the unimaginable. In that dark gravity we first populated gods, then God Himself, then Science and its attendant Humanism, and now….well, Harari makes the case that our digital technologies have hastened our transition us to a new era — one in which we “dissolve within the data torrent like a clump of earth within a gushing river.”
OK, I’m out of my armchair now. If all biology is algorithms, and science certainly believes this is so, then our fate is to join the church of pure information processing, driven by the inescapable end game of evolution.
Checkmate! Humanity exists because algorithms exist, algorithms that predate us, algorithms that will outlive us, and algorithms that exist for one reason: to solve problems. If we embrace this, then perhaps we stand at the cusp of solving our biggest problem ever: ourselves.
I”m not sure I buy all this — and even Harari, at the very end of his book, admits he’s not sure either (that felt like quite a hedge, to be honest). But the issues he raises are worthy of deeper debate — in particular inside our own industry, where self-reflection is far too absent.
Back in December of 2011, I wrote a piece I called “The Internet Big Five,” in which I noted what seemed a significant trend: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Facebook were becoming the most important companies not only in the technology world, but in the world at large. At that point, Facebook had not yet gone public, but I thought it would be interesting to compare each of them by various metrics, including market cap (Facebook’s was private at the time, but widely reported). Here’s the original chart:
I called it “Draft 1” because I had a sense there was a franchise of sorts brewing. I had no idea. I started to chart out the various strengths and relative weaknesses of the Big Five, but work on NewCo shifted my focus for a spell.
Three years later, in 2014, I updated the chart. The growth in market cap was staggering:
Nearly a trillion dollars in net market cap growth in less than three years! My goodness!
But since 2014, the Big Five have rapidly accelerated their growth. Let’s look at the same chart, updated to today:
Ummm..HOLY SHIT! Almost two trillion dollars of market cap added in less than seven years. And the “Big Five” have become, with a few limited incursions by Berkshire Hathaway, the five largest public companies in the US. This has been noted by just about everyone lately, including The Atlantic, which just employed the very talented Alexis Madrigal to pay attention to them on a regular basis. In his maiden piece, Madrigal notes that the open, utopian world of the web just ten years ago (Web 2, remember that? I certainly do…) has lost, bigly, to a world of walled-garden market cap monsters.
I agree and disagree. Peter Thiel is fond of saying that the best companies are monopolists by nature, and his predictions seem to be coming true. But monopolies grow old, fray, and usually fail to benefit society over time. There’s a crisis of social responsibility and leadership looming for the Big Five — they’ve got all the power, now it’s time for them to face their responsibility. I’ll be writing much more about that in coming weeks and months. As I’ve said elsewhere, in a world where our politics has devolved to bomb throwing and sideshows, we must expect our businesses — in particular our most valuable ones — to lead.
Like you, I am on Facebook. In two ways, actually. There’s this public page, which Facebook gives to people who are “public figures.” My story of becoming a Facebook public figure is tortured (years ago, I went Facebook bankrupt after reaching my “friend” limit), but the end result is a place that feels a bit like Twitter, but with more opportunities for me to buy ads that promote my posts (I’ve tried doing that, and while it certainly increases my exposure, I’m not entirely sure why that matters).
Then there’s my “personal” page. Facebook was kind enough to help me fix this up after my “bankruptcy.” On this personal page I try to keep my friends to people I actually know, with mixed success. But the same problems I’ve always had with Facebook are apparent here — some people I’m actually friends with, others I know, but not well enough to call true “friends.” But I don’t want to be an ass…so I click “confirm” and move on.
On my public page, I post stuff from my work. I readily admit I’m not very good at engaging with this page, and I feel shitty whenever I visit, mainly because I don’t like being bad at media (and Facebook is extremely good at surfacing metrics that prove you suck, then suggesting ways to spend money to fix that problem). But, if you want to follow what I’m up to — mostly stuff I write or stuff we post on NewCo Shift, well, it’s probably a pretty decent way to do that.
However, on my personal page, I’m utterly hopeless. Except for the very occasional random post (a picture of my drum kit? a photo of my kids here and there to appease my guilt?), I don’t view Facebook as a place to curate a “feed” of my life. The place kind of creeps me out, in ways I can’t exactly explain. It feels like work, like a responsibility, like a drug I should avoid, so I avoid it. I’ve had enough work (and drugs) in my life.
But unlike me, most of true friends put a lot of care and feeding into their Facebook pages. It’s become a place where they announce important milestones, like births, graduations, separations, deaths, the works. These insanely important moments, alas, are all interspersed with random shots of pie, flowers, cocktails, sunsets, and endless, endless, endless advertisements for shit I really don’t care about.
Taken together, the Facebook newsfeed is a place that I’ve decided isn’t worth the time it demands to truly be useful. I know, I could invest the time to mute this and like that, and perhaps Facebook’s great algos would deliver me a better feed. But I don’t, and I feel alone in this determination. And lately it’s begun to seriously fuck up my relationships with important people in my life, namely, my…true friends.
I won’t go into details (it’s personal, after all), but suffice to say I’ve missed some pretty important events in my friends’ lives because everyone else is paying attention to Facebook, but I am not. As a result, I’ve come off looking like an asshole. No, wait, let me rephrase that. I have become an actual asshole, because the definition of an asshole is someone who puts themself above others, and by not paying attention to Facebook, that’s what I’ve become.
That kind of sucks.
It strikes me that this is entirely fixable. One way, of course, is for me to just swallow my pride and pick up the habit of perusing Facebook every day. I just tried that very thing again this weekend. It takes about half an hour or more each day to cull through the endless stream of posts from my 500+ friends, and the experience is just as terrible as it’s always been. For every one truly important detail I find, I have to endure a hundred things I’d really rather not see. Many of them are trivial, some are annoying, and at least ten or so are downright awful.
And guess what? I’m only seeing a minority of the posts that my friends have actually created! I know Facebook is doing its best to deliver to me the stuff I care about, but for me, it’s utterly failing.
Now, it’s fair to say that I’m an outlier — for most people, Facebook works just fine. The Feed seems to nourish most of its sucklers, and there’s no reason to change it just because one grumpy tech OG is complaining. BUT…my problem with my feed is in fact allegorical to what’s become a massive societal problem with the Feed overall: It’s simply untenable to have one company’s algorithms control the personalized feeds of billions of humans around the world. It’s untenable on so many axes, it’s almost not worth going into, but for a bit of background, read the work of Tristan Harris, who puts it in ethical terms, or Eli Parser, who puts it in political terms, or danah boyd, who frames it in socio-cultural terms. Oh, and then there’s the whole Fake News, trolling, and abuse problem…which despite its cheapening by our president, is actually a Really, Really Big Deal, and one that threatens Facebook in particular (did you see they’re hiring 3,000 people to address it? Does that scale? Really?!)
It’s time for the model to change. And I have a modest and probably far too simple proposal for you to consider.
This proposal breaks all manner of Silicon Valley product high holy-isms, but bear with me. I think at the end of the day, it’s what we need to get beyond the structural limitations of trusting one company with so much power over our informational diets.
The short form version of my solution is this: Give me filter control over my feed. I know — this probably breaks Facebook’s stranglehold on our attention, and therefore, impacts their business model in unacceptable ways. But I could argue the reverse is true (but this is already getting long, and that’s another post.)
So, when I come to Facebook, here’s what I’d love: Ask me what I’m looking for, and present me with simple ways to filter by the things I want to see. As far as I can tell, the only way to filter your Feed today is to toggle between “Top Stories” and “Most Recent.” That’s lame. Here are some possible additions:
Close Friends. Let me see just posts from folks I’m truly close to. Facebook already lets you tag people as “close friends,” but you can’t see only what they post and nothing else. You can “see first” people, but that feels like a half measure at best.
Key Moments. Let everyone tag posts they believe are truly important — the deaths, the births, the divorces, the new job, the graduations. Sure, there will be spammers, but hell, Facebook’s good at catching that shit. I know Facebook lets you tag your posts as “Life Events” (did you know that?! I just found out…), but… why can’t you filter the Feed so you only see the ones that matter?
Outrage. This is a kind of a joke, but with a purpose: let me see just posts that are political rants. This kind of content has overtaken Facebook, so why not give it a filter of its own so you can see it when you want, or filter it out if you don’t?
Kittens. This is the fluff setting. Users, posters, and Facebook’s own AI/Algos can identify this stuff and filter it into a category of its own. This is where the funny videos and pictures of pets go. This is where the endless stream of food porn goes. This is where most of the content from Buzzfeed goes.
Bubble Breaker. Show me posts that present views opposite my own, or that force me to engage with ideas I’ve not considered before. This could become an incredibly powerful feature, if it’s done right.
There are probably tons more, and most likely these examples aren’t even the best ones to focus on. And I am sure the smart folks at Facebook have considered this idea, and determined it’s a terrible one for all manner of fine reasons.
But my point is this: Facebook does not really allow us to decide what the Feed is feeding us, and that’s a major problem. It leaves agency in the hands (digits?) of Facebook’s algorithms, and as much as I’d like to believe the company can create super intelligent AIs that nourish us all, I think the facts on the ground state the opposite. So give us back the power to determine what we want to see. We might just surprise you.
I honestly didn’t want to say this, but. I did have other things to do tonight than write about advertising. Again. But g’damn, folks. Can we get our shit together?
I know Google thinks it is doing something about it. But that Chrome feature you call ad blocking? Well, OK, there’s some good in it — it even addresses the issue I’m on about right now, sort of*. But come on. It has no power unless you block ads in Facebook’s feed, amiright?!!! (Wink!)
Anyway, just now, five minutes ago, I was grokking Sam Harris’ latest podcast, featuring a very controversial intellectual by the name of Charles Murray (long, looooong fucking story). Yeah, I’m late to the podcast game. It’s been NetFlix, music, sports and Stern during Normal Podcast Times, so I kind of side-stepped that resurgence for the past few years till recently.
And Harris’ interview with Charles Murray this week was, well, a revelation in a couple ways. First….two hours? On an intellectual tempest that underpins a fair amount of the shit going on in our country today? What a … novelty, right? And second…damn! I knew the Bell Curve was a major thing, but…Harris *really* put his reputation on the line here, and, that makes for some good baseball, no matter your point of view.
Anyway, I’ve spent enough time around ideas and the folks who create them to know there’s always more to the story, so after listening, I googled around (yes Google, I did that on purpose, sorry, but it’s lower case usage for you from now on, please block Facebook ads in your Chrome extension that would be such a cool dust up to watch okthanksbye) to find out who might disagree with the cautious but still high-on-camaraderie conversation I had just ingested.
That’s when I found this extremely contrarian post on a site I’d never heard of (which is quite normal for me. The independent web is huge and growing. Don’t believe the hype that says the platforms have won — it’s plain wrong). I still haven’t grokked *the site itself*, though I did read the post. And that’s not because I didn’t want to (I do, I always do), but because midway through my focused read of the post itself, the site did something that will forever place it on my shit list: It forced a pop-under ad into (well, under) my browser, which then autoplayed, quite loudly, commercial audio that interrupted a particularly wonderful passage in “Dawned on Me” from Wilco’s The Whole Love, the album I had chosen as my companion for my minor but heretofore pleasant intellectual journey.
And that is some Serious Bullshit. Some serious, serious bullshit. As I immediately said on Twitter (because, really, the best and first use of Twitter is to mutter like an old man to the sympathetic person you imagine is in the room with you, right?):
What I learned was that the ads (and by extension, the site) had exactly zero interest in my current state of mind, despite the fact that the content I was consuming was entirely about influencing my state of mind. Nope, the site said, all we care about is that you’re *paying attention.* That can be arbitraged for a twelve-dollar CPM! So fuck you, reader. I’ll take the cash.
These asshats crashed my Wilco-enhanced journey of intellectual advancement. That kind of pisses me off. Maybe I’m wrong to assume I have a right to that journey. I understand. (But honestly, fuck you.)
I think we can do better.
So, sorry, site, I’m done with you, despite your best efforts to change my mind about Sam Harris and Charles Murray, or to inform what may or may not be a rational point of view about the critical issues I am attempting to consider (and damn, they are pretty damn critical right about now).
So. Here’s my conclusion. We need a place to discuss ideas that is absent the dark gravity associated with this kind of advertising.
Here’s a top-of-my-head rundown of all the shit going down that promises to take us forty years back, to a time when, well…you decide what kind of time it was.
Women had to fight for basic rights. Anyone remember “women’s lib”? That movement found its voice in the 70s, and made steady if punctuated progress for forty years. Now Trump’s promising to repeal the iconic 1970s Roe v. Wade decision, has scrapped equal pay (unnecessary regulations, amiright?!), and, well, this.
Dirty, climate changing coal was king in the ’70s, powering nearly halfof US energy output. It’s now less than a third and dropping fast, mainly because of clean sources like solar and wind, which are starting to take power costs to zero, all while driving far more jobs than coal. Do we really want to go back? Well, Trump certainly does. WTF?
The EPA was established in 1970, when our rivers were on fire and kids had to hide inside from killer smog attacks (I was one of them). Now, Trump’s EPA has repealed decades of regulations, and it’s run by a guy who, well, hates the EPA. Oh, please, let’s go back to flaming rivers and unbreathable air, shall we?!
And then there’s climate change. After decades of science, inconvenient truths, and global disasters, the world’s leaders finally got their collective shit together and agreed to do something about our shared existential crisis. But not Trump, who thinks climate change is a hoax and has vowed to cancel the Paris accords. That sentiment might have flown in 1975. But now? Really?
“Law and Order.” If you’ve not watched 13th, please add it to your NetFlix cue…or just take 90 minutes and watch it now. The phrase “law and order” is a semiotic stand in for systemic racism and state-driven racial injustice. It rose to prominence in the 1970s as a political reaction to the civil rights movement, and has been widely discredited as social policy. But, you guessed it, Trump wants to bring it back.
Oh, and war. Remember that long, Cold one? Forty years ago, it was the most critical foreign policy issue of the day. By last year, it was all but over. Then Trump got elected, and…well, it sure feels hot again.
Rampant capitalism/neoliberalism/financialization. This is a tough subject to detangle, but in essence, the past forty years have seen the rise, and recent decline, of unrestrained, Friedman-esque capitalism(note this new book on the topic, FWIW). The Great Recession gave our body politic pause, and while Dodd Frank was in many ways toothless, it did set a new tone. Trump not only put a gaggle of bankers in charge of his government, he also is committed to repealing Dodd.
I could go on and on (immigration, creationism, public schools…) but I think I’ve made my point. We love to idealize the past, but forty years ago, women and minorities had vastly diminished rights, our environment was a mess, climate change was ignored, capitalism was unrestrained and destructive, and we were playing a terrifying game of nuclear chess with Russia. By last year, we had made massive progress on all of these crucial societal issues.
And now we’re going back to the ‘70s. Anyone else want off this particular train?
People in business who like to Get Shit Done fall in love with each version of The New. When I was a kid, new was the the Apple II. Then the IBM PC, digital phones and voice mail, the Mac — oh God, the Mac! — word processing, email, the cell phone, the Internet — mmmmm, the Internet! — and then the iPhone — oh…the iPhone!
Well damn the iPhone, because I lay at its feet the death of the most efficient technology ever created for the speedy disposition of Getting Shit Done — the plain old telephone. But not just any old-school telephone. The high tech, multi-line, digitally switched telephone of the late 1980s — the kind of phone upon which you could conduct, merge, and manage multiple direct conversations with your peers, colleagues, partners and adversaries — a direct line of human expression brain to brain — the kind of shit it’ll take us decades to replicate (if we ever do).
Why was that phone so perfect? It certainly wasn’t the technology, though it was pretty darn boss at the time. It was how our society adapted to it, optimizing direct, one-to-one communications in real time between a network of engaged colleagues. As a young reporter, and later as an editor and a CEO, my call list was my life. I’d spend hours a day calling sources, collaborators, even employees down the hall — and as a result, we’d Get Shit Done.*
Because to Get Shit Done, you have to engage real time with the people who help define what it is You Are Actually Doing. And nothing, nothing at all, beats a conversation to move that ball along.
For reasons I am sure will merit multiple PhD defenses some day, we’ve evolved to an almost apologetic relationship to the humble telephone. Through email or social media (ick!), we ask each other for a “quick call” — then we offload the rest to calendar apps with their annoying reminders — shitty simulacrums of our intent which pervert our goal: to connect and exchange, to respond and to act.
But first, always to connect.
At some point in the last ten years we replaced direct connection with technology-intermediated obsequity. And when we do “get on a call,” it’s fraught with a Moderator and an Agenda and Follow Up Action Items and … well, wait what the f*ck are we talking about?
No more. It’s time to pick up the phone and start calling each other again.
Hey — It’s John. You have a few minutes to bounce something around? Cool!…
*Some industries continue to work this way — I’d love your input on which one you think still do.
Walking around Disneyland with my daughter the other night, I found myself face to face with one of our country’s most intractable taboos.
(Disneyland is still awesome for me, as a kid from 1970s LA. Truly magical.)
If you’re an observer of crowds, one of the more prominent features of the Disneyland crowd is how generally overweight our country has become (I live in the Bay area, and readily admit my interaction with folks on most days is not representative of a broad cross section of our population). I’d estimate at least a third of the folks at Disney are seeing Mike and Molly-level images in the mirror — and about 2–3% or so have more weight than they can carry around, and have therefore graduated to “mobility scooters.”
These industrial strength scooters have become commonplace at the Happiest Place on Earth. I’m guessing from the name that they were initially created for disabled and elderly folks, but clearly they’ve been reinforced for more rigorous duty. For every one of them we saw piloted by a fellow with a knee brace or an elderly grandmother, there were ten requisitioned for moving Big People around.
For a spell, I sat on a bench with my daughter and watched them wheel by.
I fell into reverie, thinking about how our policy choices have led to a predictable and avoidable epidemic, and how that epidemic mirrors many others in what is increasingly feeling like a gravely ill society.Our maddening melange of libertarian individualism, technological (and medical) savior-ism, American exceptionalism, and steroidal capitalism has delivered us a health care horror show — one with an endless appetite for cheap food, expensive medicine, and hollow self-delusion.
It strikes me nowhere can we identify how badly we need a new compact between business and society than right here on Disney’s Main Street USA. Libertarians and fanatical anti-regulation types love to claim that individual responsibility is paramount, and I suppose that means the growing percentage of obese people in our society are all at fault, and deserve the shame our culture heaps upon them. I tend to believe otherwise, that outcomes are driven by inputs, and right now, the inputs in our society are making us very, very sick.
Can we face up to this fact without dehumanizing or victimizing the people who now comprise more than a third of the US population? Is talking out loud about this issue even allowed? (I think I’m about to find out…)
It certainly feels taboo, because these are real human beings we’re talking about, and our society relentlessly shames overweight people as lacking will power and failing to conform to ideal body images projected in popular culture.
But come on, America’s obesity epidemic has been building for decades, and it’s only getting worse. When will we call it what it really is: A public health crisis, driven by outdated and dangerous policies around food subsidies and health care?
First and foremost amongst those failed policies is our society’s approach to food — how we grow it, how we market it, and certainly how we eat it. In short, we subsidize cheap calories — in particular sugar and corn syrup — and we’ve forsworn nutrition for convenience. Food companies, driven as all businesses are by profit and policy inputs, are literally rewarded for selling as much of their product to us as they can, regardless of the consequences. It feels an awful lot like our approach to energy — just as we’re hooked on cheap and environmentally damaging carbon-based fuels, we’ve built an entire economy on cheap and physically destructive food, and there are extraordinarily powerful forces at work insuring things stay that way.
(I should note that I actually do not lay blame at the feet of these forces — I believe they exist because we’ve created a system that requires them to act the way they do.The only way to change that is to change the rules of the system, not to reactively punish large corporations for doing what our society incentivizes them to do.)
Adding to the policy failure is our society’s approach to health care. Everyone seems to agree it’s a mess, but we have to think systemically if we’re going to fix it. Believe what you will about Obamacare, but they got one thing absolutely right: The new program instituted a historic shift from a reactive to a proactive stance. How? Through the economic lever of how payments were processed. The old government healthcare (and let’s not fool ourselves, the government is the single largest force in healthcare, period) paid set fees for service. This created a moral hazard in the market, as actors organized themselves around creating as many payment opportunities as possible. Need a knee replacement because you’re overweight? Check, there’s a fee for service. Knee replacement didn’t work, because you’re overweight and/or didn’t have proper follow up by your doctor? Check, we’ll do another one. Broke your hip because the second knee buckled? Check, there’s a third service to get paid for.
Obamacare is in the process of shifting government payments away from fee-for-service and toward outcomes — doctors and hospitals are paid a certain amount for a positive health outcome, and that’s that. No more triple knee surgeries — you get paid when the patient’s surgery is proven to have worked. There’s a set amount for that outcome, and that’s it. This kind of economic incentive drives markets to optimize for proactive health care — the kind that creates early detection of potential obesity, supplying nutrition education so the knee replacement is never needed in the first place.
It’s exactly this kind of thoughtful, informed policy we need right now if we’re going to solve our country’s obesity epidemic. And given the current administration, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see much of it coming out of Washington over the next four years. That means one thing: our country’s largest food and health care companies must get in front of this crisis, andlead. Whether or not they do, it’s abundantly clear is that our current crop of politicians will not. Meanwhile, our society is getting sicker, poorer, and more alienated. That’s not a recipe that’s good for anyone.
We’ve seen this debate before — Google refused to call itself a media business for years and years. Now, well…YouTube. And Play. Twitter had similar reluctancies, and now…the NFL (oh, and college softball!). Microsoft tried, but ultimately failed, to be a media company (there’s a reason it’s called MSNBC), and had the sense to retreat from “social media” into “enterprise tools” so as to not beg confusion. Then again, it just bought LinkedIn, so the debate will most certainly flare up (wait, is LinkedIn a media company?!).
Truth is, with all these platform players, media is not only a crucial product, it’s the primary product. I’m not going to get into why in this post (I will next time, promise.) Instead I’ll predict that quite soon, platforms, including Facebook, will lose their equivocation and embrace content creation.
In the meantime, let’s talk about cute toddlers, shall we?
Here’s a video of two cute toddlers practicing for a future as nightclub promoters (or WWF entertainers, it’s hard to decide). It’s been watched nearly 70 million times on Facebook. In one day.
Did you read that right? Yep. 70 million times. In one day.
The video is two minutes long. Scores of “traditional” media outlets have somehow gotten access to the video, chroming it up with their own logos, music, and advertising. But the thing went viral on Facebook, and it’s Facebook that insured the kids got their 140 million minutes of fame (and counting).
Here’s the thing. There are literally dozens, if not thousands, of these kinds of media objects on Facebook every day. Sure, maybe they’re not all 70-million-views-in-one-day big, but nevertheless, they’re media gold. They spread all over Facebook, all day long, but what drives me crazy is there’s no way to find them reliably. There’s no media product on Facebook that curates these gems, there’s only media distribution. And as everyone in the Valley (and in media) will tell you, Product Matters.
So it’s time for Facebook to start making good media products. I mean, who wouldn’t want to visit a “Facebook trending viral videos” product at least once a day? Right? Search for viral videos on Facebook now, and you get dreck like this. I don’t know what angle these jokers’ are playing (I mean, there’s no ads there…), but it ain’t what Facebook, with their inside knowledge of what makes stuff go viral, could create.
Sure, there are a ton of “media” players trying to find a way to make a living on Facebook — and the entire media world is now fretting over how dependent they’ve become on the attention black hole Facebook’s become. But the truth is, only Facebook knows what’s really happening behind that 2 billion person curtain. Anyone else making shit for Facebook is running with cement in their shoes.
Facebook will never open up its ecosystem and let a million media flowers bloom. And the “media experience” on the site blows. Soon enough, they’ll have to fix it. It’s time for them to get on with it.
Here are the caveats for the rant I am about to write.
The fact that I am writing this on Medium will cause many of you to dismiss me for hypocrisy. Don’t. Read to the end.
I will be saying the word “F*CK” a lot. If that bothers you, time to depart for calmer waters.
This post will be subject to dismissal due to charges of high nostalgia — I will be accused of living in the past, failing to get the future, not getting with the times, being the old man yelling “get off my lawn,” etc. These characterizations will be all entirely right. And totally irrelevant.
This post will be compared, most likely unfavorably, to the many, many, many, many wonderful (and better) posts that have already been written on this subject. That’s fine. I just want to add my voice to the conversation.
This post will piss off friends of mine at Facebook, Medium, LinkedIn, and probably Google. Sorry in advance. Kinda.
Ok, now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s time to say something out loud.
WE GOT IT FUCKING RIGHT THE FIRST TIME.
We were lucky, we were visionary, we were idiots, we were savants. But we got Internet publishing right the first time — and then we (sometimes actively, sometimes by inaction) fucked it up. Moreover, we KNEW it was on a path to peril, and we slouched towards Bethlehem, expecting that at some point the problem would correct itself.
Internet based publishing is so fucked up that the people most responsible for some of its loveliest platforms — Ev Williams of Blogger, Twitter and Medium, Matt Mullenweg of WordPress — these guys positively, absolutely HATE the Internet’s chosen business model. Always have. Probably always will.
Ev hates advertising so much, he damn near killed his own company last week trying to get away from the practice. Matt, well anyone who knows Matt will tell you, the guy would rather wear a tutu than woo an advertiser. Both feel there’s something utterly corrupt about the whole affair. And they’re not entirely wrong.
But they’re not entirely right, either. More on than in a minute.
But first, for those of you reading this and wondering “What the F is this guy talking about?” well, first of all, welcome to History 101, and secondly, thanks for sticking around. We can’t fix this without your help. I certainly don’t want to go back to using early versions of WordPress or Moveable Type.
But when I was, I’ll tell you one thing.
I KNEW WHO THE FUCK WAS READING ME. I KNEW WHY. I KNEW WHO SENT THEM TO ME, AND I WAS GRATEFUL TO THOSE PEOPLE/SITES/PLATFORMS THAT SENT ME THOSE READERS.
Now, I have no idea. Again, for emphasis: despite all the whizzy bang-y social media we’ve invented these past ten years, I HAVE NOT ONE CLUE WHO IS READING ME ON A REGULAR BASIS, NOR DO I KNOW WHO TO THANK FOR SENDING THEM TO ME.
Sure, I have a general idea. I can look at my analytics in all those aforementioned platforms, and I could, if I have either earned or hired a double PhD in Big Data and Theology, I might be able to divine some patterns as to how my readers ended up reading my stuff. But given they’re scattered across four, five or six platforms, all with different algorithms, business models, presentation layers, analytics (or lack thereof), and permissions, well, good fucking luck making sense of your audience as an actual community that cares about what you’re saying.
And we wonder why publishing is so fucked.
This is the single most immutable rule of media, folks. PUBLISHING IS COMMUNITY. And if you don’t know who your community is, you’re screwed.
Kudos to Jessica, to Ben, to Sarah, who’ve realized this and demanded readers become paying subscribers, and not on anyone else’s platform, but out there on the messy, attenuating Open Web. But let’s call their success what it is: Proof by exception. These are small communities of thousands, or tens of thousands of readers, all willing to pay in the tens or hundreds of dollars for inside access to a valuable industry. Would each of those readers pay similarly for a dozen or two dozen other services, so as to be both well read and members of diverse communities? NO FUCKING WAY. And therein lies the problem.
It’s a big problem, folks. It’s a mighty big problem. Sure, we might see the “pay for a few important sources” model play out across all manner of “industries” — lots of small, focused publications paid for by a subscriber base that has a vested, commercial interest in the information they receive. But how is that possibly encouraging the open, democratic access to information upon which our Republic depends?
If you’ve read your Hamilton (the book, damnit), you know America is built on the back of brilliant pamphleteers, but damn it, it’s also built on capitalism. And capitalists need a place to speak to the people! Rivington’s newspaper (where Hamilton first published) was called the New York Gazetteer, sure, but it’s second name was the fucking Weekly Advertiser.
So I’m tired of all this nonsense about how the Internet’s business model is broken because advertising sucks. I call bullshit. Advertising is a greatbusiness model. But it has become completely divorced from the creators and conveners of community — authors and publishers. It’s been channeled into a few oligarchic platforms which have, through no obvious, direct, or apparently malicious intent of their own, drunk our fucking milkshakes. The rest of us (and there are MILLIONS of us, and we are MIGHTY, if we decide to be), well the rest of us are left fighting over a shrinking pie, building extraordinary technology which we have increasingly bent toward the gray.
I know, I know, it’s fashionable to blame Google, Facebook*, and their ilk for siphoning off all the advertising dollars publishers used to get, but I’m not going to. They simply did what conditions allowed them to do, which is create a welcoming place for advertisers who were feeling a bit unloved by the vast, bleached coral reef that is the open web. They identified a need, and they filled it. They built impressive, scaled, data-driven advertising machines. They won.
But what they failed to win was the Gazetteer portion of the equation. The CONTENT. Thanks in large part to Safe Harbor syndrome (I just made that up, please hashtag that shit and make it a thing), these platforms disavowed any responsibility for the content that pulsed through their systems, the very content written by us millions, the very lifeblood of our Republic. They were never publishers, after all, nor were they media companies. No no, they were platforms, neutral to the core, bloodless algorithms matching a reader’s intent to a publisher’s content, nothing to see here, move along, just providing a service and taking our small tax along the way…
And that was kind of true, in the beginning, anyway. Back when Google was young, blogging was a thing, and the web shone brightly in its Golden Age. The great Search Engine That Won ruled as a benign monarch, impassively distributing intent like oxygenated water across the kelp beds of web publishing. For a brief, wonderful moment, it all Worked.
I won’t go into why it broke down (that’s another essay), but I do want to take a look at why it worked. Because perhaps there are some lessons to be learned as we look to the future of Internet publishing. (And yes, I do think publishing has a future on the Internet — we must tell stories. We must converse, we must because that is who we are, at such a deep level I can’t even fathom an argument about it.)
So what worked? Here’s my list, add to it as you will (that’s why there are comments, after all):
Open Links. An open economy of links allows authors and publishers to create a gift economy that sends attention and influence from one place to another. Of course, the open link economy is subject to fraud, abuse, rent extraction, and corruption.
Trackbacks. Built on open links, trackbacks allow publishers to know who’s gifting who. They’re a critical social proof in an attention economy. In another essay, I called them “meaningful handshakes from one mind to another.” Knowing who was linking to your stuff was deeply important to trace-route the social fabric of your community. Of course, trackbacks failed because spam (see above).
Analytics. Early web publishers had access to meaningful signals of how readers engaged with their content. Of course, once you’re publishing on someone else’s platform, the meaningful signals are reserved for the platform, not for the content creator.
Comments. I know, I know. But before comment spam and the rise of troll culture, comments Really Fucking Mattered. Medium has brought comments back in a meaningful way through Responses. Thank you.
Advertising. I’m sorry, but advertising really does matter, in that it encourages small publications with ardent and meaningful audiences to continue doing what they were doing, which is inform, connect, and inspire communities of people. What broke with advertising was its disconnection from community, just as with publishers. Sure, you can buy audience all day long. But without context? C’mon.
And and and… There are more, but I want to get to my conclusion.
Here’s my point: One by one, we lost what was Good about the early web, and ceded it all to the platforms. What held promise ten years ago — that the web would spawn an ecosystem of millions of robust, connected voices — was lost to an oligarchy of Facebook, Google, and to a lessor extend LinkedIn, Twitter, and Snapchat. But I deeply believe we can bring it back. And yes, I believe advertising has a role to play. And Big Data. And subscription, but not if it’s of the micro-payment, subscribe-to-just-this-site variety.
We can get there, but not without all of us getting together and figuring out what our next steps should be.
Yes, yes, YES, I saw the fucking news from Facebook today. Great! You know the best way to change this formula? Tilt the revenue gains to the publishers, and make sure they have kickass analytics (and real data!) about their readers. You know, get them paid, for reals, and connect them to their audiences, for reals (IE stop preferencing your platform over theirs). I’ve not spoken to a single publisher who feels they are getting reliable, understandable, reasonable, or meaningful revenue or data from chasing Facebook traffic. Fix that, be a hero. I doubt it’ll be more than a rounding error in overall Facebook revenue or growth.