As has been my practice for nearly two decades, I penned a post full of prognostications at the end of last year. As 2021 subsequently rolled by, I stashed away news items that might prove (or disprove) those predictions – knowing that this week, I’d take a look at how I did. How’d things turn out? Let’s roll the tape…
My first prediction: Disinformation becomes the most important story of the year. At the time I wrote those words, Trump’s Big Lie was only two months old, and January 6th was just another day on the calendar. A year later, that Big Lie has spawned countless others, culminating in one of the most damaging shifts in our nation’s politics since the Civil War. The Republican party is now fully captured by bullshit, and countless numbers of local, state, and national politicians are busy undermining democracy thanks to the Big Lie’s power. A significant percentage of the US population has become unmoored from truth – and an equally significant group of us have simply thrown our hands up about it. Trust is at an all time low. This Barton Gellman piece in The Atlantic served as a wake up call late in the year – and its conclusions are terrifying: “We face a serious risk that American democracy as we know it will come to an end in 2024,” Gellman quotes an observer stating. “But urgent action is not happening.” I’m not happy about getting this one right, but as far as I’m concerned, this is still the most important story of the year – and the most terrifying.
My next prediction: Facebook’s chickens come home to roost…2021 will be a dismal year for Facebook. Oh my, was it ever. Facebook’s year was so terrible, the company decided to change its name as a result. Because I took notes all year, here’s a brief review of Facebook’s 2021:
- January: Facebook kicks off the year with a WhatsApp privacy disaster, sparking outrage both inside and outside the company. Apple CEO Tim Cook pounces, leveraging his bully pulpit to pummel Zuck & Co. Also in January, Facebook outsources the single most important decision it’s ever made- de-platforming a sitting President – to its “oversight board.” (PS, the Board essentially kicked the decision back to Facebook).
- February: Facebook decides to down-rank political news, which as many pointed out, is itself a deeply political act. This does not have the intended effect, instead driving even more insanity into its poorly considered “Groups” feature.
- March: Apple’s back at it, this time releasing iOS 14 privacy policies which batter Facebook’s core ads business.
- April: After testifying that Facebook was not used to coordinate the Jan. 6th attack, Facebook executives are hit with the devastating leak of an internal report contradicting their testimony. It was to be the first of many.
- May: Plans for Zuck & Co. to go on the offensive via a PR campaign are unmasked. The WhatsApp story deteriorates.
- June: Europe opens new antitrust probes into the company. More bad news about Apple’s impact on Facebook’s core ads business.
- July: The President of the United States says Facebook is killing people. Vaccine mis- and dis-information has become hopelessly entangled with the company’s brand image. An Ugly Truth is published, detailing Facebook’s struggles with, well, the truth, and it dominates the summer tech news cycle.
- August: Facebook is taken to task for its practice of silencing its employees. This is before the publication of the Facebook Files/Papers – Facebook’s most damaging leak – next month. Oh, and the company’s ads business is busted for allowing promotion of ivermectin. Never one to misplay a comms response, Facebook continues its PR offensive by releasing internal studies on “widely used content.” Turns out, it cherry picked which report it decided to release, and buried the one it didn’t like.
- September: The steady stream of bad news becomes a flood, thanks to whistleblower and ex-employee Frances Haugen. The Journal publishes the first of its “Facebook Files” investigation, alleging duplicity in the company’s “XCheck” program for politicians and celebrities. This is followed up by damaging reports of internal knowledge of Instagram’s impact on teenagers, the platform’s uncanny ability to engender anger, and much, much more. Facebook responds by doubling down on its communications strategy of pushing pro-Facebook narratives (and no longer apologizing) but, embarrassingly, has to delay Instagram for Kids. Meanwhile, key people leave the company.
- October: The Facebook platform goes down, for everyone – the company’s worst outage ever. Meanwhile, the think pieces based on Haugen’s revelations begin to seep into public conversation: “Facebook is Weaker Than We Knew” is one of an endless barrage of chin stroking, most of it negative. The company’s own “oversight board” rebukes Facebook for the XCheck debacle. The Facebook Files expand into the Facebook Papers, as Haugen’s redacted documents are leaked, and the Post carries the Journal’s work into fresh allegations of indefensible behavior by the company. The FTC gets into the action. Clearly, a pivot is in order. And by the end of this horrific month, Facebook changes the conversation, and its name, to Meta.
- November/December: No one seems to appreciate the new name, and Zuck’s performance in the roll out is widely ridiculed. Employee defections are rife. Tik Tok overtakes Facebook and Google as the most visited domain in the US. To cap it all off, Facebook is voted “The Worst Company of the Year” by readers of …Yahoo! Finance. Now that’s meta.
I’ve left off dozens of ugly narratives while compiling this list – and admittedly, I’ve also left off a fair number of pro-Facebook responses as well. But overall, I think this particular prediction was pretty spot on. Let’s call it a win and move on…
My third prediction: AI has a mid-life crisis. This one bears a bit more explanation. From my post: “2021 will be the year society takes a step back and thinks hard about where this is all going … by year’s end, the AI narrative will be as much about hand wringing and regulatory oversight as it is about revolutionary breakthroughs.” I think I got this right as well, but I can’t prove it. The year started with a leading AI researcher calling the entire space a “dumpster fire.” Numerous fatal crashes with Teslas in self driving mode gave observers pause – perhaps this technology was not as ready as Elon Musk had claimed (and who the fuck is stupid enough to sleep in the back seat of a driverless Tesla, but…people are stupid sometimes). Furthermore, AI’s great proof – that it was better at reading X-rays than trained radiologists – was debunked. Academic journals continued to question whether “super intelligence” can ever be contained. Meanwhile, the bloom came off the “smart home” rose – “Alexa has turned out to be a voice-activated clock/radio with low retention” quips noted tech analyst Benedict Evans. This AI stuff is hard – and while the tech is hard enough, the policy issues are even harder. 2021 was the year legislators were pummeled with Silicon Valley lobbying around how China is about to kill the US with its insurmountable lead in artificial intelligence. (And hey, China’s got the Minority Report market in the bag!) But it certainly wasn’t the year legislators did anything about AI, other than voice concerns. So, yes, we got the hand wringing and the focus on policy, but it’s a bit of a push on the prediction overall. Not enough proof points to give myself either a passing or a failing grade.
Prediction #4: A wave of optimism around tech-driven innovation takes root. Yep, it’s pretty bold to predict a rebound in tech optimism when Big Tech is taking heavy fire, but I think I got this one right as well, thanks in large part to the world of crypto. It’s been three decades since I’ve seen an outburst of pure technology euphoria like the vibes coming off the crypto/web3/blockchain space. I’ve been monitoring crypto for years (one of my 2018 predictions was “Crypto/blockchain dies as a major story”), and went pretty deep this past 18 months or so. I am a cautious proponent of crypto’s technology, philosophy, and new governance models, but there’s a hell of a lot of bullshit in there as well. Then again, the same was true three decades ago, back when the web was young. The difference this time? Scale. In the early 1990s, the web was an anomaly, and you could count its adherents in the tens of thousands. It took five years for that to scale to tens of millions, and the industry represented a tiny percentage of overall GDP. But in 2021, web3 scaled to impressive (some might say scary) numbers. Total cryptocurrency holdings rocketed from roughly $500 billion to more than $3 trillion this year. Crypto wallet Metamask, often (roughly) compared to the Netscape browser of Web 1, zoomed from half a million monthly active users to more than 21 million. And NFTs – the web3 equivalent of dot com stocks – grew into a massive market as well, clocking more than $10 billion in purchases last quarter. The overall vibe of the crypto space is summed up in one catchphrase: “We’re all going to make it (WAGMI).” Perhaps (and yes, I do see a crash in our future), but if WAGMI doesn’t reflect a “wave of optimism,” I don’t know what does.
Prediction #5: Google does in 2021 what I predicted it would in 2020: It zags. And what does a zag look like? From my piece: “Google will make a deeply surprising and game changing move.” And in fact, Google made two game changing moves in 2021, either of which might defend my assertion. In March, the company announced it would, as the WSJ covered it: “stop selling ads based on individuals’ browsing across multiple websites, a change that could hasten upheaval in the digital advertising industry.” This was a major shift in how the world’s largest advertising platform plied its trade, and while I’ll leave it to others to opine on the impact (and timing, which remains in flux), the reasoning behind it is crystal clear. As I wrote in my prediction “Google is fighting off a terrifying array of massive regulatory actions, and desperately needs to avoid looking like Facebook in the eyes of its employees, consumers, and business partners.” Changing the core of its data policies is a move designed to do just that.
The second big move targeted Apple. In March the company lowered some fees that developers pay to use its Play store. And in October, it slashed all fees in half, effective next week. This is a major ecosystem shift – one that may well drive new and existing developers into building for Android first. And again, it positions Google to be the good guy in the eyes of developers, customers, and critically, regulators, who have been sizing up Apple for its monopolistic control of the iOS app store.
My sixth prediction? Nothing will get done on tech regulation in the US. This one was far too easy to get right – with a pandemic raging, Congress deadlocked, and an agenda that included multiple trillion-dollar pieces of legislation, there was no way tech legislation would have passed this year. The Biden administration did heavy up on anti-Big Tech talent (Khan, Wu, et al), but they’ve not had either the time or the support to get much done, yet.
Lucky #7: A “new” social platform breaks out in 2021. I’ll admit, I was scratching my head around this one for months, nervous I’d take a whiff here. But then I got on Discord. From my original prediction: “Given the handcuffs 2021 will place on the traditional players in Big Tech, this coming year presents a perfect opportunity for a breakout player to redefine the social media category… It won’t be some ripoff version of what already exists. I’d either look to something like an evolved Signal, an app that already has a growing user base, or a from-nowhere startup that gets super hot, super fast.” Discord is kind of a combination of the two – a six-year-old startup with a dedicated user base that is focused on communications. The platform rethinks nearly everything about the “social graph,” and yes, it’s kind of a hot mess. But by summer of this year, Discord had reached 150 million daily users, putting it within spitting distance of Twitter (200m+) in terms of size. Discord is now valued at $15 billion – and it does not take advertising. For a deep dive on the company, I recommend reading Casey Newton and Packy McCormick.
Unlucky #8: The markets take a breather, and SPACs get a bloody nose. Well, I was right on the latter, but wrong on the former. The markets only got hotter all year long, taking only the shortest of breaks to dip and then roar right back. But SPACs most definitely got bloodied – as early as as February, I noticed the concern in the financial press, and that narrative built all year long, with many high profile SPACs either failing or limping across the finish line. When the bright spot in the SPAC world is Donald Trump’s mostly fictional “social media company” – and that deal draws the interest of the SEC – well, the space ain’t exactly crushing it. But as I said, the markets did not take a breather – the Dow Jones and the S&P delivered nearly 20 percent gains. So I got one part right, and one part wrong. A push.
Prediction #9: 2021 will be prove to be the last year of growth in gas-powered automobiles. Well, there’s no way I can prove this until the numbers come in for 2022, so I won’t bother trying to grade myself on this one. Call it a push, but I’ve been monitoring related news, and I’d say the prediction is certainly on trend. As usual, the Nordic countries led the way. In Norway, EV sales now account for an astounding 90+ percent of new car sales. Cities around the world are banning new gas stations. And GM, one of the largest automakers in the world, announced it will phase out the combustion engine by 2035. NB: One of the best places to get and stay smart on EVs and de-carbonization in general is Azeem’s Exponential View.
Proving I should really stay away from geopolitics, Prediction #10: Africa rising, China…in question. I got the headline right – Africa is certainly rising, and China is a big question mark – but my detail was very wrong: “the breakout continent of 2021 will be Africa, home to many of the fastest growing countries in the world, and the focus of years of Chinese investment and diplomacy. After four years of US neglect, the Biden administration will realize it’s dangerously close to losing Africa altogether, and announce a massive investment in the continent.” Nope, did not happen. In fact, Biden decided to counter China in Africa with…an initiative in South America. Whiff. Moving on to my last, and possibly most depressing prediction:
Prediction #11: Everyone loses their shit, in a good way. This was my way of saying that we’d get through the pandemic, and we’d all party like we deserve to party after 18 months of isolation and fear. We had the “hot vax summer” memes but….Delta and vaccine hesitancy killed that cold, then Omicron smacked us once more, even as we looked forward to what could have been a relatively normal holiday season. Ending on a rough note, but – this one was a whiff as well. I’m optimistic we’ll get through this, but I’m done trying to predict the course of this wily virus.
So that’s the scorecard: Two whiffs, three pushes, and six scores. Not bad, in fact better than my average over these past 17 years. Maybe I should do this again. Look for my 2022 musings sometime later this week. And have a happy, safe, and sane New Years everybody. Thanks for reading.