For those of you born after Seinfeld went off the air, “prime time” dominated an era when television viewers only had three or four choices at any given time. Before streaming took over our devices, before cable devolved to 500 channels with nothing to see, there was “prime time television.” If you’re old enough to remember when Friends ruled “Must-See TV,” you (and tens of millions of others) likely spent a fair amount of your weeknights engaged with prime time’s three-hour post-dinner programming block.
It’s been nothing but bad news for “the news” lately, and this week piled on two more depressing headlines: Gallup released a poll showing American confidence in the validity of mainstream news media is at an all time low, and The New York Times filed a trend piece noting that Silicon Valley companies, once a font of traffic for journalistic enterprise, are “ditching” news sites. Turns out that with link taxes, content moderation nightmares, advertising blacklists, and consumer fatigue, “news” is just more trouble than its worth for our modern attention merchants. Even Threads, Meta’s Twitter competitor, has decided to downplay the role of current events on its platform.
For those of us in who’ve been in the news business for more than a minute, this story ranks as a classic “dog bites man” story. The Times‘ piece turns on the news that Meta’s point person for news, Campbell Brown, is leaving the company. But anyone who’s worked with Brown over the past few years was already in on the joke. Brown was hired in 2017 to put a familiar face on Facebook’s tumultuous relationship with the press. Back in early 2019, when we were just starting The Recount, she was refreshingly direct with me when I asked if I should invest in a relationship with Facebook. In short, the answer was no.
(This is a preview of a piece I’m working on for Signal360, to be published next week.)
“The US litigates, the EU legislates.” That’s what one confidential source told me when I asked about theDigital Services Act and theDigital Markets Act, the European Union’s twin set of Internet regulations coming into force this year. And indeed, even as the United States government continues anendless parade of lawsuits aimed at big tech, the EU has legislated its way to the front of the line when it comes to impacting how the largest and most powerful companies in technology do business. It may be tempting to dismiss both theDSA and the DMA as limited to only Europe, and impacting only Big Tech, but that would be a mistake. It’s still very early – much of the laws’ impact has yet to play out – but there’s no doubt the new legislation will drive deep changes to markets around the world. And even if you aren’t a digital platform, your own business practices may well be in for meaningful change.
I’ve been following the story of generative AI a bit too obsessively over the past nine months, and while the story’s cooled a bit, I don’t think it any less important. If you’re like me, you’ll want to check out MIT Tech Review’s interview with Mustafa Suleyman, founder and CEO of Inflection AI (makers of the Pi chatbot). (Suleyman previously co-founded DeepMind, which Google purchased for life-changing money back in 2014.)
Inflection is among a platoon of companies chasing the consumer AI pot of gold known as conversational agents – services like ChatGPT, Google’s Bard, Microsoft’s BingChat, Anthropic’s Claude, and so on. Tens of billions have been poured into these upstarts in the past 18 months, and while it’s been less than a year into since ChatGPT launched, the mania over genAI’s potential impact has yet to abate. The conversation seems to have moved from “this is going to change everything” to “how should we regulate it” in record time, but what I’ve found frustrating is how little attention has been paid to the fundamental, if perhaps a bit less exciting, question of what form these generative AI agents might take in our lives. Who will they work for, their corporate owners, or …us? Who controls the data they interact with – the consumer, or, as has been the case over the past 20 years – the corporate entity?
Every so often I get an idea for a new website or service. I imagine you do as well. Thinking about new ideas is exciting – all that promise and potential. Some of my favorite conversations open with “Wouldn’t it be cool if….”
Most of my ideas start as digital services that take advantage of the internet’s ubiquity. It’s rare I imagine something bounded in real space – a new restaurant or a retail store. I’m an internet guy, and even after decades of enshittification, I still think the internet is less than one percent developed. But a recent thought experiment made me question that assumption. As I worked through a recent “wouldn’t it be cool” moment, I realized just how moribund the internet ecosystem has become, and how deadening it is toward spontaneous experimentation.
Those of you who’ve been reading for a while may have noticed a break in my regular posts – it’s August, and that means vacation. I’ll be back at it after Labor Day, but an interesting story from The Information today is worth a brief note.
Titled How Google is Planning to Beat OpenAI, the piece details the progress of Google’s Gemini project, formed four months ago when the company merged its UK-based DeepMind unit with its Google Brain research group. Both groups were working on sophisticated AI projects, including LLMs, but with unique cultures, leadership, and code bases, they had little else in common. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai combined their efforts in an effort to speed his company’s time to market in the face of stiff competition from OpenAI and Microsoft.
Today I’m going to write about the college course booklet, an artifact of another time. I hope along the way we might learn something about digital technology, information design, and why we keep getting in our own way when it comes to applying the lessons of the past to the possibilities of the future. But to do that, we have to start with a story.
Forty years ago this summer I was a rising Freshman at UC Berkeley. Like most 17- or 18- year olds in the pre-digital era, I wasn’t particularly focused on my academic career, and I wasn’t much of a planner either. As befit the era, my parents, while Berkeley alums, were not the type to hover – it wasn’t their job to ensure I read through the registration materials the university had sent in the mail – that was my job. Those materials included a several-hundred-page university catalog laying out majors, required courses, and descriptions of nearly every class offered by each of the departments. But that was all background – what really mattered, I learned from word of mouth, was the course schedule, which was published as a roughly 100-page booklet a few weeks before classes started.
Threads is a week old today, and in those short seven days, the service has lapped generative AI as the favorite tech story of the mainstream press. And why not? Threads has managed to scale past 100 million users in just five days — far faster than ChatGPT, which broke TikTok’s record just a few months ago. That’s certainly news — and news is what drives the press, after all.
Threads has re-established Meta as a hero in tech’s endless narrative of good and evil — I can’t count the number of posts I’ve seen from influential public figures joking that, thanks to Threads, they actually like Mark Zuckerberg again. And Meta can certainly relish this win — the company has been the scapegoat for the entire tech industry for the better part of a decade.
But were I an executive at Meta responsible for Threads, I’d not be sleeping that well right about now. As they well know, the relationship between the tech industry and the press can shift in an instant. Glowing stories about breaking app download records can just as quickly become hit pieces about how Meta has leveraged its monopoly position in social media to vanquish yet another market, killing free speech and “real news” along the way. So far that story has been confined to the fringes of Elon’s bitter troll army over on whatever remains of Twitter these days, but should Threads lap Twitter as the largest app focused on creating a “public square” — whatever that means — the worm will quickly turn.
Meta has a tiger by the tail here, and so far, they’ve been working hard to tamp down expectations. Both Zuckerberg and Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri have been active on Threads, posting daily with both practiced humility (“gosh this thing is succeeding well beyond our expectations,” “we’re just at the starting line,” “we know we’re over our skis”) and reminders about how Threads isn’t like Twitter. Mosseri, for example, has downplayed the role of news — Twitter’s main differentiation and its endlessly maddening Achilles hell; Zuckerberg’s first Thread defined his new service as “an open and friendly public space” — prompting Musk to fire back that he’d rather be “attacked by strangers on Twitter” than live in “hide the pain” world of Instagram.
But The News — with all of its complications — is coming for Threads. I left Twitter more than six months ago, and while I sometimes missed feeling connected to the real time neural net the app had become for me, I almost instantly felt better about both myself and the world. Living on Twitter means navigating an unceasing firehose of toxicity, and Musk’s interventions only worsened the poisonous atmosphere of the place. I joined Threads a half hour after it launched, and indeed, it was a giddy place, its initial users basking in the app’s surprising lack of toxicity.
Other journalists have noticed the same thing. For now, the narrative around Threads centers on its extraordinary growth, but a close second is how “nice” the place feels compared to Twitter. Meta executives would like to keep it that way — combining “what Instagram does best” with “a friendly place for public conversation,” as Zuck put it in his first post.
To that fantasy, I say good luck to you, Mr. Zuckerberg. Keeping Threads “nice” means controlling the conversation in ways that are sure to antagonize just about everyone. No company — not Facebook, not Instagram, not Reddit, and certainly not Twitter, has figured out content moderation at scale. If, as Zuckerberg claimed, the goal with Threads is to create a “town square with more than 1 billion people,” the center of that square will have to contain news. And news, I can tell you from very personal experience, is the front door to a household full of humans screaming at each other.
“Politics and hard news are inevitably going to show up on Threads,” Mosseri told the Hard Fork podcast last week, “But we’re not going to do anything to encourage those verticals.”
I’ll have more to say about that sentiment in another post, but for now, I’ll leave it at this: When Threads hits 300 million active users — roughly the size of Twitter — the love affair between the press and Threads will more than likely come to an end.
I’ll be talking to Meta’s head of advertising Nicola Mendelsohn at P&G Signal tomorrow. You can register here for free.
Apparently the open web has finally died. This the very same week Meta launches Threads, which, if its first day is any indication, seems to be thriving (10 million sign ups in its first few hours, likely 50 million by the time this publishes…).
But before Threads’ apparent success, most writers covering tech had decided that the era of free, open-to-the-public, at scale services like Twitter, Reddit, and even Facebook/Insta is over. I’ll pick on this recent one from The Verge: So where are we all supposed to go now?
The piece argues that the decline of Twitter (Elon’s killing it), Reddit (it’s killing itself), and Instagram (it’s just entertainment now!) has left “an everybody-sized hole in the internet. For all these years, we all hung out together on the internet. And now that’s just gone.”
Umm…no. And not because of Threads (I’ll get to that in a minute). We never did “hang out together on the internet.” Anyone who knows Twitter knows it’s always been a cliquey echo chamber run by public narcissists. Reddit’s always been where a relatively small group of highly disaffected kids make fun of…everyone. And Instagram? Last I checked, it was still growing – even before Threads. Besides, no one ever “hung out” on Insta, I mean, it started as a photo service, remember? Complaining that it’s become an entertainment service is equivalent to moaning that TikTok is unusable because you’re getting old. Oh wait, Verge’s cousin Vox has already done that too.
Sure, you can “hang out” on some random subreddit, or get into endless flame wars with 12 other idiots on Twitter, or join an Instagram Live with a few hundred other voyeurs, but…that’s certainly not “everyone hanging out together on the Internet.” The very idea is ridiculous. We’re not built to “hang out with everyone,” and we never will be. Many of us, me included, are built to hang out with about six people at a time. And they change depending on context.
Trend pieces noting that the web has changed aren’t annoying because they’re wrong (of course the web is changing), they’re annoying because they miss the core problem: Centralization. We’ve been living in a centralized web world for more than a decade now, one where all the data, graphs (social, commercial, etc), and value are concentrated and managed by large corporations hell bent on protecting their most precious resource – your attention. To make sure you keep paying attention, corporations have made it very, very difficult to do the one thing all of us want to do from time to time: We want to leave.
The problem with the past ten or so years of Internet history is that we couldn’t leave when we wanted to – at least not without severe penalty. When I left Twitter last November, for example, I instantly lost a social graph I had built over 15 years, tens of thousands of my posts, an audience of nearly 300,000, not to mention my primary real-time news and information source. I couldn’t take any of that with me as I decamped to Twitter imitators like BlueSky or Mastodon. Neither of them had the rich networks of people that Twitter once had, and they were much the poorer for it.
But what they did have was compelling: A decentralized model that promised that, if I wanted to leave again, I could bring the value I helped create anywhere I wanted to. Both BlueSky and Mastodon are built on published protocols – essentially technology specs that other developers and entrepreneurs can leverage to build competing (or complementary) services. One of the most popular of these protocols is called ActivityPub – that’s what powers Mastodon. And in one of the smartest moves I’ve seen out of Meta in ages*, Instagram’s Threads will support ActivityPub.
Threads is built on top of Instagram’s social graph, which means if you’ve created value on that network, you’ll instantly have value on Threads. I have several thousand followers on Insta, an artifact of my early use of the place (I stopped posting regularly years ago). But when I joined Threads last night, I already had thousands of latent connections from Insta, and that network resurfaced almost immediately. People with super active Insta handles saw this effect in a much stronger way – in essence, Meta has created another way to create engagement across its network, so bully for them.
But if Meta keeps its promise to incorporate ActivityPub, that engagement and the social graphs driving it can be exported to any other service that supports the ActivityPub protocol. This means that if Threads turns into a Twitter-like hellscape in coming years, we can all take our attention, and our data, to a competing service like Mastodon. That kind of competitive threat undermines the web’s current business model of centralized, locked-in attention farming. You know, the very model upon which Facebook built an empire. Before yesterday, you couldn’t take your Instagram social graph and its related data to anywhere else on the web. But with Threads, you can. That’s progress.
For more than a decade I’ve been railing about how we’ll never get a truly open, highly innovative Internet until it becomes possible to build services that share data through standardized, easy to use protocols. I called these services “meta services” – services that thrive above the control of any one platform. In one stroke, Meta has capitalized that phrase (in every meaning of the term) and staked out the high ground – declaring itself willing to compete not on its ability to lock your data into a silo, but to provide you a superior service that keeps you engaged regardless of your ability to leave. This will prove extremely valuable for public dialog – a use case that has suffered massively thanks to the terrible incentives created by the attention economy. And for that, I tip my cap to Meta. Never thought that day would come, but here it is.
*Two other smart moves from Meta recently: Open sourcing its LLM, and naming Threads based on Twitter terminology.
This past Monday NewsGuard, a journalism rating platform that also analyzes and identifies AI-driven misinformation, announced it had identified hundreds of junk news sites powered by generative AI. The focus of NewsGuard’s release was how major brands were funding these spam sites through the indifference of programmatic advertising, but what I found interesting was how low that number was – 250 or so sites. I’d have guessed they’d find tens of thousands of these bottom feeders – but maybe I’m just too cynical about the state of news on the open web. I have a hunch my cynicism will be rewarded in due time, once the costs of AI decline and the inevitable economic incentives that have always driven hucksters kick in.
Given 250 is a manageable number for a mere mortal, I decided to ask the good folks at NewsGuard, where I’m an advisor, for a copy of their listings. Nothing like a tour through the post-apocalyptic hellscape of our AI future, right?
What I found was…disappointing. Most of the sites were beyond shoddy – barely literate, obviously automated, full of errors and content warnings, and utterly devoid of any sense of organizational structure. The most common message, upon clicking on a story link, was some variation of an OpenAI violation:
Not exactly a compelling headline. The next most common experience was this:
This of course is evidence that the scammers are rotating URLs to avoid blacklisting, unburdened of any concern about building audience loyalty. Beyond OpenAPI warnings and 404s, there’s the browser warnings that the site you’re about to visit is, well, seedy:
When you do get an actual news experiences, it becomes clear that these publishers have little interest in passing as “real news sites,” IE publications a sane person might intend to visit. They are instead built as SEO chum in the hopes that Google’s indexes might favor them with some low quality traffic, or worse, as destinations for bot traffic destined for arbitrage inside the darker regions of the programmatic ad universe. The editorial decisions on the various home pages I visited were, well, hilariously inchoate:
Perhaps that’s what we should expect with the first phase of this particular genre, but I found their general awfulness depressing: Most reporters will look at these sites and dismiss them. But they shouldn’t.
Traditional “made for advertising” sites already control 21 percent of all programmatic advertising revenues, and these sites tend to dominate Google search results, enshittifying the open web with low-calorie crap that, one would hope, actually good AI might help us avoid. But the relatively low volume of AI sites indicates, at least anecdotally, that so far the economics of replacing human-built content with AI-driven drivel have yet to kick it. Put simply, it’s still too expensive to replace sites like Geeky Post or Explore Reference with AI. For now.
But when costs come down, I expect made for advertising sites will pivot to AI almost overnight. And I wonder if that’s a bad thing. Once the web’s worst sites all shift to AI-driven output, perhaps they’ll find themselves in a positive spiral of competition for actual human attention. If these sites start to create reasonably high quality content, and search and social start to reward them with real traffic that converts to revenue, perhaps we can simply automate away the shitshow that the open web has become.