For the past several years, I’ve led a graduate-level class studying the early history of Internet policy in the United States. It runs just seven weeks – the truth is, there’s not that much actual legislation to review. We spend a lot of the course focused on Internet business models, which, as I hope this post will illuminate, are not well understood even amongst Ivy-league grads. But this past week, one topic leapt from my syllabus onto the front pages of every major news outlet: Section 230. Comprised of just 26 words, this once-obscure but now-trending Internet policy grants technology platforms like Facebook, Google, Airbnb, Amazon, and countless others the authority to moderate content without incurring the liability of a traditional publisher.
Thanks to the events of January 6th, Section 230 has broken into the mainstream of political dialog. Slowly – and then all of a sudden – the world has woken up to the connection between the disinformation flooding online platforms and what appears to be the rapid decay of our society.
Never in my five-plus decades has a year been so eagerly anticipated, which makes this business of prediction particularly daunting. I’m generally inclined to be optimistic, but rose-colored glasses stretch time. Good things always take longer to emerge than any of us would wish. Over 18 years of doing this I’ve learned that it’s best to not predict what I wish would happen, instead, it’s wise to go with what feels most likely in the worlds I find fascinating (for me, that’s media, technology, and business, with a dash of politics given my last two years at The Recount). As I do each year, I avoid reading other folks’ year-end predictions (though I plan on getting to them as soon as I hit publish!). Instead, I just sit down at my desk, and in one rather long session, I think out loud and see where things land.
Yes, it’s true: Last year, I did not predict a global pandemic in 2020. COVID is a gravitational force that warps everything it touches, so I approach this annual ritual of self-grading with trepidation. As I start, I honestly don’t remember what I predicted twelve months ago…but regardless, I’m expecting a train wreck. I’ll read each one in turn, repeat the headline prediction, and then free associate some thoughts on what actually transpired. Grab a glass of your favorite beverage…and here we go:
Facebook bans microtargeting on specific kinds of political advertising. OK, Facebook did NOT do this – well, not exactly. What the company DID do was ban political advertising altogether – but only in the week before, and a short period after the US election. Of course, you can certainly say that by banning all political advertising, the company ended up banning microtargeting as a result. So that’s one argument for giving myself a “Nailed It.” If that’s too weak an argument, let’s go to the fine print in my original prediction: “The pressure to do something will be too great, and as it always does, the company will enact a half-measure, then declare victory.” And that is exactly what the company did. I mean, exactly. I also wrote: “The company’s spinners will frame this as proof they listen to their critics, and that they’re serious about the integrity of the 2020 elections. As with nearly everything it does, this move will fail to change anyone’s opinion of the company. Wall St. will keep cheering the company’s stock, and folks like me will keep wondering when, if ever, the next shoe will drop.” Yup. Nailed it.
Netflix opens the door to marketing partnerships. This prediction requires a bit of clarification. I was not claiming Netflix would open the door to advertising on its platform, but rather that it “may take the form of a co-produced series, or branded content, or some other “native” approach, but at the end of the day, it’ll be advertising dollars that fuel the programming.” What I didn’t realize when I made this prediction was that Netflix was already deep into product placement deals for its Netflix Originals, and that it had already made sure the money changed hands somewhere else (such as between a production company and a brand). There is no doubt that marketing money positively benefits Netflix’s bottom line – and the practice absolutely accelerated in 2020, as did everything streaming-related during COVID. But there was not a significant shift in Netflix policy related to marketing that I can find, so I’m going to say I whiffed on this one.
CDA 230 will get seriously challenged, but in the end, nothing gets done, again. This is exactly what happened. In fact, it’s happening as I type this – Trump just vetoed a veto-proof defense funding bill because it doesn’t repeal 230, and Biden has already indicated he plans to rethink 230 next year. But even though tens of millions of American citizens became familiar with Section 230 this year, nothing came of all that noise. Nailed it.
Adversarial interoperability will get a moment in the sun, but also fail to make it into law. OK I have GOT to stop writing predictions about obscure academic terminology. I mean, what the actual f*ck? What I was trying to say was this: In 2020, there would be a robust debate about the best ways to regulate Big Tech, and the ideas behind “adversarial interoperability” would get a rigorous airing. This did not happen, and just like Jeffrey Katzenberg, I blame COVID. Exactly no one wanted to debate tech policy in the middle of a global pandemic. Making things worse, toward the end of this year multiple governmental agencies decided it was time to go after Big Tech, and they went batshit with proactive lawsuits – the DOJ and a majority of states sued Google (three times, no less), the FTC sued Facebook, and I’d put money more suits are coming (looking at you, Apple and Amazon). The suits revolve around antitrust law, so the debate will now be dominated by whether or not the government can prove its case in court. This effectively postpones intelligent debate about remedies for years. I find this state of affairs deeply annoying. But a grade must be given, and that grade is a whiff, unfortunately.
2020 will also be the year “data provenance” becomes a thing. Literally stop me from ever writing predictions after hitting the flash evaporator, OK?! This was another policy-related prediction, and if I was going to miss #4 above, I’m certainly going to whiff here as well. In the very rare case you want to know what I was on about, this is how I described the concept: “The concept of data provenance started in academia, migrated to adtech, and is about to break into the broader world of marketing, which is struggling to get its arms around a data-driven future. The ability to trace the origin, ownership, permissions, and uses of data is a fundamental requirement of an advanced digital economy, and in 2020, we’ll realize we have a ton of work left to do to get this right.” Well, in fact, if you believe Google Trends, “data provenance” did have a marked lift in 2020. Does that qualify it for “becoming a thing”? I have no f*cking idea. And again, thanks to COVID, marketers were not exactly focused on public ledgers and blockchain in 2020. Note to self: Stop predicting that something will “become a thing.” Inane. Whiff.
Google zags. Oh man, oh man, I feel so close on this one. I mean, there are still a few days left in 2020, right? I honestly think this is about to happen. Here’s how I explained it one year ago: “Saddled with increasingly negative public opinion and driven in large part by concerns over retaining its workforce, Google will make a deeply surprising and game changing move in 2020.” Google’s problems with both public perception (hello, three government lawsuits!) and an unhappy workforce only deepened this year – the Timnit disaster was just the most public of its struggles. But so far the company hasn’t produced a dramatic “game changing” move. Sure, the FitBit acquisition finally closed, but if that proves material, I’ll … start using a FitBit again. I firmly believe that Google must make a game changing move, and soon, if it’s going to keep its mojo. But….it certainly hasn’t happened yet. So…sigh…Whiff.
At least one major “on demand” player will capitulate. Just weeks into 2020, I was well on my way to a “Nailed It” here. The tide was turning on the entire category: Uber was in trouble and badly below its IPO price, GrubHub was a falling knife looking for a buyer, PostMates had shelved its IPO dreams. And then…COVID reordered the universe, making on demand everything an essential part of quarantine life. The entire category was supercharged – I mean, DoorDash at 19 times sales?!?! – and yet another of my predictions bit the dust. F U, COVID. Whiff.
Influencer marketing will fall out of favor. Well, if ever there was a year to be sick of influencer marketing, it’d be this one. But no, with sports and entertainment programming suspended for the majority of the year, all that marketing budget had to go somewhere, and lord knows it wasn’t going to support news (despite that being the most engaged and highest growth category of all). So…brands threw in even more with influencers. In my explanation I predicted that influencer fraud would be a huge problem – and by most accounts it is (the last figure I could find was 1.3 billion in 2019 – which was roughly 20 percent of the overall market!). But…influencer marketing did not fall out of favor, Charlie D’Amelio is making $50K per post, and damnit, I whiffed again.
Information warfare becomes a national bogeyman. Finally, a slam dunk. Man, I was starting to question myself here. “Deep fakes, sophisticated state-sponsored information operations, and good old fashioned political info ops will dominate the headlines in 2020,” I wrote. Yep, and true to form, 2020 saved the scariest example for the end of the year. Nailed it.
Purpose takes center stage in business. Here’s one prediction where COVID actually accelerated my take toward a passing grade. The year began with BlackRock’s stunning declaration that it would make investment decisions based on climate impact. Once COVID and the George Floyd murder came, nearly the entire Fortune 500 began recalibrating their communication strategies around racial, gender, and climate equity issues. Last year I wrote “I expect plenty of CEOs will feel emboldened to take the kind of socially minded actions that would have gotten them fired in previous eras.” Whether it was P&G on climate and race, Nike saying “Don’t Do It,” or nearly every major sports league standing with the Black Lives Matter movement, companies have taken previously unimaginable stands this year. Nailed It.
Apple and/or Amazon stumble. Sure, Apple did pay up to half a billion to bury its “batterygate” scandal but let’s be honest, you forgot about that, right? Even the publication of a terrifying expose of worker conditions in iPhone manufacturing plants failed to dent the company in 2020. But what you likely will remember is the Epic Fortnite story – and to me, that’s the stumble that tips my prediction to a “Nailed It.” Apple’s response to Epic was ham fisted and short sighted. The company misread regulators’ appetite for antitrust, deeply injured its reputation amongst developers, and exposed the iOS App Store – the source of its most important growth revenues – as a pristine monopoly just begging for a Federal compliant. Meanwhile, while Amazon profited handsomely from COVID, the company’s reputation has only worsened in 2020. A drumbeat of negative press about unsafe working conditions, union busting, and anticompetitive practices culminated in a broadside from one of its own – Tim Bray, a respected technologist (and early reader of Searchblog) who penned a damning Dear John letter to his former employer in May. Despite the strength of both companies’ stock prices, I think it’s safe to say that both Apple and Amazon stumbled in 2020. Nailed It.
Next week I’ll be writing Predictions 2021 — let’s hope this is the start of an upward trend…
The video above is from a conversation at The Recount’s SHIFT event last month, between Nick Clegg, Facebook VP, Global Affairs and Communications, and myself. If you can’t bear to watch 30 or seconds of video, the gist is this: Clegg says “Thank God Mark Zuckerberg isn’t editing what people can or can’t say on Facebook, that’s not his or our role.”
Marketers – especially brand marketers: Too many of you have lost the script regarding the critical role you play in society. And while well-intentioned TV spots about “getting through this together” are nice, they aren’t a structural solution. It’s time to rethink the relationship between marketers, media companies (not “content creators,” ick), and the audience.
If you’ve read Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, you likely agree that the most important asset for a data-driven advertising platform is consumer engagement. That engagement throws off data, that data drives prediction models, those models inform algorithms, those algorithms drive advertising engines, and those engines drive revenue, which drives profit. And profit, of course, drives stock price, the highest and holiest metric of our capitalistic economy.
So when an upstart company exhibits exponential growth in consumer engagement – say, oh, 3,000-percent growth in a matter of two months – well, that’s going to get the attention of the world’s leading purveyors of surveillance capitalism.
As the coronavirus crisis built to pandemic levels in early March, a relatively unknown tech company confronted a defining opportunity. Zoom Video Communications, a fast-growing enterprise videoconferencing platform with roots in both Silicon Valley and China, had already seen its market cap grow from under $10 billion to nearly double that. As the coronavirus began dominating news reports in the western press, Zoom announced its first full fiscal year results as a public company. The company logged $622.7 million in revenue, up 88 percent from the year before. Zoom’s high growth rate and “software as a service” business model guaranteed fantastic future profits, and investors rewarded the company by driving its stock up even further. On March 5th, the day after Zoom announced its earnings, the company’s stock jumped to $125, more than double its price on the day of its public offering eleven months before. Market analysts began issuing bullish guidance, and company executives noted that as the coronavirus spread, more and more customers were flocking to Zoom’s easy-to-use video conferencing platform.
But as anyone paying attention to business news for the past month knows, it’s been a tumultuous ride for Zoom ever since. As the virus forced the world inside, demand for Zoom’s services skyrocketed, and the company became a household name nearly overnight. Zoom’s “freemium” model – which offers a basic version of its platform for free, with more robust features available for a modest monthly subscription fee – allowed tens of millions of new users to sample the company’s wares. Initially, Zoom was a hit with this new user base – stories of Zoom seders, Zoom cocktail parties, and even Zoom weddings gave the company a consumer-friendly vibe. Just like Google or Facebook before it, here was the story of a scrappy Valley startup with just the right product at just the right time. According to the company, Zoom’s monthly users leapt from 10 million to more than 200 million – an unimaginable increase of 2,000 percent in just one month.