I’ve used the image above for many years, mainly because I love how surprised the guy looks as he gazes into the crystal ball. Or maybe he’s just sat on something unpleasant. In any case, it pretty much sums up my approach to this, my 20th edition of annual predictions. I sit down, I might have an adult beverage on hand, and I just write until I feel like I’m done.
While reviewing my ’22 predictions (I did pretty well!) I promised to do something new: One post per predictions, ten posts total. But as I began that promised work, I realized it would test the limits of even my most dedicated readers (I see you, kids). So instead I wrote three long form posts, each with three or four predictions apiece. The first focused on AI, the second on advertising, and the third on markets, with a bonus call related to the ’24 election. Having now written all of them, I’m going to summarize them briefly in this “master post.” Grab your own favorite beverage, have a wonderful New Year, and read on!
I love advertising – particularly digital advertising. There, I said it. Was that so hard? Well, yes, the industry I’ve partnered with for more than three decades can be very difficult to defend – and the past ten or fifteen years have been particularly bad. I’m tempted to say that everything after Google Adwords was a net negative in the world, including Facebook, which was the bastard child of Google, and even the open web and programmatic advertising (a development I’ve previously called “heroic” and “the greatest single artifact of humankind”).
It’s fair to say I have a complicated relationship with what’s come to be called “ad tech” – we developed the first ad servers and banner ads at Wired in the 1990s, I wrote a book about the business and its breakout star (Google) in the early 2000s, I started an advertising-driven open-web business that nearly reached escape velocity around the same time, I still chair an adtech and data-driven descendant of that business today, I’ve work closely with the largest advertiser on the planet for nearly 15 years, I sit on the board of LiveRamp, an essential component of today’s digital marketing ecosystem, I’ve started or advised or invested in countless media companies – most of which are dependent on advertising in one form or another.
I’m planning something different for my annual predictions this year – I’m going to take the balance of this week and write an individual post for each one of my prognostications. Then I’ll write a summary post with short descriptions of each. I usually do ten predictions each year, which means I’m planning on writing 11 posts this week. That’s about as many posts as I wrote for all of 2022. I must be trying to make up for something. And just for fun, I think I’ll release the whole batch all at once, like a proper Squid Games binge. Just feels like the thing to do this year. Perhaps I’m hoping that by writing (a lot) more during this predictions cycle, I’ll kick start my flow for 2023 – as that’s pretty much my only professional resolution for the coming year: To write out loud much more frequently.
But before I do all that, we first must review the caliber of my prognostications for 2022. Twelve months later, how did I do? Let’s take a look:
My first prediction was that Crypto Blows Up. Remember, this was written in late December of 2021, when the price of Bitcoin was nearly $50,000. As I write, BTC stands at around $16,500. Many less “stable” coins have been wiped out entirely, and overall, the crypto markets have dropped by nearly $2 trillion since last year. Indeed, crypto did blow up – and many of its heroes are now under house arrest or on the lam. In my prediction I got plenty both right and wrong: “the market will grow massively (wrong) but be beset by fraud, grift, and regulatory uncertainty (right), as well as an explosion of new apps (wrong, unless you count FTX as an “explosion”…).” But overall, crypto did what I predicted: It blew up, big time. Check.
Second prediction: Oculus will be a breakout hit, but it’ll immediately be consumed in the same controversies besetting the rest of Facebook’s platforms. Um, oops. I mean, the second part of that prediction proved true, as Oculus’ flagship Horizons app was immediately beset by allegations of sexual harassment and worse. And early in the year, Oculus sales were looking promising. But I must have been stoned on the first week or two of my new Oculus headset back when I wrote this prediction, because I couldn’t see far enough into the future to realize that pretty much everyone who bought one would use it for a week or two, then leave it forgotten in a bottom drawer – just like I did. I’ll score this a big miss.
Next up: Twitter changes the game. Well, I certainly got that right, but anyone who could have predicted the HOW of that statement deserves a place next to Nostradamus in the prognosticator’s hall of fame. In the explanatory text of this prediction, I laid out several major product changes that I felt the company was poised to execute on, given it had a new CEO (Parag Agrawal) who seemed capable of focusing the company on core technology and feature challenges/opportunities. But who could have foreseen the advent of Space Karen and his goons of doom? Not I. I should have predicted that I’d be off the service by the end of the year (you can find me on Mastodon now.) But I’m going to grade myself as mostly right here – Twitter did change the game, big time. Just not in a way anyone could have predicted. Check.
Fourth, I predicted Climate has its worst – and best – year ever. The first part of this prediction was a layup – of course things got worse this year. How could they not? Climate disaster stories dominated the news – nearly every week another terrible climate-driven catastrophe was revealed. The latest: the death of at least 25 people in Buffalo, New York just this past week. But determining the accuracy of that “best year” claim is far more difficult. I write: Best, because finally, the political will to do something about it will rise… in particular in the United States. Did that happen? Well, buried in the misnamed “Inflation Reduction Act” was, in fact, proof of that political will. The Environmental Defense Fund called it “the biggest package of climate investments in U.S. history into law,” and they’re not wrong. We did, in fact, do something about climate this year. Is it enough? Not nearly, but it’s a good start. Check.
Fifth, “The return of the office... we work best when we work together, and by year’s end, the “new normal” will be the old normal – most of us will go back to going into work.” As with crypto, it wasn’t as easy to predict this back in late December of 2021 – when nearly everyone was saying the world had changed forever, and businesses must bend to the newly powerful will of the independent workforce. By this past Fall, major newspapers were declaring “The early results are in: The return to work is working.” Yes, work has changed forever, and it seems that hybrid/2-3 days a week is becoming the new norm, but I’d say 2022 was indeed the year the office made a comeback. Check.
Next, a tough one to crow about but…exactly one week before January 6th, I predicted “Divisions in the US reaching a boiling point. I hate even writing these words, but with the midterms in 2022 and a ’24 campaign spinning up, Trump will return to the national stage.” I don’t like taking a victory lap here, but…well this certainly happened. Check.
For my seventh prediction I made the rookie mistake of getting overly specific. The headline: Big Tech bulks up. The specificity: Despite a doubling down in anti-trust saber rattling from the EU and the Biden administration, Big Tech companies must grow, and they’ll look toward orthogonal markets to do it. Meta and Apple will buy gaming companies, Amazon will buy enterprise software companies, and Google will buy a content library. Well, I don’t think I got this exactly right. 2022 was not the year Big Tech bulked up – they mostly spent the year on extreme defense, cutting staff and fighting regulatory oversight. Meta did buy two Oculus related companies, then got slapped with an antitrust action around a similar acquisition in late 2021. Apple slowed its pace of acquisitions to a similar trickle. But there’s some hope for my prediction from Amazon: The company got seriously acquisitive in 2022, buying six companies, including iRobot and One Medical. Google also sped up its spending spree, buying ten companies, but none of them were content libraries. However, just this past week Google acquired rights to NFL Sunday Ticket – and there’s simply no more valuable content play in the US than football. Net net, I think I got this about half right. Let’s call it a push.
My eighth prediction was contrarian at the time of writing, but I’d say it came out a slam dunk: “The streaming market takes a pause. The advertising business has yet to catch up with consumer behavior in the streaming television market, and as I’ve written elsewhere, the consumer experience is fracking awful. In 2022, those chickens will come home to roost.” Well…yup. 2022 was the year that streaming paused – a chart of Netflix’s share price acted as proxy for the entire industry. Check.
Finally, my tenth prediction was a massive sandbagger. Here’s the prediction in full: “Trump’s social media company delivers exactly nothing. Hey, I needed one sandbag in the mix – and this one comes with a heaping side of schadenfreude. The company will become mired in legal fights, and Trump, having grifted a billion or so from favor-currying investors, will move on to ever more ruinous pursuits.” Yep. Well, OK, Truth Social still exists, but it certainly does not matter, and the company spent most of the year not paying its bills, failing to complete its SPAC, and being generally irrelevant in the national conversation. And while Trump demurred at Musk’s invitation to re-join Twitter, supposedly because Truth Social is a superior platform, we all know he couldn’t stand to play second fiddle to a richer man who commands more reach and takes all the oxygen from the room. Check.
Caveat: This will likely be one of my longish, link-heavy Thinking Out Loud pieces, so I invite you all to pour yourselves a glass of your favorite adult beverage or rustle up a fine cannabis pairing, should you care to indulge…
Welcome to year nineteen of these annual predictions, which means….holy cow, twenty years of writing at this site. Searchblog has been neglected of late, running a media startup during a pandemic will do that to thoughtful writing. I hope to change that in 2022, starting with this bout of chin stroking. If you’re an old timer here, you know I don’t really prepare to write this post. Instead I sit down, summon the muse of flow, and let it rip in one go. Let’s get to it.
Crypto blows up. 2022 will be a chaotic year for crypto – both the decentralized finance and social token/NFT/gaming portions of the industry, which will grow massively but be beset by fraud, grift, and regulatory uncertainty, as well as an explosion of new apps based on scaleable blockchains such as Solana and Avalanche. Most of these apps will fade (much as early dot com stocks did), but the overall space will be markedly larger as a result. And while 2021 was the year most of the world learned about crypto, 2022 will be the year crypto dominates the tech narrative. I’m holding off on calling a crash – ’22 feels a bit more like ’98 or ’99 than the year 2000, which is when “web1” topped out. But that first top is coming, and when it crests, look the f*ck out. Crypto is a far more integrated into the global economy than we might suspect. In fact, I’ll toss in a corollary to this first prediction: In 2022, a major story will break that exposes a major state actor has been manipulating the crypto markets in a bid to destroy US financial markets.
Oculus will be a breakout hit, but it’ll immediately be consumed in the same controversies besetting the rest of Facebook’s platforms. The company throws money and lobbyists at the problem, including enough advertising budget to mute mainstream press outrage. Apple will try to capitalize on all of this FUD as it introduces its own VR play. Regardless, the Oculus division becomes a meaningful portion of Meta’s top line, which starts the change the narrative around Facebook’s surveillance capitalism business model.
Twitter changes the game. I have no particular insight into new CEO Parag Agrawal, but the company has had a long suffering relationship with its true value in the world, and I think the table is set for an acceleration of its product in ways that will surprise and even delight its most ardent fans (I count myself somewhat reluctantly among them). How might this happen? First, look for a major announcement around how the company works with developers. Next, deeper support and integration of all things crypto, in particular crypto wallets like MetaMask. And last (and related), a play in portable identity, where your Twitter ID brings value across other apps and environments.
Climate has its worst – and best – year ever. Worst because while 2021 was simply awful (I mean, the year ends with a winter draught, then a historic fire in… Boulder?) things can always get worse, and they will. Best, because finally, the political will to do something about it will rise, thanks mainly to the voice of young people around the world, and in particular in the United States.
The return of the office. Yes, I know, everything’s changed because of the pandemic. But truth is, we work best when we work together, and by year’s end, the “new normal” will be the old normal – most of us will go back to going into work. A healthy new percentage of workers will remain remote, but look for trend stories in the Post and Times about how that portion of the workforce is feeling left out and anxious about missing out on key opportunities, connections, and promotions. One caveat to this prediction is the emergence of some awful new variant that sends us all back into our caves, but I refuse to consider such horrors. I REFUSE.
Divisions in the US reaching a boiling point. I hate even writing these words, but with the midterms in 2022 and a ’24 campaign spinning up, Trump will return to the national stage. He’ll offer a north star for Big Lie-driven tribalism, a terrifying rise in domestic terrorism and hate crimes, all fueled by torrents of racial and economic anger. I really, really hope I’m wrong here. But this feels inevitable to me.
Big Tech bulks up. Despite a doubling down in anti-trust saber rattling from the EU and the Biden administration, Big Tech companies must grow, and they’ll look toward orthogonal markets to do it. Meta and Apple will buy gaming companies, Amazon will buy enterprise software companies, and Google will buy a content library. Google’s always been a bit confused about what its entertainment strategy should be. YouTube is so damn big, and its search business so bulletproof, the company hasn’t really had to play the game the way Meta, Amazon, and Apple have. That likely changes in 22.
The streaming market takes a pause. The advertising business has yet to catch up with consumer behavior in the streaming television market, and as I’ve written elsewhere, the consumer experience is fracking awful. In 2022, those chickens will come home to roost. There’s only so much attention in the world, and with more than $100 billon to invest in content in 2022, something’s gotta give. Plus, if we get through Omicron and back out into the world, consumers might just find themselves doing something besides binging forgettable, algorithmically manufactured programming. I’m not predicting that streaming crashes, but just that the market will have a year of consolidation and, I hope, improvements in its consumer experience and advertising technology stack.
Tik Tok will fall out of favor in the US. Everyone is predicting that 2022 will be The Year Of Tik Tok, but I think they’re wrong in one big way: This won’t be a positive story. First off, the public will wake to the possibility that Tik Tok is, at its core, a massive Chinese PsyOp. Think I’m crazy? I certainly hope so! But you don’t have to wear a tin foil hat to be concerned about the fact that the world’s most powerful social algorithm is driven by a company with a member of the Chinese Communist Party on its board. And second, US-based competitors are already learning, fast, what makes Tik Tok tick. YouTube, Insta, Snap and others will take share all year long.
Trump’s social media company delivers exactly nothing. Hey, I needed one sandbag in the mix – and this one comes with a heaping side of schadenfreude. The company will become mired in legal fights, and Trump, having grifted a billion or so from favor-currying investors, will move on to ever more ruinous pursuits.
Well, that’s ten, and I wanted to keep this year’s version under a thousand words. Have a wonderful New Year’s, dear readers. I hope I see you out there in the real world, and soon.
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…
Last week an email hit my inbox with a simple and powerful sentiment. “I miss your writing,” it said. The person who sent it was a longtime reader of this site.
I miss writing too. But there’s a reason I’ve been quiet here and on other platforms – I wrote a very short post about that earlier this summer. To summarize, last year I decided to take the leap, for the seventh time, and start a company with my dear friend and frequent co-conspirator John Heilemann. John and I have worked on projects for the better part of three decades, but we’d never started a company together. Now we have: Recount Media is an entirely new approach to video about politics. And the truth is, Recount Media not only requires all of my time, it’s also in fields that seem pretty orthogonal to my previous career trajectory.
I’ve been quiet here on Searchblog these past few months, not because I’ve nothing to say, but because two major projects have consumed my time. The first, a media platform in development, is still operating mostly under the radar. I’ll have plenty to say about that, but at a later date. It’s the second where I could use your help now, a project we’re calling Mapping Data Flows. This is the research effort I’m spearheading with graduate students from Columbia’s School for International Public Affairs (SIPA) and Graduate School of Journalism. This is the project examining what I call our “Shadow Internet Constitution” driven by corporate Terms of Service.
Our project goal is simple: To visualize the Terms of Service and Data/Privacy Policies of the four largest companies in US consumer tech: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. We want this visualization to be interactive and compelling – when you approach it (it’ll be on the web), we hope it will help you really “see” what data, rights, and obligations both you and these companies have reserved. To do that, we’re busy turning unintelligible lines of text (hundreds of thousands of words, in aggregate) into code that can be queried, compared, and visualized. When I first imagined the project, I thought that wouldn’t be too difficult. I was wrong – but we’re making serious progress, and learning a lot along the way.
I’ll never forget a meal I had with a senior executive at Facebook many years ago, back when I was just starting to question the motives of the burgeoning startup’s ambition. I asked whether the company would ever support publishers across the “rest of the web” – perhaps through an advertising system competitive with Google’s AdSense. The executive’s response was startling and immediate. Everything anyone ever needs to do – including publishing – can and should be done on Facebook. The rest of the Internet was a sideshow. It’s just easier if everything is on one platform, I was told. And Facebook’s goal was to be that platform.
Those words still ring in my ears as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the web today. And they certainly should inform our perspective as we continue to digest Facebook’s latest self-involved epiphany.