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.
Would you pay $200 a month for generative AI services? It may sound crazy, but I think it’s entirely possible, particularly if the tech and media industries don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
Think back to the last time you decided to fork over a substantial monthly fee for a new technology or media service. For most of us, it was probably the recent shift to streaming services. If you use more than a few, that bill can add up to nearly $100 a month. But streaming is a (not particularly good) replacement for cable – it’s not a technological marvel that changes how we live, work, and play. To find a new service that rises to that level, we have to go back to the introduction of the smart phone – a device we were willing to spend hundreds of dollars to obtain and an average of $127 a month to keep.
Of all the structural problems “Web 2” has brought into the world – and there are too many to list – one of the most vexing is what I call the “meta-services” problem. Today’s commercial internet encourages businesses and services to create silos of our data – silos that can not and will not connect to each other. Because of business model constraints (most big services are “free,” revenues come from advertising and/or data sales), it’s next to impossible for anyone – from an individual consumer to a Fortune 50 enterprise – to create lasting value across all those silos. Want to compare your Amazon purchase history to prices for the same goods at Walmart? Good luck! Want to compare the marketing performance of your million-dollar campaigns between Facebook and Netflix? LOL!
For the past 15 or so years, I’ve written about a new class of “meta-services” that would work across individual sites, apps, and platforms. Working on our behalf, these meta-services would collect, condition, protect, and share our information, allowing a new ecosystem of services and value to be unlocked. OpenAI’s recent announcement of plugins, along with their already robust APIs, has brought the meta-service fantasy tantalizingly close to reality. But it’s more likely that, just as with the “open internet,” the fantasy will remain just that. Internet business models have been built to collect short term rent. Truly open systems rarely win over time – regardless of whether the company uses the word “open” in its name.
Do generative AI innovations like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s LaMDA represent a new and foundational technology platform like Microsoft Windows, Apple iOS or the Internet? Or are they just fun and/or useful new products that millions will eventually use, like Google Docs or Instagram? I think the answer can and should be “both” – but to get there, the Valley is going to have to forego the walled garden destination model it’s employed these past 15 or so years.
The question of OpenAI’s ultimate business model has dominated nearly every conversation I’ve had this week, whether it’s with reporters from the Economist and the Journal, senior executives at large-scale public companies, or CEOs of ad-tech and data startups. Everyone wants to know: What’s the impact of generative AI on the technology industry? Will OpenAI be the next Google or Apple? Who wins, and who will lose?
Let’s start our 2023 predictions off with some thoughts on artificial intelligence. With ChatGPT, Silicon Valley seems to have gotten a bit of its mojo back. After two decades spent simmering the magic of Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook into a sticky lucre of corporate profit, here was the kind of technological marvel the industry seemed to have forgotten how to make – a magical tour de force that surprised, mystified, and delighted millions.
Even better, ChatGPT didn’t come from any of those corporate titans – not directly, anyway. Instead it came from a non-profit artificial intelligence research laboratory called OpenAI. Founded in 2015 with a mission of furthering “responsible AI,” OpenAI is backed by some of the most celebrated names in Valley technology – LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, PayPal’s Peter Theil, Tesla’s Elon Musk among them. Now this was more like it!