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.
Every year I write predictions for the year ahead. And at the end of that year, I grade myself on how I did. I love writing this post, and thankfully you all love reading it as well. These “How I Did” posts are usually the most popular of the year, beating even the original predictions in readership and engagement.
What’s that about, anyway? Is it the spectacle of watching a guy admit he got things wrong? Cheering when I get it right? Perhaps it’s just a chance to pull back and review the year that was, all the while marveling at how much happened in twelve short months. And 2018 does not disappoint.
Here we go:
Prediction #1: Crypto/blockchain dies as a major story. Cast yourself back to late 2017 when Bitcoin was pushing $20,000 and the entire tech sector was obsessed with blockchain everything. ICOs were raising hundreds of millions of dollars, the press was hyping (or denigrating) it all, and the fools were truly rushing in. In my prediction post, I struck a more measured tone: “…there’s simply too much real-but-boring work to be done right now in the space. Does anyone remember 1994? Sure, it’s the year the Mozilla team decamped from Illinois to the Valley, but it’s not the year the Web broke out as a mainstream story. That came a few years later. 2018 is a year of hard work on the problems that have kept blockchain from becoming what most of us believe it can truly become. And that kind of work doesn’t keep the public engaged all year long.” I think I got that right. Bitcoin has crashed to earth, and those who remain in the space are deep in the real work – which I still believe to be fundamentally important to the future of not only tech, but society as well. Score: 10/10
Prediction #2: Donald Trump blows up. I don’t usually make political predictions, but by 2017, Trump was the story, bigger than politics, and bigger than tech. I wrote: “2018 is the year [Trump] goes down, and when [he] does, it will happen quickly (in terms of its inevitability) and painfully slowly (in terms of it actually resolving). This of course is a terrible thing to predict for our country, but we got ourselves into this mess, and we’ll have to get ourselves out of it. It will be the defining story of the year.” I think I also got this one right. Trump is done – nearly everyone I trust in politics agrees with that statement. I won’t recount all the reasons, but here are a few: No fewer than 17 ongoing investigations of the President and/or his organizations. A tanking stock market that has lost all faith in the President’s leadership. Nearly 40 actual indictments and several high profile guilty verdicts. A Democratic majority in the House preparing an endless barrage of subpoenas and investigations. And a Republican party finally ready to abandon its leader. Net net: Trump is toast. It’s just going to take a while for that final pat of butter. Score: 10/10
Prediction #3: Facts make a comeback. Here’s what I wrote in support of this assertion: “2018 is the year the Enlightenment makes a robust return to the national conversation. Liberals will finally figure out that it’s utterly stupid to blame the “other side” for our nation’s troubles. Several viral memes will break out throughout the year focused on a core narrative of truth and fact. The 2018 elections will prove that our public is not rotten or corrupt, but merely susceptible to the same fever dreams we’ve always been susceptible to, and the fever always breaks. A rising tide of technology-driven engagement will help drive all of this.” I’d like to claim I nailed this one, but I think the trend lines are supportive. Real journalism had a banner year, with subscriptions to high-integrity publications breaking records year on year. Most smart liberals have realized that the politics of blame is a losing game. And I was happily right about the 2018 elections, which was one of the most definitive rebukes of a sitting President in the history of our nation. As for those “viral memes” I predicted, I’m not sure how I might prove or disprove that assertion – none come to mind, but I may have missed something, given what a blur 2018 turned out to be. Alas, that “rising tide of technology-driven engagement” was a pretty useless statement. Everything these days is tech-driven…so I deserve to be dinged for that pablum. But overall? Not bad at all. Score: 7/10
Prediction #4: Tech stocks overall have a sideways year. It might be hard to give me credit for this one, given how the FANG names have tanked over the past few months, but cast your mind back to when I wrote this prediction, in late December: Tech stocks were doing nothing but going up. And where are they now? After continuing to climb for months, they’re….mostly where they started the year. Sideways. Apple started at around 170, and today is at … 156. Google started at 1048, and is now at…1037. Amazon and Netflix did better, rising double digit percentages, but plenty of other tech stocks are down significantly year on year. The tech-driven Nasdaq index started the year at around 7000, as of today, it’s down to 6600. So, some up, some down, and a whole lot of … sideways. As I wrote: “All the year-in-review stock pieces will note that tech didn’t drive the markets in the way they have over the past few years. This is because the Big Four have some troubles this coming year.” Ummm….yep, and see the next two predictions… Score: 9/10.
Prediction #6: Google/Alphabet will have a terrible first half (reputation wise), but recover after that. Well, in my original post, I predicted a #MeToo shoe dropping around Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. That didn’t happen exactly, though the whisper-ma-phone was sure running hot for the first few months of the year, and a massive sexual misconduct scandal eventually broke out later in the year. But even if I was wrong on that one point, it’s true the company had a bad first half, and for the most part, a pretty terrible year overall. In March, it had a government AI contract blow up in its face, leading to employee protests and resignations. This trend only continued throughout the year, culminating in thousands of employees walking out in protest of the company’s payouts to alleged sexual harassers. Oh, and that empty chair at Congressional hearings sure didn’t help the company’s reputation. I also predicted more EU fines: Check! A record-breaking $5 billion fine, to be exact. Further, news the company was creating a censored version of its core search engine in China also tarnished big G. But I whiffed when I mulled how the company might get its mojo back: I predicted it would consider breaking itself up and taking the parts public. That didn’t happen (as far as we know). Instead, Google CEO Sundar Pichai finally relented, showing up to endure yet another act in DC’s endless string of political carnivals. Pichai acquitted himself well enough to support my assertion that Google began to recover by year’s end. But as recoveries go, it’s a fragile one. Score: 8/10.
Prediction #7: The Duopoly falls out of favor. This was my annual prediction around the digital advertising marketplace, focused on Facebook and (again) Google. In it, I wrote: “This doesn’t mean year-on-year declines in revenue, but it does mean a falloff in year-on-year growth, and by the end of 2018, a increasingly vocal contingent of influencers inside the advertising world will speak out against the companies (they’re already speaking to me privately about it). One or two of them will publicly cut their spending and move it to other places.” This absolutely occurred. I’ve already chronicled Google’s travails in 2018, and there’s simply not enough pixels to do the same for Facebook. This New York Times piece lays out how advertisers have responded: No Morals. In the piece, and many others like it, top advertisers, including the CEO of a major agency, went on the record decrying Facebook – giving me cause for a #humblebrag, if I do say so myself. Oh, and yes, both Facebook and Google posted lower revenue growth rates year on year. Score: 10/10.
Prediction #8: Pinterest breaks out. As I wrote in my original post: “This one might prove my biggest whiff, or my biggest “nailed it.” Well, near the end of 2018, a slew of reports predicted that Pinterest is about to file for a massive IPO. As if by magic, the world woke up to Pinterest. It seems I was right – but as of yet, the IPO has not been confirmed. So…I’ll not score myself a 10 on this one, but if Pinterest does have a successful IPO early next year, I reserve the right to go back and add a couple of points. Score: 8/10.
Prediction #9: Autonomous vehicles do not become mainstream. Driverless cars have been “just around the corner” for what feels like forever. By late 2017, everyone in the business was claiming they’d breakout within a year. But that didn’t happen, regardless of the hype around the first “commercial launch” by Waymo in Phoenix a few weeks ago. I’m sorry, but a “launch” limited to 400 pre-selected and highly vetted beta ain’t mainstream – it’s not even a service in any defensible way. We’re still a long, long way off from this utopian vision. Our cities can’t even figure out what to do with electric scooters, for goodness sake. It’ll be a coon’s age before they figure out driverless cars. Score: 9/10.
Prediction #10: Business leads. I think I need to avoid these spongy predictions, because it’s super hard to prove whether or not they came true. 2018 showed us plenty of examples of business leadership along the lines of what I predicted. Here’s what I wrote: “A crucial new norm in business poised to have a breakout year is the expectation that companies take their responsibilities to all stakeholders as seriously as they take their duty to shareholders. “All stakeholders” means more than customers and employees, it means actually adding value to society beyond just their product or service. 2018 will be the year of “positive externalities” in business.” Well, I could list all the companies that pushed this movement forward. Lots of great companies did great things – Salesforce, a leader in corporate responsibility, even hired a friend of mine to be Chief Ethics Officer. Imagine if every major company empowered such a position? And a powerful Senator – Elizabeth Warren, who likely will run for the presidency in 2019 – laid out her vision for a new approach to corporate responsibility in draft legislation called the Accountable Capitalism Act. But at the end of the day, I’ve got no way to prove that 2018 was “a break out year” for “a crucial new norm in business.” I wish I did, but…I don’t. Score: 5/10.
Overall, I have to say, this was one of the most successful reviews of my predictions ever – and that’s saying something, given I’ve been doing this for more than 15 years. Nine of ten were pretty much correct, with just one being a push. That sets a high bar for my predictions for 2019…coming, I hope, in the next week or so. Until then, thanks as always for being a fellow traveler. And happy new year – may 2019 bring you and yours happiness, health, and gratitude.
Those of us fortunate enough to have lived through the birth of the web have a habit of stewing in our own nostalgia. We’ll recall some cool site from ten or more years back, then think to ourselves (or sometimes out loud on Twitter): “Well damn, things were way better back then.”
Then we shut up. After all, we’re likely out of touch, given most of us have never hung out on Twitch. But I’m seeing more and more of this kind of oldster wistfulness, what with Facebook’s current unraveling and the overall implosion of the tech-as-savior narrative in our society.
Hence the chuckle many of us had when we saw this trending piece suggesting that perhaps it was time for us to finally unhook from Facebook and – wait for it – get our own personal webpage, one we updated for any and all to peruse. You know, like a blog, only for now. I don’t know the author – the editor of the tech-site Motherboard – but it’s kind of fun to watch someone join the Old Timers Web Club in real time. Hey Facebook, get off my lawn!!!
That Golden Age
So as to not bury the lead, let me state something upfront: Of course the architecture of our current Internet is borked. It’s dumb. It’s a goddamn desert. It’s soil where seed don’t sprout. Innovation? On the web, that dog stopped hunting years ago.
And who or what’s to blame? No, no. It’s not Facebook. Facebook is merely a symptom. A convenient and easy stand in – an artifact of a larger failure of our cultural commons. Somewhere in the past decade we got something wrong, we lost our narrative – we allowed Facebook and its kin to run away with our culture.
Instead of focusing on Facebook, which is structurally borked and hurtling toward Yahoo-like irrelevance, it’s time to focus on that mistake we made, and how we might address it.
Just 10-15 years ago, things weren’t heading toward the our currently crippled version of the Internet. Back in the heady days of 2004 to 2010 – not very long ago – a riot of innovation had overtaken the technology and Internet world. We called this era “Web 2.0” – the Internet was becoming an open, distributed platform, in every meaning of the word. It was generative, it was Gates Line-compliant, and its increasingly muscular technical infrastructure promised wonder and magic and endless buckets of new. Bandwidth, responsive design, data storage, processing on demand, generously instrumented APIs; it was all coming together. Thousands of new projects and companies and ideas and hacks and services bloomed.
Sure, back then the giants were still giants – but they seemed genuinely friendly and aligned with an open, distributed philosophy. Google united the Internet, codifying (and sharing) a data structure that everyone could build upon. Amazon Web Services launched in 2006, and with the problem of storage and processing solved, tens of thousands of new services were launched in a matter of just a few years. Hell, even Facebook launched an open platform, though it quickly realized it had no business doing so. AJAX broke out, allowing for multi-state data-driven user interfaces, and just like that, the web broke out of flatland. Anyone with passable scripting skills could make interesting shit! The promise of Internet 1.0 – that open, connected, intelligence-at-the-node vision we all bought into back before any of it was really possible – by 2008 or so, that promise was damn near realized. Remember LivePlasma? Yeah, that was an amazing mashup. Too bad it’s been dormant for over a decade.
After 2010 or so, things went sideways. And then they got worse. I think in the end, our failure wasn’t that we let Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon get too big, or too powerful. No, I think instead we failed to consider the impact of the technologies and the companies we were building. We failed to play our hand forward, we failed to realize that these nascent technologies were fragile and ungoverned and liable to be exploited by people less idealistic than we were.
Our Shadow Constitution
Our lack of consideration deliberately aided and abetted the creation of a unratified shadow Constitution for the Internet – a governance architecture built on assumptions we have accepted, but are actively ignoring. All those Terms of Service that we clicked past, the EULAs we mocked but failed to challenge, those policies have built walls around our data and how it may be used. Massive platform companies have used those walls to create impenetrable business models. Their IPO filings explain in full how the monopolization and exploitation of data were central to their success – but we bought the stock anyway.
We failed to imagine that these new companies – these Facebooks, Ubers, Amazons and Googles – might one day become exactly what they were destined to become, should we leave them ungoverned and in the thrall of unbridled capitalism. We never imagined that should they win, the vision we had of a democratic Internet would end up losing.
It’s not that, at the very start at least, that tech companies were run by evil people in any larger sense. These were smart kids, almost always male, testing the limits of adolescence in their first years after high school or college. Timing mattered most: In the mid to late oughts, with the winds of Web 2 at their back, these companies had the right ideas at the right time, with an eager nexus of opportunistic capital urging them forward.
They built extraordinary companies. But again, they built a new architecture of governance over our economy and our culture – a brutalist ecosystem that repels innovation. Not on purpose – not at first. But protected by the walls of the Internet’s newly established shadow constitution and in the thrall of a new kind of technology-fused capitalism, they certainly got good at exploiting their data-driven leverage.
So here we are, at the end of 2018, with all our darlings, the leaders not only of the tech sector, but of our entire economy, bloodied by doubt, staggering from the weight of unconsidered externalities. What comes next?
2019: The Year of Internet Policy
Whether we like it or not, Policy with a capital P is coming to the Internet world next year. Our newly emboldened Congress is scrambling to introduce multiple pieces of legislation, from an Internet Bill of Rights to a federal privacy law modeled on – shudder – the EU’s GDPR. In the past month, I’ve read draft policy papers suggesting we tax the Internet’s advertising model, that we break up Google, Facebook, and Amazon, or that we back off and just let the market “do its work.”
And that’s a good thing, to my mind – it seems we’re finally coming to terms with the power of the companies we’ve created, and we’re ready to have a national dialog about a path forward. To that end, a spot of personal news: I’ve joined the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and I’m working on a research project studying how data flows in US markets, with an emphasis on the major tech platforms. I’m also teaching a course on Internet business models and policy. In short, I’m leaning into this conversation, and you’ll likely be seeing a lot more writing on these topics here over the course of the next year or so.
Oh, and yeah, I’m also working on a new project, which remains in stealth for the time being. Yep, has to do with media and tech, but with a new focus: Our political dialog. More on that later in the year.
I know I’ve been a bit quiet this past month, but starting up new things requires a lot of work, and my writing has suffered as a result. But I’ve got quite a few pieces in the queue, starting with my annual roundup of how I did in my predictions for the year, and then of course my predictions for 2019. But I’ll spoil at least one of them now and just summarize the point of this post from the start: It’s time we figure out how to build a better Internet, and 2019 will be the year policymakers get deeply involved in this overdue and essential conversation.
Yesterday, I lost it over a hangnail and a two-dollar bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
You know when a hangnail gets angry, and a tiny red ball of pain settles in for a party on the side of your finger? Well, yeah. That was me last night. My usual solution is to stick said finger into a bottle of peroxide for a good long soak. But we were out of the stuff, so, as has become my habit, I turned to Amazon. And that’s when things not only got weird, they got manipulative. Sure, I’ve been ambiently aware of Amazon’s algorithmic pricing and merchandising practices, but last night, the raw power of the company’s control over my routine purchases was on full display.
There’s literally no company in the world with better data about online purchasing than Amazon. So studying how and where it lures a shopper through a purchase process is a worthy exercise. This particular one left a terrible taste in my mouth – one I don’t think I’ll ever shake.
First the detail. Take a look at my search results for “Hydrogen Peroxide” on Amazon. I’ve annotated them with red text and arrows:
As you can see, the most eye catching suggestions – the four featured panels with large images – are all Amazon brands. Big red flag. But Amazon knows sophisticated shoppers like me are suspicious of those in house suggestions, so it’s included a similar product in the space below its own brands (we’ll get to that in a minute).
Above the featured items are ads: sponsored listings that are not Amazon brands, which means the advertiser (a small player named “Blubonic Industries”) is paying Amazon to get ahead of the company’s own promotional power. Either way, Amazon makes money. Second red flag.
By now, I’ve decided I’m not interested in either the sponsored brands at the top, or Amazon’s four featured brands, because, well, I don’t like to be so baldly steered into buying Amazon’s stuff. Then again, before I move down to the results below, I do notice something rather amazing – Amazon’s familiar brown bottle of peroxide is really, really cheap – as in, $1.29 cheap. There’s even a helpful per oz. calculation next to the price, screaming: this shit is eight pennies an ouncecheap!
Well, I’m almost sold, but because I hate to be directed into purchases, I’m still going to consider that similar brown bottle below, the one with the red label. Amazon knows this, of course. It’s merchandising 101 – make sure you give the consumer choices, but also, make sure the most profitable choice is presented in such a way as to win the day.
So my eye moves down the page to check out the second bottle. It’s from Swan, a brand I’ve vaguely heard of. Then I check its price.
Nine dollars and sixty nine cents.
Which would you buy? After all, this is a staple, a basic, a chemical compound. And you trust Amazon to get shit right, don’t you? I mean, a buck and change – nearly nine times cheaper? What a deal!
So…my eyes revert to Amazon’s blue labeled bottle. It wouldn’t have a four-star plus review if it burned your skin, right? And that’s when I notice the tiny icon next to it, which looks like this:
What’s this? Is this yet another annoying subscription service? Ever since we moved to New York, my wife and I have tried to figure out Amazon’s subscription services (Fresh? Pantry? Prime Now? Whole Foods Delivery? Who knows?!). I’m already deeply suspicious of any attempt by Amazon to lure me into paying them monthly for a service that I don’t understand.
But…a buck twenty nine! So I click on the bottle, and the landing page is super clean, and there’s no obvious Prime Pantry mention. Plus, it turns out, that bottle from Amazon is the Whole Foods generic brand, which for whatever reason seems a bit better than a generic Amazon brand. Did I just get lucky? Maybe I can just get some super cheap chemicals delivered in a day to my door, and my annoying hangnail will be a thing of the past soon enough….Right?
Here’s the landing page:
Looks great, the price is amazing, but…Uh oh. I can’t get this bottle of peroxide until Sunday. By then, I’ve likely lost my finger to a flesh eating bacteria. As I feared, this bottle is nothing more than a baited fish hook for one of Amazon’s subscription offers – which I find out, will cost somewhere between five and thirteen bucks a month. I’ve signed up for Prime Pantry by mistake in the past, and it wasn’t a smooth or enjoyable experience. No thanks. I click back to the original search results. Seems to me Amazon is gaming the shipping deals.
Well of course it is. I’m no longer a happy Amazon customer at this point. Now I’m annoyed.
But what’s this? If I scroll down below the $9.69 bottle, there’s another choice, also from Swan, and, it seems, exactly the same, if one is to judge just by the image (and we do judge just from the images, let’s just admit it). This one costs almost half as much as the one above it. What’s going on?! Here’s an annotated screen shot:
As you can see, there’s a lot going on. I’ve narrowed my choice down to two non-Amazon brands. They look nearly identical. The most significant difference, at least in terms of the information provided to me by Amazon, is the price – the top bottle is nearly twice as expensive as the bottom one. But the top bottle has a major benefit: I can get it nearly immediately! The bottom one makes me wait a day. Is the wait worth four or five bucks? Hmm.
Also confounding: The bottom bottle has its price broken out on a per ounce basis – 32 cents, exactly four times more than the 8 cents-an-ounce bottle I just looked at from Amazon’s Prime Pantry. Ouch! Now I’m really annoyed, and confused. My eyes dart back up to the $9.69 bottle. As I’ve shown with the empty red circle, there’s….no per-ounce breakdown shown by Amazon. It does tell me that this particular bottle is 32 ounces, whereas the bottom one is 16 ounces.
But why not do the math for me? A quick calculation shows that the top bottle comes out to about 30 cents an ounce – two cents less than the bottom bottle. Why not show that fact?
This, folks, this is algorithmic merchandising at its finest.
Amazon knows exactly how many clicks it’s going to take for me to reach shopping fatigue. Not “on average for all shoppers,” or even “on average for each shopper who’s ever considered a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.” Amazon knows all of that, of course, but it also knows exactly how long it takes ME to get fatigued, to enter what I like to call “fuck it” mode. As in, “fuck it, I’m tired of this bullshit, I want to get back to the rest of my life. I’m going to buy one of these bottles.”
And because there’s no per-ounce breakdown of the 32-ounce bottle, and because that makes me suspicious of it, and because hell, who ever needs 32 ounces of hydrogen peroxide anyway, well, I’m just going to buy the $5 one.
Ca-ching! Amazon just made a nearly seven percent markup on my purchase. It took five clicks, 15 seconds, and a vast architecture of data and algorithmic mastery to make that profit. Each and every time we purchase something on Amazon, that machinery is engaged in the background, guiding us through choices which insure the company remains the trillion dollar behemoth we know and…
Do you love Amazon anymore? For that matter, do you love Facebook, Google, or Twitter? Interactions like the one I’ve detailed above are starting to chip away at that presumption. Personally, I’ve gone from cheerleader to skeptic over the past few years, and I’m broken out into full-blown critic over the last twelve months. I no longer trust Amazon to have my best interests at heart. I’ve lost any trust that Facebook or Twitter can deliver me a public square representative of my democracy. I’ve given up on Google delivering me search results that are truly “organic.” And YouTube? Point solution, at best. I can’t possibly trust the autoplay feature to do much more than waste my time.
What’s happened to our beloved tech icons, and what are the implications of this lost trust? In future posts, I plan on thinking out loud on that topic. I hope you’ll join me. In the meantime, I think I’ll stroll down to CVS and buy myself another bottle of hydrogen peroxide. By the time Amazon’s comes, I’m sure my hangnail will be a distant memory. But that taste in my mouth? That’s going to remain.
Update: Many readers have pointed out that I missed the fact that the top package of peroxide was, in fact, a two-pack. True that, and it would have changed my on-the-fly calculation around which to buy, given the per ounce comparison. However, it would not change the fact that the act of not adding the per ounce calculation directly on the page somehow discolored that choice.
Also, a rather rich post note: The bottle I did buy never came. It was “lost” – and Amazon offered me a refund. Sometimes it pays to just hit CVS.
So first the news. To celebrate the company’s eight birthday, Cloudflare is announcing the launch of a domain registrar. And because the company operates at massive scale, and can afford to do things most companies simply can’t (or won’t – looking at you, Google, Amazon, Facebook) – the company is offering domains *at cost.* In other words, Cloudflare isn’t making one red cent when you register a domain with them. What they pay to register a domain (and yes, that number is fixed, and the same for all domain registrars), is what you pay to register a domain.
OK, you back? Look, I’m not writing this post because I think the news is *that* exciting, though I’ll tell you, I’ve not found many folks who love their domain registrar. I certainly don’t. Most of them are experts at confusing you, at upcharging you, and at scaring you that you’re about to either lose your domain or miss some important feature you didn’t know you want or need. I pay an average of about 15-20 bucks for each of the domains I own each year. Cloudflare’s price is about eight dollars.
I own close to 50 domains. That means I’ll save nearly $400 a year when I move all my domains to Cloudflare. That’s real cheddar.
But the real reason I’m writing this post is to point out what a merry market discombobulator Cloudflare has become. This is a company that operates at Google scale, is independent (it’s on a path to an IPO and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars), has a core business model that drives profitable growth (it’s a content distribution network and secure infrastructure vendor), and most importantly, a philosophy which is utterly unique in today’s venal, steroidal capital markets (more on that in a second).
With every one of these steps, Cloudflare is doing two things: First, it’s refusing to view the Internet as property to be cornered, as real estate where infrastructure owners can camp out and collect rent. That’s utterly unheard of in a world where Amazon has cornered commerce and hosting, Facebook has cornered social attention, Google has cornered search, and AT&T, Comcast and Verizon are competing to be as walled as a garden can possibly be. Secondly, Cloudflare is actively exercising a core philosophy which can be honestly described as embracing the best (and most earnest) values of Internet 1.0: The web should be open, freely accessible, and an equal playing field upon which anyone can frolic.
Companies like this are very, very hard to find at scale. At some point, most firms with a “make the world a better place” philosophy succumb to the reality of Peter Theil’s maxim: Every world-beating company must be a rent-extracting monopoly. Maybe I’m missing something, so please, name me one (in the tech space anyway) that isn’t operating under this assumption?
Cloudflare is proof that great companies can also be forces for good, down to the molecules of their DNA. This is a company that defines what I mean when I use the word “NewCo.” I can’t wait to see what they do next. And, of course, they’re not perfect, and sure, this post might look naive in a few years.
But gosh, I sure hope it won’t. The world needs more Cloudflares, if only to remind us that it’s possible to move past the exhaustingly brutalist architecture we’ve managed to build around ourselves. Perhaps in fact we can trust ourselves to do what’s right for more than just us, more than just our company, more than just our shareholders. Perhaps our industry can dream to reach just a bit further, and imagine we are agents of larger purpose; and that, if we practice enough, we might earn the right to become what we’ve always imagined we could be, over these so many years: A force for good.
Lord knows it’s been a while since that’s been true. Right?
Way back when — well, a few years back anyway— I wrote a series of posts around the idea of “metaservices.” As I mused, I engaged in a bit of derision around the current state (at that point) of the mobile ecosystem, calling it “chiclet-ized” — silos of useful data without a true Internet between them. You know, like individually wrapped cubes of shiny, colored gum that you had to chew one at a time.
I suggested that we needed a connective layer between all those chiclets, letting information flow between all those amazing services.
I just opened an email on my phone. It was from a fellow I don’t know, inviting me to an event I’d never heard of. Intrigued, I clicked on the fellow’s LinkedIn, which was part of his email signature.
That link opened the LinkedIn app on my phone. In the fellow’s LI feed was another link, this one to a tweet he had mentioned in his feed. The tweet happened to be from a person I know, so I clicked on it, and the Twitter app opened on my phone. I read the tweet, then pressed the back button and….
This quote, from a piece in Motherboard, hit me straight between the eyeballs:
Facebook…will not let you unFacebook Facebook. It is impossible to discover something in its feeds that isn’t algorithmically tailored to your eyeball.
“The laws of Facebook have one intent, which is to compel us to use Facebook…It believes the best way to do this is to assume it can tell what we want to see based on what we have seen. This is the worst way to predict the weather. If this mechanism isn’t just used to predict the weather, but actually is the weather, then there is no weather. And so Facebook is a weatherless world.”
The short piece notes the lack of true serendipity in worlds created by algorithm, and celebrates the randomness of apps (Random) and artists (like Jib Kidder) who offer a respite from such “weatherless worlds.”
What’s really playing out here is a debate around agency. Who’s in control when you’re inside Facebook – are we, or is Facebook? Most of us feel like we’re in control – Facebook does what we tell it to do, after all, and we seem to like it there just fine, to judge by our collective behaviors. Then again, we also know that what we are seeing, and being encouraged to interact with, is driven by a black box, and many of us are increasingly uneasy with that idea. It feels a bit like the Matrix – we look for that cat to reappear, hoping for some insight into how and whether the system is manipulating us.
Weather is a powerful concept in relation to agency – no one controls the weather, it simply *is*. It has its own agency (unless, of course, you believe in a supreme agent called God, which for these intents and purposes we can call Weather as well.) It’s not driven by a human-controlled agency, it’s subject to extreme interpretation, and it has a serendipity which allows us to concede our own agency in the face of its overwhelming truth.
Facebook also has its own agency – but that agency is driven by algorithms controlled by humans. As a model for the kind of world we might someday fully inhabit, it’s rather unsettling. As the piece points out, “It is impossible to discover something in its feeds that isn’t algorithmically tailored to your eyeball.” Serendipity is an illusion, goes the argument. Hence, the “I changed my habits on Facebook, and this is what happened” meme is bouncingaround the web at the moment.
It’s true, to a point, that there’s a certain sterility to a long Facebook immersion, like wandering the streets of Agrestic and noting all the oddballs in this otherwise orderly fiction, but never once do you really get inside Lacy Laplante’s head. (And it never seems to rain.)
The Motherboard article also bemoans Twitter’s evolution toward an algorithmically-driven feed – “even Twitter, that last bastion of personal choice, has begun experimenting with injecting users’ feeds with “popular” content.” Close readers of this site will recall I actually encouraged Twitter to do this here: It’s Time For Twitter To Filter Our Feeds. But How?.
The key is that question – But How?
To me, the answer lies with agency. I’m fine with a service filtering my feeds, but I want agency over how, when, and why they do so.
I think that’s why I’ve been such an advocate for what many call “the open web.” The Internet before Facebook and mobile apps felt like a collective, messy ecosystem capable of creating its own weather, it was out of control and unpredictable, yet one could understand it well enough to both give and receive value. We could build our own houses, venture out in our own vehicles, create cities and commerce and culture. If anything was the weather, it was Google, but even Google didn’t force the pasteurized sensibility one finds on services like Facebook.
The world’s most fascinating story kept time this past week – cord cutting beat rabbit ears, Google took some punches, and billion-dollar companies pondered their fate once the bloom starts to fade. To the links….
Thanks for nothing, jerkface – ZDNet In which a very angry Violet Blue explains her disdain for Google+ and its (unintended?) consequences. Good fodder in here for those interested in the role of digital identity in our society. Also, some (biased, but passionate) explication of the fracas around Google’s decision to enforce “real names” on its identity services.
The Dropbox Conundrum – BuzzFeed I find these multi-billion dollar startups fascinating – it’s truly unique to our time that there are ten or more companies worth $10 billion – by the reckoning of their investors – and all are now struggling with how to manage such lofty expectations.
The week was dominated by Google related stories, but the top dialog had to do with the Internet itself. I’m sensing something of a shift in society’s beliefs about the Internet’s central role in our humanity. Five years ago, no one wanted to talk about Internet access as a basic human right. In 2012, the UN called it exactly that. With access consolidating into what looks like a natural monopoly, might regulation as a utility be far behind?
Real Time (Medium) Another, denser version of previous essays asking whether it isn’t time to call the Internet a basic utility. “..the immaterial organisation of the internet has now become the most dominant force on this side of the planet...” Unfortunately, this piece is too dense. Try this one instead: The Internet Is Fucked (TechCrunch) in which the author enjoins: “Go ahead, say it out loud. The internet is a utility.There, you’ve just skipped past a quarter century of regulatory corruption and lawsuits that still rage to this day and arrived directly at the obvious conclusion.” Of course, that created a rejoinder: More? – “The Internet is an incredibly useful tool in modern society, but it isn’t essential to the basic functioning of society. Utilities are.” My take: The Internet is a basic need now for the info-organism we are all becoming. So I’m leaning toward the utility camp, I’m afraid. There’s a new book on the subject, should you be interested.
The Monuments of Tech (NYTimes.com) A meditation, with far too photos, on the meaning of the campuses built by Google, Twitter, Apple, Facebook. Have you read The Circle yet? Read The Circle. Then read this.
Welcome to Googletown (The Verge) As long as we’re talking tech monuments, here’s a full blown deep dive into the relationship between Google and its Silicon Valley home, Mountain View. As one might expect, it’s fraught. But I’ve spent time in Mountain View before Google got there. Not that much has changed, outwardly. If Google keeps growing the way it’s planning to grow, that won’t be the case.
When quantified-self apps leave you with more questions than answers (The Daily Dot ) Something of a takedown on admittedly kludgy first generation self trackers. “I tweet a lot, but it’s mostly nonsense. I don’t have a whole lot of use for “data” about myself.” I just started using the Nike Fuelband. I’ll post plenty about that I’m sure, as the first week has proven interesting.
Can Privacy Be Saved? (The New York Review of Books) Don’t you love articles that ask questions, then fail to answer them? Me too. This is a review of various government reports and Presidential speeches arising from the Snowden revelations. The essay makes a strong case for – making a stronger case for privacy. It ends by citing Orwell, Dick, and Bradbury. It does not answer the question – which may well be the answer after all.