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Working at the intersection of technology, media, and democracy.

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Beating the dopamine rush

Social media is stressing me out.

Last Thanksgiving, I decided that this was becoming an important enough issue in my life to go cold turkey. I spent the rest of 2018 away from the social networks. Instead, I wrote more on my blog, and read more long-form content. It was transformative: I immediately felt calmer, and I became more organized than I'd felt in years. Most importantly, I was able to be more present with my family. At a time when I have a lot of people around me are suffering through serious medical issues, putting the phone down and really spending time with them felt like the right thing. It was the right thing.

Nevertheless, social media has crept back into my life this year. In January, I returned to Twitter, but chose to only interact with it on the desktop. I'm flirting with returning to Facebook on the same terms, in recognition of the fact that it's where everyone else is sharing their personal updates, and being somewhere else creates an extra cognitive load for anyone who wants to stay in touch with me. Maybe I should be at peace with losing touch with people who only want to passively stay in touch via social media; I'm not quite emotionally there.

With every additional service, I can feel the stress rising.

In his book The Hacking of the American Mind, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics Robert Lustig discusses the chemical difference between pleasure and happiness. Maybe this is something that is self-evident to you; it wasn't to me, and I've often used the two words interchangably.

WGBH Innovation Hub summarized his take on the differences last year:

  • Lustig says that pleasure is short-lived, selfish, and can be achieved with substances whereas happiness is the opposite. Most importantly though, Lustig believes that pleasure is based on dopamine and happiness is based on serotonin, two entirely different brain chemicals. 
  • Lustig argues that constantly searching for pleasure actually leads to greater and greater unhappiness. People build up a tolerance for repeated dopamine hits. And since dopamine is released when we consume or engage in some not-so-great-for-us things like sugar, alcohol, drugs, and addictive behavior, that’s an issue. 
  • Corporations have exploited our desire for dopamine, according to Lustig. Whether that’s adding sugar into our food, or making apps addictive, Lustig thinks that businesses are essentially “hacking our brains.”

Every like, retweet, comment and share provides a short-term dopamine hit. Each one makes us more resistant to dopamine, making it harder and harder to achieve the same levels of pleasure, but it also pushes our stress levels. Think of it like a bell curve: a little stimulation makes us alert and ready to go, and can push us into the sweet spot for high-performance mental activity. Too much, and we're stressed out and making bad decisions.

Because there is so much genuine stress in my environment - terminally ill family members, the responsibilities of work, the financial pressures of being in the most expensive city in the world, and so on - it takes a comparatively smaller push to take me out of the sweet spot and find myself at the stressful end of the curve.

I became most acutely aware of this when I took a trip to New York last month. I'm a nervous flyer, and I installed a mobile game called Eggs, Inc to distract myself on take-off and landing. It's a well-made, witty game, and I found myself playing it on the subway, in my AirBnb, and on the flight home. And by the time I'd flown back, and had spent a few days at home, I felt like shit. I became aware that I was stressed out, and feeling awful about myself when I had a text conversation with a former colleague that, honestly, could have gone a lot better.

I thought about the effect the game was having on me. I was addicted, for sure - and it was because it was packed full of little enhancements and ways to level up. Every single event in the game was a dopamine hit. I was like a mouse pressing a dopamine lever.

So, I deleted the app. Within a day, I was beginning to feel calmer. On every flight since, I've meditated during take-off and landing.

This is probably not everybody's experience. At least, I hope it isn't. My hope is that most people are not this susceptible to addiction, because they're not living with the same level of stress and unhappiness. Rather than working on reducing the levels of those things in my life, I was working on increasing my pleasure, and increasing my stress at the same time.

I don't believe that most developers intentionally ask how they can make their products more addictive. They do, however, run quantitative A/B tests, and qualitative user testing, in order to increase engagement. If a feature change to an app makes people use it for a few minutes longer a day, so much the better: the user is more likely to interact with advertising or invite someone else to join. Very few teams have been worrying that addiction is a negative behavior, although it's beginning to dawn on a few tech companies that this is a conversation they should be having.

The Center for Humane Technology is one organization that is doing work in this direction, by building a movement and running events to raise awareness about the cognitive impact of technology.

"This is a version of climate change," Jim Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense Media and brother of the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, said on stage. "Just like we’re watching the extraordinary changes in our physical environment, we’re watching extraordinary changes in our social, emotional, and cognitive environment."

It's a good first step, but there's a lot of work to do. It's also not a given that these efforts will be successful: almost by definition, consumer products that are more addictive will grow faster and be more valuable. Without some kind of outside intervention, that's a tough model to compete with.

Rather than being a version of climate change, this addiction has the potential to be this generation's version of smoking. The effect on your brain is measurable, and potentially irreversible:

In research published [in March 2018], psychologists and computer scientists have found an unusual and potentially troubling connection: the more tapping, clicking and social media posting and scrolling people do, the "noisier" their brain signals become. That finding took the researchers by surprise. Usually, when we do something more often, we get better, faster and more efficient at the task. 

Social media is an integral part of modern life. (Games aren't, and I don't plan on installing any more.) If we can't disconnect from it entirely without irreversibly wounding our connectedness to others, we can at least hope to manage it responsibly, and with an awareness of what it's doing to our brains.

I plan on being more intentional about what I post, in three ways:

Social networks love photographs because they're little dopamine factories: people love to click "like" on a selfie, and it briefly makes us feel good about ourselves. They're also hard to post without installing the mobile apps, which upload a lot of extra contextual information about our whereabouts, activities, and contacts behind our backs. So: I'm going to try to refrain from posting photographs.

I've never been into memes, and I wish I could filter out posts that are just a reshare of someone else's graphics. Similarly, these are dopamine factories. A lot of people don't even post their own words, choosing to express themselves entirely through other peoples' language. I think that's the most harmful of all - repeatedly using other peoples' words instead of your own, on a platform you're likely to use many times a day, where your dopamine levels are also being affected, seems like it might re-enforce those words and behaviors. So I plan on unfollowing meme posters.

And finally, I'm going to stop posting links with one line of context. If I'm posting outrageous political content, in particular, I'll write my thoughts at length, and try and have a real conversation. Otherwise, all I'm doing is posting in order to have my anger reinforced, and adding to the echo chamber.

And maybe I'll leave social media entirely again, and resort to posting on this site alone. Who knows. What I do know is that by being aware of my addictive tendencies, and consciously understanding that social media is at best a distraction, I can make more room for being present, dealing with the real-life factors that make me stressed out, and finding enduring, long-term happiness.

 

Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

 

Alternative funding for startups that last

There's been a lot of talk so far this year about venture capital funding as an agent of harm. This is both good and bad.

For the first time in a while, alternatives to venture capital funding are being seriously discussed, which I think is a really positive development for the industry. On the other hand, some of the discussion ventures into hyperbole, and I think there really are situations when VC is the best solution.

During 2017 and most of 2018, I was Director of Investments on the west coast for Matter Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm and accelerator that supported teams with the potential to create a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic environment. I wasn't a partner of the firm; the closest analogue is something like an Associate+, where I had the freedom to decide who we invested in, and I sourced, interviewed, researched and effectively closed the deal with the teams, but the Managing Partner's signature was on the legal documents and he hit the button to wire the funds. Previously, my startup Known had been funded by the same firm. And before that, I'd co-founded another startup, which was grown without outside investment for its first few years. I've also been an advisor to, and employee of, VC-funded startups ranging from early rounds to hundreds of millions of dollars.

So I've seen various kinds of funding, and I've been involved in deals on various sides of the table. And I have some pretty strong opinions.

Investment isn't something most founders get to do without. It takes a certain amount of privilege to be able to start something without outside money. My first startup was bootstrapped, but I would be dishonest if I said that bootstrapping didn't include socialized healthcare (I couldn't have done it without the NHS), and help from my parents, whose house I lived in. Not everybody has the benefit of a strong safety net, or that kind of family support. And in particular, if you want (or need) to live in a tech hub, or you have to pay developers, or there's a legal cost involved, then outside money is required. Bootstrapping is not a realistic route for most people. It should go without saying that the people most able to do it are affluent white men - and that's not the only demographic we want to see starting and running businesses.

So startups typically need investment. Ideally, that investment should not just support the startup's financial goals, but its strategic and ethical goals, too.

I'm proud to know the founders of the Zebra movement, which seeks to establish a new movement for startups that champions more sustainable growth, more inclusive, cross-disciplinary teams, and revenue-bound business models.

I think it's one of the most important change movements - if not the most important - in the technology industry today. While venture capitalists are looking for unicorns - startups that grow quickly to become worth more than a billion dollars - zebras are more common, very sustainable, and actually real. As the New York Times reported:

But for every unicorn, there are countless other start-ups that grew too fast, burned through investors’ money and died — possibly unnecessarily. Start-up business plans are designed for the rosiest possible outcome, and the money intensifies both successes and failures. Social media is littered with tales of companies that withered under the pressure of hypergrowth, were crushed by so-called “toxic V.C.s” or were forced to raise too much venture capital — something known as the “foie gras effect.”

If only startups with the potential to rapidly become billion dollar companies can obtain investment, we'll only get to use certain kinds of services.

VC-funded businesses need to grow fast - not necessarily in terms of user numbers, but in terms of perceived value - and don't have an incentive to become profitable until much later in their lifetimes, if at all. A VC-funded startup will typically raise "friends and family" funding (more on this later); then, once they've de-risked their business a little, they'll raise a "seed" round (usually $1-1.5M); then more de-risking before a "series A" ($5-10M); then a "series B" ($15-30M); etc, until the startup is either acquired by a larger company, or makes its shares available on the public markets through an IPO. At each stage, investors buy a stake in the company at a more expensive price, driving up the valuation. Sometimes investors from earlier rounds can sell their shares as part of a later round, but the most money is made during an acquisition or IPO.

In other words, either the startup becomes strategically valuable to a larger entity, or it becomes enormous and valuable enough to float on the stock market. VC doesn't leave much room for anything else. Venture capitalists take money from Limited Partners (wealthy individuals, pension funds, university endowments, etc) who expect three times their money to be returned within a short time period (8-10 years is normal). Because most startups will fail, that means VCs are looking for ones that have the potential to return 30-40X their money in under a decade.

That’s a tall order for just about any business. And note that sustainability or societal impact are not considered here. These startups are, in effect, a financial vehicle. And while venture capital certainly has its uses - startups like Facebook and Uber were able to ride VC funding to great effect - a world where it's the only available model leaves a lot of use cases and communities unaddressed. It's worth saying that most venture capitalists are white men, and 98% of VC funding goes to men.

It also puts startups in great jeopardy. To raise a further round of funding, you don't just need to grow and de-risk your business; you also need to be in an industry that venture capitalists continue to be excited about. Because some years may pass between funding rounds, it's possible that the internet landscape has changed in that time, too. Whereas a profitable business is master of its own destiny, businesses that require future investment to survive are subject to investor whims.

We've seen the human impact of this problem several times recently. In the media industry, layoffs at companies like Mic, BuzzFeed and Vice have shown the limitations of the model. As VentureBeat reported last year:

But while corporate owners continue to fumble around in search of a solution, the reality is that venture capital was never going to be the answer for news outlets. VCs demand big returns that require bigger growth and soaring valuations. That‘s fine when you’re talking about things like social networking sites or a software or cloud service that might have big upfront costs but can clearly deliver sustainable profits once it reaches scale.

Some industries are incompatible with venture capital, regardless of their value. For these industries in particular, alternatives are needed.

It's a complicated problem: investors rarely participate alone, so there needs to be an ecosystem for a new model to become widespread. Until then, VC remains the most accessible, and in lots of ways pragmatic, funding route for most startups. It's exciting, then, to see alternative forms of investment emerge.

When I was still running Known, we applied to (and were rejected) by Indie.vc, an off-shoot of O'Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures, which was the first firm to really publicize revenue-based models. Bryce Roberts gave a talk at IDEO in San Francisco, and I was enamored. Whereas VC prioritizes growth, Indie.vc makes money when startups make revenue. Its deal documents are publicly available on GitHub: the short version is that at a pre-arranged time after investment, the startup buys back an equity option from the investor as a percentage of its revenue. If it chooses to raise VC funds instead of making equity (or decides to sell), the investment converts into a percentage of the company.

Indie.vc, by its own admission, is designed for post-revenue startups: if you need money to get to that stage, it's not going to help you. As I've already mentioned, most founders need help getting their venture off the ground to begin with. While some can raise money from friends and family, there is inherent privilege here: most people don’t have friends and family with that kind of money available to invest.

The Matter portfolio company Creative Action Network, which had gone through Matter's second class, raised further money by converting to a steward ownership model after years of bootstrapping:

We connected with Purpose Ventures, a new firm based in SF and Germany who liked what we were doing and more importantly, introduced us to a novel model for companies like us who needed capital and wanted to stay independent. The ownership concept is called Steward Ownership, the idea that companies should exist to do something for society beyond maximize shareholder profit — a fairly commonplace notion in Europe (and throughout American history) and that the people making decisions for the company should be the ones running it, not a board made up of outside investors.

Purpose is a little more dogmatic: whereas Indie.vc gives startups the option of following a VC route, steward ownership companies are less likely to follow that path, not least because Purpose requires companies to disallow investors from having controlling rights. The flipside is that it may invest earlier in a business's life, as long as it promises to restructure to follow this model. (Alongside CAN, Purpose Ventures has also invested in Buffer, which is a poster-child for transparency and alternative investment.)

There are two new entrants into this market: TinySeed, an accelerator for bootstrappers, and Earnest Capital, which presents itself as early-stage funding for boostrappers. Of course, by definition, any company taking funding from either won't be bootstrapping, but I like that they exist, and it's a good way to position yourself as being in contrast with VC.

Both have a very similar model to Indie.vc: the investor takes a percentage of revenue, but can also retain a percentage of equity in the company in case the founders decide to pursue VC or a sale later on. The result is optionality for the founders, and downside protection for the investor.

Matt Wensing created a financial model for each investor, using a hypothetical software company called Array as a lens:

For the scrappiest founders (with minimal salary requirements), Earnest offers reduced ownership, assuming strong early-stage profitability to enable repayment and a long horizon to enjoy the cap; for suburbanites looking to quit their day jobs, or businesses investing 100% back into growth, TinySeed and Indie.vc are strong options, as their cash draws are simply smaller early on with salary triggers that are higher or non-existent. For TinySeed founders, this will come at the cost of cash in the post-seed, pre-exit phase. Meanwhile, if you plan to raise a single round of capital, Indie.vc’s redemption program provides the lowest long-term equity cost by a wide margin.

I'd be interested in a financial analysis from an investor's perspective. I'm particularly excited about TinySeed, which also provides a year-long remote accelerator, the value of which is not to be sniffed at. But all of these are solid options.

Which brings me back to media. Matter invested in early-stage media startups, but using a venture capital model. I no longer have access to its portfolio data, but I wish I could run an analysis to see what effect a TinySeed-like model would have had on fund profitability. Of course, it would have made different decisions, too: it likely would have chosen its ventures using a stronger revenue lens, testing for bootstrapper mindsets. Whereas media is not necessarily a strong venture capital market - mostly because many VCs have lost interest - I think there's real potential for investors to make money from revenue-driven media startups using a revenue share model.

We won't know for sure until more investors embrace alternative models, experiment with new kinds of deals, and empower a wholly different set of entrepreneurs. That'll take time, analysis, and not a small amount of failure while the ideas are honed and processes optimized.

And that's another reason why those Zebras are so important. They've convened a space for this conversation to happen, for information to be shared, and for new investors and founding teams to rise from the ashes of discarded old models. I'm very grateful they exist. They have the potential to change the way the tech industry is funded. And through that, how the world creates, discovers, and shares information.

Things are changing, and a growing number of founders and investors are here for it. I certainly am.

 

Photo by Lisa H on Unsplash

 

Building towers, not tunnels

Years ago, someone broke into my home and stole my laptops while I lay in bed upstairs. I had left them out on the dining table, and the burglar broke their way into my back garden and smashed through one of my rear windows with a brick. This was Oxford in the winter, and I had a hard plastic sheet screwed into the windowframe in lieu of real double glazing. Undeterred, they smashed and smashed until they found their way through. They didn't take my DSLR camera, which was also on the table; they didn't take my microphone, which I'd been using to record a video. They swiped the laptops, which were my livelihood, and fled.

Soon afterwards, we installed motion sensitive lights. If someone was going to enter my back garden in the middle of the night again, they would trigger the sensor and be flooded in bright white light. I couldn't afford to let this happen again.

As it turned out, the light was sensitive enough to be triggered by anything that walked through my garden. Intruders, for sure, although there never were any more. But also cats, and foxes, and hedgehogs.

Every single night, the light would click on. And every single night, I'd sit bolt upright and go to the window, my heart racing. The burglary was still in my blood, and in the air. My home, which had been a safe space, now just felt like four walls in the dirt.

Over ten years later, the sound of that brick breaking through glass is no longer ringing in my ears. Home feels safe. I've let go of the intrusion.

In my career, there have been events that felt like that break-in. The moment I decided to leave Elgg. Matter failing to raise its Fund III. And others. Each one, a brick through my window.

Everything is learning. You put up your psychological light for next time, so you can see it coming and hopefully avoid making the worst of the mistakes again. If you take the right lessons and approach each event with a learning mindset, each mistake becomes constructive growth. However unintentional your failure might have been, you fail forward towards something better and new.

Not everything that triggers your psychological light is a mistake that should lead to you sitting bolt upright with your adrenaline pumping. It's easy to be oversensitive to things that seem like they might turn into red flags. They could just as easily not, and it's important to stay open to new experiences. That's learning, too.

And over time, you have to let it go. Months later, I still find myself spending more cycles than I should thinking about Matter. That's a sign of my love for it: it was one of the most fulfilling, meaningful things I've ever done. It allowed me to use all of my skills and empathy in service of a mission-driven community that was genuinely trying to make the world more inclusive and democratic. I hope, one day, I will get to do work like that again. But while it was sad - and I'm still sad - I won't let that sadness own me.

These days, I'm doing super-interesting work at Unlock, and I'm still a part of Matter's community of alumni (after all, I went through the accelerator as a founder before I worked for it). Honestly, I'm very excited to have crossed back over the table to build mission-driven products again. It's a new approach to helping creators make money from their work, and it has the potential to change the entire web.

Done right, failure builds immunity. I know why each failure happened. I'm stronger for the experience. And I can bring that experience to help make Unlock - and everything I do in my career - as strong as possible. Rather than letting a brick through the window transform the safety of my home into flimsy walls in dirt, I can build a more resilient home. Failure isn't an excuse to turn inwards and stay low. It's a reason to be proud and build high. I've got the tools, and the energy, and the motivation. Not from a place of naïvety, but a place of knowledge and power.

 

Here's what I read in January

Books

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A visceral, stunningly-written insight into the brutal reality of a lived experience we’re all complicit in.

The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism, by David Golumbia. I don't agree with all of his arguments, but he makes some good points about the pseudoeconomics and quietly right-wing assumptions that are very prevalent in blockchain communities.

The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains, by Robert Lustig. A dive into the brain science of addiction and depression, and how they are harnessed by corporations who want to make a buck. Fascinating to me; I've already changed my behavior as a result. Although it's not really discussed directly, I could draw a direct line between platforms optimizing for "engagement" and its effects on the brains of their users. But the most important thing this book taught me is the brain science differences between pleasure and happiness. The latter is the thing to aim for.

Talking to my Daughter About the Economy (Or, How Capitalism Works - And How it Fails), by Yanis Varoufakis. A profoundly humanist, kind introduction to economics and capitalism. It turned out to be a good chaser to the previous book - whereas that was about the brain science differences, this dove into the economic framework that encourages short-term reward.

(I had hoped to finish Octavia E Butler's Kindred inside the month, but .. not quite. One thing it's important to note: I'm aware that each of these books is non-fiction and written by a man, and I'm fixing my reading list for next month.)

Notable Articles

The ABCs of Jacobin. An interesting exploration of how a socialist print magazine has managed to thrive in a time of general doom for the media.

The Biggest Secret: My Life as a New York Times Reporter in the Shadow of the War on Terror. Fascinating and disturbing. Newspapers should never be complicit with the intelligence apparatus.

I Was A Cable Guy. I Saw The Worst Of America. This went semi-viral over the holiday, but it's worth reading if you haven't. Come for the Cheney anecdote; stay for the well-observed notes about American life. It's a full meal.

I Gave a Bounty Hunter $300. Then He Located Our Phone. Your phone is a tracking device, and the networks are making money from it being so.

What It Felt Like When “Cat Person” Went Viral. "Many horror stories revolve around this theme: if we could eavesdrop on all the quick, dismissive thoughts that other people were having about us, we would go insane. We are simply not meant to see ourselves as others see us."

No Matter How Thin I Get, I’ll Always Be the Fat Guy. An honest, painful look at how weight shame affects you long after the weight itself is gone.

How ‘traditional masculinity’ hurts the men who believe in it most. It hurts all of us, but: '“Everybody has beliefs about how men should behave,” says Ronald Levant, who was the APA president when the guidelines were initially conceived, and who has worked on them ever since. “We found incredible evidence that the extent to which men strongly endorse those beliefs, it’s strongly associated with negative outcomes.” The more men cling to rigid views of masculinity, the more likely they are to be depressed, or disdainful, or lonely.' I've certainly seen this duplicated among people I know.

2 founders are not always better than 1. Solo founders are twice as likely to succeed as co-founders.

After 25 years studying innovation, here is what I have learned. Clay Christensen wrote the Innovator's Dilemma and its sequel. Even he has realized that it's not about what you accomplish: it's about who you help. I could have done without the part about God, but it's his truth.

Martin Luther King was no prophet of unity. He was a radical. Dr King was a Marxist, and - particularly in these times - we should do better to remember his whole legacy.

“The Linux of social media”—How LiveJournal pioneered (then lost) blogging. LiveJournal was a pioneer. I was a heavy user for a very long time, and it was a wonderful way to make friends, share fears, and see the inner narratives of people I cared about in a very intimate way. No social media platform has come close since.

It’s the End of News as We Know It (and Facebook Is Feeling Fine). "So right-wing sites and clickbait dominate the platform that dominates American news consumption. And that same platform, despite its stated commitment to supporting “quality news,” keeps making it harder for people to find serious journalism."

Social media is rotting democracy from within. "At the inauguration of Brazil’s new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, in early January, a crowd of his supporters began a surprising chant. They weren’t cheering for Bolsonaro or his running mate or their party; instead, they were reciting the names of social media platforms." Fascists were chanting "Facebook! Facebook! Facebook!" because they credited it for their win.

This Is What Happens When You Try to Sue Your Boss. Arbitration agreements should be illegal.

The Personal Toll of Whistle-Blowing. Sheer tragedy in the course of doing the right thing.

The World-Record Instagram Egg Is Going to Make Someone Very Rich. This story is completely insane to me. It's 2019's Million Dollar Homepage. "In a slide deck, Jerry Media proposed that the egg crack to reveal the words Impeach Trump as Trump popped out and did the chicken dance. The agency even created a short animated video demonstrating the stunt."

At Least You Can Leave. 'There’s a conversation I’ve had with several British friends. We’ll all be moaning about Brexit affecting us and how the UK’s dysfunctional politics means there is no way to express this electorally, and then they’ll say; “But you’re lucky. At least you can leave.”'

 

Patreon and Twitter are right about freedom of speech

At a blockchain event i was at on Friday, someone made an offhand comment about how Patreon's editorial decisions meant that people no longer felt safe using the platform and a decentralized alternative was needed. I've heard this a few times, and I think this is very far from the case.

So what happened to inspire this kind of comment? It turns out that just before Christmas, the platform kicked of a self-proclaimed "anti-feminist" for racist speech, and a dozen or so denizens of the intellectual dark web, including infamous mysoginist academic Jordan Petersen, followed him out. This follows other platforms kicking off Sandy Hook denier Alex Jones earlier in the year, and the deplatforming of instigator-for-profit Milo Yiannopoulos.

Particularly for followers of this kind of rhetoric, but also for many civil libertarians, this represented an unacceptable breach of freedom of speech. In the same way that "free speech" alternatives to Twitter and Facebook have sprung up over the last few years, there was suddenly a lot of talk about building a free speech Patreon.

Of course, free speech definitions vary, and the one used here is in the free market libertarian sense: complete structurelessness where, in effect, the loudest communities are the ones that can be heard. In fact, given that all of these people have been kicked off of existing platforms for some kind of bigotry, one might and should question whether the subjects of their hate would be able to have an effective voice on these new platforms at all. But nonetheless, it stands to reason that when they lost one platform, they felt that they should build one where it was structurally impossible to kick them off.

Among the alt right, there's an ongoing meme that Silicon Valley is against their perfectly fair speech and everyone who works at these platforms is biased towards liberal values. Perhaps this is true - after all, people with more formal education tend to be more liberal. But the alt right misses a few things, whether deliberately or inadvertently. The first is that sites like Patreon and Twitter are private spaces, and legal free speech protections only apply to government - and the kind of racist, regressive discussion that is so beloved of the alt right is rightly an anathema to most of the advertisers that keep these platforms afloat. But their speech is also often outside the bounds of what is permissible by law: violence is a part of their rhetoric. And whereas a platform can comply with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to be absolved of responsibility for "obscene" content hosted on their servers, there is no such exemption for criminal responsibility. All platforms are required to remove content that breaks the law, including threats of violence.

There is a distinction here between open standards like protocols, and proprietary services like platforms. It is impossible to kick someone off the web, for example, or to censor their speech on a free and open internet. Where editing may occur is in a situation where their web hosting company might be liable for hosting criminal content, or have policies against hosting the same, as is their right. And of course, someone can be kicked off a third-party hosting platform for the same reasons. But the web itself does not have a built-in censorship method, and nor should it: providing one would give any authoritarian government, or authoritarian corporation for that matter, carte blanche to decide what we can all read, see, and hear.

Whether criminal content could be removed from a decentralized system like IPFS, I'm not sure. Because IPFS data isn't private, it's possible that people who find themselves hosting criminal content might find themselves liable. I'm not a lawyer, but this is an interesting issue that pertains to decentralization in general. Whereas in earlier peer to peer networks like Gnutella or Bittorrent every decentralized node associated with an illegal file was actively interested in that file, I don't know what the legal precedents are for dumb nodes on a decentralized network, when public content is stored on your property without your direct involvement.

Regardless, there is again a distinction between a network like IPFS, and platforms that might be built over the top. Whereas the protocol can be data agnostic, hosted platforms can't be. So if I'm building a service that uses decentralized software as a back-end, I might find that I'm legally required to provide a mechanism to prevent people from posting calls to harm, for example by allowing people to report that content and kicking those people off that platform in response.

The irony is that Twitter in particular is very widely criticized for not doing enough to remove bigots and fascists from the network. I agree with those voices, leaning heavily on Karl Popper's widely-quoted philosophy:

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

[...] We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

The mechanisms and legal machinations of freedom of speech aside, any community that allows intolerance to flourish will in itself become intolerant. For community managers, and anyone who wants to create a thriving space for discussion, establishing a safe space for thought is paramount. In particular, establishing a space where people from vulnerable and underrepresented communities can be truly heard is important for any kind of free and democratic society.

For these reasons, and simply because they're a relatively small community that sits firmly on the wrong side of history, the alt right's attempts to create new, decentralized alternatives to existing platforms will fail. That's not to say that decentralized platforms and protocols will fail; the pendulum is swinging in that direction, and there are lots of other reasons to build spaces that are free from centralized control. But a movement fueled by hate ultimately can never succeed, and we have plenty of societal protections to ensure that the people who peddle in bigotry get what they deserve. Patreon and Twitter are right to kick them to the curb.

 

Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

 

Testing the Unlock paywall, which you can learn about here: https://unlock-protocol.com

Unlock is a protocol which enables creators to monetize their content with a few lines of code in a fully decentralized way. If you pay to access this content, I'll double the amount and sent it to She256, which improves diversity in the blockchain space.

It's based on the Ethereum blockchain, and is designed to make decentralized payments as frictionless as possible. This paywall represents version 0: a proof-of-concept designed for early adopters to test out.

If you want to learn more about the open source community behind Unlock, check out our GitHub project: http://github.com/unlock-protocol/unlock/

 

I hate the Daily Mail. But NewsGuard by default is a terrible idea

The Guardian is reporting that Microsoft has installed NewsGuard by default in new installs of its Microsoft Edge mobile browser. The Daily Mail is one of the affected publications:

Visitors to Mail Online who use Microsoft Edge can now see a statement asserting that “this website generally fails to maintain basic standards of accuracy and accountability” and “has been forced to pay damages in numerous high-profile cases”.

Now, don't get me wrong: the Daily Mail is a horrendous excuse for a newspaper that, indeed, appears to bend the truth in order to further a toxic, conservative agenda. But let's zoom out a bit and examine this feature in the abstract.

NewsGuard assesses news websites manually, and gives them a rating for creditability and transparency. Based on that rating, it then assigns the website a red or green rating, indicating whether you should trust it or not:

These ratings are then displayed next to website content, and embedded into search engine results, via NewsGuard's browser plugin.

As a stand-alone plugin, this is probably fine. If you've made an active decision to install it, and you trust its editorial team to provide ratings, then great: you're informed about the process, you know that NewsGuard provides subjective ratings, and you've made the decision to overlay them over your web browsing experience.

As a default feature of a web browser, it's quite another story. For these users, it's a core part of their web experience. As far as they're concerned, this is a built-in feature, endorsed by Microsoft, that provides objective ratings on the content you browse. NewsGuard has been handed the ability to decide which content and information these users should trust.

These aren't just some do-gooder journalists. NewsGuard's advisory board contains the former head of the CIA and the first Secretary for Homeland Security. In light of this, some hypothetical questions to ask include: how might an independent website publishing the Pentagon Papers have been rated? What if a publisher is considered to be politically subversive while maintaining accuracy? In the wrong hands, could this mechanism suppress whistleblowers?

A web browser has no business telling you whether to trust the content you're accessing, except on technical grounds. If the web is to remain an impartial platform that supports freedom of speech, it cannot make value judgments on that speech. At least not by default: the extensions you install in your browser are up to you.

The whole point of the web is that it's decentralized, and anyone can become a publisher at any time. Yes, disinformation is a real problem. But it shouldn't be used as an excuse to put trust in the whole platform under central control. To do so introduces a real risk for the health of the internet, and, because freedom of speech is a prerequisite for it to function, for the health of democracy.

 

The Joy of Making Something Anyway

One of the most important things a founder can do is just get started. Technical founders have a built in advantage here: while other people need to worry about convincing someone to build out their first functional prototype for them, people who know how to code just need to spend time. The tools to build platforms are all free and open source; the best operating system for web development is free and open source. All you need is any computer with an internet connection, and time. But even if you're not a coder, or you're not technical: everyone has the skills to build and create something that addresses a need, or that fosters joy and empathy. Everyone has the ability to sit down and make something.

The most successful mindset is probably not to think about it as a startup at all. Just build a tool that's actually useful for someone. Get their feedback; iterate and improve it. And only then worry about whether you can build it at scale with the time, team and resources potentially at your disposal, or whether it can be the center of a viable business.

And maybe it can't be viable; maybe it can't scale. Maybe you want to make the changes that would be necessary to make either of those things work as a startup. But it's completely okay if you don't: there's nothing wrong with building a tool as a hobby, or deciding that it was a fun experiment, open sourcing the code so other people can learn from it, and walking away. Or if you do run it as a business because you want to work on it full-time, it's also okay to decide that you want to create something that covers your costs, instead of shooting for the moon and aiming to create a trillion dollar behemoth. (Which of these is likely to be most successful anyway?)

If we let the machinations of the tech industry dictate what we build - for example, if we treat a "no" from venture capitalists as a value judgment on the thing itself - then only the things the tech industry finds valuable will be built. This kind of blinkered economic Darwinism hits tools for underrepresented communities most of all, but it also hits the products, tools, and communities at the edges of society, that are trying new things and tugging on the borders of culture. In reality, that's where the really interesting stuff is, and where the really interesting people are.

Maybe it can't be a full-time endeavor. Maybe you won't have kombucha on tap. Maybe there won't be nap pods and investors knocking down your door. But maybe you can find time and space anyway; you can brew your own kombucha in a jar; you can take a nap in your own bed; you can stay independent and refuse to take money from repressive regimes. It doesn't make it not worth it. And the communities, people, and tools that dare to be independent (or are forced to be and dare to exist anyway), are the ones that we need to exist the most.

 

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

 

Values, Values, Values!

We all know what we stand for. The trick is to state our values clearly - and to stand by them.

That goes both for individuals and businesses. When I was preparing to join the Matter team, the first workshop I gave was about determining a company's values, which are different to its mission or vision. Whereas a mission and vision are a company's north star, its values dictate how it conducts itself.

For example, Google has "ten things we know to be true". Most companies have between five and ten core values that reflect their ethics and the facets of their culture that will lead them to be successful. They're signals about how people should behave inside a company, and they're also signals to the kinds of people who they hope will join them. For example, in 2019, it's a clear and unfortunate signal if diversity and inclusion isn't one of a tech company's core values.

It would be easy to misunderstand this as being about marketing. It's about shared culture, which is the most important thing every organization has to build.

The intersection with personal values lies in the decisions we make about joining or leaving an organization. I won't join a company that doesn't care about diversity and inclusion. And I've turned down very lucrative jobs on high profile teams because it was clear they wanted their employees to spend their lives at work.

We've all got red lines. They're ours alone to draw.

Just as I think it makes sense to pick the company you work for in part based on their declared values, it makes sense to define your personal space in the same way. If your values lean towards community and shared prosperity, it perhaps makes sense that you might not want to spend your time with people who lean towards libertarianism and individualistic success. If you believe in a global world, you might not spend much time with nationalists. If you're an atheist, you might not spend much time with people who believe you have to be religious to be a moral person. And so on.

Perhaps those are extreme examples, but because our values dictate how we behave as we live out our lives and achieve our goals, differences in strongly-held values lead to incompatibilities. If you believe in a very traditional salary-earning lifestyle or traditional gender roles, you might not do well in a relationship with someone who is less motivated by that lifestyle or who actively rejects those roles. Neither side is inherently bad (although one could certainly argue that widespread adherence to traditional gender roles is broadly harmful), but they're incompatible with each other - not necessarily as friends, but certainly as partners in life.

And that's okay. We all get to decide what's important to us. One aspect of contentment is finding the values that work for you personally (regardless of whether they're "the norm"), the values that work for you professionally (ditto), and building a community and a life that will support both things.

 

Turning 40 (Belatedly)

I'm not sure who started it (Matt Mullenweg?), but a common in-joke in tech circles is to refer to a birthday as a version number increase. You don't turn 30; you hit version 3.0. And then you add release notes about what changes and improvements have been made since the last version.

I guess I use more of an open source versioning system, because after 40 years, I think I might have just about hit version 1.0. My experiences as a child, growing up, in my early career and through the rollercoaster of my thirties have inched me towards becoming a well-rounded, self-actualized human.

Howdy. There are bugs

I'm not always happy, and not always assertive, and not always near the mark of how I want to show up in the world. But at the same time, I'm a little bit proud of where I've wound up, and I'm proud of what I've done.

I was pretty sick during the week of the 7th, my actual birthday, and I'm only now feeling like I've regained full use of my brain. I owe emails and documents to various people, and I'm beginning to get back on top of things. Still, if you're one of those people, I'm really sorry.

 

Indie Communities and Making Your Audience Known

It sounds ludicrous now, but back in 2014, when I cofounded Known as a startup, a lot of people were questioning whether a business even needed a website. Pockets of people - for example in the indieweb community, which I enthusiastically joined - were pointing out how short-sighted this was, but it was a minority opinion. There was Facebook and Twitter! Why would you want to have any kind of property that you fully controlled on the internet?

Fast forward to today, and most companies have seen the flaws in that argument. If your digital presence is how most of your customers find and interact with you, giving it over to some third party company with its own agenda is not going to serve you well. This morning, CNN's digital chief Meredith Artley says as much in an interview with Kara Swisher: going where your users are was a counterproductive startegy. You have to reach out to them and make spaces that they want to visit.

But my hypothesis with Known wasn't just that people would want to own their own websites again, and that we should make it as easy to publish on their own site as it is to publish on social media. It was part of it, but I had something bigger in mind.

Anyone who's building any kind of business - whether it's a media property, a brick and mortar store, a startup, or a food truck - knows that you have to understand your customers and meet their needs if you want to be successful. For most people, that means talking to them, again and again. When the New York Times first went online as part of AOL - before it even launched a website - the team took the opportunity to sit in the chat rooms and talk to people. The internet is a conversation, not a one-way broadcast medium, which the Cluetrain Manifesto tried to tell us 20 years ago. And businesses all over the world are doing their best to talk to people on social media.

But the same ownership principle applies. Just as companies realized that they need to own their online presence, they will begin realizing that the conversations they're having on third party social media platforms are templated for the benefit of those platforms. If they want to have deeper conversations, build trust and loyalty, and have a greater influence over the form of the discussion, then they need to own the conversation spaces, too. (And there's a lot to be said for not giving companies like Facebook all that insight data.)

Tools that allow companies to build their own social spaces as easily as they can build their own websites are important. It's something I learned when I built Elgg, although that platform is very bound in the desktop-based MySpace era. Anyone should be able to start a space to have a social conversation in 5 minutes, in a way that they own the data and can customize it for their needs. But while existing tools like Mighty Networks (and Slack) or forum tools like Discourse are great for what they do, there aren't any great platforms that let people actually build a site that directly fits the community they want to build. All online communities tend to look the same. If we know that the form of a converation influences its content - and it does - then it becomes clear how counter-productive a one size fits all approach really is.

And then the bigger picture is that if this idea is successful, moving from one monopolistic social network to lots of smaller communities loosely joined will make for a healthier internet.

That was the vision for Known: to let anyone build easy to use social spaces that they control, and liberate online conversation in the process. First as a startup, and now as an open source project. We were a little early, and made some (recoverable) mistakes. But it's still a mission I believe in.

 

Nieman Lab Predictions for 2019

Each year, Harvard University's Nieman Lab asks media and journalism professionals to make predictions about the year ahead. It's a useful barometer for the media industry zeitgeist, and true to form, 2019's predictions are all worth a read.

For the first time, I was asked to contribute. That piece is here:

In 2019, big tech companies will respond to overwhelming public opinion and lawmaker concerns, fundamentally changing the way they view privacy. Browsers will block third-party tracking by default. New legislation, inspired by Europe’s GDPR, will prevent invasive apps from spying on your calls and contacts. The adoption of always-on microphones in the nation’s living rooms will begin to slow. As revelations about technology’s role in political wrongdoing become increasingly serious, the surveillance capitalism that has defined the mobile internet era will come to a halt.

Angèle Cristin asks that newsrooms don't just consider the tech industry's use of algorithms, but their own as well:

From their use of invasive tracking systems to their reliance on real-time web analytics and their dependence on social media platforms for distribution, newsrooms are deeply enmeshed in the algorithmic world, as I have written elsewhere. To date, newsrooms have not lingered on this fact. Unlike the glory of the resistance to Trump or the breaking news of Facebook’s mishandling data, the co-dependency of news organizations and algorithmic technologies has remained a dirty topic for most journalists.

Francesco Marconi, who collaborated deeply with Matter while he was at the Associated Press, advocates applying human-centered techniques to journalism:

Iterative journalism begins with people, but it looks beyond just demographic data to understand how individuals feel and what they need when seeking news. Knowing someone’s age, gender, and what article they just read might tell journalists something — but it doesn’t tell them how to approach a story in the way most relevant for members of a certain community.

An Xiao Mina contemplates the death of consensus:

In 2019, let the idea that we’re seeing the death of truth die. What looks like the death of truth is actually the death of consensus, and a broader transition to a world of dissensus nudged along by a wide variety of media outlets online, on television and radio, and in other forms of media. Misinformation spreads most effectively in this environment because someone, somewhere will find information that fits an existing worldview, and it’s that deeper worldview that’s much harder to change.

Roberto Hernandez has a warning for bigots that I particularly hope comes true:

If you have said something racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic in a professional setting — whether being at work, an industry event or listserv — but don’t see it as a big deal…we see you. And we will replace you.

And Steve Grove, Director of the Google News Lab, predicts that tech's work with journalism will be measured and assessed:

The public conversation on this topic is reaching a fever pitch. Issues that were once just discussed at news industry conferences by experts are now being discussed at dinner tables by families and friends. And regulatory conversations, highlighted by the EU copyright directive in Europe but spanning governments around the globe, are challenging the framework of how tech platforms host or link to news content. If and how people and governments shift their thinking on how digital news content should be discovered and distributed will in turn affect the momentum and appetite that tech companies have for the news space — and ultimately what news users will be able to access via tech platforms.

There's so much more. Every piece is worth reading and absorbing. The full index is here.

 

If Not Venture Capital, Then What?

Most of Silicon Valley is financed with venture capital, and its success there has made it attractive in other industries. The model isn't always transferrable: media companies have raised using VC dollars to very little success, for example.

That's because VC depends on scalability. The core idea is that an investor - or more usually, a collection of investors, all investing on the same terms and at the same time, in a round of funding - will put money into a company while it's relatively small and unproven, and the investment is therefore relatively cheap. The company will then hopefully grow enormously quickly, proving out its hypotheses and gaining value at a rapid rate. Venture capital investors deploy money from a fund, itself invested into by their limited partners (rich people and institutions like pension funds). They have usually promised their partners that the fund duration will be ten years or less, and correspondingly, they want to see returns from their investments very quickly. The goal in many funds is to return 3X the value to their limited partners; because most investments will fail, they're looking to invest in companies that have the potential to return 30-40 times their money.

Although secondary markets exist, VCs only typically make money when an investment is acquired by another company or when it IPOs on the stock market (an exit). So in addition to enormous growth expectations, there's a built-in timer on these investments. You can think of most VC-funded Silicon Valley startups as being financial vehicles more than they are product or service companies. That's why advertising has been such a popular business model: stopping and asking people to pay for your product slows your growth, and therefore your attractiveness to investors.

For some companies - Facebook, say - this model works exceptionally well. For others (like those media companies), not so much. But VC has become the de facto funding model for internet services, because of its abundance, and because that's what a lot of the tech press chooses to talk about. In turn, the parameters for venture capital funding have become misunderstood as the parameters for starting any kind of venture on the internet at all. Because VC won't look at a venture that doesn't have a potential market of billions of dollars, it's become understood that ventures with smaller market sizes are not going to survive. Because VC needs high growth, it's become understood that all startup ventures should aim to be high-growth. And because exits are most often acquisitions, it's become understood that market consolidation and a trend towards monopoly is actually a good thing.

Venture capital has, inadvertently, created a template for what can be built on the internet. It's harmful, and it's a lie.

This is going to become even more problematic if predictions of a downturn turn out to be correct. As Fred Wilson wrote:

However, I do think a difficult macro business and political environment in the US will lead investors to take a more cautious stance in 2019. It would not surprise me to see total venture capital investments in 2019 decline from 2018. And I think we will see financings take longer, diligence on new investments actually occur, and valuations to come under pressure for even the most attractive opportunities.

A common, and correct, critcism of alternative funding models has been that they don't adequately describe the upside for potential investors. For example, in a revenue-sharing model, investors put money into a company in exchange for a percentage of revenue up to a cap, which might be 5X. If an investor puts in $50,000, they expect to receive $250,000 back, in payments that constitute 10 or 20% of the company's total revenue (usually once the company is making enough annual recurring revenue that these payments aren't an existential threat). Notice that this is dramatically lower than the 30-40X expected from VC - and while it could be argued that a revenue-focused company is less likely to fail than a growth-focused one, there aren't actually any numbers to back that up yet. So it could just be an investment with a smaller upside for the investor.

For the startup, the numbers start to look daunting after it takes more than even a small amount of seed funding: while repaying $250,000 to investors is potentially reasonable for a profitable company, a $1M investment might need $5M to be returned from revenue. That might be fine if we're talking about a VC-sized investment opportunity - but if we are, why wouldn't the startup take VC money and forgo paying dividends?

The answer, I think, is to think smaller and more specific. Rather than trying to build something that addresses a large portion of the internet, build something that addresses a highly niche group that has been thus far unspported because of the industry's focus on growth. Instead of being the next Facebook or Uber, think about being the next MetaFilter or The Well.

Lifestyle businesses have a bad reputation because it's harder for the financial ecosystem to make money from them. But for their owners, save for a very small number of outlier founders who ride VC to high net worth valuations, they can be every bit as lucrative. And you get to do it on your terms, serving a community that you genuinely care about, rather than following a paint-by-numbers path to success. The irony is that by serving a smaller community well, in a way that doesn't lend itself well to scaling fast, founders are probably setting the groundwork for a company that really could be VC-scale, if they wanted it to be. (The choice is theirs.)

As for the investment return question, I think you have to adjust the scope and definition of investment and returns to be about more than money. Communities can be stakeholders in other ways. Consider the Kickstarter / Indiegogo crowdfunding model, where investors don't get equity at all - instead, their rewards are early access to products and services, and even more than that, the social aura of having helped something they care about to be birthed into the world. By deeply understanding the community they're serving before you build anything, making connections, and getting to know them as people, founders can motivate them to help provide the seed funding and momentum they need.

VC is going to continue to be one part of the funding landscape. But I think we need to see it as just one part. There is nothing wrong with building something that is smaller and more focused. There's nothing wrong with bringing your community into your venture more deeply. And there's nothing wrong with considering how to remake the tech industry as one that is less monopolistic, inherently more inclusive, and more resilient, through rejecting unicorns in favor of lots of small pieces, loosely joined.

 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

 

My Resolutions for 2019

Happy New Year! May your year be full of joy and success, by your definitions and on your terms.

I think that qualification is important: your definitions of joy and success, achieved in a way that's right for you. We're all innundated with messages telling us that we're not enough, that now is the time to make a change for the better - you slob! - and I think these all represent empty illusions of forward momentum. Some of them, like aggressive calls to lose weight or make more money, border on cruelty. All of them carry a commercial subtext. You'll be a better person if you just buy this thing.

This year, I want to make some much more positive resolutions.

Sure, sharing your goals makes them less achievable, but the individual goals aren't really the point. And I'm certainly not going to beat myself up if I don't achieve them. It's much more about the theme and direction of my year - the broad strokes of how I hope to live and interact with the world. This year, the theme is "resist" - not just politically, but personally. Our political system isn't the only substrate at the mercy of rich manipulators wielding trillions of dollars. Advertising and commercialism want to break us down and reconstitute our needs and worries in terms of products to be sold. Money is in all of our blood, like mercury poisoning, leading us to poor decisions and unnecessary anxiety.

So here are some thoughts on how I want to live in 2019:

 

Try to be kind (vs nice). Have compassion for everyone, and a strong moral compass that leans towards equality, inclusion, and democracy. Don't tolerate intolerance. Don't be conflict-avoidant when strong words or actions are necessary. And remember that being kind includes being kind to yourself.

Have a bias towards action. Rather than waffle or over-plan, plant a flag and take action, even if that action turns out to be imperfect. I can always course correct. But life doesn't wait.

Make sure people know I love them. Tell them often.

Be a man. Which is to say, by my definition, not some arbitrary, outdated ideas of what masculinity entails. Every man (and every woman, and every human) gets to decide what being themself means.

Try to be healthier. Be happier in my own skin, and more forward-facing in my thoughts. Be stronger, physically and mentally. But remember that vulnerability is strength too; don't harden. And don't succumb to other peoples' ideas of how I should improve myself unless I'm sure they're not a reflection of their own desires and neuroses.

Try not to make fear-based decisions. Instead, think: where do I want to be in 2 years? In 5? In 10? Avoid acting in the short term as much as possible.

Read more. Books, not posts (although posts are great too). In 2019 I want to try and read a book a week.

Write (and draw) more. But only in partnership with reading more.

Limit my exposure. At Thanksgiving 2018, I decided to log out of social media and remove all my social apps -  and I've been blogging almost every day instead. It's the best thing I've ever done on the internet as an adult. Suddenly, I was far removed from influencers, sponsored messages, and the outrage of the day. I feel no less connected to the people I love, or to what's happening in the world (in fact, I read far more journalism). I plan to continue this indefinitely for Facebook and its subsidiaries, although I'll probably return to Twitter now and then.

And finally, some quick specifics: Stop using Amazon. Be much better at email. Don't use ridesharing apps except in emergencies. Make eating out a special occasion instead of a regular activity. Commit to helping out with a Presidential campaign, somehow. And find ways to be more environmentally sustainable.

 

What are your resolutions? What are your hopes for the next year?

 

Picture: the first light of 2019, over Lake Mendocino, just outside Ukiah, CA.

 

Farewell, 2018

I'm in an AirBnb on the edge of Lake Mendocino and I want to get out and see the redwoods, so I'll keep this short:

2018 was a hell of a year for me personally. I lost family, I lost a job I cared about, for a while I thought I was going to get a terminal genetic disease, and the health of my family is suffering. It was also a year that I gained a lot, through new connections, opportunities, and life experiences. And then, of course, from Facebook to Trump, ubiquitous surveillance to child detention camps, it was a harrowing year for the world. It was a rollercoaster that leant towards the negative.

But what made it worthwhile is what always makes life worthwhile: people. I'm so grateful for all of you, and more broadly for all the incredible people I get to have in my life. They inspire me, give me hope, and remind me of the joy and beauty of humanity. I sometimes (often) am not the communicator I want to be, but I'm proud to have them in my life, and for them to be in mine.

Tomorrow, we look forwards. But for now: redwoods.

Onwards.

 

Bicycles

I miss my bike.

Growing up in Oxford, bicycles were the default mode of transportation for just about everyone. I cycled to school and back every day; I'd cycle into town to go shopping; later on, I'd cycle to the pub to meet my friends. I remember cycling through the University Parks cycle path in the dead of night after seeing a midnight movie. Sometimes - by which I mean, a couple of times a week - I would cycle around the perimeter of the city, or up to Shotover Park, just for the hell of it.

It was just a thing that you did. Most people didn't have very expensive bicycles, because they were a target for thieves; certainly, nobody dressed up to go cycling. You carried your helmet and your bike lights with you. Maybe, if you were fancy, you attached bike clips to your jeans.

Every year, a student would die or be seriously injured because they were new to the city and didn't understand that bikes needed to adhere to the rules of the world. They'd run a red light and be hit by a car, or they'd hit a curb at the wrong angle and hit their unhelmeted head on the sidewalk. But mostly, it was a safe thing to do, partially because there was safety in numbers: the cyclists almost travel in herds.

In Edinburgh, the wind, the hills, and the freezing, horizontal rain combined to form too oppressive a force. People did cycle, but I quickly realized that I wouldn't be one of them. And then when I moved to California, it became obvious that cars were the kings of the road, and my sense of self-preservation kept me away. There's also a terrifying trend, in Berkeley at least, of cyclists militantly rejecting road rules, as if red lights and stop signs don't apply to them. Again: this is how you die.

I think this year, I might finally go back to cycling. Using Oxford rules, though: I don't need or want to pay a four figure sum for a bicycle, and while mountain biking in Marin looks like a lot of fun, I don't think anyone needs to see me clad head to toe in spandex to do so. No offense intended for anyone who goes for the expensive bikes or full cycling gear - it does look like fun - but for me, simplicity appeals.

Oxford isn't my only influence here. I was born in the Netherlands, and my first memory is of Amsterdam, now the bicycle capital of the world. The country has 22,000 miles of cycle paths, and its size means that you could feasibly take a week or two and travel around the whole country this way. If that's too ambitious, every train station has a bike rental place attached to it, and for a few Euros - far less than the extortionate amounts charged to tourists in San Francisco, for example - you can have freedom to roam for a day. I've spent lovely days cycling around places like Gouda, between the irrigation canals, stopping in at cheesemakers along the way. While this kind of thing used to be a cheap hop that I wouldn't have to think much about, it now requires travel that I have to budget for. Nevertheless, I think there are more trips like those in my future.

I'm learning that my presence here isn't ephemeral: I'm probably in the States for good - or at least, for a long time to come. I didn't arrive here as an entirely new person, but with the turbulence of my life here, I've let go of a lot of the things I used to do, or used to enjoy. But my life is a continuous line, and what feels like breaks are nothing of the sort. It's possible to reach back for big things and small. A bicycle is a small thing, but a reminder that I'm the same person I was there; just, removed.

 

Eggnog

We have a half gallon of eggnog in the fridge.

I'm surprised by how old it is. I don't remember it really featuring in British supermarkets, and based on its modern incarnation - Christmas drinking custard - I would have guessed that it had been invented in maybe the fifties or sixties, for an America audience. But nog was already a kind of English ale in the late 1600s. Posset, an alcoholic drink where milk was curdled with wine or ale and spiced, was mixed with egg as early as the 1300s. The word "eggnog" is first recorded as having been used in 1775, the year before the Declaration of Independence was issued.

In 1826, military cadets at West Point rioted because they were served alcohol-free eggnog. In the end, some cadets went on a mission to a tavern a couple of miles away and came back with gallon jugs of whisky, before getting boisterously drunk and wreaking havoc across the Academy. In the end, 70 cadets were arrested.

Ten years ago today, my mother told us that she'd been diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, the disease that at that time had killed my grandmother. She had finally got her persistent cough checked out, and gone through a series of increasingly invasive tests. And now, days before Christmas, we had the result.

The average life expectancy after an IPF diagnosis is 3 to 5 years. We didn't know what was going to happen, and typing this today, knowing this expectancy, I don't know why I didn't go through the logistical steps of moving to California to be closer to them immediately. There were things holding me back, of course - a whole life and roots and a network - but none of them were anywhere near as important. In the event, it took until she was carrying an oxygen tank on her back for me to pack two suitcases and make the jump. My grandmother had worn an oxygen tank, and then she had been gone. It was my first conscious introduction to losing a loved one, and I remember, at six years old, sitting in my bedroom while I heard my mother weeping in the living room. My grandmother had been in Austin, Texas, while we had been in Oxford, England, far away from her bedside.

Slowly, the trappings of my old life stripped away. Her diagnosis was a contributing factor to my leaving Elgg: suddenly, life was too short to deal with interpersonal bullshit. I had thought - hoped - that I was going to move with my girlfriend at the time, who I would eventually ask to marry me. That didn't happen, and it took me years to accept that it wasn't simply because I wasn't good enough. Every tie, save for those of friendship, faded. I was in California now, building a new life, trying to live while being aware, every day, of the undercurrent of tragedy that brought me here. Some days, I would attend an open data event and talk about open source. Some days, my mother would be helicoptered from a regional hospital in order to save her life.

Over time, it became clear that we're all at the forefront of familial pulmonary fibrosis; my mother was discussed at medical conferences. My mother saw symptoms in her sister, my wonderful aunt Erica, who she dragged in to see her doctors. She had two lung transplants. Over time, her son, my beautifully-spirited, generous, kind cousin, was diagnosed, too. We laid them both to rest last year and this year respectively. I think about them both every day.

My mother had a double lung transplant in 2013. I was in their home the night they got the call, the conversation soundtracked by the two refrigerator-sized oxygen concentrators running in parallel to keep her alive. Oxygen concentrators use containers of distilled water to prevent the oxygen from drying you out, and the sound is somewhere between a diesel generator and an aquarium. But suddenly, they were gone, and the torpedo-sized oxygen tanks were no longer a daily fixture. Somewhere I still have the discarded green plastic caps; one of us was going to turn them into an art project, but none of us could.

It wasn't an easy recovery. The following five years brought stomach tubes, throat surgeries, pneumonia, and dialysis. This year in particular has been one of the most difficult. There is talk of needing more surgery, but surgery is off the table. I treasure every moment. My dad is like some kind of superhero, looking after her diligently and with love, despite his own health slipping. There is sadness and stress in every day, but there's also so much love.

Research is now advanced enough to know that our familial pulmonary fibrosis is a symptom of dyskeratosis congenita, an incurable genetic condition that affects how you produce telomerase, an enzyme that protects your telomeres. These are the end-caps to your chromosomes, which shorten as you age, and with stress or illness. When you don't have the right levels of telomerase, your telomeres shorten prematurely. The effect is particularly pronounced in areas where your cells reproduce and are refreshed more frequently, like your lungs, and your bone marrow. The implications are terrifying, but there is one that isn't: it's possible to test for it.

This summer, my sister and I decided to get tested together. We were warned of the insurance implications, but Europe was our safety net; if we had the genetic marker and insurance became a problem, we would relocate to somewhere with a functional healthcare system. The probability of neither of us having it was less than 25%. I gave up meat and alcohol in preparation for having to get a lot healthier; I knew the kinds of tests they made you do to prove you could cope with a lung transplant. Mostly, I hoped that my sister wouldn't have it; I could accept my own life coming to a premature end, but not hers. She's the most amazing person I've ever met, someone I am proud and bewildered to be related to; her life ending would be like turning the lights out in the universe. But in the end, we were clear, and both of us openly wept in the genetic counselor's office.

I don't know how much time we all get as a family, but we have today. We have this Christmas. I'm so grateful for the bonus time. This week, this holiday, I'm maing a resolution to be present, in the moment. I want to remember everything.

We have a half gallon of eggnog in the fridge. I can hear my family now, awake and down in the living room. I'm going to go downstairs, pour a little eggnog in my coffee - those West Point cadets missed a trick - and join them.

 

Matter and Energy

Corey has made an announcement about Matter over on its Medium publication:

I’m proud of the impact we’ve made, the team we’ve built, and the people and organizations that we have transformed. But now it’s time for me to flare.

For the last two years I have tried to secure Matter’s future. While I succeeded at figuring out how to successfully expand Matter and its unique culture to NYC and to tranform Matter into an organization that could continue to operate if I were hit by a bus, I have yet to successfully raise Matter Fund III and we’ve come to the end of our runway.

I've had the privilege of being on many sides of the Matter table. My third startup, Known, was funded by it, and I took part in the third accelerator class. I was a mentor and occasional advisor. And then I was asked to join the team and was the west coast Director of Investments. (I had an abstract ambition to one day come back as an LP, completing the set, but oh well.)

When I discovered Matter, it felt like an oasis: here was an accelerator that wanted to make the world more informed, empowered, and connected. An investment community that prized empathy and inclusivity. And rather than talking about this vaguely, or staying at 30,000 feet, the hands-on accelerator process was designed to give entrepreneurs the tools they needed to test their assumptions and succeed in the real world. It was Corey's process, and it worked - both for the entrepreneurs who took part in it, and for the media partners like KQED and the Associated Press who used it to improve their own internal innovation.

It changed my life.

Not just by teaching me the principles of human-centered venture design, although it did do that. Not just by taking a bet on my work, although I will always be grateful. But more than anything else, by introducing me to an amazing community of people who I'm proud to call my friends - and then allowing me to help build it.

It was meaningful work that allowed me to use every part of myself. It pushed me in ways I'd never been pushed before, and in the same way that participating in the accelerator transformed the way I'll build products and ventures forever, I am a much better person for having worked on that team. It was very far from just being a job. I worked and cried with founders late into the night. I helped some of the world's biggest media institutions work on their most existential problems. I helped bring Chelsea Manning to demo day. And I did it as part of a group of people who I still can't believe I got to be part of. Years later, I honestly still can't believe my luck.

I'm very grateful to Corey for founding this community, which I believe I'll be part of for the rest of my life. In the same way people talk about the PayPal Mafia, I think people will start talking about the Matter Underground in media circles: people who were part of the Matter community, changed by its values, and then went on to change media and technology for good. That also goes for the incredible people I worked with, which certainly includes Corey. I wish him the best in whatever he chooses to do next, and I can't wait to hear about it.

I'll finish by including this photo, which I stole from his post. It represents my single proudest moment in my professional career to date: the day that a group of people that I helped source, select and invest in walked through the garage door. Each one of them had a mission with the potential to create a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society. And each of them was an amazing individual who I'm proud to know.

Corey's full post is here.

 

My Oxford

VICE has a long-running series where British writers bring photographers back to their hometowns, which I stumbled into this morning via Metafilter. It's stunning, and while I didn't recognize the Edinburgh entry almost at all, there was another piece that unexpectedly took my breath away.

I'm from Oxford as much as I'm from anywhere, but I've never read a piece that captured my experience of the city. Instead, it's always the opulent, ancient buildings of the university, the famous writers like CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein, or the plummy, upper middle class concerns of the North Oxford set. An outsider could be forgiven for thinking that the city was all cream teas and tennis.

Not so much. As Nell Frizzell writes:

Say its name and people will think of spires, books, bicycles, punting, philosophers and meadows. Few will think of cheap European lager, samosas, hardware shops, GCSEs, underage drinking, the number 3a bus or going twos on a roll-up beside a mental health hospital. They may not even think of the car factory, the warehouses on Botley Road, Powell's timber merchants, the registry office in Clarendon Shopping Centre, The Star pub, plantain sandwiches or Fred's Discount Store. But that's the Oxford I grew up in.

Me too. Nell's description of east Oxford is spot on, although we moved in different social circles; there was no cocaine in my world, even if we also gathered at exactly the same pub. All of these places are my places too, and the things she cares about in her hometown are things I care about also. In a life where I've lived in multiple countries and never quite found myself fitting in, including in the place I grew up, that's an incredible rareity.

I'm very glad I moved away - living in a variety of places has been right for me, and I expect I'll continue to move around. Having no nationality and no religion means that the pull to travel and exist in different contexts is strong. And Oxford really does have some deep problems. But that doesn't mean I don't miss it, too.

Because of the images that Oxford conjures in the minds of people who have never been there (and even some who have), I find it hard to explain where I came from. I can immediately taste the samosas and smell the beer-stained floorboards, but it's hard to convey. Now, at least, I have something I can point to; a description I actually recognize.

If you're interested in a realer Britain, the whole series is worth reading.

 

Open APIs and the Facebook Trash Fire

The New York Times report on Facebook's ongoing data sharing relationships is quite something. The gist is that even while it claimed that its data sharing relationships had been terminated in 2015 - to users and to governments around the world - many were still active into this year. Moreover, these relationships were established in such a way as to hide the extent of the data sharing from users, possibly in contravention of GDPR and its reporting responsibilities to the FTC:

“This is just giving third parties permission to harvest data without you being informed of it or giving consent to it,” said David Vladeck, who formerly ran the F.T.C.’s consumer protection bureau. “I don’t understand how this unconsented-to data harvesting can at all be justified under the consent decree.”

The company's own press release response to the reporting attempts to sugarcoat the facts, but essentially agrees that this happened. Data was shared with third parties during the period when the company declared that this wasn't happening, and often without user permission or understanding.
Back to the NYT article to make the implications clear:

The social network allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.

The social network permitted Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends, and it let Yahoo view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier.

In September 2007, I flew out to Silicon Valley to participate in something called the Data Sharing Summit, organized by Marc Canter. At the time, I was working on Elgg, and we believed strongly in establishing open APIs so that people wouldn't be siloed into their social networks and web services. I met people there who have remained friends for the rest of my career. And all of us wanted open access to APIs so that users could move their data around, and so that startups wouldn't have as a high a barrier to entry into the market.

That was an ongoing meme in the industry ten years ago: open data, open APIs. It's one that has clearly informed Facebook's design and influential decisions. I certainly bought into it. And to some extent I still do, although I'd now prefer to go several steps further and architect systems with no central point of control or data storage at all. But such systems - whether centralized or decentralized - need to center around giving control to the user. Even at the Data Sharing Summit, we quickly realized that data control was a more meaningful notion than data ownership. Who gets to say what can happen to my data? And who gets to see it?

Establishing behind-the-scenes reciprocal data sharing agreements with partners breaks the implicit trust contract that a service has with its users.

Facebook clued us in to how much power it held in 2011, when it introduced its timeline feature. I managed to give this fairly asinine quote to the New York Times back then:

“We’ve all been dropping status updates and photos into a void,” said Ben Werdmuller, the chief technology officer at Latakoo, a video service. “We knew we were sharing this much, of course, but it’s weird to realize they’ve been keeping this information and can serve it up for anyone to see.”

Mr. Werdmuller, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., said the experience of browsing through his social history on Facebook, complete with pictures of old flames, was emotionally evocative — not unlike unearthing an old yearbook or a shoebox filled with photographs and letters.

My point had actually not so much been about "old flames" as about relationships: it became clear that Facebook understood everyone you had a relationship with, not just the people you had added as a friend. Few pieces dove into the real implications of having all that data in one place, because at the time it seemed like the stuff of dystopian science fiction. Some of us were harping on about it, but it was so far outside of mainstream discourse that it sounded crazy. But here we are, in 2018, and we've manifested the panopticon.

In the same way that the timeline made the implications of posting on Facebook clear, this year's revelations represent another sea change in our collective understanding. Last time - and every time there has been this kind of perspective shift - the Overton window has shifted and we've collectively adjusted our expectations to incorporate it. I worry that by next election, we'll be fairly used to the idea of extensive private surveillance (as a declared fact rather than ideological speculation), and the practice will continue. And then the next set of perspective shifts will be genuinely horrifying.

Questions left unanswered: what information is Facebook sharing with Palantir, or the security services? To what extent are undeclared data-sharing relationships used to deport people, or to identify individuals who should be closely monitored? Is it used to identify subversives? And beyond the effects of data sharing, given what we know about the chilling effects surveillance has on democracy, what effect on democratic discourse has the omnipresence of the social media feed already had - and to what extent is this intentional?

I'm done assuming good faith; I'm done assuming incompetence; I'm done assuming ignorance. I hope you are too.

 

Image: Elevation, section and plan of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon penitentiary, drawn by Willey Reveley, 1791, from Wikipedia

 

Groups 2.0 is Explode, kinda

I'm getting really strong deja vu from Gro.ups 2.0 - an open source social networking platform that is now entirely implemented in JavaScript widgets.

From the Product Hunt thread:

I should also note that Grou.ps v2 is actually a set of GraphJS widgets Put on top of a gorgeous Bootstrap theme. That makes it super easy for developers to (a) come up with new templates, look & feel (b) port the social functionality to other digital assets they may have, like a mobile app, WordPress blog or website (but Not cryptocurrencies LOL)

GraphJS has been around for a little while, and is designed to be an embeddable set of widgets.

Explode was an embeddable JavaScript social network I made out of Elgg almost twelve years ago. Here's the TechCrunch article from the time:

A new open source cross-site social networking service called Explode launched today and looks like a very appealing alternative to the now Yahoo! owned MyBlogLog.  Built by UK open-source social network provider Curverider (whose primary product, Elgg, is similar to PeopleAggregator), Explode offers an embeddable widget that links out to users’ respective profile pages on any social network but allows commenting and befriending in one aggregated location.  I found Explode via Steve O’Hear’s The Social Web, one of my new favorite blogs.

What's old is truly new again. It's interesting to see people experiment with open social networks in 2018 - something I spent at least a decade of my life on. More power to them.

 

Unlock and Joint Ownership

Since August, I've been helping my friend Julien Genestoux at his startup Unlock.

Unlock is a protocol which enables creators to monetize their content with a few lines of code in a fully decentralized way. In the initial version, anyone can sell their work on the internet by adding two lines of code. Those are the only steps: create your content; add code; you're ready to accept payment. It's blockchain-based, so it's equally accessible to everyone in the world, both to buy and to sell.

It's really a decentralized protocol for access control. There are two elements to consider: a lock, and a set of  keys. You place a lock on some content to protect it; anyone with a key for that particular lock can access it. Publishers can use the same lock for as many different items of content as they want, and anyone with an appropriate key can access all of it. Content could be an article, a video, a podcast, or a software application. It can also be a mailing list, which is on the roadmap for 2019.

It's an open protocol at heart, which means it starts to get really interesting when other people begin to build on it. The initial Unlock code is a paywall; you can run our hosted version, or you can install the software and run your own. But you can also take the Unlock blockchain and structure and build something completely new. Over time, there will be more Unlock code and libraries that you can use as building blocks. Unlock, Inc doesn't need to be the central hub, and it doesn't need to own the blockchain. Unlike a service like Twitter, where the underlying company gets value by controlling access (and running ads), and therefore developers may get burned if they use it to underpin their products, Unlock the company is physically incapable of exerting central control over the Unlock Protocol.

I think what I've described is a good thing for the web - Unlock is the low-friction payments layer that should have been there from the very beginning - but much more is possible, and this isn't a "decentralize all the things!" argument. There are concrete benefits for businesses today. One thing I'm particularly excited about is that, because the blockchain is both transparent and decentralized, jointly-owned content becomes much more possible.

Two hypothetical examples:

Radiotopia is a podcast co-operative. Each podcast is wholly owned by its producer, but they raise money together and distribute funds as a stipend between them. Right now, they're fundraising using CommitChange; funds presumably pool to one central point - someone holds a bank account - and then are distributed by a human. But what if they could raise money by creating a lock that people purchase keys for, and the proceeds from that lock were automatically and transparently sent to every member of the Radiotopia network? They could still use CommitChange as a front end (particularly as it's based on the open source Houdini project), but their accounting and payments overhead would be dramatically lower. Each member of the network would also be able to trust that payments were made to them immediately and automatically. And for new networks - baby Radiotopias - creating a bundled content network becomes just a case of deciding to work together.

Project Facet is an open source project for collaborative journalism. Increasingly, in a world of budget cuts and changing business models, newsrooms need to collaborate to produce investigative reporting. Right now, they pool resources in informal ways, and produce separate stories based on the reporting. With the Unlock Protocol, they could collaborate on the substance of the stories themselves, and put them under a shared lock that automatically pools the revenue between the participating organizations. This would be much harder in a universe where you'd have a custodial bank account and an accountant who made payments; here it could be fully transparent, and fully automatic.

These are purely hypothetical, and non-exclusive; much more is possible. Just a flexible paywall, or paid-for mailing lists, are exciting. The point is that we can think beyond how we've traditionally restricted access, and how we've transferred value. Personally, in my work, I'm most motivated by concrete human use cases - and Unlock illustrates how blockchain services have a lot of potential. This isn't an ICO, and it's not a speculative coin play. It's a way for creators to pool and share value, and make money from their work in a flexible way. And that's exciting to me.

The code is fully open; you can get involved here.

 

Photo by Francois Hurtaud on Unsplash

 

The Trolls from Olgino, the Sabateurs from Menlo Park

There's a lot in the news this morning about online influence campaigns conducted by the Internet Research Agency, a propaganda firm with close ties to the Russian government. Two reports were prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee: one by an Austin-based security firm called New Knowlege, and the other by the Oxford Internet Institute's Computational Propaganda Project.

As of today, both are freely available online. Here's the full New Knowlege report; here's the full Oxford Institute Institute report.

This is the first time we've really heard about Instagram being used for an influence campaign, but it shouldn't be a surprise: if I say the word "influencer", it's probably the first platform that you think of. Like any decent digital advertising campaign, this one was cross-platform, recognizing that different demographics and communities engage on different sites. In a world where 44% of users aged 18 to 29 have logged out of the Facebook mothership, any campaign hoping to reach young people would to include Instagram. And of course, that's why Facebook bought the service to begin with.

News stories continue to paint this as some kind of highly sophisticated propaganda program masterminded by the Russian government. And it does seem like the Russian government was involved in this influence campaign. But this is how modern digital campaigns are run. People have been building Facebook Pages to gain as many likes as possible since the feature was released, precisely so they can monetize their posts and potentially sell them on to people who need to reach a large audience quickly. Influencers - people who are paid to seed opinions online - will represent $10 billion in advertising spending by 2020.

It is, of course, deeply problematic that a foreign influence campaign was so widespread and successful in the 2016 election - I have no desire to downplay this, particularly in our current, dire, political environment. But I also think we're skimming the surface: because of America's place in the world, it's highly likely that there were many other parallel influence campaigns, both from foreign and domestic sources. And all of us are subject to an insidious kind of targeted marketing for all kinds of things - from soft drinks to capitalism itself - from all kinds of sources.

The Iowa Writers' Workshop is one of the most influential artistic hubs of the twentieth century. Over half of the creative writing programs founded after its creation were done so by Iowa graduates; it helped spur the incredible creative boom in American literature over the next few decades. And its director, Paul Engle, funded it by convincing American institutions - like the CIA and the Rockefeller Foundation - that literature from an American, capitalist perspective would help fight communism. It could be argued that much of the literature that emerged from the Workshop's orbit was an influence campaign. More subtle and independent than the social media campaigns we see today, for sure, but with a similar intent: influence the opinions of the public in the service of a political goal.

And of course, Joseph Goebbels was heavily influenced in his approach by Edward Bernays, the American founder of modern public relations, who realized he could apply the principles of propaganda to marketing. Even today, that murderous legacy lives on: the Facebook misinformation campaigns around the genocide in Myanmar are its spiritual successor.

So political influence campaigns are not new, and they have the potential to do great harm. The Russian influence campaign is probably not even the most recent event in the long history of information warfare. While it's important to identify that this happened, and certainly to root out collusion with American politicians who may have illegally used this as a technique to win elections, I think it's also important to go a level deeper and untangle the transmisison vector as well as this particular incident.

Every social network subsists on influence campaigns to different degrees. There's no doubt that Facebook's $415 billion market cap is fuelled by companies who want to influence the feed where half of adultsdisproportionately from lower incomes - get their news. That's Facebook's economic engine; it's how it was designed to work. The same is true of Instagram, Twitter, etc etc, with the caveat that a feed with a lower population density is less valuable, and less able to have a measurable impact on the public discourse at large. There's one exception: while Twitter has significantly lower user numbers, it is heavily used by journalists and educators, who are then liable to share information gleaned there. Consider the number of news stories of the form, "here's what Trump tweeted today," which are then read by people who have never logged on to Twitter and wouldn't otherwise have seen the tweets.

The root cause of these misinformation campaigns is that people will do whatever they can to obtain, or hold onto, power. I don't think solving this is going to be possible during the entire remaining span of human civilization. So instead, let's think about how we can limit the "whatever they can" portion of the sentence. If people are going to use every means at their disposal to obtain power, how can we safety-check the tools we make in order to inhibit people from using them for this purpose?

Moving on from targeted advertising is a part of the answer. So is limiting the size of social networks: Facebook's 2.27 billion monthly active users are a disease vector for misinformation. As I've written before, its effective monopoly is directly harmful. Smaller communities, loosely joined, running different software and monetized in different ways, would make it much harder for a single campaign to spread to a wide audience. Influence campaigns would continue to run, but they would encounter community borders much more quickly.

A final piece is legislation. It's time for both privacy and transparency rules to be enacted around online advertising, and around user accounts. For their protection, users need to know if a message was posted by a human; they also need to know who placed an advertisement. And advertising for any kind of political topic in an election period should be banned outright, no matter who placed it, as it was in the UK. You can't have a democratic society without free and open debate - and you can't have free and open debate if one side is weighted with the force of millions of dollars, Facebook's market cap be damned.

 

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

 

Checking in on my social media fast

Three weeks ago, I decided to go dark on social media. No convoluted account deletion process; no backups. I just logged out everywhere, and deleted all my apps. It's one of the best things I've ever done.

I thought I'd check in with a quick breakdown: what worked, and what didn't. Here we go.

 

What worked

I haven't logged into Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. I feel much calmer for it. I also feel better for not contributing to the Facebook machine. And I've gained 7 to 10 hours a week in time I'm not looking at my phone.

Crucially, I don't feel like I'm missing out or going to be forgotten, which were two of the things I was afraid of. I miss the hour-to-hour outrage but am on top of the important news. Lots of people have reached out to me; I've reached out to others; I've had the most non-work one on one email conversations in a decade. It's led to lunches, meeting up with people for dinner that I haven't seen in ages - it's been genuinely great.

The way I use my phone when I am looking at my phone has changed, too. I'm reading a lot more news and long-form content. I treated myself to a New Yorker digital subscription, which has been nourishing. (I've also got subscriptions to the NYT, Washington Post, and WSJ, and realizing that I'm missing a more international perspective. Recommendations needed!) I'm still thinking about this James Baldwin essay. I've started heavily using Pocket to save articles I might want to do something with later. Have you read the Laurie Penny blockchain cruise piece? You really have to.

And I'm blogging a lot more. For the first week or so, I felt compelled to write something every day. I'm definitely not doing that now, but not tweeting lets the thoughts bubble up until they're something a little more substantial. I've also branched out into writing things for other outlets; I'm hoping one will show up today. But the best part about blogging is that writing helps me order my thoughts and go deeper on topics I'm interested in. It also, for more personal subjects, helps me process.

 

What didn't work

I had to log back into LinkedIn. Of all the social networks, I'm sad that this is the one that proved indispensible. But it turns out I don't have a lot of peoples' email addresses, so when I needed to reach out to someone, I couldn't do it any other way. I've accepted my fate here for now, but I'm fairly uncomfortable with Microsoft being at the center of my professional relationships, so I'll need to figure something else out.

And I can't help it: I check Google Analytics for my blog. It's taken the place of hoping for interactions on my tweets, and the little realtime graph still provides enough of a dopamine rush to give me a hit. I need to wean myself away - perhaps by simply removing Google Analytics from my site. (Arguably, if I'm serious about decentralization and privacy, this is something I should do anyway - so I've just talked myself into it. It'll be gone today.)

I still spend far too much time looking at my phone. I thought about illustrating this piece with some stats, but I decided not to. They're embarrassing.

Finally: my blog is still mostly about tech. Or at least, it has been - but that's not the entirety of what I read and think about. So I'm trying to figure out if I want to have two outlets, or if anyone cares whether I digress from user privacy to talk about writing for Doctor Who or - and this might be a piece that happens soon - making pad thai for my mother. In some ways, I feel like I need to ask your permission to do this, which is sad, and I shouldn't. (So, again: I've just talked myself into not worrying about it.)

In other words: I haven't been bold enough. I could go further. So, I will.

 

Conclusions so far

This change has been more positive than expected. I'll probably keep it up in the new year, perhaps with some tweaks. Give it a try!

 

With RAD, podcasters can finally learn who's listening

NPR announced Remote Audio Data today: a technology standard for sending podcast audience analytics back to their publishers. Podcasting is one of the few truly decentralized publishing ecosystems left on the web, and it's a relief to see that this is as decentralized as it should be.

Moreover, it's exactly the role public media should be playing: they convened a group of interested parties and created an underlying open source layer that benefits everyone. One of the major issues in the podcast ecosystem is that nobody has good data about who's actually listening; most people use Apple's stats, look at their download numbers, and make inferences. This will change the game - and in a way that directly benefits podcast publishers rather than any single central gatekeeper.

What's not listed in the spec is a standard way to disclose to the listener that their analytics are being shared. This may fall afoul of GDPR and similar legislation if not handled properly; to be honest, I'd hope that any ethical podcast player would ask permission to send this information, giving me the opportunity to tell it not to. Still, at least in the five minutes that everyone isn't sending their listening data to be processed by Google Analytics, this is an order of magnitude better than using Apple as a clearinghouse.

Here's a quick technical overview of how it works:

While MP3 files mostly contain audio, they can also contain something called an ID3 tag for human-readable information like song title, album name, artist, and genre. RAD adds a JSON-encoded remoteAudioData field, which in turn contains two arrays: trackingUrls and events. It can also list a custom podcastId and episodeId. Events have an optional label and mandatory eventTime, expressed as hh:mm:ss.sss, and can have any number of other keys and values.

The example data from the spec looks like this:

{
 "remoteAudioData": {
   "podcastId":"510298",
   "episodeId":"497679856",
   "trackingUrls": [
     "https://tracking.publisher1.org/remote_audio_data",
     "https://tracking.publisher2.org/remote_audio_data",
     "https://tracking.publisherN.org/remote_audio_data",
   ],
   "events": [
     {
       "eventTime":"00:00:00.000",
       "label":"podcastDownload",
       "spId":"0",
       "creativeId":"0",
       "adPosition":"0",
       "eventNum":"0"
     },
     {
       "eventTime":"00:00:05.000",
       "label":"podcastStart",
       "spId":"0",
       "creativeId":"0",
       "adPosition":"0",
       "eventNum":"1"
     },
     {
       "eventTime":"00:05:00.000",
       "label":"breakStart",
       "spId":"123456",
       "creativeId":"1234567",
       "adPosition":"1",
       "eventNum":"2"
     },
     {
       "eventTime":"00:05:15.000",
       "label":"breakEnd",
       "spId":"123456",
       "creativeId":"1234567",
       "adPosition":"1",
       "eventNum":"3"
     }
   ]
 }
}

The podcast player sends a POST request to the URLs listed in trackingURLs, wrapped in a session ID and optionally containing the episodeId and podcastId. By default the player should send this at least once per hour, although the MP3 file can specify a different duration by including a submissionInterval parameter. The intention is that the podcast player stores events and can send them asynchronously, because podcasts are often listened to when there's no available internet connection. After a default of two weeks without sending, events are discarded.

Here's an example JSON string send to a reportingUrl from the spec:

{
 "audioSessions": [
   {
     "podcastId": "510313",
     "episodeId": "525083696",
     "sessionId": "A489C3AD-04AA-4B5F-8289-4D3D2CFE4CFB",
     "events": [
       {
         "sponsorId": "0",
         "creativeId": "0",
         "eventTime": "00:00:00.000",
         "adPosition": "0",
         "label": "podcastDownload",
         "eventNum": "0",
         "timestamp": "2018-10-24T11:23:07+04:00"
       },
       {
         "sponsorId": "0",
         "creativeId": "0",
         "eventTime": "00:00:05.000",
         "adPosition": "0",
         "label": "podcastStart",
         "eventNum": "1",
         "timestamp": "2018-10-24T11:23:08+04:00"
       },
       {
         "sponsorId": "111128",
         "eventTime": "00:00:05.000",
         "adPosition": "1",
         "label": "breakStart",
         "creativeId": "1111132",
         "eventNum": "2",
         "timestamp": "2018-10-24T11:23:09+04:00"
       },
       {
         "label": "breakEnd",
         "sponsorId": "111128",
         "eventTime": "00:00:05.000",
         "adPosition": "1",
         "creativeId": "1111132",
         "eventNum": "3",
         "timestamp": "2018-10-24T11:23:10+04:00"
         }
     ]
   },
   {
     "podcastId": "510314",
     "episodeId": "525083697",
     "sessionId": "778A4569-4B06-469B-8686-519C3B43C31F",
     "events": [
       {
         "sponsorId": "0",
         "eventTime": "00:00:00.000",
         "adPosition": "0",
         "creativeId": "0",
         "eventNum": "0",
         "timestamp": "2018-10-24T11:23:11+04:00"
       }
     ]
    },
   {
     "podcastId": "510315",
     "episodeId": "525083698",
     "sessionId": "F825BE2B-9759-438A-A67E-9C2D54874B4F",
     "events": [
       {
         "sponsorId": "0",
         "eventTime": "00:00:00.000",
         "adPosition": "0",
         "label": "podcastDownload",
         "creativeId": "0",
         "eventNum": "0",
         "timestamp": "2018-10-24T11:23:12+04:00"
       }
     ]
   }
 ]
}

It's a very simple, smart solution. There's more information at the RAD homepage, and mobile developers can grab Android or iOS SDKs on GitHub.

 

Examining the degrees of Fortune 500 tech CEOs

One of my recurring regrets is that I stopped at a bachelor's degree. There are many times when I wonder if having an MBA - or just the deeper study that a master's or even a PhD would provide - would be useful.

There's also a recurring meme in the tech industry that you don't need university. The story of the kid who drops out of college to start a multi-billion dollar business is often repeated. I suspected it wasn't true, but I didn't know.

So I posed the question: assuming your goal is to be the CEO of a big tech company, and based on previous experience, what should you study?

This comes with a big asterisk: being the CEO of a big tech company is not currently my goal, and I believe in education for education's sake, rather than to meet a career need. Treating education as a purely vocational pursuit is how we get to phenomenally expensive courses that are tied to salary expectations, rather than treating the collective pursuit of human knowledge as a common good, regardless of its ability to lead to a well-paying position.

Still, I thought it was doing the research. I took the relevant tech companies in the 2017 Fortune 500 list, and looked at two datasets: their first CEOs, and their current CEOs. (Where a company is no longer independent, like Yahoo, I used the last person who was CEO when it was - in this case, Marissa Meyer. And because Eric Schmidt was CEO of Google before Larry Page, while not technically being a founder, he is listed here.) In both cases, I did my best to find their educational history: their degrees undertaken, at which level they took them, and at which institutions. There are probably mistakes, but here's the whole dataset.

Here are some interesting highlights. I'm curious if there's more you've discovered from the data - let me know!

 

Founding CEOs

7 out of 38 CEOs dropped out of college: Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Michael Dell (Dell), William Morean (Jabil Circuit), and David Packard (HP). It's worth noting that Packard and Morean dropped out decades before the others. Packard later went back and got a Master's degree in Electrical Engineering from Stanford.

13 out of 38 CEOs have a Master's or higher degree. Electrical Engineering and Computer Science dominate the subjects taken, followed by Physics. None have an MBA, although Sandy Lerner, founder of Cisco, has a Master's in Econometrics.

5 have a doctorate, with Computer Science again being the most common.

 

Current CEOs

No current CEOs of any Fortune 500 tech company is a college dropout, and all went to college. This stands to reason: while founders can effectively luck or hustle their way into this position, it's highly unlikely that a new CEO will be hired without a degree.

In this list, Business Administration vies with Computer Science for being the top subject taken at an undergraduate level.

22 out of 38 CEOs have a Master's or higher degree. 13 have an MBA (again, compared to zero founders); 2 more did Law. Computer Science is relatively rare at the postgraduate level - and no current CEOs have a doctorate.

 

Fields of Study Overall

At the Undergraduate level, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science take the top spots, with 13 and 7 CEOs respectively. These two subjects are, of course, highly related, and often taught together. Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering also rate highly.

While Business Administration and Law have a few takers (7 and 3 respectively), most non-science subjects are represented with just one CEO each.

MBAs are by far the most popular graduate degrees, unsurprisingly, with 13 CEOs represented. 9 CEOs have a Master's in Computer Science; 6 in Electrical Engineering; and 3 in Law. There are no humanities represented at the Master's level.

 

Institutions

More Fortune 500 tech industry CEOs went to Stanford than anywhere else. That's completely unsurprising, given Stanford's interrelated history with Silicon Valley. This is then followed in quick succession by the University of Michigan, UC Berkeley, MIT, the University of Texas, and Princeton.

The only two CEOs to go to Harvard - Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg - dropped out of it.

More interestingly, there are very few institutions represented outside of the United States. While 51% of founders of $1bn+ companies are immigrants, most of them went to school here. No foreign university has more than one individual CEO representing it, although India and Canada have three CEOs each. I was also surprised (but not disappointed) to see that the only UK institution represented is not Oxford or Cambridge, but Bradford Polytechnic (now the University of Bradford). Bradford is one of the most racially diverse cities in Britain.

 

Conclusions

Stay in school, kids. The dropout CEOs all happened to be in the right place at the right time for a moment in computing that will never be repeated. There may be new moments, but the advantages of having a degree far outweigh any chance that you'll be successful without one.

Founding CEOs are most likely to be computer scientists or electrical engineers, with a deep level of technical knowledge that allows them to connect their vision with the feasible realities. Hired CEOs are likely to be business professionals who have risen through the ranks and found their position more deliberately. Of course, the degree taken doesn't deal with the intangibles - there are a host of skills and personality traits needed to run a company successfully. I could give my opinions as to what they are, but they can't be quantified.

Obviously, overall, my data is incomplete. There's more to examine, I'm sure there are entries to correct, and I haven't touched interim CEOs (those who served between the first CEO and the current one). But I hope you'll agree it's an interesting exploration.

Should I go back to school? Maybe, eventually. An MBA or law degree probably would be useful. At the same time, I wish there were more CEOs with humanities degrees. But what's more clear is that technical skills are an enormous boon - not a surprising finding, but it's interesting to see it reinforced. So it stands to reason that continuing to develop those skills, and keeping them sharp and up-to-date, is worth investing in.

Finally: AirTable made this much faster. I love it, and I'll sing its praises forever. If you haven't yet, give it a try.

 

Thanks to my sister Hannah Werdmuller for helping me to do the underlying research.

 

Persuading people to use ethical tech

I've been in the business of getting people to use ideologically-driven technology for most of my career (with one or two exceptions). Leaving out the less ideologically driven positions, it goes something like this:

Elgg: We needed to convince people that, if they're going to run an online community, they should use one that allows them to store their own data anywhere, embraces open standards, and can run in any web browser (which, at the height of Internet Explorer's reign, was a real consideration).

Latakoo: In a world where journalism is experiencing severe budget cuts, we needed to persuade newsrooms that they shouldn't buy technology with astronomically expensive licenses and then literally build it into the architecture of their buildings (when I first discovered that this was happening, it took a while for my jaw to return to the un-dropped position).

Known: We needed to convince people that, if they're going to run an online community-- oh, you get the idea.

Matter: We needed to convince investors that they should put their money into startups that were designed to have a positive social mission as well as perform well financially - and that media was a sound sector to put money into to begin with.

Unlock: We need to persuade people that they should sell their work online through an open platform with no middleman, rather than a traditional payment processor or gateway.

That's a lot of ice skating uphill!

So how do you go about selling these ideas?

One of the most common ideas I've heard from other startup founders is the idea of "educating the market". If people only knew how important web standards were, or if they only knew more about privacy, or about identity, they would absolutely jump on board this better solution we've made for them in droves. We know what's best for them; once they're smarter, they'll know what's best for them too - and it's us!

Needless to say, it rarely works.

The truth comes down to this: people have stuff to do. Everyone has their own motivations and needs, and they probably don't have time to think about the issues that you hold dear to your heart. Your needs - your worries about how technology is built and used, in thise case - are not their needs. And the only way to persuade people to use a product for it to meet their deeply-held, unmet needs.

If you have limited resources, you're probably not going to pull the market to you. But if you understand the space well and understand people well, you can make a strong hypothesis about whether the market is going to come to you at some point. If you think the market is going to want what you're building two or three years out, and you can demonstrate why this is the case (i.e., it's a hypothesis founded on research, not just a hunch) - then that's a good time to start working on a product.

Which is why, while many of us were crowing over the need for web products that don't spy on you for decades, it's taken the aftermath of the 2016 election for many people to come around. Most people aren't there yet, but the market is changing, and tech companies will change their policies to match. The era of tracking won't come to an end because of activist developers like me - it'll come to an end because we failed, and Facebook's ludicrous policies (which, to be clear, aren't really different to the policies of many tech companies) reached their damaging logical conclusion, allowing everyone to see the full implications.

So if an ideology-first approach usually fails, how did we persuade people?

The truth is, it wasn't about the ideology at all. Elgg worked because people needed to customize community spaces and we provided the only platform at the time that would let them. Latakoo worked because it allowed journalists to send video footage faster and more conveniently than any other solution. Known didn't work because we allowed the ideology to become its selling point, when we should have concentrated on allowing people to build cross-device, multi-media communities  quickly and easily (the good news is that because it's open source, there's still time for it). Unlock will work if it's the easiest and most profitable way for people to make money from their work online.

You can (and should) build a tool ethically; unless you're building for a small, niche audience, you can't make ethics be the whole tool. Having deep knowledge of, and caring deeply about, the platform doesn't absolve you from the core things you need to do when you're building any product. Which, first and foremost, is this: make something that people want. Scratch their itch, not yours. Know exactly who you're building for. And make them the ultimate referee of what your product is.

 

The Facebook emails

I still need to read the documents unsealed by British Parliament for myself, but they seem pretty revealing.

From the Parliamentary summary itself:

Facebook have clearly entered into whitelisting agreements with certain companies, which meant that after the platform changes in 2014/15 they maintained full access to friends data. It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not.

[...] It is clear that increasing revenues from major app developers was one of the key drivers behind the Platform 3.0 changes at Facebook. The idea of linking access to friends data to the financial value of the developers relationship with Facebook is a recurring feature of the documents.

[...] Facebook knew that the changes to its policies on the Android mobile phone system, which enabled the Facebook app to collect a record of calls and texts sent by the user would be controversial. To mitigate any bad PR, Facebook planned to make it as hard of possible for users to know that this was one of the underlying features of the upgrade of their app.

In the New York Times:

Emails and other internal Facebook documents released by a British parliamentary committee on Wednesday show how the social media giant gave favored companies like Airbnb, Lyft and Netflix special access to users’ data.

In Forbes:

In one 2013 email from Facebook's director of platform partnerships Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, the executive tells staff that “apps that don’t spend” will have their permissions revoked.

“Communicate to the rest that they need to spend on NEKO $250k a year to maintain access to the data,” he wrote. NEKO is an acronym used at Facebook to describe app install adds, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, the email cache reveals that Facebook shut down Vine's access to the Facebook friends API on the day it was released. Justin Osofsky, VP for Global Operations and Corporate Development, wrote Mark Zuckerberg at the time:

Twitter launched Vine today which lets you shoot multiple short video segments to make one single, 6-second video. As part of their NUX, you can find friends via FB. Unless anyone raises objections, we will shut down their friends API access today. We’ve prepared reactive PR, and I will let Jana know our decision.

Zuckerberg's reply:

Yup, go for it.

Purely coincidentally, I'm sure, Facebook changed this policy yesterday. As TechCrunch reported:

Facebook will now freely allow developers to build competitors to its features upon its own platform. Today Facebook announced it will drop Platform Policy section 4.1, which stipulates “Add something unique to the community. Don’t replicate core functionality that Facebook already provides.”

That policy felt pretty disingenuous given how aggressively Facebook has replicated everyone else’s core functionality, from Snapchat to Twitter and beyond. Facebook had previously enforced the policy selectively to hurt competitors that had used its Find Friends or viral distribution features. Apps like Vine, Voxer, MessageMe, Phhhoto and more had been cut off from Facebook’s platform for too closely replicating its video, messaging or GIF creation tools. Find Friends is a vital API that lets users find their Facebook friends within other apps.

It will be interesting to follow the repercussions of this release. My hope is that we'll finally see some action from the US government in the new year. In the meantime, it's ludicrous that it took action from the UK - and legislation from the EU - to bring some of this to light.

 

 

It chops you into pieces

I've long said that there are two sectors I will never work in: banking and the military.

The reason I wouldn't want to work on technology for the military is hopefully obvious: I don't want my work to contribute towards killing people, in any capacity. I haven't stood behind any modern war we've been involved in, and it's bad enough that my tax money is being used to support those efforts, as opposed to creating a strong social safety net and supporting important infrastructure like schools and public healthcare. Building software to kill people would make me a murderer, and I have no interest in being more complicit than I already am.

Banking might be less obvious. For one thing, many modern banks have actually invested in arms manufacturers and traders. But modern banks are part of a system that forces people into poverty and is fueling unprecedented inequality. We need banks, but I think very few today are ethical.

One effect of rising inequality is that, to protect yourself, you can find yourself softening your morals. Wouldn't it be nice to have one of those big company salaries?, it's easy to think. And who could blame you, when you live in a place where you can still struggle with a six figure salary? Some companies are paying half a million dollars a year to the right technical leaders. Some are paying much more than that. Wouldn't that make everything better? To not have to worry about money all the time? To feel successful?

Tying success into money is a trap, of course. Everyone's definition of success is different; mine is about the impact I make, and not the money I bring home. For others, it might be about getting to live in a certain kind of house, or having a particular family dynamic. But when you're rubbing shoulders with millionaires and billionaires when you walk down the street, not having that kind of wealth can get under your skin. What's wrong with you that you don't have a two million dollar home? That person you're friends with has the kind of comfortable lifestyle you could only dream of. Does the fact that you don't mean you're not good enough?

It's as if there are invisible billboards yelling at you to be rich. In fact, there literally are billboards on the freeway into San Francisco advertising the benefits of retiring early. And at the feet of those billboards are people who have been displaced from their homes because of personal tragedy or financial misfortune or simply not having happened to have been born into the right sort of family, who can't have the safety net or routes up that they desparately need. Around the corner from them, a place where you can get eggs on toast for $12, where people in designer hoodies discuss how to minimize their tax burden when they exercize their options.

Not being wealthy is not a value judgment at all - it just means you made different choices, with different priorities. And it's a pretty appalling way to think. Consider teachers, nurses, care workers: people at the core of society, who nothing could function without. They're not earning six figure sums and generous stock options. Perhaps they should be, but they simply don't. There's a whole cultural history of jobs that are associated with women being monetarily valued lower, but there's also this simple fact: a job that pays more money is not more valuable. We value goods in a marketplace in terms of what people are willing to pay for them, but that value is numeric and arbitrary, and doesn't relate to something or someone's meaningful value. A price tag is not social or human worth. The libertarian ideal of the invisible hand of the market, which is baked into the heart of modern American culture, is nothing more than patriarchal fascism.

Your values matter. Everyone has to do what they need to in order to survive, but nobody needs to suspend their moral compass in order to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars to feed an economic machine that forces people onto the streets for non-compliance. It is not a failure of skills or worth to turn a position down because it does not fit your ethics or life goals. Conversely, it's not in any way glorious to take a high-value position with questionable ethics because the money and market prestige are meaningful. Success at capitalism doesn't automatically absolve anyone of moral responsibility, and doesn't mean that a person is better by any other metric. And it is not possible to become rich without someone else being adversely affected.

But those aren't the messages. Just as fashion magazines constantly broadcast the benefits of skinniness, and just as damagingly, the tech industry has upheld wealth as a virtue. It's not virtuous. Virtue would be a world where everyone has the opportunity and the outcome of living a comfortable life, where everyone is empowered with information, and nobody is effectively put to death because somebody else wants to be rich. Virtue is your core humanity, and not your market cap.

 

Facebook's monopoly is harming consumers

I was asked last week about the ethics of social networks: what would need to change to create a more ethical ecosystem.

Targeted display advertising, of course, has a huge part to play. Facebook created a system designed to capture the attention of its users so that they could interact with advertising that was tailored for them in order to manipulate them into an action or position. People buy advertising on Facebook to drive sales, but they also buy them to manufacture brand awareness and loyalty - and to manipulate users into adopting a politcal position. Facebook's machine was not originally built to manipulate, but its business model ratified its sociopathy.

The persuasive effect of its targeted advertising and engagement algorithms would have been diminished, however, if Facebook wasn't completely ubiquitous. In Q3 2018, it had 2.27 billion monthly active users. For context, there will be an estimated 3.2 billion people online by the end of the year: Facebook's monthly active users represent 71% of the internet. In America, it's the site most commonly used to discover news, or in other words, to learn about the world.

This is a dangerous responsibility to place in the hands of a single corporation with no meaningful competition. Yes, other social networks exist, but each serves a different purpose. Twitter is a kind of town hall zeitgeist Pandora's box full of wailing souls (sorry, a place that aims to "give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers"); Instagram (which, of course, is Facebook again) is the Vogue edition of everybody's life; Snapchat rests on its "mom don't read this" ephemerality. Facebook is designed, as its homepage used to proudly proclaim, to be a social utility that "reinforces connections to the people around you". Over time, it aims to make those social connections dependent on its service.

In a world where Facebook is a core part of life for billions of people, its policy and product decisions have an outsized effect on how its users see the world. Those decisions can certainly swing elections, but they have a measurable effect on public sentiment in other areas, too. It's not so much that the platform is reflective of the global culture; because that culture is shared and discovered on the platform, the culture reflects it. A bad actor with enough time and money can construct a viral message - or suite of messages - that can sweep across billions of people in less than a day. Facebook itself could engage in social engineering, with almost no oversight. There are few barriers; there is no real vaccine beyond a vain hope that Facebook will do the right thing.

But imagine a world where there isn't one Facebook, and we all participate in many social communities across many different platforms. Rather than one mega filter bubble, we engage with lots of bubbles, loosely joined - all controlled by a different entity, potentially in a different culture, with different priorities. In this world, the actions of a single one of these bubbles become less important. If each one is making different policy and product decisions, and is a logically separate network with its own codebase, userbase, and way of working, it becomes significantly harder for anyone to make a message ubiquitous. If each one has a different feed algorithm, while a malicious campaign could infiltrate one network, it would be much harder for it to infiltrate them all. In a healthy market, even discovering all the different communities that a user participates in could become a difficult task.

Arguably, this would require a different funding model to become the norm in Silicon Valley. Venture capital has enabled many businesses to get off the ground with the capitalization they need; it is not always the bad guy. But it also inherently encourages startups to aim towards monopoly. Venture capital funds want their investments to grow at an expontential rate. VCs want to return 3X the value of each fund inside 10 years (typically) - and because most startups fail, they're looking to invest in businesses that will return around 37X their original investment. That usually looks like owning a particular market or market segment, and that's what tends to find its ways into pitch decks. "This is a $100 billion market." Subtext: "we have the potential to capture all that". In turn, targeted advertising became popular as a way for startups to make revenue because asking customers for money creates sign-up friction and reduces growth.

So accidentally, venture capital creates Facebook-style businesses that aim to grow as big as possible without regard to the social cost. It does not easily support marketplaces with lots of different service providers competing with each other for the same market over a sustained period. And businesses in Silicon Valley have a hard time getting up and running without it, because the cost of living here is so incredibly expensive. Because of the sheer density of people who have experience building technology businesses here, as well as high-end technical talent and a general culture of helpfulness, Silicon Valley is still the best place to start this kind of business. So, VC it is, until we find some other instrument to viably fund tech companies. (Some obvious contenders are out: ICOs have rightly been slapped down by the SEC, and revenue sharing investment only really works for very small amounts of investment.)

Okay, so how about we just break Facebook up, and set a precedent for future businesses, just like we did with Microsoft in the nineties? After all, its impact is even more catastrophic than Microsoft's, and its actions are even more brazenly monopolistic. Everything else aside, consider its use of a VPN app it acquired to identify apps whose usage was threatening Facebook's, so that it could proactively acquire them and shut them down.

American anti-trust law has been set ostensibly to protect consumers, rather than competition. As Wired reported a few years ago:

Under current U.S. law, being a "monopoly" is not illegal; nor is trying to best one’s competitors through lower prices, better customer service, greater efficiency, or more rapid innovation. Consumers benefit when Apple disrupts the market with iPhones and iPads, even if this means RIM sells fewer BlackBerries or that Microsoft licenses fewer desktop operating systems. Antitrust law only springs into action against a monopoly when it destroys the ability of another company to enter the market and compete.

The key question, of course, is whether a particular monopoly is harming consumers – or merely harming its competitors for the benefit of those consumers.

With any lens except the most superficial, Facebook fails this test. Yes, its product is free and available to anyone. But we pay with our data and privacy - and ultimately, with our democracy. Facebook's dominance has adversely affected entire industries, swung elections, and fuelled genocides. In the latter case, this hasn't been in the United States - at least, not so far - and perhaps this is one of the reasons why it's escaped serious repurcussions. Its effects have been felt in different ways all over the world, and various governments have had to deal with them piecemeal. There is no jurisdiction big enough to cover its full impact. Facebook is, in some ways, more powerful than the government of any nation.

There's one thought that gives me hope. Anyone who has watched Facebook closely knows that it didn't grow through brilliant strategy and genius maneuvering. Its growth curve closely maps to the growth of the internet; it happened to be in the right place at the right time, and managed to not screw it up enough to drive people away. As people joined the internet for the first time, they needed a place to go, and Facebook was it. (The same is true of Instagram, which closely maps to the growth in smartphone camera usage.) As the internet became saturated in developed nations, Facebook's growth curve slowed, and it now needs to bring more people online in developing nations if it wants to continue dominating new markets.

That means two things: Facebook will almost inevitably stagnate, and it is possible for it to be outmaneuvered.

In particular, as new computing paradigms take hold - smart speakers, ambient computing, other devices beyond laptops and smartphones - another platform, or set of platforms, can more easily take its place. When this change inevitably happens, it is our responsibility to find a way to replace it ethically, instead of with yet another monopolistic gatekeeper.

There is work to do. It won't be easy, and the outcome is far from inevitable. But the internet is no longer about code being slung from dorm rooms and garages. It's about democracy, it's deadly serious, and it needs to be treated as such.

 

Photo by JD Lasica, shared on Wikipedia under a CC BY 2.0 license.