Big Tech as the Solution to a Government Shutdown

Large tech companies increasingly take on roles government used to; they may just get more than they asked for

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It’s a truism to say that Washington is broken. We may or may not be in a government shutdown when you read this, Congress sucks, and our President is an orange genius.

It’s also a truism to say that when a power vacuum exists, other forces quickly rush in to fill the vacuum. When governments fail, this often takes the form of a military coup, a dictator, or populist insurgent. In the 21st century though, we’re much to distracted by our phones and feeds to latch on to the archetypal revolutionary (unless, of course, that “revolutionary” pops up in our feeds incessantly; see, supra orange genius).

Now the U.S. is nowhere near “failing state” status, but Washington’s incompetence has left glaring gaps that need filling. From our crumbling infrastructure to lack of basic research funding and failure to lead in crucial areas of science and technology, increasingly America must turn elsewhere. And so we have. To use a few examples:

  • Amazon’s huge and expanding logistics network and ecommerce site allow businesses large and small to tap into its platform to sell online. Over 300,000 businesses started selling on Amazon in the past year alone. The company is at the forefront of bringing drones and other next generation technologies to the market, long ago surpassing the U.S Postal Service as a delivery and logistics innovator.
  • A simple “smart” thermometer has demonstrated that it can track flu trends as well as the CDC.
  • Amazon again. First Amazon announced its own municipality Bachelorette, with the winning city securing 50,000 jobs and $5 billion in initial investment. Then, Apple announced it’d be repatriating its overseas cash stash, creating 20,000 jobs and establishing an Apple campus in a new location. Meanwhile, too many states and municipalities are fighting over budgets or shutting down (looking at you, Ill. and N.J.), too busy to even think about generating the type of investment these companies can swing.
  • Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms are the “town squares” where we go to discover news, watch Tide Pods videos, and see how everyone else is getting rich off bitcoin. Even if, as I discussed last week, Facebook is backing away from its role as a news platform, Zuckerberg still has his ambition of building the “social infrastructure” needed to connect the world. And Facebook’s changes illustrate its strong desire to self regulate and avoid actual government interference.

Perhaps most importantly, large tech companies are now funding the R&D driving future technologies like machine learning, while the federal government sits on the sidelines:

“Annual federal funding for all computer science and mathematics R&D [at the National Science Foundation] is less than half of what Google alone spends”

By the way, while our government has neglected to invest in A.I., China has not. And our President seems intent on exacerbating this gap between the U.S. and China; a President that really wanted to be “tough on China” would recognize the importance of “winning” on this front.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the smart thermometer example above. A digital health startup, Kinsa, has been tracking individuals’ temperatures when its smart thermometer is used, and because of the data it gathers, can now track flu trends as well as the CDC. Kinsa has received $30 million in venture funding; $17 million of this was raised last year, a mere fraction of the $11.5 billion in total private digital health funding in 2017. In fact, in 2017, total digital health funding rose above total CDC funding. These are companies pursuing machine learning in healthcare and public health, early cancer detection, and genomics aimed at personalizing care.

Private round funding for digital health companies reached $11.5 billion in 2017, surpassing total CDC funding; discretionary CDC funding is a subtotal of total CDC funding, subject to executive whims (or tweets).

As governments continue to sputter, shutdown or struggle with balancing budgets, cash rich technology companies and venture capital firms will continue to recognize the market opportunity this lack of government funding provides.

The larger question though, is this: do we want to live in such a world? Governments, while slow, are generally accountable to an electorate. In fact, the slow-moving nature of governments is not a bug, but a feature. While it makes them slow to do good things like address new trends, invest in new technologies, or pass popular legislation, it also slows them from doing unfavorable or unpopular things. Tech companies often criticize governments for getting in the way or not sharing their utopian vision of the Future, brought to you by Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, tech companies and VC firms are notoriously fast moving; “move fast and break things” the saying goes — disregarding rules, regulations, and anything else in the way. Additionally, they’re largely unaccountable for their decisions: Zuckerberg, Larry and Sergey, and many other founders have voting control over their companies, holding special preferred shares. VCs are accountable to their limited partner investors, but not accountable to citizens at large as a government might be. Not to mention the pervasive sexism and total lack of diversity in VC; do we really expect these men to invest in companies that represent the needs of society at large? They’re not doing a great job so far. I love sporting my Allbirds and AirPods riding my Peloton as much as the next guy, but I’m hardly the individual most representative of society’s needs at large. If we’re demanding tech companies and VC fill funding gaps left by government — an institution which at least nominally responds to the needs of society — more people and more types of people must be involved in building the technology and companies of the future. The trend toward investing money outside of Silicon Valley is a start; change starts by bringing money and technology closer to those who need it most. As technology moves to transforms non-tech industries like health care, agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing, Midwesterners and others outside Silicon Valley are well-positioned to execute this change.

Silicon Valley’s always been full of unbridled optimism, vowing to change the world with technology. It’s time technology bring these changes to the majority of Americans, and Silicon Valley may not be the place to accomplish this.

Google wants you to turn the TV off with your purse

A recently published patent application from Google describes “techniques and apparatuses for attaching electronic components to interactive textiles.” In other words, Google has dreamed up a flexible fabric that can process touch input to generate touch data that is useable to initiate functionality at various remote devices wirelessly paired to the interactive textile. For example, the interactive textile may aid users in controlling volume on a stereo, pausing a movie playing on a television, or selecting a webpage on a desktop computer. Due to the flexibility of textiles, the interactive fabric may be easily integrated within many objects such as clothing, handbags, fabric casings, hats, and so forth.

Google submitted a patent application for a broadly applicable interactive textile that can be used to remotely control IoT or other computing devices. `

“Draw me like one of your French girls”

Apparently, the Google Arts & Culture app’s art selfie feature has made quiet an impressionism. Sitting in Chicago, I wouldn’t know. Illinois, along with Texas, is one of two states with strict biometric privacy laws that seem to have scared Google away from shipping the feature here. Passed in 2008, Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act (740 Ill. Comp. Stat. 14/1) requires a company to publish and disclose a policy about how it collects, uses, and destroys biometric information, with $1,000 (negligent) or $5,000 (intentional or reckless) fines per violation. There have been numerous class action suits brought under BIPA, with upwards of 30 suits brought in 2017 alone against Snapchat, Facebook, and employers of all types, as they increasingly use biometric information to identify employees.

Publishing a terms of service as BIPA requires seems easy enough — we agree to these all the time without reading them. Perhaps what has these companies more cautious is the provision requiring for the destruction of biometric information after its purpose has been served:

“A private entity must … establish a retention schedule and guidelines for permanently destroying biometric identifiers and biometric information when the initial purpose for collecting or obtaining such identifiers or information has been satisfied or within 3 years of the individual’s last interaction with the private entity, whichever occurs first.”

As we know, these companies love to store our data to train machine learning algorithms, so perhaps there’s just no benefit for them to offer art selfies in a state where they risk running afoul of the law. Offering the product is obviously a means for Google (or others) to gather more of our data, but if a state says that’s illegal, it’s simply not worth the risk. Is the law asking Google to destroy biometric information after its generated your Renaissance-era match? If so, offering the app generates no long term value (i.e. data) for the company.

Fantasized ‘bout this back in Chicago

Speaking of Chicago, Kanye and Kim named their third child after Ye’s hometown. Kanye has had a complex relationship with the city of Chicago since at least 2007, when he released Graduation. “She never mess with entertainers ‘cause they always leave,” Kanye raps of Chicago on “Homecoming”, clearly feeling guilt about the distance fame has put between him and the city.

New child Chi like Kanye; Shy not like Kanye

Fast forward to 2016’s Life of Pablo, when he calls upon Chicago’s newest favorite son, Chance the Rapper to open the album, reaching for any connection he can to his former city. Previously, he opened My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (this blog’s namesake and the Greatest Album of All Time), with the line “I fantasized ‘bout this back in Chicago,” setting the stage for an album that surveys the deepest and darkest moments of his life, seemingly wondering if leaving his hometown was worth all this. Now he’s got the connection he long ago lost.

https://upscri.be/0ab4fe/

Digest

Alexa, what was your MCAT score? Amazon’s Alexa group briefly posted a job for a “HIPAA Compliance Lead” last week, leading to speculation that the company is looking to build out the virtual assistant’s healthcare capabilities. A lot of questions about how Amazon may bring a HIPAA-compliant Alexa to market remain (build Alexa into medical devices or use Amazon’s Echo?, in-home or in-hospital?), but the prospect itself is cool, and something hospitals have already been experimenting with on their own.

Healthcare Dive

FCC as semi-competent. Some welcome news from the mostly incompetent FCC: it announced Thursday that it will continue to define home broadband as connections that are 25 mbps. The commission also established a new standard for mobile broadband as a connection of 10 mbps or higher, and said it had rejected the idea — which it had floated last year — of labeling mobile internet service an adequate replacement for home broadband. As this week’s analysis may demonstrate, I believe shrinking the digital divide is critical for the U.S.’s continued dynamism.

Wired

Sign of the apocalypse

According to Quartz, Alexa now says she’s a feminist when asked. Now that that’s settled, can she get to work on the gender gap @ Amazon? 75 percent of managers are male according to recent diversity numbers from Amazon; wouldn’t it be interesting to see diversity numbers specifically for tech and engineering positions?

According to recent diversity numbers, 75% of managers at Amazon are male.
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The Facebook “Fix”

And why the world needs more LaVar

Subscribe to my weekly newsletter, a weekly recap of the tech policy stories I thought were interesting, why they mattered, and what’s to come.

Another week, another collection of news regarding technology platforms and content moderation. Let’s take them in chronological order:

  • On January 1, new laws went into effect in Germany which impose liability (up to €50 million fines) on large social media platforms for failure to delete illegal content posted on their platforms.
  • ESPN published an interview with wannabe Kardashian LaVar Ball, which was promptly denounced by NBA philosopher-in-chief and Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, philosophizing on how there’s some “societal issue”.
  • YouTube announced it was pulling its douche-in-chief Logan Paul from its Preferred ad program and YouTube Red projects after his controversial video drew widespread attention.
  • Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg announced sweeping changes to the way its News Feed algorithm will rank and weigh stories, reorienting it toward posts by friends and family and disfavoring posts by businesses and publishers, especially videos. The stated goal is to “encourage meaningful interactions between people”.

First, Germany’s new law stands in contrast to current U.S. law (47 U.S.C. 230), which shields Internet platforms form liability for the content they host. Germany’s law has already had a tumultuous first couple of weeks, with Twitter temporarily suspending a satirical account and alt-right leaders using the law to paint themselves “victims” of censorship. The law puts platforms in the difficult position of having to remove “obviously illegal” hate speech within 24 hours of receiving a notification, and removing simply “illegal” speech with 7 days. Perhaps it’s not uncharacteristic for Germany, a country with notoriously strong hate speech laws, to place the onus of censorship on these private companies. But even the first few days of the law in action illustrate the danger of making technology companies judge and jury over what constitutes illegal content. The power of these platforms is that anyone can post anything, and a law restricting that fundamentally constrains individual voices. And Germany’s law is already resulting in a regime of over censorship as companies respond to the new incentives, leading to the voices of some not being heard.

A few days after that, Steve Kerr got on his pedestal about some “societal issue” that has supposedly infected our society:

“I don’t know who cares, but people must care or ESPN wouldn’t be spending whatever they’re spending to send reporters to Lithuania, when they laid off people who were writing really substantial pieces…”

People are entertained by some blowhard bloviating into a microphone and the media is covering it to attract more viewers? What a revelation, Steve! The real difference is that if ESPN didn’t cover it, people would get their Big Baller fix from Facebook, Instagram, or another platform of their choice. So ESPN might as well make a few bucks getting clicks while they can. Sports has historically been protected from the disruption technology has wrought on traditional media, driven by its live must-see nature and the tight control teams maintain over access to players and coaches. Kerr is asking ESPN to play the same role that Germany has asked social media platforms to play, albeit on a smaller scale: censor content that we, the NBA, don’t like. But Ball is showing that’s not how the model works anymore, and it’s pissing people off. For better or worse, the world is demand-driven now. Consumers, users and viewers get what they want, and if your organization isn’t willing to serve it to them, you’re dead. Kerr seems to think if ESPN stops putting a mic in front of LaVar, he’ll go away. But that’s not how it works anymore, as much as some might like it.

Logan Paul is exhibit A here; he’s continued to see subscriber growth since posting his disgusting video on December 31. YouTube can cut off the money siphon, but he’s still getting the attention he obviously craves much so much:

While subscriber growth took a slight hit in the immediate aftermath of Paul’s post, it’s barely slowed since.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s latest attempt to “fix” itself in the U.S. is … weird. They say they’ll emphasize posts from friends and family more than news now, but personal updates on the site have been declining for years. It’s a laudable attempt to move towards the “quality engagement” I suggested Facebook strive for last week, but it’s not clear it’ll truly solve the problems of filter bubbles and fake news. As the ‘book’s head of News Feed explained, “you might have a really engaging conversation with someone who shares interests in a group.” Yea, and that just might be a white supremacy group.

As a society, we’re only just beginning to grapple with the problems wrought by the structure of an increasingly centralized Internet dominated by a few mega-platforms. Sure, Zuckerberg’s solution might be right. But, more likely, he’s wrong. And then he’ll try the next thing, and then the next thing, while we all wait. However, in a vibrant, innovative environment, many people and companies are trying many things at once, and the best one tends to win out. With our current Internet structure, whatever Zuckerberg says goes in the world of social media (and so it is for Google in search, and arguably, Amazon in ecommerce). Surely, many ideas were dreamt up and thrown away by Facebook before it arrived at the announced solution — monopolies like Facebook notoriously suppress innovation internally. Ma Bell is perhaps most infamous, hiding inventions like the answering machine and mobile phone for decades. But this begets the real contradiction of the situation: it’s actually better to have just one social media platform serving everyone, and we’ve all benefitted from this scale in many ways. These platforms are most valuable when anyone can join, post, and attract an audience, even idiots like Logan Paul and LaVar Ball. But we’re now beginning to realize the costs of this centralized structure and lack of true platform choice. Historically, the answer to such a regime has come in the form of a new, truly disruptive technology or a landmark antitrust case.

Finally, former President Obama made an appearance on David Letterman’s new Netflix show, and one of the topics they dug into was the issue of social media and filter bubbles. Obama ended the discussion with a note of optimism, saying, “I think it is a solvable problem, but I think it’s one that we have to spend a lot of time thinking about”.

And so we’ll leave with that same note of optimism.

Alexa, play some hipster shit

A recently published Amazon patent application details a new way of figuring out media (e.g. music, movies) that is likely to be popular. The system identifies early adopters that tend to listen to (for example) popular music before that music became popular, and can then follow the listening patterns of these “early adopters” to predict obscure or unpopular artists that may become popular, recommending them to other users. Yea, but what if the hipster is listening on vinyl?

Detail from an Amazon patent claiming “systems and methods that identify users of a media distribution system that tend to consume popular media items prior to such media items gaining popularity.”

Twisted

Last week was conference-palooza, because nothing is more important than important people getting together to talk about important things. With both the Consumer Electronics Show and JPMorgan Healthcare Conference, many important things were certainly talked about. And while there was plenty to be excited about (I’m all for free robot-therapy stuffed ducks for kids), dispatches from the front line illustrate how far we still have to go:

The Future is Michael. 94% of company presenters at JPMorgan were male, while 77% of all speakers were male. STAT News provided the starkest statistic, showing that 22 Michaels were speaking, but only 20 female CEOs.

STAT News

CES Is No Better. In the past seven years, only 3 women have spoken on CES’ main stage. That number didn’t increase this year, as no women were keynote speakers. “As upsetting as it is, there is a limited pool when it comes to women in these positions,” CES’ organizers said. (1) That’s idiotic and (2) if the organizers of the largest consumer electronics trade show in the country can’t understand how they can bring change to the technology industry, we clearly have a long way to go.

Recode

“Just shot an amateur video, I think I should GoPro”

Apparently building a cool cam is only half-pipe the battle. GoPro is reportedly testing the waters for a potential sale, and hopefully GoPro the company has more buyers than GoPro the camera. Its stock had recently taken a 20% hit when GoPro adjusted Q4 2017 guidance waaaaay down. Snapchat will probably buy them because, as we’re constantly reminded, Snap is a “camera company.”

https://upscri.be/0ab4fe/

Sign of the apocalypse

Ever gotten an Instagram ad for a free watch or another deal that seemed to good to be true? Then read on.

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/01/the-strange-brands-in-your-instagram-feed/550136/

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 295,232+ people.

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Why Zuckerberg’s Resolution to “Fix” Facebook Should Scare You

Facebook Tricked Us Into Thinking Net Neutrality Is the Real Issue

It’s become all too easy to pick on Facebook. From its march to Capitol Hill with trusty allies Google and Twitter alongside to its struggle to do anything to adequately address fake news, Facebook had a pretty rough go of it in 2017. Facebook and its “open Internet” allies also lost the net neutrality battle in December when FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and his buds repealed the Obama era decision to treat broadband companies as “common carriers.”

Facebook, Google and many other Internet giants were stirred to action by the threat to (and eventual repeal of) net neutrality, and rightfully so. Rejecting net neutrality threatens the end-to-end design principle that dictates ISPs (e.g. Comcast) treat all content travelling over their pipes the same and serves as the foundation of the Internet. (Putting aside the fact, for now, that many of the largest Internet companies already have peering agreements with ISPs or have their own private CDNs within ISPs designed to facilitate faster speeds.)

But the debate over net neutrality only scratches the surface of the underlying issue that the principle should solve: neutrality of all network and information bottlenecks. ISPs are primarily regulated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which under its Title II, allows the FCC to classify them as “common carriers,” meaning they must provide access to all at the same rates (i.e. net neutrality). Other industries are also regulated as common carriers, including gas and oil pipelines and other public utilities. The common thread is that these common carriers control some bottleneck that society has decided members of the public should have equal access to.

As the country was coming online, it was important to recognize the common carrier status of ISPs: households needed a broadband connection to come online, but because of the high fixed costs it really only makes sense to run one line into each home (like the telephone companies of previous generations). Without a regulatory declaration that these ISPs needed to provide access to any member of the public equally, they would have been free to deny or discriminate. In other words, the ISPs controlled the critical bottleneck of allowing people to come online.

But, as more households have come online and physical access to the Internet becomes commonplace, information bottlenecks have developed elsewhere. I’m talking specifically about social networking and search. Nearly 80% of Internet referral traffic is routed through Facebook and Google, and a majority of Americans report getting at least some news from social media. These companies are all classified as “Title I information services” by the FCC, and even the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has little oversight power. Remember when politicians sounded exasperated, at a loss for how to control the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter when the companies testified on the Hill? This is exactly why. The government has extremely limited oversight power over the key information bottlenecks (Facebook, Google) on which most people discover most information they consume. I’ve drawn a parallel to the net neutrality debate to suggest that, similar to ISPs, Facebook and Google control bottlenecks, and we should demand neutrality from these companies just the way we demand it from ISPs.

A new “bottleneck” framework has been proposed before, by no less than Douglas Sicker, the head of engineering and policy at Carnegie Mellon. My interest is not only in open access to bottlenecks, as Sicker’s was, but in neutrality of all bottlenecks, wherever they exist.

Content on the Internet is abundant — essentially infinite — while the space on our screens and in our minds is finite. Algorithms, in a decidedly non-neutral way, decide what to feed us based on what they think we’re most likely to engage with (sprinkling a few ads on top for funsies). The algorithms serve as a bottleneck, deciding what content from the infinite web is worthy of our limited attention.

What’s worse, the companies controlling these algorithms have made commitments to “fix” the problems of fake news, abuse and hate on their platforms. This is a commitment to become even less neutral. In Mark Zuckerberg’s post on his “personal challenge” for 2018, he committed to just that, writing:

The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do — whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.

My personal challenge for 2018 is to focus on fixing these important issues.

Worried yet? Let’s play the tape a bit longer:

This may not seem like a personal challenge on its face, but I think I’ll learn more by focusing intensely on these issues than I would by doing something completely separate. These issues touch on questions of history, civics, political philosophy, media, government, and of course technology. I’m looking forward to bringing groups of experts together to discuss and help work through these topics.

First, let me pause to say I’m all for minimizing abuse and hate on Facebook and other platforms. But I think this issue is completely separable from the goals which I believe to be non-neutral.

This isn’t the first time Zuckerberg has articulated his view that Facebook can play an integral in the creation of a new “social infrastructure” in hopes of building a global community. His commitment to being non-neutral is frankly the scariest resolution Zuck could have made, and the politicians that have urged Facebook and others to “do something” about the fake news problem don’t seem to realize the power they’re demanding these companies exert. More than ISPs could ever dream to do, Facebook and Google control the information fed to us on a daily basis, and having the leader of one of these companies feel empowered to exert influence over what its users spend time doing on said platform is a dangerous, slippery slope. It sounds fine for Zuck to want to “mak[e] sure that time on Facebook is well spent,” but what even does that mean? And what does it mean when Facebook’s General Counsel testified to the Senate that “we want our ad tools to be used for political discourse, certainly. But we do not want our ad tools to be used to inflame and divide.” Have you heard of our President? By its nature, politics inflames and divides, and it’s dangerous that one company is in a position to stamp out what it may consider inflammatory and divisive content.

Zuckerberg made a New Year’s resolution to “fix” Facebook. That should concern you.

Throughout 2017, I read with confusion as analysts and writers demanded net neutrality on the one hand, but also increased intervention by companies like Facebook to moderate content in a decidedly non-neutral manner. We’re beginning to see the consequences of a non-neutral network in other areas as well: remember how Google removed YouTube from Amazon devices? Blocking access to a platform is a level up from the kind of “fixing” Zuckerberg seems to contemplate, but if he wanted to begin blocking certain content from Facebook’s blue-walled garden, who’s to stop him? As these few Internet giants continue to encroach on each others’ territory, it’s critical, as both consumers, but most importantly, as citizens, that they play nice and openly with each other. If we truly want a neutral Internet, we should demand neutrality from the most powerful information bottlenecks, not just those mean ISPs.

This Week Amazon Should. . .

Buy Target.

At least according to one technology analyst. Every week it’s something: from entering the pharmaceutical drug market to buying an upmarket coffee startup, “analysts” play a game amongst themselves, seeing who can suggest the most headline-grabbing click-baitey purchase for Bezos and company. I thought it’d be fun to track these outlandish claims each week at the end of my post. It’s become like the talking heads on ESPN: Dick Vitale picks Duke, Kentucky, UNC and Louisville for the Final Four every year, and twice a day, the broken clock is right! A quick Google of “Amazon should buy” will prompt results for not only Target but Kohl’s, FedEx, Twitter, and a host of other eligible bachelors and bachelorettes.

Who does Dicky V think Amazon should buy next?

HQ Trivia Should Fail, and That’s Good

RIP Scott, It Was Fun While It Lasted

Unless you’ve been living under a virtual rock the past couple months, you’ve probably played, or even read a think piece or two, about HQ Trivia. The app, brought to us by the genius bros who previously built Vine, has caused quite the stir, and reportedly seems to think it’s worth about $100 million now. Me too, me too. Unlike many an attention-garnering app before it, HQ must be allowed to succeed, or more likely, fail, based on its own merits. Facebook, or any other large Internet player (FAMGA, FANG, the Frightful 5. Choose whichever acronym you’d like), shouldn’t be allowed to swoop in and purchase a young, competing startup. The FTC has been consistently derelict in its duty of promoting competition on the Internet, leading to an increasingly closed ecosystem.

HQ’s meteoric rise has surely caught the attention of Internet giants like Facebook, but an acquistion shouldn’t be the answer to any perceived “threat.”

Perhaps the last app to cause such a stir was tbh, the app which gained 2.5 million daily active users in 9 weeks by allowing users to anonymously answer kind-hearted multiple choice questions (most likely to be President?) with a few of your contacts as the choices. tbh was quickly acquired by Facebook and now sits somewhere around the #63 most popular social media app on the App Store (a few spots below Google+ and a few above Grindr, for what it’s worth). The purchase price was reportedly below $100 million, but still not bad for an app with no obvious business model or route to monetization.

And so it is for HQ now. Perhaps its route to monetization is more obvious — advertising or sponsored questions/quizzes, a la the BuzzFeed model — but being just a few months old its sole focus is acquiring more users. Much the way Facebook snatched up Instagram in 2012 and tbh in 2017, I worry a larger competitor may try to buy HQ before it fully develops a competitive business model. These purchases of young, high-growth startups have created an unnecessary consolidation of power in three markets: (1) the “attention market,” or the game to attract and engage users, (2) social networking, and (3) digital advertising. The long term consequences of such consolidation are worrisome for us, loyal netizens.

First, the attention market. This is the game companies play to try and attract your attention, so they can (eventually) sell advertisements based on user numbers. HQ has obviously done something impressive, winning a few minutes of teenager and millennial attention in what is a zero sum game (a minute I spend playing HQ is a minute I don’t spend scrolling through my Instagram feed). Companies and apps should be competing to provide a better user experience for the attention we “spend” on the app. Save the constant technical glitches, the market has proven that HQ is providing users some enjoyment that Facebook, Insta, Snap, etc. are not. I’ll save my high-minded thoughts on how we should really be spending our limited supply of attention for another post, but the reality is we need competition in the market for our attention. Allowing Facebook to consolidate this market has worrying long-term implications: More ads, less (or no) choice, Facebook acquiring ever more user data, etc. Allowing a large player to acquire HQ lessens this competition, providing less incentive to continue building a great user experience and innovate.

Second, social networking. Acquisitions can hyper-charge the network effect of a social networking app. This is exactly what happened when Instagram was acquired: buoyed by Facebook’s social graph and ad platform, the Gram took off, soon passing upstart Snapchat in daily active users. While it’s not as obvious how HQ could benefit from being acquired by Facebook and having access to its massive resources, and most importantly, its social graph, it’s also not hard to paint a scenario where HQ moves beyond viral hit and becomes an app with real staying power, fueled by Facebook’s monetary and non-monetary resources (e.g. its social graph and ad platform). Not to mention the ‘book has long been interested in a live video play (what happened to all those Facebook Live billboards I used to see?). And rival Google has long been looking for a social media play — seriously, how is Google+ still #57 in the App Store?

Finally, the money. Digital advertising. In the U.S. in 2016, Facebook and Google accounted for 99% of all revenue growth in digital advertising. Resilient independent Snapchat has struggled since going public last year to gain any foothold in advertising. Again, the FTC and its peers across the pond have shown little interest in recognizing the importance of maintaining a competitive digital advertising marketplace. When evaluating the Instagram purchase in 2012, the U.K. Office of Fair Trading wrote “While Facebook generates revenue from advertising and users purchasing virtual and digital goods via Facebook, Instagram does not generate any revenue,” seeming to make the assumption that perhaps Instagram had no long-term interest in generating revenue.

For the sake of the Internet, HQ shouldn’t be acquired: it should be forced to succeed and innovate on its own laurels. Or, it’ll prove itself as another viral fad and we’ll erect a tombstone next to Yik Yak, Secret, Vine, and the other apps that demanded our attention just for a bit. By the way, HQ’s skeezy founders seem intent on staying independent. I am rooting for my Quiz Daddy though.

The reality though, is that the government has limited options for even stopping such an acquisition if Facebook were to make HQ an offer they couldn’t refuse. HQ is still only engaging a few hundred thousand users for less than 30 minutes a day, hardly an antitrust concern. For example, when Facebook acquired Instagram, the FTC issued no more than a stock letter approving the deal, seemingly unconcerned about the long-term implications of consolidation in the three markets mentioned above. Indeed, it’s unclear the FTC even acknowledges the existence or importance of the markets defined above, and their importance in the daily lives of most people. Sure, the parties will have to submit the merger to the FTC under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act, but there’s no evidence it’d get a second look as even remotely anti-competitive. And if AT&T-Time Warner or Disney-Fox isn’t anticompetitive, then who tho hell cares about a little app with a few hundred thousand users and a host with mediocre jokes that happens to ruin everyone’s New Year? That’s the larger, more worrisome piece of this. We have a system completely unresponsive and unable to address current market dynamics, which is leading us to an increasingly consolidated Internet ecosystem. It happened in radio, TV broadcast, cable, and so perhaps it’s only natural that the Next Great Communication Network would fall victim to the same fate.

An Un-unified Theory of Firsts

Why Codebrief is different, and death to Zuckerberg’s global community.

It’s generally recognized that the first blog was started by a Swarthmore College student in 1994. I didn’t go to Swarthmore. In fact, I didn’t know how to spell it until three minutes ago. Apparently someone got a few marbles stuck in their mouth trying to pronounce “Swathmore” and now we have what US News calls the third best liberal arts institution in this country.

At least I created a blog before US News did. I’m not entirely sure what this blog is for yet, but we’ll figure it out soon enough. I bet when US News got its start in 1948 it didn’t think it’d end up as a floundering publication on some amorphous network called the World Wide Web, having ceased actually printing a physical product in 2010 AD, solely existing to tell malleable and impressionable young teens that 5.4% of applicants were admitted to Harvard in 2016. I didn’t go to Harvard either.

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