The Facebook “Fix”

And why the world needs more LaVar

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.”


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.


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.


“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.”