Start Up No.1,132: Facebook listened to you too, the trouble with retweets (by its maker), trouble inside Google, an Ebola cure, Snap re-spectacles, and more


Apple’s Card is really designed to keep you on Apple’s platform. CC-licensed photo by Marco Verch Professional Photographer and Speaker on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Three more before the holiday. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Man who built the retweet: “we handed a loaded weapon to four-year-olds” • Buzzfeed News

Alex Kantrowitz:

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[Chris] Wetherell, a veteran tech developer, led the Twitter team that built the retweet button in 2009. The button is now a fundamental feature of the platform, and has been for a decade — to the point of innocuousness. But as Wetherell, now cofounder of a yet-unannounced startup, made clear in a candid interview, it’s time to fix it. Because social media is broken. And the retweet is a big reason why.

He’s not the only one reexamining the retweet. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told BuzzFeed News he is too: “Definitely thinking about the incentives and ramifications of all actions, including retweet,” he said. “Retweet with comment for instance might encourage more consideration before spread.”

Yet emphasizing that retweet with comment won’t necessarily solve Twitter’s ills. Jason Goldman, the head of product when Wetherell built the retweet, said it’s a key source of Twitter’s problems today. “The biggest problem is the quote retweet,” Goldman told BuzzFeed News. “Quote retweet allows for the dunk. It’s the dunk mechanism.”

…After the retweet button debuted, Wetherell was struck by how effectively it spread information. “It did a lot of what it was designed to do,” he said. “It had a force multiplier that other things didn’t have.”

“We would talk about earthquakes,” Wetherell said. “We talked about these first response situations that were always a positive and showed where humanity was in its best light.”

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In the old days, you had to manually retweet something by typing “RT @handle…” and copying the text. And there were only 140 characters to do it in! Personally, I think quote-tweeting too easily becomes odious – essentially, crowing to your followers about how foolish someone you disagree with is. (Sure, I use it that way myself, sometimes. But not as a method of debate.)
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Twitter tests letting users follow topics in the same way they follow accounts • The Verge

Casey Newton:

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Twitter will begin allowing users to follow interests, the company said today, letting users see tweets about topics of their choosing inside the timeline. When the feature goes live, you’ll be able to follow topics including sports teams, celebrities, and television shows, with a selection of tweets about them inserted alongside tweets in your home feed.

Topics will be curated by Twitter, with individual tweets being identified through machine learning rather than editorial curation, the company said. For now, only sports-related interests can be followed, said Rob Bishop, a Twitter product manager. The feature is now being tested on Android.

The move represents Twitter’s latest effort to help users find the best content on the platform even if they don’t know which accounts to follow. For years, the company has sought to make it easier for people to find value in Twitter, which can be foreboding for newcomers. Previously, Twitter Moments allowed people to follow events such as the Oscars or a sports game.

One reason to restrict the interests that can be followed in the testing phase is to see how amplifying them via the new feature affects the overall Twitter experience.

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Superficially, a good idea. Wonder how well they’ve gamed it out, though: surely people (or bots) will be inserting spam and (natch) outrage into those topics, especially if “machine learning” (aka rough guesses) is involved.
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Ebola now curable after trials of drugs in DRC, say scientists • The Guardian

Sarah Boseley:

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Ebola can no longer be called an incurable disease, scientists have said, after two of four drugs being trialled in the major outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were found to have significantly reduced the death rate.

ZMapp, used during the massive Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, has been dropped along with Remdesivir after two monoclonal antibodies, which block the virus, had substantially more effect, said the World Health Organization and the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which was a co-sponsor of the trial.

The trial in the DRC, which started in November, has now been stopped. All Ebola treatment units will now use the two monoclonal antibody drugs.

“From now on, we will no longer say that Ebola is incurable,” said Prof Jean-Jacques Muyembe, the director general of the Institut National de Recherche Biomédicale in DRC, which has overseen the trial. “These advances will help save thousands of lives.”

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US to delay some China tariffs until stores stock up for holiday shoppers • The New York Times

Ana Swanson:

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The Trump administration on Tuesday narrowed the list of Chinese products it plans to impose new tariffs on as of Sept. 1, delaying levies on cellphones, laptop computers, toys and other goods to spare shoppers from higher prices during the back-to-school and holiday seasons. Stocks soared on the news.

The move, which pushed a new 10% tariff on some goods until Dec. 15 and excluded others entirely, came as President Trump faces mounting pressure from businesses and consumer groups over the harm they say the continuing trade war between the United States and China is doing.

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Wiser heads prevailed. But the tariffs are still going to be a drag on the economy.
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Less than half of Google searches now result in a click • SparkToro

Rand Fishkin:

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We’ve passed a milestone in Google’s evolution from search engine to walled-garden. In June of 2019, for the first time, a majority of all browser-based searches on Google.com resulted in zero-clicks.

Throughout this post, I’ll be using numbers from the clickstream data company, Jumpshot. They are, in my opinion, the best, most reliable source of information on what happens inside web browsers because of how they gather, process, and scale their estimates. That’s why SparkToro, and Moz (my previous company) are both customers of Jumpshot. Given all the nice things I say about them, it might sound like they’re paying me, but the opposite is true; we’re paying them. You can find more on their methodology in the endnote on this post.

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That 4.4% of searches leading to ad clicks is huge, in my view. I bet a lot of those are accidental on mobile, or people not realising that the first screen of mobile search results is essentially all ads and that most of the top of the desktop results are ads too.

As Fishkin also points out, Google is wriggling like mad to avoid answering this question in public, despite being asked by a US Congressman.
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Three years of misery inside Google, the happiest company in tech • WIRED

Nitsha Tiku:

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In a lot of ways, Google’s internal social networks are like a microcosm of the internet itself. They have their filter bubbles, their trolls, their edgelords. And contrary to popular perception, those networks are not all populated by liberals. Just as the reactionary right was rising on YouTube, it was also finding ways to amplify itself inside Google’s rationalist culture of debate.

For some time, for instance, one of the moderators of the company’s Conservatives email list was a Chrome engineer named Kevin Cernekee. Over the years, Google employees have described Cernekee fairly consistently: as a shrewd far-right provocateur who made his presence felt across Google’s social network, trolling both liberals and conservatives.

In August 2015, the giant IndustryInfo mailing list broke into a roiling debate over why there were so few women in tech. The previous year, Google had become the first Silicon Valley giant to release data on the demographics of its workforce—and revealed that 82% of its technical workers were male. To many inside the IndustryInfo thread, the number constituted clear and galling evidence that Google had to change. When the conversation devolved into a brawl over the merits of diversity—one that Cernekee joined—a senior vice president at Google attempted to shut it down. Cernekee proceeded to bombard the executive’s Google+ page with posts about his right to critique the pro-diversity “Social Justice political agenda.” “Can we add a clear statement of banned opinions to the employee handbook,” he wrote, “so that everybody knows what the ground rules are?” In response, Google HR issued Cernekee a written warning for “disrespectful, disruptive, disorderly, and insubordinate” comments.

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The stuff about Cernekee feels like the only particularly new stuff in this long, long piece. He sounds like a jerk.
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Snap, in augmented reality push, launches new Spectacles version • Reuters

Sheila Dang:

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Snap Inc said Tuesday it will launch a new version of its Spectacles sunglasses that will have the capability of capturing photos and videos and uploading them directly to its unit Snapchat.

Snap has struggled to make money from its Spectacles business, and wrote down $40 million in unsold glasses in 2017.

Production will be smaller for its new Spectacles 3 version, allowing Snap to continue experimenting with augmented reality, a key focus for the technology company.

Spectacles 3, which will begin shipping in the fall, will cost $380, almost twice the $200 cost of the previous version.

It will have dual cameras to add depth and dimension to photos and videos. After uploading the content to the messaging app Snapchat, users can add new lighting, landscapes and three-dimensional effects to the images, Snap said.

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First time, in September 2016: sold about 150,000 units, took $40m bath in November 2017. September 2018: tries again with Spectacles 2. First the first six months of this year it has said “revenue from the sales of Spectacles was not material.”

Don’t see why this situation will change, unless another well-known company introduces AR glasses and they become a huge category.
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Here’s what to do if you have an Apple Card and lose your iPhone • Buzzfeed News

Nicole Nguyen:

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Apple Card is a new cash-rewards credit card that — Apple purports — is designed to be simple and transparent. But it’s also aimed at keeping you locked into your iPhone.

There are no paper statements with the digital-first Apple Card. Unlike a traditional credit card, everything is accessed through the Wallet app on the iPhone, including transaction histories, total balances, previous statements, and payments. There’s no website to view the latest transactions made on the card or make a payment if you lose access to that Wallet app.

So, how do you pay your Apple Card bill if your iPhone is misplaced or stolen? You could always wait until you buy a new phone, or recover your old one, but a late payment would result in interest charges which, obviously, would not be ideal. Because Apple’s support website doesn’t say, BuzzFeed News posed the question to a customer service representative through Apple’s phone and text message support system (Apple Card is currently available to a limited number of people and members of the press).

According to Apple Support, your options are: 1. Use an iPad or other iOS device to access the Wallet app, or 2. Call Apple Support (not, presumably, with the phone you just lost) and a representative will connect you to an Apple Card specialist at Goldman Sachs, Apple’s bank partner. You’ll need your full name, date of birth, last four digits of your Social Security number, and the phone number associated with your account to make a payment over the phone.

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That’s pretty clever platform lock-in. Switched to Android? Sorry, you’ll have to ring up to clear your balance. Presumably you could use it like a phone-only card. Though given that the attraction about the card is meant to be that it gives you a discount on Apple purchases, it would be a trifle perverse not to use Apple kit while using an Apple card. (Though the Wallet app isn’t available on a Mac, presently.)

Personally, I have a card from a big store chain which gives me cash back on purchases; more if I use it in one of the chain’s stores. So I use it a lot. It’s how the incentives work.
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Facebook paid contractors to transcribe user audio files • Bloomberg

Sarah Frier:

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Facebook has been paying hundreds of outside contractors to transcribe clips of audio from users of its services, according to people with knowledge of the work.

The work has rattled the contract employees, who are not told where the audio was recorded or how it was obtained – only to transcribe it, said the people, who requested anonymity for fear of losing their jobs. They’re hearing Facebook users’ conversations, sometimes with vulgar content, but do not know why Facebook needs them transcribed, the people said.

Facebook confirmed that it had been transcribing users’ audio and said it will no longer do so, following scrutiny into other companies. “Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago,” the company said Tuesday. The company said the users who were affected chose the option in Facebook’s Messenger app to have their voice chats transcribed. The contractors were checking whether Facebook’s artificial intelligence correctly interpreted the messages, which were anonymized.

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But of COURSE Facebook was doing this, same as everyone else. Clearly this was an open secret within the voice assistant industry.
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Easy-to-make frame comparisons • JuxtaposeJS

Knight Foundation Lab:

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Juxtapose helps storytellers compare two pieces of similar media, including photos, and GIFs. It’s ideal for highlighting then/now stories that explain slow changes over time (growth of a city skyline, regrowth of a forest, etc.) or before/after stories that show the impact of single dramatic events (natural disasters, protests, wars, etc.).

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This code (and the page) is about four years old, but I only just noticed it. Produces stuff like this (of the Sochi Olympic site). You never know, you might find a use for it.

https://cdn.knightlab.com/libs/juxtapose/latest/embed/index.html?uid=87bb1a18-bdeb-11e9-b9b8-0edaf8f81e27
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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