Start Up No.1229: is it TikTok’s time?, the encyclopedia of opinion, games about viruses go viral in China, iCloud encryption redux, and more

The Bristol Pound’s looming collapse seems to prove.. that we should have a world currency? CC-licensed photo by alister on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

TikTok memes like WW3, impeachment, and Australian fires prove the platform is political • Vox

Rebecca Jennings:


TikTok was never supposed to be political. The app was expressly designed to discourage news-sharing — its home feed is non-chronological, and there are no visible timestamps for when a video is posted, making it nearly impossible to understand what happened when. Political advertisements are not allowed, and until recently, TikTok had vague content guidelines that reportedly encouraged moderators to censor content sensitive to local governments. Its slogan is “Make your day,” presumably by distracting you from *gestures widely at everything*.

TikTok was never supposed to be political, but of course it was always going to be. During 2019’s widespread climate strikes, TikTokers used jokes about e-girls to spread awareness about e-missions. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was revealed to have worn brownface, TikTok had fun brutally roasting him. In November, a New Jersey teen posted a viral TikTok discussing the Chinese mass internment of Muslims (and was subsequently locked out of her account). Another teen used the app to organize a strike in solidarity with her school district’s teachers. When adults on TikTok mocked teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, there was a flood of comments with just one phrase, sparking one of the year’s biggest memes: “ok boomer.” US Democratic presidential candidates are on TikTok. Police officers, soldiers, and the Israel Defense Forces are on TikTok. Nazis and terrorists are, too…

…“Conversations are difficult to have on Twitter or Instagram because of how reactive everybody is on those apps,” [TikToker Gem] Nwanne says. “Comments on a video about the Australian fires were like, folks asking questions and people answering them. On Twitter or Instagram they’d be like, ‘How dare you ask the question?’ The community’s a lot chiller, and I do think it’s because they’re younger, and so they don’t know to be pretentious douchebags yet.”


Hmm. I’m not sure that demonstrating that people make short videos about political topics does actually demonstrate that it can wield political weight. Facebook has proven that. Twitter has. Instagram, Snapchat – they haven’t.
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Help! I’m trapped inside TikTok and I can’t get out • WSJ

Joanna Stern:


TikTok doesn’t divulge how its algorithms work but various experts explained that the artificial intelligence powering the For You page uses lots of factors to determine what you like to watch, including how long you watch and how fast you swipe away.

Everyone I spoke with pointed to the app’s full-screen video design. Instead of giving you lots of thumbnails to choose from, like YouTube or Instagram, TikTok watches you flick away stuff you don’t like, gathering helpful negative signals. It also learns what you do want to watch—even if you don’t “heart” anything.

“You can also get a lot more behavioral data when someone watches lots and lots of short videos,” says Jason Davis, a professor of entrepreneurship at the Singapore campus of the Insead Business School, who has studied TikTok’s parent company, Bytedance Inc.

How quickly TikTok figures you out is bananas. Within minutes, the app knew I’d enjoy videos of millennials making fun of themselves, odd iPhone pranks and dogs. (OK, fine, even serial killers like dogs.)

“As soon as I wake up—it used to be Instagram or YouTube—now I head straight to the For You page and I’m just laughing,” says Dominic Toliver, a 26-year-old TikTok-famous creator with 8.7 million followers. “I’m just laughing and it’s my motivation for the day. I have my ideas and I’m set and ready to go.”


What you do and don’t like on TikTok can be incredibly telling. I bet the difference in swipe time is measured in single milliseconds to distinguish between likes. I loved this.
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About us • Parlia



Parlia is an encyclopedia of opinion.

We’re building a definitive collection of all the opinions in the world*. A wikipedia of opinion.

We hope Parlia will:

• help us understand the world a little faster and little better

• stop us having to go over the same arguments over and over

• help us better hear the opinions on all sides of a question.

We need you to sign up and help us build it.


An encyclopedia of opinion? I’ll go for “ambitious”. But Wikipedia looked wildly ambitious when it began. Now it’s part of the background hum. Though what I would say is that presently Parlia offers too much distraction on its front page; less there might encourage people to seek out an opinion.
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App games about plague and disaster go viral in China • Quartz

Jane Li:


Strategy games about epidemics and war are going viral in China, just as it’s facing a real-life challenge of grappling with a fast-spreading new virus that has led to hundreds of infections and nine deaths.

Plague Inc. and Rebel Inc., both developed by British game studio Ndemic Creations, have seen a surge in downloads since Monday (Jan. 20), the day China announced that a new pneumonia-like illness had spread to cities outside Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak began.

Plague Inc, which lets players evolve a pathogen to wipe out humanity, jumped from the fifth spot on Monday to top the charts among paid games on China’s iOS store as of Wednesday (Jan. 22), according to data provider Sensor Tower. Meanwhile, Rebel Inc., which requires users to stabilize a war-torn country and “win the hearts and minds of the people” while also trying to prevent a deadly insurgency from taking power, jumped from the 27th spot on Monday to fifth on Wednesday.

The popularity of the doomsday simulation games comes as worries have increased about the new coronavirus, a type of virus that can cause colds but also more serious respiratory illnesses, as it spread to more cities in China and more countries this week.


Is “going viral” really the phrase you were reaching for here, Jane?
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2016 WSJ story on Apple’s plans for E2E encryption for iCloud data • Daring Fireball

John Gruber found a 2016 WSJ story by Daisuke Wakabayashi, which said this:


Apple is working to bolster its encryption so that it won’t be able to decode user information stored in iCloud, according to people familiar with the matter.

But Apple executives are wrestling with how to strengthen iCloud encryption without inconveniencing users. Apple prides itself on creating intuitive, easy-to-use software, and some in the company worry about adding complexity.

If a user forgets a password, for example, and Apple doesn’t have the keys, the user might lose access to photos and other important data. If Apple keeps a copy of the key, the copy be “can be compromised or the service can be compelled to turn it over,” said Window Snyder, a former Apple security and privacy manager who is now chief security officer at Fastly, a content-delivery network.


Of which Gruber remarks:


Given that this was four years ago, something clearly interrupted this plan. I’ve heard from a few additional sources at Apple (or very recently at Apple), and all believe that Apple’s reluctance to use end-to-end encryption for iCloud backups is about the frequency of customers who don’t know their password but need to access their backup. My idea is to make it optional, but every additional option makes a feature more complicated. No one expects to forget their password — even if this were only an option, some number of iCloud users would turn it on because it’s more secure, forget their password, and be forever locked out of their backup.


Bear in mind that iCloud backups include photos. You lose your phone, you need to recover from the backup. But – oops! You can’t remember the password. All those photos are lost forever. You can encrypt local backups, using iTunes. I’ve done that and forgotten the password before. It’s certainly a very difficult balance.
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Google’s ads just look like search results now • The Verge

Jon Porter:


In the past, Google’s Sundeep Jain justified simplifying the company’s ad designs by saying that a simpler design “makes it easier for users to digest information,” according to Search Engine Land. He added that the company was trying to reduce the number of different colours used on a page in order to bring a little more “harmony” to the layout.

It’s hard not to get the feeling that this “harmony” is less about offering a better user experience, and more about helping Google’s ad revenue. As Digiday reports, there’s data to suggest that’s actually the case. According to one digital marketing agency, click-through rates have already increased for some search ads on desktop, and mobile click-through rates for some of its clients increased last year from 17 to 18% after similar changes to Google’s mobile search layout.

Google is fundamentally an ad business. In the third quarter of 2019, Google’s parent company Alphabet made nearly $34bn from Google advertising, out of a total revenue of $40bn for Alphabet as a whole. At that sort of scale, small changes in ad click-through rates could end up having a huge effect on Alphabet’s bottom line, even if it means tricking users for cheap clicks.


I’ve heard claims from some people that when Google used to have a differently coloured background for ads, people used to think those were “special” results and click them; and that labelling its ads as “Ads” made that much clearer.

So, shouldn’t the organic search ads have the coloured background now? You’d discover how far down you have to scroll to find them too – on mobile, past the first screen.
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The demise of the Bristol Pound shows the folly of local currencies • CapX

Christopher Snowdon:


The Bristol Pound is on its last legs. The idea of creating a local currency for the city emerged ‘around a table in a pub in early 2009’ but will soon come to an end unless its directors can find £100,000 to cover its running costs. Printing money is not an option this time.

Bristol’s experiment is not the first local currency to hit the buffers. The Exeter Pound ceased operations in 2018. The Totnes Pound came to an end last September. The Stroud Pound, which was launched by Molly Scott-Cato in 2009, has been defunct since 2013. The Lake District Pound will go out of circulation next month. If the Bristol Pound goes under, the only remaining local currencies will be in Brixton and Lewes.

The Bristol Pound was intended to encourage people to spend their money with local businesses rather than with their competitors in Bath, Gloucester or – God forbid – a foreign country. The logic, such as it is, rests on an economic fallacy that was debunked in the eighteenth century. Under mercantilism, it was assumed that the route to prosperity lay in circulating money in the domestic economy, rather than gainfully exchanging it for goods from abroad. Fear of wealth ‘leaking out’ of the country led to an obsession with the balance of trade, of which the philosopher-economist Adam Smith said ‘nothing could be more absurd’.

The fallacy is in confusing wealth with money. Money is a token of exchange. It is a form of wealth, but so are the products it buys. If you spend £500 on a diamond ring you will have less money, not less wealth.

A nation which chooses to buy expensive, inferior goods at home when there are cheaper, better options abroad will make itself poorer. The same principle equally applies to villages, cities and counties. One only has to imagine what would happen if every town in Britain decided to trade exclusively with local firms to see how inefficient a ‘circular economy’ would be.


Excellent points. So… logically… shouldn’t we have just one single currency for the country, the continent, the world?
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Twitter tells facial recognition trailblazer to stop using site’s photos • The New York Times

Kashmir Hill:


Twitter sent a letter this week to the small start-up company, Clearview AI, demanding that it stop taking photos and any other data from the social media website “for any reason” and delete any data that it previously collected, a Twitter spokeswoman said. The cease-and-desist letter, sent on Tuesday, accused Clearview of violating Twitter’s policies…

…Tor Ekeland, a lawyer for Clearview, confirmed that it had received Twitter’s letter and said the company “will respond appropriately.” He declined to comment further.

The Times article set off angry protests from Democratic lawmakers and privacy watchdogs, who said it was paving the way for universal facial recognition technology that would effectively end people’s ability to remain anonymous while in public.

On Wednesday, Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, also sent a letter to Clearview, addressed to its co-founder and chief executive, Hoan Ton-That. “Widespread use of your technology could facilitate dangerous behavior and could effectively destroy individuals’ ability to go about their daily lives anonymously,” Mr. Markey wrote.


Essentially, this is the latest Google (the potential for FR is that big, I’d say), and its attitude to people telling it to stop stealing their content is just the same as Google’s was. Maybe Clearview will reply by asking Twitter to come to their offices and review each photo in turn.
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Instagram says it’s removing posts supporting Soleimani to comply with US sanctions • CNN

Donie O’Sullivan and Artemis Moshtaghian:


Instagram and its parent company Facebook are removing posts that voice support for slain Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani to comply with US sanctions, a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to CNN Business Friday.

The Iranian government has called for nationwide legal action against Instagram in protest, even creating a portal on a government website for the app’s users to submit examples of posts the company removed, Iranian state media reported.

Instagram is one of the few western social media platforms that is not blocked in Iran. Facebook and Twitter are blocked but some Iranians access those sites using VPNs.

Twitter is not removing posts that support Soleimani, a company spokesperson confirmed to CNN Business on Monday. It said as long as Twitter users abide by company rules, their posts will not be removed…

…Instagram shut down Soleimani’s own account on the platform last April after the US government designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization. Soleimani was an IRGC commander.

“We operate under US sanctions laws, including those related to the US government’s designation of the IRGC and its leadership,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.

Iranian soccer player Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who has a verified Instagram account, posted a photo of Soleimani after his death. Jahanbakhsh said Instagram had removed that post.


No doubt Facebook/Instagram will say it was a “mistake” and restore it, now attention has been brought. Removing posts by Soleimani and other members of the IRGC makes sense. Beyond that, though?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

5 thoughts on “Start Up No.1229: is it TikTok’s time?, the encyclopedia of opinion, games about viruses go viral in China, iCloud encryption redux, and more

  1. Obviously you know this but the reason why enlarging single currencies is hard, and sometimes a bad idea, is that most money isn’t currency but credit, and different economies need different credit regimes, or interest rates. You could stage a discussion on this between a Greek and a German economist … More interestingly, JK Galbraith pointed out that in 19th century America there were two credit regimes under one currency: east coast banks were solid and cautious, with lower returns and lower risks — frontier banks reversed this. And both served the needs of their local economies.

  2. Also, who will be the first to write a little bit of CSS that makes Google’s ad results glow radioactively, or even disappear altogether?

  3. Re backups. The way Google does it seems OK: after a long inactivity of my account, someone gets temporary restricted access to it.
    In my case I’ve chosen 3 months, my brother and sister, access to everything (they’ll only care about the pics, but who knows).
    That’s for my *account* not backups specifically.
    People in unsafe regimes could choose to not have “death surrogates” hence safe accounts and backups at the cost of unrecoverable data. Tech can only do so much when your problem is political.

  4. “on mobile, past the first screen.”
    Untrue, at least some of the time. Just did a search for “raspberry pi VPN” on my Android both in Chrome (no add-ons) and the Google app, ad-blocking VPN disabled. The first few results aren’t ads.
    This might depend on the search and/or the user. But that statement needs to be at least qualified.

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