Start Up No.1579: Facebook drives political divides, Garcia-Martinez on Silicon Valley, are you a serial killer?, crypto “experts”, and more


Your smart TV wants to know whether you’re watching it. How are you going to respond? CC-licensed photo by rickremington on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 12 links for you. Is that enough? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Order Social Warming, my new book, and find answers – and more.


After repeatedly promising not to, Facebook keeps recommending political groups to its users • The Markup

Corin Faife and Alfred Ng:

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Four days after the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill, a member of the “Not My President” Facebook group wrote in a post, “remember, our founding fathers were seen as terrorist [sic] and traitors.” 

A fellow group member commented, “I’ll fight for what’s right, this corruption has to be stopped immediately.” 

Three months later, Facebook recommended the group to at least three people, despite Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s repeated promise to permanently end political group recommendations on the social network specifically to stop amplifying divisive content. 

The group was one of hundreds of political groups the company recommended to its users in The Markup’s Citizen Browser project over the past five months, several of which promoted unfounded election fraud claims in their descriptions or through posts on their pages. 

Citizen Browser consists of a paid nationwide panel of Facebook users who automatically send us data from their Facebook feeds. 

In a four month period, from Feb. 1 to June 1, the 2,315 members of the Citizen Browser panel received hundreds of recommendations for groups that promoted political organizations (e.g., “Progressive Democrats of Nevada,” “Michigan Republicans”) or supported individual political figures (e.g., “Bernie Sanders for President 2020,” “Liberty lovers for Ted Cruz,” “Philly for Elizabeth Warren”). In total, just under one-third of all panelists received a recommendation to join at least one group in this category. 

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Facebook was very sniffy about the Citizen Browser project, but it keeps turning up evidence that Facebook doesn’t do what it promises. (Just try a search on “Facebook ‘citizen browser’“.)
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Are the most influential websites peer-produced or price-incentivized? Organizing value in the digital economy • Alex Pazaitis, Vasilis Kostakis, 2021

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The overwhelming majority of the most popular websites are owned by for-profit-maximization companies. One cannot argue against that. However, the extent to which they are organized around price-incentives is highly debatable. On one hand, paid professionals work for maintaining and improving these platforms. Moreover, paid professionals produce content that directly or indirectly contributes value to the platforms. In the currently dominant organizational reality, the price incentive is often considered as a feature that determines the design of our organizations. And, as was discussed, the design may qualify some behaviors over others.

On the other hand, one should consider the amount of value that unpaid users contribute to the most popular websites. The voluntary contribution is a form of peer production utilized by companies with the ultimate goal to maximize shareholder value. In addition, a considerable part of the vital infrastructure of the most popular websites is produced in CBPP, whereas price incentives, where present, are still considered peripheral. Finally, price-incentives alone can neither create nor guarantee the complex relations impelling the digital economy. As Bollier (2014: 175) reminds as, “the commons is . . . a sector of the economy (and life!) that generates value in ways that are often taken for granted.” Similarly, the contribution of CBPP in the so-called “digital economy” largely goes unnoticed at the level of scholarly and political discussion that can make a difference.

Measuring how much of website content is price-incentivized or peer-produced gets us already in the wrong direction. Any measurement is not neutral, and, in a market-driven economy, measure of value is only reflected in the exchange of one thing for another.

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This is an analysis of the Carr-Benkler Wager (don’t worry, there’s a link below), made 15 years ago. That’s long enough ago for something to shake out. In my view, it’s actually a win for Benkler. But see what you think.
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August 2006: What is the Carr-Benkler wager? • The Guardian

Me, a callow youth back in August 2006:

»Though sounding like something out of higher maths it’s much simpler: a bet between two high-profile bloggers about whether in two years (or perhaps five) people will get paid for submitting content to sites like Digg and Flickr.

On the two sides: Nicholas Carr, a former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review; and Yochai Benkler, a professor of law at Yale University whose book, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, suggests that new types of collaboration let people be more productive than profit-seeking ventures.

Carr, however, thinks the lure of money will prove far more effective in finding top content pickers.

Wrote Carr (at roughtype.com), “the reason ‘social media'”- such as Digg or Reddit – “has existed outside the price system up until now is that a market hadn’t yet emerged for this new kind of labor. We weren’t yet able to assign a value – in monetary terms – to what these workers were doing … We couldn’t see the talent for the crowd. Now, though, the amateurs are being sorted according to their individual skills, calculations as to the monetary value of those skills are starting to be made, and a market appears to be taking shape.”

Benkler then challenged Carr: “We could decide to appoint between one and three people who, on some date – let’s say two years from now, on August 1st 2008 – survey the web or blogosphere, and seek out the most influential sites in some major category: for example, relevance and filtration (like Digg); or visual images (like Flickr). And they will then decide whether they are peer production processes or whether they are price-incentivized systems … I predict the major systems will be primarily peer-based.”

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Necessary context from the paper above, of course.
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Bad Apple* • The Pull Request

Antonio García Martínez (yes, him):

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Trendy management philosophy’s love for “bringing your whole self to work,” and somehow conjoining the multitude of an individual’s identities—cultural, artistic, religious, political, sexual—with one’s professional persona is a deranged recipe for endless mayhem. Nobody actually brings their “whole self” to work; if you spoke to your colleagues as you do your partner after sex or your friends after the fifth pint, you’d be sacked from any job even faster than I was.

What’s perhaps most preposterous is that these reality checks need to be forcibly repeated to working adults in some of the cushiest and most prestigious companies in the world. In an absurd follow-on to my situation, not only did Apple employees petition their company to issue a statement about the Israel/Palestine situation—as if having a foreign policy position were germane to a public tech company—but they also petitioned to not have to go back to work inside an office.

If people getting paid over six-figures at a two-trillion-dollar company refuse to come into work at the spectacular billion-dollar headquarters where every luxury is provided, then those employees have lost all grasp on reality and have no right to petition anyone about anything.

This unholy trinity—the quasi-religion of wokeness, corporate ingestion of the corrosive social-media machinery and a deluded view of working life—is what bedevils the newest generation of American companies. Once you let the mob accrue influence internally, short of taking a hard stand managerially as Coinbase did, you have no option but concede to their demands and offer the mob the object of their desire (or rage) on a plate. Every company who goes down this path will be limping from crisis to crisis forever (as Google is).

«

Martinez isn’t exactly patient, nor a model of diplomacy. I note that he doesn’t describe his time at Apple (NDA’d, perhaps?) and talks about the generalities. He’s much more like the hard-charging people of Silicon Valley of the 1970s and 1980s. He thinks Steve Jobs “wouldn’t have lasted a day” in his own company now. Maybe not down in the ranks, but Jobs was pretty handy at firing people.

Hard to take the temperature, but I suspect the future is much more with people like Martinez, because they don’t care who they annoy: they just want to succeed.
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Google turned me into a serial killer • Hristo Georgiev

Hrito Georigev:

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As I was scrolling through my inbox today, I stumbled upon an e-mail from a former colleague of mine who wanted to inform me that a Google search of my name yields a picture of me linked to a Wikipedia article about a serial killer who happens to have the same name as mine.

I quickly popped out my browser, opened Google and typed in my name. And indeed, my photo appeared over a description of a Bulgarian serial killer.

My first reaction was that somebody was trying to pull off some sort of an elaborate prank on me, but after opening the Wikipedia article itself, it turned out that there’s no photo of me there whatsoever.

It turns out that Google’s knowledge graph algorithm somehow falsely associated my photo with the Wikipedia article about the serial killer. Which is also surprisingly strange because my name isn’t special or unique at all; there are literally hundreds of other people with my name, and despite of all that, my personal photo ended up being associated with a serial killer. I can’t really explain to myself how this happened, but it’s weird. In any case, I am now in the process of reporting this Knowledge Graph bug to Google.

After sharing the news with some friends and getting a good laugh out of the whole situation, a short rumination on what had happened made me consider how this could have gone down a much darker path. Sure, after taking the time to read the Wikipedia article, one can easily figure out that I’m not a serial killer though one can never be so sure. However, the fact that an algorithm that’s used by billions of people can so easily bend information in such ways is truly terrifying.

«

But of course: Google isn’t about accuracy or truth. It’s about popularity (maybe he’s the most-linked Hrito Georigev? There can’t be that many).

Sure, it’s just an accident. How many others are there out there? We don’t know. Why don’t we know? Because nobody’s checking, except for the ones accused of being serial killers.
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Microsoft: list of features that are deprecated or removed in Windows 11 • MSPoweruser

Pradeep Viswav:

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Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 11 OS comes with several new features and improvements. As you expect from a major OS update, Microsoft is also removing several features that were available in Windows 10. For example, Timeline is gone. Also, the Tablet mode feature. You can find the full list of features that are removed in Windows 11 below.

• Cortana will no longer be included in the first boot experience or pinned to the Taskbar
• Desktop wallpaper cannot be roamed to or from device when signed in with a Microsoft account
• Internet Explorer is disabled. Microsoft Edge is the recommended replacement and includes IE Mode which may be useful in certain scenarios
• Math Input Panel is removed. Math Recognizer will install on demand and includes the math input control and recognizer. Math inking in apps like OneNote are not impacted by this change
• News & Interests has evolved. New functionality has been added which can be found by clicking the Widgets icon on the Taskbar
• Quick Status from the Lockscreen and associated settings are removed
• S Mode is only available now for Windows 11 Home edition
• Snipping Tool continues to be available but the old design and functionality in the Windows 10 version has been replaced with those of the app previously known as Snip & Sketch
• Start is significantly changed in Windows 11…

«

So goodbye Cortana, essentially? And the cut-down “S Mode” doesn’t seem to have cut through. No Tablet mode? The 2010 attempt to get ahead of Apple is finally dead.
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Why is the Intellectual Dark Web suddenly hyping an unproven COVID treatment? • Vice

Anna Merlan:

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Some time ago, a furious debate erupted across the United States: Do people have the right to promote, prescribe, and use an unproven drug for a serious illness? Many asked an attendant question: Was there a vast and sinister conspiracy to keep that drug’s stunning efficacy hidden from the American public? 

The product was called laetrile. It was derived from apricot pits, and throughout the 1970s it was championed by a small but extremely loud group of people as a suppressed and miraculous cancer cure. It was not, as it turned out, a cure at all: Laetrile, also known as “Vitamin B17,” showed little to no anti-cancer activity in a large National Cancer Institute study, and multiple studies also warned that taking too much of it could lead to cyanide poisoning. Still, thousands of Americans, including actor Steve McQueen, flocked to clinics in Mexico for treatment before the FDA declared the product illegal in 1980. Since then, it’s made several comebacks online, each time marked by a chorus of people claiming that its real effectiveness has been deliberately concealed by unscrupulous medical Powers that Be. 

Because everything old is always made exhaustingly new again, during the COVID-19 pandemic the same pattern pioneered by laetrile advocates has played out several times. The first anti-COVID drug to be held out as a secret miracle cure was hydroxychloroquine, boosted by world leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Now, increasingly, it’s the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin, which can be used to treat some skin conditions and is widely used in veterinary medicine.

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Merlan does this very neatly – putting it into the historical context. (Ivermectin is part of a number of studies, but some distance from approved.)
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Why we shouldn’t listen to crypto ‘experts’ • Financial Times

Jemima Kelly:

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recently I’ve been struck by one increasingly common jibe, because it inadvertently undermines the supposedly altruistic aims of the bitcoin brigade: “Have Fun Staying Poor.”

This meme has become so common in cryptoland that a song has been written in its honour; you can even buy T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase. The taunt is directed at so-called “no-coiners” like me whenever we express scepticism. Whether or not our criticism is warranted is irrelevant. The thinking is that because the price is so obviously going to keep going up forever, those of us who don’t buy into it are going to be mired in poverty while those who invested get filthy rich.

If such a system sounds reminiscent of a Ponzi scheme, that’s because it is. Although some of the traditional characteristics — such as a head or central administrator or the existence of cash transfers — are lacking in bitcoin, others are not. Those who get in at the start must continuously draw in new believers to keep the whole thing going. Many of them market themselves as “crypto experts”, pushing the currencies as a solution to a host of financial and economic issues they often have no expertise in. As prominent bitcoiner Antony “Pomp” Pompliano unashamedly tweeted to his almost 1m followers recently, “Every bull market has to indoctrinate the new class of crypto enthusiasts”.

“Technically it doesn’t work quite like a Ponzi, but you get the same net result,” says Martin Walker, director of banking and finance at the Center For Evidence-Based Management. “The brilliance of the whole crypto scam is that you don’t actually have to generate any income to pay anyone, so you don’t run out of money because you’re making people believe in ‘number go up’.”

«

Her point, of course, is that they’re not “experts”; they’re just people who got into the pyramid scheme early and now need to unload in order to profit. As she notes, this is a zero-sum game: for someone to cash out, someone else has to put cash in.
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Are you still there? • ROUGH TYPE

Nicholas Carr:

»

Late Tuesday night, just as the Red Sox were beginning a top-of-the-eleventh rally against the Rays, my smart TV decided to ask me a question of deep ontological import:

Are you still there?

To establish my thereness (and thus be permitted to continue watching the game), I would need to “interact with the remote,” my TV informed me. I would need to respond to its signal with a signal of my own. At first, as I spent a harried few seconds finding the remote and interacting with it, I was annoyed by the interruption. But I quickly came to see it as endearing. Not because of the TV’s solicitude — the solicitude of a machine is just a gentle form of extortion — but because of the TV’s cluelessness. Though I was sitting just ten feet away from the set, peering intently into its screen, my smart TV couldn’t tell that I was watching it. It didn’t know where I was or what I was doing or even if I existed at all. That’s so cute.

I had found a gap in the surveillance system, but I knew it would soon be plugged. Media used to be happy to transmit signals in a human-readable format. But as soon as it was given the ability to collect signals, in a machine-readable format, media got curious. It wanted to know, and then it wanted to know everything, and then it wanted to know everything without having to ask. If a smart device asks you a question, you know it’s not working properly. Further optimization is required. And you know, too, that somebody is working on the problem.

«

Always a treat when Carr decides to blog.
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BuzzFeed valued at $1.5bn in deal to go public via special-purpose merger • The Guardian

Edward Helmore:

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BuzzFeed, the news, digital media and lifestyle company, has announced plans to become a publicly traded company through a special purpose acquisition company (Spac) that could value the 15-year-old New York-based firm at $1.5bn.

The company, initially known for listicles and online quizzes, also announced plans to buy Complex Networks, a global youth network that engages with millennials and Gen Z, from phone giant Verizon and publisher Hearst for $300m.

BuzzFeed has been on an acquisitions spree over the past year, merging with HuffPost in November and following a consolidation trend in digital media startups.

It has has become a contender in the news business, this year winning a Pulitzer for a series on China’s Uyghur detention camps, while simultaneously building what it describes as “identity-driven” lifestyle brands and licensing consumer products including food, cookbooks, Tasty branded cookware and affiliate commerce.

BuzzFeed will join a number of companies this year that have followed the non-traditional Spac path, which does not require the participation of an underwriting financial institution or attract the same level of oversight as a traditional initial public offering.

«

It had looked as though Buzzfeed wasn’t going to make it over the finishing line (well, the IPO line) after drastic cuts and layoffs. But here it comes. The cash should make its initial venture capitalist backers happy, and it can bounce along as a media entity for the foreseeable future.
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Half the world owns a smartphone • Strategy Analytics

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According to new research from Strategy Analytics, half the world’s entire population now owns a smartphone in June 2021. Some 4 billion people use a smartphone today. It has taken 27 years to reach this historic milestone.


Exhibit 1: Global Smartphone User Base: % of World Population(1) (Source: Strategy Analytics, Inc.)

Yiwen Wu, senior analyst at Strategy Analytics, said, “We estimate the global smartphone user base has risen dramatically from just 30k people in 1994 to 1.00 billion in 2012, and a record 3.95 billion today in June 2021. With an estimated 7.90 billion people in total on the planet in June 2021, it means 50% of the whole world now owns a smartphone. It has taken 27 years to reach this historic milestone.”

Linda Sui, Senior Director at Strategy Analytics, added, “The world’s first modern smartphone, IBM Simon, was launched commercially in the United States way back in 1994. This was followed by other famous models, such as the Nokia 9110 Communicator in 1998 and Ericsson R380 for Europe in 2000. Apple iPhone popularized the smartphone in 2007, while Google Android democratized the smartphone with an affordable software platform from 2008.”

Neil Mawston, executive director at Strategy Analytics, added, “Half of humanity now owns a smartphone. The smartphone is the most successful computer of all time. Smartphones today are used by 4 billion people worldwide, from urban California to suburban China and rural Africa. Consumers and workers love the convenience, utility, and safety of having a connected computer in their pocket. Smartphones have become an essential daily tool. We predict 5 billion people will be using smartphones worldwide by 2030.”

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Notice how it all took off in 2010/2011: the iPhone 4 and multiple Android models, particularly the Samsung Galaxy S, first launched in 2010. Arguably, Apple lit the fuse, but Samsung provided the gunpowder.

And – once you get smartphones in that many people’s hands, social networks take off too.
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Mystery of the wheelie suitcase: how gender stereotypes held back the history of invention • The Guardian

Katrine Marçal:

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Advertisements for products applying the technology of the wheel to the suitcase can be found in British newspapers as early as the 1940s. These are not suitcases on wheels, exactly, but a gadget known as “the portable porter” – a wheeled device that can be strapped on to a suitcase. But it never really caught on.

In 1967, a Leicestershire woman wrote a sharply worded letter to her local newspaper complaining that a bus conductor had forced her to buy an additional ticket for her rolling suitcase. The conductor argued that “anything on wheels should be classed as a pushchair”. She wondered what he would have done if she had boarded the bus wearing roller-skates. Would she be charged as a passenger or as a pram?

The woman in the fur coat [pictured wheeling a suitcase on wheels in 1952, 20 years before the “official” invention of the wheeled suitcase] and the Leicestershire woman on the bus are the vital clues to this mystery. Suitcases with wheels existed decades before they were “invented” in 1972, but were considered niche products for women. And that a product for women could make life easier for men or completely disrupt the whole global luggage industry was not an idea the market was then ready to entertain.

Resistance to the rolling suitcase had everything to do with gender. Sadow, the “official” inventor, described how difficult it was to get any US department store chains to sell it: “At this time, there was this macho feeling. Men used to carry luggage for their wives. It was … the natural thing to do, I guess.”

Two assumptions about gender were at work here. The first was that no man would ever roll a suitcase because it was simply “unmanly” to do so. The second was about the mobility of women. There was nothing preventing a woman from rolling a suitcase – she had no masculinity to prove. But women didn’t travel alone, the industry assumed.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1579: Facebook drives political divides, Garcia-Martinez on Silicon Valley, are you a serial killer?, crypto “experts”, and more

  1. I’m very wary of “peer production” being given the meaning of “A big corporation doesn’t pay its writers anything, but instead captures the entire commercial value of that work, because the labor involved is much too fragmented to get any of that value whatsoever.” (and then gushing over how supposedly innovative and wonderful that is, which tells you a lot about the perspective involved). I don’t think Carr had that idea in mind in his point.

    I think Carr won the bet hands-down if it’s viewed in terms of amateur sites being utterly marginalized on the Web. Basically, if you land on a site which is a big corporation, that’s very different from something like a personal website. Anything along the lines of “But that corporation doesn’t pay writers” is not a refutation of the key divide, in my view. Rather, it’s a sleight of hand between the meanings of “amateur” as “independent” versus “no money”. That is, the idea that “Amateurs (independent) sites will be marginalized by corporate sites” is not refuted by “But those corporate sites are filled with amateurs (unpaid labor)”.

    This last is where the bet went slightly askew. Carr seemed to have in mind that the corporate sites would pay writers. He did miss that there would be much success in large scale business models that mostly didn’t pay writers. This is an even worse outcome, not a validation of the utter nonsense and glurge which he was writing against.

  2. Charles, I know of a couple of instances of Google getting it wrong with images. One is a photo of a German soldier lighting a cigarette for a wounded British soldier. It’s from 1917/18 but a reverse image search on Google lists it as “Christmas Truce 1914”. The tip off that this is wrong is that the German is wearing a Stahlhelm and the Tommy a Brodie helmet, neither of which existed in 1914.The other is a photo of three women standing on a beach. A reverse image search identifies it as “Emma Goldman. Rosa Luxemburg & Simone de Beauvoir 1930s”. Rosa Luxemburg was murdered in 1919 when Simone de Beauvoir was 11 years old. Both of these turn up regularly on social media (I’ve seen them multiple times on tumblr). I think that so many people have posted them with the incorrect captions that Google is just overwhelmed by them. This particularly bad as most people will only see these photos online, not say a book (which is where I first saw the WWi photo) and have no idea that they are incorrectly captioned.

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