Start Up No.1670: Facebook v the journalists, pricing Apple’s privacy changes, zombie energy stats, kids + screens = OK?, and more


This will sound like a brain teaser, and it is. Why would someone walk into an Apple Store and demand the Mac that comes in the smallest box – no other spec matters? CC-licensed photo by Jamie McCall on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Does a metaverse imply the existence of a metamiddle eight? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Learning to live with Mark Zuckerberg • The New York Times

Ben Smith talks to Jessica Lessin (whose outlet was one of just four, none including “big legacy” outlets, to get a Mark Zuckerberg why-the-metaverse interview:

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Ms. Lessin dates the hostility between journalists and Silicon Valley to the rise in the mid-2010s of Uber, whose leaders treated the worst features of tech culture — arrogance and misogyny, among them — as features, not bugs, and faced a new kind of adversarial coverage for it.

But Donald J. Trump’s election in 2016 was also central to the shift. Mainstream publications woke up to the centrality of Facebook in a new and sometimes violent and anti-democratic strain of global right-wing populism, a connection that Mr. Zuckerberg at first glibly dismissed. (Reporters also resented being forced to police Facebook’s informational byways like underappreciated mall cops, when Facebook should have been doing that itself.)

In their frenzy to provide a simple explanation for Mr. Trump’s victory, journalists sometimes botched the details and oversimplified the story. This was particularly true in the overhyped case of the political consultant Cambridge Analytica, which embodied fears of a new kind of algorithmic propaganda but which, a British government report later found, never actually did most of the sinister things it bragged about. Accurate reporting and erroneous articles alike bred a deep sense of embattlement in Palo Alto.

Ms. Lessin said she sees a few patterns, and a lot of symmetry. One is that journalists and tech figures are bad at reading one another’s motives.

“Tech companies say journalists are doing this hard-hitting reporting for profit motives” and because they’re angry about losing advertising, she said. “That’s obviously absurd.”

“But journalists who are accusing Facebook of making bad content moderation decisions because they’re only concerned about profits are also missing the point. Most of the time the challenges are around free speech.”

“They’re actually making the same mistake in reverse directions about each other,” she said. “I’m kind of baffled by it.”

Ms. Lessin’s second observation is that many tech chief executives see themselves in a battle with news outlets for the hearts and minds of their own employees. When they blast media coverage, they are also speaking to the people whose salaries they pay.

“The woke revolution in Silicon Valley is fueling this, too,” she said. “Tech executives are completely associating their employees’ activism with media outlets.”

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• Want to understand Facebook and social networks, and especially our reaction to them, better? Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.

Snap, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube lose nearly $10bn after iPhone privacy changes • Financial Times

Patrick McGee:

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Apple’s decision to change the privacy settings of iPhones caused an estimated $9.85bn of revenues to evaporate in the second half of this year at Snap, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as their advertising businesses were shaken by the new rules.

Apple introduced its App Tracking Transparency policy in April, which forced apps to ask for permission before they tracked the behaviour of users to serve them personalised ads.

Most users have opted out, leaving advertisers in the dark about how to target them. Advertisers have responded by cutting back their spending at Snap, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and diverted their budgets elsewhere: in particular to Android phone users and to Apple’s own growing ad business.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, has said the iPhone changes meant “the accuracy of our ads targeting decreased, which increased the cost of driving outcomes for our advertisers. And . . . measuring those outcomes became more difficult.”

Lotame, an advertising technology company whose clients include The Weather Company and McClatchy, estimated that the four tech platforms lost 12% of revenue in the third and fourth quarters, or $9.85bn. Snap fared the worst as a percentage of its business because of its focus on smartphones, while Facebook lost the most in absolute terms because of its size.

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Is it “iPhone privacy changes” or is it “customer privacy changes”? Apple doesn’t force anyone to opt out; it just asks them if they want to let an app track them. Seems that a very large proportion don’t want that, where they didn’t have the chance before.

Which raises the interesting question of how much money, and how big, those companies would be if such a block had been in place to begin with; and also whether it will be, or is, or would have been, something that would lead to Android customers changing to iOS.
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Google revelations help explain local-news crisis • The Seattle Times

Brier Dudley is editor of the Seattle Times Free Press:

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New details of the ad-market distortions were revealed Friday when, under a judge’s order, the shroud was lifted from much of a multistate antitrust case against Google. Key details about how extensively the search giant dominates the marketplace for buying, selling and pricing online display advertising, and manipulates things to benefit itself, had been redacted since the case was announced in December.

Among the revelations: Google gets up to a 42% cut of ad sales handled through its system. The extraordinary take shows how much the company dominates the marketplace, the state case led by Texas argues.

Google’s ad exchange handles more than 60% of display ad inventory sold in the US. The company’s own ad buying tools also win more than 80% of auctions hosted on its dominant exchange, unredacted passages state.

In one example cited, a $6 bid for an advertising spot came through Google’s advertising exchange and an $8 bid from a different exchange. But because Google designed the system to prioritize itself, the $6 bid won, shorting the publisher $2.

“Internally, Google employees grappled with the fact that Google was falsely telling publishers that Google’s header bidding alternative enabled competition and improved yield, since in reality, Google created a program that advantaged itself at the expense of publishers,” the case states.

The case also revealed what it called “an illegal agreement” between Google and Facebook made in 2018, when Google’s dominance was threatened by a new bidding system for online ads that Facebook supported. In return for backing off, Facebook received preferential treatment in Google’s system.

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Worth pointing out how Google is putting its finger on the scale all the time here. But, again, the realisation comes much too late, when ripping these things out will be much more difficult.
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No, you can’t save £30 per year by switching off your “standby” devices • Terence Eden’s Blog

The aforesaid Eden with a post that annoys me, for reasons I’ll explain:

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Every few years, a dodgy stat does the rounds claiming you can save £££ if you switch off all your gadgets at the wall. The standby mode of your TV is bleeding you dry!!!

[The BBC quoted the Energy Saving Trust in a story about fuel bills, saying that you’d save £30 per year by switching off devices that were on standby.]

This is known as “Vampire Energy” and, amusingly, is a bit of a zombie statistic. Being the party-pooper that I am, I emailed the Energy Saving Trust to ask how they calculated the stat. They replied quickly with:

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The calculation for £35 savings from turning off stand-by devices per year per household comes from average 201KWh for stand-by power times GB average standard electricity price 16.471 £p/KWh, then rounded to nearest £5.

201KWh comes from “Further Analysis of the Household Electricity Survey Early Findings: Demand side management”. Please note that the term “stand-by” used in this situation also include device on idle mode. Please refer to the report in more detail about the assumptions used in the analysis. Here is the link for this report.

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Eden then takes those claims apart. It’s nothing like £30 per year these days, and even in the old days it was probably questionable. My annoyance? Because I emailed the EST’s press office, and it took them 10 working days and four emails to come up with a response that wasn’t even as good as Eden got just trying to “Contact” page.
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Nilay Patel on Facebook’s reckoning with reality—and the Metaverse-size problems yet to come • Vanity Fair

Delia Cai speaks to Patel, who has been running The Verge for a decade now:

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DC: One more Facebook question. What’s the deal with the rebrand?

NP: They want it to be about the metaverse, right? They’re really focused on Oculus and A.R. But A.R. is a really hard problem. If you step back to the beginning, you’ve gotta build the display that goes on your face that doesn’t make you look ridiculous. You have to find a way to power it; you have to put a battery on your body somewhere; you’ve gotta find a computer that’s fast enough to look at the world around you and put stuff on top that’s also small enough to run off the battery. Very challenging. But that’s just the tech problem.

Once you build it, who is going to augment reality? Who is in charge of that project? If I’m standing at the United States Capitol and you’re standing there, and we’re both looking at the Capitol, what are we seeing—what is the label on that building? Is it the “home of democracy,” or is it “where Donald Trump got screwed”? We’ll actually live in different realities.

Facebook is trying to pivot away from its Facebook problems, which is a content-moderation-at-scale problem. It might well be unsolvable. Meanwhile, they are still racing toward the hardest content moderation at scale that will ever exist: that you and I will live in different realities because we’re wearing headsets on our faces that present to us different realities in the same moment, in the same physical space.

DC: God, that’s spooky.

NP: I think about it all the time.

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But then he suggests something even worse. (An idea that multiple companies seem to be running towards, and which one is already building for certain.) His comments on data-driven journalism are on point too.
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Kids and their computers: several hours a day of screen time is OK, study suggests • The Conversation

Katie Paulich is a PhD student at the University of Colorado, Boulder:

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Even when kids spend five hours a day on screen – whether computers, television or text – it doesn’t appear to be harmful. That’s what my colleagues and I at the University of Colorado Boulder discovered after analyzing data taken from nearly 12,000 participants in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study – the largest long-term study of its kind ever in the U.S.

The participants included children between the ages of 9 to 10, from diverse backgrounds, income levels and ethnicities. We investigated how screen time was linked to some of the most critical aspects of their lives: sleep, mental health, behavior and friendships.

Our results, recently published in the journal PLOS One, found no association between screens and a child’s depression or anxiety. Greater amounts of screen time were associated with stronger peer relationships for both boys and girls – both have more male and female friends. Social screen use may drive that association; video gaming, for instance, is a social activity that seems to foster more friendships. So does social media and texting.

…Our study also found negative correlations: More screen time predicted higher levels of attention problems, worse sleep, poorer academic performance and an increase in aggression and misbehavior.

Taken at face value, these contrasting positive and negative correlations are confusing. Is screen time good or bad?

Perhaps neither one: when looking at the strength of the correlations, we see only very modest associations. That is, any association between screen time and the various outcomes, whether good or bad, is so small it’s unlikely to be important at a clinical level.

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Willingness to look stupid • Dan Luu

Luu on the benefits of asking (what seem to be) stupid questions:

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when I look at people who have a very deep understanding of topics, many of them frequently ask naive sounding questions and continue to apply one of the techniques that got them a deep understanding in the first place.

…In general, I’ve found willingness to look stupid to be very effective. Here are some more examples:

• Going into an Apple store and asking for (and buying) the computer that comes in the smallest box, which I had a good reason to want at the time.

The person who helped me, despite being very polite, also clearly thought I was a bozo and kept explaining things like “the size of the box and the size of the computer aren’t the same”. Of course I knew that, but I didn’t want to say something like “I design CPUs. I understand the difference between the size of the box the computer comes and in the size of the computer and I know it’s very unusual to care about the size of the box, but I really want the one that comes in the smallest box”. Just saying the last bit without establishing any kind of authority didn’t convince the person.

I eventually asked them to humor me and just bring out the boxes for the various laptop models so I could see the boxes, which they did, despite clearly thinking that my decision making process made no sense (I also tried explaining why I wanted the smallest box but that didn’t work).

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There are more, but this one is the most intriguing, because he doesn’t answer it. See if you can think of the potential answers. (Via Ian Leslie’s excellent Substack.)
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Science confirms it: websites are all starting look the same

Sam Goree:

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We found that across all three metrics—color, layout, and AI-generated attributes—the average differences between websites peaked between 2008 and 2010 and then decreased between 2010 and 2016. Layout differences decreased the most, declining over 30% in that time frame.


The graph shows website similarity of companies in the Russell 1000. Lower values mean that the sites studied were more similar, on average. [Image: courtesy of the author]

These findings confirm the suspicions of web design bloggers that websites are becoming more similar. After showing this trend, we wanted to study our data to see what kinds of specific changes were causing it.

You might think that these sites are simply copying each other’s code, but code similarity has actually significantly decreased over time. However, the use of software libraries has increased a lot.


The graph on the left shows a decline in code similarity among Russell 1000 websites, while the graph on the right indicates an increase in library overlap. [Image: courtesy of the author]

Libraries feature collections of generic code for common tasks, such as resizing a page for mobile devices or making a hamburger menu slide in and out. We looked at which sites had lots of libraries in common and how similar they looked. Sites built with certain libraries—Bootstrap, FontAwesome, and JQuery UI—tended to look much more similar to each other.

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A new world of cronut lines • Garbage Day

Ryan Broderick:

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During Facebook Connect, Zuckerberg showed of a slew of VR and AR products, including the Project Cambria headset, the Oculus Quest 2 (soon to be Meta Quest), and a social virtual lobby-like platform for Oculus users called Horizon Home. And Bloomberg got ahold of leaked photos of a Facebook Smart Watch, which is believed to have front and back facing cameras and connect to the internet via a cellular connection that wouldn’t require a smartphone.

What we can tell, from all of this, is that for Zuckerberg, the metaverse is an ill-defined hodgepodge of virtual productivity tools and lame wearables. It’s in line with this broader feeling in Silicon Valley right now that if you jam together a conference call and a FitBit, somewhere in the middle there, you’ll end up with the metaverse.

Look, here’s the thing. The metaverse will probably happen at this point, but it won’t look like anything in Zuckerberg’s stupid Connect video. It will be weird and janky and people will use it to have sex with cartoon characters and hide video game achievements in parks and interact with their favorite influencers, who may or may not be real…

…Big platforms will inevitably create products that will facilitate this, but they won’t be Facebook. They’ll be stranger and more specific. They’ll emphasize small localized networks and faster and more visual communication: A Discord-like messaging app that has a Snap Map functionality and seamless live video filters. Digital assets, whether they’re NFTs or just memes you save on your phone, will be displayed in jewelry or small picture frames. You’ll turn a corner on the street and see a group of people standing together, staring at their phones or watches, and you’ll have no idea that they’re seeing together. Maybe one of them airdrops you the piece of content they’re all looking at. Maybe this has already happened to you.

But just think about the internet right now and think about how far beyond Facebook is already. It is laughable to think Zuckerberg is capable of creating a brand new VR-based internet. He couldn’t even beat TikTok!

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Meta acquires VR fitness subscription service Supernatural • CNET

Scott Stein:

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Supernatural was one of the first subscription-based services on the Oculus Quest (soon to be called the Meta Quest). The app, which uses video avatars of instructors in combination with motion-tracked workout routines (boxing was just added), sometimes feels like a ramped-up fitness version of the VR game Beat Saber.

“Our partnership with Meta means we will have more resources to expand and bring you even more music, more creative ways to work out, more features and more social experiences for VR,” Within CEO Chris Milk said in a statement Friday. 

It looks like a move that could let Meta evolve more fitness and health aspirations on future headsets or products. “Together we will also explore ways we can enhance future hardware to support VR fitness apps, encouraging other developers to bring new fitness experiences to VR. We believe fitness will be a massive success in VR where multiple third-party fitness apps can succeed,” Meta VP of Play Jason Rubin said in a statement.

Ssupport for connected smartwatches for live heart rate readings during workouts may be the app’s most intriguing feature as it applies to Meta. Meta has its own movement-tracking fitness app on the Oculus Quest called Oculus Move, but no deeper support for connected smartwatches yet. Mark Zuckerberg spoke to CNET earlier this year, expressing an interest in both fitness and fitness sensors. Meta is expected to be making its own smartwatch, and is working on wrist-based neural input accessories for future smart glasses.

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Well, it’s nice to have dreams.
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Zuckerberg announces fantasy world where Facebook is not a horrible company • Vice

Jason Koebler:

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Moments before announcing Facebook is changing its name to “Meta” and detailing the company’s “metaverse” plans during a Facebook Connect presentation on Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg said “some people will say this isn’t a time to focus on the future,” referring to the massive, ongoing scandal plaguing his company relating to the myriad ways Facebook has made the world worse. “I believe technology can make our lives better. The future will be built by those willing to stand up and say this is the future we want.”

The future Zuckerberg went on to pitch was a delusional fever dream cribbed most obviously from dystopian science fiction and misleading or outright fabricated virtual reality product pitches from the last decade. In the “metaverse—an “embodied” internet where we are, basically, inside the computer via a headset or other reality-modifying technology of some sort—rather than hang out with people in real life you could meet up with them as Casper-the-friendly-ghost-style holograms to do historically fun and stimulating activities such as attend concerts or play basketball. 

These presentations had the familiar vibe of an overly-ambitious video game reveal. In the concert example, one friend is present in reality while the other is not; the friend joins the concert inexplicably as a blue Force ghost and the pair grab “tickets” to a “metaverse afterparty” in which NFTs are for sale. This theme continued throughout as people wandered seamlessly into virtual fantasy worlds over and over, and the presentation lacked any sense of what this so-called metaverse would look like in practice. It was flagrantly abstract, even metaphorical, showing more the dream of the metaverse than anything resembling reality.

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Lovely use of “flagrantly”. People have been lining up to dump on Facebook for this, but I think Koebler did it best.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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