Start Up No.1698: metaverse marriage, Instagram’s mental health effects, Twitter’s true user base, Apple v Epic paused, and more

Is the “Great Resignation” a real thing across the economy, or is it concentrated in a few sectors? New data tells us the answer. CC-licensed photo by Stephen Edmonds on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not from Outer Space. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Getting married in the Metaverse • The New York Times

Steven Kurutz:


Traci and Dave Gagnon met in the cloud, so it only made sense that their wedding took place in it. On Labor Day weekend, the couple — or rather, their digital avatars — held a ceremony staged by Virbela, a company that builds virtual environments for work, learning and events.

Ms. Gagnon’s avatar was walked down the aisle by the avatar of her close friend. Mr. Gagnon’s avatar watched as his buddy’s avatar ambled up to the stage and delivered a toast. And 7-year-old twin avatars (the ring bearer and flower girl) danced at the reception.

How the immersive virtual world known as the metaverse, which few of us understand, will change the traditional wedding is, at the moment, anyone’s guess. But the possibilities of having an event unfettered by the bounds of reality are interesting enough to consider.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, technology is already being incorporated into ceremonies more than ever. Zoom weddings have taken place, and some in-person ceremonies now feature a livestream component for guests who cannot be there. Last year, a couple whose wedding was canceled because of the pandemic staged a (nonlegal) ceremony within Animal Crossing, a popular video game.
Like a ceremony within a video game, though, it is important to note that any weddings that occur solely in the metaverse are currently not legal. (Even virtual weddings by videoconference, which many states allowed during the height of the pandemic shutdowns, have since been outlawed in New York State and elsewhere.) Still, the metaverse will take these virtual celebrations much, much further, experts say, and offer almost boundless possibilities to couples.


This stuff goes through a predictable cycle: sex (or hookups), meetings, marriages. Here’s “virtual world, real emotions“, about Second Life in 2008. (Where affairs could also lead to divorces.) Plus there have been Zoom weddings.

And here we are at the early stage of the cycle with the Metaverse. Or metaverse. (Former for the proprietary one, latter for multiple ones.)
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Facebook’s dangerous experiment on teen girls • The Atlantic

Jonathan Haidt is a professor at New York University:


Correlation does not prove causation, but nobody has yet found an alternative explanation for the massive, sudden, gendered, multinational deterioration of teen mental health during the period in question.

To be sure, there is evidence on the other side. Dozens of studies and several meta-analyses (studies of groups of studies) have examined the relationship between greater digital-media use and worse teen mental health, and most have found just small correlations, or none at all. The most widely cited of these studies, published in 2019, analyzed 355,000 teens across three large data sets from the U.S. and U.K. The authors found only a tiny correlation—no larger than the correlation of bad mental health with self-reports of “eating potatoes.” Facebook cites this research in its defense.

But here’s the problem with these studies: most lump all screen-based activities together (including those that are harmless, such as watching movies or texting with friends), and most lump boys and girls together. Such studies cannot be used to evaluate the more specific hypothesis that Instagram is harmful to girls. It’s like trying to prove that Saturn has rings when all you have is a dozen blurry photos of the entire night sky.

But as the resolution of the pictures increases, the rings appear. The subset of studies that allow researchers to isolate social media, and Instagram in particular, show a much stronger relationship with poor mental health. The same goes for those that zoom in on girls rather than all teens. Girls who use social media heavily are about two or three times more likely to say that they are depressed than girls who use it lightly or not at all. (For boys, the same is true, but the relationship is smaller.) Most of the experiments that randomly assign people to reduce or give up social media for a week or more show a mental-health benefit, indicating that social media is a cause, not just a correlate.


Haidt’s objection to the apparent lack of correlation (through lumping screen-based activities together) is the same one I had when I looked at this. The chapter I wrote about the effects of social media on children didn’t appear in Social Warming, but it carries much of the same thinking that Haidt outlines in this article.

(Instagram’s Adam Mosseri was testifying to Congress on Wednesday; we’ll see what came of it in the next issue.)
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How TikTok reads your mind • The New York Times

Ben Smith:


The document explains frankly that in the pursuit of the company’s “ultimate goal” of adding daily active users, it has chosen to optimize for two closely related metrics in the stream of videos it serves: “retention” — that is, whether a user comes back — and “time spent.” The app wants to keep you there as long as possible. The experience is sometimes described as an addiction, though it also recalls a frequent criticism of pop culture. The playwright David Mamet, writing scornfully in 1998 about “pseudoart,” observed that “people are drawn to summer movies because they are not satisfying, and so they offer opportunities to repeat the compulsion.”

To analysts who believe algorithmic recommendations pose a social threat, the TikTok document confirms their suspicions.

“This system means that watch time is key. The algorithm tries to get people addicted rather than giving them what they really want,” said Guillaume Chaslot, the founder of Algo Transparency, a group based in Paris that has studied YouTube’s recommendation system and takes a dark view of the effect of the product on children, in particular. Mr. Chaslot reviewed the TikTok document at my request.

“I think it’s a crazy idea to let TikTok’s algorithm steer the life of our kids,” he said. “Each video a kid watches, TikTok gains a piece of information on him. In a few hours, the algorithm can detect his musical tastes, his physical attraction, if he’s depressed, if he might be into drugs, and many other sensitive information. There’s a high risk that some of this information will be used against him. It could potentially be used to micro-target him or make him more addicted to the platform.”


There’s a quote too from a professor of computer science who is puzzled by why people keep asking him about TikTok: “most of what I’ve seen seems pretty normal”, he says, and it’s true, at least in this description. What’s different is how rapaciously it pulls in data, and how furiously it segments users to show them specific videos to appeal to their very particular matrix of interests. *That’s* abnormal.
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The behaviours and attitudes of US adults on Twitter • Pew Research Center

Colleen Mcclain, Regina Widjaya, Gonzalo Rivero and Aaron Smith:


The analysis also reveals another familiar pattern on social media: a relatively small share of highly active users produces the vast majority of content. An analysis of tweets by this representative sample of US adult Twitter users from June 12 to Sept. 12, 2021 finds that the most active 25% of US adults on Twitter by tweet volume produced 97% of all tweets from these users.

High-volume tweeters differ from less prolific tweeters in important ways. A majority visit the site daily, and roughly one-in-five say they do so too many times to count on a typical day. Their use of Twitter also carries a more overtly political valence: They are more likely than others to say the site has increased how politically engaged they feel in the past year. 

They also respond differently to the presence of certain negative interactions on the platform. High-volume tweeters are roughly twice as likely as others to say they have personally experienced harassing or abusive behavior on the platform (24%, vs. 11% of less active tweeters). But they are less likely to view the overall tone or civility of discussions on the site as a major problem (by a margin of 27% to 42%).

Among the other key findings of this research:
• Although they produce the vast majority of content, highly active tweeters produce relatively few original tweets and receive little engagement from the broader Twitter audience. From June 12 to Sept. 12, 2021, original posts comprised just 14% of tweets from the top quarter of US adults on Twitter by tweet volume. The vast majority of posts produced by this group were either retweets (49% of the total) or replies to other users (33%).

• Posts from this group also receive little engagement from other users in the form of likes or retweets. Despite producing 65 tweets of any type per month on average during the period under observation, US adults in the top 25% of users based on tweet volume received an average of just 37 likes and one retweet per month.


Network effects, Pareto’s law, the power law, whatever you want to call it: that’s how it is. The popular and noticed get more popular and noticed; the rest mostly don’t.
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If you want to understand how social networks drag users in and keep them there, read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more. (The power law, and the explanation for why it occurs again and again online, also makes a number of appearances.)

Apple reaches quiet truce over iPhone privacy changes • Financial Times

Patrick McGee:


Apple has allowed app developers to collect data from its 1bn iPhone users for targeted advertising, in an unacknowledged shift that lets companies follow a much looser interpretation of its controversial privacy policy.

In May Apple communicated its privacy changes to the wider public, launching an advert that featured a harassed man whose daily activities were closely monitored by an ever-growing group of strangers. When his iPhone prompted him to “Ask App Not to Track”, he clicked it and they vanished. Apple’s message to potential customers was clear — if you choose an iPhone, you are choosing privacy.

But seven months later, companies including Snap and Facebook have been allowed to keep sharing user-level signals from iPhones, as long as that data is anonymised and aggregated rather than tied to specific user profiles.

For instance Snap has told investors that it plans to share data from its 306m users — including those who ask Snap “not to track” — so advertisers can gain “a more complete, real-time view” on how ad campaigns are working. Any personally identifiable data will first be obfuscated and aggregated.

Similarly, Facebook operations chief Sheryl Sandberg said the social media group was engaged in a “multiyear effort” to rebuild ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymised data”.


Seems fair enough: Apple does that sort of obfuscated tracking for itself, so this is only reasonable.
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Apple CEO Tim Cook reportedly signed a secret $275bn deal with China in 2016 to skirt challenges with government regulators • Business Insider via Yahoo

Sarah Jackson on the story first reported by The Information, which fills in some gaps that hadn’t been clear from previous reports in the NY Times and others:


Apple’s government affairs team in China created a memo of understanding with the country’s National Development and Reform Commission to sweeten relations with Chinese leaders, and company leaders made it a priority to meet with top Chinese officials after the 2016 crackdown hit iTunes books and movies, a person familiar with the deal told The Information.

The deal included commitments from Apple to help Chinese manufacturers build “the most advanced manufacturing technologies” and train workers. It also included vows to tap Chinese suppliers for more parts for Apple devices, strike deals with Chinese software companies, work with Chinese universities on technology, and invest “many billions of dollars more” than Apple was already pouring into China, according to The Information. Some investments were to go toward Chinese technology companies; other outlined beneficiaries included new retail stores, renewable energy projects, and research and development centers.

In line with China’s 13th Five-Year Plan, Apple further committed to “grow together with Chinese enterprises to achieve mutual benefits and a win-win situation,” help develop China’s IT industries, and promote science, technology, education, and environmental protection, according to The Information. In exchange, China agreed to offer “necessary support and assistance.”

Outside of the deal, Apple made other concessions with the Chinese government to keep business running. By early 2015, China’s State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping had directed Apple Maps to make the Diaoyu Islands, or Senkaku Islands, which China and Japan both claim to own, look big even when zoomed out; regulators said they’d refuse to approve the Apple Watch if Apple didn’t comply, according to internal documents viewed by The Information.


Quite the leverage China has there. Apple doesn’t have anything much to fight it with; the best it can hope for is symbiosis.
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Apple gets appeals court to delay App Store changes in Epic Games Fortnite case, for now • CNET

Ian Sherr:


Apple scored another win in its legal battles with Fortnite maker Epic Games when the US District Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed Wednesday to delay a judge’s order to make changes to the way app developers accept payments in Apple’s App Store. Apple now has until its appeals process with Epic concludes, which could take years.

“Apple has demonstrated, at minimum, that its appeal raises serious questions,” two judges from the court of appeals wrote. 

The ruling follows a flurry of competing filings from Epic and Apple arguing about how much control the iPhone maker should have over its App Store. Epic unsuccessfully argued to a US District Judge in California that Apple should be forced to allow app developers more freedom, both in how they offer apps to iPhone and iPad owners and how they charge customers. 

If Apple hadn’t prevailed in its request, it would’ve been forced to allow people to pay a developer directly when seeking to pay for extra lives in a game or a new look for their character, rather than using Apple’s in-app purchase system. That service, which Apple has operated since 2008, charges developers up to a 30% commission on any digital items bought within apps.


“Could take years”. The revolution has been delayed, again.
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Boris Johnson moves to Plan B to control Omicron spread • Financial Times

Sebastian Payne, George Parker, Laura Hughes and Oliver Barnes:


[Prime Minister Boris] Johnson added that following the media reports, he had been repeatedly told that there had been no Downing Street party and no Covid rules had been broken. He said any relevant evidence from Case’s inquiry would be handed over to the Metropolitan Police.

However, the inquiry will not examine reports of other Downing Street parties on November 13 and November 27, which would have also breached Covid restrictions on gatherings.

The Metropolitan Police on Wednesday announced it would not investigate the party allegations due to an “absence of evidence” and the force’s policy not to investigate retrospective breaches of coronavirus regulations.

The new restrictions and Johnson’s handling of the row over Christmas parties has tarnished his standing in the Conservative party. One minister described the situation as “completely appalling”, adding: “I feel really quite repulsed by it and cannot believe they allowed it to get this place.”

The minister added that MPs were increasingly discussing whether Johnson’s time in power could be drawing to a close. “In a way I haven’t heard before, colleagues I wouldn’t have expected are talking about what the end-game might be for the PM.”


In the UK, this is the hottest possible topic. There are now reports of at least four parties in 10 Downing St, at least one of which Johnson attended, while the rest of the country was in hefty lockdown. This is going to continue; more heads will roll.
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Three myths of the Great Resignation • The Atlantic

Derek Thompson:


One problem with the term Great Resignation is that resignation sounds like a pure subtraction. If I told you, “My company suffered a great resignation last year,” you’d probably think that the company had lost a lot of workers. If I continued, “And the firm grew by 20 percent!” you might be very confused.

But that’s what’s happening in the broader economy. The increase in quits is mostly about low-wage workers switching to better jobs in industries that are raising wages to grab new employees as fast as possible. From the quitter’s perspective, that’s a job hop. The low-wage service-sector economy is experiencing the equivalent of “free agency” in a professional sports league. That makes it more like the Big Switch than the Big Quit.

Let’s zoom in on one sector: the accommodations and food-services industry. Mostly composed of restaurants and hotels, this sector has seen more quits than any other part of the economy. But it’s not bleeding jobs. Quite the opposite: Accommodation and food services added 2 million employees in 2021, more than any other subsector I could identify.

(2) …quits aren’t rising much in finance, real estate, or the broad information sector, which includes publishing, software, and internet companies. This year, quits for leisure and hospitality workers have increased four times faster than for the largest white-collar sector, which is professional and business services.

I’m not saying “Stop talking about burnout; it’s just for rich people.” I’m suggesting that we shouldn’t conflate white-collar burnout with whatever’s driving lower-wage service workers to hop around.


Seems the real “Great Resignation” comes from those aged over 65 finally checking out of the workforce, at least in the US.
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Omicron weakens vaccine protection, but boosters revive defenses, early data finds • Ars Technica

Beth Mole:


The freshest data comes from preliminary results reported online Wednesday morning by Pfizer and BioNTech.

The companies conducted laboratory experiments that pitted antibodies from the blood serum of vaccinated people against a pseudovirus engineered to mimic the omicron variant. The experiments specifically measured the activity of neutralizing antibodies, which are a subset of antibodies that can bind to SARS-CoV-2 virus particles in such a way that the virus is prevented from entering human cells. Neutralizing antibodies are the most potent at preventing infection, but the immune system also produces a diverse array of other antibodies that can help fight an infection. Additionally, the immune system has protective cell-based responses that are not captured in these types of laboratory experiments.

In experiments using the blood sera of people fully vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (two doses), neutralizing antibody levels fell 25-fold against the omicron-mimicking pseudovirus compared with levels seen against a pseudovirus mimicking an older version of the virus. But when the companies looked at blood sera from fully vaccinated people one month after they received a vaccine booster shot (three doses), neutralizing antibody levels rebounded 25-fold against omicron, making them comparable to neutralizing antibody levels seen against older versions of the virus.

“Although two doses of the vaccine may still offer protection against severe disease caused by the omicron strain, it’s clear from these preliminary data that protection is improved with a third dose of our vaccine,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement. “Ensuring as many people as possible are fully vaccinated with the first two-dose series and a booster remains the best course of action to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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