Start Up No.1728: Facebook users decline, Windows wins supply fight over Chromebooks, goodbye Google, all about Covid, and more

Early this century, phone companies wanted customer service to make video calls. They wouldn’t. What’s changed? CC-licensed photo by Karl Baron on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not yet down by a million users. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook loses users globally for the first time in its history • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Will Oremus:


Facebook parent Meta’s quarterly earnings report on Wednesday revealed a startling statistic: for the first time, the company’s growth is stagnating around the world.

User growth on the Facebook app — a constant since it created its viral social network in 2004 — fell by about half a million users in the first three months of 2021, to 1.93 billion users logging in each day. The loss was greatest in Africa and Latin America, suggesting that the company’s product is saturated globally, and that its long quest to add as many users as possible has peaked.

Facebook also showed for the first time on Wednesday what a tiny fraction of revenue is earned from its investment in virtual and augmented reality hardware, a suite of products the company dubs the metaverse.

Facebook Reality Labs, the company’s hardware division that builds the Oculus Quest headset, has revenue of $877m, reflecting stronger-than-expected sales during the holiday season.

But that figure is a tiny fraction of its revenue — $33.67bn last quarter — a figure that is primarily derived from targeted advertising on its main social network.


Those are huge numbers though for targeted advertising. Stagnating, perhaps, but it’s still a colossal engine for making money, just like Google’s search.

Trouble comes when people aren’t spending time on the site, or when they simply delete their accounts. (Though, as was pointed out about this drop in user numbers, it could be that Facebook has got better at deleting fake accounts: a million in two billion is 0.05%, which could just be better admin.)
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Windows PCs prioritized over Chromebooks in components shortage • Ars Technica

Scharon Harding:


In a tech world still hindered by component shortages, choices have to be made. And in the world of laptops, it seems that choice is Windows-based devices over those running Chrome OS.

IDC on Monday released early data from its latest Worldwide Quarterly Personal Computing Device Tracker. It pointed to a sharp 63.6% decline in Chromebook shipments, which the IDC defines as “shipments to distribution channels or end users, in Q4 2021 (4.8m shipments) compared to Q4 2020 with (13.1m shipments).”

In addition to market saturation, supply issues also hurt Chromebook shipments, as the industry still struggles with a deficit of PC components, from CPUs to integrated circuits for Wi-Fi modules and power management.

“Supply has also been unusually tight for Chromebooks as component shortages have led vendors to prioritize Windows machines due to their higher price tags, further suppressing Chromebook shipments on a global scale,” Jitesh Ubrani, research manager with IDC’s Mobility and Consumer Device Trackers, said in a statement accompanying Monday’s announcement.


Which confirms what I thought might have happened: that Chromebook sales paused in Q4 after having a good Q3. That would explain how Apple could have a blowout quarter for new MacBook Pro sales while Windows could claim to have “increase market [sales] share”.

Even with a fantastic quarter, Apple couldn’t have increased sales by 8.3m (the Chromebook difference in sales).
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Covid sufferers become infectious quicker than first thought, study shows • Financial Times

Clive Cookson and Oliver Telling:


The world’s first study in which volunteers were deliberately infected with Covid-19 found that people started to develop symptoms and become infectious to others after just two days, much quicker than expected.

Scientists had previously estimated this incubation period to be five days.

The UK government-funded “human challenge” trial found that levels of the Sars-Cov-2 virus in the nose and throat peaked after five days, though participants remained infectious for an average of nine days and a maximum of 12 days after exposure.

The researchers said their results support guidance that people should quarantine for 10 days after they first feel Covid symptoms or have a positive test result.

The study took place in a special unit at the Royal Free Hospital in London. Eighteen of the 34 volunteers aged 18 to 29 became infected after receiving a low dose of the original Sars-Cov-2 strain via droplets in the nose.

None suffered serious symptoms though 13 temporarily lost their sense of smell. Only one volunteer still had that symptom after six months.

“Our study reveals some very interesting clinical insights, particularly around the short incubation period of the virus and extremely high viral shedding from the nose,” said Christopher Chiu, professor in infectious diseases at Imperial College London, who was the trial’s chief investigator.


That 18/34 figure is telling. The infectious period too. Amazing that it’s taken us this long to get solid data; and for the omicron variant, the infection period is probably shorter and so will the infected ratio be.
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Upland, blockchain, NFTs: the weird future of geospatial AR • Protocol

Janko Roettgers:


It’s the stuff of nightmares: The other day, I found my property occupied by a stranger, who was renting it out, Airbnb style.

The good news: I’m OK. I wasn’t actually evicted from my own home — at least not in this world. Someone had acquired my property in Upland, a blockchain-powered game that allows people to buy, develop, rent out and sell virtual land parcels based on real-world property borders. It’s a bit like Monopoly, played on top of Google Maps, with virtual land speculation happening on a gamified version of the real world.

With bright and colorful imagery, and a goofy-looking llama as a mascot, Upland emphasizes that it’s all fun and games. That’s true for its economy as well, as most of its in-game transactions have little to no monetary value in the real world. The person who bought my property currently makes the equivalent of 4 cents a month in Upland’s in-game currency by renting it out to other players.

However, Upland has big ambitions, which include eventually expanding into AR, and providing its data via APIs to third-party developers who may one day be able to build their own game and nongame applications with it. And the company is not alone: A small but growing number of startups and crypto initiatives have begun selling and renting out AR spaces tied to real-world addresses. One day, these efforts could be key to telling your smart glasses which information to display as you look at a famous landmark, or even your neighbor’s home.

This brings up a ton of questions: Who should have the rights to an AR layer tied to a physical address? What does it mean that these AR properties are being divided up among early adopters before most people even know they exist? Will we see the same issues that have plagued real world real estate, including gentrification and displacement, replicated in AR?

And, on a more personal level: What should I do about my virtual squatter?


This is a bit weird, though, really.
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North Korea hacked him. So he took down its internet • WIRED

Andy Greenberg:


Just over a year ago, an independent hacker who goes by the handle P4x was himself hacked by North Korean spies. P4x was just one victim of a hacking campaign that targeted Western security researchers with the apparent aim of stealing their hacking tools and details about software vulnerabilities. He says he managed to prevent those hackers from swiping anything of value from him. But he nonetheless felt deeply unnerved by state-sponsored hackers targeting him personally—and by the lack of any visible response from the US government.

So after a year of letting his resentment simmer, P4x has taken matters into his own hands. “It felt like the right thing to do here. If they don’t see we have teeth, it’s just going to keep coming,” says the hacker. (P4x spoke to WIRED and shared screen recordings to verify his responsibility for the attacks but declined to use his real name for fear of prosecution or retaliation.) “I want them to understand that if you come at us, it means some of your infrastructure is going down for a while.”

P4x says he’s found numerous known but unpatched vulnerabilities in North Korean systems that have allowed him to singlehandedly launch “denial-of-service” attacks on the servers and routers the country’s few internet-connected networks depend on. For the most part, he declined to publicly reveal those vulnerabilities, which he argues would help the North Korean government defend against his attacks. But he named, as an example, a known bug in the web server software NginX that mishandles certain HTTP headers, allowing the servers that run the software to be overwhelmed and knocked offline. He also alluded to finding “ancient” versions of the web server software Apache, and says he’s started to examine North Korea’s own national homebrew operating system, known as Red Star OS, which he described as an old and likely vulnerable version of Linux.


There used to be a saying when the internet was young – “don’t annoy the wizards”. North Korea may not have heard it. Might know it now.
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On racialized tech organizations and complaint: a goodbye to Google • Medium

Alex Hanna finished working on the AI team at Google on Wednesday:


Even though it was unstated, Google’s Ethical AI team has (and continues) to exemplify a deep ethic — learned and emerging from a Black feminist tradition — of growth, nurturing, and wanting to see each other succeed. For that, I want to give our erstwhile co-leads the deepest appreciation. I’m going to deeply miss all of my teammates.

But Google’s toxic problems are no mystery to anyone who’s been there for more than a few months, or who have been following the tech news with a critical eye. Many folks — especially Black women like April Curley and Timnit — have made clear just how deep the rot is in the institution. I am quitting because I’m tired. I could spend time rehashing the litany of ill treatment by Google management from prior organizers or how the heads of diversity and inclusion are implicated in the company’s union-busting, which we know thanks to the case brought by the whistleblowers illegally fired for organizing against ICE, CPB, and homophobia on YouTube.

I could describe, at length, my own experiences, being in rooms when higher-level managers yelled defensively at my colleagues and me when we pointed out the very direct harm that their products were causing to a marginalized population. I could rehash how Google management promotes, at lightning speed, people who have little interest in mitigating the worst harms of sociotechnical systems, compared to people who put their careers on the line to prevent those harms.

I could do that. But I’ve also learned, thanks to my doctoral training in sociology, that one must expand one’s personal problems into the structural, to recognize what’s rotten at the local level as an instantiation of the institutional.


Ouch. There is a culture problem at Google – or more exactly, there’s a culture collision problem. I wonder to what extent such a collision would happen in the UK.
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Solving the Wordle puzzle • The Atlantic

Ian Bogost:


In the game, you get six guesses to solve a puzzle. When it comes to the puzzle of Wordle, I’m going to solve it for you in four: its unoriginal design, its ritual comfort, its interpretive sharing mechanism, and—one that may disappoint you, but that you need to accept—the fact that it’s just a game, and games are fun.

Many game designers will tell you that games need to be easy to learn but hard to master. The fallacy comes from the history of Pong, one of the first popular coin-operated electronic games. Before he came up with the idea for Pong, Nolan Bushnell, who co-founded Atari, first tried to re-create a cosmic-dogfight game popular in university labs for the everyperson. The result, a coin-operated game with a plethora of indistinguishable buttons called Computer Space, was a commercial failure. But Pong was simple. It had just one knob for each player, along with an engraved instruction: insert coin. avoid missing ball for high score.

The thing is, Pong didn’t succeed because it was simple. After all, chess and Go, two games with the greatest longevity and the highest status in history, are not easy to learn. Neither is Fortnite or League of Legends. No, Pong worked because it was unoriginal: Ping-Pong, but on a weird, new computer at the bar—which wasn’t that weird and new in a context where pinball and mechanical games were commonplace.

Wordle is likewise unoriginal.


We’ve all heard about Wordle, but the diversion into the question of what makes some games stick, while others don’t, is worthwhile.
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Video calls for customer service: what changed? • Terence Eden’s Blog

Eden was working for Vodafone in the early 2000s, when it had spent billions (yes) on 3G frequencies, and wanted to show customers how totally awesome 3G was:


The project we were working on was to incentivise customers to make video calls. That’s hard to do when you’re the only one of your social circle with a Video Phone.

So here was the plan – within 24 hours of buying and activating their new phone, each customer should receive a video call from customer service. The call was, ostensibly, to ask them how they were enjoying their new phone. But, really, it was to show them the awesome coolness of being able to make and receive video calls.

The project never launched. There were technical blockers – without decent 3G coverage, people’s first call would be a horrible experience and probably put them off. There were cost blockers – video calls were significantly more expensive than voice calls. But there were two powerful social elements.

The first was that executives couldn’t find enough attractive call centre workers. No joke! They didn’t outright say that they wanted to institute a “no mingers” policy – but it was very obvious that their idea of “making a good impression” involved a certain amount of conventional attractiveness.

The second was that call centre workers didn’t want to expose their faces to callers! Anyone who has worked in a call centre knows that members of the public can be abusive arseholes. Staff were incredibly nervous about being seen. It was a fundamental change in the relationship between the customer and the agent. Being face-to-face is an important part of customer experience, but this was such a huge shake-up that it led to serious resistance.


Yet, as he documents, with examples, that has completely changed now.
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Battery breakthrough achieves energy density necessary for electric planes • The Independent

Anthony Cuthbertson:


Researchers have achieved a world-leading energy density with a next-generation battery design, paving the way for long-distance electric planes.

The lithium-air battery, developed at the Japanese National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS), had an energy density of over 500Wh/kg. By comparison, lithium-ion batteries found in Tesla vehicles have an energy density of 260Wh/kg.

The new battery can also be charged and discharged at normal operating temperatures, making them practical for use in a technologies ranging from drones, to household appliances.

According to the researchers, the battery “shows the highest energy densities and best life cycle performance ever achieved” and marks a major step forward in realising the potential of this energy storage.

“Lithium-air batteries have the potential to be the ultimate rechargeable batteries: they are lightweight and high capacity, with theoretical energy densities several times that of currently available lithium ion batteries,” according to a release posted by NIMS.

The team is now planning to implement other materials into the battery with the aim of significantly increasing the battery’s cycle life.

Energy density has been the biggest obstacle towards the advancement of electric planes, with 500Wh/kg viewed as an important benchmark for achieving both long-haul and high-capacity flights.

Lithium-air batteries have the potential to hold up to five times more energy than lithium-ion batteries of the same size (3,460 Wh/kg), however previous experimental designs have consistently failed beyond the lab scale.


“Paving the way” is always one of those “now file it away while they work on it for ten years” phrases.
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Tumblr is everything (or, How the snowflakes won) • The Atlantic

Kaitlyn Tiffany:


[In its heyday] Tumblr users could easily collect images and phrases that would help them construct a pretty shadow box of political positions and cultural signifiers. They often had a much harder time using those images and phrases correctly, as determined by an online community that could easily get carried away and didn’t leave a ton of room for error. “Tumblr also had this darker side,” Melanie Kohnen, an assistant professor of rhetoric and media studies at Lewis & Clark University, told me. “This intense emotional engagement that was prevalent in Tumblr culture and the articulation of emotion could play out in ways that were not always healthy.”

Tumblr was often criticized for its purity culture—conversations could go nuclear as soon as someone was deemed “problematic,” or once their “fav” had been declared “canceled.” Anonymous “Ask” boxes enabled anonymous harassment, and dogpiling was a common experience for anyone who misspoke. Deleting an offending post often did little to defuse a situation, because the post would still be preserved on the pages of anyone who had reblogged it. Tumblr’s “cascading” dynamic became a source of endless punishment, and cancel culture, as it’s understood and fought over today, can be said to have emerged from its milieu.


However now…


According to data provided by the analytics company Similarweb, visits to Tumblr’s website and mobile apps declined more than 40% from October 2018 to October 2021, while the number of unique visitors dropped 17.5%. Tumblr no longer has its place on the list of internet spaces—Instagram, TikTok, Discord—that seem most responsible for driving internet culture and shaping the sensibilities of the up-and-coming generation. The site has been sold and sold again, shedding clout through both the natural aging process for social-media platforms and an unnatural run of tragic corporate mismanagement. (Also: It has seemingly never figured out how to make money.)


Basically defined the people who could be called “extremely online”.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: I’m reliably informed that there are roundabouts in America. My comment: not enough, evidently.

• 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?

Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.

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