Start Up No.1799: why Twitter lost its celebrities, making computers much faster, Facebook plans hardware cuts, and more


In a radical experiment, plants have been grown in Moon soil (here on Earth). Does that mean we could do the same up there? CC-licensed photo by NASA on The CommonsNASA on The Commons on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Nineteen down! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


For celebrities, Twitter is no longer the place to be. Can Elon Musk bring them back? • The Washington Post

Taylor Lorenz, Steven Zeitchik and Will Oremus:

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Interviews with 17 people who represent, consult and tweet for celebrities show that Twitter is viewed as a high-risk, low-reward platform for many A-list entertainers. It’s a place where the discourse has become so politicized that many prefer not to engage personally at all, delegating tweeting duties to underlings or outside agents who post anodyne promotional messages. They have also been turned off by harassment or abuse.

Instead, they’ve turned to platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, which offer slicker video tools and more-robust safety features that give users more ways of blocking out unwanted interactions.

Twitter declined to comment but pointed to examples of celebrities who remain highly active on the platform. For instance, the actress Zendaya, who has nearly 21 million followers, tweets during each episode of the TV show “Euphoria,” and rapper Kendrick Lamar, with almost 12 million followers, announced his new album via tweet.

…the 2016 election further polarized Twitter as Trump-related news began to crowd out other trending topics.

Embracing the shift, Twitter began billing itself as a news app and changed its category in app stores from social networking, where it had been listed alongside rivals such as Facebook and Instagram, to news. But entertainers balked at hurling themselves into online discourse and the news cycle.

“Once Trump came into office, politics became such a huge thing,” said music executive Freddie Morris, former VP of digital at Career Artist Management, who ran celebrities’ social strategies on Twitter. Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine “went from Twitter to Instagram, like a lot of artists, and never came back.” While Levine still has a Twitter account, posts are primarily from his team and he’s not nearly as active or candid as before. He has nearly twice as many followers on Instagram as on Twitter.

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Personally I never* follow anyone who has more than (at most) 250,000 followers, because they tend to be broadcasters; understandably because the level of responses is just bonkers if they’re the least bit interactive – and Twitter almost demands interactivity, unlike Instagram. I don’t see any obvious way for Twitter to change that.

* exception for Chrissy Teigen. Relatably human. (But: hasn’t tweeted for more than a month.)
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Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal fires two top executives, freezes hiring • The Verge

Richard Lawler:

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Twitter is shaking up its top leadership. The first move came as consumer product leader Kayvon Beykpour announced on Twitter that current CEO Parag Agrawal “asked me to leave after letting me know that he wants to take the team in a different direction.”

Bruce Falck, the general manager of revenue and head of product for its business side, confirmed in a (now deleted) tweet that he was also fired by Agrawal.

Now Jay Sullivan, who we spoke to in March about Twitter’s plans to add 100 million daily users, will take over as both the head of product and interim head of revenue. These moves are occurring at the same time Elon Musk moves forward with his $44bn purchase of Twitter, although he hasn’t taken ownership of the company yet.

In a memo to employees obtained by The Verge, Agrawal wrote, “At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, the decision was made to invest aggressively to deliver big growth in audience and revenue, and as a company we did not hit intermediate milestones that enable confidence in these goals.”

Twitter spokesperson Adrian Zamora confirmed the changes, saying in a statement to The Verge, “We can confirm that Kayvon Beykpour and Bruce Falck are leaving Twitter. Jay Sullivan is the new GM of Bluebird and interim GM of Goldbird. Effective this week, we are pausing most hiring and backfills, except for business critical roles. We are pulling back on non-labor costs to ensure we are being responsible and efficient.”

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What madness is this, where Twitter is firing people before the takeover? Is Agrawal just taking out some sort of animus against people while he can? One of them was still on parental leave.

And speaking of that takeover..
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Twitter market cap has dropped to $9bn below Musk purchase price • CNBC

Lauren Feiner:

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As Elon Musk pursues ownership of Twitter, shares of the social media company are dropping, suggesting some concern among investors that the deal won’t reach the finish line.

Twitter has slid about 12% since reaching its high for the year in late April. As of midday on Thursday, the stock was trading at around $46, well below the $54.20 that Musk agreed to pay on April 27. The difference represents about $9bn in market value.

Though Twitter’s board approved the purchase, it could still take months for the deal to close, and there’s no guarantee that it will. Musk would have to pay a $1bn breakup fee should he choose to walk away. The Tesla CEO is worth more than $220bn.

“The market is having marginally less confidence that the deal will go through due to regulatory challenges,” Mark Mahaney, an analyst at Evercore ISI, said in an email, adding that this is his “very quick interpretation” of the stock movement.

Before Musk made his bid to buy Twitter outright, he failed to disclose a more than 9% stake in the company within the SEC’s mandatory 10-day window.

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There must be some prediction market for how likely this deal is to go through, but I can’t find it on a quick search. Suggestions welcome.

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Fastest-ever logic gates could make computers a million times faster • New Atlas

Michael Irving:

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Logic gates are the fundamental building blocks of computers, and researchers at the University of Rochester have now developed the fastest ones ever created. By zapping graphene and gold with laser pulses, the new logic gates are a million times faster than those in existing computers, demonstrating the viability of “lightwave electronics.”

Logic gates take two inputs, compare them, and then output a signal based on the result. They can, for example, output a 1 if both incoming signals are a 1 or a 0, or if either or neither of them is a 1, among other “rules.” Billions of individual logic gates are crammed into chips to create processors, memory and other electronic components.

Logic gates don’t work instantaneously though – there’s a delay on the order of nanoseconds as they process the inputs. That’s plenty fast enough for modern computers, but there’s always room for improvement. And now the Rochester team’s new logic gates blow them out of the water, processing information in mere femtoseconds, which are a million times shorter than nanoseconds.

To reach these extreme speeds, the team made junctions consisting of a graphene wire connecting two gold electrodes. When the graphene was zapped with synchronized pairs of laser pulses, electrons in the material were excited, sending them zipping off towards one of the electrodes, generating an electrical current.

By adjusting the phase of the laser pulses, the team was able to generate a burst of one of two types of charge carriers, which would either add up or cancel each other out – the former can be considered a 1 output and the latter a 0. The end result is an ultrafast logic gate, marking the first proof of concept of an as-yet theoretical field known as lightwave electronics.

“It will probably be a very long time before this technique can be used in a computer chip, but at least we now know that lightwave electronics is practically possible,” said Tobias Boolakee, lead researcher on the study.

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This is a bit like a speedometer on a car saying 160mph: you’re highly unlikely ever to achieve it. But it can give you a warm feeling knowing it might be possible.
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A first: scientists grow plants in soil from Moon • EurekAlert!

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Scientists have grown plants in soil from the Moon, a first in human history and a milestone in lunar and space exploration.

In a new paper published in the journal Communications Biology, University of Florida researchers showed that plants can successfully sprout and grow in lunar soil. Their study also investigated how plants respond biologically to the Moon’s soil, also known as lunar regolith, which is radically different from soil found on Earth.

This work is a first step toward one day growing plants for food and oxygen on the Moon or during space missions. More immediately, this research comes as the Artemis Program plans to return humans to the Moon.

“Artemis will require a better understanding of how to grow plants in space,” said Rob Ferl, one of the study’s authors and a distinguished professor of horticultural sciences in the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

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I guess the astronauts could provide the fertiliser, The Martian-style? In this experiment they added some “nutrient solution”. One has to bear in mind that the plants would be under cover, and protected from the harsh vacuum. Even so it sounds like a pretty tough challenge.
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Exclusive: Facebook-owner Meta tells hardware staffers to prepare for cutbacks • Reuters

Katie Paul:

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Facebook-owner Meta Platforms is preparing cutbacks in its Reality Labs division, a unit at the center of the company’s strategy to refocus on hardware products and the “metaverse,” a spokesperson confirmed to Reuters on Wednesday.

Chief Technology Officer Andrew Bosworth told Reality Labs staffers during a weekly Q&A session on Tuesday to expect the changes to be announced within a week, according to a summary of his comments viewed by Reuters.

The Meta spokesperson confirmed that Bosworth told staffers the division could not afford to do some projects anymore and would have to postpone others, without specifying which projects would be affected. She said Meta was not planning layoffs as part of the changes.

The world’s biggest social media company last month told investors that it would scale back costs in 2022, following a drop in Facebook users early this year that caused the stock to plunge. read more

In an earnings call in late April, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said Meta planned to “slow the pace” of some longer-term investments in areas like its business platform, artificial intelligence infrastructure and Reality Labs.

Meta lowered its expected 2022 total expenses to between $87bn and $92bn, down from its prior outlook of between $90bn and $95bn. Last week, it told employees it was reducing hiring for most mid-to-senior-level positions, as initially reported by Insider.

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Good to know that even Facebook has some limits on the crazy money it will spend on the metaverse stuff.
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How Facebook undercut the Oversight Board • Platformer

Casey Newton:

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In the wake of Meta’s decision to allow calls for violence against the invaders, Russia said it had engaged in “extremist” activities. That potentially put hundreds of Meta employees at risk of being jailed. And while the company has now successfully removed its employees from the country, the extremism language could mean that they will never be allowed to return to the country so long as they work at Meta. Moreover, it could mean that employees’ families in Russia could still be subject to persecution.

There is precedent for both outcomes under Russia’s extremism laws.

So what does the Oversight Board have to do with it?

Meta had asked [the Oversight Board] for a fairly broad opinion about its approach to moderation and Russia. The board has already shown a willingness to make expansive policy recommendations, even on narrower cases submitted by users. After asking for the opinion, the company’s legal and security teams became concerned that anything the board said might somehow be used against employees or their families in Russia, either now or in the future.

Technically, the Oversight Board is a distinct entity from Meta. But plenty of Westerners still refuse to recognize that distinction, and company lawyers worried that Russia wouldn’t, either.

All of this is compounded by the fact that tech platforms have gotten little to no support to date, from either the United States or the European Union, in their struggles to keep key communication services up and running in Russia and Ukraine. It’s not obvious to me what western democracies could do to reduce platforms’ fears about how Russia might treat employees and their families. But discussions with executives at several big tech companies over the past year have made it clear that they all feel like they’re out on a limb.

All that said, today’s news still represents a significant blow to the Oversight Board’s already fragile credibility — and arguably reduces its value to Facebook.

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The Oversight Board’s authority was never huge, and it’s being eroded bit by bit.
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Some top 100,000 websites collect everything you type—before you hit submit • WIRED

Lily Hay Newman:

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Researchers from KU Leuven, Radboud University, and University of Lausanne crawled and analyzed the top 100,000 websites, looking at scenarios in which a user is visiting a site while in the European Union and visiting a site from the United States. They found that 1,844 websites gathered an EU user’s email address without their consent, and a staggering 2,950 logged a US user’s email in some form. Many of the sites seemingly do not intend to conduct the data-logging but incorporate third-party marketing and analytics services that cause the behavior.

After specifically crawling sites for password leaks in May 2021, the researchers also found 52 websites in which third parties, including the Russian tech giant Yandex, were incidentally collecting password data before submission. The group disclosed their findings to these sites, and all 52 instances have since been resolved.

“If there’s a Submit button on a form, the reasonable expectation is that it does something—that it will submit your data when you click it,” says Güneş Acar, a professor and researcher in Radboud University’s digital security group and one of the leaders of the study. “We were super surprised by these results. We thought maybe we were going to find a few hundred websites where your email is collected before you submit, but this exceeded our expectations by far.”

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Grabbing your password before you submit it? That’s pretty bad.
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Crypto industry shaken as Tether’s dollar peg snaps • Financial Times

Adam Samson, Scott Chipolina and Eva Szalay:

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Tether aims to maintain a peg to the dollar by keeping up a store of reserves of traditional assets. There are 80bn Tether tokens in circulation, meaning it should hold $80bn in assets — a sum that compares with the biggest hedge funds in the world. But details around how those reserves are managed are scant, and not subject to audits under internationally recognised accounting standards.

Paolo Ardoino, Tether’s chief technology officer, on Thursday vowed to defend the token’s dollar peg and said the company had bought “a ton” of US government debt, which it is willing to offload in that effort. But in an interview with the Financial Times, he declined to give details about its $40bn hoard of US government bonds because he did not “want to give our secret sauce”.

“Our counterparties are not public. We are not a public company,” he said. “So we keep that information [to] ourselves, but we are working with many big institutions in the traditional financial space.” 

The coins can be lent as collateral for trading, or to generate high yields in the form of interest. They are supposed to have a fixed price and be backed by reserves at all times, allowing users to redeem them. However, critics have questioned where some stablecoins keep their reserves and whether the assets can be quickly recovered and redeemed.

Last year, the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission fined Tether $41m, claiming the company made “untrue or misleading” statements about its reserves.

Ardoino also said the stablecoin issuer is working on obtaining an audit, but said the big accounting firms “are quite scared for reputational risk in touching crypto at this moment”. Tether has had $2bn in redemption requests in the past day, an unusually high number, Ardoino added.

He said the group had recently been shifting away from holdings of commercial paper, a type of short-term corporate debt typically sold by highly rated companies, to Treasury bills. Treasury bills now account for around half of the group’s $80bn in reserves, he added.

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I don’t for a moment believe that Tether holds $80bn of assets, and nor does the CFTC. But it’s a convenient fiction for those who use the crypto markets to think that it does and so they’re not just passing Monopoly notes around when they do transactions. If they stop believing that, though…

(There’s also an in-depth writeup of what happened to UST/Luna.)
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• 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?

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


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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