Start Up No.1824: Facebook’s indifference to elections, on Ukraine’s front line, a crypto phone (again?), Netflix confirms ad tier, and more

We’re familiar with the concept of the long tail, which suggests that there’s more business in niches than the mainstream. But as the web matures, is that really true? CC-licensed photo by Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr.

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A selection of 8 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

As midterms loom, Mark Zuckerberg shifts focus away from elections • The New York Times

Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang:


Safeguarding elections is no longer Mr. Zuckerberg’s top concern, said four Meta employees with knowledge of the situation. Instead, he is focused on transforming his company into a provider of the immersive world of the metaverse, which he sees as the next frontier of growth, said the people, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

The shift in emphasis at Meta, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, could have far-reaching consequences as faith in the U.S. electoral system reaches a brittle point. The hearings on the Jan. 6 Capitol riots have underlined how precarious elections can be. And dozens of political candidates are running this November on the false premise that former President Donald J. Trump was robbed of the 2020 election, with social media platforms continuing to be a key way to reach American voters.

Election misinformation remains rampant online. This month, “2000 Mules,” a film that falsely claims the 2020 election was stolen from Mr. Trump, was widely shared on Facebook and Instagram, garnering more than 430,000 interactions, according to an analysis by The New York Times. In posts about the film, commenters said they expected election fraud this year and warned against using mail-in voting and electronic voting machines.

Other social media companies have also pulled back some of their focus on elections. Twitter, which stopped labeling and removing election misinformation in March 2021, has been preoccupied with its $44bn sale to Elon Musk, three employees with knowledge of the situation said. Mr. Musk has suggested he wants fewer rules about what can and cannot be posted on the service.


Amazing how bad both Zuckerberg and Musk are for democracy. One could feel that very rich people (or even rich people) shouldn’t be allowed near the operation of democratic systems.

Related: I wrote about this story in more detail at my new Substack, titled Social Warming. Yes, it’s to sell more books. But also to inform, educate and entertain. Signup is free and there’s no cost.
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‘The impossible’: Ukraine’s secret, deadly rescue missions • AP News

John Leicester and Hanna Arhirova:


As was his habit before each flight, the veteran Ukrainian army pilot ran a hand along the fuselage of his Mi-8 helicopter, caressing the heavy transporter’s metal skin to bring luck to him and his crew.

They would need it. Their destination — a besieged steel mill in the brutalized city of Mariupol — was a death trap. Some other crews didn’t make it back alive.

Still, the mission was vital, even desperate. Ukrainian troops were pinned down, their supplies running low, their dead and injured stacking up. Their last-ditch stand at the Azovstal mill was a growing symbol of Ukraine’s defiance in the war against Russia. They could not be allowed to perish.

The 51-year-old pilot — identified only by his first name, Oleksandr — flew just the one mission to Mariupol, and he considered it the most difficult flight of his 30-year-career. He took the risk, he said, because he didn’t want the Azovstal fighters to feel forgotten.

In the charred hell-scape of that plant, in an underground bunker-turned-medical station that provided shelter from death and destruction above, word started reaching the wounded that a miracle might be coming. Among those told that he was on the list for evacuation was a junior sergeant who’d been shredded by mortar rounds, butchering his left leg and forcing its amputation above the knee.


A reminder that the war is still on, and very real.
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Solana is making a crypto phone with help from former Essential engineers • The Verge

Chris Welch:


This afternoon in New York City, blockchain company Solana announced its own mobile phone, called the Saga, made in collaboration with Osom. It’s priced at $1,000, and preorders open today. A $100 deposit is required, and Solana says the Saga will ship in the first quarter of 2023.

The phone will have a 6.67-inch 120Hz OLED display, 512GB of storage, and 12GB of RAM. It’ll be powered by Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 chip and is outfitted with a 50-megapixel primary camera, plus a 12-megapixel ultra-wide shooter. But more than the standard hardware specs that most gadget nerds are interested in, the Saga is meant to help crypto continue its quest to “go mobile,” in the words of Solana CEO Anatoly Yakovenko.

This device is for people entrenched in the universe of crypto wallets, Web3, and NFTs, and it’ll come with a unique feature: support for decentralized apps that rely on the Solana blockchain, which has at least briefly rivaled Ethereum when it comes to NFT sales volume. NFT marketplace Magic Eden, Solana wallet maker Phantom, and cryptocurrency exchange Orca have signed on to back the Saga and Solana’s new software efforts.

Osom has confirmed to The Verge that the OV1 and Saga are now one and the same, meaning that this device is the company’s primary focus.


As with pretty much everything in phones, HTC got there first, in October 2019, thus unleashing “potential for hundreds of thousands to join the bitcoin network”. Unrealised potential, apparently.

Anyhow, if you want to spend a thousand dollars/pounds on a pretty standard Android phone, be their guest.
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What’s worse: climate denial or climate hypocrisy? • The New York Times

David Wallace-Wells:


For years, when advocates lamented the “emissions gap,” they meant the gulf between what scientists said was necessary and what public and private actors were willing to promise. Today that gap has almost entirely disappeared; it has been estimated that global pledges, if enacted in full, would most likely bring the planet 1.8 degrees Celsius of warming — in line with the Paris agreement’s stated target of “well below two degrees” and in range of its more ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees. But it has been replaced by another gap, between what has been pledged and what is being done. In June, a global review of net-zero pledges by corporations found that fully half of them had laid out no concrete plan for getting there; and though 83% of emissions and 91% of global G.D.P. is now covered by national net-zero pledges, no country — not a single one, including the 187 that signed the Paris agreement — is on track for emissions reductions in line with a 1.5 degree target, according to the watchdog group Climate Action Tracker.

In trading denial for dissonance, a certain narrative clarity has been lost. Five years ago, the stakes were clear, to those looking closely, but so were the forces of denial and inaction, which helps explain the global crescendo of moral fervor that appeared to peak just before the pandemic. Today the rhetorical war has largely been won, but the outlook grows a lot more confusing when everyone agrees to agree, paying at least lip service to the existential rhetoric of activists. It’s not just Boris Johnson — who once mocked “eco-doomsters” — declaring at the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference that it was “one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock.” The 1.5-degree goal was recently described as “fundamental for the survival of the ecosystem as a whole” by, of all people, the head of OPEC.

Rhetoric this unmoored from reality is often called disinformation.


This is from Wallace-Wells’s newsletter, which is for NYT subscribers. But it might be available to first-timers. He makes excellent points.
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Where did the long tail go? • The Honest Broker

Ted Gioia:


For those who don’t know the term, the Long Tail concept refers to businesses that focus on products and services with almost no customers. The basic idea is that you can make a lot of money selling to these microscopically tiny groups of consumers—because they are under-served, and although each cohort has only a few members, if you attract a lot of them it adds up to a meaningful opportunity.

Take for example, a bookstore which must choose between two strategies—either (1) it just focuses on the bestselling books that almost everybody is reading, or (2) it can keep tens of thousands of unpopular books on the shelves, so that even customers with obscure tastes can find exactly what they’re looking for.
According to the Long Tail perspective, the smart bookseller in the Internet age keeps all those poor-selling books in inventory—because the blockbuster hit is in decline, and underground niches are the way of the future.

This idea was popularized in the 2006 book by Chris Anderson entitled The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. Anderson was anticipating a world in which more businesses were like Amazon, with huge warehouses filled to the brim with everything from bacon-shaped bandages to jail cells for your teen’s mobile phone.

After all, Amazon is successful—so why shouldn’t everyone follow the same strategy?

Even at first glance, this approach seems bizarre. If you know the history of Amazon, you might remember that its cash flow was awful for many years—many even expected it to go bankrupt. And even now, Amazon gets all of its operating income from its cloud and web services business. If it just relied on retail sales, Amazon would be a bomb.

The other case study at the heart of the Long Tail book is Netflix. And it’s true that when Anderson published his book back in 2006, Netflix made a huge number of movies available to subscribers.

But those days are gone.

Not only has Netflix sharply reduced the number of movies it offers on its streaming platform, but now has a lot of competitors (Disney, Apple, Paramount, etc.) that are also tightly managing the titles they feature.


It’s true: all the proper money is in the very short head. The long tail just proves that it costs almost nothing to store digital data. Which is a good thing, because almost nobody pays for it.
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Netflix in talks for advertising tie-ups • Reuters

Eva Mathews:


Netflix Inc is in talks with several companies for advertising partnerships, co-CEO Ted Sarandos said on Thursday, as the streaming titan looks to plug slowing subscriber growth by rolling out a cheaper plan with ads.

Media reports from earlier this week said it was in discussions with Alphabet Inc’s Google and Comcast Corp’s NBCUniversal for potential marketing tie-ups.

“We’re talking to all of them right now,” Sarandos said at the Cannes Lions conference when asked which company Netflix was looking to partner with.

Alphabet and Comcast did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

After losing subscribers for the first time in a decade and projecting a 2 million decline in the upcoming quarter, Netflix said in April that it was seriously looking at advertising.

“We’re not adding ads to Netflix as you know it today. We’re adding an ad tier for folks who say ‘hey, I want a lower price and I’ll watch ads’,” Sarandos said at Cannes Lions.


Maybe not to Netflix *at the price you know it today*, since it upped it, but I bet this will be at a price tier that *used* to be free. People are of course ignoring the “lower price” element to dump on this. Really, though, it’s a sign of the inexorable gravity of internet business models, where everything tends towards freemium (a free tier, and paid-for tier[s]).
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RMT leader Mick Lynch wins cult following after flooring critics • The Times

Mario Ledwith:


while inevitably branded a pariah by many of those whose plans were disrupted, Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT [union], has also established a cult following online after a series of media appearances.

Celebrities and politicos have heralded the union leader’s wry retorts when questioned by leading broadcasters such as Richard Madeley, who he said was spouting “the most remarkable twaddle”.

The actor Hugh Laurie was among those showering praise on Lynch after 50,000 members of his unions staged the first of three 24-hour walkouts.

He tweeted: “I don’t know enough about the rail dispute. I only observe that RMT’s Mick Lynch cleaned up every single media picador who tried their luck.”

The former Conservative minister Rory Stewart said: “Mick Lynch is proving a pretty remarkable media performer — with an uncanny knack of flustering his questioners — others should study his techniques.”

Clips of Lynch’s media appearances have generated millions of views online over the past 48 hours, including one in which he repeatedly calls the Tory minister Chris Philp a liar.


There’s a roundup of some of his video moments here, though it doesn’t include the moment when he points out to Piers Morgan that The Hood from the TV series Thunderbirds (whose picture adorns his Facebook page – “can you see the resemblance?”) was not, in fact, “the most evil man in the world” but actually a puppet made of vinyl.

For Americans, it’s an example of someone who doesn’t care about being invited back on, and doesn’t see his media profile as key to his job.
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Amazon’s Alexa could turn dead loved ones’ voices into digital assistant • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


Amazon plans to let people turn their dead loved ones’ voices into digital assistants, with the company promising the ability to “make the memories last”.

The company is developing technology that will allow its Alexa digital assistant to mimic the voice of anyone it hears from less than a minute of provided audio, Rohit Prasad, its senior vice-president and head scientist, said on Wednesday. He added that during the coronavirus paramedic “so many of us have lost someone we love”.

While no timescale was given for the launch of the feature, the underlying technology has existed for several years. The company gave a demonstration where the reanimated voice of an older woman was used to read her grandson a bedtime story, after he asked Alexa: “Can grandma finish reading me the Wizard of Oz?”

Prasad said: “The way we made it happen is by framing the problem as a voice conversion task and not a speech generation path.”

Beyond the initial demonstration, details were scarce. The technology was announced at the company’s re:Mars conference, focusing on its “ambient computing” achievements in the realms of machine learning, automation, robots and space.


Creepy. Super, super creepy. It can do this from a single minute of voice data, so it’s essentially deepfake for voice. That in itself is concerning, and there’s no sign that Amazon has considered the security elements of what it’s done carefully enough.

One could almost – almost – see this as good if you had a prospective parent, say, who knew they were going to be dead before their child(ren) would be born, so they could know the voice. But, really, no.

Of course this also proves that Black Mirror is a documentary sent back from the future. And that Philip K Dick was a prophet. (Thanks Wendy G.)
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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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