Thursday Letter: Desewerfication

March 7, 2019

The author, respectfully choosing to disregard TLC’s famous maxim.

Yes, I still exist, and welcome to Thursday Letter, a newsletter on areas of overlap between advertising, technology and culture.

In this edition:

  • Twitter, Facebook and Pasa: why a new network is necessary

  • End-to-end encryption isn’t inherently good

  • And by the way…

Twitter, Facebook and Pasa: why a new network is necessary

Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, February 11, 2019:

“We need to pay more attention than ever to what we're all being exposed to online. It's time to confront head on the fact that much of social media has become a sewer.”

I’m not going to cover any of this remotely exhaustively here because the subject area is vast and you probably know a lot of it already and I want to keep this relatively short, but here’s the short of what I want to get across here, up front—please pardon my bluntness (and let me know if you think I’m wrong about any of it):

1) Twitter isn’t sophisticated enough to properly address the social media sewer they’ve made; 2) Facebook isn’t honest—or trusted enough anymore—to address theirs (despite Mark Zuckerberg’s brand-new claim, just announced yesterday, of a “Privacy-Focused Vision” for the company); 3) due to their core business models of maximizing for number of users, time-spent per user and accumulation of personal and behavioral data per user (especially in Facebook’s case re: the last part), I believe both companies would be structurally unable to do so even if their leadership were intellectually and morally capable; and 4) I’m not just idly complaining—I can now reveal I’m personally actively involved with building a new social platform called Pasa to offer what I believe can become the first viable substitute for either of them.

So this is my first Thursday Letter since the beginning of 2016. Suffice it to say, a few things have happened since then—both with me personally and, you know, in the world.

For me personally, my thoughts have kept coming back to these communication platforms we call social networks. Some people are sick of all of them, some people aren’t sick of some of them yet, some people are sick of people being sick of them and almost everyone is sick of hearing about people talking about them one way or another. And I get that.

But there’s good reason they’re discussed so much. They’re primary conduits for many of the most rapid and overwhelming cultural and political changes of the times we’re living in. And, it shouldn’t be forgotten, they’re incredibly powerful in positive ways, not just negative ones—which is why I care so much about making one that improves on the epic failures of the biggest ones so far.

While my main professional work has been in the general areas of copywriting and branding, I cofounded a payment-tech platform called TapRaise in 2013 and a sort of WeChat-meets-Snapchat-esque messaging platform in 2016 (never launched) that we were calling Essential (before Android creator Andy Rubin revealed his smartphone company of the same name at the beginning of 2017).

Towards the end of 2017, I noticed Twitter failing individuals and broader society more and more dramatically, particularly bumbling in terms of how they responded to the emerging #MeToo movement and how they were helping facilitate toxic speech and actions of members of the Alt Right and other extreme bigots, misogynists, etc., which I personally felt some of the brunt of myself (more on that in a moment). And I became fixated on the idea of making something to challenge Twitter, to provide a better version of what Twitter does, because I saw them, because of these failings, being meaningfully vulnerable to outside competition for the first time ever.

And then, in 2018, Cambridge Analytica “happened”—or, more precisely, began to be exposed. And I realized, wow, Facebook, one of the biggest technology companies in the world, is actually seriously vulnerable as a business now too. Despite their less-than-stellar record of trustworthiness over the years, I hadn’t expected that—certainly not in any short-term timeframe. So I realized the thing I was working on, which by now I had named Pasa, could and had to challenge Facebook as well.

And so many more things happened and were discovered about Facebook after that. On the occasion of their 15th anniversary as a company this past month, Sarah Jeong and Adam Westbrook at The New York Times made a brilliantly witty yet hard-hitting video cataloging many if not all of these breaches of trust—although fistfuls of new controversies involving the company have come to light even since then.

But let’s say Mark Zuckerberg isn’t just shoveling bull about transforming Facebook’s platforms to be “privacy-centric” and/or that Twitter has some massive, miraculous epiphany and radically improves the safety and toxicity level of their current platform. All good then, right? And surely because both of these companies have vast resources and established userbase they’ll be far more likely to be able to address these issues than a random outsider upstart? Well, I don’t think so. I think their established business models and the resulting expectations of their investors because of them will not permit them to change meaningfully. Without digging into it too deeply in this letter, basically, I would say, because they’re based on and now locked into maximizing short-term growth and engagement at all costs, virtually everything else ultimately be damned.

As long-time Facebook executive Andrew “Boz” Bosworth put it in his now-infamous internal memo from 2016:

We connect people.

That can be good if they make it positive. Maybe someone finds love. Maybe it even saves the life of someone on the brink of suicide.

So we connect more people.

That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.

And still we connect people.

The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good. It is perhaps the only area where the metrics do tell the true story as far as we are concerned.

Does this mean I think advertising has to be an inherently-corrupt/corrupting revenue model component? It does not. More on this in another letter as well.

What about Mastodon? What about blockchain? I could talk at length about why not for each of these, but the short answer for both is I don’t find them serious conceivable answers for popular mass use in any near future. And there’s nothing wrong with niche networks per se, but as long as they’re niche, they will never be able to fulfill the crucial scale functions of “real” social networks: namely, the potential, from each user’s perspective, to be able to be heard sufficiently widely and to follow a sufficiently wide range of people and other kinds of accounts, personally known and otherwise. Not to mention the extremely non-trivial added moderation challenges of anything decentralized.

Cambridge Analytica is still very much happening, by the way, in terms of government investigations and legal ramifications in various countries around the world, both for people who were part of that company as well as for Facebook. This is a fact that seems widely underrecognized. (One of the most significant details known so far, IMO, which seems to be somehow even less widely known, even now, is that Facebook literally hired one of the two people who created the personality quiz those two people used to harvest the millions of Facebook users’ data they sold to Cambridge Analytica, Joseph Chancellor, after the scandal was revealed by The Guardian—and employed him for multiple years after.)

Without David Carroll, who filed the initial lawsuit in the UK against Cambridge Analytica as an individual Facebook user, this may not have been the case. I highly recommend following both him and Jason Kint on Twitter if you’re interested in following ongoing developments closely.

I wanted to talk about Jack Dorsey and Twitter in relation to Gavin McInnes, a founder of both the Millennial-focused media company VICE and the Millennial-focused Alt Right-flirting wannabe street gang the so-called Proud Boys. Someone who helped amplify an extended Alt Right campaign of violent threats to and real-world stalking of me personally in 2017—yes, really—but that’s kind of a long story in itself.

Here’s a sort of teaser trailer for it, though, from the three-and-a-half-hour Joe Rogan podcast Dorsey and Vijaya Gadde—Twitter’s global lead for legal, policy and trust and safety—appeared on earlier this week:

ROGAN: Can I ask you why Gavin was banned? Was there a specific thing he did or was it his association with the Proud Boys?

GADDE: His association.

ROGAN: You know, he’s abandoned it. Not only that, he’s disassociated himself. He said it got completely out of hand and he doesn’t want anything to do with it.

GADDE: Yeah. And I think this is a great test case for thinking about how we get people back on the platform in the long term.

I’ll let you take a guess about how I might feel about that.

End-to-end encryption isn’t inherently good

As far as the specifics of Mark Zuckerberg’s “Privacy-Centric Vision” post, I haven’t had time to analyze it with the attention it deserves, since he literally just posted it yesterday and it’s rather long, but a lot of other people have already responded thoughtfully, including the always-thoughtful David Kirkpatrick of Techonomy.

One thing about it I would like to address right now, though, is that most of the privacy Zuckerberg is talking about seems to about“end-to-end” encrypted messaging and “stories” and not necessarily about general posts on the platform. And without going too deep on this right now, again, end-to-end encrypted messages are actually not an inherently good thing either. To the contrary, actual end-to-end encryption (as is already claimed to be present in Facebook’s WhatsApp, as well as competing apps such as Signal and Telegram) can be incredibly dangerous in a lot of ways. Much of the mob violence spurred by Facebook’s apps in countries like India, for example, has been through end-to-end-encrypted WhatsApp groups that inherently (assuming they actually are end-to-end encrypted) can’t be tracked, intercepted or even really noticed at the network level. A lot of bad things have come from private Facebook groups as well, which aren’t even end-to-end encrypted (yet). Basically, and this may actually be the most controversial part of this letter to a lot of people reading it: tracking is not all bad and encryption is not all good.

Related: the real bull case for Bitcoin and cryptocurrency in general, IMO, is fascism. I’m “just going to leave that here,” as they say, for now.

And by the way…

Incredible show:

Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy (Netflix). I would argue it’s the most profound thing Netflix has produced to date, maybe even the best thing Larry Charles has ever been involved with—and I’m saying that as a massive Seinfeld fan since always. There’s an interesting interview with him about it by Matt Willstein at The Daily Beast, also recommended.

Incredible album:

Jeremy Denk, c.1300–c.2000 (Nonesuch), a simultaneously cosmic and intimately-human brief history, in piano, of seven centuries of Western classical music. Not at all a “greatest hits”—something much more subtle and sublime.

Incredible reporting:

The Trauma Floor: The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America,” by Casey Newton at The Verge (with incredibly poignant accompanying photos by Jessica Chou). If you haven’t read this yet, you really need to. Seriously, wow. A summary really can’t do it justice.

And a critically important point from the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

“The Payoff From California’s ‘Data Dividend’ Must Be Stronger Privacy Laws”

Some observers have speculated that by “Data Dividend,” Governor Newsom means payments by corporations directly to consumers in exchange for their personal information.

We hope not. EFF strongly opposes “pay-for-privacy” schemes. Corporations should not be allowed to require a consumer to pay a premium, or waive a discount, in order to stop the corporation from vacuuming up—and profiting from—the consumer’s personal information. It is not a good deal for consumers to get a handful of dollars from companies in exchange for surveillance capitalism remaining unchecked.


That's all for this week's letter. Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts and I’m not just saying that. When you reply, please let me know if I can quote you in a future edition. You can also still find me on Twitter, for now, at @bjorn.

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