So many billionaire regrets

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Facebook co-f0under Chris Hughes, calling for a break up of Facebook in The New York Times opinion section:

The most problematic aspect of Facebook’s power is Mark’s unilateral control over speech. There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people. Facebook engineers write algorithms that select which users’ comments or experiences end up displayed in the News Feeds of friends and family. These rules are proprietary and so complex that many Facebook employees themselves don’t understand them […]

If the government were to use this moment to resurrect an effective competition standard that takes a broader view of the full cost of “free” products, it could affect a whole host of industries. The alternative is bleak. If we do not take action, Facebook’s monopoly will become even more entrenched. With much of the world’s personal communications in hand, it can mine that data for patterns and trends, giving it an advantage over competitors for decades to come.

In writing this piece, Hughes joins a litany of former Facebook execs who have come out against the company, including Dustin Muskovitz, Sean Parker, and Brian Acton (Casey Newton has a good rundown here).

In a striking coincidence, pretty much all of them rebuked Facebook after becoming immeasurably enriched by the company. So weird how they found the courage to voice their convictions not during their time there, but way afterwards, when they’d all become billionaires. (To be fair, Hughes acknowledges this and takes responsibility for it in his piece).

Putting that aside though, we should evaluate whether Hughes’ recommendations have merit on their own. And on that measure, his primary suggestions don’t really stand up to even cursory scrutiny. Ezra Klein breaks it down over at Vox:

This is the core contradiction of Hughes’s essay. Every time he names the decisions that competition led Facebook to make, he describes the platform’s moral devolution. But every time he imagines the alternatives that more competition would create, he muses about kinder, gentler platforms — platforms with fewer ads, more privacy, less attention hacking.

But look around. Twitter assessed the competition and went algorithmic, creating a space so toxic the company is now trying to understand how “healthy conversations” work. YouTube ran the numbers and built an algorithm that’s become a powerful force for radicalization. Instagram became attractive to Facebook precisely because it’s so good at being addictive. Tumblr turned out to be so reliant on porn that Pornhub is considering a bid to buy the flailing business. Pinterest, well, Pinterest seems okay. For now.

Perhaps more competition in the social media space would lead to better alternatives. But perhaps it would do what it’s done so far: lead to yet fiercer wars for our attention and data, which would incentivize yet more unethical modes of capturing it.

Klein’s piece nails it. Facebook is the way it is not because of the lack of competition but because of the competition. Regulation could probably help but letting a thousand social network flowers bloom is what’s gotten us into this mess in the first place.


A few more links from the week:

Cinema is dead. Long live content.

Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for RogerEbert.com about the recent release of Endgame and “The Long Night” episode of Game of Thrones: 

Art house cinemas (which have a business built around stand-alone, non-tentpole features) are struggling to stay open, and their proprietors face increasingly old crowds that aren’t being replaced by younger viewers. Theaters generally are on what an exhibitor friend of mine bitterly referred to as “Disney life support.” Forty percent of domestic box office receipts come from that one studio, most of its business is based around serialized, mega-expensive, dopamine-hit franchises. […]

It gives me no pleasure to write any of this, having come up in what retrospectively seems like the death throes of an older culture, only to enter a spectacular and in some ways unnerving new one. Sometimes it feels as if I’m chronicling the things I love as they take their sweet time fading to black.

But I can also honestly say that, at this point, I’m more curious than apprehensive about what the future will bring. This is the kind of cultural moment that people tell their grandkids and great-nephews and nieces about. Whether the tone of the remembrance is sad or wondrous depends on who’s telling it, but tell it they will, because it’s happening, right now, to all of us. It’s not often that you get to watch the complete transformation and eventual fusion of two art forms, the transformation of art and entertainment itself, and the technology that supplies and defines it.

It’s still staggering to me that Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones are both ending major chapters of pop culture lore in the span of a few weeks. Both achieved the nearly impossible. In the case of Endgame, the MCU sustained 22 films’ worth of storytelling and somehow managed to tie them together in a satisfying way in Endgame. In the case of Game of Thrones, it may well end up being one of the last instances of mass-appointment viewing in America. Millions of people watch together every Sunday, and by the time the episode is over, the memes have already begun.

It’s possible we may never see anything like them again. And it is exhilarating to be able to witness it all as it happens.

In the meantime, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to speak in-depth about Endgame and Game of Thrones with some interesting, intelligent people:

Here are some of my reactions to this week’s Game of Thrones, “The Long Night”:


Some other recent links I’ve found interesting:

Facebook’s role in democracy

Here is a powerful and sobering TED talk by journalist Caroline Cadwalladr about social media’s role in democracy (I don’t think it’s up on YouTube yet but you can watch it on TED’s website).

Also worth checking out is Cadwalladr’s write-up about her talk in The Guardian:

The world needs all kinds of brains. But in the situation we aresdsd in, with the dangers we face, it’s not these kinds of brains. These are brilliant men. They have created platforms of unimaginable complexity. But if they’re not sick to their stomach about what has happened in Myanmar or overwhelmed by guilt about how their platforms were used by Russian intelligence to subvert their own country’s democracy, or sickened by their own role in what happened in New Zealand, they’re not fit to hold these jobs or wield this unimaginable power.

An intense time

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You may have noticed it’s been a little quiet recently on the blog/newsletter. That’s because I’ve been busy gearing up for an intense time of my life: Hosting three weekly podcasts at once (Write Along, the Slashfilmcast, and now with the premiere of Game of Thrones, A Cast of Kings). A surprisingly large amount of prep has gone into this season of A Cast of Kings and I’m both nervous and excited to go through this final step of the journey with all of our listeners.

Given this schedule, for the next few weeks I’m going to take take steps to maintain my mental health and likely slim the blog/letter down, perhaps keeping it mostly to a list of recommended links.

We are about to enter a consequential time in pop culture history. In April and May, we’ll see the conclusion of Game of Thrones and the end of the first few phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These are both epic stories — breathtaking in scope, sprawling in ambition, and unequaled in their respective mediums.

I find myself experiencing a lot of emotions as I contemplate these stories wrapping up. While I’m obviously a fan that has considered both of these works worthy of analysis and debate, I’m also a commentator with a modest following that has been podcasting/blogging/vlogging since they began.

I’ve looked back on the past decade and considered all the things I’ve devoted my time to. And I’ve started to turn my eye towards the next decade, and begun thinking about how I will take what I’ve learned to create valuable work that can stand on its own. Hopefully, I’ll have more to share with you soon. Hopefully.

In the meantime, here are a few things I’ve been working on recently:


Some more interesting links from the past week or two:

Podcasts I’ve been listening to recently (March 2019)

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Podcasts have become so sophisticated that they have started to take on the characteristics of their entertainment predecessors. Their production values are often sky high. Many are divided into “seasons,” with lengthy arcs that take time to build and land. And also, as with TV, there are way too many to consume than a single person could possibly do in a lifetime.

As a result, there are some podcasts that I’ve wanted to get around to, but have avoided due to the “commitment” required. Now, a few lengthy road trips later, I am slightly more caught up on all the media I’m behind on.

Here are a few podcasts I’ve been listening to that I’d highly recommend:

The Drop Out – Examining the life and times of Elizabeth Holmes and her catastrophic failure of a company, Theranos, has become a big business. This podcast is one of the latest entrants. While I still think the book Bad Blood is the definitive retelling of the Holmes scandal, this podcast makes for fascinating listening, allowing you to hear fairly extensive interviews with many of the main players. With seven 40-45 minute episodes, they have enough time to dive in depth into some of the key aspects of the story. Overall, this is probably what I’d recommend for people who don’t have time to read the book but want to learn what went wrong at Theranos.

Surviving Y2K – I wasn’t a fan of “Missing Richard Seasons,” which I found to be a bit too creepy and invasive for my tastes, but I quite liked the second season of the Headlong podcast, which dives into the Y2K phenomenon. The show revisits the mania around the Y2K bug, and how people from different walks of life reacted to it. In addition, the host, Dan Taberski, uses the show as an opportunity to reveal how he tried to use Y2K to restart his own life. It’s a bold thing whenever a podcast host bleeds for his art. In this case, it also made for a worthwhile listen.

Slow Burn: Season 2 – “Slow Burn” is a testament to the importance of learning from the mistakes of the past. This politics-focused narrative podcast, whose second season covers the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, is fascinating and gripping.  Listening to it, I am struck by many things: The quaint concerns of both parties at the time (The Republicans were worried about the deficit and about the morals of our President; with time, let’s just say those concerns have been revealed to be not truly embedded in the DNA of the GOP). The cruelty of many of the players involved, who may not have understood that they were destroying a young woman’s life, but were certainly willing to take that risk. Mostly though, I realize how we’re still dealing with many of the same issues today as back then, not to mention many of the same actual individuals. If anything, politics and political coverage have been revealed to be even more venal than we could’ve imagined back then. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Good One – Not a narrative show, but this podcast by Jesse David Fox makes for insightful listening about the nature of comedy. It’s basically Song Exploder, but for jokes. Where else can you find an analysis of the Totino’s pizza sketch on SNL and the “Juan Likes Chicken and Rice” episode of Documentary Now?

I hope you have a chance to check these out. I’d ask for your recommendations, but I have too many other podcasts on deck already to possibly finish them all… (e.g. In The Dark, Caliphate, Serial Season 3, etc.). That said, if you have any must-listens, send them my way!


Some more links from the week: