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:

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:

The week of upheaval

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Programming note: This update comes a bit late this week. I’m still trying to find the correct balance between waiting until I have time to write a substantive update, vs. being as timely as possible. Thanks for sticking with me as I figure it out.

The Oscars happened this week! I know, it feels like a few years ago already, but as we pass this moment, I wanted to pause and take a moment to reflect on how historic the 91st Academy Awards were. Lots of talented people of color took home awards, including:

  • Ruth E. Carter, who became the first African-American woman to win Best Costume Design (for Black Panther). Her colleague, Hannah Beachler, was the first African-American to take home the prize for Best Production Design.
  • Mahershala Ali, who became the first African-American actor to win for Best Supporting Actor twice.
  • Rami Malek, who became the first Egyptian-American to win Best Actor
  • Asian-Americans Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who won Best Documentary for Free Solo (and were nominated alongside Bing Liu for the excellent Minding the Gap).
    • I was also personally gratified that Domee Shi won an Oscar for her work on Pixar’s animated short, Bao.

And then Green Book won Best Picture.

Green Book’s journey to the Oscars has been a rocky one. The real-life family of one of its protagonists called the film a “symphony of lies.” Its writer was discovered to have made a Trump-supporting anti-Muslim tweet. Yet Green Book soldiered on

And that’s all without even discussing the quality of the film itself. To my mind, Mark Harris wrote the definitive explanation of what’s wrong with the film: 

Green Book is a but also movie, a both sides movie, and in that, it extends a 50-year-plus tradition of movies that tell a story about American racism that has always been irresistibly appealing, on and offscreen, to that portion of white Americans who see themselves as mediators. They’re the reasonable, non-racist people poised halfway between unrepentant, ineducable racists on one side and, on the other, black people who, in this version of the American narrative, almost always have something to learn themselves. The trope was first, most famously and most effectively, deployed in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, in which the redneck cop played by Rod Steiger has much to learn from the intellectually superior Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), but also something to teach him about not letting anger or a desire for vengeance cloud his judgment. Norman Jewison, that film’s director, knew that that brief comeuppance for Poitier was the spoonful of sugar that would make the medicine of an authoritative black man onscreen palatable to an audience that had almost never seen one depicted before. Fifty years ago, the film was a galvanizing moment in Hollywood history in part because it played wildly differently to black and white, to southern and northern, and to older and younger moviegoers. But while crowds cheered Poitier fighting back, Hollywood gave Steiger the Oscar; for the Academy, it was the white character’s journey, and his humanity, in which the stakes of the film resided.

I found Green Book to be a competently made film, but as Harris indicates, it is depressingly retrograde in its treatment of race and, as a result, feels like it was made for a different era. In a year that saw the release of films like BlackkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, and Black Panther, we’ve seen that tackling racial issues and politics can result in interesting and brilliant work when approached from a unique perspective. Green Book keeps its feet planted firmly in the familiar past.

That’s why Green Book’s win is such a disappointment. It feels like Academy voters grasping for a past that no longer exists and probably never did. In fact, according to a troubling NYTimes piece, Green Book’s evocation of nostalgia is why some people voted for it:

One voter, a studio executive in his 50s, admitted that his support for “Green Book” was rooted in rage. He said he was tired of being told what movies to like and not like. (Much of the public debate about “Green Book” has turned on its handling of racial issues, which some see as woefully retrograde and borderline bigoted.)

There’s no need for me to write a takedown of Green Book because Justin Chang already did for the LA Times, calling it the worst Best Picture winner since Crash:

“Green Book,” a slick crowd-pleaser set in the Deep South in 1962, strains to put you in a good mood. Its victory is appalling but far from shocking: From the moment it won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, the first of several key precursors it would pick up en route to Sunday’s Oscars ceremony, the movie was clearly a much more palatable brand of godawful. In telling the story of the brilliant, erudite jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who is chauffeured on his Southern concert tour by a rough-edged Italian-American bouncer named Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), “Green Book” serves up bald-faced clichés and stereotypes with a drollery that almost qualifies as disarming.[…]

I can tell I’ve already annoyed some of you, though if you take more offense at what I’ve written than you do at “Green Book,” there may not be much more to say. Differences in taste are nothing new, but there is something about the anger and defensiveness provoked by this particular picture that makes reasonable disagreement unusually difficult. Maybe “Green Book” really is the movie of the year after all — not the best movie, but the one that best captures the polarization that arises whenever the conversation shifts toward matters of race, privilege and the all-important question of who gets to tell whose story.

There’s very little I disagree with in this piece, but it’s so brutal that it almost made me feel bad for Green Book?

A few more links to consider as we come to the end of a memorable awards season:


A political addendum: We live in extraordinary times. This week, Michael Cohen testified in front of Congress and laid out numerous acts of wrongdoing that the President of the United States has instigated and covered up. The Cohen testimony was gripping television — Shakespearean in its machinations, powerful in its final manifestation — but the one moment that stuck out to me was when Cohen identified his GOP questioners as being on the same dark road that he went down already:

After a relentless battering from Republican lawmakers over his established dishonesty, including lying to Congress, Cohen called them out for carrying President Trump’s water. He pointed to a poster board that a Republican lawmaker had put up with the words “LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE!” next to a supersize photo of Cohen.

“It’s that sort of behavior that I’m responsible for. I’m responsible for your silliness because I did the same thing that you’re doing now for 10 years,” he told the Republican committee members. “I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years.”

Then he warned, more ominously, “The more people that follow Mr. Trump as I did blindly are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”

The dynamic was striking: a former lackey, trying to warn the present lackeys that they will one day come to regret their decisions. An image of past and present together on one national stage. Sadly, I don’t think the message got through.

A few more things to consider:


And finally, some other odds and ends from the week: