Fake news is not the real problem


It’s the Internet’s fault, we’re told. Brexiters and Remainers, Republicans and Democrats — every side of every political dispute now lives in its own separate reality, bellowing “fake news!” at every attempt to breach their borders of belief. The fragmentation of the media, coupled with the filter-bubble effect and the dominance of Facebook and Google, means that we no longer share any consensus view of reality.

…But I saw The Post this week, and it struck me: we never did. We used to have an imposed view of reality, not a consensus one. As the movie makes clear, editors and Cabinet members palled around weekly, and implicitly agreed on what news would and wouldn’t be fed to the public. (See also Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.) The moral crisis of the time came from the realization that the government was lying to its pals in the media, and had been for a very long time.

If that sounds like ancient history, remember that Iraq was not particularly different from Vietnam: in both cases, the White House (and, this time, Downing Street) lied through their teeth to the people; the media accepted and promoted those lies; and a war which consumed hundreds of thousand of lives, and trillions of dollars, ensued. Donald Trump may be the most personally vile President of all time, but his presidency has not (at least yet) been anywhere near as catastrophic as those of Richard Nixon or George W. Bush.

However. The other assumption implicit in traditional journalism was that their job was to provide evidence to the American people, who would then judge it, adjust their views, and vote accordingly. It was assumed that people had an engineering mindset, where one’s worldview can and will be adjusted by new evidence. That mindset, that willingness to allow contrary evidence to adjust what you believe, is why science and engineering work. It is arguably why democracy works, too.

And it would work in a world of fake news. Again, falsified evidence is not new. The US government falsified (by omission) the evidence about Vietnam for a very long time. Politicized “yellow journalism” dates to at least the nineteenth century. But the assumption was that people in general would try to see its falsehoods and inconsistencies, or at least grudgingly accept their existence when they were pointed out. Fake news is a problem that could and would be fixed by a genuine, widespread, good-faith desire for true news.

The real problem isn’t fake news; it’s that people have given up on that search for truth. The real problem is that the engineer’s mindset, wherein one weighs the available evidence, and accept and incorporate new evidence even if it contradicts what you previously believed, has never been more rare. (I’m not pretending it was ever remotely universal; I’m just saying that there was enough of it, barely, for democracy to work more-or-less as intended.)

No longer. The engineer’s mindset has been replaced by the lawyer’s mindset, wherein you pick a side in advance of getting any evidence, and then do absolutely everything you can to belittle, dismiss, and ignore any opposing data, while trumping up every scrap that might support your own side as if it were written on stone tables brought down from the mountain by Moses. I mean no disrespect to the legal profession: some of my favorite people are lawyers, including the one I married. The legal approach is an excellent means of getting to the truth of hard and confrontational matters —

— assuming it is done in the court of some sort of thoughtful, knowledgeable, and relatively impartial judge. But that court doesn’t exist in a democracy, or, rather, the democracy is the court … and so, in order for democracy to work, it requires the engineer’s mindset. The UK, the USA, and other countries seem to have seen that way of thinking wither below a crucial critical mass, to their great and growing cost.

So there’s a certain irony in blaming the tech industry for this, when tech is, for all its many flaws and blind spots, perhaps the last remaining bastion where the engineer’s mindset is (at least in theory) celebrated. Maybe we are in fact to blame; I’d certainly be interested in seeing evidence to that effect.

Maybe it’s the lack of a post-Cold-War common enemy. Maybe it’s a natural evolution of a decadent empire, or a natural reaction to the increasing complexity and incomprehensibility of the world. Maybe it’s the 1% and the finance industry fomenting conflict to distract from their parasitical oligarchy. Regardless, let’s consider the distinct possibility that the so-called scourge of “fake news” is merely a symptom, not the problem.

How ad-free subscriptions could solve Facebook

At the core of Facebook’s “well-being” problem is that its business is directly coupled with total time spent on its apps. The more hours you pass on the social network, the more ads you see and click, the more money it earns. That puts its plan to make using Facebook healthier at odds with its finances, restricting how far it’s willing to go to protect us from the harms of over use.

The advertising-supported model comes with some big benefits, though. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly said that “We will always keep Facebook a free service for everyone.” Ads lets Facebook remain free for those who don’t want to pay, and more importantly, for those around the world who couldn’t afford to.

Ads pay for Facebook to keep the lights on, research and develop new technologies, and profit handsomely in a way that attracts top talent and further investment. More affluent users with more buying power in markets like the US, UK, and Canada command higher ad prices, effectively subsidizing the social network for those in developing nations where ad rates are lower.

Ads and the envy spiral

The issue is that the ad model rewards Facebook for maximizing how long we spend using it, often through passive content consumption via endless News Feed scrolling. Yet studies show that it’s this kind of zombie browsing that hurts us. Spending just 10 minutes passively consuming Facebook can make us feel worse.

Passive Facebook usage leads to envy, which leads to declines in life satisfaction

We fall into envy spirals. The study’s author wrote that “Continually exposing oneself to positive information about others should elicit envy, an emotion linked to lower well-being”. A 2011 study concluded “people may think they are more alone in their emotional difficulties than they really are” after browsing everyone’s manicured life highlights on Facebook.

This research has clearly had an impact on Zuckerberg, who explicitly announced on the Q3 2017 earnings call that “Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits . . . Time spent is not a goal by itself. We want the time people spend on Facebook to encourage meaningful social interactions . . . when people are spending so much time passively consuming public content that it starts taking away from the time people are connecting with each other, that’s not good.”

To that end, Zuckerberg has announced a slew of changes to Facebook, though they’ve been relatively minor. Facebook is showing fewer news articles, public posts, and viral videos while prioritizing what leads people to comment and interact with each other. The result was a 50 million hours per day reduction in how long people spend on Facebook. That might sound like a lot, but it’s actually only a 5 percent decrease. Discussing how to quantify what’s “meaningful”, Facebook’s VP of News Feed Adam Mosseri this week admitted that “We’re trying to figure out how to best measure and understand that.”

Making truly forceful changes could have a much more significant impact on time spent, and potentially ad revenue. That creates resistance to confronting people with how long they spend on its apps, reducing spammy reengagement notifications, or creating more powerful ‘do not disturb’ options.

Facebook Clear

And so, we have a company that wants to make us feel better but earns money off making us feel worse, and that promises to stay free despite the negative incentives inherent in ad-based business models.

That’s why I think Facebook should introduce an ad-free subscription option in addition to its existing ad-supported free service.

By charging a monthly fee to remove ads, Facebook could begin to decouple its business from time spent. This would allow it to keep revenue stable even while making bigger changes that enhance well-being while decreasing how long we spend on its apps.

It’s not a totally foreign idea for Facebook, as WhatsApp used to charge a $1 per year subscription in some countries. And Facebook could defend itself against election interference and other political meddling by offering an option to banish ads.

For users who can afford the fee and want to pay, they’ll get a more purposeful experience on Facebook where they only see what’s organically surfaced in the News Feed. This would allow people to reclaim the time they waste viewing ads, and spend it having meaningful interactions with their friends and communities — thereby fulfilling Facebook’s mission.

For users who can’t afford the fee or don’t want to pay, their Facebook experience remains largely the same. But as the percentage of total users monetized by ads decreases, Facebook gains more flexibility in how it builds its apps to be more respectful of our mental health. And since it’s already reaching saturation in some markets, it’s less risky to refocus from growth to aligning monetization with its mission.

Facebook’s average revenue per user could be used to set a price for an ad-free version

Facebook could charge a similar rate to what it currently earns from users via ads (and the tiny amount it still gets from game payments). In the U.S., Facebook earned $84.14 per user, while earning an average worldwide of $20.21. Charging $1.65 per month, or even $7 per month to remove ads from Facebook could feel very reasonable to some users. The rate would increase yearly to stay in-line with ad revenue or follow its current growth trajectory. Facebook might only get a few percent of people to pay, but that would still be tens to hundreds of million people.

Syncing subscription prices without bonus options to revenue per non-subscriber would let Facebook continue to concentrate on developing features for everyone.

Facebook+

But getting a truly significant percentage of users shifting to subscriptions would likely require Facebook offering additional premium features beyond removing ads. Product and engineering talent and resources previously focused on ads could be redirected to this development.

Facebook would have to avoid reserving critical features for paid users otherwise it could make non-subscribers feel betrayed and slighted, like second-class social network citizens. This late in the game, it’d be tough to take anything away from existing users. Facebook couldn’t make its free version just a demo or shell of the paid version like Spotify.

Instead Facebook would need to take cues from apps like Tinder, which charges extra for features like unlimited swipes, undo a swipe, and only seeing people who’ve already right swiped you. Gamer chat app Discord offers cosmetic boosts to your profile like choosing your display name, high resolution screen sharing, and animated profile avatars.

What could these bonus features look like on Facebook? It could offer similar cosmetic upgrades, such as a badge next to your user name to make you stand out like verified profiles, extra profile customization options, displayable virtual goods, or profile pic special effects. It could sell content quality improvements like higher resolution image and video uploads, or let people exceed the 5000 friend limit.

Or perhaps most appealing would be additional curation tools, like advanced manual controls for deciding what shows up in your News Feed — which Facebook used to offer. If browsing unfulfilling content is one of the problems, selling additional controls could let people solve it for themselves. There’s plenty to offer that wouldn’t interfere with the experience of anyone who doesn’t pay.

Facebook’s manual News Feed curation controls from 2007 via GigaOm

Before The Backlash Grows

There’s little risk in testing the idea. Facebook is constantly running all sorts of feature experiments through its “Gatekeeper” system that lets it show slightly different versions of the service to different tiny subsets of users. Facebook could beta test subscriptions in a smaller English-speaking country like New Zealand that approximates the culture of its core markets but is more contained and less critical to its business than the U.S. If it can’t find the right feature set that makes people pay, scrap it.

One concern is that Facebook benefits from having a giant unified user base all accessible to advertisers who crave scale. The ability to hit a huge percentage of a demographic with promotions in a short time, such as for a new movie release, attracts advertisers to Facebook. That appeal could decrease if a portion of users subscribe and never see ads, with Facebook giving up more power to Google in their advertising duopoly.

But Zuckerberg has already committed to some short-term loss of profits in his quest to promote well-being. In the long-run, letting users pay if they want could keep them loyal while letting Facebook configure its News Feed algorithm for what enriches everyone. Building safeguards against overuse today could save Facebook from a stronger backlash in the future. Facebook should always be free, but letting some people pay could give Facebook the freedom to make itself a healthier part of our lives.

For more on the need for Facebook’s push into time well spent, read our feature piece “The difference between good and bad Facebooking”

Facebook should actually be Tinder too

There’s beauty in the double-blind opt-in. That’s the way you match with someone on Tinder. You like them, they like you, you both find out and get connected. But to date the feature’s largely been trapped in dating apps that match you with randos or that not everyone wants to be on. That means this anti-loneliness technology is leaving some people out.

Facebook, meanwhile, is on a newfound quest to stimulate “meaningful interactions” not just passive content consumption. Its latest attempt is a ham-handed Meetups feature. It surfaces big groups of friends saying some might want to hang out with you, and asking you if you’re interested. If you both say yes, it connects you over Messenger.

The idea behind Meetups is smart but the execution is a mess. Since Meetups ambiguously shows multiple people at once, sends aggressive notifications to participate, and encompasses all kinds of relationships, the results are meaningless. You don’t know if someone “chose you” because they actually like you, want to chill platonically, actually were approving of another friend shown at the same time, or were just mindlessly clicking through after getting an alert to try the confusing feature.

For years I’ve been writing about how Facebook and Messenger should build an offline availability indicator for finding out who’s free to spend time together with in person. Messenger’s new test of “Your Emoji” where you can put a beer mug, or dinner plate, or briefcase on your profile pic for 24 hours to indicate what you’re up to or interested in doing, is a much better approach.

But it’s not designed for dating. And let’s be real. Finding a significant other is the source of some of the most meaningful interactions you’ll ever have. If Facebook can be the matchmaker, it will both accomplish its mission while earning tremendous good will from those paired up. And unlike dating apps that become needless to people they successfully get into a relationship, it doesn’t matter to Facebook if you never use the feature again.

That’s why Facebook should build a “Matchmaker” feature into its profiles.

It’d be completely voluntary from the start. If you’re romantically interested in someone, you could hit a button on their profile that they’ve opted in to displaying. If they hit the button on yours too, Facebook lets you both know.

Here’s the tricky part, or technically, the simple part. Facebook shouldn’t blast you with tons of notifications teasing that someone likes you. It shouldn’t try to get you to guess who it was from a short-list of people. And it shouldn’t push you to swipe through all your friends. It should be subtle. Otherwise some users, especially women who typically get the majority of inbound interest from men on dating apps, may feel pestered, ogled, or even objectified.

Some will surely cringe at the idea of Facebook getting more deeply involved with our romantic lives. Others might think its redundant with Pokes, walls, messages, and other ways to connect, even though those are either unclear signals or lack the privacy and protection against unwanted advances of double opt-in. And understandably, some just wouldn’t want to mix romance into a friendship platform. There’s certainly the risk of creepy dudes following up via message like “I right-swiped you…” Getting this wrong could drive people away from Facebook all together.

But done right, Facebook Matchmaker would hardly exist for anyone that doesn’t want it. It wouldn’t generate tons of unrequited ‘Yes’ swipes. And it’d only result in rare matches. But those matches would be meaningful, because they weren’t coerced, and they didn’t occur on an app designed for finding one-night hookups. They’d be people you already accepted friend requests from, in your network, that you might already have a lot in common with.

I’m increasingly hearing from friends over 30 that they’re anxious they won’t ever find a partner. But we’ve lost many of the other cultural institutions that used to pair us up 100 years ago.

Globalization of opportunity leads people to leave their home towns. Secularization and the rise of science mean fewer people are connected through places of worship. Multi-generational housing has fallen out of fashion so young adults don’t live with parents and grandparents who could match them with a partner. The positive shift towards women pursuing their own careers leads some to push marriage to later in life. People are spending longer on higher education and prioritizing jobs over family.

And now when we feel lonely, when we might have sought in-person companionship, we have phones full of feeds, memes, and games to keep us company.

Facebook’s made it easier than ever to “feel connected”, endlessly scrolling through friends’ photos, while actually allowing us to isolate ourselves. Matchmaker is its chance to fulfill the most fundamental purpose of what we used to call ‘social networks’.

Facebook should actually be Tinder too

There’s beauty in the double-blind opt-in. That’s the way you match with someone on Tinder. You like them, they like you, you both find out and get connected. But to date the feature’s largely been trapped in dating apps that match you with randos or that not everyone wants to be on. That means this anti-loneliness technology is leaving some people out.

Facebook, meanwhile, is on a newfound quest to stimulate “meaningful interactions” not just passive content consumption. Its latest attempt is a ham-handed Meetups feature. It surfaces big groups of friends saying some might want to hang out with you, and asking you if you’re interested. If you both say yes, it connects you over Messenger.

The idea behind Meetups is smart but the execution is a mess. Since Meetups ambiguously shows multiple people at once, sends aggressive notifications to participate, and encompasses all kinds of relationships, the results are meaningless. You don’t know if someone “chose you” because they actually like you, want to chill platonically, actually were approving of another friend shown at the same time, or were just mindlessly clicking through after getting an alert to try the confusing feature.

For years I’ve been writing about how Facebook and Messenger should build an offline availability indicator for finding out who’s free to spend time together with in person. Messenger’s new test of “Your Emoji” where you can put a beer mug, or dinner plate, or briefcase on your profile pic for 24 hours to indicate what you’re up to or interested in doing, is a much better approach.

But it’s not designed for dating. And let’s be real. Finding a significant other is the source of some of the most meaningful interactions you’ll ever have. If Facebook can be the matchmaker, it will both accomplish its mission while earning tremendous good will from those paired up. And unlike dating apps that become needless to people they successfully get into a relationship, it doesn’t matter to Facebook if you never use the feature again.

That’s why Facebook should build a “Matchmaker” feature into its profiles.

It’d be completely voluntary from the start. If you’re romantically interested in someone, you could hit a button on their profile that they’ve opted in to displaying. If they hit the button on yours too, Facebook lets you both know.

Here’s the tricky part, or technically, the simple part. Facebook shouldn’t blast you with tons of notifications teasing that someone likes you. It shouldn’t try to get you to guess who it was from a short-list of people. And it shouldn’t push you to swipe through all your friends. It should be subtle. Otherwise some users, especially women who typically get the majority of inbound interest from men on dating apps, may feel pestered, ogled, or even objectified.

Some will surely cringe at the idea of Facebook getting more deeply involved with our romantic lives. Others might think its redundant with Pokes, walls, messages, and other ways to connect, even though those are either unclear signals or lack the privacy and protection against unwanted advances of double opt-in. And understandably, some just wouldn’t want to mix romance into a friendship platform. There’s certainly the risk of creepy dudes following up via message like “I right-swiped you…” Getting this wrong could drive people away from Facebook all together.

But done right, Facebook Matchmaker would hardly exist for anyone that doesn’t want it. It wouldn’t generate tons of unrequited ‘Yes’ swipes. And it’d only result in rare matches. But those matches would be meaningful, because they weren’t coerced, and they didn’t occur on an app designed for finding one-night hookups. They’d be people you already accepted friend requests from, in your network, that you might already have a lot in common with.

I’m increasingly hearing from friends over 30 that they’re anxious they won’t ever find a partner. But we’ve lost many of the other cultural institutions that used to pair us up 100 years ago.

Globalization of opportunity leads people to leave their home towns. Secularization and the rise of science mean fewer people are connected through places of worship. Multi-generational housing has fallen out of fashion so young adults don’t live with parents and grandparents who could match them with a partner. The positive shift towards women pursuing their own careers leads some to push marriage to later in life. People are spending longer on higher education and prioritizing jobs over family.

And now when we feel lonely, when we might have sought in-person companionship, we have phones full of feeds, memes, and games to keep us company.

Facebook’s made it easier than ever to “feel connected”, endlessly scrolling through friends’ photos, while actually allowing us to isolate ourselves. Matchmaker is its chance to fulfill the most fundamental purpose of what we used to call ‘social networks’.

Facebook should actually be Tinder too

There’s beauty in the double-blind opt-in. That’s the way you match with someone on Tinder. You like them, they like you, you both find out and get connected. But to date the feature’s largely been trapped in dating apps that match you with randos or that not everyone wants to be on. That means this anti-loneliness technology is leaving some people out.

Facebook, meanwhile, is on a newfound quest to stimulate “meaningful interactions” not just passive content consumption. Its latest attempt is a ham-handed Meetups feature. It surfaces big groups of friends saying some might want to hang out with you, and asking you if you’re interested. If you both say yes, it connects you over Messenger.

The idea behind Meetups is smart but the execution is a mess. Since Meetups ambiguously shows multiple people at once, sends aggressive notifications to participate, and encompasses all kinds of relationships, the results are meaningless. You don’t know if someone “chose you” because they actually like you, want to chill platonically, actually were approving of another friend shown at the same time, or were just mindlessly clicking through after getting an alert to try the confusing feature.

For years I’ve been writing about how Facebook and Messenger should build an offline availability indicator for finding out who’s free to spend time together with in person. Messenger’s new test of “Your Emoji” where you can put a beer mug, or dinner plate, or briefcase on your profile pic for 24 hours to indicate what you’re up to or interested in doing, is a much better approach.

But it’s not designed for dating. And let’s be real. Finding a significant other is the source of some of the most meaningful interactions you’ll ever have. If Facebook can be the matchmaker, it will both accomplish its mission while earning tremendous good will from those paired up. And unlike dating apps that become needless to people they successfully get into a relationship, it doesn’t matter to Facebook if you never use the feature again.

That’s why Facebook should build a “Matchmaker” feature into its profiles.

It’d be completely voluntary from the start. If you’re romantically interested in someone, you could hit a button on their profile that they’ve opted in to displaying. If they hit the button on yours too, Facebook lets you both know.

Here’s the tricky part, or technically, the simple part. Facebook shouldn’t blast you with tons of notifications teasing that someone likes you. It shouldn’t try to get you to guess who it was from a short-list of people. And it shouldn’t push you to swipe through all your friends. It should be subtle. Otherwise some users, especially women who typically get the majority of inbound interest from men on dating apps, may feel pestered, ogled, or even objectified.

Some will surely cringe at the idea of Facebook getting more deeply involved with our romantic lives. Others might think its redundant with Pokes, walls, messages, and other ways to connect, even though those are either unclear signals or lack the privacy and protection against unwanted advances of double opt-in. And understandably, some just wouldn’t want to mix romance into a friendship platform. There’s certainly the risk of creepy dudes following up via message like “I right-swiped you…” Getting this wrong could drive people away from Facebook all together.

But done right, Facebook Matchmaker would hardly exist for anyone that doesn’t want it. It wouldn’t generate tons of unrequited ‘Yes’ swipes. And it’d only result in rare matches. But those matches would be meaningful, because they weren’t coerced, and they didn’t occur on an app designed for finding one-night hookups. They’d be people you already accepted friend requests from, in your network, that you might already have a lot in common with.

I’m increasingly hearing from friends over 30 that they’re anxious they won’t ever find a partner. But we’ve lost many of the other cultural institutions that used to pair us up 100 years ago.

Globalization of opportunity leads people to leave their home towns. Secularization and the rise of science mean fewer people are connected through places of worship. Multi-generational housing has fallen out of fashion so young adults don’t live with parents and grandparents who could match them with a partner. The positive shift towards women pursuing their own careers leads some to push marriage to later in life. People are spending longer on higher education and prioritizing jobs over family.

And now when we feel lonely, when we might have sought in-person companionship, we have phones full of feeds, memes, and games to keep us company.

Facebook’s made it easier than ever to “feel connected”, endlessly scrolling through friends’ photos, while actually allowing us to isolate ourselves. Matchmaker is its chance to fulfill the most fundamental purpose of what we used to call ‘social networks’.

AMP for email is a terrible idea

Google just announced a plan to “modernize” email, allowing “engaging, interactive, and actionable email experiences.” Does that sound like a terrible idea to anyone else? It sure sounds like a terrible idea to me, and not only that, but an idea borne out of competitive pressure and existing leverage rather than user needs. Not good, Google. Send to trash.

See, email belongs to a special class. Nobody really likes it, but it’s the way nobody really likes sidewalks, or electrical outlets, or forks. It not that there’s something wrong with them. It’s that they’re mature, useful items that do exactly what they need to do. They’ve transcended the world of likes and dislikes.

As evidence consider the extreme rarity of anything other than normal versions of those things. Moving sidewalks, weirdo outlets, sporks — they only exist in extreme niches like airports and lunchables. The originals have remained unchanged for as long as millennia for a good reason.

Email too is simple. It’s a known quantity in practically every company, household, and device. The implementation has changed over the decades, but the basic idea has remained the same since the very first email systems in the ’60s and ’70s, certainly since its widespread standardization in the ’90s and shift to web platforms in the ’00s. The parallels to snail mail are deliberate (it’s a payload with an address on it) and simplicity has always been part of its design (interoperability and privacy came later).

No company owns it. It works reliably and as intended on every platform, every operating system, every device. That’s a rarity today and a hell of a valuable one.

But the tech industry has never been one to let elegance, history, or interoperability stand in the way of profit (RIP Google Reader), so that’s not much of an argument. Still, I thought it worth saying.

More important are two things: the moat and the motive.

The moat is the one between communications and applications. Communications say things, and applications interact with things. There are crossover areas, but something like email is designed and overwhelmingly used to say things, while websites and apps are overwhelmingly designed and used to interact with things.

It’s fundamentally useful to have a divide here the way it’s useful to have a divide between a book about fire and a book of matches.

Emails are static because messages are meant to be static. The entire concept of communication via the internet is based around the telegraphic model of exchanging one-way packets with static payloads, the way the entire concept of a fork is based around piercing a piece of food and allowing friction to hold it in place during transit.

The moat between communication and action is important because it makes it very clear what certain tools are capable of, which in turn lets them be trusted and used properly.

We know that all an email can ever do is say something to you (tracking pixels and read receipts notwithstanding). It doesn’t download anything on its own, it doesn’t run any apps or scripts, attachments are discrete items, unless they’re images in the HTML, which is itself optional. Ultimately the whole package is always just going to be a big , static chunk of text sent to you, with the occasional file riding shotgun. Open it a year or ten from now and it’s the same email.

And that proscription goes both ways. No matter what you try to do with email, you can only ever say something with it — with another email.

If you want to do something, you leave the email behind and do it on the other side of the moat.

This is the great genius and curse of email, that all you can do is send messages back and forth. It’s not always the best option, but it’s rarely the worst. If it’s more complicated than that, you use something other than email: a chat app, a video call, a file host. These useful items are often located adjacent to email, sometimes closely integrated, but they’re never actually part of it. This is a good thing. The closest you get is little things like adding something automatically to your calendar or scraping flight info from an itinerary. Ultimately it’s still just reading something.

What Google wants to do is bridge that moat, essentially to allow applications to run inside emails, limited ones to be sure, but by definition the kind of thing that belongs on the other side of the moat.

Why do this? Are we running out of tabs? Were people complaining that clicking “yes” on an RSVP email took them to the invitation site? Were they asking to have a video chat window open inside the email with the link? No. No one cares. No one is being inconvenienced by this aspect of email (inbox overload is a different problem), and no one will gain anything by changing it.

Well, almost no one. Which brings us to the motive.

AMP is, to begin with, Google exerting its market power to extend its control over others’ content. Facebook is doing it, so Google has to. Using its privileged position as the means through which people find a great deal of content, Google is attempting to make it so that the content itself must also be part of a system it has defined.

“AMP started as an effort to help publishers, but as its capabilities have expanded over time, it’s now one of the best ways to build rich webpages,” it writes in the blog post announcing the AMP for Gmail test. No, it isn’t. AMP is a way to adapt and deliver, on Google’s terms, real webpages built with real tools.

The excuse that the mobile web isn’t fast enough is threadbare, and the solution of a special Google-designed sub-web transparently self-serving. It’s like someone who sells bottled water telling you your tap runs too slow.

AMP for email is just an extension of that principle. People leave Gmail all the time to go to airline webpages, online shops, social media, and other places. Places that have created their own user environments, with their own analytics, their own processes that may or may not be beneficial or even visible to Google. Can’t have that!

But if these everyday tasks take place inside Gmail, Google exerts control over the intimate details, defining what other companies can and can’t do inside the email system — rather than using the natural limitations of email, which I hasten to reiterate are a feature, not a bug.

And as if that play wasn’t enough, the other one is as baldly avaricious as anything the company has ever done. Dynamic content in emails. Where have I heard that one before? That’s right: it’s Google’s entire business model for offering a free email service. Ads.

What is the vast majority of “live” content on the web, stuff that needs to call home and update itself? Not articles like this one, or videos or songs — those are just resources you request. Not chats or emails. Cloud-based productivity tools like shared documents, sure, granted. But the rest — and we’re talking like 99.9 percent here — is ads.

Ads and trackers that adapt themselves to the content around them, the data they know about the viewer, and the latest pricing or promotions. That’s how Google wants to “modernize” your inbox.

Does “engaging, interactive, and actionable email experiences” ring a little different now?

Don’t use this. Don’t encourage it. AMP and other initiatives like it are already a blight on the web, and they will be equally bad for email.

Featured Image: HeiroGraphic/Shutterstock

The Falcon Heavy backlash and the public trust


I watched the Falcon Heavy launch this week. Not as an accredited journalist, from an observation tower, but as one of the masses on Alan Shepard Beach twelve miles south. Watched it arc across the sky; watched the two boosters return safely to the landing pads like a video game; heard the sonic booms. And then, over the next few days, I watched the opprobrium rain down:

Some of it, to be clear, came from people I admire and respect. They do not appreciate Elon Musk’s Charmingly Whimsical Titan schtick, or his nascent bromance with Jeff Bezos. They look at reports of Tesla’s shitty treatment of its factory workers, and reports of Amazon’s shitty treatment of its warehouse workers, and conclude that Musk and Bezos — and, by extension, other tech titans too, guilty of surveillance capitalism, attention fragmentation, and truth decay — represent the apogee of a shitty exploitative system, rather than a new frontier in human achievement.

(It’s worth noting that Tesla says its factory achieved industry-average safety in 2017.)

Whether or not Musk’s critics are right, they are not especially politically effective. Most people do not share the belief that a process must be morally pure before its results can be celebrated; they can be jubilant about the Falcon Heavy and question Tesla’s treatment of its workers at the same time, without the one invalidating the other. When people celebrate the Falcon Heavy they are celebrating human achievement in general; undercutting this says, semiotically, “as a human being, your good achievements are irrelevant, only your mistakes matter,” which is not exactly a popular approach.

Perhaps this is why, while both the left and the right are aiming brickbats aplenty at Silicon Valley, they don’t (yet) seem to be hitting their target. According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer study, the tech industry has in fact become the single most trusted institution in America, holding steady at 75% for five years now, which is pretty remarkable given that the title of the study is “America In Crisis” and it begins:

In a year marked by turbulence at home and abroad, trust in institutions in the United States crashed, posting the steepest, most dramatic general population decline the Trust Barometer has ever measured. It is no exaggeration to state that the U.S. has reached a point of crisis that should provoke every leader, in government, business, or civil sector, into urgent action. Inertia is not an option, and neither is silence. The public’s confidence in the traditional structures of American leadership is now fully undermined and has been replaced with a strong sense of fear, uncertainty and disillusionment.

The semiotics of the Falcon Heavy launch, and its criticism, are awkward in a different way, though. The launch itself (more precisely, its relative shoestring budget, courtesy of reusable boosters, and resulting drastic cost reduction for space launches) may result in, or at least trigger, a genuine new era in space — what my friend Casey Handmer calls “the era of post-scarcity heavy lift launch.” This is spectacular and wonderful if you have even a passing interest in space exploration and travel.

But semiotically, those struggling back on Earth look at the tech industry, the only part of our society that actually seems to work effectively in this era of kleptocratic governments, slowly withering media, loss of faith in religion, and failing dinosaur businesses; and they see its leaders’ eyes fixed firmly on space exploration, or artificial intelligence, or life extension, while all but ignoring the day-to-day struggles of anyone not part of the 20% of the population that is slowly separating itself — economically, culturally, and geographically — from the massed 80% of the precariat.

It’s not that tech’s critics hate us. On the contrary. It’s that they want us to think about, and work on, today’s real-world problems as well as tomorrow’s faraway ones. They may overstate our ability to change things; tomorrow’s problems still have technical solutions, while today’s tend to require political change. But even so, they think we’re currently doing too little, and I think they may have a point.