Programming note: With this edition, The Interface is now on holiday break! We return January 6th.
And just like that, we’ve reached the final issue of the year — and also, somehow, the decade. As is tradition around here, let’s close out the year with some predictions from you about where platforms and democracy are headed in 2020 and beyond.
Thanks to everyone who contributed. Here are your thoughts, along with some of mine. This year, I’m ordering these in roughly how likely I think they are. So, the most likely things to happen at the top, and we move further into crazy town as you scroll down. Generally speaking, I feel more comfortable predicting product moves than policy shifts. But we’ll see!
Social platforms continue to struggle with disinformation and its consequences. An obvious point, maybe, but Blake Bowyer makes it in a compelling way. He argues that Facebook’s decision not to fact-check political ads leads to misinformation campaigns and their awful second-order consequences, such as Pizzagate. Facebook is going to get beat up every time a major politician lies on its platform in 2020 unless — until? — it reverses its policy. (Joe Albanese, a former Facebook employee himself, predicts the company will do just that.)
Metrics keep going invisible. Instagram reportedly ditched like counts because it led to people — particularly young people — posting more. If that proves true elsewhere, expect more metrics to disappear in 2020, reader M.D. predicts.
The flight from feeds to curation. Algorithms fade a bit into the background in 2020 as human editors return to the big aggregators. They’re already working on Facebook’s new news tab, on Apple News, and on editorial teams at Twitter and Snap. Even Google says it is beginning to take into account the quality of original reporting in its suggested news stories. All of this is welcome, even if feeds still command the lion’s share of attention.
The next big social network is email. Newsletters are the new websites, and expect to see communities growing up around them in interesting new ways, led by companies like Substack. Allen Ramos predicts that the rise of newsletters — and, I’d say, of subscription-based media generally — will contribute to a new divide between those who see ads and those who pay to avoid them.
A deepfake app goes mainstream in the US. Depending on how you think about that viral Snapchat aging filter, one arguably already has. But Ben Cunningham (ex-Facebook) predicts some machine-learning-based video editing app will take off in 2020, with its features eventually coming to the Instagram camera. Feels like a solid bet.
Splinternet happens. We’ve talked before in this column about how the internet is quickly dividing into zones. There’s an American internet, a European internet, and a Sino-Russian-authoritarian internet, and they all appear to be rapidly pulling apart. Jason Barrett Prado predicts that this trend accelerates in 2020, limiting the potential size of any one social network.
Discord goes mainstream. The gamer chat network is already popular among young people — and journalists who now routinely find white supremacist networks and criminal gangs using it. Reader Ian Greenleigh predicts Discord will have a big 2020 as giant everyone-in-the-same-room social networks lose favor and “the interest graph moves underground.”
Oculus will finally take off — thanks to Twitch. Cunningham also suspects that streamers will gravitate toward the blue ocean of virtual reality, where Facebook’s Oculus Quest is arguably the best of breed. Streamers will draw audiences, who will buy Quests to see what all the fun is about. As Cunningham acknowledges, this prediction might take a few extra years to come true.
The debate over Section 230 hits a stalemate. Just as Congress couldn’t reach consensus on a national privacy law in 2019, they’ll stumble over how to alter the Communications Decency Act in 2020. Andrew Hutchinson predicts Congress will legislate the removal of “misinformation,” but that seems unlikely (and, perhaps, unconstitutional) to me.
The next big policy fight is over location data. With increasing attention being paid to the expanding surveillance networks created by our smartphones, reader Dan Calacci predicts location becomes a hot topic among regulators.
TikTok gets serious competition. Matt Navarra predicts we’ll see a rash of new short-form video apps take off, including Byte and Firework. Add that to ByteDance’s list of challenges in America next year, along with skeptical regulators and a churning customer base.
Slack will become the target of coordinated investor shorts along with a big expose on business practices, reader H.B. predicts. Certainly it seems some companies are reconsidering how they use the platform in light of recent cases where executives were embarrassed by their messages becoming public.
Libra fails to launch. The beleaguered Facebook cryptocurrency project struggles to get off the ground in 2019 as regulators continue to hate it, partners continue to leave it, and Facebook itself decides to save its powder to fight government battles elsewhere. (Calacci predicts it will launch.)
Wilder ideas. Beth Becker says: “Facebook will unleash at least a few of the following: an actual podcast platform, paid music streaming and I still think that instant articles will eventually turn into some kind of platform for magazines and even books for long-form reading.”
A reader who asked to remain anonymous predicted that a European Union country would fund a public social network.
Question marks. Do regulators seek the breakup of Facebook or Google? Will the various ongoing privacy-related investigations lead to any meaningful changes among the platforms? Will Facebook’s oversight board emerge as a true justice system for a social network? Will Libra actually launch? Will the platforms adequately defend against election challenges? What challenge that no one is thinking about will emerge and surprise us all?
No one really had any sharp guesses about those subjects, and to me the answers are basically a coin flip. For our final prediction of the year, we turn to Galen Pranger: “Until Trump is out of office, the psychological impact of his presidency will continue to drive an especially negative narrative about the social impacts of the Internet and social media. A Democratic win next year will help stabilize some of the media pressure on the industry.”
I certainly hope we find out!
Thanks to everyone who read, shared, and responded to The Interface this year. I got to meet so many of you in person this year at live events and conferences, and heard from dozens more via email. It’s a privilege to write four columns a week for some of the smartest and most thoughtful people in the industry. Zoe and I have big plans in 2020, and we look forward to you following along with us.
So thanks again, and happy holidays. We’ll see you back here on January 6th.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up: Facebook will remove posts that mislead people about the US Census starting next year. The goal is to prevent malicious actors from interfering in a critical, once-in-a-decade process that determines political representation.
Trending down: Facebook failed to convince lawmakers it needs to track peoples’ location even when their tracking services are turned off. The company said it uses location data to target ads and for certain security functions, but Congress is still arguing the company should give users more control.
⭐ Every minute of every day, dozens of private data companies are logging the movements of tens of millions of people with mobile phones and storing the information in gigantic files. The New York Times received one of those files, and is publishing a series of eye-opening articles on what this level of surveillance could mean. Stuart A. Thompson and Charlie Warzel set the stage:
It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure the powers such always-on surveillance can provide an authoritarian regime like China’s. Within America’s own representative democracy, citizens would surely rise up in outrage if the government attempted to mandate that every person above the age of 12 carry a tracking device that revealed their location 24 hours a day. Yet, in the decade since Apple’s App Store was created, Americans have, app by app, consented to just such a system run by private companies. Now, as the decade ends, tens of millions of Americans, including many children, find themselves carrying spies in their pockets during the day and leaving them beside their beds at night — even though the corporations that control their data are far less accountable than the government would be.
“The seduction of these consumer products is so powerful that it blinds us to the possibility that there is another way to get the benefits of the technology without the invasion of privacy. But there is,” said William Staples, founding director of the Surveillance Studies Research Center at the University of Kansas. “All the companies collecting this location information act as what I have called Tiny Brothers, using a variety of data sponges to engage in everyday surveillance.”
Facebook will no longer feed user phone numbers provided to it for two-factor authentication purposes into its “people you may know” feature. The move is part of a wide-ranging overhaul of its privacy practices, which advocates have been calling for since last year. (Reuters)
The legal advisor to the EU’s top court said Facebook sharing data on European users with the US is legal and provides sufficient privacy protections. It’s a symbolic victory for the company in its fight against privacy activist Max Schrems, who has argued that such practices are illegal. (Ryan Browne / CNBC)
Hundreds of partisan news outlets are distributing algorithmic stories and conservative talking points, according to an investigation by The Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Of the 450 “pink slime” sites they discovered, at least 189 were set up as local news networks across ten states within the last twelve months by an organization called Metric Media. (Priyanjana Bengani / The Tow Center for Digital Journalism)
Bing appears to be returning an alarming amount of disinformation and misinformation in response to user queries — far more than Google does. While its share of the search market in the US is dwarfed by Google, it has steadily increased over the past ten years. Daniel Bush and Alex Zaheer / Stanford Internet Observatory)
After a series of embarrassing leaks from their WhatsApp groups, Conservative MPs have been downloading the end-to-end encrypted messaging app Signal, which allows users to auto-delete messages. (Mark Di Stefano and Emily Ashton / BuzzFeed)
⭐ All those tech IPOs that were supposed to make people megarich this year only made them rich-ish. “Instead of yachts, tech workers are funding more mundane ventures like college savings plans,” write Nellie Bowles and Kate Conger in The New York Times. They add:
San Francisco has been left as a slightly more normal town of tech workers who got rich-ish, maybe making a few hundred thousand dollars. But that doesn’t go far in a city where the median cost of a single family home is about $1.6 million.
“Everyone that came back post-I.P.O. seemed to be the same person. I didn’t see any Louis Vuitton MacBook case covers or champagne in their Yeti thermos,” said J.T. Forbus, a tax manager at Bogdan & Frasco in San Francisco.
Private wealth managers are now meeting with a chastened clientele. Developers are having to cut home prices — unheard-of a year ago. Party planners are signing nondisclosure agreements to stage secret parties where hosts can privately enjoy their wealth. Union organizers are finding an opportunity.
Everyone had gotten too excited, and who could blame them? The money was once so close: A start-up that coordinated dog walkers raised $300 million. The valuations of the already giant ride-hailing behemoths had nearly doubled again. WeWork, a commercial real estate management start-up that owned very little of its own real estate, was valued at $47 billion.
Facebook is pursuing rights to music videos from major record labels, to boost interest in its Watch video service. Record labels have been pushing Facebook to step up and give them a credible alternative to YouTube. (Lucas Shaw / Bloomberg)
Facebook announced it will run its first commercial in the Super Bowl, buying time for a 60-second ad featuring Chris Rock and Sylvester Stallone. The ad will promote Facebook Groups. (Nat Ives / The Wall Street Journal)
Facebook is betting big on hardware, investing billions of dollars in technologies that could make it a gatekeeper when — and if — augmented reality becomes the next big thing. (Alex Heath / The Information)
Facebook is building its own operating system so it can be less dependent on Android. The company doesn’t want hardware like Oculus and Portal to be at the mercy of Google and its mobile operating system. (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)
Facebook acquired a Spanish cloud video gaming company called PlayGiga. The acquisition is part of Facebook’s efforts to expand more into gaming. (Salvador Rodriguez / CNBC)
Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg is ending 2019 with a couple of major decisions: he plans to take a small break from YouTube in 2020, and he’s wiped out his popular Twitter account, losing its 19.3 million followers in the process. The news has generated a lot of attention, and highlights just how hard it is for many YouTubers to take time off. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
Delivery apps are turning gig workers into drug mules in Argentina. The companies allow them to transport anything, leaving gig workers liable if they’re caught with illegal drugs. (Amy Booth / OneZero)
One woman talks about her experience using Tinder in a very small town, where she went from attempting witty banter to more uniform question and answers in a relatable and depressing way. (CJ Hauser / The Guardian)
New York Magazine did a “decade in internet culture” list with 34 emblematic posts that highlight the weirdest and most unforgettable things that happened on the internet in the 2010s. (Brian Feldman / Intelligencer)
Also: BuzzFeed curated a list of the 50 worst things that happened on the internet this year, and it is hilarious and horrifying. (Ryan Broderick and Katie Notopoulos / BuzzFeed)
A guy logged back on to Twitter after a decade to announce he married the woman he Tweeted a joke about back then. An absolutely perfect story to end a decade of tweeting from Tanya Chen.
Facebook is doing a Super Bowl ad this year, and I asked you to give me your absolute worst creative ideas. You really came through:
American suburbs: A teenage daughter is radicalized by Tiktok to support xi’s actions in Xinjiang, performs militant communist dances with friends. Her younger brother and school classmates enlist Drake’s help to deprogram her with Instagram Reels. 4th of July ensues. #freeFB
People are at the Superbowl arena in the audience and they put their VR headsets on to watch the game and chat with each other.
A sixty second spot of my grandma trying to log in
Sadly for you lot, I won my own competition.
I’ll go first. It’s the Budweiser frogs and they just keep saying “WhatsApp”
Don’t take my word for it — Facebook’s chief marketing officer awarded me the prize.
Happy New Year!