Author: Danny Crichton

As Chinese censorship intensifies, gays are back while teenage mothers and tattoos are out

Following the passage of a new cybersecurity law and the removal of term limits from Chinese president Xi Jinping, China’s government is conducting a comprehensive crackdown on online discussions and content, with few companies spared the rod by the central government.

Among the casualties has been Bytedance, the extremely high-flying $20 billion media unicorn startup which was forced to publicly apologize for content that degraded the character of the nation. The government forced the company to shut down its popular Neihan Duanzi comedy app, as well as to remove its headline news app, Jinri Toutiao, for three weeks. The company announced that it would expand the number of human censors from 6,000 to 10,000.

Another high-flying media unicorn, Kuaishou, has been under fire for allowing teenage moms to be depicted in a positive light. The app is unique among China’s top social networks in focusing on ordinary Chinese, and is known for its focus on people outside of large cities like Beijing and Shanghai. The company has faced public criticism from central television channel CCTV, as well as from regulators who have demanded the company act more aggressively in removing the content, a demand the company has acquiesced to.

Meanwhile, over at Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, the company announced on Friday that it would ban violent and gay content from its service, following instructions from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television. LGBT content has been in the crosshairs of the country’s media regulators for years; for example, censors banned “abnormal sexual behaviors” from being depicted in any media or mobile apps in 2017, a term which includes homosexuality.

However, in a rare about-face for corporate China and internet censors, the company announced that it would reverse its ban of LGBT-themed content, following thousands of comments and discussions online by gay Chinese citizens. The company’s crackdown on other content though is expected to continue though.

There are other forms of censorship underway these days in China. China’s soccer players were banned from having tattoos a few weeks ago, since it depicts a “dispirited culture,” which is banned on all media. Perhaps most importantly, the government has banned the use of private VPNs, in order to better control online discourse.

China’s censorship regime is certainly not new, but its intensity around culture and how it is depicted is relatively novel. While the Chinese government has generally kept a tight lid on political dissent, particularly since the Tiananmen Protests in 1989, it has generally used a lighter touch on non-political subjects.

However, the Communist Party of China is now attempting to control the culture much more directly, not just on broadcast media like television, but also on apps and devices throughout the Middle Kingdom.

Following the National People’s Congress in March, the regulation of China’s media has been reassigned from the government to the party’s Central Propaganda Department. Since then, the party has been working in overdrive to tamp down content that it deems to be foreign, crude, vulgar, or not in the best spirit of the Chinese people.

While China’s media startups generally focus heavily on the mainland, their apps are also located in the app stores in other countries. Bytedance, which was forced to shut down its news app, also owns musical.ly, the popular music video app used by approximately 14% of American teenagers, according to some estimates. China’s censorship regime doesn’t stop at the nation’s borders then, but can extend its influence far wider.

Another example is Grindr, the popular gay dating app, which sold a majority share of its ownership to Beijing Kunlun Tech Company in early 2016.

The crackdown on speech is expected to continue over the coming weeks as the new rules are applied uniformly across the country. The situation is a reminder of the challenges of Chinese companies operating in the heavily-controlled country.

Although there are many trade tensions between the U.S. and China these days, a key issue has been access to the Chinese market for American technology companies. Even if China were to open its borders though, it remains unclear how U.S. companies could faithfully apply the law of China while maintaining their own moral standards.

Congress should demand Zuckerberg move to “one share, one vote”

Mark Zuckerberg is an autocrat, and not hypothetically. Through his special voting rights held in FB’s Class B shares, he wields absolute command of the company, while owning just a handful of percentage points of the company’s equity.

Like any autocrat, he has taken extraordinary measures to maintain control over his realm. He produced a plan exactly two years ago that would have zeroed out the voting rights for everyday shareholders with a new voteless Class C share, only to pull back at the last minute as a Delaware court case was set to begin. He has received the irrevocable proxies of many Facebook insiders, allowing him to control their votes indefinitely. Plus, any Class B shares that are sold are converted to Class A shares, allowing him to continue to consolidate power as people leave.

And now, borrowing a page straight out of George Orwell’s 1984, he has even tried to retract and disappear his own messages to others on his platform (which has now been retracted itself after it became public).

While Congress is right to focus on Cambridge Analytica, and electoral malfeasance, and political ads, and a whole crop of other controversies surrounding Facebook, it should instead direct its attention to the single solution that would begin to solve all of this: dissolve Facebook’s dual-class share structure and thereby democratize its ownership.

Just as congressmen are elected under the principle of “one man, one vote,” it should demand that Facebook follow the highest standards used by most other publicly-listed companies and return to “one share, one vote.”

Zuckerberg himself should certainly agree with this. After all, the original logic of creating a voteless share class was that the company’s financial performance was strong and Zuckerberg needed to be protected to continue it that way. The plan was announced the same quarter that Facebook crushed its financial results, and there was an absolutely implied connection between those results and the controlling stake held by Zuckerberg.

Yet in the two months, from its intraday peak at a share price of $195.32 on February 1, 2018 to today’s price of $160, Facebook has lost more than $100 billion in its market cap. If Congressional inquiries eventually lead to further regulation, it could further erode the value of the stock. It’s easy to argue that a chief executive should be protected when the performance of a company is rocketing up. It’s much harder when everything is crumbling and no one is being held accountable.

Shareholders may have been blinded by Facebook’s dizzying growth over the past few years, but we now know that the edifice of that growth is far more tenuous than we ever knew before. Zuckerberg’s 15-year apology tour can no longer sustain the view that corporate governance should be ignored for the good of the share price.

There’s just one problem though, and it is the problem that confronts any country with a tyrant: shareholders have no power here to affect change. They can’t change the composition of the board, they can’t change the management team. They can’t change anything at all, since one person controls the realm with an iron fist. A proposal back in 2015 to move to “one share, one vote” was struck down at Facebook’s shareholder meeting.

I am not asking for Zuckerberg to be fired, or to resign. I think people should clean up their own messes, and few people have the means to clean up Facebook right now other than him. But I do think there should be consequences, and so far, there have been exactly zero. Zuckerberg has to personally relinquish his control, and no act of mea culpa would better show that he understands the consequences of his actions.

There is a counter-argument, which is that ravenous mobs of private investors would swoop into Facebook and force the company to steal even more data from users to sell to advertisers if Zuckerberg lost control. I am wholly unconvinced though, mostly because Facebook has basically done precisely that over its entire history. Plus, any further deterioration of trust with users would strike at the heart of its financial results.

Zuckerberg says in his prepared statement that, “My top priority has always been our social mission of connecting people, building community and bringing the world closer together.” There are few things he could do to build the community around Facebook’s leadership than sharing the burdens and the responsibilities with a wider, more diverse set of people. Take a page from American history, and abolish the discrimination inherent in the dual-class share vote.

RSS is undead

RSS died. Whether you blame Feedburner, or Google Reader, or Digg Reader last month, or any number of other product failures over the years, the humble protocol has managed to keep on trudging along despite all evidence that it is dead, dead, dead.

Now, with Facebook’s scandal over Cambridge Analytica, there is a whole new wave of commentators calling for RSS to be resuscitated. Brian Barrett at Wired said a week ago that “… anyone weary of black-box algorithms controlling what you see online at least has a respite, one that’s been there all along but has often gone ignored. Tired of Twitter? Facebook fatigued? It’s time to head back to RSS.”

Let’s be clear: RSS isn’t coming back alive so much as it is officially entering its undead phase.

Don’t get me wrong, I love RSS. At its core, it is a beautiful manifestation of some of the most visionary principles of the internet, namely transparency and openness. The protocol really is simple and human-readable. It feels like how the internet was originally designed with static, full-text articles in HTML. Perhaps most importantly, it is decentralized, with no power structure trying to stuff other content in front of your face.

It’s wonderfully idealistic, but the reality of RSS is that it lacks the features required by nearly every actor in the modern content ecosystem, and I would strongly suspect that its return is not forthcoming.

Now, it is important before diving in here to separate out RSS the protocol from RSS readers, the software that interprets that protocol. While some of the challenges facing this technology are reader-centric and therefore fixable with better product design, many of these challenges are ultimately problems with the underlying protocol itself.

Let’s start with users. I, as a journalist, love having hundreds of RSS feeds organized in chronological order allowing me to see every single news story published in my areas of interest. This use case though is a minuscule fraction of all users, who aren’t paid to report on the news comprehensively. Instead, users want personalization and prioritization — they want a feed or stream that shows them the most important content first, since they are busy and lack the time to digest enormous sums of content.

To get a flavor of this, try subscribing to the published headlines RSS feed of a major newspaper like the Washington Post, which publishes roughly 1,200 stories a day. Seriously, try it. It’s an exhausting experience wading through articles from the style and food sections just to run into the latest update on troop movements in the Middle East.

Some sites try to get around this by offering an almost array of RSS feeds built around keywords. Yet, stories are almost always assigned more than one keyword, and keyword selection can vary tremendously in quality across sites. Now, I see duplicate stories and still manage to miss other stories I wanted to see.

Ultimately, all of media is prioritization — every site, every newspaper, every broadcast has editors involved in determining what is the hierarchy of information to be presented to users. Somehow, RSS (at least in its current incarnation) never understood that. This is both a failure of the readers themselves, but also of the protocol, which never forced publishers to provide signals on what was most and least important.

Another enormous challenge is discovery and curation. How exactly do you find good RSS feeds? Once you have found them, how do you group and prune them over time to maximize signal? Curation is one of the biggest on-boarding challenges of social networks like Twitter and Reddit, which has prevented both from reaching the stratospheric numbers of Facebook. The cold start problem with RSS is perhaps its greatest failing today, although could potentially be solved by better RSS reader software without protocol changes.

RSS’ true failings though are on the publisher side, with the most obvious issue being analytics. RSS doesn’t allow publishers to track user behavior. It’s nearly impossible to get a sense of how many RSS subscribers there are, due to the way that RSS readers cache feeds. No one knows how much time someone reads an article, or whether they opened an article at all. In this way, RSS shares a similar product design problem with podcasting, in that user behavior is essentially a black box.

For some users, that lack of analytics is a privacy boon. The reality though is that the modern internet content economy is built around advertising, and while I push for subscriptions all the time, such an economy still looks very distant. Analytics increases revenues from advertising, and that means it is critical for companies to have those trackers in place if they want a chance to make it in the competitive media environment.

RSS also offers very few opportunities for branding content effectively. Given that the brand equity for media today is so important, losing your logo, colors, and fonts on an article is an effective way to kill enterprise value. This issue isn’t unique to RSS — it has affected Google’s AMP project as well as Facebook Instant Articles. Brands want users to know that the brand wrote something, and they aren’t going to use technologies that strip out what they consider to be a business critical part of their user experience.

These are just some of the product issues with RSS, and together they ensure that the protocol will never reach the ubiquity required to supplant centralized tech corporations. So, what are we to do then if we want a path away from Facebook’s hegemony?

I think the solution is a set of improvements. RSS as a protocol needs to be expanded so that it can offer more data around prioritization as well as other signals critical to making the technology more effective at the reader layer. This isn’t just about updating the protocol, but also about updating all of the content management systems that publish an RSS feed to take advantage of those features.

That leads to the most significant challenge — solving RSS as business model. There needs to be some sort of a commerce layer around feeds, so that there is an incentive to improve and optimize the RSS experience. I would gladly pay money for an Amazon Prime-like subscription where I can get unlimited text-only feeds from a bunch of a major news sources at a reasonable price. It would also allow me to get my privacy back to boot.

Next, RSS readers need to get a lot smarter about marketing and on-boarding. They need to actively guide users to find where the best content is, and help them curate their feeds with algorithms (with some settings so that users like me can turn it off). These apps could be written in such a way that the feeds are built using local machine learning models, to maximize privacy.

Do I think such a solution will become ubiquitous? No, I don’t, and certainly not in the decentralized way that many would hope for. I don’t think users actually, truly care about privacy (Facebook has been stealing it for years — has that stopped its growth at all?) and they certainly aren’t news junkies either. But with the right business model in place, there could be enough users to make such a renewed approach to streams viable for companies, and that is ultimately the critical ingredient you need to have for a fresh news economy to surface and for RSS to come back to life.

Princeton study finds very few affiliate marketers make required disclosures on YouTube and Pinterest

Convincing humans to buy products is a massive business called marketing, and few areas of marketing are growing as fast as influencer marketing. Influencers on platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, and YouTube can command prodigious fees based on their audience size and engagement: some data suggests that a single video on YouTube by a top influencer can command as much as $300,000.

While top influencers often have direct partnerships with product companies, others with smaller audiences often take advantage of affiliate networks to build their revenues. These networks allow an influencer to take a small cut of any sales that are generated through their unique affiliate link, and their flexibility means that influencers can prioritize products that they believe best match their audience.

This industry is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, which has set out a series of rules requiring paid affiliate links to be disclosed to users. There’s just one problem according to a new analysis by Princeton researchers: very little content on sites like YouTube and Pinterest with affiliate links actually disclose their monetization.

Computer scientists Arunesh Mathur, Arvind Narayanan, and Marshini Chetty compiled a random sample of hundreds of thousands of videos on YouTube and millions of pins on Pinterest . They then used text extraction and frequency analysis to investigate URLs located in the descriptions of these items to determine whether the URL or any redirects behind it connected to an affiliate network.

For all the growth in affiliate marketing, the researchers found that less than 1% of videos and pins in their random sample had affiliate links attached to them. Some categories had a significantly higher percentage of affiliate links though, such as science and technology videos on YouTube which averaged 3.61% and women’s fashion on Pinterest, which had a rate of 4.62%.

What’s more interesting is that content with affiliate links was statistically more engaging than videos without affiliate links. The researchers found that affiliated videos had longer run times as well as more likes and view counts, and a similar pattern was seen on Pinterest. The incentives around affiliate marketing then are clearly working.

The researchers next investigated the text of content with affiliate links and analyzed whether they made any disclosures about their economics to users. Among content that had affiliate links, 10.49% of YouTube videos and 7.03% of pins on Pinterest had disclosures. Worse, the disclosure language recommended by the FTC was only included on roughly 2% of affiliated content across the two platforms.

Given the NLP and basic machine learning methodology of the paper, these numbers should be perceived as a lower bound on disclosures. Nonetheless, it is clear that much of the influence economy that exists on these platforms remain cloaked from everyday users, despite being in clear violation of FTC guidelines and rules.

These results raise a series of challenging product and policy questions for startup companies with user-generated content. In the wake of the 2016 election where fake news factories built viral content and generated serious advertising revenues, social networks like Facebook have had to confront the tradeoff between a maniacal focus on quantitative engagement like page views and time on site and the quality of that engagement. If affiliated content does have higher engagement statistically as this study showed, that poses a dilemma for companies looking to boost revenue while also improving engagement quality at the expense of quantity.

For instance, the authors of the study suggest that products like YouTube should have better native features to disclose affiliate sponsors. Placing disclosures though could dampen enthusiasm for some clearly high-engagement content. How then can companies build a framework for building ethical policies that follow FTC requirements while also ensuring their products reach the right metrics?

Finally — and much harder to measure — is evaluating the effect of disclosures on affiliate revenue. Do people click on links less if they know they were placed there because of marketing economics? If proper disclosures dampen the influencer industry, that could put a brake on its breakneck growth.

Such policy and product challenges aren’t simple to answer, but the intensity of the problem is only going to increase with more and more money flowing into the influencer economy. This research clearly shows that there is a wide gap between what the government requires, and what affiliate marketers actually do that needs to be rectified.

No one wants to build a “feel good” internet

 If there is one policy dilemma facing nearly every tech company today, it is what to do about “content moderation,” the almost-Orwellian term for censorship. Charlie Warzel of Buzzfeed pointedly asked the question a little more than a week ago: “How is it that the average untrained human can do something that multibillion-dollar technology companies that pride themselves… Read More

It’s a walrus! No, it’s a giraffe! No, it’s MicGoat, a new app to debate controversial issues

 Debating is at the core of a robust society — as are online social networks. When combined, they transmute each other into a minefield of negativity, abuse, and destruction. With products today, we are either living in an echo chamber of like-minded people who agree with us all the time, or we’re duking it out in trench warfare format for little gain and few opinions changed.… Read More

Homeis, a culture network for immigrants, launches and nabs $4m seed round led by Spark Capital

 Immigrating to a new country is one of the most challenging experiences any person can face. In a single instant, your social networks, your ability to communicate, and your knowledge of how a society functions disappears, and nearly everything has to be learned from scratch. That extraordinary dislocation is one reason why ethnic enclaves exist in large cities like New York City or San… Read More