Hello, and welcome back to Platformer! Thanks to your support of the newsletter, I was able to take a week off, recharge my batteries, and plan some fun stuff for the future. I don’t take that support for granted — at all — so please accept my most sincere thanks. Now let’s get into the news …
One question I have wondered a lot over the past few years is whether the rise of a large-scale conservative social network — a Fox News of Facebook — is inevitable. Last year, during the rise of Parler, we finally got a good test case.
Here was an app backed by the Mercer family, who previously championed Breitbart News, Donald Trump, and Cambridge Analytica, among other conservative causes. It was promoted relentlessly by top conservative media personalities, including Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Dan Bongino.
And it arrived amid a contentious election in which mainstream platforms’ responsible content moderation — labeling and removing misinformation; promoting reliable information about how to vote — was castigated by many conservatives as outrageous censorship and/or interference with the democratic process.
Then came the January 6th Capitol attack. Parler had been rife with calls for violence leading up to and during the insurrection, and in keeping with the platform’s “free speech” ethos, most had been allowed to stand. Apple responded by removing it from the App Store; Google later followed.
By May, Parler had fired its CEO, shored up its content moderation practices, and returned to app stores. But, as Sara Fischer reported in Axios last week, the thrill appears to be gone. According to data from Sensor Tower, Parler downloads went from 517,000 in December to 11,000 in June. It’s part of an overall decline in the popularity of alt-platforms — and in conservative media generally — since former President Trump left office.
At the height of election fever, Parler indeed had a moment. But the moment seems to have passed.
The withering of Parler has not dissuaded other conservatives from attempting to build something similar. On Thursday, Politico reported that former members of Trump’s team were behind Gettr, an app whose stated mission is “fighting cancel culture, promoting common sense, defending free speech, challenging social media monopolies, and creating a true marketplace of ideas.”
This is more or less what Parler set out to do. (Like Parler, Gettr is also essentially a Twitter clone.) But Gettr, by virtue of not having been used to help coordinate a violent insurrection against the government, started with a clean slate.
The slate remained clean for … a few minutes. It quickly became apparent that despite the involvement of former Trump spokesman Jason Miller, Trump himself had no intentions of actually joining Gettr. Meanwhile, multiple hashtags with racist and anti-Semitic slurs hit the app’s trending section, according to Recode, and multiple reports found a torrent of porn. (Sonic the Hedgehog porn, in particular.)
Then the Daily Beast reported that the whole thing had been funded by a fugitive Chinese billionaire. Then Gettr’s source code was found out in the open. Then Salon reported that a bug allowed hackers to easily download the personal information of anyone who had created an account on the site.
I’m also beginning to wonder if all these apps are their own grift in a way. Loudly launch a site no one will ever use, claim it’s a free speech sanctuary for Republicans, do the rounds on all the right-wing news outlets, and wait for it to fill up with the worst people on Earth, refuse to moderate it, wait for Apple to ban it from the App Store, and then go back to the right-wing news outlets and screech about liberal cancel culture impacting your ability to share hentai with white nationalist flat earthers or whatever.
When I first read this paragraph I assumed Ryan was exaggerating to make a point. Given the extremely predictable turmoil that emerged from Gettr’s content policies, though, I wonder if there isn’t something to this: a false-flag social network, set up only to watch it burn to the ground.
But let’s say the whole thing isn’t a put-on. What should we take away from the Gettr debacle, and the Parler debacle before that?
Lots of questions about social networks are hard. This one isn’t. If you create a place for people to upload text and images, you have to moderate it — and moderate it aggressively. You have to draw hard lines; you have to move those lines as society evolves and your adversaries adjust; you have to accept difficult trade-offs between users’ well being and their right to express themselves.
Apps like Parler and Gettr offered their conservative users an attractive mirage: a free-speech paradise where they could say the things they couldn’t say elsewhere. It never seemed to occur to anyone that such a move would only select for the worst social media customers on earth, quickly turning the founders’ dreams to ash.
In a sane world, next-generation conservative founders would accept as a given that they would have to police their apps for racism, dangerous misinformation, and other harms. In return, they could use their editorial discretion to promote their favorite culture warriors, rig the trending topics as they wished, and possibly even attract enough advertisers to make the whole thing financially viable.
To be sure, active content moderation is a necessary but not sufficient, condition for running a viable platform. Even if Parler and Gettr had scrubbed themselves entirely of coup talk and Sonic porn, enthusiasm for them may have waned for any number of reasons.
But when you consider why these apps failed as quickly as they did, lax content moderation is surely among the biggest reasons. Most people will only spend so long in a virtual space in which they are surrounded by the worst of humanity. If Parler or Gettr will be remembered at all, it will be because they created networks for conservatives that not even conservatives could stand to be in.
The fine print on Bulletin
Last week a federal judge threw out the government’s antitrust case against Facebook for failing to offer any evidence for its claim that the company owns 60 percent of the “personal social networking services market.” While the government takes the next month to try again, Facebook is out here seeing what other markets it might claim as its own.
As an independent newsletter writer, I am naturally most interested in Facebook’s new platform for independent newsletter writers. It’s called Bulletin, and it is now live with a handful of paid beta testers including authors Malcolm Gladwell and Mitch Albom, sportscaster Erin Andrews and health journalist James Hamblin.
The launch website for Bulletin is so bare-bones it looks more like a mock-up than a full-fledged e-commerce website; the same could be said of the visual design for its newsletters. That’s not a criticism, exactly; rather, it speaks to the swiftness with which Facebook developed the product. Bulletin shows Facebook back in its old “move fast” mode; we’ll see whether it winds up breaking anything.
As best as I can tell, Bulletin began incubating only last fall. The product has been a high priority for CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who announced its launch in a live audio broadcast last week with some of the platform’s new newsletter authors. It’s part of Facebook’s recent surge of enthusiasm for the creator economy; I think there’s a lot more to be said on that subject, but I want to do a bit more reporting first. (In the meantime, I wrote about what Facebook sees in newsletters this spring.)
What interests me most about Bulletin so far is the actual concessions Facebook has made here to what independent creators value most — their independence. As I noted here in April after a conversation with Zuckerberg, the fact that writers will be able to export their mailing lists should they ever choose to leave Bulletin represents a profound shift in the way Facebook has treated its user base to date. You can’t export your Facebook Page subscribers or your Instagram followers, but you will be able to port your Bulletin customers, and that’s a big deal.
Most every article I read last week noted Bulletin’s email portability. But an important piece of fine print mostly got left out of the narrative: at launch, and maybe for a long time, Bulletin subscribers are only able to make purchases using Facebook’s own payment platform, Facebook Pay. And should you leave Bulletin, you can’t export those customer relationships.
This differs from, for example Substack, which hosts Platformer (see disclosure). Substack allows writers to export both their email lists and their payment relationships, which are handled by Stripe. Anyone who leaves Substack can restart on another platform without having to ask their entire customer base to sign up again with a new credit card. Anyone who leaves Bulletin, on the other hand, will have to do just that.
Perhaps Facebook will change that policy down the road; the company declined to comment when I asked today. In the meantime, it’s both true that Bulletin is the most creator-friendly thing Facebook has ever done; and that setting up shop there still ties your fortunes to Facebook’s platform policies almost completely.
Until 2023, Facebook won’t take any cut of newsletter revenues; compared with Substack’s 10 percent cut, and Twitter’s 5 percent cut, Bulletin looks quite generous — particularly to people making six figures or more on their newsletters. But any student of recent media history knows that Facebook has a habit of changing the terms on its publishing partners as its own business imperatives change.
Bulletin is brand new, and it will make more sense to evaluate it at the 6-month or 1-year mark than it does today. At the meantime, I’m enjoying watching it evolve — from a very safe distance.
Also: Is Facebook’s 0-percent take rate predatory pricing? Good question from Will Oremus.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech companies.
⬆️ Trending up: Twitter is testing redesigned misinformation labels intended to make their messages more clear. One test I like replaces the old “disputed” tag with the much clearer “misleading.” (Barbara Ortutay / AP)
⬇️ Trending down: A database released by human rights groups found more than 60 cases in which NSO Group’s spyware was used to target dissidents from countries around the world. I normally focus on the big tech platforms here in The Ratio, but this NSO stuff feels so egregious to me that I’m making an exception today. (Ryan Gallagher / Bloomberg)
⭐ In a court filing, India’s government argued that Twitter has lost its liability protection from user posts due to non-compliance with its anti-speech policies. The court — not the government — will decide the case. But if the government wins, it will have huge ramifications for every company that hosts content in India. Here are Aditya Kalra and Sankalp Phartiyal at Reuters:
In recent weeks, as acrimony grew between New Delhi and Twitter, Indian police have filed at least five cases against the company or its officials, including some related to child pornography and a controversial map of India on its career page.
Police in two Indian states have named Twitter India chief Manish Maheshwari in complaints. Separately, the state of Uttar Pradesh has challenged in the Supreme Court a bar on police action against Maheshwari, after a lower court protected him against arrest over an accusation that the platform was used to spread hate.
India’s increasingly hard-line stance to limit the influence of Western companies is expanding beyond social networks to include e-commerce as well. Recent moves to limit the growth of Walmart and Amazon within the country will benefit a handful of tycoons close to the Modi government. (Andy Mukherjee / Bloomberg)
⭐ The Pentagon canceled the cursed $10 billion JEDI contract that Microsoft and Amazon spent the past several years fighting over. Now a new request for proposals will be issued so additional tech giants can join the fight. Expect this technology to deployed somewhere in the mid-2030s. (Lauren Feiner and Amanda Macias / CNBC)
⭐ China’s ongoing crackdown on tech companies and their growing power continues to ramp up, with the country signaling that it will use data protection regulations and other tools to weaken corporate autonomy and discourage offshore listings of private stock. Tons of news on this front over my break, with the removal of ride-hailing app Didi from app stores only the most dramatic. (Bloomberg)
Related: A hugely popular Chinese Twitter alternative, Weibo, is in talks to go private — presumably due to these regulatory pressures. (Julie Zhu and Pei Li / Reuters)
Facebook, Google and Twitter are among the companies that have threatened to pull out of Hong Kong over new laws that threaten staff with criminal liability over users’ posts. Can’t imagine China would be all that broken up about it; the loss of these networks inside Hong Kong feels both tragic and inevitable. (Newley Purnell / Wall Street Journal)
Q&A with Rep. Ken Buck, “the new face of Republican antitrust.” “Nobody bothers coming in and talking to me. I’m very lonely. I love interviews like this because the reality is that the Big Tech people know this is not a friendly forum.” (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
The Department of Justice is investigating the Overwatch League for possible antitrust exemptions. A salary cap may be artificially depressing player salaries; notable for how quickly antitrust inquiries are spreading across industries. (Jacob Wolf and Liz Richardson / Dot Esports)
Spain opened an antitrust inquiry into Apple and Amazon over their online sales practices. The country’s competition watchdog appears to be looking into an agreement the companies made in 2018 to create an official Apple store on Amazon’s website. (Reuters)
A look at the “keyboard warriors” of Myanmar, a group of real people devoted to amplifying messages about the country’s recent coup and the suffering of its people under a military junta. “Among the most active groups is Myanmar’s K-pop fandom, who are social media-savvy and have wide international networks.” (Nu Nu Lusan and Emily Fishbein / Rest of World)
⭐ NextDoor is going public in a SPAC merger that values the neighborhood-oriented social network at $4.3 billion. Honestly I do not find any of the numbers here all that impressive. Here’s Micah Maidenberg at the Wall Street Journal:
The San Francisco-based company said it is active in more than 275,000 neighborhoods in 11 countries. In the U.S., close to one in three households uses the app, Nextdoor said. The company, led by Chief Executive Sarah Friar, depends in part on selling advertising to small businesses. It also pitches brands on reaching customers across multiple markets, according to the Nextdoor website. […]
The deal will help Nextdoor hire more employees, invest in tools to generate revenue and further develop its products, the company said. “We remain focused on optimizing our strategy and investing in products to drive continued neighbor and organization acquisition and engagement,” Ms. Friar said.
Facebook is partnering with Africa’s largest fiber company, Liquid Intelligent Technologies, to lay 1,243 miles of fiber in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’m old enough to remember when Facebook tried to deploy internet via solar-powered drone flights!
Instagram chief Adam Mosseri raised eyebrows when he said Instagram is “no longer just a square photo-sharing app." There are lots of questions over what will left behind as the team races headlong into short-form video; on the other hand, the app has been working to shed the “photo-sharing app” thing for a long time now. (Sara Fischer / Axios)
Facebook signed a deal with Guardian Australia to be part of its News Tab. What is the actual effect of these deals on publishers, on readers, on journalism, on democracy? Are we measuring any of this, or are these just hostage negotiations? (Josh Taylor / Guardian)
An internal survey of Apple employees found widespread concerns with the company’s plans for limited work-from-home flexibility. “In response to the statement ‘I am worried that some of my colleagues will have to leave Apple due to LACK of location-flexible work options,’ 58.5 percent said they ‘strongly agree.’” (Zoe Schiffer / The Verge)
Twitter gave away a bunch of NFTs, and they were … completely adorable? Twitter is at its best when it leans into its absolute strangeness; I loved these. (Kurt Wagner / Bloomberg)
Those good tweets
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