What's coming for the consumer internet in 2021

Your best predictions about breakout apps, cultural trends, regulation and more

Welcome to the final edition of Platformer for 2020. It was just 11 weeks ago that I took a flying leap from my perch at The Verge and into your warm embrace. And with your support, it wasn’t long before I was able to start breaking news here at my new home. Thanks to every person who subscribed to date, whether to the free or paid editions. I’ll spend the next two weeks recharging my batteries, reading books, and planning for Platformer’s future.

And then we’re going to have a really big 2021.

I like to end each year by surveying you all about your predictions for social networks and the broader consumer internet in the 12 months to come. One, it’s a lot of fun. And two, a year later I read get to read the predictions back and feel extremely dumb. Our collective guesses for 2020 weren’t terrible, exactly — we nailed Libra (er, Diem) failing to launch, the rise of Discord, the Splinternet accelerating, and a total stalemate on Section 230 reform.

But we missed a lot, too: a rise in curated experiences did not cause algorithms to “fade into the background”; a deepfake app did not go mainstream in the United States; and Twitch streaming did not power the rise of Oculus. (But the pandemic sort of did? It powered the rise of Twitch, anyway.)

Earlier today, I asked you what you thought was going to happen on the consumer internet in 2021: product changes, breakout apps, regulation, lawsuits, culture trends and more. Hundreds responded. Here are the best (admittedly US-centric) guesses I saw:

Social networks go crazy for commerce. This one is well on its way — witness Facebook’s move this fall with the Instagram shopping tab and WhatsApp shopping carts — but look for others to try it on in 2021. “Live video shopping,” says Gautam Gupta, former CEO of NatureBox — one of several folks to predict that this is the year QVC is reborn on mobile phones. “We believe that storytelling has always been a huge part of driving commerce (online and offline) and the ability to combine storytelling with community in the form of live and social shopping will change the face of e-commerce.”

Silicon Valley accelerates its investment in products and services for individual creators. Platforms explore new ways to let creators monetize their audiences directly, while taking a cut for themselves. Charli D’Amelio for Instagram head of product? VidCon CEO Jim Louderback predicts a Cameo/OnlyFans tie-up. Everything is available via subscription.

Still, a gulf begins to appear between those who pay for content and those who do not. Subscription fatigue will turn out to be real. And perhaps we lose at least one more paid streaming service?

Remote work reshapes the industry. With tech giants telling workers they can stay home through June or later — and possibly forever — a thousand new problems will lead to 100 new businesses. Priya Sanger predicts 2021 is the year that we see major advances in augmented reality and virtual reality focused on office uses. Meanwhile, everyone begins spending more time in Austin and Miami.

The internet has a reckoning over porn. The Pornhub payment processor deplatforming and related lawsuits may be just the beginning. Think: new fights over content moderation, distribution, and ownership. Open question: What role will OnlyFans play in all this?

Dating apps have a big moment. Many of you predict that when the COVID-19 vaccines have been widely distributed, the earth will experience a period of prolonged horniness unlike anything that has been seen in generations. Tinder, Grindr and all the rest are poised to thrive as a result. Wrote consultant Matt Klein, via direct message:

Dating apps continue to thrive as 1. people come out of their homes, and/or 2. people still remain indoors/protective. Both are tailwinds. Match Group stock continues to balloon.

Audio apps take their turn in the spotlight. Twitter Spaces and Clubhouse have captured a good deal of attention in Silicon Valley. But lots of you think the party may end before 2021 is out. “They all get relegated to phone sex apps with podcast energy,” predicts Regynald Augustin of Dispo and Subtweets. (Incidentally, phone sex is happening on Clubhouse, and no that link is not safe for work.)

Public social networks continue to fragment. Parler won’t be the last breakaway republic from Facebook and Twitter. “I think that there will be more popular ‘free speech’ social networks, and it might even become a separate market, with all social networks either left-wing or right-wing echo chambers,” says this pseudonymous reader.

The United States will need a strategy for the regulation of Chinese apps. Says ex-Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos: “There will be another breakout consumer app from a Chinese-aligned multinational and the Biden administration will have to assemble a cohesive strategy out of the wreckage of the Trump-TikTok phony war.” And what of TikTok? I think it will probably end 2021 owned by the Oracle-Walmart consortium, but perhaps not.

The internet saves movie theaters. Maybe a streaming service buys one of the chains as a perk for subscribers. Or maybe the chains stay independent and rent themselves out as virtual conference centers.

Some other things that didn’t pop in my replies but seem likely to me.

Multiple ongoing lawsuits and proposed regulations — related to antitrust in the United States, and data privacy and competition in the European Union — will slow down big tech. The US case against Microsoft famously caused it to miss the threat posed to it by the internet; Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg will have to be on guard for the distractions that these cases could bring. (They’re students of Silicon Valley history, and so I imagine they already are.) Still: look for a slower pace of innovation and acquisitions than we might have seen otherwise.

Tech’s labor issues accelerate. The divide between management and labor at tech companies big and small seems to be getting bigger all the time — and so far, nothing that managers have done to date has seemed to mollify their employees. Look for more controversies related to failures here, especially with regard to diversity, equity and inclusion.

As always, there were joke suggestions.

And from Brian Merchant, senior editor at OneZero:

Dammit, Brian.

There are also plenty of much harder-to-predict questions about 2021. Will 2020 election denialists gather into a coherent and possibly violent movement? What, if anything, will President Joe Biden do to rein in Big Tech? Will citizen (or candidate) Donald Trump be banned from Twitter or another social network — and if so, why? What are the long-term effects of the massive Russian intrusion into American infrastructure in the second half of this year? Can Facebook’s Oversight Board create a sense of justice in social networks?

I don’t know — but I’m looking forward to finding out. If we learned anything from 2020, it’s that a fresh year is usually full of surprises. I look forward to exploring them together when Platformer returns on January 4.


Pushback

Some of you wrote in to say I had carried too much water for Facebook in this column about its conflict with Apple. In the view of some readers, this case is black and white — Apple is offering users control over their privacy, and if Facebook doesn’t like that it can kick rocks.

As I said in the piece, I think that’s a winning argument. I don’t know that Facebook’s ad campaign about the plight of small business owners will do much to shift public opinion in its favor, and my Twitter timeline has basically laughed it out of court.

But I still say it’s worth thinking about Apple’s power to reshape the digital advertising market almost unilaterally. The App Store is large and consequential enough now to merit regulation by a democratic process, as opposed to simply whatever seems most profitable to the crew in Cupertino.


The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech companies.

⬆️ Trending up: Twitter said it will remove false claims about the COVID-19 vaccine. A good move, if much easier said than done. We’ll see. (Georgia Wells / Wall Street Journal)

⬇️ Trending down: The National Labor Relations Board found that Amazon illegally retaliated against a warehouse worker for organizing his workspace. “Gerald Bryson was one of the principal workers calling out Amazon for unsafe working conditions at JFK8, an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island.” (Lauren Kaori Gurley / Vice)


Governing

A group of 30 states sued Google on Thursday on charges that it warps search results to crush smaller rivals, bringing to three the number of antitrust lawsuits now faced by the search giant. Here are David McCabe, Cecilia Kang and Daisuke Wakabayashi in the New York Times:

The bipartisan group of state prosecutors said in a lawsuit on Thursday that Google downplayed websites that let users search for information in specialized areas like home repair services and travel reviews. They also accused the company of using exclusive deals with phone makers like Apple to prioritize Google’s search service over rivals like Firefox and DuckDuckGo.

That suppression, the states said in their lawsuit, has locked in Google’s nearly 90 percent market dominance in search and has made it impossible for the smaller companies to grow into formidable competitors. Google has sought to extend that dominance to new venues like home voice assistants, said the prosecutors, from states including Colorado, Nebraska, New York and Utah.

A heavily redacted lawsuit from a coalition of 10 state attorneys general alleges significant collusion between Google and Facebook to rig the terms of the ad market. Google denied it. Mark Bergen explains the details, which involves the ad-auction practice known as header bidding, at Bloomberg:

The complaint centers on automated ad technology called header bidding that routes digital ads into a live auction. It’s designed to increase the money web publishers, such as news outlets, can get for their ad real estate. With more bids from the widest array of sources, rates go up.

By 2016, 70% of major publishers used header bidding from a variety of smaller advertising technology companies. That posed a threat to Google’s ad exchange system because the approach opened up the bidding process to other exchanges. So Google created a program to “secretly let its own exchange win,” according to the Texas suit. (This was named after a Star Wars character, although the state redacted the name.)

This may be the explanation for the lawsuit’s much-discussed but mostly redacted discussion of an alleged deal between Google and Facebook over WhatsApp. A deal was apparently made to not count WhatsApp backups against users’ Google storage limits in exchange for Google being able to index any attachments to improve facial detection and other algorithms. (Amir Efrati and Alex Heath / The Information)

How the Facebook antitrust case differs from the Google cases. Regulators are explicitly trying to break Facebook up; Google faces more measured remedies. (Ben Brody / Bloomberg)

Facebook reversed a post-election algorithm change that elevated authoritative news sources. Huge congratulations to Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino. (Kevin Roose / New York Times)

A former Trump homeland security adviser explains the risk of the recent government-wide hack. “The magnitude of this ongoing attack is hard to overstate,” he writes. “The Russians have had access to a considerable number of important and sensitive networks for six to nine months.” (Thomas P. Bossert / New York Times)

The European Union approved Google’s $2.1 billion acquisition of Fitbit. So at least one thing went right for the Google policy and legal teams today. (Ryan Browne and Sam Shead / CNBC)

Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama will be allowed to vote on unionization. The NLRB determined that a union working to represent the workers has garnered enough support to hold an election. (Jay Greene / Washington Post)

Tim Cook and Craig Federighi will have to testify in Epic’s lawsuit against Apple. Cook asked that his testimony be limited to four hours. (Wesley Hilliard / AppleInsider)

Facebook temporarily disabled some features in Instagram and Messenger in Europe. Stickers and polls seem have gone away as the company complies with new data usage rules. (Tom Warren / The Verge)

Anti-vaccination groups are targeting local media now that social networks have cracked down on them. Even small groups of “concerned mothers” can easily hijack local TV news broadcasts. (Brandy Zadrozny / NBC)

A man really did hack President Trump’s Twitter account by guessing the password: ‘maga2020!’ Incredibly, the same man had previously hacked Trump’s account six years ago by guessing his earlier password: ‘yourefired’. He will not be prosecuted. (Miriam Berger / Washington Post)

China is also having an antitrust moment. Monopolistic companies like Alibaba and Alibaba, Tencent are facing dramatically heightened scrutiny. (Nikki Sun / Nikkei)


Industry

Google AI researchers laid out their demands after the forced departure of Timnit Gebru. Among other things, employees called for a company vice president involved in the situation, Megan Kacholia, to be removed from their reporting chain. Here are Josh Eidelson and Mark Bergen at Bloomberg:

“This research must be able to contest the company’s short-term interests and immediate revenue agendas, as well as to investigate AI that is deployed by Google’s competitors with similar ethical motives,” the researchers added.

The letter urges Google to offer Gebru the chance to return to the company “at a higher level” than the one she had before. The researchers also asked that Kacholia and Jeff Dean, the AI division chief, apologize to Gebru for their treatment of her. It also calls for the company to issue a public commitment to academic integrity and to establish racial literacy training for management.

A history of the long conflict between Facebook and Apple. Apple CEO Tim Cook’s first public derogatory comments about Facebook’s data collection seem to have been made in 2014. (Jack Nicas and Mike Isaac / New York Times)

Here’s the day two full-page newspaper ad Facebook took out against Apple. It’s “Apple vs. the free internet,” Facebook says. (Sara Fischer / Axios)

Tim Cook tweeted about Facebook’s campaign.

Twitter’s Clubhouse-like audio product, Spaces, is now available in beta on iOS. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)

Twitter brought back traditional retweets after finding that asking people to quote-tweet instead did not improve the quality of conversation. As they in quote tweets: this. (Jack Morse / Mashable)

Twitter also said an expanded verification program would begin in 2021. It’s not perfect, but it’s something. (Twitter)

Twitter is also now working to block dick pics in DMs, showing users shared interests when they reply to one another, and making informed guesses about what people find funny based on their likes and retweets. Every single one of these things was announced today. Twitter has not shipped this many things on one day in its entire history. What’s going on over there?

Discord added screen sharing from mobile devices. Twitter just acquired Squad, an app that fulfills this exact purpose. (Greg Kumparak / TechCrunch)

Vice became the first mainstream publisher to launch a product on OnlyFans. The company’s Munchies vertical will offer exclusive weekly food videos for a $4.99 monthly subscription. (Sara Fischer / Axios)

Walmart will test live video shopping on TikTok. If nothing else, it helps illustrate why the company has been so keen to acquire a stake in the app. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)

Snap added Unity to its advertiser network and its developer kit is now available in the Unity Asset Store. More than half of all mobile games are made with Unity’s development engine. (Dean Takahashi / VentureBeat)

At least 40 women are suing Pornhub for $1 million each for allowing users to upload and download videos of them without their consent. (Samantha Cole / Vice)

Zoom once again lifted the 40-minute restriction on free calls for the holidays. (Jay Peters / The Verge)

The group representing large digital publishers joined the Coalition for App Fairness, which is pushing against Apple’s 30 percent tax. Expect the Digital Content Next noise machine to add Apple to its daily list of companies to rage about on Twitter. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)


Things to do

Stuff to occupy online during Platformer’s winter break.

Check out Substack’s new Reader beta. If you subscribe to multiple publications, you can find them all here. An excellent start to what could be a great reading experience for Substack. (Jacob Kastrenakes / The Verge)

Watch the best TikToks of 2020. (Wired)


Those good tweets


Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and New Year’s resolutions: casey@platformer.news.