Welcome to Last Week Was a Beta, our Monday look back on the big stories in tech last week.
On NPR’s Weekend Edition on Saturday, the University of North Carolina’s Dr. Zeynep Tufekci did an interview where she explained how YouTube keeps people watching by showing ever more extreme versions of similar content. Like that video of skateboard fails? How about this one where it’s all head first? How about this one where they come out bleeding? And so on.
It’s all about pulling users down rabbit holes, and it’s easy to see how it could be appealing ideologically, as well. The technique possibly makes people a little crazy but definitely improves time on site. After the foofaraw following phony stories getting widely circulated in the last election, the big social networks have started worrying about maybe taking some responsibility.
In The New York Times this weekend, Amanda Hess wrote about new products from social media companies that help users get out of their ideological bubbles and see the sort of topics starting conversation among Americans who see the world differently. Taking it a step further, Gizmodo noticed that Facebook (META) has actually started marking certain pieces of news as “disputed.” Of course, this is going to inevitably face ideologically blowback, since it appears that only people on the right fall for completely fabricated stories manufactured to drive clicks, as both Planet Money and Wired have found in separate investigations into prominent fake news factories.
Recode’s Peter Kafka, by the way, isn’t impressed by Facebook’s first step.
This larger conversation about how an on demand information economy locks people inside a confirmation bias vortex goes back at least to Eli Parisier’s 2011 book, The Filter Bubble. That’s why the news this week feels like this very long story has reached some kind of culminating point. The time where the executives perpetrating these bubbles deny their importance has passed. It will be interesting to see what comes next.
The week had several big stories that had this same sense of moving toward closure. The most valuable still private unicorn in the world, Uber (UBER), has gotten so much bad press since 2017 began that it’s fair to call the company beleaguered. Its embattled CEO got caught getting his crazy on, as Bloomberg reported, when an Uber driver challenged his policies. Another story of internal worker mistreatment came out Friday. And then the mindboggling report that it has been profiling users in order to direct drivers away from city officials investigating it, as The New York Times reported late last week.
There’s a lot of other companies out there trying to get in on Uber’s market, most notably Lyft. As consumers find more reasons to #DeleteUber, marketing for alternatives should only get easier. Kalanick’s team unquestionably changed the economy by offering rides on demand, but its aggressive business tactics could ultimately foreclose their stake in a market it created.
Virtual reality news this week suggested that we’re still a ways out from the climax of that story. Facebook cut the price for the Oculus Rift headset and its controllers, as the AP reported. Both devices now cost $100 less than they did. That’s good for consumers, but it’s probably not a sign that demand for the gadgets has been so good that economies of scale have kicked in. Sales of the devices have been disappointing. Odds are, Facebook is doing it to get more in the market.
It’s worth reminding readers here of the Gartner hype cycle. New technology almost always builds hype up past what it can actually deliver early on. VR is probably just in the “trough of disillusionment,” on its way to becoming a dull but useful product category, like desktop PCs and e-mail. Maybe!
An even more questionably useful product brought in several billion dollars last week, as Snap, Inc’s completed its long-awaited IPO. As of this writing, its stock price is up $10 over its offered price of $17, which exceeded its expected price of $14 to $16.
We took a careful look at Snap’s IPO documents after the IPO was announced. They provide a lot of detail about the company’s operations, including its choice to go with Google’s cloud service to host its data rather than Amazon (AMZN). That was a lucky break for CEO Evan Spiegel, because the dominant cloud services provider’s S3 servers had a huge hiccup last week, all caused by a typo in some code by one of its staffers. It would not have been good for the Snap IPO if their data had gone MIA the same week its stock hit the market.
Over on Select All, the infrastructure analyst Ingrid Burrington used the incident as an opportunity to discuss the problems created by an internet built on giant centralized hubs. It echoes our discussion of the cloud here last week, in which the giant malware defense system, Cloudflare, had exposed encrypted data due to one mistyped character in some code.
A much older company opened its own new chapter this week, as Nintendo secured strong opening sales for its Switch console, according to Forbes. It launched with several fun looking games, but if other companies don’t make games for it, too, the Switch will tank.
And that last point may illustrate best the lesson in all these stories: technology is an ecosystem. Everything in technology depends on networks these days, especially the granddaddy of all networks: the internet. The web is a competitive place, but it is also, at the end of the day, a giant collaboration. In that spirit, everyone playing in this sandbox is free to be a jerk, but go too far and the internet pushes back.
With that in mind, till next time: kumbaya.