The human cost of protecting Facebook

Deep, important work from The Verge’s Casey Newton:

Over the past three months, I interviewed a dozen current and former employees of Cognizant in Phoenix. All had signed non-disclosure agreements with Cognizant in which they pledged not to discuss their work for Facebook — or even acknowledge that Facebook is Cognizant’s client. The shroud of secrecy is meant to protect employees from users who may be angry about a content moderation decision and seek to resolve it with a known Facebook contractor. The NDAs are also meant to prevent contractors from sharing Facebook users’ personal information with the outside world, at a time of intense scrutiny over data privacy issues.

Newton delves into the ugliest side of the social networking industry – blocking the worst, horrific excesses of the human race.

What struck me about Newton’s story is that, really, none of it is surprising. What did we think these people had to go through? Are we surprised they’re being poorly paid? Of course not – the scandal here is that 2.5 billion of us are happy to not think about it.

What the story does, brilliantly, is place these poor souls (and they are poor souls) at the heart of the discussion about social media’s impact on our minds and society.

Microsoft doubles down on the only AR use case that makes sense (so far)

I can’t wait to try the new Microsoft HoloLens, announced on Sunday in Barcelona. Version one was bulky, hot, and only offered a limited field of view. But, the potential was obvious from beginning.

HoloLens 2 will address a lot of the handicaps. BBC News:

Microsoft said that HoloLens 2 works in a “more human way” than the first version thanks to the changes it has made. These include making the the field-of-view more than double that of its predecessor.

The firm said it had also improved the display’s resolution, which it described as being the equivalent of moving from a 720p high-definition image to a 2K one for each eye.

And, addressing the bulk issue:

The company also acknowledged that some users of the original version had found it uncomfortable to wear for lengthy periods. It said a revamped fitting system should mean the kit now felt as if it was “floating” on workers’ heads.

The result is that it now has most of its computing power packed into a case that sits at the back of your head.

I’m still concerned about the heat you’ll get off that thing – one of the design aspects I much preferred about Magic Leap’s approach was the little computer pack you put on your waist, rather than around your head.

While its getting lower in price – at $3,500, it’s 30% cheaper than v.1 – Microsoft is chasing the only realistic use case that exists right now: business. It already has plenty clients in that arena – and HoloLens’s new ability to track finger movements without any extra hardware will open up major new avenues.

Nick Bilton on the last days of Theranos

Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair writing about life inside post-expose Theranos. Elizabeth Holmes gonna Elizabeth Holmes:

Despite the chaos, she believed that Theranos could still be saved, and she had an unconventional plan for redemption. That September, according to the two former executives, Holmes asked her security detail and one of her drivers to escort her to the airport in her designated black Cadillac Escalade. She flew first class across the country and was subsequently chauffeured to a dog breeder who supplied her with a 9-week-old Siberian husky. The puppy had long white paws, and a grey and black body. Holmes had already picked out a name: Balto.

It gets worse. Read the piece.

And, it goes without saying, if you haven’t ready John Carreyrou’s book Bad Blood, do. It appears to finally be out on paperback.

I got to the end and wondered – how successful could we all be if we each had just one tenth of Holmes’ self-assurance? Remarkable. And dangerous, of course.

The curse of the Twitter reply guy

Today on Mashable, the thing you knew was a thing but never knew was a thing:

These men are colloquially known as “reply guys.” While no reply guy is the same — each reply guy is annoying in his own way — there are a few common qualities to watch out for. In general, reply guys tend to have few followers. Their responses are overly familiar, as if they know the person they’re targeting, though they usually don’t. They also tend to reply to only women; the most prolific reply guys fill the role for dozens of women trying to tweet in peace.

I once asked one of our female anchors about the grief they get from horrible idiots on the internet – she said the ones that at least think they are being nice are far worse.

Amazon argues quality over quantity in battle against Netflix

As someone who has endured several Netflix comedy “specials” recently, I can only say I’m fully on board with limiting the amount of new in favour of the amount of good when it comes to piling content onto on-demand platforms.

The Hollywood Reporter has an interview with Jennifer Salke, who, as head of Amazon Studios, is responsible of commissioning/buying up films that appear on Amazon Prime. From the piece:

In her interview with THR, Salke never mentioned Netflix. But she talked often about “the competition,” and she is positioning Amazon as different in some key ways, including the smaller size of her film slate, which she expects to amount to about 10 theatrically released movies a year, and 20 direct-to-service titles, as opposed to 90 movies due from Netflix in 2019.

Salke’s three key film executives, Matt Newman, Julie Rapaport and Ted Hope, who all share the title “co-head movies,” brought a large team to their Sundance meetings, including their marketing and publicity departments. Agents describe stark differences between sit-downs with Hollywood’s two leading streaming companies. “Netflix likes to come in and talk about their service,” says one agency source. “Amazon comes in and talks about your movie.”

Now, quality over quantity only really works if you do indeed come up with quality. Arguably, Netflix is currently achieving both, though I do think there is a ceiling at which point customers feel overwhelmed by new content appearing each time they load up the app.

Facebook ‘negotiating’ with FTC on mega fine

Tony Romm at the Washington Post with the latest on the the FTC’s investigation into Facebook:

The fine would be the largest the agency has ever imposed on a technology company, but the two sides have not yet agreed on an exact amount. Facebook has expressed initial concern with the FTC’s demands, one of the people said. If talks break down, the FTC could take the matter to court in what would likely be a bruising legal fight.

The two people familiar with the probe spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the private talks. Facebook confirmed it is in discussions with the agency but declined to comment further. The FTC declined to comment.

“Largest ever imposed on a technology company” leaves quite a lot of room for speculation, but means it’s likely Facebook isn’t quite staring down a $14bn-or-so fine like Volkswagen did in 2016.

Facebook should take the hit, argues Recode’s Kara Swisher:

Resigning Google engineer and activist: ‘I can no longer bail out a raft with a teaspoon’

Liz Fong-Jones, a Google engineer who was one of the leaders of internal activism over workers’ rights, left the compay last month.

In a wide-ranging Medium post just published, she talks about how the struggle for change at Google has burned her out, and that workers had not been listened to:

It is time for real change. I can no longer bail out a raft with a teaspoon while those steering punch holes in it. Investors are now demanding changes to Google’s governance, such as evaluation of executives on inclusion metricsand rigorous analysis of human rights impacts of Google’s work in China. I, and other workers, very much support these proposals, which would address human capital risks, create meaningful governance, and improve long-term shareholder value. We hope to see further proposals that support worker voices and human rights.

In the post she cites her own experience of trying, unsuccessfully, to warn senior execs about the problems of a real-name policy on ill-fated social network, Google+. She and other employees said the rule would put vulnerable users at risk, and yet:

Google+ eventually launched in mid-2011 with a real-name policy. Once the “#nymwars” exploded and our predictions came true, the executives who had initially denied our suggestions sought our feedback on an experiment to allow “stable” pseudonyms on the service in early 2012. Two years later, full removal of all naming restrictions followed.

This pattern repeated itself several times during my time at Google: Management would overstep, rank and file workers would point out how to avoid harm to users, and we’d have a constructive internal dialogue about how to proceed. 

Fong-Jones, who is transgender, also describes what she sees as “troubling trends” at the company, including:

[A]n escalation of harassment, doxxing, and hate speech targeted at marginalized employees within Google’s internal communications. It began as concern trolling and rapidly escalated to leaks of the names, photos, and posts of LGBT+ employees to white supremacist sites. Management silently tolerated it for fear of being labeled as partisan. Employees attempted to internally raise concerns about this harassment through official channels, only to be ignored, stonewalled, or even punished for doing so.

My analysis of this? Nothing that Fong-Jones shares here is surprising, given what we’ve learned about the internal workings at Google over the past 12 months. Seeing it articulated so well just hammers home an often-repeated point about the firm’s culture.

What is troubling, for the public, is the manner at which the rank-and-file seemingly have little ability to push back against decisions made above their heads. That may be true of many companies, but at a secretive firm whose stated goal is to organise the world’s information, you do wonder where the dissenting voices come from if not those working on the products. The changes to Google+ only came after considerable public backlash. You wonder what else employees have raised concerns about only to be ignored.