‘The Buckingham Palace of man caves’

An insightful look behind the scenes of the Joe Rogan Experience, via Substack’s VP of comms, Lulu Cheng Meservey. There’s a bunch of colour like this:

Joe then shows us around the building. There is a large pool room that also serves as an overflow room for all the art and decor and gifts that they haven’t put on display yet. There is a huge gym — probably bigger than a high school basketball gym — with advanced equipment and fighting gear. There is an indoor archery range that includes a Kevlar screen where you can project realistic videos of game animals to shoot with a real bow and arrow, then zoom in on your shots to analyze how you did. 

It is the Buckingham Palace of man caves. 

There’s also some great observations on what makes Rogan a highly trusted interviewer for millions of people.

Joe doesn’t really prepare.

During the show, he sometimes refers to a note with general topics on his phone, but there’s no extensive research or list of questions. He does spend a lot of time with guests before the show, which I’m sure helps make for a better podcast. Joe is a warm and humble guy with no airs despite having a weekly audience larger than the population of Belgium, and he’s good at putting people at ease. That’s it though.

It’s the secret sauce of JRE and what makes it so entertaining: the show is conversational Calvinball.

I’ve long argued that being more willing to show how the sausage is made — i.e Rogan doing his research in real-time, with all the associated risk — is how we get over this current vacuum of trust in today’s media.

Rogan has been positioned, by more mainstream commentary, as a rogue and a renegade. Someone not to be taken seriously as an interviewer. But his listenership tells a different story. When reading Meservey’s observations, I was reminded about the process described by one of the greatest interviewers of all time, Larry King, speaking to NPR:

“The less I know, the better. Now that sounds strange to people. Like, if you wrote a book, I wouldn’t read the book before I interviewed you, because I would then know too much about the book. And I’m in the same boat as the audience; they haven’t read the book.”

Jeff Bezos is being ‘harassed’ by US regulators, says Amazon

Amazon has accused the US Federal Trade Commission of harassing its top executives, including founder Jeff Bezos and chief executive Andy Jassy, as part of a probe into the ecommerce group’s Prime membership scheme.

Since March 2021, the regulator has been investigating whether Amazon uses deceptive techniques to lure customers into signing up for Prime, the subscription service that offers free delivery and other benefits at a cost of $139 a year.

The FTC is also examining whether Amazon unfairly complicates the process for customers who want to cancel their membership.

Has TikTok turned?

In his seminal 2018 book — 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now — computer scientist Jaron Lanier talks about the joy of being an early adopter on new social platforms. It’s the brief moment in time when the platform has yet to turn its users, through the subtle nudges of algorithmic amplification, into “assholes”, as Lanier puts it.

Think of the biggest platforms. You know what this honeymoon period felt like. On Twitter, it was when the most high profile “row” would be about a t-shirt slogan at Topman, and the most outspoken person on it was Stephen Fry, or Ashton Kutcher. On Facebook, it was when you saw only your friends, could find out that the girl you liked was single, and planned your birthday night out. On YouTube, it was when plucky creators worked with tiny budgets and big creativity, and the only rabbithole to be found was a cute video of a rabbit… in a hole.

I was thinking about Lanier’s observations when reading this piece in the Guardian about TikTok creator Andrew Tate, who has risen to fame on TikTok by posting — what else — misogynistic comments:

[The] 35-year-old is not a fringe personality lurking in an obscure corner of the dark web. Instead, he is one of the most famous figures on TikTok, where videos of him have been watched 11.6 billion times.

Styled as a self-help guru, offering his mostly male fans a recipe for making money, pulling girls and “escaping the matrix”, Tate has gone in a matter of months from near obscurity to one of the most talked about people in the world. In July, there were more Google searches for his name than for Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian.

His rapid surge to fame was not by chance. Evidence obtained by the Observer shows that followers of Tate are being told to flood social media with videos of him, choosing the most controversial clips in order to achieve maximum views and engagement.

That last paragraph. Sound familiar? We’ve hit the tipping point — enough is known about the algorithms of TikTok, about the reach it can have, for the next wave of users (and uses) to start to settle in. Tate’s fans being told to flood TikTok with his most controversial clips is a pattern we’ve seen on the likes of Reddit and others, where coordinated pile-ons are richly rewarded.

Lanier’s asshole argument doesn’t let you or me off the hook, either. He argues that this kind of content, coupled with the advertising models that rely on triggering your impulses, turn us into worse, angrier people. Twitter used to be such fun, Facebook used to be so useful. Similarly, I fear the joy of TikTok is showing signs of ebbing away. Conspiracy theories — previously daft and fleeting — are being formalised; stars made of peddlers. The app has become a forum for division and fear. Until now, TikTok had largely been free of such dreck.

For me it has been, for the past maybe two years or so, the only “cheerful” social network, a place where you feel better having used it, most of the time. In a podcast interview a few years ago I described TikTok as a reason to be optimistic, due to an algorithm that rewarded creativity over negativity. But Lanier’s theory on the shittification of popular new social media apps is that there’s an inevitable perfect storm when bad actors want to flood in with engagement, and platforms all too willing to oblige in the name of growth and revenue.

Different teams within a tech company can be working on features that, in isolation, seem harmless, but end up amplifying the worst of what is now on offer. Things such as this, for example:

Some of the commentary out there sees the above — linkable keywords in comments — as a welcome threat to Google’s search dominance, an argument that makes no sense whatsoever. What I see is the internet’s newest exploitable space.

And that’s not to say bad actors (of a certain definition) are the only ones that might stand to ruin the experience that has made TikTok such a beloved app, and such a threat to Facebook. Here’s what advertisers think:

I’m not saying advertisers shouldn’t see TikTok as a channel, or have a strategy to capitalise on it. That’s what these platforms are literally designed for. I’m just saying that once they do, once they know what makes users tick, and they learn the tricks to get attention… that’s when a social network moves into its next, more miserable phase. On the internet, we can’t have nice things for long.

Amazon pins hopes on influencers to crack livestream shopping market

Amazon has stepped up plans to crack the QVC-style livestream shopping market as the $1tn ecommerce giant aims to replicate the success of social media rivals in an attempt to revive flagging online sales.

The group has been increasing investment in Amazon Live, a platform it quietly launched in 2019 but is now a central focus as it fights to grab a slice of a growing market that is viewed as the future of shopping by social media platforms. This year, the company has hosted at least four events designed to attract more influencers to its platform, including a glitzy retreat at a Mexican beach resort.

To the top names, it has offered up generous bonuses: thousands of dollars in added incentives to stream live on Amazon instead of elsewhere, according to leading influencer agencies.

Atari at 50

Nice interview in HowToGeek with Atari founder, and Grand High Dad of video games, Nolan Bushnell. In it, he makes this neat observation on modern gameplay:

Benj Edwards, How-To Geek: Do you think the video game industry has lost sight of any innovations from the early days of Atari?

Nolan Bushnell: A little bit. Remember that Atari was founded as a coin-op company. And coin-op has this requirement that a newbie has to get into the game almost instantly without reading instructions. So the simplicity of onboarding is lost by a lot of people right now.

Anyway, give it a read. I interviewed Bushnell once. Lovely man. Back in the days when I had to shoot my own video for the BBC, I asked him to “say a few words” for a sound levels check. Ignoring my standard issue “what did you have for breakfast?” prompt, he opted to instead recite the Jabberwocky, at a theatrical, leisurely pace. All fun and games until the PR rep popped her head around the corner to utter those horrible words: “About five minutes or so left guys.”

China’s ‘marvel’

The New York Times’ Asia tech reporter Paul Mozur with a remarkable look at the most impactful Chinese tech innovation since the Great Firewall. I’d urge you to read the full thread, or Mozur’s reporting here.

Land grab

“Too many tech-adjacent businesses lifted top line growth merely by adding expensively-incentivised sales and marketing staff. With capital so abundant, growth-oriented investors had pushed them to expand, expecting profits to materialise following the land grab.”

— FT’s Lex on the tech jobs bloodbath

Giant plastic box

The humble beginnings of the iPod:

Engineering problems vs human problems

The harshest thing about the Silicon Valley “bro” trope, I think, is that the people who create technology products don’t realise, or aren’t compassionate about, the problems that arise when those platforms are unleashed on the public.

For the most part, they do care. But in the same way not all of us are good at math, or writing, or singing, or the long jump… different humans possess different skillsets, some of which necessarily contradict each other. By and large, the hierarchies in the tech industry reward engineers first and foremost, people who — through no fault of their own — are often characteristically not as well-equipped to deal with challenges that fall outside the binary decisions laid before them in code. When extraordinary brains that build products and solve problems based on IF/THEN/OR come face-to-face with a however or maybe–the results can be less than optimal.

I’m minded of this as Elon Musk uses “simple” tweets to lay out how he plans to fix Twitter. Here’s one:

He’s pinned that to his profile, perhaps signaling it as a mini-manifesto of sorts. This is his view on free speech and its parameters. Ok. But those familiar with the content moderation space consider it naive to the point of parody, as though a moderation algorithm is as straightforward as: IF very against law THEN delete tweet.

It’s a classic case of “engineer’s brain” in action. But you can hardly blame Musk for that. After all, he has engineered his way to being the world’s richest man by solving almost exclusively engineering problems: how to securely send money over the internet (PayPal); how to create a high-performance EV and then make it affordable (Tesla); and how to reuse a rocket (SpaceX). None of these are problems in which the great complicator, the human condition with its whims and inconsistencies, are a factor. Nothing on Musk’s CV comes remotely close to the credentials required to know what’s best for Twitter.

In reporting out this story, I spent some time on the anonymous workplace messaging app Blind, where employees — verified using work email accounts — can sound off. It’s been lively on the Twitter board since the Musk news broke, and it’s by no means an entirely anti-Musk environment. But this comment details what Musk is up against — it is an angry response to another Blind user saying Musk’s idea of sharing “the algorithm” is a good one:

Let me clue you in on a little secret, “the algorithm” (which is not a giant if else statement but a neural net) is retrained regularly. And tweets come in all the time. To figure out how something will perform you need almost the entire backend of Twitter. And then YOU are going to try to determine if it is fair? I’ll tell you right now that you can pick a measure and a slice for which it won’t be, not because the algo is evil (ML is morals neutral) but because it is an extremely complex problem. I am sure we don’t have political leaning as one of the thousands of features we train on. But it doesn’t mean that it will be unfair in 3 days or even 1 day after retraining. What does having the algorithm help you with? Moderation policies should be open, I agree 100%, but there really cannot be a world without moderation. I agree that sometimes Twitter probably overenforces and sometimes we underenforce. We probably do both on both sides of political spectrum. Not because we hate one side but because it is a hard problem and we don’t always do it right. One side is more vocal in complaining. And I know you will pull all the incidents they cite because you are completely ignorant of what happened on the other side. Remember when we were going to get level 4 self driving Tesla every year for the past 8 years? Expect a Tweet from Elon in 5 years or so admitting that the social media that allows healthy open conversation is much harder problem than he thought. Jack was a free speech absolutist too. Anyway, I appreciate small minds debating problems they know nothing about, but you have no idea what you are talking about, neither does Elon.

Twitter employees fear the worst, hope for the best with Musk deal

As Twitter employees digested the most turbulent week in the company’s 16-year history, the message from top leadership was: sit tight.

In the immediate aftermath of the news that Elon Musk had clinched his $44bn takeover bid for the platform with Twitter’s board, staff at a virtual emergency all-hands meeting were told there would be no lay-offs “at this time” and that little else would change until the deal closes later this year, pending shareholder approval and any further dramatic twists.

But then what? Twitter’s workforce is divided and apprehensive.

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