Want to read Dominic Cummings’s innermost thoughts? That’s going to cost you

This morning’s Observer column:

Once upon a time, Dominic Cummings had a blog and a very interesting one it was too. Now, he has a different kind of blog, which takes the form of a Substack newsletter. This comes in two flavours: one is free; the other is for subscribers who pay £10 a month for the privilege of having “premium” access to his thoughts. Occasionally, as last week, Dom gives free users a generous helping of his incendiary opinions, but more often the “free” version just contains teasers to the more interesting content that lies behind the £10 tollgate. Another word for this is clickbait.

I have no idea how many subscribers Mr Cummings has, but I’d guess it’s quite a lot, so at £10 per person per month he’s on to a nice little earner. And who can blame him, since he doesn’t seem to have a proper job and in the old days people could read his old blog on the web for free, thereby contributing nothing to his income? But his shift from the web to Substack shows what a canny operator he is, for lots of other public intellectuals and journalists have been travelling in the same direction, sometimes making tons of money in the process…

Read on

Teenage loneliness and the Smartphone

A sombre essay by Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge, two psychologists who have spent years studying the effect of smartphones and social media on our daily lives and mental health.

It’s been obvious for years that smartphones — and particularly social media apps — are having a devastating impact on teenagers.

This synchronized global increase in teenage loneliness suggests a global cause, and the timing is right for smartphones and social media to be major contributors. But couldn’t the timing just be coincidental? To test our hypothesis, we sought data on many global trends that might have an impact on teenage loneliness, including declines in family size, changes in G.D.P., rising income inequality and increases in unemployment, as well as more smartphone access and more hours of internet use. The results were clear: Only smartphone access and internet use increased in lock step with teenage loneliness. The other factors were unrelated or inversely correlated.

These analyses don’t prove that smartphones and social media are major causes of the increase in teenage loneliness, but they do show that several other causes are less plausible. If anyone has another explanation for the global increase in loneliness at school, we’d love to hear it.

Me too. The companies continually avoid this awkward topic on the grounds that there isn’t real causal evidence for the connection. Rather like the tobacco companies in the early days of medical concerns about lung cancer, or oil companies and evidence of climate change. See Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes for the grisly detail.

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Clubhouse: Facebook 2.0? And just as toxic for privacy?

This morning’s Observer column:

So, are you on Clubhouse, the social-media sensation du jour? No? Me neither. But – I hasten to add, lest there should be any doubt about my social status – that’s not because I wasn’t invited to join. A generous friend had a few invitations to extend, and she offered me one. After that, she had an attack of what one can only describe as donor’s remorse, because in order to be able to extend the invitation to me she had to grant Clubhouse access to all her contacts!

The issue of privacy and data security is not limited to Clubhouse alone; it permeates the landscape of social media platforms. As individuals become more conscious of their digital footprint, there is a growing demand for tools and services that prioritize privacy while still enabling engagement. One such solution is Comment Guard, a social media comment manager designed to protect user privacy and filter out harmful or inappropriate content. Comment Guard offers a layer of control, allowing users to engage in meaningful conversations while maintaining their privacy preferences. By empowering individuals to moderate and manage their social media interactions, tools like Comment Guard offer a glimpse into a future where privacy and participation can coexist harmoniously.

When I opened the app it asked me if I would like to grant it access to my contacts, an invitation I declined – as I always do. At which point it was made clear to me that I would not be able to invite anyone else to join. As Vox’s Sara Morrison succinctly put it: I had been invited to join Clubhouse, but my privacy wasn’t welcome. At which point I deleted the app – on the Groucho Marx principle that I wouldn’t join a club that would have such a schmuck as a member. (There was also the thought that Clubhouse’s behaviour, rules and operation seem to make it illegal under the GDPR – not that a small matter like that will trouble a US-based data-hoovering startup.)

Read on

Tuesday 1 December, 2020

Lockdown memories

A page in my Lockdown Diary — now a Kindle book. You can get it here

Quote of the Day

“The most important thing about photographing people is not clicking the shutter… it is clicking with the subject.”

  • Alfred Eisenstaedt, photographer.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Patti Smith performs Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” – Nobel Prize Award Ceremony 2016


Long read of the Day

Joan Didion: Why I Write.

An absolute gem, from the archives of The London Magazine

In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions – with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating – but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

I stole the title not only because the words sounded right but because they seemed to sum up, in a no-nonsense way, all I have to tell you. Like many writers I have only this one ‘subject’, this one ‘area’: the act of writing. I can bring you no reports from any other front. I may have other interests: I am ‘interested’, for example, in marine biology, but I don’t flatter myself that you would want to read me on it. I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word ‘intellectual’ I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.

In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral…

Wonderful. And bloggers are also guilty as charged — of ‘imposing’.

Apologies in advance.

How should journalism be supported? Who should pay for it? And who should get the money?

The headline over my column in last Sunday’s Observer was “For the sake of democracy, social media giants must pay newspapers.” Since columnists never get to write the headlines over their compositions I winced a bit, though I also had to concede that it was a fair summary of the column. The peg for the piece was the decision of a French court to uphold the ruling of a regulator that Google must enter into negotiations with newspaper publishers to determine what recompense the search giant should pay publishers for picking up their headlines. A similar regulation is now heading for the statute book in Australia. Many people in the tech industry regard this as incomprehensible or unfair, or both, given that many newspapers benefit from the fact that Google diverts reader’s attention to their papers.

In his invaluable weekly newsletter, Benedict Evans, one of the most perceptive commentators on the tech industry, had pointed out the apparent absurdity of this — expecting Google to pay for the privilege of directing traffic to traffic to one’s site when it should obviously be the other way round. “This is a fascinating logical fallacy”, Ben wrote, “ it makes perfect sense as long as you never ask why no-one other than Google pays to link either, and never ask why it should only be newspapers that get paid to be linked to. “ (Emphasis added).

It was the italicised passage that sparked my attention, because newspapers are not quite the same as other enterprises because — as enablers of reporting and investigation and ‘news’ — they play an important role in democracy. “The survival of liberal democracy,” I wrote,

requires a functioning public sphere in which information circulates freely and in which wrongdoing, corruption, incompetence and injustices can be investigated and brought to public attention. And one of the consequences of the rise of social media is that whatever public sphere we once had is now distorted and polluted by being forced through four narrow apertures called Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, services in which almost everything that people see, read or hear is curated by algorithms designed solely to increase the profitability of their owners.

One sees the effects of this transformation of the public sphere at all levels, but one of the most disturbing is in the decline of local newspapers. In many regions of democratic states what goes on in the courts, council chambers, planning committees, chambers of commerce, trade union branches, community centres, sports clubs, churches and schools now goes unreported because local newspapers have gone bust or shrunk to shadows of their former selves. Citizens of most UK towns and cities now have much less information about what’s happening in their localities than their grandparents did, no matter how assiduously they check their Facebook or Twitter feeds. And the quality of local democratic discourse has been accordingly impaired.

The tech companies are not wholly to blame for these changes of course. But they have played a significant role in undermining the institutions whose business model they vaporised. Looked at from that perspective, it seems wholly reasonable that societies should require social media companies to contribute to the support of news organisations that democracies require for their functioning and survival.

On his blog yesterday, Dave Winer begged to differ. “One thing we disagree on,” he wrote,

is public funding for news orgs. He’s a believer, and I’m a fervent opponent. For so many reasons. But the main one is, if we fund them now, we forever freeze journalism as being no more than it is now.

The world has radically changed, and continues to change, journalism hasn’t. And btw, also politics, because unfortunately the two go hand in hand. Politics can only go where journalism will let it go. We’ve learned that hard lesson during the Trump presidency. They have power to stop honorable people, but have no power over people who don’t care. #

Journalism blames Facebook and the rest of the web for the problems. Meanwhile their inability to build a functional two-way idea flow on the web has created the opportunity for all kinds of junk to flow in to take its place. This must not be where evolution stops.

Both journalism and politics have to stop seeing the web as “over there” and put themselves fully in the middle of it. We are participants, we want to help, that’s their job, to help us. If they do, we’ve proven we will flood them with money. So far, neither politics or journalism has accepted that as the basic change.

Dave has been a trenchant critic of newspapers in particular for as long as I can remember. His main point has always been that they never conceded that their privileged position in the media ecosystem as ‘broadcasters of truth’ (or approximations thereto) was no longer tenable in a networked world which was perfectly capable of answering back. In part, this arrogance was probably a reflection of the fact that, in the US for nearly a century, many newspapers enjoyed local monopolies, which enabled them to persist in delusions of public service, high-mindedness and the crackpot idea that journalism was a ‘profession’. But they never really understood (in Dave’s view) that the game was up unless they realised that from now on they were just one voice in the big conversation. Given that, I can understand why he thinks using taxation to replace the income streams they used to have from advertising is misguided.

Brooding on this today, I came to the conclusion that what was wrong with my column was that it confused form with function. The function that’s important for democracy is “a public sphere in which information circulates freely and in which wrongdoing, corruption, incompetence and injustices can be investigated and brought to public attention”. Newspapers just happen to have been the form that that function had to take in pre-Internet times. There are other ways of providing that function now, but we haven’t yet found a business model to support it.

So it sticks in one’s craw that the newspapers that Google will have to negotiate with in Australia are rapacious media corporations owned by, inter alia, Rupert Murdoch, when the money should really be going to support and enable new ways of providing the essential democratic function of journalism rather than lining Murdoch’s bulging pockets.

With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, then, maybe a better headline for my column would be ““For the sake of democracy, social media giants must support local journalism.”

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • How a Vibrating Smartwatch Could Be Used to Stop Nightmares. You want a good-news story? Well, this is one.

  • 52 things I learned in 2020. Tom Whitwell’s annual delight.

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Monday 23 November, 2020

Brass plate outside a Dutch Law Firm.

Taken long before anyone had heard of Rudy Guiliani.

Quote of the Day

“People always ask me the most ridiculous questions. They want to know, ‘How do you approach a role?’ Well, I don’t know. I approach it by first saying yes, then getting on with the bloody thing.”

  • Dame Edith Evans

Musical alternative to the radio news of the Day

Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale | live in Denmark August 2006 | with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and choir at Ledreborg Castle,


Long read of the Day Why did Wikipedia’s competitors fail?

Marvellous Chapter (pdf) in Benjamin Mako Hill’s MIT dissertation.


We will not understand Covid until we give up debating it

Terrific essay by Tim Harford. Sample:

The mindset of the debater is not that of the calm seeker-of-truth. Opposing arguments are to be caricatured, statistics to be twisted, examples to be cherry-picked. The audience is to be entertained or even enraged as much as persuaded. Politics rewards anger and in-group loyalty.

When one is used to examining every scrap of evidence as possible ammunition, it becomes hard to use them to navigate towards a truly solid conclusion, or sometimes towards any conclusions at all: just think of Boris Johnson’s notorious pair of opinion columns, one arguing for Brexit and the other, unpublished, arguing the opposite. Such rhetorical gymnastics are familiar to anyone who has spent time in a debate club. They create the illusion of giving the pros and cons a thorough testing. But now that Brexit is happening, the illusion has faded; we realise the referendum barely scratched the surface of the real issues.

The thing about the Coronavirus is that it should have been different. Here we had a common enemy, impervious to spin and misinformation. “But it did not take long”, Harford writes, “for the polarisation to creep back in. Somehow we have now managed to start a culture war about a pandemic. There is a vociferous chorus of lockdown “sceptics” and Covid alarmists.”

The alarmists have natural allies in the media’s love of tragic yet unrepresentative tales of young people slain by the mysterious illness, or worrying reports of “long Covid” symptoms presented without any sense of whether such symptoms are common.

The so-called sceptics, who lack any of the doubt about jumping to conclusions that defines the proper use of that word, are—if anything—even louder. They have moved steadily from one talking point to another: that the virus might be vastly more common—and thus less deadly—than it seemed; that a kind of herd immunity might be in easy reach; that people were “dying with” rather than “dying of” Covid-19; that the virus was mutating to become less dangerous; and most recently, that the number of cases was dramatically overstated because tests were producing so many false positives.

There is something in most of these claims, from both sides. But my point is not that if there is truth on both sides, the centre ground must be right. It is that this grand “clash of ideas” is not bringing us any closer to understanding the truth.

He’s right. And, en passant, the example of both Brexit and the virus show up the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor for what it is: a delusion.

The implications of Substack’s success

This post — on Tanner Greer’s blog, The Scholar’s Stage — is interesting, especially if (like me) you’re interested in media-ecology and the public sphere. Its subject is the way Substack (the platform that sends out the email version of this blog) is changing the ecosystem. Greer doesn’t like this direction of travel.

Substack is the medium of the solo artist. High-rolling soloists at that. Like Patreon, Onlyfans, book publishing generally, or any other medium where creators connect with the masses sans bundled packaging, Substack has (and will continue to have) a power-law distribution. The biggest names will earn in their hundred of thousands; the median user is going to scrape away $100-200 a month, at best. If measured in page hits instead of dollars, the same could have been said for the high and low tiers of the old blogosphere as well. Then the world’s most popular independent writers occasionally drove national news cycles. After a few weeks of feeble posting the vast majority of bloggers in the lower tier gave up writing altogether (by 2009 Technocrati was reporting that there were 133 million blogs in the world—and a full 95% of them had been abandoned).2

However, the blogosphere allowed for a healthy medium layer of independent writers that existed between nationally prominent blogs and your next door neighbor’s defunct site on typepad. What allowed this middle tier to thrive? Other middle tier bloggers! Each writer was embedded in her own little archipelago of other writers all working on the same topics. It might be devoted to climate science, counterinsurgency theory, Black politics, New York fashion, Mormon Mommy blogging, Harry Potter themed slash fan-fiction, or something else altogether, but the archipelago was there. Other bloggers—along with a few of the long term commentators shared by the various blogs—were the intended audience of most pieces. Others’ pieces were the inspiration for one’s own. Bloggers were nodes on a network, and it was the network that sustained them.

Substack, viewed as a blogging platform, is a lot like Medium — a would-be walled garden, though run by less unscrupulous folks than own the big social-media platforms. I’m temperamentally suspicious of them, as I am of any platform that is, ultimately, subject to the whim of a proprietor. So although I use both Medium and Substack, everything I write therein is also published verbatim on my ‘live’ blog, which is completely under my control, and for whose hosting I pay with my own money. For me, Substack provided merely a convenient and reliable way of sending out the email version of what really matters — the live blog on the open Web.

Both Substack and Medium have fairly honourable business models and have facilities whereby writers can get paid, if they wish to be. (I don’t.) And that’s a good thing (though it leads to the power-law outcome that Greer mentions). But it also has the downside in terms of the public sphere that, ultimately, their writing exists mainly inside a walled, members-only, garden. A genteel garden, but still a private garden. That’s why I’ve always followed Dave Winer’s lead: write wherever you like, but always make sure your stuff is also published on the Web.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • One travel job that is booming during the pandemic is pet delivery specialist. Link

  • 22 Face Masks We Actually Like to Wear. Predictable: mask-fashion is here to stay. Link

  • How to choose and maintain the best masks for use against COVID-19. Not fashion but official guidance from CDC and WHO. And it seems there are only seven. Link

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Sunday 7 June, 2020

One man stands between Joe Biden and the US presidency – Mark Zuckerberg

This morning’s Observer column:

…my mind goes back to this time in 2016, when similar sentiments were the conventional wisdom about the chances of Trump defeating Hillary Clinton. And one of the most agonising questions in the aftermath of that election was: how could Nate Silver and co have got it so wrong?

The answer is simple: nobody, including opinion pollsters, knew about the Trump campaign’s astonishing mastery of social media, especially Facebook. Trump may not have known much about that at the time – he really only understood Twitter – but Brad Parscale and his team sure knew how to make use of Facebook’s micro-targeting machine. And they did.

Spool forward to now. Trump knows that if things continue as they are – with no party conventions or mass rallies and if the election is held in November (a sizable “if” IMHO) – then Biden will win. The only thing that could change that is – you guessed it! – Facebook…

Read on

The Protests Remind Us Why Social Media Is Worth Fixing

Very thoughtful post by Will Oremus arguing that while Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok are distorting our view of a crisis, they’re also countering the distorted view we had before. And the trouble is, that’s correct. We have to abandon the notion of a world without social media (though not the idea that it could have better, less societally damaging, business models). That genie is long out of the bottle. So the question is: how can we improve the current situation so that we have a less polluted public sphere? As Oremus puts it:

It’s on Facebook, Twitter, and even TikTok that shaky smartphone videos of police brutality are going viral, and once-radical demands such as defunding the police are picking up steam.

Without these platforms, we’d still be totally reliant on a press corps whose demographics and values skew white and upper-middle-class, and which for decades has helped to prop up — or at least failed to topple — a status quo of white supremacy. The problem with Zuckerberg’s framing of Facebook as a net positive, then, is not that it’s absurd, per se — although it is conveniently unfalsifiable, as the New York Times’ Kevin Roose points out. The problem is that, when deployed as a shield against criticism, it’s a red herring — a hand-waving thought experiment that’s irrelevant to the question of how Facebook should regulate its platform. What matters now is not judging whether social platforms are a force for good or ill, but figuring out what it would take to make them better.

In the essay (which is well worth reading in full), he points to a couple of significant ideas that Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, advanced in a remarkable public memo to employees following his decision to follow Twitter in taking a stand, saying it will no longer promote Trump’s snaps in its influential Discover tab. The relevant passage reads:

As for Snapchat, we simply cannot promote accounts in America that are linked to people who incite racial violence, whether they do so on or off our platform. Our Discover content platform is a curated platform, where we decide what we promote. We have spoken time and again about working hard to make a positive impact, and we will walk the talk with the content we promote on Snapchat. We may continue to allow divisive people to maintain an account on Snapchat, as long as the content that is published on Snapchat is consistent with our community guidelines, but we will not promote that account or content in any way.

There are two significant ideas embedded here, says Oremus.

The first is that ‘free speech’ does not equal ‘free reach’. Much of the poisonous impact of social media lies not in the fact that people can post all kinds of obnoxious content online, but that the algorithms that are calibrated to maximise engage (and revenue) effectively amplify that content by giving it massive reach. The world is full of cretins, but if one states on the street or outside his house spouting hatred or nonsense then his reach is limited by physical proximity. Much the same is true for any individual post on any platform. It just resides in the infinitely ‘long tail’ of posts which are read or seen by tiny numbers of people. And if it stayed that way, then the world would be a safer and a better place. It’s Algorithmically giving violent or divisive content exaggerated reach that’s the problem.

The second implicit idea in Spiegel’s post discerned by Oremus is, I suppose, more difficult for social media to handle — namely that platforms can (and should?) decide whether some people are inadmissible simply because of their off-platform behaviour. This would have barred Trump, for example, from ever being on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube, if those platforms had the wit initially — and later the courage — to bar him.

Both essays — Oremus’s and Spiegel’s are worth reading in full. Spiegel’s is particularly wide-ranging and impressive. He sounds like an admirable young man.

Errol Morris: The Umbrella Man

If you haven’t ever seen this short film, then take ten minutes and draw up a chair. It’s beautifully crafted and shot, and it contains an important lesson about conspiracy theories that everyone should know.

Quarantine diary — Day 78


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Thursday 28 May, 2020

Deconstructing Cummings’s Downing Street statement

Wonderful analysis of the Cummings document by the FT’s David Allen Green. Takes the form of a 25-minute video going through the document line by line, but there’s also a transcript if you’re in a hurry. It’s a fascinating piece of work. Allen thinks that the entire document was drawn up by a (no doubt expensive) lawyer because it reads like a witness statement as used in trials. (But there’s no signature at the bottom attesting that it is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!).

The only thing he misses is the fact (mentioned in the Wired report discussed on this blog yesterday) that Cummings retrospectively added to his blog post of March 4, 2019 to make it look as thought he was exceedingly prescient about this kind of pandemic.


Charlie Warzel on de-platforming Trump

Useful piece by Charlie sparked by the thought that Twitter might ban Trump.

“The strategy of power now is not to dominate the whole narrative,” Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics and the author of “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality” told me recently. “It’s to polarize citizens and construct a very potent worldview and to alienate them from the truth. When journalists speak truth to power they’re by nature giving the powerful the opposition they want.”

Naturally, media outlets and reporters, not wanting to be bullied or discredited, adopt an adversarial approach. This leads to some great, important journalism but also a fair amount of grandstanding, which then become ammunition for the president and his supporters.

This situation is hard for journalists to get their heads around, Mr. Pomerantsev says. “We’re trained to stand up to the powerful,” he Pomerantsev said. “But now the powerful are comfortable with us doing the punching — just look at how they’re attacking.”

It’s basically a cycle that requires participation from all parties: the president (who initiates it), Twitter (which tolerates it) and the media (which amplifies, frequently to the president’s advantage). Removing one participant gums up the cycle, but does not stop it outright.

How Trump proposes to go after Twitter for labelling his tweets

He’s gone for the ‘nuclear strike’ — to try to modify Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, (which is Title V of the sprawling 1996 Telecommunications Act). The Section is the one that exempts platform providers from legal liability for stuff that users post on their platforms. It’s essentially the bedrock of their impunity.

The key part of the Section reads as follows:

(c) Protection for “Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material

(1) Treatment of publisher or speaker No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

(2) Civil liability No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—

(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or

(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).

This is what Trump’s draft Executive Order targets.

The thrust of the Order is that Twitter’s labelling of Trump’s tweets as inaccurate is not protected under Subparagraph C(2).

“The provision does not extend to deceptive or pretextual actions restricting online content or actions inconsistent with an online platform’s terms of service. When an interactive computer service provider removes or restricts access to content and its actions do not meet the requirements of Subparagraph C (2) (A), it is engaged in editorial conduct.”

So the Order directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to conduct an inquiry to “clarify”

This is going to be interesting. If nothing else, it guarantees that all the tech companies will be pouring money into Joe Biden’s campaign, because Section 230 has always been their get-out-of-gaol card. Indeed, for social-media companies it’s what underpins their business model.

And… Right on cue, up pops Mark Zuckerberg (who has had a couple of dinners recently with Trump, I believe) on Fox News yesterday criticising Twitter for fact-checking Trump’s tweets, saying private technology companies “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online”. Zuckerberg is keeping his political options open. Creep.

Every stock is a vaccine stock

What’s the value of a Covid vaccine — and to whom? General Electric stock was rocketing up on Tuesday, but not because of anything the company did or announced. What’s going on is that any positive news about a Covid vaccine Recent Covid-19 vaccine serves as a catalyst, making every stock feel like a vaccine stock.

Fascinating post by Tyler Cowen:

It’s not surprising that when Moderna reports good vaccine results, Moderna does well. It’s more surprising that Boeing and GE not only do well they increase in value far more than Moderna. On May 18, for example, when Moderna announced very preliminary positive results on its vaccine it’s market capitalization rose by $5b. But GE’s market capitalization rose by $6.82 billion and Boeing increased in value by $8.73 billion.

A cure for COVID-19 would be worth trillions to the world but only billions to the creator. The stock market is illustrating the massive externalities created by innovation. Nordhaus estimated that only 2.2% of the value of innovation was captured by innovators. For vaccine manufacturers it’s probably closer to .2%.

The disconnect between stock markets and the real world is truly mysterious.

Quarantine diary — Day 68


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Monday 23 March, 2020

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Black humour

I watched Boris Johnson’s live press conference from Downing Street yesterday and found myself marvelling at the dark irony of a man who has behaved with grotesque irresponsibility throughout his entire adult life railing against citizens who were behaving irresponsibly by not obeying injunctions about social distancing.

CV takes on a new meaning

Dave Winer (whom God preserve) has decided to start calling the disease CV on his blog. Smart move, and saves typing. I’ve never maintained a proper CV, really, and hope that I don’t acquire this new type either.

Podcasting comes into its own

It’s the second draft of history, in a way. And it’s not radio, for all kinds of reasons — one of which is that it has higher cognitive bandwidth because mostly it’s coming through your headphones and getting more of your attention. The New York Times‘s The Daily is playing a blinder at the moment. The interview with Governor Cuomo, for example, is one of the best things I’ve heard in months. Or the episode in which they spoke to an Italian doctor who’s having to triage patient care at the heart of his country’s crisis.

Why we need Wikipedia more than ever

Great article in Slate’s Future Tense series on how Wikipedia is addressing the information and knowledge challenges posed by the pandemic. Sample:

In the midst of the fast-paced editing, some Wikipedians are thinking about the role that the project is playing during this crisis. Last week, William Beutler made a persuasive case on his blog, the Wikipedian, that there should be a dedicated space on Wikipedia’s front page for coronavirus news that would easily catch readers’ attention. “Like it or not, Wikipedia is in a unique position to point information-hungry citizens around the world to better information than they can find almost anywhere else,” Beutler wrote. On Monday Wikipedia updated its front page with the new coronavirus news feature in line with Beutler’s suggestion. But the debate between editors about the proposal was contentious. Highlighting news about the pandemic arguably goes against another of the site’s content policies: Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and “not a newspaper.” Then again, that distinction raises tricky questions, like, what’s the difference between a journalist and an encyclopedist who are both chronicling a pandemic in real time?

Rather than going down that particular rabbit hole, however, it’s probably better to highlight how the information about the coronavirus on Wikipedia is truly serving the reading public, or as some volunteer editors jokingly put it, “the customer.” Personally, I appreciate English Wikipedia’s category table, which neatly organizes English Wikipedia’s 200-plus articles about the subject. These pages are neatly grouped by subtopics, like the financial impact of the coronavirus or its effect on tourism. Overall, the way the Wikipedians have been organizing the information and summarizing it reminds me of a high school history textbook—except that this one is being written in real time, with thousands of authors making thousands of changes.

Wikipedia is one of the wonders of the world. Whenever I run into people who are sniffy about it because of a mistake they found on it, my response is: so why haven’t you corrected it? And to people who tell me how wonderful it is I say: so when did you last make a donation to help it keep going?

Quarantine Diary – Day 2

Sunday 16 February, 2020

Reports of social media’s influence on (UK) voters may be exaggerated

This morning’s Observer column:

While it would obviously be ridiculous to deny that social media played some role in these political upheavals [Brexit and Trump’s election], it would be foolish to assign it the critical role. Apart from anything else, putting social media centre stage ignores what had been happening to democratic electorates during decades of globalisation, neoliberal economic policy, rising inequality and austerity. But because the rise of Facebook et al was one of the biggest changes over the last two decades, the temptation to see them as the place to look for explanations seems to have been well-nigh irresistible.

Fortunately, it was resisted by researchers at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford when they set out to understand where UK voters got their news during the 2019 general election. They tracked the online news consumption of 1,711 people aged 18-65 across mobile and desktop devices throughout the campaign and also surveyed a subset of 752 panellists before and after the vote. What the researchers were seeking to understand was the relative importance for voters of offline and online news and their attitudes to the media and politics more widely.

Their findings make intriguing reading, not least because they challenge some of the anecdotal conventional wisdom about the predominance of social media…

Read on

In the boxing business, only the promoter wins every fight

Same applies on social media.

Both of these sites are owned by the same jokester. Heads he wins, tails he wins. ‘Engagement’ is all.

“Are you glad to see Conway gone?” asked Liberal Society at the end of its post.

“Will you miss seeing Conway on TV?” asked Conservative 101.

The stories read like they were stamped out of the same content machine because they were. Using domain registration records and Google Analytics and AdSense IDs, BuzzFeed News determined that both sites are owned by American News LLC of Miami.

That company also operates another liberal site, Democratic Review, as well as American News, a conservative site that drew attention after the election when it posted a false article claiming that Denzel Washington endorsed Trump. It also operates GodToday.com, a site that publishes religious clickbait.


What the composition of the Johnson Cabinet actually portends

Insightful analysis by James Butler in the LRB:

It’s the move to control and centralisation that is most significant, and gives us the clearest sign of what to expect from the government over the next five years: personalised authority, a tussle over economic intervention intended to reshape the nation, hostility to legal and journalistic accountability, and a host of convenient public enemies as villainous Brussels recedes from view. The new appointees, and the new priorities, inaugurate a new mode of British Conservatism – and any opposition that fails to grasp that, and its internal weaknesses, may find it takes longer than five years to defeat it.

In praise of bloggers

From a “Blogging in an expert society” by Ken Smith:

At least there are certain mistakes that bloggers don’t often make:

  • They usually don’t pull rank.

  • They usually don’t insist that a problem can be solved only by a certain kind of expert or talked about only in one kind of language.

  • They tend to think that people’s experience has something to offer.

  • They assume that tradition or dogma should be challenged by people reflecting on their experiences.

  • They get riled up, but down deep they like to hear more voices, not fewer. They want their turn to speak, not the only turn. They get really impatient, but down deep they want democracy.

(HT to Dave Winer)