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Your 2019 predictions for social networks, revisited

Near the end of 2018, I asked you all to share your predictions with me for social networks in 2019.
December 12 · Issue #429 · View online
The Interface
Near the end of 2018, I asked you all to share your predictions with me for social networks in 2019. You shared a couple dozen thoughts, and we talked about them here. Today, I thought it would be fun to see how we fared.
The best prediction was this one:
Nik Sharma is among those who think 2019 will see a return to the group chat as our social network of choiceI said this myself on a recent episode of Recode Decode. And Taylor Lorenz said it in 2017, because that’s how far in the future she lives. (Ryan Ruark adds that this phenomenon will be of particular benefit to Discord and Slack.)
The rise of group chats in 2019 outpaced even my own expectations. When I think about the social software that had cultural heat over the past year, it’s almost all in small-group communication. It’s the iMessage chat with your college friends, the WhatsApp group with your family abroad, the Messenger thread with your improv team. (That last one is specific to me — but I bet you have a similar example.)
But the evidence isn’t just anecdotal — whole companies are pivoting around the idea. Most prominently, there’s Facebook, whose “pivot to privacy” in March is primarily a pivot to group chats. There are other strategic reasons behind the move, but the most important reason is that it’s a move that Facebook users are already making. So count us all right about that one — and shout out to Taylor for calling it in 2017.
What else did we get right?
Well, this was absolutely right:
Bret Carmichael predicts we’ll see steps taken toward national privacy regulation, hampered by party warfare. Sounds about right! Reminder that the industry has until 2020 until California’s privacy bill goes into effect, and folks I’ve spoken to expect that the race to pass a national bill will come down to the wire.
Steps were taken — in the sense that bills were drafted — but none of them have gotten anywhere. Just today, Facebook put up a blog post saying it’s ready to comply with the California law — and the Wall Street Journal reported on how the company plans to violate its spirit.
And what did we get wrong? Um … a lot.
Collectively, we predicted a reckoning for Instagram — but one came for YouTube instead.
What did I get wrong? Well, I said Snap would have “a tough year” — and instead it mounted an impressive turnaround. I said Twitter would “muddle along,” and it had its first profitable year in history.
And then here’s what I had to say about TikTok, which was probably the dumbest thing I wrote in 2018:
I can’t tell whether TikTok is simmering mostly below the radar right now — the low-and-slow-growing social network that Facebook has traditionally feared the most — or whether it’s already petering out. So count the future of TikTok as a true 2019 mystery, at least for me.
There was no mystery! It was not petering out! It was the fastest-growing social network of the year and is at the height of its relevance as 2019 comes to a close.
Obviously all this is embarrassing. Our predictions were generally not very good. I hope you have better predictions for 2020, and I am officially asking you for them. What’s going to happen next year in the realm of social networks and democracy? (It’s an election year. Think big!) We accept entries in two categories: good predictions, and jokes. Email me or send me a message on Twitter. I will keep asking you next week, and we’ll publish your answers in our final edition of the year, a week from today.

Twitter as a protocol, revisited
The media lives on Twitter, and so lots of people have thoughts about Jack Dorsey’s surprise announcement that he might attempt to convert his venerable adtech business into some sort of decentralized, open-source version of itself. (While also running another public company and possibly living somewhere in Africa for much of next year, but that’s still up in the air.)
A sample:
“If you’re worried about the dominance of certain social media platforms, or if you’re concerned about privacy online, or if you’re uncomfortable with leaving the decisions for how content moderation works in the hands of a few internet company bosses – this is big news and something you should be paying attention to. It won’t change the way the web works overnight. Indeed, it might never have that big of an impact. But it certainly has the potential to be one of the most significant directional shifts for the mainstream internet in decades. Keep watching.”
Sriram Krishnan, who just quit the Twitter product team, says Twitter’s Bluesky project could result in cool new ways for you to sort your social feeds:
“Alternate ranking models: every social platform uses a complex feed ranking algorithm optimizing for a combination of factors - community interaction, engagement, likelihood of spending time, etc. However as a customer you don’t get a choice of using different models. Imagine opening up any social platform and switching to a ranking that optimizes to show you only insightful content - or joyful content - or the most recent content. Or one that ranks content from people who typically don’t get attention. Or one that just shows you Keanu Reeves content. You can imagine a marketplace of “ranking models” and you get to plug and play any one.
Klint Flinley makes a good, obvious point:
Even if Twitter follows a model similar to Mastodon’s, it could end up practically just as centralized if the vast majority of users stick with the original, company-controlled Twitter.
Ben Thompson describes why Twitter might be pushing so hard for decentralization: it lets the company avoid a great deal of vexing content moderation problems:
Being the arbiter of content is a thankless job with zero upside: any decision is going to upset someone, and far too many want the power to control what others are allowed to say and see for themselves. A truly decentralized network would justify Twitter washing its hands of content moderation completely at the network level, while ramping it up at the app level. There are echoes of Facebook’s moves to encrypt all private communication, which lets the company similarly wash its hands of a large segment of content moderation challenges (it is interesting, and representative of Twitter’s innate openness and Facebook’s innate closedness, that the potential means of avoiding content moderation challenges run in diametrically opposed directions).
“I think there are two different ways to look at this kind of stuff. One way is to take this seriously and assume that they actually mean what they’re saying. If Twitter wants to create their own protocol instead of using what’s already out there, then it’s a naked power move to get control over an area that they’ve traditionally ignored,” he says. “The other way is to not take this seriously at all, which is what I’m inclined to do.”
And finally, Twitter co-founder and former CEO Ev Williams tweeted opaquely that this was probably a bad idea.
On Monday I wrote about encryption, and pointed out that while I generally favor encrypted one-on-one messaging, I get nervous about encrypted chats between groups. Lots of you wrote in to express the view that there’s nothing wrong with encrypted small group chats, and in fact encrypted small-group chats are important for dissent.
I agree with this point, and I should have said so. The thing about encrypted group chats that gets me nervous is that in the past, group chats have come with viral forwarding mechanics. WhatsApp had nearly infinite forwarding capabilities at one point, and it seems to have contributed to ethnic violence. So: encrypted group chats are fine by me, but please, get rid of the forwarding. (I’m open to suggestions on how many people can be in a group chat and have it still be considered small.)
The Ratio
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
🔼 Trending up: Twitter is adding labels to verified candidates for US elections, a move to bolster the platform’s credibility.
🔼 Trending up: Facebook committed $130 million to fund its forthcoming Oversight Board, and said it would announce the initial slate of members early next year.
🔽 Trending down: The training materials Facebook gave content moderators in the US prior to the 2018 midterm elections were riddled with basic errors. The company touted its “sophisticated” efforts to combat election interference, but internal documents tell a different story.
Federal officials are considering seeking a preliminary injunction against Facebook over antitrust concerns related to how its products interact. If it moves forward, the action could stop Facebook from further integrating its Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger apps. John D. McKinnon and Emily Glazer at The Wall Street Journal explain:
Officials also worry that some of Facebook’s plans to further integrate its own major products could make it harder to eventually split up the company in an antitrust case, according to one of the people.
It isn’t known whether the FTC will move forward with an antitrust action against Facebook or seek an injunction over its interoperability policies. If the agency takes either step, its action could occur as soon as next month, according to one person familiar with the matter. It is also possible that the FTC could attempt to block certain Facebook interoperability policies that critics say have disadvantaged social-media rivals in the past.
Facebook said in January that it was considering closer interoperability of messaging across its main platforms. But the company has said its recent plans to increase interoperability are aimed at improving users’ experiences, particularly in light of recent controversies over privacy on Facebook, and not to freeze out competitors or fend off regulatory action.
Facebook has filed a spate of lawsuits against bad actors this year, in an effort to prove its capable of policing itself. The suits involve companies peddling fake likes on Facebook and Instagram, as well as companies committing ad fraud. (Craig Silverman and Alex Kantrowitz / BuzzFeed)
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison announced a crackdown on Google and Facebook, agreeing to new powers and funding for the consumer watchdog to monitor the digital giants. The group will examine online advertising and ad-tech services at the big tech companies. (Sarah Martin and Paul Karp / The Guardian)
Apple’s digital wallet is expanding in Europe, even as regulators crack down on the tech giant’s move into financial services. Banks and other payments providers are saying the company gives Apple Pay an unfair advantage by limiting access to a key component inside iPhones. (Natalia Drozdiak and Aoife White / Bloomberg)
Uber delivery workers in Mexico are taking driver safety into their own hands, tracking thieves on Google Maps and WhatsApp networks. They say the company isn’t taking their security concerns seriously, despite robberies being nearly a daily occurrence. (Martha Pskowski / OneZero)
The Verge looked at 32 events that helped shape the last decade of the tech industry. They start with Google leaving China in 2010 and end with Larry Page and Sergey Brin leaving Google this month.
Taking the long view, the individual stories of the past 10 years tend to blur into a few big trends. Social networks consolidated and expanded globally, bringing new anxieties over their political power. Threatened by piracy, content companies traded hard copy sales for monthly streaming charges. The cult of the founder withered, while platforms sank into an endless war between the moderators and the moderated. Always political, technology became partisan and started to splinter.
The Verge also looked back at decade of failed Google projects, including Google Cardboard and Google Reader (RIP). The company has a history of announcing big ideas and abandoning them within a few years. (Russell Brandom / The Verge)
Google co-founder Larry Page is funneling money from his charitable foundation to a private flu-fighting initiative run as a for-profit company. The program offers free flu shots to children in Oakland, California. Page also has a second company funding efforts to create a universal flu vaccine. (Nicole Wetsman  / The Verge)
Google is bringing spam detection and verified business SMS services to its Messages app on Android. The features are designed to help you weed out annoyances and know that you’re texting with a real person. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
Chiropractors on YouTube are racking up millions of views with videos that show spine-cracking adjustments. The content is working to popularize one of alternative medicine’s most controversial practices. (Hannah Smothers / Vice)
New reporting shows Away’s CEO Steph Korey wasn’t planning on stepping down until our investigation blew up. Stuart Haselden was originally slated to be the company’s COO. Now he’s taking over for Korey. (Jason Del Rey / Recode)
Salesforce founder Mark Benioff — a frequent antagonist of Facebook and Twitter — has donated a fortune to causes like homelessness and affordable housing. But he hasn’t always been willing to address the structural problems that exacerbate these problems in the first place. This profile dives into that discrepancy. (Chris Colin / Wired)
And finally ...
One thing that happened today is that the president of the United States mocked a 16-year-old child who is trying to save us all from the horrors of climate change. She changed her Twitter bio to make fun of him right back.
This is our politics now! I hate it!
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