Facebook at 2.9 billion people, $54 billion in “GDP” and counting
2.9 billion people voluntarily use Facebook. Is it the world’s largest democracy? Or an autocracy? It is bigger than China and India combined. The “GDP” of Facebook is $54bn. Voluntary adoption of a global network and content platform seems to be what we are choosing. What are the implications?
- Technology and Government
- Advertising is dead?
- Venture Capital’s Big Moment
- Work-Life imbalance
- Bitcoin and Government
- Startup of the Week
- Tweet of the Week
When I sit down each Thursday to review what I have read this week I never know ahead of time what I will be saying. My weekly reading happens in spurts each day in between other things and I only develop an abstract view of the content as I drag each piece from the right-hand toolbar in Revue, into the body of the newsletter.
Some weeks the lead is obvious and others, not so much.
This week is all about history. Not the history of the past. Or even the history of the present. But the history being made in front of our eyes. Each era in human existence throws up challenges and opportunities to improve our collective existence. And each era presents the status quo with its end. The end of what we know and the beginning of what will be.
Because we are human, the result of these historical moments is hard to know in advance. As a people, we are quite capable of making decisions that serve the status quo and not the future. Comfort with stasis can easily overwhelm determination to evolve. And change can be scary, even when it is progressive. My 18 year old just passed his driver’s test. His anxiety traveling to the appointment was tangible. His inner voice telling him he would fail was loud. It took a lot of courage and determination to even show up. He did and he passed. Now he can legally drive. He has made history, in that tonight his evening will not be the same as it was before today. And his future has already changed.
We all face those moments every day. Tomorrow is made from today’s decisions.
Facebook being bigger than China and India combined — 2.9 billion users — and having a “GDP” of $54 billion — larger than most nations — is such a challenge and an opportunity. The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance writes about Facebook as The Largest Autocracy on Earth in this week’s issue. It includes tidbits like:
Hillary Clinton told me last year that she’d always caught a whiff of authoritarianism from Zuckerberg.
Facebook is developing its own money, a blockchain-based payment system known as Diem (formerly Libra) that financial regulators and banks have feared could throw off the global economy and decimate the dollar.
And for years Zuckerberg has talked about his principles of governance for the empire he built: “Connectivity is a human right”; “Voting is voice”; “Political ads are an important part of voice”; “The great arc of human history bends towards people coming together in ever greater numbers.” He’s extended those ideas outward in a new kind of colonialism — with Facebook effectively annexing territories where large numbers of people weren’t yet online. Its controversial program Free Basics, which offered people free internet access as long as Facebook was their portal to the web, was hawked as a way to help connect people. But its true purpose was to make Facebook the de facto internet experience in countries all over the world.
But the opponents of Facebook have a problem no smaller than that faced by Facebook itself. It is easy to look at a 2.9 billion person network and focus on problems. Especially one that has grown organically in a free-market, unplanned, way.
But more important is that 2.9 billion people have democratically chosen the platform, free of intimidation, and use it for various purposes. It begs new questions. How does the human race deal with network technology and content platforms that are able to enshrine all of us? This genie is not being put back in the bottle. Global infrastructure and content knows of no borders. Far from being re-bottled, the network is expanding to include money too. VertoFX raised $10m this week to enable cross-border currency transfers from African nations to other nations. Bitcoin already moves $billions per day around the world. China is trying to ban it. The SEC is trying to control it. But it is unstoppable.
So? Do we accept the new, network-led, content-driven, borderless world that is emerging and attempt to ensure it serves human needs? Or do we resist it, call it names, regulate it at the national level in each nation, try to limit it to people whose opinions we approve of? Do we define the future or preserve the status quo? It is not sufficient to be against. What are we for?
That is a more important question than whether Zuckerburg has authoritarian leanings or whether anti-vaccination ideas should be banned on Youtube. But they are related.
We do not ban anti-vax ideas in geographic places. Even here in liberal Palo Alto, I hear them all the time. So why do we think a global network made up of all humans should be “edited”?
Today we have all of the essential elements of a post-nation world, an operating system for humanity is emerging in front of our eyes. We can determine the rules we want to live by and have software manage them. We can vote in software to change rules and implement new ones. We can travel anywhere and spend money without paying enormous amounts in exchange fees. We can develop technology that replaces human effort with automated software and hardware. The Star Trek vision of truly borderless humanity working towards common goals is less of a dream today than at any point in history. but it is scary, creates anxiety, and is imperfect and flawed.
This week’s stories focus on key issues facing us all. How do we build an acceptable inclusive, technology-supported, future? Or should we “stop the world” because we “want to get off”?
There are no easy paths away from the status quo. But there is also no way to avoid the questions that 2.9 billion voluntary users of a single global operating system force us to ask.
Don’t plan on sleeping through the next 20 years. Outcomes will depend on how much thought we put into what we want them to be.
Here are the exam questions:
- Are nation states still the best way for the human race to organise?
- Can freedom and democracy coexist with global institutions?
- Is the globalizing imperative of the internet, blockchain, the cloud, crypto a force for good or bad?
- Are Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Alibaba and others part of the solution to our better future?
- Can private companies be trusted with global infrastructure and utility?
- How do citizens operate to enable a global accountable operating system for humankind?
- What is the roadmap to real freedom from the limits imposed by the current operating system – nation states and national currencies and national regulatory frameworks?
There are many others. More in this week’s video.
Technology and Government
Facebook Is an Authoritarian State
Facebook is acting like a hostile foreign power; it’s time we treated it that way.
Mark Zuckerberg, unlike Einstein, did not dream up Facebook out of a sense of moral duty, or a zeal for world peace. This summer, the population of Zuckerberg’s supranational regime reached 2.9 billion monthly active users, more humans than live in the world’s two most populous nations — China and India — combined.
To Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, they are citizens of Facebookland. Long ago he conspicuously started calling them “people” instead of “users,” but they are still cogs in an immense social matrix, fleshy morsels of data to satisfy the advertisers that poured $54 billion into Facebook in the first half of 2021 alone — a sum that surpasses the gross domestic products of most nations on Earth.
GDP makes for a telling comparison, not just because it gestures at Facebook’s extraordinary power, but because it helps us see Facebook for what it really is. Facebook is not merely a website, or a platform, or a publisher, or a social network, or an online directory, or a corporation, or a utility. It is all of these things. But Facebook is also, effectively, a hostile foreign power.
This is plain to see in its single-minded focus on its own expansion; its immunity to any sense of civic obligation; its record of facilitating the undermining of elections; its antipathy toward the free press; its rulers’ callousness and hubris; and its indifference to the endurance of American democracy.
In Russia, Apple and Google Staff Get Muscled Up By the State
When US tech companies opened offices there, it was supposed to mitigate oppression. Instead those workers are now vulnerable to threats from local authorities.
COVID didn’t kill the startup star.
That’s the main postulate of the supremely interesting and information-filled 2021 Global Startup Ecosystem Report (GSER), released earlier this week by Startup Genome with the Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN). (Full disclosure: I worked at Startup Genome for three years and I’m a senior advisor at GEN.)
That entrepreneurship has surged in the United States during the pandemic crisis of the last 18 months is not breaking news. John Haltiwanger and others have tracked the record-setting levels of new business formation since mid-2020. The flood of venture capital has also been well-documented, with PitchBook saying that VCs “leaned in to the new reality” and “barely skipped a beat.”
What the GSER makes clear is just how global the recent startup surge has been, how financially large the startup economy is, and how economically widespread it is across sectors.
Not long ago, the word “startup” was identified almost exclusively with Silicon Valley. To say you had a “startup ecosystem” in your city or region was to invite scorn. Today, most regions are not only trying to cultivate startup ecosystem but also enjoying success. According to Startup Genome, the 100 “emerging ecosystems” generated $540 billion in ecosystem value from 2018 to 2020. That was a 55% increase from the 2017 to 2019 period.
Astoundingly, over 90 startup ecosystems now boast a unicorn, a private startup valued at over $1 billion. As the report wryly notes, “unicorn” was first used as “an indicator of extreme rarity” but is now “becoming a misnomer.”
Alexey Navalny and Vladimir Putin
(1/14) If something surprised me in the latest elections, it was not how Putin forged the results, but how obediently the almighty Big Tech turned into his accomplices. (2/14) The giants ……
Facebook has faced heavy scrutiny since a report revealed that internal Facebook research showed that Instagram was toxic for teen girls. Facebook has published the full details of that report in an attempt to show it wasn’t a complete picture of the study. In the weeks following that report, Facebook announced plans to develop an […]
Gerrit De Vynck
YouTube is taking down several video channels associated with high-profile anti-vaccine activists including Joseph Mercola and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who experts say are partially responsible for helping seed the skepticism that’s contributed to slowing vaccination rates across the country.
As part of a new set of policies aimed at cutting down on anti-vaccine content on the Google-owned site, YouTube will ban any videos that claim that commonly used vaccines approved by health authorities are ineffective or dangerous. The company previously blocked videos that made those claims about coronavirus vaccines, but not ones for other vaccines like those for measles or chickenpox.
Misinformation researchers have for years said the popularity of anti-vaccine content on YouTube was contributing to growing skepticism of lifesaving vaccines in the United States and around the world.
More like this, please.
How can a libertarian be comfortable cosying up to sovereign wealth funds, the military-industrial establishment and the…
What Thiel demonstrates is that unregulated, free-market capitalism is in fact closely aligned to state capitalism. Deregulation means that nothing constrains the monopoly power of the security state and nothing gets in the way of people selling it their bogus and corrupting wares. This alliance helps explain the weird anomaly of Thiel’s persona. He’s like a cross between Joe Pesci in Goodfellas — a man who will stab you in the eye with a ballpoint pen if you cross him — and Richard Branson, another so-called entrepreneur who makes most of his money by capturing state-controlled contracts (Virgin Rail, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Media). Branson, unlike Thiel, is a bit of a hippy and mouths most of the liberal pieties, including about climate change. But it doesn’t really matter what the philosophy is. The business model is the same: get as close as you can to the people who control the protection rackets. Unregulated markets aren’t opposed to state capitalism. They are the means by which capitalists make the most money out of the state.
David Runciman talks to Thomas Jones about Silicon Valley’s best-known investor-provocateur, his prescience, his mistakes, and why, despite his ultra-libertarian ideology, he owes so much to the state. Listen without ads, and find further reading, on our website: https://lrb.me/thielpod Find details of our forthcoming podcast series, Close Readings: Encounters with Medieval Women, here: lrb.me/medieval Subscribe to the LRB from just £1 per issue: https://mylrb.co.uk/podcast20b Music by Kieran Brunt / Episode produced by Eliane Glaser / Series Producer: Anthony Wilks See acast.com/privacy for privacy and opt-out information.
Crypto tax: ‘MiamiCoin’ has made the city $7 million so far, a potential game-changer for revenue collection
MiamiCoin has generated roughly $7 million for the city since its August launch, and Mayor Francis Suarez said cryptocurrency contributions could one day replace city taxes.
Advertising is dead?
Facebook can survive its scandals, but Apple’s anti-tracking initiative is doing meaningful damage to its business.
The following is a selection from Big Technology, a newsletter by Alex Kantrowitz. To get it in your inbox each week, you can sign up here.
Facebook this week dispatched its high-level executives to ask customers to hang in there. They weren’t, of course, visiting to discuss the Wall Street Journal’s recent exposé of the company’s unsavory practices. But instead, Facebook VPs, including Simon Whitcombe and Graham Mudd, spoke to advertisers about Apple’s anti-tracking initiative, the one thing wreaking immediate harm on the company’s ad effectiveness and its bottom line.
“This is where, when something actually affects their business, they get their shit together and they move,” said one Facebook advertiser who attended the meetings.
“It’s been all hands on deck for many weeks,” said Mudd in an interview.
Apple is indeed doing more damage to Facebook than any of its rolling series of scandals so far. The changes Apple made in iOS 14.5 — asking people if they wanted to opt-out of apps tracking them across the web — is causing tumult for advertisers who rely on Facebook to sustain their businesses. Performance marketers, i.e., those who want you to buy immediately after clicking, are particularly struggling. The masses, they believe, have opted out of letting Facebook track off of Facebook, so they can’t be sure if people are buying their products after seeing their ads. Facebook expects them to spend less money as a result.
“Just completely running blind” is how Aaron Paul, a performance Facebook marketer, described it.
Venture Capital’s Big Moment
In 2021, the pace of new unicorns has increased considerably, close to 1,000 current private unicorns on the Crunchbase Private Unicorn Board for the first time.
Israelis who have become millionaires in a red-hot tech market are transforming Tel Aviv, but the boom threatens to exacerbate cultural, religious and political fault lines.
The $1T market for banking-as-a-service is a bet on the rise of embedded finance, the technology-driven movement of financial products and services to the point of sale.
Apple’s resistance to full-time remote work has sparked an unprecedented battle with employees. | Sam Hall/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Inside the unexpected fight that’s dividing the most valuable company in the world.
For the past several months, a fight has been brewing inside Apple, the world’s most profitable company, about a fundamental aspect of its business: whether its corporate employees must return to the office.
Apple expects employees to return to their desks at least three days a week when its offices reopen. And although the Covid-19 delta variant has made it unclear exactly when that will be, Apple’s normally heads-down employees are pushing back in an unprecedented way. They’ve created two petitions demanding the option to work remotely full time that have collected over 1,000 signatures combined, a handful of people have resigned over the matter, and some employees have begun speaking out publicly to criticize management’s stance.
Bitcoin and Government
If the United States is still not ready for central bank digital currency, it will stay on the sidelines of tech and financial innovations.
China just took its hardest stance on cryptocurrencies yet.
All crypto transactions are now illegal in China, the nation’s central bank said in a notice posted to its website, and cryptocurrencies cannot be circulated. (Excluding those overseen by the government, obviously.)
- The notice names bitcoin, ether and tether specifically, but applies to all transactions of any kind involving cryptocurrency. Overseas exchanges are also not allowed to provide services to users in China, according to the new notice.
- Some are speculating that the move has to do with China’s reaction to the Evergrande debt crisis, which has already had ramifications in the crypto world.
- The overall crypto crackdown also has to do with Beijing’s climate goals; the country wants to be carbon-neutral, and crypto activity makes that harder.
It’s not like China is out on crypto altogether. Inside the country, the government is experimenting with digital currencies, and is already testing a “digital yuan” in cities around the country. It’s a bit like the country’s approach to its tech industry as a whole: It wants to be innovative and successful, but on the government’s terms.
Ethereum co-founder Gavin Wood fights ‘crypto nationalism’ — Protocol — The people, power and politics of tech
The creator of the Polkadot blockchain network wants to transcend “bitcoin maximalists” through technology.
VertoFX, a global B2B payments platform that allows small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to make payments to their suppliers, today announced that it has closed $10 million in Series A funding. Quona Capital, an emerging fintech-focused venture capital firm, led the round. Other firms also participated, including The Treasury, founded by Betterment’s Eli Broverman and […]
Startup of the Week
Cloudflare’s new storage offering is potentially disruptive both economically and strategically.