Our favorite Protocol long-reads from 2021

Sit back, relax and soak up some of our best reporting from the last 12 months.

Book with "best long reads" of Protocol on cover

We've gathered the best of the best.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol; Getty Images

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Looking for a sit-down between the feasting? Got a spare 30 minutes because your one-on-ones are cancelled this week? Just trying to catch up on the year that was? We’ve got you.

As we head into the New Year, we thought it was a good time to look back at some of our favorite Protocol stories from the last 12 months. Some broke big news, some illuminated people and stories we needed to know more about and all are great and important tales. We hope you enjoy these highlights from 2021.

Inside Big Tech’s angry, geeky, often petty war for your privacy — Issie Lapowsky

  • The W3C tries to govern the internet by consensus, bringing everyone along for the ride. When it comes to privacy, that hasn't worked so well. This was a deep look at what privacy means, why it's so hard to agree on and whose job it really is to keep users safe. It's all messy.

How IBM lost the cloud — Tom Krazit

  • You could argue that IBM Cloud never really had a chance. Even some of the people who worked on it argue exactly that. The story of IBM over the last decade is a classic one: a company caught between its old success and the fast-moving future, stuck choosing the wrong side of history.

Brownsville, we have a problem — Anna Kramer

  • This is the story of what happens when Elon Musk comes to town. And decides to use the beach and wildlife refuge nearby as a launching pad to get humans to Mars. It's not all good news, and it's not all bad news. But it's changing everything, faster than anyone realized, and there's almost nothing anyone can do to stop it.

I helped build ByteDance's vast censorship machine — Shen Lu

  • A former employee lays out the what, how and why of one of China's huge censorship and surveillance operations. It takes an unbelievable amount of computation and human resources to keep this going. And it’s not easy to live with the experience of being responsible for it.

The GE Mafia: How an old-school company birthed a generation of tech leaders — Joe Williams

  • The PayPal Mafia gets all the credit, but it turns out an old-school company has an awful lot to teach people about how to build the future. GE may not be the giant it once was, but its influence is still everywhere.

Why is tech illustration stuck on repeat? Ask the overworked, underpaid illustrators. — Hirsh Chitkara

  • You've definitely seen the illustrations. The whimsical, simple silhouette drawings even have their own name: "Corporate Memphis." It is … everywhere. (And now that you know it, you'll see it even more.) Because like everything else in tech, art has become commoditized and turned into the product of drop-down menus. But maybe there's a comeback in sight.

An oral history of #hugops — Tom Krazit

  • It's hard when your job is largely invisible until something goes wrong. That's life as an operations engineer, though — and Tom wrote the fun, fascinating story of how people across the industry band together to lift each other up even when the internet is down.

Here’s what happens when men in tech share their salaries — Michelle Ma

  • Slowly but surely, it's getting easier to talk about money at work. And it turns out, when you do — when men do, especially — it has a tendency to spark change. The wage gap is real, but many people don't know what it looks like or how it affects them. That's starting to change.

How Congress' parade of tech hearings totally lost the plot — Ben Brody and Kate Cox

  • By this point, tech hearings in Congress have become pretty standard. So too has the fact they often have very little to do with anything actually relating to policy. Such is the reality of the government's relationship with the tech industry these days, which Ben and Kate lay out in painful detail here.

How EA got into mobile — and figured out the future of gaming — Nick Statt

  • Games have always been defined by where they're played. Consoles, PCs, mobile, Switch. But EA is helping usher in a new future, in which devices don't matter and services are everything. And it’s a future where everything is free to play and yet far more lucrative for businesses in the long run.

For Big Tech whistleblowers, there’s no such thing as 'moving on' — Issie Lapowsky

  • So much of tech's reckoning is a result of employees speaking out publicly about what's going on. Those people are all over the news for a while … and then what? Issie's story about what happens next, and why life never goes back to normal, is an important one.

Marc Benioff created one of Silicon Valley’s most unique cultures. Will it outlast him? — Joe Williams

  • The Salesforce "ohana" culture is famous. And it's just as real, just as pervasive and just as all-encompassing as you've heard. But can that culture survive a shift to remote work, a Slack-led reinvention of how work gets done and (eventually) the end of Marc Benioff's run in charge?

How Twitter hired tech's biggest critics to build ethical AI — Anna Kramer

  • Ethical AI is an important but difficult team to build in your company. (Just ask Google.) But Twitter's META team, so far, seems to be proof that it's possible. And it came together simply because Twitter decided it mattered and gave the team room to work. Anna’s story takes a close look at how the company made it happen.

The weaponization of employee resource groups — Megan Rose Dickey

  • ERGs have been talked about a lot over the last year or so, and have been identified as a way to help companies become more diverse and inclusive from within. But as Megan found, too many ERG members are finding it hard to effect real change in the workplace.

20 years of orange cones: The history of VLC — Janko Roettgers

  • VLC is a true Swiss Army knife of an app, the thing you turn to when nothing else knows what to do with that weird video file on your hard drive. Now, two decades old and still getting downloaded a million times a day (no, really), it's working on a redesign, a web app … and a space flight?

How Dapper Labs scored NBA crypto millions — Tomio Geron

  • If you hadn’t really heard of NFTs at the start of the year, you definitely have by now. And while there’s no shortage of people and companies trying to make money off of the craze, Dapper Labs was somewhat of a vanguard, building CryptoKitties several years ago and more recently (and now more famously), NBA Top Shot. Tomio took a close look at the company and the system it has its future pinned on.


The minerals we need to save the planet are getting way too expensive

Supply chain problems and rising demand have sent prices spiraling upward for the minerals and metals essential for the clean energy transition.

Critical mineral prices have exploded over the past year.

Photo: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The newest source of the alarm bells echoing throughout the renewables industry? Spiking critical mineral and metal prices.

According to a new report from the International Energy Agency, a maelstrom of rising demand and tattered supply chains have caused prices for the materials needed for clean energy technologies to soar in the last year. And this increase has only accelerated since 2022 began.

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Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

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Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

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Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.


The 911 system is outdated. Updating it to the cloud is risky.

Unlike tech companies, emergency services departments can’t afford to make mistakes when migrating to the cloud. Integrating new software in an industry where there’s no margin for error is risky, and sometimes deadly.

In an industry where seconds can mean the difference between life and death, many public safety departments are hesitant to take risks on new cloud-based technologies.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Dialing 911 could be the most important phone call you will ever make. But what happens when the software that’s supposed to deliver that call fails you? It may seem simple, but the technology behind a call for help is complicated, and when it fails, deadly.

The infrastructure supporting emergency contact centers is one of the most critical assets for any city, town or local government. But just as the pandemic exposed the creaky tech infrastructure that runs local governments, in many cases the technology in those call centers is outdated and hasn’t been touched for decades.

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Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software. Formerly, she was a management consultant for EY. She's based in Los Angeles and can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.


'The Wilds' is a must-watch guilty pleasure and more weekend recs

Don’t know what to do this weekend? We’ve got you covered.

Our favorite things this week.

Illustration: Protocol

The East Coast is getting a little preview of summer this weekend. If you want to stay indoors and beat the heat, we have a few suggestions this week to keep you entertained, like a new season of Amazon Prime’s guilty-pleasure show, “The Wilds,” a new game from Horizon Worlds that’s fun for everyone and a sneak peek from Adam Mosseri into what Instagram is thinking about Web3.

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Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.


Work expands to fill the time – but only if you let it

The former Todoist productivity expert drops time-blocking tips, lofi beats playlists for concentrating and other knowledge bombs.

“I do hope the productivity space as a whole is more intentional about pushing narratives that are about life versus just work.”

Photo: Courtesy of Fadeke Adegbuyi

Fadeke Adegbuyi knows how to dole out productivity advice. When she was a marketing manager at Doist, she taught users via blogs and newsletters about how to better organize their lives. Doist, the company behind to-do-list app Todoist and messaging app Twist, has pushed remote and asynchronous work for years. Adegbuyi’s job was to translate these ideas to the masses.

“We were thinking about asynchronous communication from a work point of view, of like: What is most effective for doing ambitious and awesome work, and also, what is most advantageous for living a life that feels balanced?” Adegbuyi said.

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Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

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