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Mark Zuckerberg’s unwinnable fight

Image: Alessio Jacona / Protocol
Mark Zuckerberg

Good morning! This Thursday, Zoom wants you to Zoom on a Zoom device, Mark Zuckerberg faces a Catch-22 over bad content, and I'm a little bit in love with Netflix's new shuffle button.

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The Big Story

Zoom keeps pushing into hardware

"I need to buy a gadget just for video chat" sounded, six months ago, like the crazy rantings of someone who watched too many episodes of "The Jetsons." Hey, add a flying car to the list, too! But now? Video chat hardware is one of the most interesting device categories out there.

  • On Wednesday, Facebook announced that the Portal — which has been so popular during the pandemic that it's been near-impossible to buy — will soon support Zoom, Webex, BlueJeans and GoToMeeting. (Notably, and perhaps unsurprisingly, absent: Google Meet.)
  • Facebook's looking at lots of hardware ideas, Portal product manager Micah Collins told Protocol's Janko Roettgers: "We are very bullish on exploring different screen sizes and different surfaces around the home."

Do people need a dedicated video chat gizmo? In a world where it seems like everything — your phone, your laptop, your freaking doorbell — has a camera, why add an extra device? That's the question I posed to Jeff Smith, Zoom's head of Zoom Rooms and the company's overseer of hardware.

  • He said the answer was more obvious when video chat hardware mostly sat in conference rooms: "It's about continuity of management, about ease of deployment and out-of-box experience."
  • When work-from-home started in earnest, Smith said there was an uptick in people who just wanted a way to talk that didn't overtake their computer. "If I have 14 inches of real estate that I'm using on my computer," he said, "do I want all of those to be dedicated to one application?"
  • It helps, too, that most computers have horrible webcams. People will pay a lot to look a little better, and hey, it's cheaper than plastic surgery.

Zoom launched Zoom for Home in July, along with a device called the DTEN ME that puts a 27-inch video chat device right on your desk. But Smith said he, like Facebook, is interested in lots of other form factors and screen sizes.

  • Zoom's also going to work on lots of other hardware: Alongside the Facebook announcement, it said its service will be available on the Amazon Echo Show and Google Nest Hub Max later this year, too.
  • And Smith said Zoom's interested in improving other parts of the experience, like screen-sharing and presenting, using these dedicated gadgets.

I think of these smart-display devices as the evolution of the landline phone, and I'm betting they're going to be on every remote employee's hardware request forms in the next few months. Time to add that to the IT budget, I think.

Social

Facebook's unwinnable fight on bad content

On Wednesday, Facebook announced that it deleted thousands of pages, groups and ads from its platforms that had to do with QAnon. (What is QAnon? It's … too much for one newsletter, but this Atlantic piece is terrific.)

  • Twitter recently did the same thing, and Facebook's move matches what it did to Boogaloo-related content as well.
  • Facebook's cracking down much harder on this stuff than it has in the past.

Also on Wednesday, an activist group called Facebook a "major threat" to public health, and said it allowed health misinformation to be viewed 3.8 billion times in the last year on the platform.

Also on Wednesday, Pew released a poll saying nearly three-quarters of Americans think social media sites censor political viewpoints. (We can argue about what "censor" and "political" mean until we're blue in the face, but let's not.) The findings are fascinating:

  • Republicans, unsurprisingly, are less trusting of social media and less in favor of those companies labeling content they deem "inaccurate or misleading." Democrats, meanwhile, support social companies taking action and trust them to do so correctly.
  • Like … everything right now, social moderation has become a massively polarized issue. Which means that, like … everything right now, it's hard to get much done.

Where does this leave Facebook and other social companies? The more actively they moderate, the less many people trust them to be fair and open. But if they do nothing, the whole social sphere seems about a weekend away from collapsing into what many others would view as an apocalyptic horror show.

  • You might think that something like QAnon would be fringe enough to be uncontroversially removed. You'd be wrong. Supporters are winning election primaries, President Trump is answering questions about it in briefings. QAnon, as crazy a conspiracy theory as you'll find, is now part of mainstream culture. All thanks to social media.
  • That means Mark Zuckerberg has to carefully balance action against inaction, and neither choice seems to be correct. Good luck, Mark!

Streaming

The real ambition behind Netflix's 'Play Something' button

When I hit the "Shuffle Play" button that's starting to appear on some people's Netflix apps, the first thing that played was "(Un)Well." Shuffle again: "Umbrella Academy." Again, again, again: "World's Most Wanted," "Arrested Development," "The Last Dance." Five shows Netflix thought I might like, in some cases because I'd already put it on my list, in others because I like similar things. And it was right on all counts.

  • It sounds like an April Fool's joke — spin the wheel and get literally anything on Netflix! — but it's actually much more ambitious than that.
  • This is Netflix trying to get smarter at knowing what you want, as soon as you open the app. Browsing isn't how Netflix wins; watching is how Netflix wins. The company told Variety that with this feature "the hope is to absolutely productize something."

Nearly every streaming company tells me the same thing: That the ideal interface is no interface at all, that you'd just open the app and it would magically begin playing exactly the right thing. In fact, any company that operates on algorithmic recommendations — from Netflix and Hulu to Instagram and Twitter — shares the same goal. Recommendations beat browsing every single time.

That level of personalization remains a pipe dream, so for now we're stuck with rows (and rows and rows) of tiles of stuff to watch. Any small way that services can shortcut the browsing process — and maybe turn you on to something new in the process — is a huge win.

  • TikTok, by the way, does this better than anyone, which is why the For You page is such a magnet for users.

And honestly, thank goodness for this new Netflix feature. I could spend 45 minutes deciding what to watch before just deciding on "The Office" again, or I could let Netflix choose. And at this point, Netflix knows what I like better than I do. I guess all of this is to say, I'm now extremely hooked on "(Un)Well."

Join us next week

ITI

Yesterday, Protocol hosted the first of two events in our 2020 national political conventions series. We convened engaging conversations on how leaders today will enable a diverse workforce of the future. Join us next Wednesday, when we'll host the second event in the series, featuring special assistant to the president, Matt Lira, and more. This event series is hosted in partnership with ITI.

RSVP here.

People Are Talking

On Protocol: Black founders and CEOs say they've faced bias, racism and harassment while pitching to investors, like this story from Net Watch Solutions' Peter Beasley:

  • "He then asked, were my great-grandparents slaves. I was confused. I didn't know the answer and was trying to do the math in my head on when slavery ended and when my great-grandparents might have been born. So, I simply answered, 'I don't know, but I'm sure some relatives of mine were.'"

Mad at Uber's treatment of drivers? Blame capitalism, Dara Khosrowshahi said:

  • "It's not called labor-ism. It's not called socialism. It's capitalism and it's a system that's built to maximize shareholder value and capital. And if that's the only input, then you're going to keep getting the same results going forward that you got going backward. So these kinds of systemic changes, you know, I'm game for it."

Speaking of capital, in the same interview, gig-worker organizer Vanessa Bain said the campaign to pass Prop 22 is going to be huge and expensive:

  • "We're absolutely going to be outspent by astronomical proportions. We don't have the capital, we don't have the resources to be able to spend anywhere near what these companies are spending to get Prop 22 passed."

On Protocol: One way to find diverse founders and employees is to broaden your own horizons, said Salesforce's Suzanne DiBianca:

  • "They don't need to only be enterprise software. We can widen our aperture to great founders. We were like, 'We're going to double down on climate and diversity. Who's in that space?'"

TikTok's only crime is being in the middle of a political fight, TikTok's Vanessa Pappas said:

  • "No, we're not a national security threat. We've said that time and again. We have very strict data controls in place."
  • She also said she's not worried about Reels: "You can certainly copy a feature, but you can't copy a community."

Making Moves

Prachi Gore is Checkr's new VP of marketing. She joins from SmartRecruiters, and said that "Checkr's fair chance program and mission were what initially drew me to the company."

Tom Bossert is the new president of Trinity Cyber. He's a former Homeland Security advisor and chief risk officer, and is a good choice for a company with lots of government and political clients.

Tristan Thomas is leaving Monzo. He's been the company's VP of marketing for about five years, and TechCrunch reported he doesn't know where he's headed next.

Nairi Tashjian Hourdajian is leaving Canaan for Figma. She was Canaan's CMO, and is heading back to the startup world for the first time since the early days at Uber.

In Other News

  • Two more tech companies announced long-term remote work: Lyft won't require people to be in the office until at least June 30, 2021, and Salesforce until July 31, 2021. Next summer is increasingly tech's default status for reopening offices.
  • Speaking of Lyft: Competitors such as Alto and Arcade City are preparing to swoop into California amid the looming threat of an Uber and Lyft shutdown.
  • Target reported blockbuster earnings, driven by a 195% increase in online sales. As this great Bloomberg piece explains, that's not surprising: The company's been investing in ecommerce for years.
  • Apple's market cap briefly hit $2 trillion, making it the first U.S. company to hit the milestone. It punctuates a stunning run for the stock amid exceptional circumstances: Back in March, Apple was worth less than $1 trillion.
  • Palantir is moving its HQ to Denver, after CEO Alex Karp criticized the "increasing intolerance and monoculture of Silicon Valley." But as Mike Dudas pointed out, Palantir's move might be good for the Valley.
  • Don't miss this story about the short-term rental startup Domio from The Information. The company allegedly figured out how to game rental regulations on Airbnb, and it also sounds like its "quant-style algorithms" didn't really exist.
  • The Indian Facebook moderation debacle isn't going away. Employees have reportedly quizzed lobbying exec Ankhi Das on reports that she pressured the company to not apply hate-speech rules to the ruling party's politicians. Das, meanwhile, has filed a criminal complaint against a journalist who criticized her … on Facebook.

One More Thing

Infinite Instagram is back

Instagram, July 2018: "Today, you'll start noticing a "You're All Caught Up" message when you've seen every post from the last two days." Look at Instagram, trying to help people not use Instagram too much!

Instagram, yesterday: "So we just want to make it really easy for people to see that [relevant content] when they get to the end of their feed." No stopping allowed until you've seen all of Instagram!

Join us next week

ITI

Yesterday, Protocol hosted the first of two events in our 2020 national political conventions series. We convened engaging conversations on how leaders today will enable a diverse workforce of the future. Join us next Wednesday, when we'll host the second event in the series, featuring special assistant to the president, Matt Lira, and more. This event series is hosted in partnership with ITI.

RSVP here.

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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