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Twitter’s fight to find context

Image: Protocol
Twitter trending topics

Good morning! This Wednesday, Zoom continues to boom, Twitter tries to add context to trending, and Google and Apple get aggressive about contact tracing.

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The Big Story

The unbeatable, unkillable Zoom

The theory for months was that Zoom's rise would be short-lived. Not just because the pandemic wouldn't last forever, but because video was such a competitive space.

And it still is! Google Meet has improved massively in the last six months, as has Microsoft Teams. BlueJeans, WebEx, Discord, Facebook Messenger and others have poured resources into video, and they've all gotten bigger and better. And yet, Zoom is killing it.

  • Zoom, in some slightly ineffable way, won. It's the verb: People now "Zoom" on Meet and Teams. New products — to improve video calls, say, or make it possible to charge for virtual classes — almost all have built on top of Zoom. It's the Gmail of the video space, the default option, which is a powerful advantage.
  • And after fierce blowback earlier this year and Zoom's 90-day security sprint, most of the backlash against the company's policies have gone away. (Though its complicated links to China continue to make some investors and users a little nervous.)
  • We're also settling into a more remote future: Eventually most people will go back to offices, yes, but not everyone. And even a somewhat-remote workforce means everyone uses Zoom.

What's next for Zoom? It wants to be the future of the office. Zoom Phone is a big part of that, but as I wrote earlier this year it has its sights set on everything from text chat to huge virtual events. Heck, it'll even sell you a giant screen just for video chat.

  • But it could be more than that: A few months ago, Zoom was just trying to keep up with all its new growth, and the many different use cases it was encountering. Yuan seemed desperate to get back to being a business app. Now, settling in for the longer-term, it could embrace its role at the center of online life.

Oh, and here's something to watch: Zoom is quickly creeping up on Cisco's market cap, the company Eric Yuan left because it wouldn't let him build the video chat service that eventually turned into Zoom. And you've got to believe that Yuan is tracking that race carefully; $20 says Cisco is on his stock watchlist.

Social

Twitter tries to explain what's trending

File this under "Shoulda Done It a Long Time Ago": Twitter says it's going to explain its trending topics a little better. Anyone who's looked at a trending name and thought, "Oh no, they're dead," will welcome this change. It's also part of one of the more important trends in social right now: adding context.

  • This is right in line with Twitter labeling political candidates and adding fact-checks to misleading tweets. And Facebook noting that a link you're seeing is from a very old story or contains misinformation or doctored media.
  • In a similar vein: Microsoft just announced its Video Authenticator, which it hopes can identify deepfakes and other manipulated footage.

But promising context means you have to provide it. In this case, Twitter runs the risk of showing unhelpful or problematic tweets next to trending topics. And Twitter's descriptions of trends will invariably invite criticism. These are hard problems to solve algorithmically.

  • But leaving it to humans doesn't really work, either! Just to name one example: CNN reported that Republicans are sharing doctored and edited videos much faster than anyone — including Big Tech companies — can spot them and take them down. If tech companies try to play moderation whack-a-mole, they are always going to lose.

Arguably you could make a good case for shutting down Twitter trends altogether. But we'll come back to that.

Undoing context collapse, where everything looks the same no matter what it is or where it came from and where it's impossible to know the intention or history behind what you're seeing, is a really important way to help people make better sense of this fast-moving internet universe. ("It should be easier to understand what's being said immediately," a line from Twitter's announcement Tuesday, is quite the understatement.) But it's not easy work. And algorithms alone won't solve the problem.

Coronavirus

The Apple-Google tracking project ramps up

It seems like both yesterday and 12,000 years ago that Apple and Google announced they were working on contact-tracing technology together. The tech has come out in fits and starts since then, but it never seemed to really catch on.

Now, the tech is being called "exposure notification," and it's entering its final form. Google and Apple have announced Exposure Notification Express, which sounds like a villain from "Thomas the Tank Engine" but is actually an exposure-notification tool built into Android and iOS.

  • That means states or health agencies don't have to build their own apps (which they mostly didn't or couldn't) and users won't have to go find a new app (which they mostly won't). That's crucial, because contact tracing only works if almost everyone uses it.
  • All states will have to do is sign up to ride the Exposure Notification Express, and phones running the latest versions of iOS and Android will get pop-up notifications telling users how to join the system.

Apple and Google don't see the tech as a panacea for contact-tracing. "Exposure Notifications Express provides another option for public health authorities to supplement their existing contact tracing operations with technology without compromising on the project's core tenets of user privacy and security," the two companies said in a statement.

Still, it's a more aggressive approach than the two companies originally intended. Early on, they seemed to want to build the underlying infrastructure but leave it to governments to figure out what to do with it, but that plan didn't work. Now with one system, built into devices, that works across state lines (hopefully without infringing privacy), digital contact tracing is going to get its best shot yet.

A MESSAGE FROM PHILIPS

Philips

Stronger care … from anywhere, to anywhere

A strong healthcare system can scale to meet increasing patient demands. At Philips, we're charting a new way forward by moving care beyond the hospital's walls with advanced virtual health capabilities that expand clinical reach and increase care team capacity.

Learn more.

People Are Talking

On Protocol: The Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation's $300 million in election donations reflect a sad state of affairs, said the Brennan Center's Wendy Weiser:

  • "Ordinarily I would not want to look to the private sector to meet the basic budget for the infrastructure of our democracy, but we're at an extraordinary point here. We cannot let Congress' failure be a failure for democracy."

Twitch could be the learning platform of the future, A16z's Jonathan Lai and Andrew Chen said:

  • "By watching these streams, viewers learned the rules of the game while being entertained; there's no better teacher than seeing other humans play real games (and make mistakes)."

Reid Hoffman, Mark Pincus, Fei-Fei Li and a heavy-hitting group of other investors are starting a $600 million SPAC:

  • "We are excited to be a new kind of venture capital partner at the table for one of the many tech companies set to go public over the next few years and to help it maintain a growth mindset, be bold, and go for it in the face of pressure to deliver quarterly results."

Number of the Day

75 million

That's how many 5G iPhones Apple is asking suppliers to build this year, according to a new Bloomberg report. Also reportedly coming this fall: two new Apple Watches, a new and improved iPad Air design, and over-ear AirPod headphones. (Also a new HomePod, but who cares?) The iPhone number is particularly important, because it's roughly in line with the numbers it ordered last year, signaling that even in the midst of a pandemic and a looming economic slowdown, the company still sees a big holiday season for iPhones.

In Other News

  • Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are duking it out for the spot as the world's third richest person. Tesla's soaring stock had Elon overtake Mark on Monday, but a $5 billion capital raise brought the stock — and Musk — back down yesterday.
  • Amazon's struggling to keep a lid on spying on its workers. It posted job listings for two analysts whose jobs would include collecting information about "labor organizing threats." After people noticed, Amazon deleted the posts and said the descriptions were inaccurate. Then Vice published an investigation showing that the company is spying on its drivers in private Facebook groups.
  • Amazon also announced its first online-only Whole Foods store, which is, obviously, in Brooklyn.
  • On Protocol: Nvidia's doubling down on GPUs, announcing a range of new PC graphics hardware yesterday. It's a reminder that despite the new console hype, PCs are still most players' platform of choice.
  • Uber made its parent and caregiver rules official: It will allow those employees to skip low-priority meetings and modify their work hours as needed. Keep an eye on this: It may become a must-have perk.
  • On Protocol: The on-campus experience can't go away entirely, according to 2U co-founder Chip Paucek, who has been doing online learning for years.
  • Intelsat bought Gogo's commercial airline business, betting $400 million that once we start flying again we'll really want Wi-Fi.
  • Time to update your financial projections: Google and Apple both informed customers yesterday that they'd change their prices in some countries as a result of new digital services taxes.
  • Pakistan banned Tinder, Grindr and other dating apps, citing "immoral and indecent content." The government said it asked the apps to remove "dating services and to moderate live streaming content," but they didn't respond in time.
  • You can get Biden signs in Animal Crossing now. Cue a million "Pokémon Go to the polls" jokes.

One More Thing

'We just passed a guy in a jetpack'

Several planes flying into LAX on Sunday all reported the same thing: a dude in a jetpack, at an altitude of about 3,000 feet. As The Drive points out, this is both ridiculous and incredibly dangerous. But it's also definitely the future! Jetpacks, delivery drones, air taxis, personal helicopters, you name it. The skies are about to get extremely weird.

A MESSAGE FROM PHILIPS

Philips

Stronger care … from anywhere, to anywhere

A strong healthcare system can scale to meet increasing patient demands. At Philips, we're charting a new way forward by moving care beyond the hospital's walls with advanced virtual health capabilities that expand clinical reach and increase care team capacity.

Learn more.

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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