Links on the Margins - Aug 6th
Good YouTube radicalization, Microsoft's climate goals, Tech Experts
Ranjan here. In this week’s edition, I start with a story of getting radicalized on Youtube, in a good way. I explain why I think the Axios Trump interview is a big deal, what Microsoft’s climate initiatives really mean, there’s an explainer on why stocks are stonking while the economy is crashing, and finally, a quick thought on Instagram Reels.
My co-host Can linked to a series on the origins of Reliance in India. I highly recommend these as, especially in the context of increased global tech balkanization, Reliance Jio is most likely going to find itself a new major player. He also added the major Ed Yong Atlantic piece, a Buzzfeed piece on Facebook employee leaks, and WIRED on the Tech CEO hearings.
Ethan Cheblowski - YouTube
A few weeks ago I happened upon a Mexican grocery store and bought some poblano peppers. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them and searched “poblano recipe” on YouTube. I ended up on a video of some guy trying to recreate his favorite taco recipe from Mexico City. I made the recipe and it was amazing.
I started watching his other videos and ended up on this video where he makes a DIY butcher block kitchen island with pipe fittings for legs. I am the least handy person alive, but I cook a lot and we had space in our small NYC kitchen that we’ve been looking to fill with an island/cabinet/table of some sort.
It happened. I went from searching for poblano pepper recipes to ending up at Lowe’s multiple times and actually building a custom kitchen island! (that’s really mine in the image).
It turns out this guy, Ethan Cheblowski, is trying to live the real #ContentDream. He left a job in his mid-20s at Accenture, moved in with his parents, and is trying to be a food YouTuber. He edits and records everything himself, and you can see how much it’s improved over time. It seemed every video I encountered had a number of comments like this:
I admit it, I watched his entire 36-minute video on why Youtube food guy is his dream, and loved it. As someone immersed in the world of content, and as regular readers know, approaches digital content with the skepticism of a grizzled veteran, this whole experience reminded me of pure internet beauty.
I mean, I made a freaking butcher block kitchen island.
In the spirit of the original internet dream, please go subscribe, follow, and support this guy.
Axios - YouTube
I’m sure you’ve all seen clips from the Jon Swan - Trump interview. I encourage you to watch the whole thing. We’re all so numb to so much, but it’s worth taking 35 minutes to just take all of this in.
I’ve castigated others for, at every turn of the Mueller report, shouting “WE GOT HIM!” I’ve had to catch myself at so many points from getting overly hopeful.
But what struck me about this is that authoritarianism is about power and fear. Trump himself has always said everything is about raw power. This was the first time, for an extended, almost excruciating half-hour, you feel that power completely absent. It’s all laid bare.
And I think it matters. Twitter completely restricting his campaign account. The Deutsche Bank - NY case progressing. One thing after the other that would’ve previously been unimaginable. Let's wait and see, but I think there will be more and more of this. It’s always been a grifty house of cards and the only thing holding his power in place was the fear of Republican officials. Without fear and intimidation, none of it works. November is a long way away and I can only imagine things are going to get wilder, but I think this was genuinely an important moment.
Also - Trump fumbling with the charts, while certainly comical and terrifying, kind of felt like every non-epidemiologist one of us sharing and citing charts over the past few months.
Every large corporation has been launching big, bold climate initiatives over the past few years. This Vox piece does a great job breaking down exactly what makes Microsoft’s ambitions a gold standard, and how these often PR-driven efforts really work:
Over the past week, I’ve been talking to corporate sustainability experts and people who have worked with, and at, Microsoft. I tried to piece together how big a deal its work on climate is — how seriously to take it, what influence it may have, and where it might fall short.
To spoil the ending: It is a big deal. The company is setting new standards, especially in the rigor and transparency it is applying to the effort, and it is deliberately attempting to bring other companies, both suppliers and competitors, along with it into a world of shared metrics and data. There is more it could do, but it is earning its good climate reputation.
There is a lot of talk about why stocks are stonking while millions are unemployed and GDP is cratering. This Barry Ritholz piece is short, but one of the clearer explanations of what we’re seeing:
The market is telling us that these industries just don’t matter very much to stock market performance. And the sectors that do matter? Consider just four industry group -- internet content, software infrastructure, consumer electronics and internet retailers -- account for more than $8 trillion in market value, or almost a quarter of total U.S. stock market value of about $35 trillion. Take the 10 biggest technology companies in the S&P 500 and weight them equally, and they would be up more than 37% for the year. Do the same for the next 490 names in the index, and they are down about 7.7%. That shows just how much a few giants matter to the index.
LinkedIn - My own writing from 2014
I’ve long explained that I’m not a tech cynic, but rather a skeptic. I think the turning point for me was in 2014. We had started getting deeper into building Informerly, our algorithmic news app, and the more I saw how content algorithms worked, the more troubled I was. This was one of the first things I wrote expressing this.
Being on the business side of things, I always assume the business model drives everything. Remember the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014? I still think Zuck + Co juiced the algo to make everyone keep seeing ice bucket videos and cement their dominance in mobile video.
It was genius. Why wouldn’t they do it?
I bring this up this week because it’s terrifying to see the power of the algorithm. In conversations with some marketing folks this week, they were near panicked about how their entire IG feeds had become Reels, while their scheduled content for the next month were images and Stories. Should they shift the Stories to Reels? Should they start immediately focusing on creating Reels?
Facebook is clearly promoting Reels this week. Again, why wouldn’t they? Algorithms + large audiences bring incredible power. I mean, at some point, we were all dumping ice water on our heads!
Reliance: Origins (Part 1) and From Oil to Jio (Part 2)
It is hard to read some tech news these days without hearing about a new investor in Jio, which is part of the Reliance family of companies. Long time Margins reader Vedica Kant does a wonderful job of giving both a narrative and an educational history of the Ambani family’s rise to dominance in the Indian market. Who knew there’d be more to them than having built the world’s ugliest house?
It has been hard to get away from Reliance for the last few months. To quickly recap the company's wholly owned digital services subsidiary, Jio Platforms, has raised nearly $16B in four months. That's an insane amount of money, especially in the middle of Covid. So, it's really no surprise that Jio is generating the kind of investor FOMO that could put teenagers to shame. And, of course, everyone wants to talk about what Reliance and Jio mean for India's future. But to understand Reliance, one has to understand where it comes from and how it was shaped. There is value, I think, in starting by taking a step back and trying to understand the Jio phenomenon in the context of the longer arc of Reliance's history and India's post-independence economic trajectory.
There are cultish companies, and there is Facebook. Or was. It’s a long foregone conclusion that Facebook is no longer the one tech company where there are no leaks and all the employees follow their supreme leader with blind loyalty. It’s hard not to blame them for showing an ounce of backbone when their boss would rather play the part of an American oligarch rather than come to terms with his creation.
[...] The documents — which include company discussion threads, employee survey results, and recordings of Zuckerberg — reveal that the company was slow to take down ads with white nationalist and Nazi content reported by its own employees. They demonstrate how the company’s public declarations about supporting racial justice causes are at odds with policies forbidding Facebookers from using company resources to support political matters. They show Zuckerberg being publicly accused of misleading his employees. Above all, they portray a fracturing company culture.
As an immigrant, I have dealt with the federal government more than most Americans. But even then, I can’t really shake the feeling that actually there’s no country called America, but instead of a bunch of people who call themselves Americans. They sometimes interact, but would rather not. This worked fine, seemed, until it didn’t. Ironically, turns out, individuals that don’t want to do anything with each other are not equipped to fight a contagious disease that spreads through social interaction. I don’t know if the pandemic failed America, or the opposite but this is a sobering, comprehensive take on what has happened.
the coronavirus found, exploited, and widened every inequity that the U.S. had to offer. Elderly people, already pushed to the fringes of society, were treated as acceptable losses. Women were more likely to lose jobs than men, and also shouldered extra burdens of child care and domestic work, while facing rising rates of domestic violence. In half of the states, people with dementia and intellectual disabilities faced policies that threatened to deny them access to lifesaving ventilators. Thousands of people endured months of COVID‑19 symptoms that resembled those of chronic postviral illnesses, only to be told that their devastating symptoms were in their head. Latinos were three times as likely to be infected as white people. Asian Americans faced racist abuse. Far from being a “great equalizer,” the pandemic fell unevenly upon the U.S., taking advantage of injustices that had been brewing throughout the nation’s history.
Speaking of things that don’t exist anymore, this is a good one. Each time there’s a hearing of tech CEOs with the US government, the snark-Twitter, of which I am an increasingly listless member of, loves to point out how clueless the congresspeople who are asking the tech CEOs are the missing point of the hearings entirely. They are spectacles, and while they do provide some public accountability, they are not fact-finding missions or deep investigations. And seriously, with the tech companies being practically involved in every single imaginable industry, what would it even mean to be a “tech expert”? It’s like asking an electrician to comment on the impact of television on elections because all TVs use electricity.
In 1787 we decided that we would be ruled by citizens, not by priests, professors, or professionals. We don’t insist that everyone in Congress understand how the B2 Spirit “stealth” bomber works, or how serotonin reuptake inhibitors help manage depression, or even how the internal combustion engine works. Yet we justifiably expect our government to regulate them. People who complain about the ignorance of congressional representatives betray their own ignorance of how democracy works.