The post-social media era and the evolution of social networking

Here is a German version of this text.

A few months ago I published a critical personal evaluation of the current social media landscape. During a recent podcast exchange about the same topic in which I participated (in German), what got apparent was the need to distinguish between the two components that social media is made of: the media consumption, and the networking. The first one is primarily about content, the second one primarily about people. No matter how much my skepticism about the dynamics and long-term consequences of today’s social media world has grown lately, that doesn’t change the fact that I still very much appreciate social media’s capability to get to know interesting people, potential business partners or – very simple – new friends. Over the past 10 years, I have met a lot of great individuals thanks to social media. I certainly would not want to have missed that opportunity.

What I am describing here is the “networking” element of social media, which predated the other aspect, the consumption of content within the networked environment of social media platforms. In the early years of the so called Web 2.0, the focus was mainly on building contact lists, showcasing an online profile and on exchanging messages. The services which offered these opportunities such as Friendster, MySpace and even the early Facebook were labeled “communities” or “social networks”. Before the rise of these services, there were of course “instant messengers” such as ICQ or MSN. The term “social media” didn’t emerge until around 2008. What happened at that point?

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The mainstream appeal of Amazon’s smart speaker Echo

Here is a German version of this article.

I have been following the transformation of Amazon’s smart speaker Echo from an unsuspected newcomer to the leading force within the field of voice-controlled (home) computing with quite some excitement. After a long hesitation, motivated by the hope to see the emergence of a “startupish” competitor or even an open source contender, I finally gave in and purchased the cylinder-shaped black loudspeaker. In order to be able to keep commenting on the evolution of voice technology, I felt that I have to personally use its main driver.

This is not a review. I haven’t played around with it enough, and there is no shortage of personal experience reports from long-term Echo users anyway. But I want to write about the moment of Echo’s first utilization – which I actually had together with my parents. Since Amazon doesn’t ship Echo to Sweden (or to any other country where the device hasn’t officially been introduced), I had to have the gadget be delivered to my parents’s address. And so I figured that I might as well show them the future. Initially I noticed some skepticism about the purpose of the device and the privacy implications – which is understandable. A microphone-equipped internet-connected device that sends every word it catches to the servers of one of the most powerful companies on this planet certainly matches the characteristic of an integrity-violating trojan horse. But I did not expect what happened after I started to talk to Alexa, the personal assistant software that runs on Echo. Continue Reading

The end of roaming surcharges is a milestone for the EU

Here is a German version of this text.

On March 26 1995, the Schengen Agreement about open borders within the then “European Economic Community” (predecessor of the European Union) went into effect. From that day on, people crossing borders between initially seven countries didn’t have to undergo the usual border checks. Today, people living in or visiting 26 European countries do not have to show their passport or ID when crossing the border to another participating country (with a few temporary exceptions). The treaty must be considered a milestone for the internal integration of Europe. This week’s finalized decision by the European Parliament to end EU roaming surcharges has a similarly significant dimension.

After many years of tenacious negotiations, various setbacks and fierce resistance by the telecommunications carriers, customers of mobile operators from EU countries who travel to another EU country will, timely for the summer holidays, be able to call, send texts and use the Internet without additional charges. The target date of June 15 2017 will therefore go into the history books of European integration as March 26 1995 did previously. Continue Reading

Becoming a “better” human in the digital age

You might have read the widely shared New York Times feature about how Uber uses psychological tricks in its app to influence its drivers’ behavior in order to get them to work exactly as needed.

If you have been following the developments in the tech sectory, this report won’t surprise you. Large parts of the consumer tech industry have been built based on learnings from evolutionary psychology and experiments in the booming field of behavioral economics. The success of the sector is also a success in exploiting loopholes in the human brain (scroll to the bottom for a reading list). Whether the goal is to make people constantly and almost unconsciously open an app, whether it is “nudging” you into choosing one price plan over another, whether it is to produce outrage in order to gain attention, or whether it is the targeted manipulation of an individual’s or a group’s political identity and world view through propaganda and fake news  – in the digital age, the approach with which one can get there is always the same: Leveraging ancient evolutionary behavioral patterns and thinking processes that evolved in humans over hundreds of thousands of years – and that increasingly are becoming a burden for the individual. Simply put, the world we live in today is not the world our brain was built for.

After pondering on this problem for a long time, I have concluded that a crucial “skill” for thriving in such an environment is the enhanced ability to go against one’s nature and primal instincts. Continue Reading

Towns, commerce and the future

French towns are withering and losing their core, while shopping centers outside of the cities are booming, as recently described by the New York Times. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the suburbs are going through an equally dramatic transition. Malls are being outcompeted by e-commerce and eventually have to shut down, leading to shrinking demand for chain-restaurants and other services that previously were being frequented by hungry and entertainment-seeking shoppers.

Stories like this could be written about towns in various countries. The creation of shopping clusters outside of city centers and the rise of e-commerce are two global themes that no one will be able to stop. The best way to look at the shift and its negative consequences is therefore with a stoic mindset, following the principle that what you cannot control, you shouldn’t not spend a lot of time trying to control. As long as a city doesn’t force its population to shop at the local stores (which hopefully will never happen), more shops and old school businesses will vanish. The economics and experience of getting things from the giant mall or – increasingly more likely – from the internet, are generally too intriguing for consumers to let the undesirable side effects for the community come in between themselves and the convenient purchase or unbeatable bargain. Continue Reading

What Uber’s crisis means for the company

Here is a German version of this article.

After a chain of scandals and negative reports, Uber is dealing with a gigantic PR and trust crisis. The criticism of the company’s culture, business practices and overall business model is mounting and its ability to survive being questioned.

But does the negative press and a damaged reputation actually matter for Uber? Let’s have a look at the five groups that Uber is relying on. Continue Reading

Facebook, Uber and the outsider’s harsh perspective on Silicon Valley

Two companies based in the Silicon Valley (which not geographically but culturally includes San Francisco) have been making headlines over the past days: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published his globalization manifesto and Uber was confronted with the extensive, high-profile revelations of a former female engineer about the company’s systematic ignorance of sexism and generally hostile work culture.

Both stories have led to widespread criticism. In the case of Uber, it’s obvious why. But even Facebook’s manifesto, despite having been an active PR effort, was not received too well in the media. When the leader of the arguably most powerful company in the world outlines how he wants to use that power to shape the world, few are getting enthusiastic. Two of the negative responses to these stories stuck out though: They didn’t come from the usual suspects who professionally cover or comment on technology but from representatives of other firms. They also didn’t only focus on the specific matter, but used the occasion for a direct attack on the Silicon Valley way of doing things. Continue Reading

The crisis of optimism

Source: IPSOS MORI

The world is undergoing a crisis of optimism. Citizens especially but not only in developed countries are losing their hope for a better future. After decades of growth and prosperity following the world wars, now stagnation, loss of purchasing power and fear of decreasing wealth are the new default. That’s why seductive authoritarian strongmen are gaining support – once again. They promise a better future. Certainly only “better” in the sense of “for those of you who have always lived in this country and share a certain zero-sum worldview”, but nonetheless. The group is obviously big enough to make someone U.S. president. Continue Reading

Zuckerberg’s Lock-in Effect

What’s keeping Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg up at night? Is it imaginable that he, despite public denials, feels at least some kind of worry about Facebook’s prominent role in the dramatic reshaping of the political landscape and the increasing polarization that can be witnessed in many countries? Does he ever have doubts about whether the company lives up to its promise to “make the world more open and connected” in the long run? Could the 32-year-old at least occasionally ponder the possibility that the sweeping changes that are shaking the foundations and structures of modern societies, might be much more sever due to Facebook?

Only Mark Zuckerberg himself knows the honest answer. But let’s for hypothetical reasons entertain the idea that the creator and head of history’s probably most influential company at least wouldn’t totally rule out negative effects that his platform’s dominance has on trust in democracy and on the ability of public consensus-building – it tragically would not matter. Zuckerberg wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. And that despite him having managed to retain so many voting rights that he technically can do whatever he wants – as long as it serves the company goals, of course. Continue Reading

Medium can be the better Twitter

I have changed my mind about Medium, the service created by the Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone in 2012. Initially I was concerned about the startup’s effort to centralize content and how that would weaken the distributed publishing structure that made the web such a great place. 2 years ago I wrote:

“Nobody could be interested in a scenario in which all non-paid-for content is appearing first and foremost on Medium. A centralized approach like this means that one entity is in full control over who gets to publish what and how it is being monetized. Also, a centralized approach introduces a single point of failure. If Medium’s servers crash, all the content would be unavailable”

A lot has happened since then. Among other things, at least for me, existing social media platforms have lost most of their appeal. Especially Twitter became unbearable, and I am far from the only one who has come to this conclusion. Just read the comments here (and this article).

The reasons why Twitter turned from an exciting tool for networking and access to valuable information into a toxic, polarizing and frustrating time-sink are multifaceted. Based on my long-term observation, one of its core weaknesses is its brevity. In a time of mounting global complexity, a service that due to its limitation to 140 characters acts as an outlet for impulses, emotions and binary, one-dimensional simplifications is the worst that can happen.  Continue Reading