Where did social media go wrong?

For most of my life, the Internet, particularly its social media — BBSes, Usenet, LiveJournal, blogosphere, even MySpace, early Twitter and Facebook — consistently made people happier. But roughly 5 years ago it began to consistently make people more miserable. What changed?

I posted that question to Twitter a week ago, and the most notable response was the response that did not exist: not a single person disputed the premise of the question. Yes, Twitter responses are obviously selection bias incarnate — but looking at the opprobrium aimed at social media from all sides today, I’d think that if anything it understates the current collective wisdom. Which of course can often be disjoint from factual reality … but still important. So, again: what changed?

Some argued that new, bad users flooded the Internet then, a kind of ultimate Eternal September effect. I’m skeptical. Even five years ago Facebook was already ubiquitous in the West, and we were already constantly checking it on our smartphones. Others argue that it reflects happiness decreasing in society as a whole — but as far back as 2014? I remember that as, generally, a time of optimism, compared to today.

There was one really interesting response, from a stranger: “The nature of these social networks changed. They went from places where people debated to places where lonely people are trying to feel less lonely.” Relatedly, from a friend: “The algorithms were designed to make people spend more time on those sites. Interestingly, unhappy people spend more time on social sites. Is unhappiness the cause, or the result of algorithms surfacing content to make us unhappy?” That’s worth pondering.

Pretty much everyone else talked about money, basically buttressing the argument above. Modern social media algorithms drive engagement, because engagement drives advertising, and advertising drives profits, which are then used to hone the algorithms. It’s a perpetual motion engagement machine. Olden days social media, early Facebook and early Twitter, they had advertising, sure — but they didn’t have anything like today’s perpetual motion engagement.

Even that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that there’s apparently a whole other perpetual motion machine at work in parallel, too: engagement drives unhappiness which drives engagement which drive unhappiness, because the kind of content which drives the most engagement apparently also drives anxiety and outrage — cf Evan Williams’ notion that social media optimizes for car crashes — and arguably also, in the longer run, displace other activities which do bring happiness and fulfillment.

I don’t want to sound like some sort of blood-and-thunder Luddite preacher. There’s nothing automatically wrong with maintaining a thriving existence on Facebook and Twitter, especially if you carefully prune your feeds such that they are asshole-free zones with minimal dogpiling and pointless outrage. (Some outrage is important. But most isn’t.) Social media has done a lot of excellent things, and still brings a lot of happiness to very many people.

But also, and increasingly, a lot of misery. Does it currently bring us net happiness? Five years ago I think that question would have seemed ridiculous to most: the answer would generally have been a quick yes-of-course. Nowadays, most would stop and wonder, and many would answer with an even faster hell-no. Five years ago, people who worked at Facebook (and to a lesser extent Twitter) were treated with respect and admiration by the rest of the tech industry. Nowadays, fairly or not, it’s something a lot more like disdain, and sometimes outright contempt.

The solution is obvious: change the algorithms. Which is to say: make less money. Ha.They could even remove the algorithms entirely, switch back to Strict Chronological, and still make money — Twitter was profitable before stock options before it switched to an algorithmic feed, and its ad offerings were way less sophisticated back then — but it’s not about making money, it’s about making the most money possible, and that means algorithmically curated, engagement-driven, misery-inducing feeds.

So: social media is increasingly making us miserable. There’s an obvious solution, but financial realpolitik means we can’t get to it from here. So either we just accept this spreading misery as a normal, inescapable, fundamental part of our lives now — or some broader, more drastic solution is required. It’s a quandary.

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After Math: To all the games we loved before

Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

Now that GDC 2019 has wrapped, it’s time to take a quick look back at all the week’s gaming news you might have missed.


‘Sea of Thieves’ anniversary update will let you catch and cook fish

Man, can you land lubbers believe it’s already been a whole year since Rare took to the high seas? To celebrate, the studio announced this week that it will release an anniversary update at the end of April with an armada of fun new features.


Epic Games has 250 million ‘Fortnite’ players and a lot of plans

Despite increasingly strident competition from Apex Legends, Fortnite remains the pinnacle of battle royale gaming. But just because Fortnite is currently king of the hill with a quarter billion registered players, that doesn’t mean Epic has any intention of slowing down. The studio announced this week the upcoming launch of a new game store and hyper-realistic physics engine that will make future games even more destructive.


BioWare promises to fix ‘Anthem’ after dismal launch

The first few weeks following Anthem’s launch have not been easy for BioWare, with countless bugs and glitches crashing (and occasionally bricking) consoles. The company has already pushed more than 200 fixes through various patches and, according to a blog post from general manager Casey Hudson, the company isn’t done tinkering with the gameplay.


The FDA thinks an Xbox game can stop kids smoking

[Narrator]: The FDA was wrong.


Atari VCS gets a spec boost and another delay

Everybody’s favorite vaporware is back in the news this week. The Atari VCS retrobox is reportedly receiving a beefier CPU and improved graphics. Unfortunately, those improvements also mean that we’re not likely to see if before the end of the year, if at all.


‘Apex Legends’ has banned 500,000 accounts for cheating

Seriously, can someone explain to me the draw of cheating in online games? Like, where’s the pride in seeing your handle on the leaderboards knowing that you didn’t actually land there with your skills? Either way, half a million folks won’t be pulling stunts like that on Apex Legends anymore.

Catch up on all the latest news from GDC 2019 here!

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How to save the third wave of technology from itself

As The New York Times recently profiled, new startups are arising to solve the housing crisis. These startups disrupt what ex-AOL CEO Steve Case calls the “Third Wave,” industries with large social impact. Think: housing, healthcare and finance.

To survive, these companies need to ensure compliance with regulations early on, because mistakes here can have large social consequences. To help new entrants survive in these industries, two closely related technologies — legal technology (“legaltech”) and regulation technology (“regtech”) — help companies navigate rules embedded in text, such as contracts or regulations. Without them, incumbents, who have the most resources to hire lawyers to navigate these rules, are set up to dominate in the Third Wave.

Third Wave startups must tread carefully. Unaudited prefabricated housing designs might mean the use of subpar safety measures and tenant deaths during an earthquake. Oversights in financial transactions, for instance, may unintentionally facilitate money laundering. Privacy violations in healthcare data could lead to an unfair increase in insurance premiums for affected individuals.

To mitigate these social harms, regulations can be complex. In finance, for instance, the new Markets in Financial Instruments Directive has 30,000 pages. To comply, banks can spend $1 billion a year (often 20 percent of their operational budget). Citigroup reportedly hired 30,000 lawyers, auditors and compliance officers in 2014.

For startups, ignorance is no longer a viable strategy. In just the past three years, fintech startups have suffered more than $200 million (almost 5 percent of the total venture dollars invested over that same period) in regulatory fines: 50 percent involving consumer mistreatment and 25 percent involving privacy violations. Zenefits fired 17 percent of its staff, including its CEO, after violating insurance brokerage laws. LendingClub paused operations and cut 10 percent of its workforce after violating state usury and unfair dealing laws.

Companies cannot — and should not — avoid their regulatory and social responsibilities.

Uber — once infamous for its “do first, ask for forgiveness later” strategies — now engages with regulators directly, by building partnerships and applying for permits. VCs, such as Evan Burfield in Regulatory Hacking, argue that these strategies are critical for the next wave of startups.

This work requires not only perseverance but also tremendous resources. Large companies, such as J.P. Morgan or even Uber, have the most money and staff to navigate an increasingly complex regulatory landscape. Because of this, they are in the best position to shape the future and the Third Wave.

Legaltech and regtech can change this trend. These technologies use anything from data analytics to decision trees to help companies navigate rules embedded in text, such as regulations and contracts. Since technology is scalable in ways that hiring 30,000 lawyers is not, small innovators can better compete in a big company’s game.

In one example, Fenergo transformed a highly manual document review for Know Your Customer (KYC) regulations using text analysis and rule logic, speeding up the process by 37 percent.

Other related startups are reducing the costs associated with complying with corporate contracts (such as Ironclad), bankruptcy (such as UpSolve), zoning requirements generally (such as Envelope and Symbium) and for accessory dwelling units (such as Cover), permitting processes (such as Camino.ai) and energy standards (such as Cove Tool).

Because of this environment, analysts are bullish about these technologies. In 2018, nearly $1 billion has been invested in legaltech. Spend on regtech in finance alone is estimated to rise from $10 billion in 2017 to $76 billion in 2022 (a 700 percent increase in five years). For comparison, spend on the sharing economy is estimated to rise from $18 billion in 2017 to $40 billion in 2022.

In the Third Wave, companies cannot — and should not — avoid their regulatory and social responsibilities. If the scandals of Uber and Facebook are any indication, when a company violates laws or loses its integrity, the public and the stock market respond in kind. Journalistic coverage of breaches and unethical data practices has captured public attention. Waves of data regulation have passed across major jurisdictions, such as China, California and Brazil.

Embracing legaltech and regtech can plant long-term competitive advantages. Adopting technology that automates data protection, for instance, can create better customer experiences. By safely analyzing more data, even smaller companies can quickly generate insights and build programs that provide value to their customers.

Technology can empower companies both large and small to embrace the mitigation of social harms and the promotion of positive impact.

Startup executives should take notice.

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The Morning After: Google does gaming with Stadia

Hey, good morning! You look fabulous.

We finally have a name and a few details for Google’s new gaming service, and Samsung’s Galaxy Fold has made an unexpected appearance on YouTube. Plus, Netflix’s April release schedule is all laid out, and Nathan Ingraham has an opinion about the new iPad Air.

The cloud can turn watching into playing with the press of a button.Google is launching a game-streaming service called Stadia

Google’s plans for its streaming service to bring the industry’s “Netflix for games” promises to life. Ideally, it will allow folks to play any game on any connected device. Stadia will be able to stream games in 4K, 60 fps and HDR color at launch, but eventually it’ll support up to 8K.

Stadia will allow developers to sell their games in new ways, including directly via YouTube and Twitch live streams. For example, load up a trailer for Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey on YouTube and, at the end, click the Play button and the game will load in as little as five seconds in your Chrome browser, ready to play.

Imagine joining your favorite streamer’s session just by clicking a single button, or letting a friend anywhere in the world jump on the sticks and take over the game you’re playing, seamlessly. A Style Transfer feature uses machine learning to apply art styles to the game world in real time, turning even a drab landscape into a colorful display. Meanwhile, its gamepad connects directly to the service via WiFi, with dedicated buttons for clip sharing and Google Assistant.

We’ll see if that’s enough to avoid more fines.Google will ask European Android users what browser they want to use

The tech giant will start asking both current and new users in the region their preferred browser and search applications. While Android users can download almost any app they want, the company is likely doing this to show the EU its “continued commitment to operating in an open and principled way.”

But the designs, displays and ports aren’t changing a bit.Apple’s 2019 iMac gets some fresh chips, including an eight-core CPU

On Monday, the company unveiled two updated iPads, and on Tuesday it revealed the iMac is getting a minor refresh. Going forward, the 21.5-inch model will be offered with an eighth-gen six-core Intel Core i5 CPU at the high end, plus 4GB AMD Radeon Pro Vega 20 graphics. That top-tier sku will also include an eighth-gen six-core Core i7 processor as a configure-to-order option. On the 27-inch, for the first time, Intel’s Core i9 is an option, as well as an 8GB Radeon Pro Vega 48 GPU.

With less fanfare, Apple also lowered the cost of SSD upgrades for the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac mini, as well as the price for more RAM in its Mac Pro. Take a close look before you hit the buy button.

‘Star Wars: The Clone Wars’ leaves Netflix on April 7th. What’s coming to Netflix in April: ‘Our Planet’ and the return of ‘Sabrina’

Among the highlights for April are You vs. Wild, an interactive survival show starring Bear Grylls (April 10th) and the long-awaited nature docuseries Our Planet, which is narrated by David Attenborough and from the creator of Planet Earth (April 5th). From April 12th, you’ll be able to watch To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before star Noah Centineo in The Perfect Date, in which he plays a high-school student who lets people hire him to stand in as their boyfriend.

On the non-original front, Netflix will add New Girl season 7, Fifth Element, Pineapple Express and The Golden Compass. You’ll have until April 1st to watch the likes of American Pie, a string of James Bond movies (including Casino Royale), Happy Feet, Luther, Pokémon: XY and Heat.

Good news: It seems easy to operate one-handed while folded closed.Leaked Galaxy Fold pops up in a video with a significant seam

In a YouTube video from Vietnam, someone appears to have obtained one of Samsung’s Galaxy Fold test units. What’s concerning about it, however, is a dark seam that appears on its unfolded screen. We’ll find out if production units reflect the same wear when they launch April 26th.

But wait, there’s more…

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Welcome to the hub of all hubs: Cosmos has launched

Last week the Cosmos Network launched, which I believe to be a major event. Yes, it’s a blockchain initiative — but definitely not just another one. If I’m right, its repercussions will one day reach your life too, though it’s sufficiently bleeding-edge that those ripples probably won’t hit you for a decade. Maybe five years, for a cutting-edge TechCrunch reader like you.

(Yes, those are bold words, but if I do say so myself, my track record is pretty good with this sort of thing. The last blockchain launch I wrote about was Ethereum, which you may have since heard of … and I was the only non-specialist commentator / journalist to cover it at the time.)

This launch is an abstruse and extremely technical achievement, currently only important to those who already live amid that tiny, weird subculture of humanity which reveres blockchains as the path to a better, decentralized, fairer future. (Not to be confused with the much larger number of who view cryptocurrencies primarily as an opportunity to get rich quick, never mind how sketchily.) But it’s a highly impressive technical feat, with every chance to ultimately become important to many more people.

Cosmos calls itself “the Internet of Blockchains,” and it is that, but it’s also something else important: it is one of the first major decentralized Proof-of-Stake networks to launch. (No, EOS doesn’t count.) In this model, instead of being secured by “miners” who solve computationally hard problems at the cost of gigawatts-and-counting of electricity, blockchains are verified by “validators” who purchase (or are delegated) cryptocurrency which they “stake.”

These validators, per the name, then ensure that the chain’s transactions are valid, knowing that they will earn rewards if honest and accurate … but if they are dishonest, or in error, or offline, their stakes will be “slashed” i.e. they will lose money. (At present there are 100 validators; this number is due to triple.) It has been shown, at least in theory, that even if validators dishonestly collude, as long as at least two-thirds of them remain honest, the chain remains secure.

This is a very big deal because the enormously better efficiency and speed of Proof-of-Stake open a pathway to decentralized systems which support many many more actions than Proof-of-Work chains like Bitcoin or (today’s) Ethereum, with a vastly vastly smaller ecological footprint. If Proof-of-Stake succeeds in the harsh, cruel real world — admittedly a big if; its implementation is complicated, and has a much larger attack surface, both social and technical, than Proof-of-Work — then blockchains may finally be able to seriously scale, with acceptable security, without consuming a noticeable fraction of the world’s electricity.

Cosmos’s ambitions go much further, though. Cosmos isn’t intended as Just Another Blockchain. We have more than enough of those already. It’s intended as a hub which connects other blockchains to one another — hence “The Internet of Blockchains.” What’s more, it provides tools which, in theory, make it far easier for any software engineer to build a brand-new, custom-designed blockchain … which in turn can interoperate with an arbitrary number of others.

Why does this matter? Because if blockchains are to matter at all beyond cryptocurrencies — if they are to be used for applications such as namespaces, file storage, digital collectibles, supply chains, self-sovereign identities, and decentralized social media, to trot out the usual laundry list of desirable decentralized apps — those applications would benefit greatly from being able to interact with one another.

To a certain extent they can already. One can perform “atomic swaps” which trade Bitcoin for Zcash in a single indivisible transaction. But this kind of interoperability is difficult and restricted by the host chain’s limitations, whatever they may be. Cosmos offers a compelling alternate vision: instead of a single “world computer” chain on which all decentralized applications run, it proposes many blockchains, one for each application, speaking to one another, and passing assets, collectibles, data, and cryptocurrencies to and from one another, via agreed-upon “hubs.”

This week’s actual launch was the first of those, the Cosmos Hub. In principle, in the future, anyone can run a hub, A lot of the Cosmos vision remains “in principle, in the future.” At present no other blockchains are connected; in principle, in the future, Cosmos’s validators will vote to start interoperating with them. (Cosmos also includes built-in “governance,” in the parlance of blockchainers, i.e. on-chain voting.)

Even then, only certain kinds of blockchains, those with an architecture similar to Cosmos itself — with “fast finality,” to be precise — can connect via a hub. In principle, in the future, adapters for other chains, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, and ZCash, can be constructed; this arguably makes Cosmos a Bitcoin “sidechain,” and/or a competitor / coopetitor to the Lightning Network, as if it wasn’t wearing enough hats and offering enough futures already.

Do I sound skeptical? Not moreso than usual: I’m just cautious about making pronouncements before vaporware becomes software. The Cosmos Hub which launched last week, though, is very much the latter not the former, and even if I’m wrong about its eventual real-world importance, it remains a major, significant technical achievement. Congratulations and kudos to its team. It may seem to investors and speculators that we remain in the grip of a seemingly endless crypto winter; but to engineers, the launch of Cosmos is a strong sign that spring is en route.

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