On monopolies

Winners in the tech industry turn into giants via vertical integration and predatory pricing. They keep adding stuff related to the segment they first won in. They keep making stuff cheap or free to undercut competitors.

There are many examples of this and we have two big examples in the US of anti-trust regulators stepping in and hobbling the giant: IBM in the 60s/70s and Microsoft in the 90s/00s. In both cases the government forced the giant to change its behavior and the industry eventually experienced a new wave of small firms that filled the void, competed, and innovated.

Notably in both cases the giant also got off relatively easy in the end (no breakup). And both are successful companies to this day. But they were tied up in court long enough to lose their ability to squelch competitors and dominate new markets.

Now you could argue this was not fair to IBM or to Microsoft (in the future, to Google?). In both cases you’d be right. I’d argue you don’t have to be fair to the winner especially once he starts playing dirty tricks to keep others down. You be fair to the little guys and you get tough on the big guys, that’s the foundation for both a healthy market and a healthy society.

You could also argue that making things free is good for consumers. You’d be right again, except in the case where the freebies are designed to kill off competition and stagnate the product category (Internet Explorer being a classic case where Microsoft bundled it, gave it away for free, then stopped improving it for years).

We have 50 years of precedents and the people at the DOJ know their history. I suspect it’s just a matter of political winds and timing before Alphabet has to follow in IBM and Microsoft’s footsteps.

Social discussion vs social soundbiting

The centralization of social media is a problem, but I think maybe we’re dealing with an even deeper problem. I joined Mastodon, the potential is clear, and there is already an early adopter audience sharing content I find more interesting than Twitter/FB.

But it only took me a few days to realize that I wasn’t thrilled with Mastodon’s content either, and I realized why: it’s all still short-form.

The best and most enlightening discussions I’ve had are usually slow, drawn-out exchanges of a few hundreds of words per message.

And the Internet has had a thing for this very early on, it’s mailing lists. Well-curated mailing lists and newsgroups (almost the same thing) were long a mainstay of the Internet’s best communities. Unfortunately they are not webby and they have declined in popularity over time.

I think there is another reason the discourse is all short-form these days. Short-form is easier on a phone. No one writes a couple hundred words of their best thoughts from their phone. Almost universally if you look at the content we post from our phones, most of it is lightweight, low intellectual value, not a product of critical thinking. It is either a straight up bad idea (Elon Musk style career-ending pedo and stock tweets) or it is low value stuff (share a news article, food photo #120,315,838,284,942).

It’s very bad for our public discourse to be so heavily influenced by throwaway content.

Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message. Maybe we are all producing crap because we spend so much time on devices that are crappy at authoring. (On the other hand, radio, a medium where you can’t reply at all, produced Hitler — by moving to a medium where you can make shitty replies, have we moved forward or backward?)

I don’t know of many social media platforms which promote thought-provoking discourse (and I’m not really talking about 3,000 word Medium-style longreads which no one can possibly respond to in full). I always go back to Hacker News as my favorite one and I think they are successful in large part due to having a narrow focus and strict, pro-intellectual moderation.

The history of web self-publishing from a certain angle.

About 20 years ago something new arose on the Web, it was called web logging, or ‘blogging. People would write long and thoughtful articles about their interests.

And a few years later we got RSS, which was a way of syndicating the content of your blog. Other people could read it in whatever app they preferred.

And a few years after that, Google (back when they still had “do no evil” in their mission statement) invented Google Reader, which was an easy way to scoop up and read the content from your favorite blogs. The combination of using Google Reader to follow the RSS feeds of your favorite blogs created a complete and compelling ecosystem around high quality, independent publishing.

In the mid-2000s a few other publishing services came into being, and a few big winners emerged — notably Facebook and Twitter. These services were very different from the old blogging ecosystem. They were centrally controlled and their design encouraged people to spend many hours consuming bite-size, throwaway content because that was the best way to sell more ads. Google entered this category with Google+ in 2011, and shortly thereafter discontinued Reader. Reader could be seen as a competitor to G+ and it never made much money.

The old blogging and syndication scene never really recovered from the death of Reader, it is still used and appreciated by many today, but it’s Facebook, Twitter and (kind of) Google who shape the world zeitgeist. A zeitgeist in which we grapple with fake news, elections rigged by foreign powers, privacy relegated to a past age. Congressional hearings and EU regulations to keep these monsters at bay.

One wonders if the world itself might be a very different place today, had Google shown some vision and doubled down on something like Reader. Doubled down on promoting thoughtful, independent content instead of A/B optimizing for maximum engagement with advertising.

Maybe economics dictated that the world of today was inevitable, maybe not. But from Mastodon to Medium, most new publishing tools are seeking a cure for an industry that is quite clearly sick. One wonders.