Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for October, 2021

Facebook Announces Its Fantasy Benevolent World to Avoid Its Current Problems

Jason Koebler, Vice:

The future Zuckerberg went on to pitch was a delusional fever dream cribbed most obviously from dystopian science fiction and misleading or outright fabricated virtual reality product pitches from the last decade. In the “metaverse” — an “embodied” internet where we are, basically, inside the computer via a headset or other reality-modifying technology of some sort — rather than hang out with people in real life you could meet up with them as Casper-the-friendly-ghost-style holograms to do historically fun and stimulating activities such as attend concerts or play basketball.

These presentations had the familiar vibe of an overly-ambitious video game reveal. In the concert example, one friend is present in reality while the other is not; the friend joins the concert inexplicably as a blue Force ghost and the pair grab “tickets” to a “metaverse afterparty” in which NFTs are for sale. This theme continued throughout as people wandered seamlessly into virtual fantasy worlds over and over, and the presentation lacked any sense of what this so-called metaverse would look like in practice. It was flagrantly abstract, even metaphorical, showing more the dream of the metaverse than anything resembling reality. We’re told that two real people, filmed with real cameras on real couches, are in a “digital space.” When Zuckerberg reveals that Facebook is working on augmented reality glasses that could make any of this even a remote possibility, it doesn’t show any actual glasses, only “simulated footage” of augmented reality from a first-person perspective.

Facebook — now Meta, but come on — has posted the entire Connect 2021 keynote video and I must say that it is more convincing than this text-based description. The company already has some of this stuff working in Horizon Workrooms, too.

I have been thinking about this proposal as presented, and I keep wondering if it is a realistic look at the future of online work and play. And my conclusion is that it barely matters because it is engaging in the wrong premise. Facebook may be entirely invested in these efforts, but we have not yet come to terms with what the company represents today. It can parade its research projects and renderings all it wants, but the fact of the matter is that it is a company that currently makes the de facto communications infrastructure for much of the world, and frequently does a pretty poor job of it. Is this really the figurehead we want for the future of personal computing? Is this a company that we trust?

Nearly three years ago, Mark Zuckerberg outlined his vision for a “privacy-focused” social networking platform. So far, that has produced a singular result: it is now possible to message people across Facebook’s services. It has become more entrenched as infrastructure, yet this one company still controls it.

Mike Isaac, New York Times:

But evolving Facebook into a metaverse company will take time since the concept is theoretical and may take years to achieve. Facebook and its sister apps also remain a giant business, generating more than $86 billion in annual revenue and serving more than 3.5 billion people globally.

Left unsaid is that Facebook is, revenue-wise, primarily an advertising company. It makes communications software, but it sells ads based on how people use its products, as well as third-party software and websites that have any integrations with Facebook. That is the business it is engaged in. If you are like me, you may be thinking that it is sort of weird that this advertising company thinks it can create the mixed-reality future in software, hardware, and developer tools. What is the business here?

Ben Thompson of Stratechery saw an early preview of the keynote — sans name change — and interviewed Zuckerberg about the company’s new direction.1 Here is what Zuckerberg said about the business model:

I know this is a very different approach that we’re taking than what the mobile platforms today have taken. It’s much more similar to the approach that we’ve taken with our apps, right? Where the apps have been free, our ad auction gives every advertiser the lowest price that we can. For when we build commerce tools, we generally offer them either at no cost or at cost to us. And then the idea is you build as big of an ecosystem as possible, and then some things have to be scarce, right? So, whether that’s people searching for something at an app store or a limited number of ad units and a feed, and then you basically have a markets set the pricing there.

That’s basically the approach that I want us to take in the metaverse too, which is we’re going to build devices and we’re either going to subsidize them or offer them at cost. We’re going to make the app store model, I think, dramatically more open than anything that you’ve seen on mobile today, where we already do side-loading on Quest and we do App Lab and we do Link so you can have stuff running on your PC, and we’ll keep on doing that because I think the choice for consumers is important and for developers, and we’re going to try to make it so that the commerce tools that we build have as low fees as possible.

In short, Facebook will be borrowing a little from the commission-based app marketplace model, and expanding its advertising business. As Thompson writes in his analysis of Meta, this is Facebook seizing the opportunity to build its own platform. It says it is building for interoperability, but Google was a big fan of calling Android an “open source” platform, and we all know how that turned out.

What is all this, anyway? Is this silly or visionary? Remember the “an iPod, a phone, and a breakthrough internet communicator” bit from the Macworld 2007 introduction of the iPhone? The iPod and phone lines received raucous applause; the audience’s response barely registered for the internet part, but it has proved far more transformative. Is this that kind of moment, where it is hard to see how impactful Facebook’s mixed reality initiatives are?

Perhaps it is something you really do have to experience to believe in. The moment that genuinely made me believe in its potential was when a researcher wanted to know where their favourite mug was, and a map of their apartment displayed its location. But this seems like an extraordinary engineering effort to find lost mugs and socks. Meanwhile, in today’s world, smart home stuff still sucks despite the promises of the last many years. Facebook is trying to tell me that this all becomes more manageable when it is synthesized in a metaverse of its creation? I will believe it when I see it.

What this event felt most like is a bit of a dodge — a way to jettison years of scandals, like Largo abandoning the flaming shell of the Disco Volante with the hidden yacht at the end of “Thunderball”. I am not saying that Facebook cannot simultaneously work on this and the long list of problems of its existing platforms, but the whole thing felt like the company was telling people to stop paying attention to the news of the last five years and start focusing on this fantasy of a decade from now.

The metaverse is me making a list of chores to give to the staff of butlers and housekeepers and gardeners I am employing at my large country house I will have in ten years instead of vacuuming my apartment today.


  1. Thompson said there were no restrictions on the interview but he elected to focus on this metaverse stuff. While it is true that asking about Facebook’s current issues would likely be unproductive and result in some canned responses from Zuckerberg, I also think it was a missed opportunity. ↩︎

Quote of the Day: Ginny Hogan

I have not done one of these in a while, but Ginny Hogan’s response to Facebook’s corporate rebranding, announced earlier today, is too good not to highlight:

Facebook, 2004: we are different because we make people use their real identities

Facebook, 2021: ok owing to insurmountable damage to our reputation, we are changing our name

There may be a grain of truth to Facebook’s pitch that this reflects the changing nature of the products it offers, but it is undeniably a reputation push as well.

How Facebook Failed the World

Ellen Cushing, the Atlantic:

But these documents show that the Facebook we have in the United States is actually the platform at its best. It’s the version made by people who speak our language and understand our customs, who take our civic problems seriously because those problems are theirs too. It’s the version that exists on a free internet, under a relatively stable government, in a wealthy democracy. It’s also the version to which Facebook dedicates the most moderation resources. Elsewhere, the documents show, things are different. In the most vulnerable parts of the world — places with limited internet access, where smaller user numbers mean bad actors have undue influence — the trade-offs and mistakes that Facebook makes can have deadly consequences.

According to the documents, Facebook is aware that its products are being used to facilitate hate speech in the Middle East, violent cartels in Mexico, ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia, extremist anti-Muslim rhetoric in India, and sex trafficking in Dubai. It is also aware that its efforts to combat these things are insufficient. A March 2021 report notes, “We frequently observe highly coordinated, intentional activity … by problematic actors” that is “particularly prevalent — and problematic — in At-Risk Countries and Contexts”; the report later acknowledges, “Current mitigation strategies are not enough.”

Alex Kantrowitz, who writes the Big Technology newsletter, noted that there is not one entity outside of the North American and European press with access to these documents. Given Facebook’s influence everywhere else, that is a galling omission. I agree with Kantrowitz: these redacted documents should be opened up to researchers and journalists everywhere.

Apple’s Ad Business Is Booming

Patrick McGee, Financial Times:

Branch, which measures the effectiveness of mobile marketing, said Apple’s in-house business is now responsible for 58 per cent of all iPhone app downloads that result from clicking on an advert. A year ago, its share was 17 per cent.

“It’s like Apple Search Ads has gone from playing in the minor leagues to winning the World Series in the span of half a year,” said Alex Bauer, head of product marketing at Branch.

I truly believe Apple had good intentions with App Tracking Transparency, and I fully buy its premise. But it is shaping up to be a letdown on both sides of advertising. Apps are not respecting users’ choices and tracking them anyway, while Apple is — at the very least — appearing to behave anticompetitively by restricting what is available to third-party advertisers while expanding its own ads business. Apple could eliminate this conflict of interest and antitrust bait by getting rid of App Store ads, but the growth rate estimated in this Times article makes me think those ads are here to stay. That is, at least, until policymakers rightly intervene.

I Am Not Sure, but It Seems Like Facebook Might Be Too Big

Sheera Frenkel and Davey Alba, New York Times:

With 340 million people using Facebook’s various social media platforms, India is the company’s largest market. And Facebook’s problems on the subcontinent present an amplified version of the issues it has faced throughout the world, made worse by a lack of resources and a lack of expertise in India’s 22 officially recognized languages.

[…]

Of India’s 22 officially recognized languages, Facebook said it has trained its A.I. systems on five. (It said it had human reviewers for some others.) But in Hindi and Bengali, it still did not have enough data to adequately police the content, and much of the content targeting Muslims “is never flagged or actioned,” the Facebook report said.

Casey Newton, Platformer:

Facebook likely spends more on integrity efforts than any of its peers, though it is also the largest of the social networks. Sissons told me that ideally, the company’s community standards and AI content moderation capabilities would be translated into every country where Facebook is operating. But even the United Nations supports only six official languages; Facebook has native speakers moderating posts in more than 70.

Maybe I am oversimplifying this, but perhaps some things are obviously simple: it is probably not possible to fairly and accurately moderate discussions between billions of people speaking hundreds of languages.

If Facebook were a utility, this would not be a problem — but it is not, nor should it be. Facebook is a business. Its features amplify our worst instincts which, in turn, boosts engagement with the company’s platforms and helps attract advertisers. Facebook’s representatives like to say that this is not true because advertisers and shareholders could not possibly be attracted to a company with a poor record, but in the years since Facebook was tied to genocide the company’s value has doubled.

Facebook is too large. It has too much control over platforms relied upon by too many people in too many languages and regions. That is in part because its platforms are very good at facilitating communication, but it is also because the company has acquired potential rivals and encouraged use by violating the net neutrality principles the company ostensibly supports. There are apps competing for different parts of Facebook’s business in different parts of the world, but Facebook’s products remain the glue holding together disparate factions. I do not think crowning Facebook by treating it like a utility, as some have suggested, is a wise decision, as the objectives of a private company are inherently different to those of a public entity. It makes more sense to break this giant into smaller pieces, both by mandating interoperability and exploring options to separate its self-competing products.

Maybe individual companies should not be this big.

Facebook and Google’s Alleged Collaboration to Fight Privacy

Twelve U.S. Attorneys General, led by Texas’ Ken Paxton, amended their suit against Google with fewer redactions and plenty more allegations than first seen ten months ago. Among the most serious claims in this suit are the examples of close cooperation between Google and Facebook to compromise user privacy.

For example, page 54 of the original complaint (PDF) stated that Google was granted “access to millions of Americans’ end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp messages, photos, videos, and audio files” and alleged this was an “egregious” privacy violation. This sounded like backing up WhatsApp conversations to Google Drive, and it was hard to see a different angle through the field of redactions in the suit. But on page 60 of the updated lawsuit, we get much more information:

[…] Conceding this fact in a June 2016 memo, Google wrote that “when WhatsApp media files are shared with 3rd parties such as Drive, the files are no longer encrypted by WhatsApp.” The memo continued, “For clarity, all of the [WhatsApp] data stored in Drive is currently encrypted with Google holding the keys.” What this meant was that Google, as a third party, could in fact access the photos, videos, and audio files, that users thought they had shared privately on WhatsApp.

Google knew users were misled about the privacy of their communications. The same June 2016 memo acknowledges: “WhatsApp’s current messaging around end-to-end encryption is not entirely accurate.” The memo also states: “WhatsApp currently markets that all communications through its product are end-to-end encrypted, with keys that only the users possess. They have failed to elaborate that data shared from WhatsApp to 3rd party services does not get the same guarantee. This includes backups to Google Drive.”

If these allegations are accurate, this implies that WhatsApp backups to Google Drive have a flaw akin to that of iMessage backups in iCloud — with one key difference:

[…] The Google Drive terms of service at the time even permitted Google the ability to use its access to users’ private WhatsApp communications in Google Drive to sell advertising.

Facebook and Google have since improved their privacy. Google Drive was part of Google’s unified privacy policy, but the company currently says that Google Drive, Google Photos, and Gmail are not used for ad targeting. Facebook now offers password-protected encryption of WhatsApp backups to iCloud and Google Drive.

The suit does not claim that Facebook profited directly from this poor backup security for ad targeting or for other reasons, nor that it was even aware of the vulnerability. But it does claim that Google and Facebook worked closely to improve ad targeting with unique — and, some might say, anticompetitive — partnership agreements. From page 79:

Indeed, since signing the agreement, Google and Facebook have been working closely in an ongoing manner to help Facebook recognize users in auctions and bid and win more often. For example, Google and Facebook have integrated their software development kits (SDKs) so that Google can pass Facebook data for user ID cookie matching. […]

It certainly seems like Facebook could have incidentally benefitted when WhatsApp users backed up their conversations to Google Drive. I always chuckle at those who believe that either company is using a phone’s microphone to pick up conversations for ad targeting keywords, when the truth is a more banal brand of evil. And then there’s their Safari workaround.

Francis Agustin, Insider:

Google worked with Facebook to undermine Apple’s attempts to offer its users great privacy protections, 12 state attorneys general alleged in an update to an antitrust lawsuit against the search engine.

“The companies have been working together to improve Facebook’s ability to recognize users using browsers with blocked cookies, on Apple devices, and on Apple’s Safari Browser,” the amended complaint states. “Thereby circumventing one Big Tech company’s efforts to compete by offering users better privacy.”

From the suit:

[…] Google offered to help Facebook better identify users using JavaScript on publisher properties. By helping Facebook to better identify users in ad auctions, Google helps Facebook’s network FAN bid and win more often than other bidders in Google’s auctions.

This sounds like an extension of the alleged shared tracking identifiers when a developer integrates both SDKs. It has echoes of the Safari-specific cookies Google set, for which it was penalized $22.5 million in 2012. Google did not admit wrongdoing because the U.S. legal system does not prioritize admissions of guilt.

There are plenty more allegations in this lawsuit — that Google leveraged its market advantage with Chrome to opt users into greater levels of tracking, that the advantages of AMP are largely fraudulent — but it is this close collaboration between two dominant and privacy-hostile companies that I think deserves more comprehensive investigation. Their business models are individually destructive. But consider how much personalized data they have collected and also linked; and — for what? To sell advertisements that are a little more relevant?

What a hollow achievement, the price for which has been the eradication of privacy on the web.

Documents Leaked From Facebook Have Been Passed to a Consortium of Press Outlets

If you are making your way through the myriad investigations into Facebook teased last week by Facebook itself, you may find it useful to know the background on their origin. Not because it is suspicious — in fact, quite the opposite — but because Facebook seemed so concerned with getting ahead of these stories.

Ben Smith at the New York Times:

[Frances] Haugen chose a middle path, one that appears to have captured the best of both arrangements, from her perspective, while also foiling Facebook’s attempts to contain the story.

First she handed her documents to The Journal for a boutique rollout. Then she opened the journalistic equivalent of an outlet store, allowing reporters on two continents to root through everything The Journal had left behind in search of overlooked informational gems. Her intention was to broaden the circle, she said. She added that she plans to share the documents with academic writers and publications from parts of the world where she sees the greatest peril, including India and parts of the Middle East.

There are some who regard this coordinated rollout as inherently suspicious, but I think it is a savvy use of public relations for maximum social impact.

One thing I am trying to keep straight in my own head, as more reporting is published, is the source of different leaks. The Wall Street Journal’s “Facebook Files” series is primarily sourced to documents from Haugen, as are stories from other publications collected under the “Facebook Papers” banner. But a story on Friday from the Washington Post is sourced to a different whistleblower.

One thing that remains unclear is whether Haugen and her team supplied these documents to the other outlets, or if they received them from a third party. Smith implies that Haugen’s team passed them to the Times and other publications around the beginning of October, but a different article by Mike Isaac says that the Times received them from a “congressional staff member”. My bet is that both are true: after the Journal began publishing, I bet reporters from other publications leaned on their Washington sources to provide copies. But Haugen’s team was probably unaware of that, and also brought the documents to those other reporters. This is just a guess, but it aligns with the details in Smith’s article.

The iPod Turns Twenty

Roger Cheng, CNet:

When Apple executive Jon Rubinstein, who had been tasked with creating a music player, came knocking in early 2001, [Tony] Fadell was already working on his own startup, Fuse Systems, with the goal of creating a mainstream MP3 player. It was a nascent market, with more than a dozen players from different companies including Creative Labs and RCA. The problem: Sales of the devices, which cost a few hundred dollars apiece, only totaled 500,000 units in 2000, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Fuse itself faced plenty of rejection. Still, Fadell saw the Apple consulting gig as a chance to keep his own project alive.

[…]

At the end of March 2001, he presented them to Steve Jobs. Apple veteran Stan Ng had worked with Fadell to prepare a stack of papers for the presentation — this was before the days of slideshows — and prepared him for both Jobs and his reputation for an explosive temper. “Those stories were ingrained in my brain, burned into my brain, so I’m going in nervous,” Fadell said.

Jobs immediately took the stack of papers, riffled through the pages and quickly tossed them aside. “Here’s what I want to do,” Fadell recalled Jobs saying, hijacking the conversation and forcing them to dive right in.

Great story about what now seems like an odd time in consumer electronics history. I say “odd” because it is tough now to remember a time when a phone could not yet be a perfect convergence device. It did not take long for that to happen — Fadell’s presentation to Jobs in March 2001 happened about eight months before the first iPods went on sale, and less than six years before the iPhone was unveiled. As I write this, the Apple Watch has been shipping to consumers for a longer time than the gap between the first iPod meetings and when the iPhone went on sale.

The iPod is not lost in today’s Apple: the “pod” word is still more-or-less a synonym for a “music device” in the company’s language. AirPods are a huge success; HomePods, not as much. One more quirk of history is that podcasting — named for “iPod” and “broadcasting” — has been a bigger deal in the post-iPod era than it ever was while the device was on sale.

Cabel Sasser, of Panic, used this occasion to show off an extraordinary prototype of the original iPod:

Clearly, this revision of the prototype was very close to the internals of the finished iPod. In fact, the date there — September 3rd, 2001 — tells us this one was made barely two months before it was introduced.

Just wait until you see the housing.

Tony Fadell on Twitter:

This is a P68/Dulcimer iPod prototype we (very quickly) made before the true form factor design was ready. Didn’t want it look like an iPod for confidentiality — the buttons placement, the size — it was mostly air inside — and the wheel worked (poorly).

While I reflect on the iPod’s product arc, one more thing I think is worth mentioning: the entire history of the iPod, from those first meetings in March of 2001 until Apple stopped selling it in September 2014, took place in less time than the iPhone has been on sale. But without the iPod, it is hard to imagine Apple would have ever created the iPhone. The iPod may have been essentially a single-purpose device for listening to music, but its greater historical purpose is that it changed Apple and, consequently, the world.

With that, I leave you with the succinct review of the iPod by then-Slashdot editor Rob Malda: “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.”

Boston Startup Develops Worst Imaginable Way to Get a Cup of Coffee

Albert Burneko, Defector:

In other words, just to get to the point at which your freezer has a Cometeer-brand flash-frozen puck of concentrated brewed coffee in it, some number of coffee beans must be subjected to the absolute most sophisticated, technologized, circuitous, wasteful process for making coffee in the entire history of life of earth. More experience and equipment are required to create a cup of Cometeer coffee than any other halfway plausible cup of coffee, literally ever. (You can tell the MIT, Apple, and Tesla scientists and Princeton-educated coffee-masters did a good job of brewing your coffee with proprietary machinery in Gloucester, Mass., flash-freezing it in liquid nitrogen, packing it in dry ice, and shipping it to your home for you to store in your freezer, because it tastes like you spent five minutes making it yourself using techniques that predate the advent of antibiotics.)

This process makes Keurig — also rightly criticized by Burneko — look like an environmental dream. What is wrong with the myriad methods of brewing coffee today that requires a ground-up reinvention? Sometimes, it is worth trying new things; other times, you end up pitching the virtues of a cryogenic brick of coffee.

On the Much Improved State of Macintosh Hardware

Quentin Carnicelli, of Rogue Amoeba:

I’m not sure who exactly deserves the credit at Apple for all these improvements, but my hat is off to you, whoever you are.1 In 2018, we couldn’t recommend buying a single current Macintosh model. Now? You almost can’t go wrong. That turnaround deserves a round of applause.

2018 was a bad year to be in the market for a new Mac. I would know: I was last in the market for a new Mac at that time. I do not know how much of that is attributable to Intel’s woes and how much blame should be placed on Apple, but it resulted in a compromised Mac lineup.

Today’s line is the exact opposite. There are simply no bad Macs — other than, perhaps, the still weird 13-inch MacBook Pro.

I see some people attributing this to Jony Ive’s retirement — including in the footnote of this article — but I still think that is overly simplistic and probably inaccurate. There was always a team working on Apple’s products, and Ive has been involved in those launched after he left the company. Put it this way: if Ive still worked at Apple, I bet the MacBook Pro models announced this week would be exactly the same.

FTC Staff Report Finds Many U.S. ISPs Collect and Share a Wealth of Customer Usage Data

From the U.S. Federal Trade Commission

Many internet service providers (ISPs) collect and share far more data about their customers than many consumers may expect — including access to all of their Internet traffic and real-time location data — while failing to offer consumers meaningful choices about how this data can be used, according to an FTC staff report on ISPs’ data collection and use practices.

This report is alarming, yet painfully obvious to anyone who has been paying attention to the behaviour of American internet providers. Because they are conglomerates operating in many markets, they have a uniquely comprehensive view of Americans’ lives, which they pitch as an advantage in the miserable world of targeted advertising. And it is a mutually beneficial market.

From the report (PDF):

Second, there is a trend in the ISP industry to buy consumer information from third party data brokers, which many ISPs in our study use for advertising purposes. One reported using data from data brokers to market their own products to new customers only. For example, they might get lists of new homeowners in a particular geographic area. A sizable number of the ISPs in our study also buy data from data brokers about their existing customers. For example, an ISP might send the data broker subscriber names and addresses, which the data broker would then append with demographic information (e.g., gender, age range, race and ethnicity information, marital status, parental status) and interest data (e.g., hiking, biking, gardening, bodybuilding, high-end spirits) for those subscribers. Or, for those ISPs that do not want to share their customers’ names and contact information with third-party data brokers, the ISP might send persistent identifiers (e.g., cookies, advertising identifiers, or hashed or encrypted account numbers or telephone numbers) associated with their subscribers to third party “matching services.” These matching services then sync these identifiers with similar identifiers they receive from other sources and provide the list of identifiers to the ISP. Once the ISP has the synced list of identifiers, the ISP can then check with data brokers to request demographic and interest data 94 associated with all of those identifiers, without sharing consumers’ name and contact information.

The data brokerage industry is vile. For comparison, here in Canada, internet providers are prohibited from using subscriber information for auxiliary business purposes without express permission. Bell, one of the big telecom providers in Canada, runs a “tailored marketing program” that requires subscribers to opt into receiving ads based on their Bell-provided services. I still think it is gross, but at least it is off by default and requires explicit permission.

Because it is opt-in, I bet this business is tiny. I asked Bell for more information about it, including the number of subscribers, and have not heard back. But I imagine very few people agree to allow the use of their web activity and television habits to serve them ads, probably because most people do not think the privacy tradeoffs are worth it. iOS’ App Tracking Transparency feature has similarly low opt-in rates. Even though many apps do not respect it, this indicates that most people do not want their activities recorded for the milquetoast reason of making ads a little bit more relevant.

U.S. service providers should respect those kinds of wishes. Unfortunately, while mainstream attention has finally turned to the egregious privacy practices of companies like Facebook and Google, ISPs have not been treated with similar scrutiny. This is as true for the press as it is for regulators. The CEOs from tech companies have spent hours over the past few years testifying before Congress about their privacy practices, but telecom CEOs have not been asked to do the same. Reports about lobbying have highlighted how much money is being spent by technology companies, without acknowledging similarly huge spending by telecoms.

I know this is not a new observation, but: these egregious violations of user privacy will not change without regulation, but rules protecting consumers’ personal data are unlikely to materialize when lawmakers are earning so much from the businesses they are supposed to regulate.

The Design of TV Key Art

Rex Sorgatz, for the Why Is This Interesting? newsletter (via Jason Kottke):

One neglected characteristic ties all these images together: They are all horizontal.

It sounds trivial, but going wide helped differentiate TV key art as its own medium, distinct from book covers and movie posters. And because these images appear on streaming platforms, they are unencumbered by other marketing copy, like taglines, cast and credits, and multifarious blurbs.

There is a simple purity to key art.

I remember scouring the web for key art when I used Plex over ten years ago. It is such a specific category of design — bracingly simple and evocative — and this is a great post and collection from Sorgatz. I hope this is not yet another thing to add to the list of creative pursuits A/B tested to death.

Mega Meta Domain Sales

Raymond Hackney, writing last week at TLD Investors:

Meta as an exact keyword has made some impressive sales in keywords no one ever discusses or even knew existed.

Meta.LC is a great example, Namepros member Makbliss sold Meta.LC for $20,000. on Afternic. He had just hand regged the name on August 7th of this year. Most don’t even know it’s the country code for Saint Lucia.

Nikul Sanghvi of Hypernames.co hit a monster home run 6 days ago with the $149,000 sale of Meta.so. He registered it in April. It was the second 6 figure Meta name this year. Meta.io sold for $100,000.

In the midst of Facebook’s endless scandals, I appreciate their ability to create a pleasant distraction before that big investigation drops.

The Verge: Facebook Is Rebranding

Alex Heath, the Verge:

Facebook is planning to change its company name next week to reflect its focus on building the metaverse, according to a source with direct knowledge of the matter.

The coming name change, which CEO Mark Zuckerberg plans to talk about at the company’s annual Connect conference on October 28th, but could unveil sooner, is meant to signal the tech giant’s ambition to be known for more than social media and all the ills that entail. The rebrand would likely position the blue Facebook app as one of many products under a parent company overseeing groups like Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, and more. A spokesperson for Facebook declined to comment for this story.

At best, this can be seen as Facebook doing as Google did with Alphabet, but several observers have compared it to the Philip Morris’ Altria rebrand. Is it an attempt at insulating WhatsApp, Oculus, and future products from Facebook’s tainted name, or is it merely acknowledging the company’s expansion and new ventures? I guess that depends on your perspective. Regardless, I am skeptical of this buzzword-heavy “metaverse” direction.

Heath, who broke this news, says the new name is a “closely-guarded secret” — which, of course, began the attempts to figure out what it could be.

Kali Hays, Insider:

Facebook, through its lawyers, has filed seven new trademarks since February, the USPTO database shows. The most recent include a new symbol, shown below, and a new name, “Stories,” both with broad descriptions of what they would be applied to.

[…]

What the trademarks don’t mention is whether they are a new name or logo for the whole company, as is coming soon, according to The Verge. While speculation of what the new name may be has so far centered on “Meta” and “Horizon,” neither are linked to Facebook filings with the USPTO. A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment.

A trademark would be a typical step by any company before it begins using a new name, logo, or, in many instances, a tagline for advertising. But it is possible that an entity or person can simply start using a term and claim that it did so first, leaving it to claim a trademark by “first use” and file for registration later.

I also began by searching the USPTO and found the same registrations, but I am not sure they apply to this rebrand. While a trademark could point to a future direction, it is not true that Facebook would need to file a U.S. trademark to claim ownership. Companies like to register in other countries, like Jamaica, where searching the trademark database is more complicated. That way, they can claim new product names but keep them more-or-less secret.

My search for Facebook’s new name took a slightly different path. I ended up using a DNS search engine to find domains that have the same name servers and email servers as Facebook’s corporate entities. And there are a lot — over four thousand domains use the a.ns.facebook.com name server — but I did not see an obvious rebrand among them. There are the domains of several companies acquired by Facebook, like Wit, Egg, and Scape, that might be fine enough names, but none stood out to me. I also found out that Facebook owns oceaniaramen.com for some reason.

So, a dead end. But perhaps a clue: I did see that meta.com, which is already owned by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, was last updated yesterday and, until today, redirected to meta.org. It has since stopped redirecting.

Mashable: Monday’s Product Launch Was the ‘Worst Apple Event Ever’

Chris Taylor, in a Mashable article that will age with all the grace of a freshly cut avocado:

But the fun came to a screeching halt during Monday’s Apple event, in which there was precious little to announce (new Apple Music price tier, new HomePod colors, barely new AirPods) and enough tech specs from a confusing couple of laptop chips to send a Mac nerd like me to sleep. The $19 screen cleaner — this year’s iPod socks — didn’t even rate a mention. And not for lack of time. The keynote lasted 50 minutes, making it Apple’s shortest ever, and didn’t so much end as gave up the ghost.

This isn’t about entertainment value; it’s an indicator that the company is running out of creative steam. Apple was widely criticized, even by the Macworld faithful, for having little actual new technology to wow us with at September’s iPhone 13 launch event. But at least it covered that fact up with a vibrant love letter to the state that birthed it. A month later, the marketing department has nothing left in the tank. If I was an investor looking for signs of the company’s long-term health, this would be a troubling one.

Try to get past the factual errors in this piece, like Taylor’s claim that Craig Federighi showed up at an Apple event for the first time since 2020 with “under a minute of screen time”, despite playing a starring role in the WWDC 2021 keynote. Pay no attention to the widespread praise for the new MacBook Pro lineup, and demand so strong it made Apple’s online store creak under the pressure. Forget that this is Taylor’s sixth review of a pandemic-era Apple event and is resorting to the same cynical tropes. Never mind that the memorably vacant WWDC 2007 keynote contained some of the most unpleasant moments of the modern Apple era.

The thing that got me is that Taylor already wrote this article back in 2016. Taylor’s complaint was that the then-new iPhone SE was just recycling bits — that Apple was doing nothing new or innovative, just reconfiguring iOS in different boxes and selling it as something new.

As Taylor said this year, “get some new material”, which is just a different way of saying that his articles need something, as he said in 2016, “truly, categorically new”.

Exile From Dongletown

Jason Snell reacts to Apple’s newfound port generosity:

If Mac laptops come in eras, one just ended.

It started in 2016 with the release of MacBook Pro models featuring butterfly keyboards, the Touch Bar, and a minimal selection of USB-C ports. It ended on Monday with the announcement of new MacBook Pro models that roll back most of the major changes introduced in 2016, putting the MacBook Pro in a new state of grace that recalls the middle of the last decade.

I have no need for one of these new MacBook Pros, but if I had to replace my nearly ten year old MacBook Air, the 14-inch model would be hard to resist — in silver, please. Its industrial design is a modern unibody interpretation of the Titanium PowerBook, Apple says it is ludicrously powerful, and it rights a bunch of the wrongs of the Touch Bar-era MacBook Pro lineup. MagSafe makes a much-appreciated return; its inclusion in my old Air saved it from falling off the counter just this week. For my money, the best port making its return is the SD card slot.

Snell:

SD slot: Apple’s argument for getting rid of the SD slot was that the future would be wireless, and we wouldn’t need to use cards to transfer data anymore. It wasn’t true back in 2016, and it’s still not true. Sure, some devices equipped with SD cards now offer wireless data transfer, but let me tell you — it’s not as fast or reliable as just plugging in a card and transferring the data! And a lot of our non-Apple devices still rely on slow USB ports to transfer data if you have to copy the data directly. The SD slot is just convenient whether you’re a pro transferring photos, audio, or video.

My MacBook Air is my travel computer, and I use the SD card slot constantly. In 2016, Phil Schiller attempted to justify its removal to the Independent’s David Phelan:

Because of a couple of things. One, it’s a bit of a cumbersome slot. You’ve got this thing sticking halfway out. Then there are very fine and fast USB card readers, and then you can use CompactFlash as well as SD. So we could never really resolve this – we picked SD because more consumer cameras have SD but you can only pick one. So, that was a bit of a trade-off. And then more and more cameras are starting to build wireless transfer into the camera. That’s proving very useful. So we think there’s a path forward where you can use a physical adaptor if you want, or do wireless transfer.

Schiller paints a picture of a future that we are still waiting on in 2021. Sure, some cameras have wireless transfer modes, but most everyone I know still transfers images via a cable connected to the camera or by inserting the SD card into their computer. And if the “cumbersome” qualities of the reader were unacceptable, it is hard to believe that the alternative could be described as elegant or simple.

As far as general peripheral ports, there is still only a series of USB-C/Thunderbolt 4 ports. Thankfully, the USB-C device landscape is almost standardized. It has taken several years and most people still need a USB-A dongle from time to time, but it is so much better than it used to be. All of the other changes show that Apple really is listening to the users who are most drawn to the MacBook Pro’s capability and portability. This Mac is a sensation: I noticed Apple’s preorder page crawled to a halt for several hours after yesterday’s launch.

Truth be told, while I wish I could get one of the new 14-inch MacBook Pro models, I have no need for its power. I hope that some of these features will trickle down to the MacBook Air, and that the Air will be available in iMac colours. That is my perfect notebook. When this Air somehow stops working, it is what I will order — in teal.

Defaults Matter

Joanna Stern, of Wall Street Journal, in an article about the importance of default settings:

Facebook offers a “Recent” or chronological feed, but despite company efforts to improve it, the setting, on my iPhone, is still more buried than tulip bulbs. Tap the menu in the bottom right of your iPhone app, then See More > Recent & Favorites. At the top of your feed you’ll now see the Recent feed option. What happens next is maddening: As soon as you close the app and reopen it, the feed reverts to its old algorithmic self.

A Facebook spokesman didn’t tell me why, but pointed to a company page that explained how algorithms help people find what is most valuable to them.

As Stern writes, Twitter also allows users to toggle between a reverse-chronological timeline and an algorithmic one. Like Facebook’s, it sometimes reverts to the algorithmic feed after a while — though it does persist across app sessions, it is unclear to me what triggers it to automatically switch back. Twitter is currently experimenting with a clearer toggle, which I see in my @pxlnv account but not my (much older) @nickheer account, and it works fine.

It does not matter whether you prefer an algorithmic feed or one sorted only by time. Both are good ways to use social media apps for different reasons. If a platform owner would prefer to only have an algorithmic timeline, I think that is fine, too. But if a choice is presented — which I prefer — the service should at least respect that preference and maintain it.

Stern:

Instagram doesn’t even offer a chronological-feed alternative. An Instagram spokesman gave me a similar answer to the one I got a few months ago: With the old chronological feed, people missed 70% of their posts. Algorithms can serve up more content from friends, he said.

Two days ago, I asked Instagram what percent of posts users miss when they use the algorithmic feed instead, but I have not heard back.

Benjamin Button Reviews the New MacBook Pro

Maciej Cegłowski:

Gone is the gimmicky TouchBar, gone are the four USB-C ports that forced power users to carry a suitcase full of dongles. In their place we get a cornucopia of developer-friendly ports: two USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2 ports, a redesigned power connector, and a long-awaited HDMI port.

Photographers will rejoice at the surprising and welcome addition of an SDXC card reader, a sign that Apple might be thinking seriously about photography.

The new MagSafe connector is a bit of Apple design genius. The charging cord stays seated securely, but pops right off if you yank on it. No more worries about destroying your $2k laptop just by accidentally kicking a cord.

Make a few small adjustments, remove a few sentences, and this 2016 post reads like it was written yesterday.

Safari 15 Watch: Old Tabs Edition

Jason Snell:

It’s official: As of the latest macOS Monterey beta — version 12.0.1, which makes me wonder if they’ve locked version 12.0 on the new MacBook Pro models and everyone else will jump straight to 12.0.1 — Safari tabs have been reverted to their original “tab” appearance, instead of being a bunch of floating lozenges.

I share Snell’s sympathy for a team that obviously worked hard to try something new, but I am thrilled there is a choice between a more compact tab interface and one that actually looks like tabs. That is true for Monterey, it is true for iPadOS, and I imagine a new seed of Safari 15 will be released for Big Sur to complete the set.1

While the capsule layout shipped, I am glad to see that it was reverted. I wish that were done earlier, but the result is the same. Today is a good day.


  1. The Safari 15 build for Catalina has not received the “compact” layout, nor — thankfully — does it have the option to use the weird capsule tab format. ↩︎

Facebook Teases Upcoming Investigation Into Documents Leaked From Facebook

Facebook’s John Pinette, VP of communications, in a Twitter thread:1

Right now 30+ journalists are finishing up a coordinated series of articles based on thousands of pages of leaked documents. We hear that to get the docs, outlets had to agree to the conditions and a schedule laid down by the PR team that worked on earlier leaked docs.

Tech companies love to announce bad news when industry press is distracted by an ongoing Apple product launch. I guess this is today’s attempt: Facebook is trying to get ahead of what seems to be a comprehensive investigation by journalists. I am looking forward to that.

Edward Ongweso Jr, Vice:

It is common for various entities to distribute information to journalists on the condition that they don’t publish before a certain time. This doesn’t mean that the information is somehow suspect by default, or that it will be reported on in an uncritical manner. Facebook surely knows what an embargo is, because it regularly issues them, expects reporters or outlets to adhere to them, and will quickly ignore reporters who break them. If you see a lot of news outlets publish detailed articles about a specific thing at a specific time, is it likely they were subject to an embargo. This practice is controversial but extremely common. On one hand, it’s a way for companies to control the spread of information and to gatekeep who has access to it. On the other, embargoes allow journalists time to report out a story before it “breaks,” often resulting in more detailed and thorough articles.

Journalists from multiple outlets working together under disclosure rules have been responsible for several groundbreaking investigations into tax avoidance by businesses and wealthy people. This is nothing new, and it is unclear to me who Pinette is trying to intimidate by tweeting about it.


  1. If only Facebook had a website where it could publish statements from its communications team. ↩︎