Bits: Farhad’s and Mike’s Week in Tech: A Letter From Zuckerberg and the Fall of PewDiePie



This week was basically another Trump news week, which left very little oxygen in the room for technology. But Mark Zuckerberg, who has essentially declared himself president of the internet, decided to post a near 6,000-word State of the Union-style essay about Facebook, something he apparently worked on during his nights and weekends for some time.

Farhad: If I were a billionaire, I would not be spending my free time writing. I would be creating one of those Iron Man suits, but more fashionable. Maybe that’s just me.

Mike: Yeah, when I hear the word “Farhad” the first thing I think of is definitely Tony Stark.

Anyway, his essay was quite a heave to read, so I’ll give everyone the CliffsNotes version: Connecting people is great, Facebook isn’t the government but kind of wants to help create new forms of governance, and also here are a bunch of ideals and half-cemented plans that we may roll out some time in the future. Make sense to you?

Farhad: Kind of? I read the document less for its substance and more for what it signaled. For years, tech leaders have been arguing that social networks could usher in big changes in the world, and they were quite prepared to take credit when those changes looked broadly popular to the Davos set — for instance, the Arab Spring.

I see Zuck’s manifesto as a realization that social networks change things in unpredictable and sometimes manifestly not-so-great ways, and so as a result, Facebook needs to think more deeply about its effects. A C.E.O. trying to tackle the reverberations of his company’s product? I can’t complain about that, even if it’s later than many would have liked.

Mike: Hmm, you’re being more thoughtful than usual. I’m watching you, Mister.

I think it’s worth mentioning that this is as close as we’ve come to seeing Mark give some sort of political statement in a rather charged environment. Even his company’s mission — to connect the world — is now a polarizing idea.

One could argue that deep currents of isolationism have run throughout nations over the history of mankind. And as many Trump supporters would argue, there are reasons for borders, even far before the internet ever existed.

I think a lot of this depends on whether you buy into the idea that Facebook can ultimately be a uniting force for good in the world, or whether you think it will end up further polarizing us.

Farhad: It will never polarize you and me, Mike.

Mike: Good.

Etsy opened what it calls Etsy Studio, where it wants everyone at home with a spool of yarn and a bag of beads to start selling crafts online. This is just in time for your side business, “crocheting with Farhad,” to really take off. Congrats!

Farhad: You forgot to mention that it’s steampunk crochet. This will make me rich.

Mike: Twitter looks as if it will start chopping the advertising products that don’t really work, which is probably a good thing if the company is all about focus and becoming profitable these days. It’s all you hear on every company earnings call.

Farhad: Killing things that aren’t working seems like a good idea. Speaking of which, our editors have been wanting to chat with you.

Mike: Here’s the topic du jour I really wanted to get to: The fall of PewDiePie.

So if you’re over the age of 18, you may not actually know who PewDiePie is. In a nutshell: He is Felix Kjellberg, one of the world’s most popular video game live-streamers on the internet. He’s amassed an enormous following on YouTube, where he essentially films himself playing video games and talking to the camera. I’ve watched him before — for the entire length of him beating a video game — and it’s actually captivating and somewhat intimate, like he’s having an extended discussion with you. He’s made millions of dollars doing it, too.

Well, that happy arc ended this week, when The Wall Street Journal published a series of stories going back into PewDiePie’s history of video streams, highlighting a series of anti-Semitic acts that have occurred over the last year.

Kjellberg maintains they were off-color jokes that went too far. But that didn’t stop Disney and YouTube from severing ties with the guy, cutting short his multimillion-dollar contracts.

So I’m curious. What do you think this episode says about online gamer culture? A ton of folks are coming to Kjellberg’s aid after this whole thing, saying that The Journal has blown the whole thing out of proportion. Do you buy that?

Farhad: Well, if by “blown out of proportion” he means they accurately reported that he’s repeatedly invoked Nazi imagery and recently paid some folks to hold up a sign saying “Death to All Jews,” then I guess that’s right!

But I suspect PewDiePie is not ignorant of online culture. You don’t get to be YouTube’s biggest star without understanding the racist underbelly of the internet. It’s perfectly fine, in some online circles, to say terrible things about others and then to laugh it off as just a meaningless joke that only offends humorless “snowflakes.” It seems obvious that PewDiePie was playing with that.

The bigger question for me is how the big sponsors of these stars of tomorrow — companies like Google and Disney — change how they vet people like PewDiePie. Tomorrow’s celebrities are going to come from the internet culture. To older folks running these media companies, internet celebs are going to look and sound totally off the wall, but the execs are going to feel pressure to sign them based on their huge popularity. It seems clear no one at Disney was actually paying attention to PewDiePie — the Nazi stuff was out there for everyone to see, and Disney responded only once The Journal came calling. So perhaps that will be the first fix here: actually paying attention to the internet celebs you’ve paid so handsomely.

Mike: My guess is that’s a generational shift that will take years. I’m genuinely curious how many folks at Disney and YouTube who are high enough up the chain to make multimillion-dollar deals actually watch gaming streams — I’m guessing not a lot of them. It’s a relatively novel activity, so as ad-buying agencies and the like start hiring people who, um, actually watch the videos they’re selling ads against, perhaps they’ll get smarter about whose videos they choose to sell sodas and sports cars against.

Anyway, that’s enough from me. I’m going to start my own streaming channel starring my dog.

Farhad: O.K., see you next week. Please don’t overdose on bronzer.

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