nothing bad can stay

the impermanent internet

thesis: the permanent social internet is dying. the impermanent social internet will need to replace it. and it will be even more difficult to make money on such an internet than it was before.

first, a bit of history.

facebook, twitter and the like were largely predicated on the idea that people actively desire a record of their activities online. in 2011 or so, facebook rolled out "Timeline,” basically a roadmap of your entire facebook life. most product development thereafter focused on documenting interactions between users and assuming FB’s customers would enjoy these things. the word “canonical” came up a lot when i spoke to execs back then.

this kind of internet, as it turned out, also happened to be convenient for building a business. if facebook knows everything about you, it is easier to sell ads against you. and pretty much every product on FB was built to extract as much information about you as possible.

now, these companies are in a pickle. as facebook matured, we discovered the unintended consequences of living a life online. an errant, ignorant tweet from our teenage years can get us fired—or worse, canceled. our parents could have created an entire instagram dedicated to our poopy-diaped years without our knowledge or express consent. forget running for office if youve ever tweeted about, like, anything.

I cant remember at what point my posts started becoming a liability rather than a rich text of my life. it was probably around the time G*merg*te happened and the gutter of the internet started weaponizing peoples’ pasts against them. or when i started writing about reddit for the nyt, and some of the more vicious, men’s rights activists types decided to go after me. (MRA’s are the true shitbags of the web. try to never invoke their ire.)

the bottom line is that we dont want our histories to come back and fuck us.

Evan Spiegel, for all his faults, realized this early on. (he’s a very guarded, private person, which shaped his idea of the kind of internet he wanted to create for himself.) ive long believed the creation of snapchat was largely a response to a post-Facebook world, and the ideas around the permanence of putting our lives online. it was a stroke of genius from evan, even if ultimately not an enormously lucrative independent company.

that’s where we find ourselves now—evan’s world. people are beginning to post less publicly online. even Mark Zuckerberg has said as much. “In 2019, we expect the amount of Stories that are shared to outnumber the amount of Feed posts that are shared,” he said, referring to Facebook Stories. (fb and IG stories are FB’s blatant ripoffs of Snapchat.)

This is a big deal. Facebook’s moneymaker has always been the News Feed, filled with 15 years of posts, photos and status updates. but in an impermanent world, the fewer so-called “organic” posts that appear in the Feed—meaning, the stuff you or i post on our own accord—the fewer paid ads facebook is able to insert between them. (the company has basically already maxed out on stuffing FB and Instagram feeds with ads, anyway, so this only compounds that problem.)

so what to do?

to Facebook’s credit, the company is mobilizing fast. Zuckerberg is all in on stories (poor snapchat!); he’s created a stories product for every property he owns—Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp— and is promoting the hell out of them. It’s impressive to see an enormous company turn on a dime like this, and few orgs at Facebook’s size would be able to do this so quickly or effectively.

there’s one more big problem: Making money off of Stories is not as simple as making money from the News Feed. the advertising formats are fundamentally different. it’s easy to skip a story ad with a tap of the finger. you don’t linger on the image or video as long when you realize it’s an ad. and the less time you spend on ads, the less Facebook gets paid. that’s a remarkable contrast to how much time people spent lingering on news feed ads.

here’s an example: snapchat, which has been impermanent from the very start, ended 2018 with a little over $1.1 billion in annual revenue from its different ad formats. Facebook, by contrast, raked in more than fifty times that amount, some $55 billion, most of that coming from news feed ads. that is an insane amount of money. but it is also based on a permanent internet, one that is quickly going away.

so we are left with a few questions. as people realize their digital pasts are a liability and post less frequently, are some of these companies going to grow smaller and less lucrative? will facebook — the biggest social network on the planet — end up shrinking? will those annual revenues dry up?

and what happens to Twitter, the absolute furthest behind in terms of any and all product development that deals with an impermanent internet? (in my mind, twitter is super fucked if it doesn’t start testing different versions of itself to experiment with ephemerality. but god knows whats going on over there these days, since it takes them 3+ years to formulate a plan to deal with its harassment problems.)

anyway, food for thought. those bullish on FB will cite the company’s ruthless and efficient history of execution. they’ll believe that new, innovative advertising products are yet to come, and that they will make the company stronger (i.e. richer) than ever. those bearish on FB will probably look at the enormous amount of flak it’s taking from literally every regulator around the world, and wonder if it will be broken up into parts. or maybe people are actually pissed off enough right now at the numerous scandals and data leaks that they’ll actually delete FB en masse. (i doubt it.)

this newsletter/blog post—as is the case with blog posts—is permanent, so i will eventually have the benefit of hindsight to tell me if i was fantastically wrong. or, as is often the case with the internet, we will undergo another enormous shift with how people carry out their digital lives.

maybe i’ll delete it later.

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it is saturday and it is raining, so here’s some travis:

https://open.spotify.com/track/1OpO3L2VnUF90tWFWtC7y4?si=um9Q8NQsSeu3DihLJV9LbA

pressure

preface:

they say you have at least eighteen years to write your first album. and only eighteen months to write your second one.

in most creative pursuits, really, you’re only as good as your last piece of work. (this is particularly true for journalism; the half-life of a scoop is measured in minutes rather than months. A well-executed feature might leave a stronger impression and linger in memory for a good week or so. maybe a magazine cover will win the month’s mindshare. if you’re lucky, a book might win that year’s award for best “whatever”

but just after your work is released into the world, it starts to die. if you’re lucky enough to have people take interest in what you’ve made, it is digested, absorbed and passed. almost as quickly as it arrived, we are ready for whats next.

thats what i was getting at with the woodwinds. to outdo yourself you feel like going bigger, grander than before. for musicians, it often means getting symphonic. sometimes, the second album goes big and is greater for it. more often, going big doesnt always work.

pressure does strange things to people. in my early years, anxiety paralyzed me and kept me from doing things i dreamed of (that led to a lot of chemicals and a hazy, misspent blur of a coming-of-age story, an entirely separate conversation we may have here one day). later, i snapped out of it and used that pressure to force myself into performing. now, i often need a (metaphorical) gun to my head to snap into action and create work that i’m proud of.

this is a common journalist trope: i need two weeks to write a worthy feature piece. 13-and-a-half days to worry about it, and 12 hours to actually write, revise and publish it.

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im thinking of all of this in the context of my first book, which is set to publish in the coming months. (self-promotion: preorder this bad boy, please, if you haven’t already.) as a writer who generally finds something to dislike about most of my work, I’m actually excited for people to read the book when it comes out. My editor, fact-checker and I spent a lot of time making this into something we can be proud of, and I think we ended up with a truly worthwhile work of narrative nonfiction.

now, they tell me, is the time i am supposed to think about what’s next. the next book, the next job, the next whatever. i honestly am not quite sure what that is yet. but i am certainly beginning to feel the heat. i’ll either rise to the occasion or flounder about for a while in a state of self-doubt until i figure it out. i’d prefer to do the former — it’s more expedient — though even if i go the latter route i’ll still get to where i need to go eventually.

whatever the case, i don’t think it will incorporate woodwinds.

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now listening:

Presenting "Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber"

Hello everyone!

We interrupt your regularly scheduled newslettering with a very special announcement.

after 18 months, unhealthy over-caffeination and too many blown deadlines, I present to you my first book: "Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber", published by W.W. Norton.

It’s available for pre-order now, and arrives on shelves on September 3rd, 2019. I’d love it if you pre-ordered your copy today, links on my new website below (a lot of new reveals today, but no credit cards or book clubs...yet).

www.Mike-Isaac.com

A quick note on the title, for the uninitiated: Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, created a list of 14 Values that he believed should define his company, tenets that were to act as a true north and shape Uber’s culture. Just a smattering of those values:

Value #4: Champion's Mindset

Value #2: Meritocracy and Toe-Stepping

Value #6: Always be Hustlin'

But the value that stood out to me — from this laundry list of corporate platitudes run through a bro-speak translation machine — was Value #9: “Super Pumped." Kalanick defined "Super Pumped" as follows: 

"We look at the world through an optimistic lens, one in which even adversity is seen as an opportunity, as a puzzle to be solved. We start by picturing an amazing outcome, and we turn that into an enthusiasm that everyone around you can feel and feed off of. Being superpumped gives us super powers, turning the hardest problems into amazing opportunities to do something great."

I have no doubt the definition proved true enough to Kalanick and the Uber employees who found inspiration in the phrase.

But as I was reporting out the story, I found myself defining the term differently. Instead of “super powers,” I viewed Super Pumped as a proxy for the soaring egos of tech founders worshiped as demigods. Instead of “optimism and enthusiasm,” I saw it as emblematic of the over-inflated valuations of a new generation of unicorns. And instead of hard problems, it reminded me about how one driven executive — on a mission to change the world — ended up leaving a trail of fantastic carnage in his wake.

You’ll have to wait just a little bit longer, but when it arrives this Fall, I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I did writing it.

the private parts

after a few posts and some (negative) feedback from friends, i will attempt to write something about tech.

fear not — my newsletter will still be weird as hell. but part of this process is figuring out what i want it to be. maybe it is work thoughts, maybe random ramblings or memories from childhood. maybe it;s free therapy. the worst writing prompt, for me, is being told i can do anything i want.

right now, im far away from home, out in the sticks of stinson, no other humans in sight. this means i have nothing to distract me from writing, which is my hell.

here, below, is something abstract but less crazy than my ramblings as of late.

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ive been thinking about zuckerbergs announcement from last week. the one about “privacy” and how facebook is gonna be the network of choice for, uh, private things now.

after the first few stories about what facebook is up to started leaking out — linking instagram, whatsapp and messenger, working on cryptocurrency stuff — mark figured out he needed to get ahead of the commentary and plant a flag, saying “this is the direction im taking facebook in the future.” he acknowledged the reality of how people are currently communicating.

little jonny doesnt want an errant twete from his idiotic teen years to surface in the middle of a big job interview in his twenties. would-be politicians or government workers dont want old, unerased Facebook Live videos of themselves hitting a dormroom gravity bong to eventually surface and derail their future runs for office. little sally influencer would hate it if yesterdays youtubes became tomorrows huge embarrassing mistake.

ive long thought snapchat was built as a reaction to the world mark zuckerberg created. evan spiegel, for all his faults, realized what the world would look like as we recorded and posted every moment of our lives for others to view, share — and use against each other. his psychology probably played into it; spiegel is a famously private person. but it was a good thing. as it turns out, some memories were meant to fade, and spiegel figured that out early (and got rich because of it).

fb as it stands wont go away for a long time. its a revenue machine churning out tens of billions of dollars a year and only growing. but as people adapt to what communication looks like in a world shaped by facebook, theyre changing.

zuckerbergs announcement last week acknowledges the spheres of the public and the private, and he wants facebook to own and operate the services that undergird both the public and the private parts of digital interactions.

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i think about my own communications these days, and how theyve shifted. i went from limited, fairly non-threatening sharing models (the aol/prodigy days of dialup) to the high-speed, internet-everywhere days where it’s never been easier to express yourself to the entire world, instantly. (think POTUS and twitter). we enjoyed that, for a time, until we realized it was too much. too much.

so now we revert to private — group chat rooms like slack, groupme, Twitter DMs, IG and wechat private groups, imessage. and we prefer things that go away instead of ones that stick around.

this is at least in part why i started this newsletter. the form is a kind of weird semi-private hybrid — a public newsletter, sent directly to inboxes, which occasionally elicits one-to-one conversations with some of you (that i greatly enjoy). it makes me feel much better than scrolling through twitter and watching performative nastiness.

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anyway ive gone on too long. heres what im listening to:

not obscure, just an old, good “being alone” track that reminds me of 2010, when i was just starting to write about tech and when i commuted to san francisco from my small, moldy apartment in emeryville. i rode the emery-go-round to bart, and i consistently forgot to carry an umbrella. in the winter in the bay area, this eventually became a problem.

(now i have five umbrellas, scattered around different parts of my unmoldy current apartment.)

precious moments

one of my grandmothers — i forgot which, and both are now gone — used to collect porcelain jesus dolls with big eyes and foreheads. they were part of a collection called precious moments. it usually involved infantilized scenes from the bible. a big baby-headed guy in a shepherds frock with a cane, directing a lamb to a patch of grass. or maybe three baby boykings looking down at a baby baby jesus in a manger.

to my knowledge there were no real violent or gnarly bible scenes. have you ever read the song of solomon? that part of the bible is racy. i dont recall them ever teaching us youngsters that book. definitely no solomon themed precious moments.

i vaguely remember at one point i got a porcelain, wide eyed archangel michael, big head and all, looking for a cartoon sword plunged deep into a cloud, sort of like a non secular version of the sword in the stone. or maybe arthur had divine right to the throne and it was already a non-secular story. i guess thats what kingship means.

when you are a kid things like this statue collection can influence you positively on religion. “look, angels have swords, kids! that means the bible is cool.” sure why not. i mostly liked the cartoon sword.

i dont remember tons about my catholic upbringing except for all the times i said i was going to the bathroom during mass. instead i used the opportunity to explore all the other rooms in the church, which were empty because everyone was attending the church part of church while i was messing around. when you are six years old and have to be quiet for an hour it might as well be an eternity.

i dont think i ever did anything actually bad during exploration time. i might have found some communion wafer sleeves and had a snack. either way, when i go to hell, it will be for something much worse than swiping communion wafers. probably all the times i ditched CCD classes.

in any case, i think at some point my grandmother gave me some of those precious moments statuette dolls. now they are probably in my familys attic in texas somewhere. it has only just dawned on me that precious moments were a kind of proto-beanie babies for religious people, only probably more expensive and less collectible.

though watch me look them up on ebay and see that im sitting on a goldmine. even if so, im too lazy to sell them online. and my ego isnt resilient enough to handle a reputation of getting rich off of jesus dolls for kids.

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