Snapchat Plans to Offer Original Media Content

In a new feature of the app, Snapchat will soon offer original media from outlets like ESPN, CNN, National Geographic, Vice and Yahoo. And accompanying these new snaps? Ads from “big consumer brands,” reports Mike Isaac of the New York Times.

What does this mean for Snapchat and its partners? Revenue! Reaching Young People! Becoming a Media Company!

As Isaac tells us, the shows or snaps or whatever else ESPN conjures will be cut up with advertisements, TV-commercial style, with the money from the ads shared between Snapchat and its media partners. Discover is the name of the new feature. For Snapchat, Discover means revenue.

For CNN and National Geographic and every other media company jumping in, Snapchat provides an audience of young humans who buy stuff. These same young people also promote the products of media companies by sharing things online (free labor!), a habit of consumption that doubles as pro bono marketing for businesses that produce content.

And lastly, for Snapchat, whose CEO Evan Spiegel is said to be “fascinated by the media”, this represents a new business push. Perhaps Spiegel sees the future of Snapchat as a media platform, in the image of YouTube or Vimeo or Vine. One question is: how will Discover co-exist with snaps? Perhaps users can send Yahoo  or Vice clips that live on Discover as a snap. How will the two intermingle?

So far, it’s unclear how Snapchat will make any money as a disappearing picture-message service. Maybe this focus on media is a way to buy time until they figure that out. It could also be the new direction of the company, with Facebook as the model: a social network built on the correspondence of friends, but funded by targeted ads and the distribution of published work.

Thoughts on Net Neutrality Hearings in Congress

On Wednesday I attended two hearings on Capitol Hill, one in the House, and another in the Senate. The expert witnesses were lawyers, entrepreneurs, lobbyists, and researchers and expressed a range of views spanning from “Please, God save us from the tyranny of Comcast” to “Net Neutrality is the Obamacare of the Internet.” I’m on the record as a “Please, God save us” person, and by that I mean we need a robust, powerful FCC to ensure net neutrality. Most obviously, this means that blocking, throttling, and internet fast lanes aren’t good. And that regulators should have the foresight and flexibility to deal with novel forms of data discrimination.

Among the Democratic and Republican lawmakers, I saw mostly irreconcilable differences. The only thing both sides could agree on was the inane concept of an “open internet,” which is almost as worthless as saying they agreed on a democratic way of life. They wanted to sound earnest, though. I think I heard the word “bipartisan” almost as many times as I heard “innovation.” But I don’t want you to believe both parties are to blame. The Republicans in these hearings have an immense and irrational fear that sensible government rules will somehow halt interstate commerce.

The way these hearings are structured is basically one side asks their sympathetic expert witness a softball question and nods along aggressively. Like in a trial, you attempt to solicit a favorable answer out of your witness. And, through probing questions directed to your unsympathetic witness, you try to poke holes in the other side’s story. You work to make it look inconsistent or wrong or dangerous.

As you can imagine, this kind of highly structured debate prevents any real kind of conversation, like, say, the kind you’d find in a classroom. It encourages every witness and every line of questioning to exist in its own universe of understanding such that one person can say something that completely contradicts the other side and the audience is sort of left there to wonder what the hell is going on. This is especially true with technology issues. With those, the expertise of the witnesses far exceeds that of the lawmakers. (You can’t really prod a former FCC commissioner, even if you disagree with him, because he knows the intricacies of the issue with more fine detail. What would be better is if the expert witnesses could argue with each other.)

And the actual content of the hearings? …Mostly a rehearsal of the main arguments we’ve seen. (At The Vergeyou can find more of my own opinions.)

Republicans argue:

1) The FCC is a rogue, unaccountable agency
2) Title II regulation (treating ISPs as utilities) is a law unfit for our times
3) Strong net neutrality rules would chill investment and innovation

Democrats argue:

1) The FCC is an important watchdog
2) Title II regulation is the only meaningful way forward
3) Strong net neutrality rules would bolster competition and ensure consumer protection.

More Observations:

* Two people in the House hearing, Representative Eshoo and Michael Powell, a former FCC Commissioner, referred to Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson as “Mr. Etsy.”

* The concept of “digital redlining” was an interesting sub-theme, as was municipal broadband deployment (allowing cities to create their own networks to compete with ISPs).

* When it became apparent that the mic’s on the Democratic side weren’t working correctly, the Republican Chairman, Greg Walden, said: “It wasn’t an attempt to throttle.” This was a pretty good joke for a telecom hearing.

My Story at The Verge: A Republican Version of Net Neutrality

For The Verge I wrote about a Republican backed proposal to ensure net neutrality.

A critical reading of the bill finds the Republicans eager to pay lip service to net neutrality while stripping the open internet of key protections. A law that relegates the telecom’s chief regulatory watchdog into a large stack of three-ring binders isn’t exactly an advocate’s dream. The bill gestures towards addressing the loudest demands surrounding net neutrality. But its rules would also leave the FCC largely inert. And a skeptical interpreter reads the proposal and sees the handwriting of telecom industry lobbyists: it may not be drafted by the colossal internet companies it’s meant to regulate, but all the power squeezed from regulatory ambiguities is channeled in their direction. When Republicans describe this bill as true net neutrality, it might be suitable to tell them: You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

All The News That’s Fit for The Feed

In a recent blog post aimed at news publishers, Facebook noted the surge in popularity of uploaded video. On your news feed you may have noticed that many videos auto-play without having to click on them. The videos that don’t auto-play are links to sites outside of Facebook. The videos that do are hosted directly on Facebook, like status updates and photos. For news publishers and other brands, the incentive is to upload videos directly to Facebook so that they’ll play automatically and generate more engagement from Facebook users. The blog post was an acknowledgment of this fact, and served as guidance for news companies: This is how to tailor videos to better suit your Facebook audience.

But it wasn’t just that. For John Herrman and Will Oremus, this announcement was a glimpse into the future, where Facebook wields even more power over the production and distribution of news.

Here’s Herrman:

This post is titled “What the Shift to Video Means for Creators” but describes no such thing. What the shift to Facebook video means is that Facebook is more interested in hosting the things media companies make than just spreading them, that it views links to outside pages as a problem to be solved, and that it sees Facebook-hosted video as an example of the solution. A company that uploads its videos to Facebook is not the publisher of those videos. At best, it produced them.

For Herrman, the auto-play video feature is a major step towards Facebook not just helping to spread the news but to host it, and in a real way to own it.

Taking this yet another step, Oremus envisions a time when it’s not just video that’s auto-played. He considers GIFs and lists and even news articles that live as Facebook-native posts, enlarging as you scroll through them.

In Herrman and Oremus’ analysis, Facebook views the websites of media outlets as middlemen. Why click links on Facebook only to be rerouted to sites away from the news feed? Why not instead have all content hosted on Facebook, so that there’s no reason to leave?

What concerns me about this is that if the news feed is granted more power as a home-base for journalism, then it will also have more influence over the editorial content of news.

One hint into the Facebook-native news future, I think, is the way Ferguson news coverage on Facebook was eclipsed on the feed by the omnipresent ice bucket challenge. As many noted at the time, Twitter was fixated on Ferguson, and rightly so; meanwhile it was as if the events surrounding Michael Brown’s death were nonexistent on Facebook. This contrast in the realities of two social networks highlighted the journalistic power of Twitter and the anodyne, joy-prone, mindless nonsense of Facebook.

What would the news look like under the novel pressures of Facebook’s news feed?

Singapore Wants a Driverless Version of Uber

“As driverless cars edge slowly toward commercial reality, some people are wondering how cities might change as a result. Will traffic lights disappear? Will parking garages become obsolete? Will carpooling become the norm?” Michael Fitzgerald writes at MIT Technology Review on Singapore’s upcoming initiative.

Through the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, the city has had pilot tests of driverless cars for several years, starting with two driverless golf carts on the campus of the National University of Singapore. This year it added a Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric car, retrofitted to be autonomous. A driverless bus called the Navia is used as a shuttle at Singapore’s Cleantech eco-industrial park and on campus at Nanyang Technology University.

In Battle to Defang ISIS, U.S. Targets Its Psychology

At the New York Times, Eric Schmitt reports on our government’s efforts to combat ISIS, specifically its psychology, marketing, and use of technology. The article focuses on General Michael Nagata, commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East.

Trying to decipher this complex enemy — a hybrid terrorist organization and a conventional army — is such a conundrum that General Nagata assembled an unofficial brain trust outside the traditional realms of expertise within the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies, in search of fresh ideas and inspiration. Business professors, for example, are examining the Islamic State’s marketing and branding strategies.

Nagata comes across as deeply curious, skeptical of dismissing our enemies as small minded monsters we can destroy with sheer firepower.

During the call, General Nagata alluded to the Islamic State’s sophisticated use of social media to project and amplify its propaganda, and insisted the United States needed “people born and raised in the region” to help combat the problem.

“I want to engage in a long-term conversation to understand a commonly held view of the psychological, emotional and cultural power of I.S. in terms of a diversity of audiences,” the general said. “They are drawing people to them in droves. There are I.S. T-shirts and mugs.”

Nagata’s initiative sounds promising. What worries me, though, is the tone of the article. It suggests this kind of thinking — on intangibles, culture, and the motivations of our adversaries — is stridently innovative and out of the ordinary.

We weren’t doing this before?