A News Feed Without News

by Peter Rojas

The day nearly every digital media company has been fearing has finally come: Facebook is going to change the way News Feed works. In a post last week Mark Zuckerberg announced that over the coming months Facebook will begin showing users less "public content from businesses, brands, and media," and instead prioritize updates and content shared by friends and family. For publishers who have become addicted to the free traffic which has flowed from Facebook users clicking and sharing articles which have populated their News Feeds, this is bad news (especially given that the amount of traffic Facebook sends publishers has already been dropping steadily since last year). For those who have built their entire readership acquisition strategy around social distribution through Facebook, it may well prove fatal.

For media companies, relying on Facebook for traffic was seductive. While the good times rolled, it was easy to overlook that despite being called "News Feed", anyone getting their news via Facebook is a side effect of the platform, not its intent. News publishers, who often put a considerable amount of effort into optimizing their content and websites to maximize Facebook shares, became accustomed to thinking of that traffic as "theirs." They mistakenly believed that the distribution of their articles and videos via News Feed was a natural extension of Facebook's core functionality -- or even the point of the platform in the first place. But Facebook's purpose is not to deliver the news, or even more broadly, "information." At the end of the day, Facebook doesn't care whether anyone becomes better informed by using Facebook. What ultimately matters to Facebook is that you continue to use it, which is why News Feed has been a machine designed to show you more and more of whatever it is that you will look at, click on, and share.

Up until this announcement it largely didn't matter whether that content was your friend's cat photos, a story about Yemen in the New York Times, or a recipe from AllRecipes. I can't tell whether Mark Zuckerberg is being disingenuous when he wrote in this past Thursday's announcement about the changes that he expects, "the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down," but that also the time spent "will be more valuable" and that in the long term such changes will be "good for our community and our business." You can bet that Facebook has already done plenty of A/B testing of these changes. It's entirely possible that they've determined that time spent will actually go up. Or that even if the amount of time the average person spends using Facebook goes down, it won't negatively impact revenue because engagement with ads improved and/or those brands and publishers which can afford it will pay for distribution they previously enjoyed for free.

Zuckerberg also said in his announcement that what content from businesses, brands, and media users see, "should encourage meaningful interactions between people." Sounds great, right? What worries me is that this may have the unintended consequence of making the fake news problem even worse. Strong engagement is why deliberately fabricated articles have done so well on Facebook in the first place. If you don't care much about being accurate -- or the damage you might do by misleading people -- it's all too easy to create content which will strike just the right kind of emotional nerve to drive clicks and shares. Today's polarized climate has made it especially easy for anything which inflames political passions to get shared, regardless of how true it may be. All that clicking and sharing is just the kind of big fat engagement signal the NewsFeed algorithms have looked for when calculating what to show users. Making things worse, these false stories didn't just have the effect of crowding out legitimate, but less engaging, content from your News Feed -- a situation which will likely be exacerbated by these changes. They also had a knock-on effect of diminishing the authority of articles which did surface in your News Feed from more established publications. How? Putting every piece of content, one after the other, in a single undifferentiated, uniformly-designed feed effectively flattens any distinctions between. You can't put a spurious site like Infowars next to a reputable publication like the New York Times in someone's News Feed and not expect the authority of the latter to rub off on the former. (This is a problem Google has as well with respect to ranking of search results.)

I don't know exactly how the new News Feed will handle issues like this. It's reasonable to assume that once publishers have some sense of what signals around engagement the algorithms are looking for, they will optimize their content for the new algorithms. Misleading content may actually be more likely to surface in users' feeds than informative content from legitimate sources as a result. It is also worth noting that most publishers won't be able to afford to pay to promote their content in order to drive click-thru. The cost of doing so will usually exceed their ability to monetize via advertising, potentially giving an advantage to anyone (including a state-sponsored actor with malicious intent) who has the resources to pay to promote misleading content into users' News Feeds but has no need to generate revenue from that traffic.

The solution to all this could be to have Facebook "do the right thing" and just show us dispassionate, authoritative, high-quality news articles anyway, right? Well, that kind of news may be better for us, but would likely lead to people using Facebook less and that would be bad for business. We don't necessarily want to admit it, but news, or at least the kind of news that we want people to read so they'll be better citizens, isn't necessarily what they want to look at online. There's nothing stopping anyone from just going directly to places like The Washington Post or Economist or New York Times to get their news (or better yet, subscribing to them). However, most people are casual consumers of news in whatever form is most convenient, whether it's via whatever they see in their Facebook feed, headlines at the top of the hour on the local FM station, or CNN when they're flipping channels. When they do actively seek out news by going directly to a source it is often to read or watch about a specific topic or area of interest, like sports, celebrity gossip, or tech (something I tapped into with Gizmodo and Engadget - during my time at each site the majority of traffic came from direct visits).

Even if social platforms like Facebook and Twitter disappeared, would any of that change? Before the rise of social media, most internet users who consumed news online did so via big portals like Yahoo and AOL (which is why getting on those homepages was a key strategy for digital media business at the time). Plus, it's not like the era immediately preceding the web was exactly a golden era of journalism producing a well-informed citizenry, either. Daily newspaper subscription rates began falling decades before the advent of the web, supplanted mainly by broadcast and then cable news. Yes, we had fewer debates over what was true and what was false, but this was because we had a media ecosystem which was largely closed to bad actors. And over time, consolidation via mergers and acquisitions meant that a relatively small number of gigantic media companies determined most of what we consumed. As damaging as Facebook has been for our political discourse, the sad reality is that most people don't go out of their way to become better informed by seeking out quality journalism about the state of national and international affairs. News Feed has been good at giving us what we want, not what we need.

For a while everything seemed great. Users who weren't naturally inclined to seek out news ended up consuming it because it showed up in their feeds. All that free traffic from Facebook masked two problems for publishers. First, a big platform which doesn't care much whether you live or die essentially controls access to your readers. Second, readers that only visited you because they clicked on a link in their News Feed probably don't have a strong connection to your brand -- or possibly even much awareness of which sites they were reading what articles. Getting them to go out of their way to find you when those links stop showing up is going to be difficult.

Could you address both of those problems by having a group of publishers come together to create a new platform for distributing their articles and videos via a News Feed-like newsreader app, perhaps one including options for monetization via ads, subscriptions, and micropayments? Yes, but simply offering an app for people to read the news and calling it a day won't be enough, especially if you want to get more people reading high quality, informative journalism and not celeb-driven clickbait. Aggregating a large audience is key, remember that all these websites flocked to share their content on Facebook in the first place because of its potential to deliver massive amounts of free traffic. Anything which doesn't move the needle in terms of audience (and hence revenue) is not going to be worth the effort. I don't pretend to have the answer here, but there would have to be something distinctive and compelling about the way news is consumed and shared on a platform like this if there's going to be any hope of attracting audiences at the scale for which publishers are looking.

That said -- and without minimizing the challenges inherent in building sustainable news businesses -- I am hopeful that in the long-run breaking publishers' addiction to Facebook traffic will free them from having to create so much pageview-driven clickbait (something even prestigious publishers engage in), allowing them instead to focus more on audiences who seek out journalism and pursue subscriptions and other non-advertising based sources of revenue. It's why I'm definitely in favor of more experimentation with how people discover and consume news; publishers have to become less reliant on big platforms like Facebook (and Google, for that matter) for distribution if they are going to survive and. For my part, I've opted out of Facebook (I quit almost eight years ago and never looked back), use an RSS reader to get most of my news (which lets me decide what sources of news I read), and am a paid subscriber to publications I value. These may be small steps, but they feel like the least I can do to help foster a healthier ecosystem around news. 

Opening the camera

by Peter Rojas

Cameras in phones were treated mainly as an afterthought or weird novelty when they first started showing up in handsets in the early 2000's. One response to a BBC article back in 2001 about cameras being added to phones in Japan was, "Infinite uses for the teenager, not entirely sure what the rest of us would do with one though." Sixteen years later it is virtually impossible to find a mobile phone without one. The camera is now a critical -- possibly even defining -- feature of the smartphone, and yet there is still a remarkable amount of friction to doing more with the default camera on your phone than capturing a photo or a video. 

That will need to change if the camera is going to be the starting point for so much of what we do with our phones and become a sort of visual browser that intermediates and augments our experience of the world. One way for that to happen would be for Apple and Google to allow developers to add lightweight extensions to the OS's default camera app, like lenses, filters, AR objects, or specialized image recognition capabilities that wouldn't necessarily justify building a full-blown app. Yes, iOS and Android developers have been able to take advantage of the phone's camera forever, but they've never been able to hook into or add onto the phone’s camera itself. 

Making the camera the place where these experiences live would help overcome context switching, which can be a remarkably high hurdle when it comes to getting users actually to engage with an app. This says nothing of getting them to install one in the first place -- something that is going to be especially important with the addition of ARKit to iOS and ARCore to Android this year. It should be as easy as possible for users to point their camera at the world and then augment, enhance, or recognize it. We should be able to have the camera open and then decide what we want to do with it, not the other way around.

There is already a precedent of sorts for this. Apple’s iMessage now has an App Store that goes beyond stickers to offer all sorts of contextual applications for enhancing chats, like Square for sending cash, or games like Crosswords with Friends. The latest figures I was able to find were from March of this year, when the iMessage App Store was estimated to have over 5,000 apps. That number has surely grown. And while Apple could do a lot to improve the experience here, being able to pull apps directly into the messaging experience makes a lot more sense than forcing users to jump out of what they're doing and into something else. 

We might see something along the lines of what I'm thinking come from Google first. Earlier this month they announced AR Stickers (basically 3D objects which can be inserted into scenes) for the camera of their line of flagship Pixel phones. They also unveiled Lens, which adds a number of computer vision-driven experiences to the Pixel's camera, like translating text written in other languages, identifying flowers, or pulling up ratings and reviews of a business simply by taking a photo of a storefront. Right now these are first-party, not third-party apps, but it’s not difficult to envision developers being able to augment the Lens experience in a variety of ways. Lens will be rolling out to Pixel phones soon, but it's expected to trickle down to other Android phones sooner or later. 

Apps which offer their own camera experiences won't go away, but opening up the camera as a sort of platform-within-a-platform would offer greater flexibility and intelligence to our devices than we have today. It would allow developers to add specialized image recognition capabilities, giving us phones which are better at knowing what they're looking it. It would also reduce the friction involved with using lenses, 3D objects, and other contextually-driven and location-based AR content and experiences, which wouldn't have to be siloed into their own apps (or only usable within Snapchat, Facebook, etc.). But perhaps most importantly, it would take us a step towards better understanding and defining the future we are headed towards, where screens themselves become secondary to the augmented view of the world we will have through smartglasses. Even if that future is still a few (or more) years away, we are approaching a time when a handheld screen with a field of icons will no longer make any sense when our expectations will be to have interfaces and experiences which surface intelligently within our field of view. Building great UX and UI for the post-smartphone world will take time, but opening up the camera would help us begin to figure this out. 

That time John Borthwicks and I were booed on stage

by Peter Rojas

The first time I ever met John Borthwick was at an event where we about to speak together on stage. About an hour later we were nearly booed off that stage. 

It was November of 2003 and back then he was working at Time Warner, which had recently stopped calling itself "AOL Time Warner." I was the editor of a new-ish gadget blog called Gizmodo. I'd been asked to speak at Time Warner's annual executive retreat about "convergence," which at the time was a very hot buzzword that had something to do with the shift from analog to digital media. Given my area of expertise they wanted someone to come in and discuss how all these crazy new devices like iPods, smartphones (the Treo 600 had just hit), and connected media players were going to change the media landscape. 

I wasn't their first choice for this. Maybe not even their second or third. Whoever had been slated to give this talk had canceled at the last minute, and they were looking for a replacement. Supposedly, the speaker had been Steve Jobs. This was probably right at the tail end of that window when anyone could get him to speak at an event like this (remember he was trying to get big media companies to support the iTunes Store, which had launched earlier that year). Regardless of who it was, Upendra Shardanand, who was at Time Warner then, and I were acquainted, and he thought I'd make a good backup speaker and so reached out and asked me if I'd do it. There wasn't much time to get something together, but after a bit of back and forth with the team there we decided that the format would be me on stage with a high-level exec interviewing me as I went through demos of various new technologies, including how to watch video on a smartphone, record TV on a Media Center PC, stream video from a PC to your TV over WiFi, etc. It's all stuff that we don't even think about now because it's so commonplace, but at the time was about as niche you could get. The exec who'd be on stage chatting with me? That was John Borthwick. 

I spent the next few days gathering up all the gear I needed for the demos and prepping so I could run through everything without a hitch. I remember being a little stressed out trying to find an HP Media Center PC in stock at my local BestBuy, but eventually I was able to buy one. I spent the evening before prepping all of my gear and getting the demos ready. The next morning I headed over to the venue and got ready for my big entrance, which the organizers decided would consist of me riding in on a Segway and then dropping it off and bounding onto the stage to tell people about the future!

Up on stage John guided me through the different parts of the presentation, asking me questions and moving us along from demo to demo. Everything was going smoothly until I got to the part where I wanted to show how easy it was to download video off the internet and stream it from the hard drive to your PC to your TV via a WiFi-enabled DVD player that Gateway used to sell that supported DivX files. I'd torrented an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm for the demo, forgetting that the show aired on HBO, which was owned by Time Warner. We were about three seconds in before the HBO and Time Warner execs started booing and hissing. Keep in mind that this was just a couple of years after Napster had upended the music industry and presumably the collected assembly of high-powered media execs wanted to get some insight into what was coming next for video on the internet and how they might avoid that same fate, not a primer on how to pirate their IP. 

Flummoxed, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind, which was, "Look, I don't even have cable, I don't really need Time Warner at all to watch this show," which as you can imagine, did not do anything to win the audience over to my side. John managed to calm things down a bit and move us along to the last bit of the presentation before I sheepishly exited the stage. I hadn't had a ton of public speaking experience at that point, and none of it involved being booed at, so it was a little rough. I'm not sure I slept much that night.

A few days later I received a very nice note in the mail from Dick Parsons, who was CEO of Time Warner at the time, thanking me for my talk and saying that even though it wasn't pleasant, it was important for them to hear what I'd had to say.   

I didn't speak to John afterward -- I was way too embarrassed -- but somehow everything worked out. Two years later, in 2005,  AOL (which was by now a subsidiary of Time Warner) bought the company I'd started a few months after all this happened. By 2008 I'd reconnected with John courtesy of mutual friend Om Malik, and a year later his startup studio, betaworks, invested in another startup of mine (AOL also ended up buying that company, oddly enough). Two years ago, as I was preparing to leave AOL for the second time, John asked me to join betaworks and help raise a new seed fund. Now, fourteen years after being booed on stage together, John and I (along with Matt Hartman) are partners in the new betaworks ventures seed fund

Maybe We're Wrong About What Makes for Great VR

by Peter Rojas

Have we been thinking about what makes for great VR in the wrong way? There's a lot of anxiety in the industry lately about sluggish consumer adoption rates, which have been slower than hoped after last year's launch of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony's Playstation VR. This anxiety is only compounded when comparing time spent using VR headsets against that of smartphones (which all of us use off and on all day now), television (which still consumes 5 hours of the average American's day), and console gaming.
It's still early, so it's understandable that adoption is happening slowly, but what if total time spent is the wrong benchmark for determining whether VR is valuable to us? This question had been gnawing away at me for the past year or so since I picked up HTC's Vive headset, but it was only after playing the new co-operative quest games that were recently added to popular social VR game Rec Room, that I was finally able to put my finger on it. [I should disclose that betaworks ventures is an investor in Against Gravity, the company behind Rec Room, but to be clear the reason we invested in Rec Room is because it's awesome; hopefully I still have some cred in these matters.] Rec Room currently has two quests: The Quest for the Golden Trophy, which is a dungeon crawler where you use virtual swords, bows, and crossbows to battle a variety of enemies through a number of different levels; and The Rise of Jumbotron, an Eighties-themed laser tag-style campaign that involves defeating hordes of robots. 
Neither quest breaks new ground thematically, but that's not the point. Playing in room-scale VR, where you're physically moving around, brings an entirely new level of immersiveness to the experience and Against Gravity got a bunch of little details right about the collaborative game play. Both quests are challenging -- you almost certainly need three other players along for the ride to finish it -- but it's not so hard that you can't get through it with some persistence, and the first time I played The Quest for the Golden Trophy it took me and the crew of three other players I'd never met before about 45 minutes to get through it. 
Forty-five minutes of gameplay would be short for a AAA title like GTA V or Skyrim (I'm about 55 hours into Skyrim), but what struck me was was how satisfying it felt after I was done. For those forty-five minutes I was entirely immersed in the experience, working hard not to let down the three strangers I'd been randomly paired up with, and absolutely ecstatic when after several tries we were able to complete it. But what I hadn't expected was that at the end I was perfectly content to take my headset off and go back to the real world. I didn't want to keep playing or to spend a couple more hours inside of my headset. Playing The Quest was like eating a satisfying meal, one where I didn't leave feeling either hungry or overstuffed. 

It was one of the best experiences I've had to date in VR and one that's stuck with me, and it has me wondering if a lot of us have been focusing on the wrong things when it comes to creating great VR experiences. It's natural to want to contextualize VR by comparing it to smartphones, television, and game consoles, the other tech platforms it most closely resembles, but that would be a mistake. Mobile is something which we thread throughout every waking moment of our day, but in sort of a light way. We check our phones a hundred or more times a day, but usually for no more than a few minutes at a time. It's not hard to watch TV or play console (and PC) games for hours and hours upon end. 
VR is different. The best VR experiences are heavily concentrated--they draw you completely in and demand more of you sensorially, emotionally, and (if you have a room-scale headset like the Rift or Vive) physically. Judging VR on the same terms as either mobile (as something that we use throughout the day or even every day) or console and PC gaming (as something we can do for hours at a time) doesn't make sense. Maybe we'll only spend forty-five minutes a week using VR, but what we'll get during that time is something so immersive and engrossing that it might be the most engaging, fun, or productive forty-five minutes of your week. 
I don't quite know what this means in terms of where VR goes. In some sense spending time in VR starts to look more like a luxury good than anything else, something that you don't consume constantly, but when you do you savor it and come away immensely satisfied. If that's the case, the benchmark for a good VR experience should be something so good that you'll be happy to take off your headset when you're done. This has all kinds of implications for what kinds of VR products should be created and which businesses should be built -- I won't pretend to know the answers here -- but I'm convinced that VR startups which obsess over offering people the best forty-five minutes of their week will have the best chance of figuring it out.