The Concretude of the Cloud

6/8/2023

The word “cloud” was adopted by the tech industry to refer to the large realms of scalable servers.

Thanks to it, any company, startup or individual entrepreneur no longer needs to bear the high upfront infrastructure costs to launch a service on the internet. The cloud allows you to start small (and spending little) and grow continuously, according to demand, fast or slow.

It’s a brilliant model. No wonder, the industry leaders — Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure — have become huge players and are very profitable.

Like all transformative technology, we are fascinated by the good side of the cloud and forget the risks of market concentration, eventual unavailability, security and collateral costs, hidden by the shadow of the optimism that technological progress impregnates in itself. Rare and/or incipient, but still present, these risks in general reveal the physical nature of the cloud, built with many limited natural resources, such as rare metals, silicon, and water.

This Bloomberg report (no paywall) caught my attention showing regions that suffer from historical droughts and, at the same time, house large data centers of companies such as Meta, Microsoft and Amazon.

These data centers, the physical addresses of the “cloud”, consume huge amounts of water. One of Meta in Talavera de la Reina, Spain, still on paper, is expected to spend 665 million liters per year. At peak times, it will be 195 liters per second to cool machines that support the digital cloud.

Not by chance, they have generated dissatisfaction and dislike of people who live in the places where they are installed or intend to settle. Suddenly, they are forced to share the little water available with computers.

It is ironic that the “cloud” of the titans of technology behaves in the opposite way to that of nature: instead of bringing water, it consumes it. Unless it counts as “water” that rain noise from streaming apps, possible only thanks to the digital cloud.

Thanks, Elon, for rebranding Twitter to X

27/7/2023

It’s been a while that Twitter rots in public square town, sabotaged by its owner himself. Elon Musk’s latest great idea was to throw the “Twitter” brand away and rebrand the service as X. Yes, the letter X.

I was incredulous, as on many occasions since October 2022, when I heard about it. Today, I kinda like the change. It puts an end to the agonizing degradation of Twitter and helps to separate the legacy of a far from perfect company, but with its fair share of good ideas and intentions, from the absolutely chaos established by Musk.

The change is still ongoing, and this is also a huge mess. On Monday (24th), when it started, a crane stopped work halfway when it was dismantling the Twitter sign, at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco, because Musk had no license from the city hall to operate the machine.

The “X” brand, by the way, is already owned in the US, and not by a no-one: Microsoft has had the X brand for communication of its Xbox video game since 2003, and Meta, for an X in white and blue for areas that include software and social media.

Twitter’s rebranding has reached the service itself. The official handle, @Twitter, was exchanged for @X, which until Tuesday night (25th) was owned by photographer Gene X. Whang, who had had it for 16 years.

Whang got an email from Twitter, I mean, X, offering some swag (did not specify of which brand) and the opportunity to meet Musk’s gang. His new handle in the service is @x1234567998765.

Anyone who works in marketing, from first-year undergraduate students to the world’s greatest experts, will say that it’s crazy to retire a ubiquitous brand like Twitter.

“Tweet” became a verb, the Holy Grail of marketing.

This and other decisions by Musk are incomprehensible under rational arguments. It’s like he’s burning the USD 44 billion (which he didn’t have at hand) he paid for Twitter.

Is Musk crazy? I don’t think so. Or, at least, not for that reason. What is known is that he is a reactionary extremist who, before and after the acquisition of Twitter, has always disdained political agendas that were important to many people who use(d?) and made Twitter.

Seen through this lens, the acquisition of Twitter and the destruction to which it has subjected the company makes more sense. It’s, as Casey Newton put it in his newsletter, an act of cultural vandalism. In the eagerness to kill the “woke virus” (the kind of virus that people like Musk believe in), the billionaire is willing to kill the host. It’s already killed. RIP Twitter.

The official message, embraced by Linda Yaccarino, another crazy person who serves as fake CEO for Musk, the rebranding is the first step towards the creation of an “everything app” — social network, digital wallet, classifieds, job board.

This delusional promise is not new. Musk has been repeating it for a long time, inspired by the Chinese WeChat app. In the late 1990s, he tried something similar on PayPal, (bad) name X and everything else. Before being the richest person in the world and in a place where he did not hold 100% of the voting power, he was defeated.

Everyone dreams, even those who have everything that mere mortals dream of having. Dreams, however, are just dreams until they come true. Would anyone risk putting your credit card on a site that breaks every single day and is managed by a lunatic like Musk? Not me.

In “Traffic”, Ben Smith Tells BuzzFeed's Origin, Rise And Fall Story

6/6/2023

In June 2015, Jonah Peretti, founder of BuzzFeed, went to the headquarters of the New York Times to explain to the centennial newspaper how this internet thing worked.

In the words of Ben Smith, then editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed’s news arm, Jonah “was a mammal explaining to the dinosaurs how he had evolved beyond them.”

The excerpt is on a chapter of Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral, Ben’s new book that retells the origin, rise and fall of BuzzFeed.

For much of the 2010s, BuzzFeed seemed to be the future of journalism, the model of digital transformation to be followed by the traditional press, still clinging to the paper and practices of the 20th century.

At some point, however, the premises of BuzzFeed and his peers proved to be fragile, the big techs — especially Meta/Facebook — betrayed everyone and, in the end, it’s the media dinosaurs that will probably survive the yet to come extinction of BuzzFeed.

As in every good story, Traffic brings a range of characters with striking characteristics. Ben embodied Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, a New York blogging network with a pledge for absolute transparency, Jonah’s antagonist in the billionaire race to which the book’s subtitle alludes.

Nick was pure instinct. Jonah, rational — the mad scientist exploring formulas to make content go viral on the internet. In common, both were obsessed with traffic, with raw audience numbers. She was the measure of success, the goal to be hit, everything that mattered.

The internet bought this narrative, which led BuzzFeed to reject a USD 450 million offer from Disney and, at some point, worth USD 1.8 billion after successive rounds of VC money.

But the promise that traffic would be the gold of the press in the internet era was not sustained for long. When the then Facebook discovered that it could profit much more by keeping the viral cycles within its domains, instead of opening the traffic firehose for the open web, the future of BuzzFeed and everything it represented was put in check.

Interestingly, according to Ben’s report, it was the biggest event in the history of BuzzFeed that turned on this light on Mark Zuckerberg’s head: “The Dress”, an uncompromising post that asked the audience the color of a black and blue (or was it white and gold?) dress, that got 37 million views alone.

Traffic, as they came to discover in the worst way that wave of progressive journalists and entrepreneurs, was fool’s gold. Worse than not paying the bills at the end of the month, the obsession with traffic generated questionable incentives and content.

It was not with Facebook, but before, still with Digg, that this strange alignment was apparent, as Ben says:

Digg’s power came from an opaque blend of community and algorithm, and it was beginning to shape not just what got read but how the news was written. The tail had begun to wag the dog; the story had begun to chase the traffic.

Perhaps who best understood the new dynamic on the internet was initially supporting figures in the story, such as Andrew Breitbart, Steve Bannon. and Benny Johnson. They participated, in some way, in the stories of BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and Gawker. Years later, they used techniques similar to those employed by Jonah and Nick to radicalize the political debate and elect abject figures such as Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte. and Jair Bolsonaro.

In the book, Ben makes a big “mea culpa” in this regard:

At Donald Trump’s White House in 2019, right-wingers were celebrating the conversion of traffic not into money, as Jonah and Nick had imagined, but into raw political power.

The internet of 2023 is very different from the one that saw the empires of Nick and Jonah grow. The New York Times and other renowned newspapers learned to navigate the digital and made a bold bet — on paid subscriptions — that paid handsomely in 2016, when Trump arrived at the White House.

Gawker was decimated by Silicon Valley money. In a puppet process driven by Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea for an intimate video leaked by the vehicle, conservative mega-investor Peter Thiel threw some money to get Nick out of the game.

Jonah, by leaps and bounds, survived Facebook’s turn, which suddenly dried up the tsunami of traffic it sent to external sites — BuzzFeed among the biggest beneficiaries.

In December 2021, BuzzFeed went public in a SPAC, a financial instrument that facilitated many IPOs, although most were of bad papers. At that time, BuzzFeed was already a bad deal.

BuzzFeed’s market value, of USD 1.7 billion on its the IPO, plummeted already in the first week of trading. In May 2023, the value of the share fell below USD 1. If it not reverse this scenario by the end of the year, BuzzFeed will be delisted from Nasdaq.

After dissolving the award-winning journalism team and ending BuzzFeed News (ironically, days before Traffic’s release in the US), BuzzFeed’s new bet to become profitable is to use artificial intelligence to generate quizzes and travel guides in large volume at pennies.

Discuss @ Hacker News.

20 Years of WordPress

26/5/2023

In the early days, the web had many beautiful, romantic phases, in which things were simpler and people online, less prone to aggression, more innocent and/or prone to the good things in life.

In the early 2000s, the technical side of the web was also going through an interesting moment. Suddenly, sites went from being static to becoming dynamic.

Among the many systems of that period, on May 27th 2003, a small CMS for blogs called WordPress appeared. It was the beginning of — I think it’s safe to say — a revolution.

Few software has had such a profound impact on my life — that of millions of people — as WordPress.

WordPress was easy to install, easy to use, and easy to modify. Created as an open source project, it quickly attracted a dedicated community, which developed plugins, themes, wrote tons of documentation, and was always helpful to strangers trying to customize and solve problems on their own sites running WordPress.

It is estimated that b2/cafelog, the spiritual predecessor of WordPress, was used by about 2,000 sites in May 2003. Today, at 20 on an exponentially larger web, WordPress accounts for about 43% of all active sites in the world.

WordPress is also an inspiration as a business. Parallel to the open source project, co-founder Matt Mullenweg started a for-profit company, Automattic, and created a system in which the two parties feed each other, one strengthening the other, in a sustainable way.

Even today, anyone who wants to use WordPress can download the source code and install it on any server. Those who do not want to deal with servers and code, from weekend writers to small businesses, to large companies, have in the services of Automattic (and countless other partners) the relatively cheap managed option to enjoy the two decades of WordPress development.

There’s a lot to like about WordPress. Not everything was a breeze on this journey, however. In 2018, WordPress 5.0 ignited a new era in the project, that of the Gutenberg block editor. In place of the good and old text area for writing posts, we got a very visual system, with blocks of various content that can be embedded and remixed to create posts and pages — and, later on, entire sites.

I feel that people like me, who still use WordPress as a CMS, an editor for blogs, ended up being a little cornered. My Portuguese-written blog, which was born on and continues to use WordPress, has no plans to move to the blocks world. WordPress’ flexibility allows me to reverse some “progress” made, such as the block editor, and keep (some) things as they were until 2018.

More than that, WordPress, with its intuitive yet simple layout structure and powerful plugins, allows me to create a site that I never imagined I could build back there, when I uploaded my first blog with it; a site exactly as I wish.

Thanks to Matt, Mike Little (another co-founder), to all the volunteers who helped and help make WordPress and, directly or indirectly, help me make my little, charming site on the web.

Code is poetry.

May another 20 years come!

Discuss @ Hacker News.

Mastodon Isn't Web3 And Has Nothing To Do With Cryptocurrencies

22/5/2023

“The Hidden Dangers of the Decentralized Web,” says the title of an opinion piece on Wired.

The author, Jessica Maddox, assistant professor of digital media technology at the University of Alabama, puts networks based on the ActivityPub protocol, such as Mastodon, in the same basket of scams such as cryptocurrencies and web3.

It’s a mistake. And, if we stick to the specifics, even “decentralized web” is somewhat imprecise, since the web (a network) is, by definition, decentralized.

The movements that raise the flag of decentralization do so as a reaction to market forces that have subverted this characteristic. (And, although they refer to the “web,” in some cases they don’t even run on the web.)

We can, and should, always strive to build better, more accessible, and more inclusive technology. But decentralizing the web into walled-off silos seems unlikely to accomplish this goal.

Incredibly, the excerpt above does not refer to the Meta and Google platforms, but to those of web3 and Mastodon.

I don’t think Jessica is stupid, which leaves me puzzled by the reasons that would lead someone who supposedly gets it to publish such a misinformation.

Discuss @ Hacker News.

Substack is the Biggest Threat to Newsletters Ever

19/4/2023

Substack is to newsletters what Spotify is to podcasts, Medium was to blogs, and what Google Reader was to RSS: an aggressive player that dominates an entire segment with artificial and unsustainable advantages in a risky bet. It’s a kind of corporate time bomb that, when it explodes, will destroy countless small businesses based on newsletters.

Notes, the Twitter clone that got a huge advertising campaign from Elon Musk for free, is already a symptom of the threat Substack represents.

Newsletters alone are not a business capable of the growing levels that could satisfy Silicon Valley investors’ appetite for stratospheric profit. It takes much more than a healthy business — which Substack isn’t yet — to achieve that.

Between 2018 and 2021, Substack raised USD 82.4 million from VCs such as Andresseen Horowitz (a16z) to grow and deploy its business model, which consists of charging 10% of paid subscriptions that writers collect from their readers. (If a writer doesn’t charge for their newsletter, Substack earns nothing.)

In 2022, the company tried to raise more money, without success. Faced with failure, it went to retail and raised another USD 8.5 million from ordinary people.

In deciding to go this way, Substack had to open up some numbers to convince people to invest. In 2021, the company made $12 million and had a loss of $22 million. The 2022 figures were not disclosed only because the founders didn’t want to, a move that doesn’t inspire confidence.

The launch of Notes, its chat feature, and the release of an app are building blocks to create value for users, yes, but also to wall off the platform leveraging its newsletter thing.

In several interviews, Substack founders make the point that people who have newsletters on the service can leave whenever they want. And it’s true. The point of Substack, however, is to become synonymous for newsletter, to become a first irresistible, then inevitable destination for anyone who wants to have one.

Only this path is not a smooth one. As it gains prominence in the relationship between writers and readers, Substack will have to deal with new challenges. For example, with Notes, which has an algorithmic timeline, it will need to moderate content.

In an interview with Nilay Patel on Decoder podcast, Chris Best, co-founder and CEO of Substack, refused to answer whether his company would remove explicitly racist content from Notes. (This excerpt is embarrassing.)

The founders’ thesis, of Substack being a “economic engine of culture,” is pretty weird: Substack would function as a kind of ideal destination for those who want to own, promote, and make a living from newsletter, i.e., a platform, but without the headaches that running a platform usually brings, and somehow, even though it’s a closed and private platform, people can trust that the management will always do what’s best for writers and will never go full Elon Musk-ish in the future, even though that’s always a possibility.

I listened to the entire Decoder interview, the CEO’s explanations and promises and, like Nilay, I was not convinced what the big deal is about Substack except for it being a free newsletter service funded by venture capital and run by tech bros.

Nevertheless, the clash with Twitter and the Notes launch has resonated well. Ernie Smith of Tedium is also skeptical about the future of Substack, but has been moved to the point of launching a “lite” version of his newsletter there, in what he calls a “defensive measure.” If Substack really does become synonymous for newsletters, not using it could be the end for small businesses like his.

Ernie advises others to follow his example. I advise against it, for the sake of newsletters.

I understand the appeal of Substack. Sending emails isn’t expensive, but it’s not free, and a completely free service like Substack is tempting. I would even say it’s the single reason so many newsletters have sprung up in recent years. On other newsletter platforms there is a big gap between a limited free tier and the first paid ones, which can be expensive for amateurs writers.

The fact that Substack is the only one that is totally free is no accident. Someone is footing that bill; they are not philanthropists and these people are going to demand to get paid pretty soon.

Discuss @ Hacker News.

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