Power, Responsibilities, Choices and Agendas

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Capitol Building on the 6th of Jan 2021, multiple companies either severed their business relationships with Trump’s organizations or banned him on their platforms altogether. Different views arose. Some agreed that Trump was too radioactive and too harmful. His supports protested the backlash levied on their hero. Others pondered whether some companies like Twitter and Facebook should have the power to ban even the President of the United States.

It has been a week since that happened and I thought a lot about two things. The first is the famous line that Spider Man’s uncle told him: with great power come great responsibilities. The other is this clip:

If you’re not a Marvel fan, this is the scene where the superheroes debated whether they should be put under guidance and supervision by a panel, instead of making their own choices. Some led by Tony Stark thought they should be, while others led by Captain America disagreed, saying that the panel would be run by people with agendas and agendas change. Cap reasoned that surrendering their right to choose and submitting to people’s agendas, especially with their superhero power was too big a risk.

There are multiple issues here. First, think about what Captain America said about agendas and what happens in real life. The legislative and judicial systems are supposed to be there to rein in the Executive Branch, especially the President. What has happened in the last 4 years is nothing but that. The Republican officials in Congress did Trump’s bidding and closed their eyes on the crimes and misdemeanor that he has committed. Why? Because they follow their own agendas and want to stay in power. Angering Trump will provoke him to turn on them and tell his supporters to remove the dissenters from office. What is supposed to supervision and a check against balance becomes gas to the fuel.

Some argued that powerful platforms should be supervised by a committee or panel of experts or regulated by the government. Either option is run by people with agendas and like Cap said, agendas change. What if the government doesn’t like criticisms made on a government-controlled Facebook and decides to ask the company to censor them? What if the politicians and the powerful work behind the scenes to install friendly faces on the supervising panel/committee? It’s not an exaggeration to say that the likes of Google, Facebook or Twitter have superpower heroes. Used the right way, they can further the society’s interests. Used the wrong way, they can be very harmful weapons.

But should these companies have that much unchecked power at their disposal? Let’s talk about the accusation that they censor content on their platforms. The extreme case first. Trump is the President of the United States. As long as he has something to say, media outlets all over the world will likely broadcast it, even when it is an outrageous claim. He can have a press conference, a rally or he can call in right-wing media which also has significant reach to broadcast his messages. Being banned on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t amount to a complete censor. He was banned because he repeatedly violated the terms of services written and imposed by private entities; which gives them the right to act like they did. Had he not pushed the envelope too far like when he incited violence on the 6th of Jan 2021, he wouldn’t have been banned. Two months after the election, he repeatedly called into question the legitimacy of the election, yet the likes of Facebook and Twitter didn’t ban him. That should be the evidence that if anyone is to blame for Trump not being on Twitter or Facebook, it will be him and him alone.

The same goes for other users. These social media platforms want and need you to engage with their platforms so that they can bring in valuable ads dollars. If you don’t commit grave offenses that warrant a ban, there is economic benefit to these platforms to ban and purge you without a legitimate reason. What’s the point of building a platform and acquiring users without wanting to keep them? Plus, the Internet allows anyone to broadcast his or her opinion in multiple ways. Banned on Twitter? Try Facebook. Banned on Facebook? Try Snapchat. Banned on Snapchat? Try writing an op-ed to a newspaper and getting it published. That doesn’t work either? Try having a blog and advertising it. Want to get the message out in person? Try having a small rally or a speech at a market.

Social media platforms connect people, including the good guys and the deplorable. They are also essentially megaphones that send wide and far well-intentioned messages or on the opposite, purely harmful agendas. A knife is a great cooking tool, but in the hands of a criminal, it’s a weapon that can take one’s life. How social media are used hinges much on the users. Since it’s practically impossible to prevent the extreme or the propagandists, the platforms have to take up the responsibility to ensure their platforms do more good than harm.

As private entities, these companies have agendas. The people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey and their confidants have agendas. If they were just “normal” folks, their ethics would affect only themselves and those around them. However, because they are vested with immense power, the importance of their own ethics is amplified so that they can wield the power responsibly. Their ethical compass will dictate what their agendas are and whether the greater goods look like. As to what can be the fail-safe/safeguard against these powerful individuals, I would argue that it would be competition. Powerful as politicians in the US are, they listen to their donors which, in turn, listen to their customers to some extent because of the risk that customers will flock to their competitors. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack last week, big companies and political donors decided to stay away from Trump and some halted their political donors to those that voted against the certification of the election. That should have a sway on the elected officials’ mind, whether they publicly take action or not. Moreover, Whatsapp delayed the rollout of their new privacy terms which would make it easier for them to share data with Facebook because users protested and flocked to rival apps such as Signal. Without competition and action by users, such a reversal wouldn’t happen. Powerful as Facebook is, they are not immune to the threat from competition.

I don’t claim to know how to encourage healthy competition in the market. I refer it to the people whose full-time job is to make laws. What I am trying to say is that between encouraging competition and creating an oversight that can be tainted by personal agendas, I would prefer the former. I don’t know about you, but my experience in Vietnam the US so far hasn’t given me much confidence in the latter.

Weekly readings – 10th October 2020

What I wrote

Please vote!

Ableist culture

Business

Apparently, Airlines’ loyalty programs are highly coveted and valued

How Singapore’s Sea is surfing Southeast Asia’s digital wave

Insider story on Mackenzie Scott, an author and a reclusive $60-billion woman

A deeper look inside the airline industry. It’s true that this is an extremely tough industry to be in with high capital intensiveness. But looking at it from another angle, can we afford not flying any more? If you open a local restaurant, you may have a new competitor the day after. The chance of such a phenomenon happening in the airline industry is slim to none. There are always two sides of a coin.

Venmo announced its first credit card. The concept of tailoring the highest cash back rate to the highest spending category is pretty interesting

Goldman Sachs and Moody forecast that a Biden administration would be better for the economy and the Americans

A great interview with Daniel Elk on leadership, management and decision-making process

Technology

Additional steps that Twitter is taking ahead of the election

What I found interesting

A very damning account of how this country failed a lot of people. You can’t deny that the US has a problem when it has a man worth $200 billion while there are a lot of men like the guy in this article

A sad story on how the eviction system fails citizens in DC

A study on the brand intimacy of the top brands in the US. Amazon, Disney and Apple lead the way

Furthermore, there is good reason to believe that our limited progress in fighting the COVID-19 virus has at least partially caused our continuing high unemployment rate. Had we been as successful in each measure as the other OECD countries, nearly nine million more Americans would be employed and over 100,000 would still be alive.

Source: Brookings Institution

A study on Gen Z

Source: Zebra

Weekly readings – 18th July 2020

What I wrote

Uber’s latest chess moves

An interview with AirBnb CEO Brian Chesky on the future of his company and travel

What I think of a potential Twitter subscription feature

A groundbreaking and disheartening study on violence against women in Vietnam

Chris Evans started a project to facilitate communication between voters and elected officials. It’s called A Starting Point

Business

Kroger conducted a test in which they moved plant-based meat into the meat section at some select stores. The test proved that the move lifted sales of plant-based meat. This is great news for suppliers such as Beyond Meat and environmentalists.

In the past, I was somewhat bearish on Netflix’s prospect, but I have grown more bullish over the past year. The high retention figure below bolsters the new position

Source: Second Measure

Lidl’s entering the Long Island market caused competitors to reduce item prices by 8% to 15%. It’s worth noting that Lidl commissioned the study, but it was independently conducted.

Amazon is formidable in online grocery. The company leads many aspects in the latest study on consumer satisfaction with online grocery services.

Technology

US Netflix Subscribers Watch 3.2 Hours and Use 9.6 GB of Data Per Day

This company presents an interesting concept when it comes to encryption. Slack-rival Element wins largest ever collaborative software deal

A government’s role in stimulating demand and widespread adoption of next generation products is at play here. Europeans get substantial subsidies for electric cars from their government

How SHA-2 Works Step-By-Step (SHA-256)

What I think is interesting

According to JP Morgan, 19% of eCommerce transaction value in Vietnam in 2019 was through digital wallets while 34% was through debit and credit cards

How Parmesan cheese is made and how you can identify the real Parmesan cheese. Fascinating stuff

I didn’t know there is a company that has an exclusive deal with airlines to buy lost luggage

‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims

Scale and Loyalty are more important online than offline

The competition for immigrants will heat up soon as women are giving birth less, especially in developed countries

Graph of number of children women have
Source: BBC

What if Twitter has a subscription service?

What is Twitter? What’s the appeal?

Twitter is a platform for knowledge and interests. It allows you to do two things very well: 1/ be updated on what happens immediately and 2/ have access to experts in various areas. Anything that happens in life breaks first on Twitter. Not on Facebook. Not on Instagram. Not on LinkedIn. Secondly, you are more likely to communicate with folks that you wouldn’t know about or be able to talk to in real life. Take the tweet below as an example. Somebody had a question for three CEOs of three rocket companies, including Elon Musk – one of the richest men on Earth. All three responded. How likely would you get the same outcome with cold calls and emails?

Figure 1

The unique appeal of Twitter brings it a lot of royal fans and powerful users who are more than willing to share perspectives and expertise for free on the platform. That’s the level of user engagement and culture that other networks strive to have. Personally, I was late to Twitter. I have been using the platform since I came to the US and boy, did I wish I had started earlier. I have learned so much about business, strategy, fin tech, personal finance and much more from friends and strangers on Twitter.

How does Twitter make money? Since the site is free to all users, Twitter generates most of its revenue through ads. Revenue in Q1 2020 was $808 million with 84% of the pile coming from advertising. While revenue is on an upward trend, it comes with a lot of baggage. Twitter has been on the receiving end of several controversies related to the struggle to balance Free Speech and user safety. Despite bringing a significant amount of money, political ads is highly controversial, especially when this is an election year, when the country is more divided than ever and when politicians are distributing acutely questionable information.

Figure 2 – Source: Twitter

Twitter subscription?

Somebody with eagle eyes on Twitter noticed this job posting by the social network that specifically mentioned a subscription service. The idea of a Twitter subscription isn’t new. It has been around for a while and it heats up again when the job ad was spotted. It makes sense for Twitter to launch a subscription.

Figure 3

1/ Another source of revenue will help the platform less rely on advertising money and reduce the risk of such over-reliance. To be clear, I don’t think Twitter will introduce its own subscription as a gateway to force users to pay to use the service. The whole appeal of Twitter to advertisers is access to potential customers. A Twitter-owned subscription would drive users away and put those lucrative ads dollars in jeopardy. Instead, it’s more like a subscription for powerful influencers whose content is valuable enough to make readers pay to read. As of Q1 2020, Twitter has 166 million daily active users. Even a fraction of that base has subscriptions and Twitter shares a piece of that money, it can still be a significant sum over time. Take this user as an example. His tweets that come from his background of national security are only available to people who pay him $10/month. I do think this is the model that Twitter may have in mind.

Figure 4 – Source: Premosocial

2/ A lot of writers whose content is hosted on other sites use Twitter to advertise and reach out to target audience. For instance, if you have expertise in one specific area and usually blog about it, Twitter is a great source of like-minded audience who is likely to like and pay for your content. In that case, Twitter offers quality traffic, but no share of revenue. As a micro blogging site itself where folks write down thoughts and construct impressively long threads, Twitter may wonder why they don’t host the content, facilitate the subscriptions itself and get paid in the process.

What are the implications of a Twitter subscription?

Engagement

At first, I was concerned about what a subscription service would do the engagement on Twitter. The user culture on Twitter is the culture of selfless sharing. Experts share their knowledge and perspectives without compensation. If the majority of experts in one specific area hid all their great content behind pay walls, that would adversely affect the user culture that Twitter painstakingly built. It takes a long time to build a culture, yet it’s pretty darn fast to ruin one.

A counterpoint to the argument above uses precisely the same user culture element. It is possible that despite the presence of a subscription and financial temptation, power users on Twitter just keep offering their content for free. Even if some decided to restrict access to their content, the vibrant activity on Twitter might not be affected much.

Figure 5

Figure above demonstrates what I consider a potentially basic dynamic on subscription-equipped Twitter. On the left hand side, we have casual users who consumer content and produce on a personal basis. On the right hand side, we have influencers who have authority, brand names and appeal to attract subscriptions. Influencers can have two types of content. One is available for free to the public while the other is only to paid subscribers.

Let’s say Influencer A is famous and upon the introduction of the subscription option, starts to tweet his valuable content behind a paywall. Even though some hardcore fans are willing to pay to read his/her content, the overall engagement will likely go down. It creates an opportunity for Influencer B, who is new and wants to build his/her credibility by tweeting out more to the public or Influencer C, who decides to strive the balance of making subscriptions worthwhile and interacting with the public.

In short, I think there is a likelihood that the subscriptions would not drive users away. There is enough supply for valuable content in any given area to satisfy the demand.

Investments in new features

Building out a subscription for users would likely necessitate big changes to the product. I don’t know about other users, but I don’t particularly enjoy tweet storms. It’s tiring to read a long thread. To facilitate the production of content, Twitter may have to build out features to allow long-term writing, and enable Influencers to manage subscribers, payments and their emails. All require investments and allocation of resources, but there is a huge upside in my opinion.

In sum, I am excited about a potential subscription feature on Twitter. Great minds should be rewarded and so should Twitter for building a great product and user culture. The world is getting increasingly more complicated and noisy. There is always a place for people who can help others make more sense of the world and understand concepts better. Internet is a great way to build up credibility and receive feedback. Twitter, as a platform of interests and knowledge, is well-positioned to take advantage of that trend. You have seen the popularity of blogs, newsletter and platforms like Substack. Twitter can follow their examples while retaining their unique value propositions. Though it’s legitimate to be concerned about the engagement of Twitter once subscriptions are available, I do think the platform has built a strong enough relationship with its users that such a concern won’t materialize.

What do you think about a Twitter with subscriptions? Let me know if you agree or disagree with my thoughts above. Stay safe and have a good day!

Weekly readings – 11th July 2020

What I wrote last week

I wrote a bit about the challenges of corporations in addressing different stakeholders’ needs

Here is a what I wrote about the company behind FICO score

My thoughts on the latest suspension of H1B visas till the end of the year, a self-inflicting move by the US

Business

How I grew my Shopify micro-SaaS to $25k MRR and 20k users in 14 months

A very good analysis on Twitter, discussing the company’s valuable network and challenges

Exclusive: Inside Uber’s billion-dollar bet to deliver food, people, and everything else

Technology

The Post-Covid-19 Agenda for Technology and Media Companies.

What I think is interesting

How to understand things

Charlie Munger: Turning $2 Million Into $2 Trillion

Peter Kaufman on The Multidisciplinary Approach to Thinking: Transcript

In Praise of Idleness

Growth without goals

Money Is the Megaphone of Identity

Weekly readings – 22nd February 2020

The Merits of Bottoms Up Investing

I admit that I was initially fond of Lambda, but there has been growing coverage of the challenges that the startup faces and of what the company really is about. Here is one of the most damning articles: THE HIGH COST OF A FREE CODING BOOTCAMP

The Ride-Hail Utopia That Got Stuck in Traffic

Student debt in the US reached $1.6 trillion, yet graduates are having the hardest time ever to find employment

Unemployment among Americans aged between 22 and 27 who recently earned a Bachelor’s degree or higher was 3.9% in December — about 0.3 percentage point above the rate for all workers.

Source: Bloomberg

What Can the Stock Market Tell Us About the T-Mobile/Sprint Merger?

In light of the Coronavirus, here is how WHO advises us to wear a mask

Masayoshi Son and SoftBank struck again, this time with Oyo. Given the magnitude of capital involved, it’s incredulous to read this kind of shocking articles.

There were missteps at Oyo from the start. The Japan hotel team, led by a transplant from India named Prasun Choudhary, figured they could get to as many as 75,000 rooms in the first year, which would put them ahead of the Apa Hotels chain in the No. 1 spot. But they took as their starting point an inflated addressable market of 1.6 million rooms based on numbers from the local tourism authority: They included campgrounds, bed-and-breakfasts and pay-by-the-hour love hotels, which weren’t part of Oyo’s business plan, according to people involved at the time.

Oyo Life, the apartment rentals business led by another Indian lieutenant called Kavikrut (who like many Indians goes by one name), set the goal of 1 million rooms in part because it was a stunning, round number that would exceed the capacity of the Japan market leader, the people said. That was the target that caught Son’s attention in March.

The unpredictable economics of pawn shops

An interesting report by PwC on the consumer preference in the streaming battle

An interesting read on a software startup that helps coffee farmers

How Saudi Arabia Infiltrated Twitter

a16z compiled a report on Top 100 Marketplace startups

What is the proper way to drink whisky?

How to write usefully

An amazing piece of innovation from F1 Mercedes team that is an immensely ominous sign for their rivals

Twitter, Facebook, Free Speech and Business

Today, two top executives from Facebook and Twitter met with the Senate. I haven’t checked the news yet, but my guess is that they talked about how to prevent future intervention into American’s elections by a foreign entity using social media and how to stop fake news while preserving the First Amendment right.

First Amendment is a huge issue in the US. It is touted as the bedrock of the country’s democracy and society. The Amendment refers to one’s freedom to voice one’s opinion without restrictions. Though it may sound inherently logical and simple, it is much more complicated in reality. We deal with people of different perspectives every day. It’s almost impossible to please everyone with our opinion or action. On an individual level, it may not be a big problem, but in some businesses, it is. Enter Twitter and Facebook.

Twitter and Facebook are essentially crowd pleasers. They want as many to use their platforms and for as long as possible. A big user base will attract advertisers and their dollars. To attract and keep users, these platforms feed users what they want to see based on their previous activities on (and off?) their sites.

The problem they are facing now is that when someone exercises their 1st Amendment by posting some false information, should it be taken down or should it be left there? Take it down and users on the other extreme end of perspectives will accuse these platforms of abuse of power and oppression of free speech. Leave it there and other users will be angry about the so-called “fake news”. How can a piece of content be classified as “purely false information” or “legit but controversial information”? Even if such classification is possible, will the management team at these social media firms have the courage to take actions?

This is a big problem for social media platforms whose monetization model relies much on their popularity. But trying to be popular with everyone is causing them trouble. Executives have to spend hours in DC. Users aren’t pleased with their actions or lack thereof. Reputation is tarnished. Personally, I don’t see how this issue can be solved for Facebook or Twitter. I don’t think AI will be of much help in this case. Mentioning AI just shuts down the conversation and stops further questions.