Off With Their Apps! How App Stores Make Nice With Tyrants

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The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories

Mike Licht : Flickr

Centralized systems are easier to control: Everyone knows that. They’re also less resistant to failure and less open to innovation. That’s why the internet’s original distributed design won out over the “walled gardens” of commercial online services 20 years ago. But the rise of the app store as the central mode of software distribution is turning back the clock, recentralizing the digital world around company-controlled chokepoints that also prove to be effective tools for government censorship (Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times).

All the dominant structures of our online existence today — from phones to social networks and cloud storage — centralize data and tools in ways that are, in Manjoo’s words, “uniquely vulnerable to the sanctions of despots and others who seek to control information.” Thus we have Apple’s removal of the New York Times app from its China app store at the behest of the Chinese government, Apple’s and Google’s removal of the LinkedIn app from their Russia stores, and similar incidents. Furthermore, what’s true for app stores is true for every kind of platform business that operates as a centralized middleman between users and providers of goods.

Maybe the digital giants are just playing nice with their host governments, respecting local laws and regulations as is the norm. But surely they have a deeper responsibility, as incredibly powerful trans-national managers of the digital realm that runs our lives, to stand up to censorship and draw lines in the ethical sand. “There has to be some other way,” Manjoo writes. “Let’s maybe work on finding it.” Amen.


It Takes a Village to Man a Facebook Profile

“Eat your own dogfood” has always been the tech industry’s advice to itself, meaning that the people who make the tools you use ought to use them too. So it makes sense that Mark Zuckerberg should be a heavy user of his own network, Facebook. What’s more surprising is just how much help he has presenting his Facebook face to the world (Bloomberg Businessweek): a group of communications assistants to help write all the posts, and a larger team of a dozen moderators filtering the abusive comments and spam that turn up on his page.

Well, of course, a busy billionaire CEO — one who’s toying with the idea of running for political office — has a big support operation. And Zuckerberg has been turning to others to craft his words and messages since his company’s early days (as readers of Kate Losse’s memoir of working there, The Boy Kings, know).

Still, Facebook is a business that’s premised on the idea of real people presenting their authentic selves to one another. If its own founder needs a private army to make it work right for him, what hope do any of the rest of us have?


Slack’s Slow Road to Threaded Chats

Should online discussions be flat or threaded — one long sequential conversation or a matrix of responses to responses? Long religious wars have been fought over this question in the world of digital community design. So Slack, the increasingly popular business-chat tool, moved very carefully when it decided to introduce threads to its conversations (Harry McCracken in Fast Company).

Threaded discussion systems — though beloved by many technical users — have a bad history of becoming impenetrable very quickly to mere mortals. Slack is prized for its smart, intuitive design, so its caution made sense. Its designers spent two years testing alternatives with internal users. The model they finally settled on moves threads into a separate pane and limits them to one deep — avoiding the nightmare of multiply indented and nested reply trees that so many forums have spawned. Sometimes the most important product choices are the ones where you say “that’s enough.”


Planet Earth, Now With Even More Heat

Just a little reminder for us, on the eve of the start of a new presidential administration loaded with people who are at best lukewarm on the idea of fighting global climate change: 2016 was the hottest year on record, beating out 2015, the previous record holder (which similarly bested its predecessor). NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agree: We’re on a roll! Too bad it’s in the wrong direction. Brad Plumer at Vox has all the details and charts.

Some depressing highlights: The highs are extreme everywhere, but with some extra oomph at the poles, which could mean even faster icecap melting and sea-level rising. There’s pretty much no good news in the numbers. Clear, incontrovertible data that shows we’re broiling our own habitat ought to be enough to move even the most ignorant political leaders off their butts, right? If only.


What Might Change When Women Rule (at Least Half) the World?

The financial elite who are gathering in Davos for the World Economic Forum may not be able to do that much about Brexit, Trump, and anti-globalization. But there’s a simple step they could take right now to address the way the world is changing around them, NewCo Shift editor in chief John Battelle argues: Bring a lot more women to their table, both as attendees and speakers.

Twenty percent doesn’t cut it any more. At NewCo’s upcoming Shift Forum, we’re at close to 50 percent, and we know the event will be better for it.

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