The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories
When a tech company hits the peak of its dominance, it believes it can be all things to all users. Think Microsoft in the ’90s, or Google in the aughts. Today, it’s Facebook’s turn.
This week, Facebook announced that, among all the other roles it now plays in your life — connecting you with friends, delivering your news, processing your text messages, and so forth — it will help you find a job (Kurt Wagner in Recode). Maybe you thought Facebook was supposed to be for your personal profile, and LinkedIn was for your resume? That’s so 2011 of you! Now Facebook wants companies to post job openings on their pages, and the service will pre-populate application forms with the user’s Facebook data before sending it in (via Messenger, of course). Where LinkedIn and Craigslist charge employers for listings, Facebook’s plan is free.
Of course, any company that sets out to do all things for everyone rarely does many of them particularly well. The world is already slowly waking up to the fact that Facebook’s news feed may be an addictive and engaging source of news about your friends, but it’s a terrible way to stay informed about the news of the world. It will take years to unwind the damage that Facebook’s dominance of news distribution has done to our political sphere and the journalism business, but at least the tide may be beginning to reverse.
At the moment when a company’s tech-dominance roller-coaster hits top and starts to return to earth, it will often find itself taking steps that are hostile to users but (it hopes) beneficial to its bottom line. So we should not be surprised to read that Facebook will soon begin autoplaying the sound on videos and ads that you scroll to on your phone. Of course, you are always free to opt out!
Can Nextdoor Design Racial Profiling Out of Its Platform?
Nextdoor, an online service that connects neighborhood residents around local issues, was jolted when a 2015 article in Fusion highlighted racial stereotyping and profiling in Nextdoor discussions of crime in Oakland. The company took the issue seriously and set out to tackle the problem using “smart product design” (Jessi Hempel in Backchannel).
Diversity training for Nextdoor staff and revisions to community guidelines helped, but a “report racial profiling” button didn’t work — users didn’t understand what it meant, in part because the term itself has no one consensus meaning. Eventually, Nextdoor settled on a system that introduces “decision points” that slow users down and make them add more detail when they try to post a racial description as part of an incident report. This cuts down the total volume of postings, which is counter to Nextdoor’s business goals. But it has also helped clear up some of the racial profiling problem — enough to satisfy the City of Oakland, though not all of the company’s critics.
Can you claim to be changing the world if your service or platform just reflects the world as it stands, racism and other problems included? Not really. But you can’t expect to conquer centuries-old problems in a quarter, either. Real change happens slowly — iteratively.
Gene-Editing Sorts Out Patents, Ethical Qualms
The Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT won a major round in the complex patent fight over CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology that’s unleashing a biotech revolution. The US Patent Office ruled that Broad’s patent on work by Feng Zhang was sufficiently different from an earlier one on research by UC-Berkeley scientists Jennifer Doudna and colleagues that it could stand (Sharon Begley in Stat News).
In the short term this means that companies that bet on the Broad patent and secured licenses to it, like Cambridge, Mass.-based Editas, have an inside track on the use of CRISPR-Cas9. In the long term, Berkeley is expected to continue pressing its claims. Whatever happens, CRISPR use is expected to proceed rapidly, not only in agricultural applications and animal-based research but even in human embryos.
An advisory group of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine has just endorsed such human “germ-line engineering” when it is used to keep babies from inheriting genes that cause “serious disease and disability” (The New York Times). It’s not that there aren’t gigantic outstanding ethical and practical questions about applying these genetic techniques to human beings. But scientists seem to agree that these applications are going to be developed anyway — if we don’t do it in the U.S., it will happen in China. Critics worry that once we start tinkering with our own genes, we’ll never be able to draw any real boundaries around the practice. Before we know it, we’ll be trying to optimize our eyebrows and toenails.
The Alpha Handshake Must Die
If you’ve seen the videos chronicling President Trump’s aggressive yank of a handshake, you know that the stereotype of the alpha male is alive and well. The myth that leadership (male or female) is all about dominance persists, in business, politics, and the family. And we pay a big price for it (Danielle Teller in Quartz).
“This symbolism of leader-as-dictator has wormed its way deeply into the American subconscious — and it’s wrong,” Teller argues. Collaboration, humility, and generosity have better long-term track records than aggression and bullying. Leadership is about helping everyone succeed, not just securing your own wins. (And if you don’t like having your arm yanked by some bossy goon, here’s a martial arts teacher’s recommended countermove.)