The Musk Edition
That Was The Week #334
Twitter is complicated. And this week it has attracted intense and emotional attention from a wide spectrum of opinions. The standoff between @AOC and @ElonMusk on his intent to charge $8 a month for the Twitter blue tick is symbolic of a wider debate. @karaswisher, @waltmossberg and @davidsacks all weigh in. @HamishMckenzie of @Substack also has an angle.
That Was The Week is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Editorial: Elon Musk 1-0 Kara Swisher
Introducing Substack Chat
Meta Myths - Ben Thompson
Ways to think about the Metaverse - Benedict Evans
Will nationalism end the golden age of global AI collaboration?
After A Lot Of Hype, (Useful) AI May Finally Be Here - Crunchbase
Google releases text-to-image AI model Imagen for public use for the first time
Why America Must Develop Space and How We’ll Do It - Andreessen Horowitz
iPhone 14 Pro Camera Review: A Small Step, a Huge Leap
Tiger Global Management
Elon Musk 1-0 Kara Swisher/AOC/Walt
Twitter is complicated. And this week it has attracted intense and emotional attention from a wide spectrum of opinions. The standoff between AOC and Elon Musk on his intent to charge $8 a month for the Twitter blue tick is symbolic of a wider debate. Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher also weighed in, arguing that Twitter needs celebrities more than celebrities need Twitter. Effectively asking Twitter to give heavyweight influencers a free ride, and depicting the celebs as victims of Elon’s dictatorship.
It all made me smile. When mostly wealthy Tweeters scream at the prospect of paying less than two coffee’s a month to be able to authoritatively broadcast to 400 million users, it is hard to take their side.
Twitter, remember, is a business. Its role is to provide a global publishing platform, with social features, such as liking and re-tweeting, and live video and audio. Its users are given most of these features for free. And, others, they are asked to pay for.
Musk’s Tweet, from Tuesday, says it all:
And David Sacks Tweet from today seems pertinent:
I may or may not choose to pay the $8 a month. I currently pay $3 for Twitter Blue. But I am super happy I will have the choice.
Underlying this is a discussion about Twitter’s value to its users. One camp seems to think Twitter owes its users in return for their use. The other sees Twitter as the provider and the users as beneficiaries.
As always, two things can both be true. The network effect always means that any network that gains adoption benefits from that adoption. But that is not in contrast to the obvious fact that building the system and features of a platform is a pre-condition for people being able to use it. There is enormous value in a platform, and humans need builders to create platforms in order to be able to leverage them. And it can be true, as Walt says, that adoption of the blue mark is good for Twitter. But having the option to adopt it is good for Walt. Who benefits most is really a quite silly conversation. Both do. But Twitter is running a business and needs to turn its features into revenue. End of the discussion really.
Substack enters into this discussion. Substack gets paid a lot more than $8 a month by its best-earning writers. Why? Because the writers value what Substack provides, and understand that their success rides on top of Substack.
These relationships between platforms and users are - in the best cases - mutually beneficial.
So Elon is right to want to charge and make the chargeable features open to all. And the elites are wrong to whine about paying. Elon 1-0 Kara Swisher/AOC/Walt.
Standing back, Elon is doing what any good entrepreneur or business builder would do. He is seeking a product-market fit for his product and discovering his unit economics so that Twitter can be sustainable. If he succeeds the brouhaha we all had to go through this week will fade into insignificance. And if he fails, because he is Elon, he’ll try something else. He won’t fail.
Video & Podcast
The Video and Podcast with @kteare and @ajkeen accompanying That Was The Week is recorded separately and delivered to paying subscribers via email on Friday or Saturday each week. To subscribe, go to our home at Substack.
So what’s the next thing in store at Elon Musk’s new Twitter experiment?
After outlining a plan to charge users $8 for verification, which, in Musk’s view, will help to eliminate bots on the platform (because all the real humans will be verified), Musk is now looking at other money-making ventures to claw back some of his $44 billion investment.
And they’re… well…
Pay to Play Long-Form Video
According to a report from The Washington Post, Twitter’s team is currently exploring a new paywalled video approach, which would enable creators and publishers to charge a fee to let people watch long-form video in the app.
As per The Post:
“According to an internal email describing the new video feature, which has not yet been announced, “When a creator composes a tweet with a video, the creator can then enable the paywall once the video has been added to the tweet.” They can then choose from a preset list of prices, such as $1, $2, $5 or $20.”
The idea is that this would facilitate direct revenue generation from longer-form video content in the app – though it may also lean into another idea that Twitter has explored in the past, but backed away from due to various concerns.
Back in August, The Verge reported that Twitter, at one stage, had explored the idea of monetizing adult content on the platform, by enabling adult content creators to sell OnlyFans-style paid subscriptions, with Twitter keeping a share of the revenue.
Twitter shelved the idea when it discovered that its systems ‘cannot accurately detect child sexual exploitation and non-consensual nudity at scale’, so it would be taking a massive risk in monetizing such content, in that it could also, inadvertently, end up monetizing illegal material.
There were also brand safety concerns, in that giving the green light to porn would cause major potential problems for ad placement.
It seems that, under Musk, Twitter may be willing to give it a shot either way – though with many advertisers already pausing their activities on the platform, and agencies advising clients to reconsider, till they get a clearer idea of Twitter’s new policies, it could be problematic.
I suspect this will go through some more iterations before shipping – but then again, Elon seems to be pushing to ship stuff ASAP.
Twitter is good for Substack
If you’re into writing and reading, few games on the internet are more fun than Twitter at its best. The witty one-liners, the quick retorts, the spectacular insults—it’s a heady cocktail for wordcels. But while we may be convincing ourselves that we’re participating in discourse in the public square, we’re actually in a cage, making a spectacle of ourselves for little more than weak dopamine hits and a few pretend friends. The real prizes go to Twitter itself, now under the control of Elon Musk.
When you publish your thoughts on Twitter, you are doing labor for that company. Yes, you get followers, but you can’t take them with you. Unless you count Super Follows (do you?), they can’t pay to support you, either. You’re the product, not the customer. Twitter needs your mind so it can satisfy its real customers: advertisers.
For the same reason, you don’t have real agency on Twitter. The machine decides who sees your posts and what gets amplified. The machine decides whether or not your post, or even your account, can stay online. The machine decides what you see. And this problem is true of all social networks. When it comes to Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok, the rules are the same. You don’t own your audience. You sublimate your will to those companies. You’re in the cage.
But we think there can be something different.
We’ve been saying that Substack is about more than just newsletters and that the communities people are building on this platform are like private social networks. We’re only beginning to execute on an expansive vision of a new media economy, one that will be richer, more valuable, and more exciting than any that has come before it. And we’re moving fast. In the coming days and weeks, we’ll release a slew of new features that allow writers and readers to hang out with each other, reference each other, share each other’s work, and show their status on the platform.
Your own private social network where you make the rules.
Today we are launching Chat, a new space for writers and creators to host conversations with their subscribers.
Chat is a community space reimagined specifically for writers and creators— it’s like having your own private social network where you make the rules. Writers set the topic and the tone for every discussion, and can turn the feature on or off at any time.
Writers, podcasters, and video-makers can turn on Chat for their publications from within the iOS app. We are rolling this feature out gradually, with Android and web to follow.
Turning on Chat extends the relationships that writers and creators have already developed with subscribers on Substack. Writers can host Chat conversations for all of their subscribers, or just those who pay.
Why we built Chat
As the quality of writing on Substack has blossomed and comments sections lit up with intelligent discussions, subscriber communities began to take shape. Some enterprising writers have taken matters into their own hands, hacking together integrations with Discord, Slack, and Telegram to cultivate communities of supporters.
For the last few months, our product teams have been working closely with a small group of writers to address this problem. The result is a simple-to-use space where writers can have more frequent conversations with the people who appreciate their work most. Chat also eliminates the need for writers to frankenstein together different software tools and cross-reference subscriber lists. These are just the early days for Chat and all of Substack’s social features. There’s lots more to come!
Essays of the Week
In 2018, the market was panicking about Facebook’s slowing revenue and growing expenses, and was concerned about the negative impact that Stories was having on Facebook’s feed advertising business. I wrote that the reaction was overblown in Facebook Lenses, which looked at the business in five different ways:
Lens 1 was Facebook’s finances, which did show troubling trends in terms of revenue and expense growth: As I noted at the time, I could understand investor trepidation about these trend lines, which is why other lenses were necessary.
Lens 2 was Facebook’s products, where I argued that investors were over-indexed on Facebook the app and were ignoring Instagram’s growth potential, and, in the very long run, WhatsApp.
Lens 3 was Facebook’s advertising infrastructure, which I argued was very underrated, and which would provide a platform for dramatically scaling Instagram monetization in particular.
Lens 4 was Facebook’s moats, including its network, scaled advertising product, and investments in security and content review.
Lens 5 was Facebook’s raison d’être — connecting people — where I made the argument that the company’s core competency was in addressing a human desire that wasn’t going anywhere.
To insist that Facebook will die any day now is in some respects to suggest that humanity will cease to exist any day now; granted, it is a company and companies fail, but even if Facebook failed it would only be a matter of time before another Facebook rose to replace it.
That seems unlikely: for all of the company’s travails and controversies over the past few years, its moats are deeper than ever, its money-making potential not only huge but growing both internally and secularly; to that end, what is perhaps most distressing of all to would-be competitors is in fact this quarter’s results: at the end of the day Facebook took a massive hit by choice; the company is not maximizing the short-term, it is spending the money and suppressing its revenue potential in favor of becoming more impenetrable than ever.
The optimism proved prescient, at least for the next three years:
Facebook’s stock price increased by 118% between the day I wrote that Article, before peaking on September 15, 2021. Over the past year, though, things have certainly gone in the opposite direction:
Meta, née Facebook, is now, incredibly enough, worth 42% less than it was when I wrote Facebook Lenses, hitting levels not seen since January 2016. It seems the company’s many critics are finally right: Facebook is dying, for real this time.
The problem is that the evidence just doesn’t support this point of view. Forget five lenses: there are five myths about Meta’s business that I suspect are driving this extreme reaction; all of them have a grain of truth, so they feel correct, but the truth is, if not 100% good news, much better than most of those dancing on the company’s apparent grave seem to realize.
Sometimes it seems like every big company CEO has read the same article about the same tech trend, and sent the same email to their team, asking “What’s our strategy for this?!” A couple of years ago there were a lot of emails asking for a 5G strategy, and now there are a lot of emails asking about metaverse.
Answering the 5G email was actually pretty easy, partly because almost no-one needs a 5G strategy at all (I wrote about this here), but also because we knew what 5G meant. We probably don’t know what ‘metaverse’ means. More precisely, we don’t know what someone else means. This word has become so vague and broad that you cannot really know for sure what the speaker has in mind when they say it, since they might be thinking of a lot of different things. Neal Stephenson coined the word but he no longer owns it, and there’s no Académie Française that can act as the tech buzzword police and give an official definition. Instead ‘metaverse’ has taken on a life of its own, absorbing so many different concepts that I think the word is now pretty much meaningless - it conveys no meaning, and you have to ask, ‘well, what specifically are you asking about?”
If you do ask that, I’d suggest that there are two broad sets of things that people might mean when they say ‘metaverse’.
First, the narrow definition is simply that some combination of VR and AR will become the next universal device after smartphones, and become billions of people’s main or only computer. As part of that, both our own behaviour and the services we use will change around AR & VR and converge on new norms, just as they did for mobile. This is Meta’s thesis, and the reason Mark Zuckerberg renamed his company.
On this view, saying ‘metaverse’ is rather like saying ‘mobile internet’ - it’s just the internet, on a new screen. New devices probably mean new platforms, and probably also mean some new gatekeepers (and in the last year Apple has used its gatekeeping power on mobile to painful effect). But it doesn’t fundamentally change the entire nature of the internet - it is still many different companies creating their own businesses and their own experiences in a mostly decentralised and mostly permissionless medium. An app store is still a lot more open than a TV station. In this sense, part of the problem with talking about ‘The Metaverse’ is the word ‘the’, which leads many people to talk as though this will be a completely separate thing unrelated to the internet, and to ask absurd questions like ‘does France need its own metaverse?’ or ‘will there be more crime on the metaverse?’ It’s useful to try replacing ‘the metaverse’ with ‘mobile or ‘apps’ to see whether such questions make any sense.
The real question, of course, is whether AR and VR actually do break out, and reach that scale. People in the space often talk as though this is inevitable and unquestionable, but I don’t think we should be sure. The mistake, I think, would be to presume that because the technology can get better, it necessarily follows that billions (or even hundreds of million) of people will use it.
When Ben Wu, an engineer in China, wanted to install Facebook’s open-source AI framework PyTorch in 2017, he visited its online community on GitHub and asked for some pointers.
Soumith Chintala, a Facebook AI research engineer based in New York, showed him how he could download it quickly.
PyTorch has become a foundational component of AI technology, thanks in large part to knowledge-sharing exchanges like the one between Wu and Chintala that happen every day. And although it’s become increasingly corporatized, the borderless, open-source software movement has risen above geopolitical tensions between China and the U.S., which have centered on concerns over China’s use of AI to carry out repressive surveillance, its plans to transfer civilian tech for military applications, and Chinese government espionage and intellectual property theft.
“I’m definitely surprised at how much [of the] general global considerations you would have from a business angle don’t really come in when you’re talking about open-source collaboration, especially with AI,” Chintala told Protocol in September when Facebook parent company Meta handed over PyTorch to the nonprofit open-source software consortium Linux Foundation.
“Within open-source software, the political doesn’t even start entering into play [until] much later,” Chintala said. “People are mostly trying to learn from each other, build the best thing they can.”
There’s no shortage of Cold War and space race themes tossed around when people discuss the politics of economic, national security, and human-rights implications of China’s AI advancements. But the distance between how yesterday’s energy and space-related technologies were built and how today’s AI-related tech is produced is striking.
People are mostly trying to learn from each other, build the best thing they can.”
In fact, the way modern AI technologies are developed shows there is no race for one country to win. Quite the contrary, the AI industry has skyrocketed because a global community has constructed it, together, brick by digital brick.
Artificial intelligence has once again become a hot buzzword in tech, even somewhat knocking off the malaise the venture capital markets have been under in the last several quarters.
However, this time around it may have real staying power as advancements in generative AI seem to be riding a wave of excitement some have compared to what cloud computing saw nearly two decades ago.
Last month was filled with news about big rounds at bigger valuations by generative AI startups — basically companies that use AI to produce content.
London-based AI-driven visual art startup Stability AI became a unicorn after locking up a $101 million raise. Rogenmoser’s Jasper announced a $125 million Series A led by Insight Partners at a $1.5 billion valuation. Sam Altman’s AI powerhouse OpenAI led an investment in San Francisco-based AI video and audio editing tool Descript at a $500 million-plus valuation, per a report.
Those raises were against the backdrop of a massive venture capital pullback that has shown investors are wary of investing in such large rounds — but it looks like concern has turned into conviction for several reasons when talking about AI.
Google’s Imagen AI system converts natural text to images, much like DALL-E 2. However, unlike OpenAI’s DALL-E, Google has thus far kept its text-to-image AI model out of the public’s hands. That’s changing, at least slightly. Google has announced it will add a very limited form of Imagen to its AI Test Kitchen app.
AI Test Kitchen released earlier this year to allow Google to beta test some of its AI technologies. Google will be adding Imagen to the app with some constraints. Users can interact with Imagen in two ways, called ‘City Dreamer’ and ‘Wobble.’
Within City Dreamer, you can use Imagen to create an AI-generated city with whatever theme the user wants. For example, if you want a ‘Cyber City,’ Imagen’s City Dreamer will create sample buildings centered around the ‘cyber’ theme. The designs appear as isometric models, which as The Verge points out, looks ‘similar to what you’d see in SimCity.’
While City Dreamer’s name befits its purpose, ‘Wobble’ is more confusing. Within Wobble, you create a monster. Users select the material the monster is made of, such as clay, felt, or rubber, and then outfit it with clothing of their choice. Imagen then creates the monster you described, and you can name it and interact with it. The model is constrained enough that you can’t make any monster you want, but instead, every monster in Wobble will share some design language. There’s not nearly as much freedom as there is in DALL-E’s public beta nor as much freedom as Imagen can deliver.
Google won’t go so far as to say that the limitations are features in and of themselves, but they are important as the tech giant continues to fine-tune Imagen. AI Test Kitchen is designed to get feedback and help find issues with Google’s AI technologies. Part of finding problems is exercising control over how the user interacts with the system.
As AI technology becomes more sophisticated and prevalent, associated risks exist. When given total freedom and control, a small subset of users may rush to find ways to abuse it. When you’re a company like Google, users misusing your products can have significant consequences and can cause real damage, either to other users or, in extreme cases, to Google itself.
There’s little doubt that Imagen is a state-of-the-art AI model. However, with great power comes great responsibility. It’s unclear what form Imagen will take when, or if, it ever becomes a commercial product with full public availability. However, for now, users can test it out with City Dreamer and Wobble. AI Test Kitchen is available as a free download on Android and iOS. You must sign up for a waitlist to use the app. I signed up and look forward to creating a monster of my own soon.
For some of us, the echo of the Space Race remains a catalyst for our daily pursuits. But a changing world demands more, and we stand today at the dawn of a new age. Sixty years later, we are in the early innings of the Space Age, and control over this new arena will be the driver of economic growth and measuring stick of power for the coming centuries, perhaps millennia.
To grasp the weight of this, we must understand the source of America’s strength today, and the potential that a new frontier holds. Through looking at the past, we can also materialize a framework for space exploration and development — one that is not just a science-fiction future, but an increasingly tangible reality.
Reaching new frontiers
The past presents an outline for what’s ahead, and space conquest is no different. We’ve developed a new world relatively recently — America — and the final frontier will likely follow a similar pattern: Four critical steps to build a permanent foothold.
1. Breaking into new worlds
Breaking into a new world is incredibly dangerous and expensive, and often necessitates a multitude of discoveries along the way, simply for survival. It’s because of this inherent risk that these endeavors are so often initially supported by governments, like how the Spanish monarchy sponsored Christopher Columbus’ voyages.
As with the early explorers of America, the first treks into space were funded by centralized powers. For America, beating the Russians to the moon was perhaps as important to winning the ideological battle of the Cold War as New World exploration was to European power struggles. This was the Columbus moment. Through immense effort, landing on the moon broke open a new world.
2. Recurring voyages
However, it’s not enough to just break into a new world; if that was the case we’d recognize Leif Erikson as the discoverer of America instead of Christoper Columbus. Development is what matters.
Soon after the charting of America, long-distance fishing fleets were dispatched to Newfoundland and the eastern seaboard. In coming years, the search for the Northwest passage would beckon fur trappers to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, conducting some of the earliest trading between Europeans and the native peoples. Critically, though, these were temporary missions, not permanent settlements. Europeans would venture to this new world, work for a time, and then return to the old.
However, these efforts served to commodify the journey itself — reducing what was once an unknown destination to a seasonal trek.
The proliferation of commercial space hints at a similar pattern. Today, the vast majority of the space economy is sustained by satellites located in low Earth orbit (LEO). For the sake of analogy, let’s call this the coastline of space. Many of these satellites are, by design, temporary, serving a lucrative purpose for a period of time before de-orbiting (returning to Earth). While getting into space once was once a task reserved for governments, this new space economy has demanded greater launch capacity. Led by SpaceX, the launch industry is increasingly becoming commodified.
3. Outposts and infrastructure
Reducing the risk of getting to your destination allows you to set greater ambitions once you arrive. For adventurous Europeans, this meant long-term outposts. To this end, there are two great, contrasting examples of early footholds: Roanoke and Jamestown.
Backed by Sir Walter Raleigh, Roanoke was the first English attempt at settlement in America, located on the coast of modern North Carolina. In the explorers’ terms, this venture sought God, glory, and gold. Practically, that meant they aimed to convert the natives, interrupt Spanish shipping, and harvest precious resources. However, when Roanoke failed at these objectives, it relied on pilgrimages to London to seek additional financing for more supplies. Roanoke limped on for a time before tragedy struck, and its inhabitants mysteriously disappeared before the next shipment arrived.
In contrast, Jamestown succeeded where Roanoke failed. After a hurricane shipwrecked him in Bermuda, John Rolfe came across a sweeter strain of tobacco, which he brought to Jamestown. This cash crop grew only in specific climates, and was heavily sought after in Europe. Through tobacco cultivation, Jamestown evolved from a struggling colony into a profitable venture.
Building footholds in new worlds requires immense capital, and establishing a legitimate enterprise serving old-world customers is a great way to get it. Jamestown leveraged a competitive advantage in the new world to sell goods to the old — not too unlike the modern space economy that’s predominately comprised of earth observation, telecom, and GPS satellites serving terrestrial customers. Beyond this, there are other goods that can only be produced in space — processing ZBLAN optic fiber, printing biological components, conducting certain scientific research, manufacturing advanced materials, and even zero-gravity tourism — and therefore present the next obvious step.
4. Permanent settlement and services
There comes a point in time when a new world’s economy becomes mature enough to support a variety of products and services on its own. For America, settlements acted as both a crucible for innovation, and as a gateway into the interior of the continent.
In time, American strength stretched from sea to sea; rooted in the laws of an island nation (England), yet with the geography and resources of a continent. A landmass composed of fertile soil and the most navigable inland waterways, and surrounded by a desert, a tundra, and two oceans on either side. This combination birthed a liberal democracy whose chief exports are a stable political economy, culture, and power projection. With their house in order, the United States took to the seas and became the greatest naval power in history.
It appears we are nearing a similar development inflection point with space, and it’s now that the last frontier truly begins to open. At this precipice of conquest, it’s important to look at the big picture — the “space industrial base.”
The post Why America Must Develop Space, and How We’ll Do It appeared first on Andreessen Horowitz.
Review of the Week
Sebastiaan de With, writing for the Lux blog (the makers of Halide):
I took the iPhone 14 Pro on a trip around San Francisco and Northern California, to the remote Himalayas and mountains of the Kingdom of Bhutan, and Tokyo — to test every aspect of its image-making, and I have to say that I was pretty blown away by the results of the main camera.
While arguably, a quad-bayer sensor should not give true 48-megapixel sensor resolution as one might get from, say, a comparable ‘proper’ digital camera, the results out of the iPhone 14 Pro gave me chills. I have simply never gotten image quality like this out of a phone. There’s more here than just resolution; the way the new 48 megapixel sensor renders the image is unique and simply tremendously different than what I’ve seen before.
Inspiring and informative.
Fool of the Week
If a carmaker wants to offer Google Maps, it has to purchase Google Automotive Services, which includes Assistant and Play Store, a practice Warren likens to Microsoft’s bundling of Internet Explorer and Windows, which gave Microsoft a huge share of the internet browser market but also got it in a lot of antitrust trouble in the late 90s. The Democratic senator from Massachusetts recently sent a six-page letter to the country’s top antitrust enforcers — Lina Khan, chair of the Federal Trade Commission, and Jonathan Kanter, who heads up the antitrust division of the Justice Department — asking them to look at Google, Amazon, and Apple’s expansion into the automotive industry.
Startup of the Week
Apollo Global Management Inc. is helping to finance the growing venture capital business at Chase Coleman’s Tiger Global Management, one of last year’s most active investors in closely held technology companies.
Affiliates of Apollo’s Athene insurance business made at least $330 million of loans secured by assets in Tiger Global venture funds, primarily their stakes in private firms, during the first six months of this year, state regulatory filings show. While JPMorgan Chase & Co.had been the main provider of such loans, Tiger Global has sought to diversify lending sources for its VC operation.
Tweet of the Week
That Was The Week is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.